A trained Bharatanatyam, Kalaripayattu and Contemporary dancer, Bengaluru-based independent artist Veena Basavarajaiah’s roots can be traced back to the time when she started learning Bharatanatyam at the age of 13. She completed her undergraduation in law and received her Master's degree in South Asian Dance Studies from the UK’s Roehampton University.
Be it the interpretative dance piece ‘Maya and Sita’ that questions one’s illusion of time and presents a re-imagined version of Sita from the Hindu mythological text Ramayana, or the theatrical play ‘Mooki’, an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Subha, that latently poses questions about freedom of expression practised in the country, Veena has been exploring complex political, social and cultural concepts and ethos through her contemporary dance performances.
From site-specific ventures to theatrical adaptations and inter-disciplinary projects, Veena has worn various creative hats as a performer, choreographer and educator.
Images from the play ‘Mooki’. Image courtesy: www.veenadance.com
Explaining how she has evolved as a performer, Veena draws parallels between learning a language and learning a style of dance, emphasising on the importance of developing a deep understanding of the shapes, forms, music, concepts, drama and storytelling.
When and how did you start exploring philosophical and socio-political themes through your dance performances?
I think primarily if you train in Bharatanatyam, a lot of your creative exploration will be in terms of aesthetics and composition itself. After learning the basic compositional qualities such as the shapes, forms, music, concepts, drama and storytelling, I started researching more about the questions that plague me as an individual, a citizen and a woman, and this paved the way for me to explore social and political concepts through my performances.
How do you draw the boundaries when it comes to experimenting with the basic structure of the form?
I feel every individual has the choice to decide how much they can experiment. It depends on one’s training, ideological upbringing, discretion, approach and level of comfort with respect to the artform. I see movement as a language, a language that is accessible to anyone and everyone. I don’t think faith, religion, gender, caste or someone’s identity should limit them from exploring an art form. Much like learning the English language, one gets to choose if they want to write a Shakespearean sonnet, a rap song, an erotica or screenplay for a film. I think it becomes problematic and suffocating when artists try to impose their own set of boundaries on others. Everyone’s boundaries need to be respected. Isn’t that the beauty of art? One has the right to like or dislike. If everybody liked everything, then there would be something deeply problematic with that too (laughs).
Practitioners of ancient forms often hold archaic notions about reinvention of the art form. A conservative section of Bharatanatyam practitioners believe that by experimenting with the vocabulary, form or format of the art form, dancers break the sanctity of the art form. What is your view on that?
I feel there are larger questions here. For me, the question is what is ancient? The concept of ancient itself seems like a myth. Even if we talk about the art form of devadasis or courtesans of the 19th century, they weren’t ancient dancers. It was a post-colonial and oriental world, under the influence of internationalism. What we now hold on as archaic or ancient was already hybrid, contemporary, was adapting to its environment and reinventing itself. Holding on to anything as unchangeable is troublesome.
Some believe that it is the collective responsibility of artists to speak truth to power and create awareness about social and political issues. Do you agree with that?
I think in every era, there have been artists who have created highly political work and some, who have created work that’s highly aesthetic. From building cathedrals to painting beautiful landscapes of countryside, you’d find examples of art with high aesthetic value that was created even during the World War. People who are political often think artists use aesthetics as an escape, while on the other side, those artists might think it is their responsibility to retain the beauty and keep the art alive when everything is falling apart. I feel each one of these responses is valid, important, relevant and automatically becomes a reflection of the society.
When you add many layers to your performances, are your ever worried about your audiences not being able to understand the concepts?
One of the things I have never done as an artist is to assume that the audience is stupid. I’ve always considered them to be intelligent and have never felt the need to spoon-feed them. I believe every performance is abstract and open for hundreds of interpretations. In my experience, I’ve only been fascinated by their nuanced interpretations, sometimes in a way that I might have not imagined earlier. Similar to painters, a dancer or any artist’s work has many many layers. The audience might not be able to see what was there in the first layer but they are still entitled to have their own perceptions of the art. When you create work as an artist, it then becomes theirs.
The 38-year-old dancer has done several collaborative projects with musicians, theatre, dance companies and multimedia artistes belonging to diverse backgrounds. Veena’s collaboration with Artecology for the 2017 project ‘How to be a Fig?’ serves as a fine example of the collaborative work undertaken by the artist. The initiative involved ecologists, researchers, performing and visual artists among other people from different walks of life, who came together for the performance in order to celebrate their love for trees. The piece premiered at the Students Conference for Conservation Science (Bengaluru) in 2017.
In an attempt to incorporate art into mainstream education, Veena has held many creative workshops and teacher-training workshops for multinational corporations, dance collectives and institutions across Europe and India. Veena tells TNM how the decision to be an independent artist enabled her to stay away from the in-built hierarchy of the Sabha system and gave her the freedom to draw her own boundaries as a performer.
Image from project Avatara created in collaboration with British Pakistani make-up artist
Riffat Bahar and UK based photographer Simon Richardson.
What are the advantages of being an independent artist?
When you work for companies, you have to work within the parameters set by them and their ideologies. Whereas, when you are creating independent work, you are your boss in so many ways. You don’t have to please anyone. It gives you the freedom to be new and innovative. When you are carving your own path, you don’t have to look up or look forward to anything, you just stumble, fail and figure out.
How is a traditional dance class setup different from that of an independent artist?
If you are in a Bharatanatyam world. If you want to perform in sabhas, you inherently become part of the rat race and the systemic hegemony. When you are looking for approval from people, you are saying you are part of the hierarchy, there is someone above you and you are placed below. This happens when you are looking for confirmation from them but as an independent artist, I am not seeking approval and I am not part of the system.
Have you experienced discrimination as a performer?
I was extremely thin and there was an expectation of an ideal body. Such expectations come from an ideological space. I feel Bharatanatyam like every art form is a reflection of our society. Not just our dance classes, but I think we will have to learn to make all spaces inclusive in term of gender, sexuality, race and embracing people’s identities.
If you are asked what is the fundamental reason behind your choice of being an artist, what would your answer be?
I would say I don’t know. I am figuring out (smiles). I feel that we all want to express. We all find different purposes in different phases of our life. Performance art allows one to do that.
“Should artforms be limited to a particular gender?? Can they be gender fluid? Are we as teachers, dancers and audience ready to accept members of different genders embodying the art form of their choice? Were these forms always this compartmentalized or have they gotten rigid over time??” Veena questions her followers in one of her Instagram posts as she ponders why men are not permitted to learn and perform Mohiniyattam.
With the help of cartoon panels and detailed questions, Veena uses her page Cartoon Natyam to engage in conversations with fellow dancers and open discussions about a range of issues varying from the stereotypes that are prevalent in the world of dance and the discrimination dancers are subjected to based on their identities.
Veena discusses how the page turned into a forum for both dancers as well as non-dancers to engage in productive discussions. She also notes how the pandemic has opened the door for multimedia dance performances that could be achieved through digital channels such as social media portals.
When did you start the page Cartoon Natyam? What was the idea behind using cartoons to talk about dance?
I am not a trained visual artist. As a part of one of the projects, I had to open an Instagram account. I wasn’t interested in having another profile with my face on it, so I decided to have an anonymous online presence through the page. I felt that through the cartoons, I was able to put across questions that plagued me as an artist and it eventually became a medium.
How have people responded to the cartoons?
When I saw the responses from other users, I felt like it was an interesting platform for me to interact with the community in a meaningful way. I also received a lot of personal messages where people shared their own experiences and requested those to be a part of the page. It gradually became a forum where they could pose questions and hold discussions. A lot of dancers post their opinions on social media platforms, but somehow the cartoon appeals to people since it is anonymous and they don’t feel like it is pointed towards them.
Have you been experimental or maintained consistency in regards to the type of cartoons you post and the themes you cover?
Initially I was using black and white sketches, I then moved on to water colour and digital art, so the cartoons have been evolving over time but I made sure that the format does not change simply because I’d like to pose questions rather than stating my opinion. The cartoon itself show someone pondering various themes, rather than passing a statement. At the end of the day, my opinion is my own, I cannot thrust it upon somebody. If I pass the judgement about whether something is right or wrong without hearing what others have to say, I can’t start a conversation about it.
Artists on social media have received threats and abusive messages. Have you ever felt like your freedom of expression has been curtailed? Do you feel safe online when you post?
One of the things about creating art or putting an opinion, when you are putting yourself out there, you are inevitably making yourself vulnerable for people’s judgement. No matter, how much thought, research or sensitivity you put into, you are unable to control how your audiences respond, especially online. Earlier when I was critiquing dance forms, sometimes I was trolled for not being Indian enough and commenting on contemporary dance performances. In Cartoon Natyam, all responses are welcome but if a comment is hurtful, bigoted or defamatory in nature, I delete it since I have the power to do that. I curate the comments keeping in mind that people are free to agree and disagree respectfully but can’t be inciteful, hateful and rude. Whether you are an influencer or not, I think you will have to spend a lot of time and energy ignoring these comments.
How do you think young dancers/ artists could use multimedia platforms better?
Thanks to COVID, everybody is into multimedia art right now and it seems inevitable. The pandemic has really pushed artists to explore digital platforms. Be it a TikTok reel or meme or a video, I find them extremely innovative and creative. They might not realize or might not be articulating but a lot of them are already doing multimedia work. With online performances taking place due to the pandemic, our definition of performers, audiences and live performances have been redefined, thus changing the ontology of live performances itself. We just have to acknowledge that.
Image of dancer Veena Basavarajaiah