Camera's New Muse
In cinema, as you hear the above, action unfolds for the camera with one take or sometimes many for the story to be told. This recreated reality is filtered with editing choices and released for the audience to view and make an opinion. Camera is like breath to cinema. Camera plays a vital role in our lives where it is used in our everyday space for documenting chosen memories in the form of a picture or a video. Roland Barthes in his Camera Lucida romanticizes the camera by saying that the photograph is a ‘message without a code’ because it depicts reality.
Today, in the COVID-19 times , camera has graduated to another level where it celebrates being an intimate part of our lives, whether we are home or anywhere outside, it follows us with the excuse of studies, work or help. Whether we like it or not, life had no choice but to choose the camera to replace workplace, school, college, family and many other things.
This was a big change even for the Indian performance space, Indian classical dances have facial work along with the body work, where every muscle of the face speaks and complements the mood of the performance. Therefore, to be able to capture the essence of the performance is hard and demanding. Even to dance in the presence of the camera is a delicate task. In this article, I try to understand and unravel the challenges and the fruits of the camera in the sphere of Indian dance. I speak to three artists who have been in this churn from the beginning of the lockdown, who help me with their experience to understand the delicate stand of camera’s new found muse.
Indian dance has celebrated the concept of total submission or surrender, to do that in front or presence of the camera is itself a contradiction. The artist and the audience both were dealing with this contradiction because when camera started its reign everyone thought it to be a temporary domain for survival. But the kingdom of camera and control spread and spread and took over.
Guru Rama Vaidyanathan has been performing for the online space and she lives and deals with the contradiction, she says “When I dance I am aware of the camera but I am dancing to an eternal space in front of me because if I look into the camera and dance then my performance will be extremely restricted and I may loose the sense of surrender.” It is a demanding task to know that someone is constantly intruding yet ignore the existence, to which Guru Rama Vaidyanathan explains that “… it has been a process of conditioning one’s mind and delinking and involving yourself in dance to achieve an equanimity, it’s like a disturbance in the audience and you learn to distance yourself from it.”
If we look into the history of Indian Dance, there was a subjective engagement because the premise of Indian dance is ritual performance and a ritual space is about engaging. The Devi Kamakhya piece performed by Guru Rama Vaidyanathan for the Kamakhya Sanskrit Mahotsav was filmed yet the dialogue between her and the camera was that of the dancer and the audience. It’s a rare relationship which didn’t happen on its own but it was made to happen with the help and use of technology. “ Four cameras were capturing me at one instance and I was performing like I perform in theatre, it was on the editing table that the nuances of dance were enhanced.” Rama Ji explains.
The camera didn’t just intrude into the Indian dancer’s life but it brought many new processes with it as Guru Ananda Shankar Jayant says, “I think we dancers adapted quickly, to keep dance process alive. The online space is democratic and free! So the angst for a cultural gatekeeper to open up an ‘opportunity’ came down, you could create your own ‘opportunity’”. To be able to freely create your own dance voice was a boon and so many new names and works came into being. Many ideas took birth and later matured into bigger projects. The series ‘Boxed’ curated by Smt Anita Ratnam was interesting, many ideas came to life from the ‘boxed in’ situation of dancers all over the world.
Well, many projects wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for locked down to happen. Guru Ananda Shankar Jayant highlights “ Many online projects may not have happened, we would have been busy with travels and performances. This year has given us the possibility, of understanding the new medium, newer performance, production, methodologies, different possibilities of showcasing art …. a great learning experience indeed.” Guru Ananda Shankar Jayant curated a beautiful series “Kutty kahani” by the children and for the children. A series to bring mythology back into the lives of children, merging tradition with technology. Storytellers have been an important part of Indian ethos and these little storytellers brought a fresh meaning to storytelling. Also, the involvement of the parent to make the story with the child reinvented a parent and child bonding. “Kutty kahani was an absolutely new way of sharing India’s timeless stories and aeternal wisdom, as understood and internalized by young children through chanting, music, dance, poetry, puppetry, acting and story telling,” adds Guru Ananda Shankar Jayant.
“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak” John Berger
If so is the power of image then a moving image is closest to realization of reality. And that is why probably camera is referred to as the third eye borrowing meaning from Lord Shiva’s third eye, extremely powerful. The man behind the camera and on editing table of Indian dance Shri Innee Singh thinks that camera was always there but now it’s a need, “Camera has always been an important part of any performance on stage however in the current times , the importance of a good quality video has become the need of the hour.” Innee Singh has worked with lots of dancers, his experience makes him sensitive to the art. He shares while recording, “I always look for composition of the frame, light, camera angles. I also try to make sure that I don’t miss out on any hand mudras in closeup shots since these are important part of dance and some shots without the hands may loose the meaning of the frame.”
In Indian dance recording and the editing process the form is essential. For editing, intent governs the process, whether you intent to make a dance film or a performance experience is what describes your process. Guru Rama Vaidyanathan shared for recording and editing that “ …however the duration between shots must be long for people to understand the movement.” Guru Ananda Shankar Jayant adds, “ The space created by camera is a different space and its requirements are different, it’s your choice depending on the art and the budgets.”
It’s not that dance on camera didn’t exist, it did in the form of the The Dance on Camera festival. Even during COVID-19 times they had the festival where the intent “ …these are dance films made by design, for better and worse”, Brian Seibert, New York Times, “The Dance on Camera festival, when Dance is only on camera”. This is a genre not yet endorsed by Indian Dance scene but with time even Indian Dance is learning to evolve. “ In the Drive East festival, which was the first performance in these unprecedented times, knowing it’s for camera, I designed small nuances that can be beautifully captured by the camera” shared Guru Rama Vaidyanathan. The product of Kutty Kahani is another big bag full of films based on stories and delivered by children, Kutty Kahani caught the ‘imagination of young kids’.
Louis Daguerre said that a photograph “gives nature an ability to reproduce itself” and I think the camera has given an opportunity for the Indian Dancers to engage with new medium and use it for survival and support.
Henceforth, Camera finds its new muse in the narthaki.
Rashika Ojha Abrol
A Bharatanatyam dancer, freelance writer and thinker. She is a graduate of Indian Literature from Delhi University and Masters from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has done a diploma on Mass Communications and worked briefly in media. She has received her training in Bharatanatyam under Guru Saroja Vaidyanathan and Guru Rama Vaidyanathan. She is an ICCR empaneled artist. She writes for Narthaki and other art magazines. She has worked as a Research Scholar for Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, New Delhi. She has done a course on Religion and Ritual from Oxford university and she is an active member of the art fraternity in Abu Dhabi, organising workshops and programs to promote Indian arts.