Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A deck of cards with a Classical Touch Bharatnatyam Dancer Jayalakshmi Eshwar

The original article in Hindu 

The Hindu : Features / Sunday Magazine : Dance with the cards

Read the unedited version here.....

A full hand - set of sequential cards from the 13 cards of diamonds, clubs, spade or hearts - yes that is the typical rummy.  Fast track it to the world of dance and it is a set of three cards of Kathak, another with Chhau and top it off with a set of four of from say Bharatnatyam and voila full hand – that is the dance rummy game devised by danseuse Jayalakshmi Eshwar. Unlike the traditional deck of cards of 54, this has a whopping 90 cards covering the 9 traditional classical dance forms of India. It is a game for children six years and above. The deck of cards can be used to play two different games one of course on the lines of rummy. The game innovative, thought provoking, educative yet fun has been conceptualised, researched and executed by Jayalakshmi Eshwar. Jayalakshmi, a trained Bharatnatyam dancer from Kalakshetra is the Head of the Bharatnatyam Department at Triveni Kala Sangam and also runs her own troupe – Abhinaya Dance Group.

A talented multifaceted personality, she has maintained the traditional and purity of the dance form yet has embraced modernity with technology. As she says, “in today’s age, children do not have the luxury of time to learn the way it was done earlier. Neither do the gurus have that kind of time available. Today after the 8th standard, students get busy with the board exams then it is admission, where is the time to learn slowly. So an audio visual medium can be played in the evening at home and learnt from.” Thus both her books cum instruction media, one on a how to on Bharatnatyam a step by step guide on dance  and the other one on the use of hands – Hastha Prayogaah in Bharatnatyam come with an accompanying audio visual CD.  The card game was an extension of this mindset. As she recalls, “my second son Avinash Kumar is from NIFT and was working with the toy industry. He then suggested that I develop a game for children based on the dance form.” The earlier idea revolved around Bharatnatyam but research proved that the general knowledge on dance as a medium was more or less absent.

The game in itself is very interesting. It has been painstakingly put together. Be it the in depth research in getting the information or the succinct manner in which it has been written in the cards, such that it is informative yet not academically overbearing. The cards are larger than normal cards measuring approximately 5 inches by 3 inches. Each of the nine forms are represented by a different colour. The dance forms covered are: Bharatanatyam, Chhau, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Mohiniyattam, Oddissi and Sattriya. There are 10 cards in each of the 9 dance forms.  The 10 cards are actually 10 broad categories giving information on each of the dance form. These are – state of origin of the dance form, introduction on the dance form, reference texts on the origins of the dance form, temple / tradition which it is associated with, few gurus and exponents of the dance form, costume, two cards on the ornaments worn in the dance form, instruments accompanying the dance form and the technique or nritta position. The information has been patiently compiled with help and suggestions from co-artistes of their particular tradition, Sangeet Natak Academy and CCRT.  The information on costumes, ornaments, musical instruments and accompanying photographs were collected from well wisher friends each a master proponent in the field of dance. For example Guru Shashadhar Acharya, the well known proponent of Saraikala Chhau has provided these for the cards for Chhau. Similarly for Kathakali it is the well known International Centre for Kathakali, New Delhi.  The photograph used in the depiction of the costume in Kathakali is that of Sadanam Balakrishnan.

The detailing in the card is mind boggling. For example, in Kathak the list of gurus and exponents is large encompassing – Shambhu Maharaj, Lachchu Maharaj and Achhan maharaj, the exponents include: Sitara Devi, Pandit Briju Maharaj, Uma Sharma….. Similarly for Chhau the banks of the river where it is performed annually is beautifully put while the exponents have been drawn out carefully in the case of Bharatnatyam. A charming compilation is on the comparatively lesser known dance form is Sattriya from Assam. The set of 10 cards tracing the origins from 15th – 16th century to the tradition by Vaishnav Saint Srimanta to Sankaradeva to the gurus Maniram Datta Moktar and further detailing on the ornaments and costumes is a mine of information.

The colour codification of the dance form is also interesting. Satriya is brown while Odissi from the neighbouring State is a deeper shade of the same colour.   Kathakali is represented by green while Mohiniyattam from the state is bordered in dark green. Another little quirk that Jayalakshmi has introduced is that in each of the card at the top the entire name of the dance is not written. As she says, “I just wanted the first two letters or first letter of the dance form written. This will provoke the child to use his intellect and understand the dance form while playing. It is not only educative to the child but also to the parent, many of whom are not aware of the minute nuances of the dance forms.” It is true, people may know the dance form but not the intricacy like names of the instruments accompanying it or the ornaments worn.
The game is played like rummy. It can be played by 4 to a maximum of 9 persons. Each player is dealt 10 cards and the rest of the cards are kept in the middle. For winning the game, three sequences ( 3 cards of two dance form and 4 cards of another dance form) has to be made. The second way of playing it is as a simple question answer format. The cards are simply dealt.  Each player reads from one card giving out all the information, after which proceeds to ask questions on the information read out.  This helps the child memorise facts about the dance form. In the offing apart from her book on feet movements is another card game exclusive to Bharatnatyam to be played by a student. What else can one say except dance playing on!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Dhokra craft traditions with a reverse twist - Subhash Arora, a non-tribal dhokra craft artist

Craft traditions are usually hereditary passed down from one generation to the next. It is also usual for successive generations on becoming affluent to move away from the craft into more educated lucrative professions. Exploding both these usuals and going against the grain is Subhash Arora, Master Craftsman of Dhokra craft.  A non-tribal, actually a Punjabi Arora from Delhi from a family involved in educational pursuits, who was so fascinated with Dhokra that he has made it his mission, his love and career. This love for dhokra which began in the late 70s still continues today with the same passion, a journey covering nearly 35 years.  With a dreamy look in his eyes, Arora adds, “I want to do it all my life.”  So you wonder how did it all start? With a smile he says, “I was not good at studies, so I didn’t have much choice except to take up graduation by correspondence. I was studying clay modeling at Bal Bhawan Delhi during the holidays. I knew I wanted to do something creative. There were many options - drama, writing art…” During the training he happened to visit the Crafts Museum, Delhi. It was here that the proverbial inspiration struck, there were tribal craftsman from Chattisgarh - Bastar to be precise who had come to demonstrate Dhokra craft. Subhash Arora saw it being made and literally was hooked for life. Even as he describes it to me, the passion, the madness for the craft shines in his eyes. He adds, “I worked with them casting, modeling the wax without a care about the weather, it was the craft and myself.” When they left after their workshop for one month ended, he was at a loss. In a fit of youthful madness he decided to pack his bags and head to Bastar as he says, “I was not interested in studies.” His parents dissuaded him saying he was mad going off to a village in the jungles far away from civilization with no access to landline phones.

He vividly recalls reaching village Konda in Bastar in the evening by bus and being welcomed by fire flies everywhere. Arora adds, “I had never seen a fire flies or a jungle let alone live in one. One look at the craft and he forgot the heat, absence of electricity, the bad civic conditions and the huts. As he says, “kaam karte hue mazaa ata tha - (I used to enjoy doing the work)”. Soon he persuaded his parents to buy him a small place within the village where he could stay and learn the craft. He learnt the craft and along with it the local language - Halbi. He says as a matter of fact, “if you live in Spain for 10 years won’t you learn to speak Spanish?” adding with pride, “the whole of Bastar knows me because I am the only non-tribal who learnt the craft living with them, speaking their language and understanding their culture.” He stayed with them for four years understanding every aspect of their life and of course the craft. It was not easy and it took much persuasion to be taught their skills.

Dhokra craft uses the traditional lost wax method to fashion objects from brass. The casting is done by both the hollow method and solid method. One distinguishing feature is that when casting bigger objects or three dimensional ones, the craftsman wind thin strips of wax around the clay model. They further adorn it with little drops, small motifs and more. The object when finished in metal gives a ribbed appearance which is the hallmark of dhokra. Subhash Arora shows me wax strips. Describing the making of a small bull, he plucks out a small bit of wax and moulds it in front of me. He then demonstrates the making of a tile made of Dhokra, he starts fashioning the leaves and becomes so lost in making it that for a moment he forgets I am watching and listening to him.

I prod him to go back to his days of learning the craft. He recalls, “I came back satisfied with some objects that had been made. Then I reached dead end. No one wanted to buy the pieces I had made. I had made what the tribals made.” After much running around he gave up. He then absorbed what was selling in the market and with a vague idea made a second trip after a few years to Bastar. This time he stayed and made designs of his own. When he showed them to shops in Sundar Nagar, Delhi and exporters, they went crazy about it. Looking back he says, “I was neither a designer nor an art student. So designing was alien to me. I could not extend the use of this technique to more saleable form then.” Further understanding of the design quotient occurred when he was called to repair some antique figurines by Rajeev Sethi, well known craft proponent and revivalist. He was shown a box full of old pieces of dhokra art from Kond village in Orissa. Arora says, “it was something I had never seen. The work from this village is far more beautiful than that of Bastar. But seeing it I knew how to create modern more acceptable forms for the market.” So out came a trail of horses, classic bulls, human figures, gods and goddesses, odd or free flowing forms of animals, birds. He went back lived with the tribals training them to make products which would work in the market.

He adds ruefully, “I was young and could withstand the harsh conditions. I used to live with them for 4 - 5 months in a year. Now I can’t. So I have brought a few villagers from there and have settled them in a village near my home in Faridabad.” His worked was recognized and he was awarded the Master Craftsman Award in 1993 for a beautiful piece depicting a tribalish rider on a bull. Another stunning work has been for the INA Metro Gallery, where a wooden frame adorned with metal dhokra pieces was made for the CWG 2010. Another fabulous piece which is a part of the Akshara Exhibition put together by Dastkari Haat Samiti. It shows a lady working on a computer, saluting learning. Every detail from the key board to the expression on the face is captured to perfection.

Given the high cost of metal, huge pieces or one of a kind are made to order. The focus now is on making utility pieces like wall hangings, key hanging boxes, trays which contrast fallen leaves with dhokra panels. He adds, “Dhokra is an eco-friendly craft since it reuses scrap metal pieces. I teamed it with leaves which have fallen on the ground. Then with left over leather and grass bits.” Looking at the piece, again the dreamy look overcomes him, and he starts thinking of other ways to extend the craft to more utility driven products. I leave him at that.

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