Supriya Nayak, ODISSI DANCER

Thinking and dancing in my living room

This piece was originally published by Global Rasika and can also be found here

‘Like, seriously, there is a pandemic.’

I am currently on day 11 of physical distancing in Toronto, Canada, on March 26, 2020. The term that was initially used for the practice of keeping a distance from other humans was ‘social distancing’. The idea, as far as I understand, is to prevent the spread of the highly-contagious Novel Coronavirus which causes the illness Covid-19. Although the majority of people will recover from the illness, doctors have not been able to identify a medicine that cures Covid-19, and so far there is no vaccine for it. The safest thing to do right now appears to be changing the way we live with each other and ‘flattening the curve’ to prevent healthcare systems around the world from being overwhelmed by an influx of patients. The advice to practice physical distancing is consistent across countries but it will impact people differently in different parts of the world. Each day, I wake up in Toronto wondering about the number of Coronavirus cases at home in India, where my family lives. I stay in touch with friends in the US and Switzerland, where the number of cases is much higher than Canada.

The terminology coming out of the current pandemic is something I am trying to wrap my head around. A friend said something yesterday about the lockdown in Toronto—but are we under lockdown? I know only essential services are open, but this is very different from the lockdown in India, which began on March 24, where people were given a four-hour window to prepare, and large numbers are stranded on roads and highways, trying to walk home, sometimes over hundreds of kilometres away, because there is no public transport, or support available from the government. There are now several reports about the police in India harassing migrant workers as they struggle to make their way home.

After social distancing became a widely used term, people started advocating for ‘physical distancing, social solidarity’. This was reassuring. As my husband and I get used to spending hours at home—writing, practising, reading, cooking, cleaning, watching films, going for walks, filling up the hours—my Whatsapp is filling up with messages from family and friends and I am on Zoom/Skype/Facetime every day, for work, or to catch up with loved ones.

I was chatting on Messenger with Lee Su-Feh, a choreographer and teacher of Fitzmaurice Voicework, from Vancouver. I asked if she is connected with her students and she said, ‘Classes have shifted online but last week I told my students to go out and chill out. Like, seriously, there is a pandemic. I don’t think we need to be PRODUCTIVE. Let’s pause.’ ‘Best advice,’ I wrote back.

The speed at which online content is being generated these days is mind-blowing. The virtual world has never been so real, with so many of us living through technology. I hesitantly offered to teach Odissi classes online to an 11-year-old student with whom I have been working for three years. This is a new learning curve for me as well, because the strategies required for teaching online are different from in-person teaching. A week in we have found a rhythm, and I now assign homework to her and to myself (to help her practice). In our second online lesson, I noticed her taking frequent breaks to sit down in front of the computer as if for a chat. I realised Facetime normally means a conversation with someone, and looking at a screen is generally a moment to switch off, even for me. So we spoke about staying present, because although we were using a screen, we were still in class. I re-introduced to her the Abhinayadarpan shloka all Odissi students learn—

yato hastastato drishtiryato drishtistato manah

yato manastato bhavo yato bhavastato rasah

Phillip Zarrilii has translated these lines as—

where the hand (is), there (is) the eye; where the eye (is), there (is) the mind;

where the mind (is), there is bhava; where the bhava (is) there (is) the rasa.[1]

The directness of this translation is useful while teaching, although I find the translation of drishti as glance[2] (rather than eye) more meaningful from the dancer’s point of view. It is not only the eye as the organ that is relevant, but the direction of the dancer’s eye to the hand, thereby involving the mind.

What happens when the drishti is fixated on the screen? What about the other senses? We speak to the machine, we listen through the machine. My student and I keep trying to come back to this shloka, and expand the drishti, and mind, through and beyond the machine, as we work on steps, practice hastas, recite talas, etc.

Zarilli also gives the following definitions—

Bhava may be defined as the embodied emotional state of the actor demanded by the dramatic context of the performance

Rasa, literally ‘flavour’ or ‘taste’, may be defined as the act of communing, joining, especially ‘tasting’, arising in the audience but created between audience and performer. Optimally, in that moment, all distinction drops away from the act of ‘tasting’.[3]

To explain this further to my student I suggested that bhava could be ideas or feelings expressed through the body. I added that as someone who shares the experience or rasa of the performance, the viewer can be called rasika. Another term for the ideal audience is sahridaya (one of similar heart).

The last live performance I did was five days before it became very clear in Toronto that we would have to start practicing physical distancing seriously. It was at an International Women’s Day event hosted by the Malton Women’s Council in Mississauga. MWC is a women’s group with the motto ‘empowered women, empowered communities’. The evening was a mix of family gathering, networking for business, performances, and dinner. The air was celebratory and festive, even chaotic. My students and I performed Mangalacharan (namami vighnarajatam), and later in the evening, I presented Basant Pallavi. As I danced, I could feel eyes focused on me through the buzz in the room. I know the choreography well, by heart, and began playing with directions and using space to engage with the audience that was seated in a C-shape around the dance floor. Later, a few people took the time to compliment us on our work.

In this unprecedented situation, everyone is searching for ways to cope, respond, and survive. The economic impact of the pandemic is already being felt by many. Artists the world over are dealing with shows getting cancelled and uncertainty about the future. In Canada, funders are taking steps to offer interim support to artists. My friend, a Bharatanatyam dancer, proposed that a Mohiniyattam dancer and I join her in responding to a call by the National Arts Centre to participate in a series of performances being livestreamed on Facebook. I have my doubts about using this moment to start livestreaming performances from my living room but at the same time, I am curious about the shift that is taking place and a little extra money is always useful. We decided on abhinayas because none of us have space in our homes to do a piece that requires the stamping of feet. Although we have not heard back from the NAC, I am imagining the prospect of this performance—dancing into the emptiness of a machine while trying to create the idealised world and characters of the Gitagovinda for the virtual world.

Speaking with Su-Feh, I commented on my resistance to being present in the online world although I recognise it to be very real and a part of our lives. She pointed out that whatever we do on social media is a performance. With the pandemic and lockdowns, space and physical freedom are being restricted but the need to communicate, to make sense of what we are going through—individually and collectively—is strong.

Last week I watched two episodes of Ugly Delicious on Netflix with my husband. One of the episodes featured chef Floyd Cardoz, who died from Coronavirus on March 25. Currently, celebrity deaths and illnesses are bringing home the seriousness of the virus. News from home is revealing other kinds of devastation that are happening as a result. I don’t know how to make sense of this. I sent this piece of writing to my oldest friend who wrote back— ‘We have this need to make sense of everything but maybe there is no sense to it, Sups?’

[1] Phillip B. Zarrilli , ‘Where the hand [is]’, in Asian Theatre Journal vol. 4 no. 2 (1987: 205-214), 207.

[2] Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, and Duggirala Gopalakriṣna, The Mirror of Gesture: Being the Abhinaya Darpaṇa of Nandikesvara, 2010, 17.

[3] Zarrilli , ‘Where the hand [is]’, 213.