Swaati is a learner and performer in the Odissi tradition of Guru Surendra Nath Jena. To explore more about the dance, visit surendranathjenaodissi.com, or their Facebook page facebook.com/gurusurendranathjena/. Her current work as a researcher and editor in the area of cultural insight is enriched by, and enriches, her worldview as a dancer.
Odissi: Binging on Love
What does miniature Mughal art, binge-watching online TV and an ancient Hindu dance have in common? Writer and classical dancer, Swaati Chattopadhyay tells us in this melodic essay that refuses to be nostalgic.
Sometimes a medium is not just an affect of words or visuals – it is a gesture.
As a student of art history, I sat in classrooms where miniature Mughal paintings would be stretched out and projected over an entire wall. They would then be analysed in blown-up, glorious detail, epiphanised boldly. We would stare at them collectively for long, long moments, as if they were maps, not paintings. Our eyes would wander until they learned to find patterns, rhythms, citations.
I was mesmerised by these paintings, but I couldn’t absorb it all, somehow. They were a riddle to me; some things always seemed to escape. Only later, while studying about them, I realised why. In our frantic search for the artist’s genius and the patron’s intent, we had forgotten the essence of art; we had forgone the code that made them both talk through art. We had backgrounded the one thing that makes the miniature paintings a modern genre, not simply a legacy: gesture.
These paintings were not large abstract canvases like the projections on the classroom wall; they had another relationship to the body altogether, and that’s how they made sense. The miniatures were the size of that modern tablet – neither self-importantly large, nor miniscule enough to demand hunching over. They were expected to be held, cradled almost, in that space between the hand and the inside of the elbow; situated at a distance that wasn’t arm’s length, nor kiss-close. A miniature painting required a lovely physical intimacy – a pre-requisite for it to reveal its emotional meaning to you.
I think very often about why technology is moving closer and closer to our bodies: what was a desktop, is now obsolete, it is ubiquitously closer as a laptop.
What’s closer than a laptop, and hence more informal, is the tablet. It asks to be touched, even closer is the smartphone that asks us to make small, subtle, intimate mudras to make it respond; and now, the watch, which just sits on the wrist, intuitive like a pulse. What makes technology the most resonant medium of our time, is not only the virtual universe it offers, but that universe’s relationship with the most analog thing in our world: our bodies, and the emotions resting within them.
We think that technology is about gadgets, but really what’s making them so effective and so powerful, is how they touch our emotions through our bodies – from the right distance. Game of Thrones perhaps became a massive phenomenon of emotional reckoning because it is most immersive as a binge-watch.
Looked at this way, technology isn’t really all that new a medium. It is an old gesture. Perhaps our current love of GOT or binge-watching Netflix series is not so different from what miniature painting must have been to Akbar.
It’s something to sit down with at the end of the day; after the din to the To Do has quietened down, the night has melted in, and there is a willing desire to open up the tightly tied knot of emotions of the day. Then you sit down with this medium that is close enough, like a lover, but far enough to give you space. Close enough to be intimate (especially when the headphones are on), but distant enough to not evoke any desire to merge with it. And then, all you have to do, is hold this device, and gaze.
Your eye is trained to follow the narrative of the visuals; your mind knows when to pause to register meaning; there is a play with all the things as you know them in the waking life of day, which makes emotions run amok. All those emotions you did not allow yourself to feel during the day – the ugly ones, like recoiling disgust, guttural rage, contorting sorrow, insidious lust – are here, on this screen that could be painted or projected. You can give in to them, just as willingly as you give in to those deemed pleasurable; the day-time virtuous emotions of love, heroism, courage, joy, peace.
Perhaps on the third night of binge-watching on your lovely medium, you realise that the day seeps into the night; that the pleasures you feel in love are not so different from the ones you feel in the disgusting. And perhaps, as you go about the waking business of living, you realise that there is a lining of sorrow even in the most joyous things. Somewhere, through this intimate medium, all your emotions are allowed to merge freely, like an all-day twilight. In the afterglow days of the binge-watch, somehow you feel sorted; like the world makes sense, even if temporarily.
For the last 18 years, I have learnt to gesture in a medium that has allegedly been “dying” for a long time – at least 500 years, to hazard a rough estimate. Odissi, a classical dance from the state of Odisha, is apparently the oldest of Indian classical dances, sculpted on the walls of caves as old as 2,000 years. For me, Odissi is not something as far away as antiquity. It is as immediate as that tablet or miniature painting. It is the tenor of my inner voice; it speaks my world, and my world speaks in it. There isn’t anything in my world that I haven’t found reflected in Odissi: the loftiest ideas, the tiniest pleasures, the darkest feelings, and the hardest lessons.
Then why is it, I wonder, that it is a dead medium to others? Why is it, that audiences politely complain of how out-of-date it is, how terribly sublime, how annoyingly spiritual. Too perfect, too static, too unreal. When I look at it from their eyes, I realise what makes a medium dead. It is the same thing that kills relationships and metaphors: the mis-anticipation of distance. That same precious thing that creates affect with Game of Thrones while it plays in your lap, and puzzlement with Akbarnama because it sits so far away, in the museum of another country.
Odissi isn’t dead; my ever-moved heart would testify. Perhaps what is dead – or dying – is the way we hand it out to the world. In asserting the “classical” in this dance, Odissi has become too distant; from a distance everything seems homogenous, devoid of nuanced emotion. From a distance, an Akbarnama painting is just a coloured in collection of generic figures. From a distance, perhaps Game of Thrones would have a different affect.
I realise now that Odissi still speaks to me because over the years I’ve discovered the precise intonation of its gesture: I have learnt how to position it intimate enough like a laptop, cradle it just right in the crook of my arm like a miniature painting. From here, it speaks to me in an idiom that suits the world I live in: irony.
Irony is a resilient emotion. It always thrives because it is the nemesis of perfection. Like dance, it is perpetually in the performative; a becoming, a neither-here-nor-there – a paradox that doesn’t need resolution. When I look at the world through the prism of Odissi, I see beautiful paradoxes, I watch the undoing of perfect ideas and self-contained worlds. My favourite of these paradoxes is love.
“Your dance is so lovely, but it’s not socially relevant. Why is everybody so beautiful and in love? Life isn’t like that, na?” I’ve heard this very often, especially when there’s talk of “dying” Odissi, whose favourite emotion is sringaar, or love.
At a time when apocalypse is the only thing on our minds – when the negativity of the world is being pumped into our smartphones and social media newsfeeds 24/7 – love seems to be a dead medium.
It is either too distant and impervious, or too near and escapist. Looked at this way, love is much like the “classical” understanding of Odissi: a harking back to a perfect golden world of valiant heroes and ethereal heroines who never err, are always beautiful, never at conflict. Those ideal people, stories, and emotions that are perpetually out of reach.
But love, as I experience in a dance universe, is nothing like perfect, and everything like ironic. Precisely in the wondrous way that the word “love” is still the most Instagrammed hashtag of 2016 and La La Land the most surreptitious box office and Oscars heartthrob. Deep down in our hearts, in that little cove where cultural truths are stored one drop at a time, perhaps we have always known – despite our voice of reason – that only love can wholly embody the new emotions of our world: irony, imperfection, and contradiction.
The Odissi I dance loves this truth. Love, here, even when it is between gods, is not as perfect as the stories of love I grew up listening to, reading, or watching in popular culture. Love of the gods, when danced in Odissi, is so gloriously ironic. Maybe that’s why it’s not a dead medium yet. Shiva and Parvati are the primal parents, masculine and feminine, tandav and lasya, but they have their mad mood swings, you know, when they go totally Bhairav and Kali on each other and the world. Krishna and Radha have the most perfect lovemaking, but everything around it is so darn complicated: the waiting, the longing, the jealousy, the Before Sunrise type knowing that tonight might be the only night they have together.
And then there is a dance like “Chhaya Jhatak,” which my guru composed soon after he created his first masterpiece dance, inspired by the Konark Temple. Konark is about Surya, that incredible god without whom there would be no life, no day, no night, no imagination of consciousness – like a Netflix binge.
Chhaya Jhatak is about his fabled wife Chhaya, the Goddess of Shade. What perfect pairing, like that old love adage: “opposites attract.” But then, in Chhaya and Surya’s love story, there is a hint of pain. Chhaya and Surya cannot be one – the sun’s shadow is always separate from it. When the sun appears, the night must end. The dance my guru created is about longing and waiting – Chhaya is forever waiting for Surya.
In many ways, this is a beautiful and modern love story. Haven’t we all experienced this, when we fall in love? Love is the irony of longing. Sometimes it is more enjoyable to anticipate a meeting with your lover than the actual meeting itself. Like Chhaya, you imagine what you will say to him when he arrives; you have imaginary conversations with him; you imagine how he will look when he does arrive. You love the fact that you are in love and longing, together. The pleasure of love is not completion, it is the desire to be complete.
The emotion is called “viraha” in Sanskrit, and it is a powerful way to experience love. I could sublimate it, and tell you that it is an analogy for spiritual love, Advaita philosophy, and waiting for the divine. All of it, would be true. Every powerful metaphor is powerful perhaps because it is connected to a larger reality; I love to call that reality God, some call it Science, some call it Destiny, some call it Chance.
But the fact of the matter is that in the everyday experience of this Larger Reality, we need ironic love. Irony puts the gesture back into love; we need both intimacy and distance, and the longing to go the distance. We all aspire for uncomplicated, pure happiness as the perfect state of being; we fail at attaining it; we rationalise; we try to seize control. We look around us – at our newsfeeds – and see only the apocalyptic worst.
But when there is painful longing, waiting, and even despair; there is a change in the way you look upon your beloved, your ultimate desires – this is when you experience surrender, and freedom. It is when you learn to open your heart and be vulnerable. It is when the awareness of absence evokes that beautiful presence, just like it did for Chhaya.
Maybe happiness in the modern world can only be that kind of presence – both missed and experienced simultaneously. Maybe in the living of life, this is what bhakti really is, and so is hope. Maybe that’s why I need Odissi, and so do you – to preserve precious irony, and its attendant sakhi-feelings: vulnerability and incompleteness, which we tend to undervalue.
As long as we’re dancing in the ambit of this perfectly ironic elbow-crook-sized distance, Odissi will not be dead, and neither will we; words like happiness, love, longing, and bhakti will be saved from collapsing into perfect and stilted notions that are hard to live up to. Irony, on the other hand, is easy to live because it is so darn familiar. As familiar as the perennial desire to fall in love.