What is Classical? The UTKARSH Conversation

I found the UTKARSH interim sharing on the 24th of February 2016 at The Place in London very useful. I enjoyed sharing my work. It was fascinating to see the other work and how the brief was interpreted, and the discussions.

It set me thinking, I’d like to share some of those thoughts here.

In law, we sometimes resort to what’s known as legal fiction to help us assess standards. One I use often is PHOSITA – Person Having Ordinary Skill In The Art. PHOSITA is used in patent law to assess whether a new invention is indeed inventive enough to be granted a patent. Other popular legal fictions are ‘the reasonable man’, ‘the man on the Clapham Omnibus’ and so on and so forth. Similarly in ethics, I favour the virtue ethics theory, which is person based. Right and wrong are determined by virtuous persons, not by rules, i.e. virtue flows from a virtuous person, not according to a set of rules independent of the person. In a way, this person too is fictitious!

At the Utkarsh sharing on the 24th, I found myself inadvertently employing a legal fiction-type reasoning when addressing the question what is classical. I said, I’d know one when I see one! In effect, I was creating a PHOSICA – Person Having Ordinary Skill In Classical Art and using him to assess classical standards. At the same time, I was also melding legal fiction with virtue ethics – typically the artist, doing mashups and sampling! And by that I mean, I was not only creating a fictitious PHOSICA, but also giving PHOSICA a real (ish) persona/character. More on this in a bit.

Legal fiction is not a whimsical tool, even though one might be tempted to think so as judges have too much fun with it! Mr. PHOSITA in the US becomes Ms. P SITA in Indian patent jurisprudence! Fuller describes legal fictions as scaffolding to a building, essential for its construction and then taken down, while the edifice stands.

Legal fiction is a useful tool. l am going to flesh out our legal fiction – PHOCISA, a bit more.

Michael Wood, the celebrity British historian and filmmaker refers to Tamilnadu (translated as Tamil country) as the world’s only surviving classical civilisation (The smile of Murugan: South Indian journey, Penguin, 2007). And indeed it is. The structures and society of the classical period are still intact in places such as Salem in Tamilnadu, and in many other parts of the state. People live it. See some of my accounts at my ‘Rustic Salem’ blog. Due to strong local cultures such swathes of communities linger on. The best part of this classical culture are the arts. A network of religio- art groups thrive in the community and youth are steeped in classical music and dance, taking these ancient practices to new heights. There is amazing depth and vigour in the Salem music and arts scene: Continuity, built by a community, built through dialogue, non-insular, entrepreneurial, technologically connected and sure. So why couldn’t a PHOSICA come from this community which is an embodiment of the world’s only surviving classical civilisation?

My non-fictitious PHOSICA is now becoming a Salem PHOSICA! A Salem PHOSICA would know it when she sees it. I find that such a concept (filled out legal fiction) is good for standard setting, and yet also flexible, and provides a groundedness in interpreting work in new and interesting ways. It is also innovative, as this kind of conception is global, connecting unlikely communities together, transcending numerous barriers and building cultural and intellectual capital for communities. I am also sure a heat map of classical communities in the world would not exclude the UK, particularly London. National Trust and our heritage community would peek at this. But I digress!

I found it quite interesting to understand, imbibe, demonstrate and talk about the UTKARSH criteria in my choreography.

The UTKARSH criteria are:

The proposed work:

  • must be unmistakably within the classical Indian dance idiom i.e. including principles of stance, line, idiom, formality, gesture, appropriateness or suitability etc. (ie. mandala, rekha, dharmi, hasta, auchitya, etc.)
  • will be demonstrably innovative. The creator of the piece must be able to convincingly show to the selection panel how the work is new, original choreography.

PHOSICA would be able to deal with the first criteria. S.PHOSICA knows. Full stop.

About the second criteria, I think there are three different parts to it. ‘New’ choreography could be understood as a matter of quantity. Is this something new that is being added to that which already exists, ie. prior art? If yes, then it’s new! Original choreography could be understood as whether the choreography originates from the choreographer. If it does, then yes, it is original.

As to whether the work is demonstrably innovative, it’s a question of whether S.PHOSICA thinks it innovative. This is the most interesting question. I think what she would be looking for is evidence of the classical method, based on which something creative is produced, which wouldn’t have been ordinarily thought of by herself. This would be a satisfactory threshold to meet.

To me, the classical method is its rootedness in the philosophy of transcendence. It is not merely to entertain, but to also challenge. There is a certain quality to it, which calls for aspiration to reach in from the audience, not just for the dancer to reach out. Depths are to be plumbed. All this points at the sattvika quality in Bharatanatyam.

It is the philosophy of transcendence that bumps up the anghika, vachikha, aharya to sattvika abinaya. The highest form of transcendental philosophy in classical India was unity or duality, no more. If one is not doing the saguna, then one clearly should aspire for the nirguna. Without one or the other, the work falls short of Indian classical standards. Attempting a blend of both is innovative. I see a smattering of anghikha and nirguna in the contemporary idiom. But there is a certain selfishness in this method, which I think seeks remedy. Without the aid of vachikha, it would militate against the ‘openness’ or sharable quality of dance, which is found in Indian classicism.

A developed multilingual body provides a corporeal advantage for the dancer to efficiently transcend. Being able to move in different ways, in different idioms could contribute to versatility of the message.

Stretching out and polishing up the stretched out edges of classical pieces helps the performer and the audience reconnect with the nuances of the classical world of form and meaning, which have become invisible to the modern mind.

lamp collage close up wick

It helps break the jadedness and brings engagement. The quickest form of innovation is re-visitation, incorporating a rethink.

I have tried all of these above means in some measure in my UTKARSH choreography so far. My rehearsals and mentor sessions have been interesting. I have felt the push and pull of the classical form.

When I first mentioned Maya to my mentor, she said Maya Mahal. It was a bit of fun, another mythological story that would lend itself to a Bharatanatyam choreography, one that’s often not told in Bharatanatyam items. It was to be an entry to my serious sections on Maya, where I was to explore the ambiguity of illusion in life, art and science.

But it is empty, she said. That spurred me on. Empty, eh… what are you feeling? The heat, the light, the weight? he asked.

I distinctly remember the episode of Maya Mahal in B.R. Chopra’s Mahabharath on Doordarshan in which Duryodhana makes a fool of himself, exploring the Palace of Illusion in their cousins’ place, Indraprastha. He disregards the warning of a servant and plunges into a pool of water to then be taunted by Draupadi, the wife of his cousins, saying ‘A blind man’s son is blind’. I grew up watching B.R.Chopra’s Mahabarath on Indian telly! That was my first visualisation of the Maya Mahal story. (Episode 44, with English sub titles 22.36 – 30.53)

For UTKARSH, when I engaged with the concept of Maya in Maya Mahal, everything came alive. I am now working with an exciting reconceptualization of the episode wherein Maya Mahal becomes the Bhagvad Geetha moment for Duryodhana, with Draupadi as Krishna! Draupadi’s words ‘ A blind man’s son is blind’ acts as a Zen Slap for Duryodhana.


                         Little does Duryodhana know of the power of Maya Mahal. While Shakuni starts to play his end game, Krishna, the Lord of the Universe, has other ideas. Shakuni sends his vain and jealous nephew away to see the sights of Indraprastha, if nothing else than to get him out of his hair. Duryodhana arrives in his chariot, gets off and is drawn to a room. He enters and is engulfed in heat and light before seeing a blazing fire. As he watches it in awe he realises the only way into the rest of palace is through the door on the other side of the blazing fire… This is not going to be an easy place to visit! To his surprise he spots a lotus, right there, in the middle of the fire. Awestruck, the heat and light don’t deter him, he is pulled through the fire by the gaze he holds on the lotus. As he brushes past the lotus, it hits him. There is no burning, no burnt, just that there are things and these have properties that are sensed – Dhravya and indriyas

He hears the sound of gushing water and sees a magnificent waterfall, feeling the cool of it’s spray on his cheeks. He walks into it. While he feels its weight, he isn’t wet. A feather below is still fluffy. Turning around he beholds a lovely frame. Ah! But this isn’t to be! At that moment a sweet smell wafts through the room and he is drawn to a grove of ripe mangoes, his indriyas are fully engaged as he enjoys a delicious fruit. He is immersed in the pleasure (tongue is the most difficult to control, says Swami Sivananda), totters and falls into a pool.

‘A blind man’s son is blind’ comes a short and raspy comment. Duryodhana bristles and simmers in anger, the results of a 1000 janmas karmas. It comes to an end as the effect of Maya Mahal takes over, and Duryodhana is delivered from ignorance into light by his teacher, Draupadi.

This is Maya Mahal, the World of Illusion – the abode of Maya occupied by Moksha.

And then what became of Duryodhana? Was there a Kurukshetra war?

Classical literature and art have a lot in them. They are exciting to explore not just for their depth and breadth but because of how much the community is vested in them. To me the Mahabaratha and Ramayana evokes summer holidays and marathon dinner time stories!

S.PHOSICA may give this a nod I think!

Fuller says about legal fiction ‘They are lies not intended to deceive’. Campbell says that this solution, in the end, fails to be convincing! I’ll leave you to mull over legal fictions! And my World of Illusion…

I hope you enjoyed reading these musings. Join the conversation, possibly at Navadisha! The next UTKARSH sharing is to take place at the Alchemy Festival, Southbank Centre, London, 26th of May, 2016 at 7 pm.

The Utkarsh Classical Commission, run by Akademi and supported by Esmée Fairbairn Foundation is a visionary programme by Akademi to support new classical work in Britain.  


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