UTSAVAM 2020 - Day 1
Updated: Nov 2
Utsavam 2020, in its fifth edition in collaboration with Kalakshetra Foundation and DakshinaChitra, shed light on a theme that immediately draws attention and is also the need of the hour – Future of the Arts. It granted cognisance to the significance of looking at the arts in tandem with what is happening around us and what captures audiences. By extension, this symposium sought to focus on how artists could morph with a glance at the current world. The talks and discussions outlined the shifts in perspective to looking at the arts in a world of augmented and virtual reality. Focusing on the performing arts of the four South Indian states, this theme of the future of the arts was seen at the symposium through two different lenses – one, current trends that predict a future that could be positive or negative and two, the things we could do now to shape a future we desire. An event showcasing the versatility and the multifaceted dynamics of the art scene in South India, Utsavam ‘2020 had a very cogent and clear vision – aiming to ensure progress and relevance. The event opened its arms to the idea that the future is plural – parallel possibilities could co-exist. Further expanding on this theme of plurality, Utsavam 2020 also looked atacknowledging the past, discussing the present and looking out for a future that is all-encompassing, assorted, casteless, ecological and feminist.
Author: Sreya Mukherjee
Sreya has completed her Masters degree in History from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She has interned with the National Museum, New Delhi and DakshinaChitra, Tamil Nadu. She was a Sahapedia-UNESCO Fellow in 2017. Currently, she is pursuing a PhD in History from Washington State University in the US. Her interest caters to social history of the subcontinent with a focus on consumer culture and gender dynamics in modern India.
Edited By Anu Bhaskararaman
Anu is a dancer, theatre artiste and editor. She has been training in Bharathanatyam under Smt Seethalakshmi Vijay since she was seven years old. She has also trained in ballet, and completed a Diploma in Movement Arts and Mixed Media from Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts, Bangalore, with Honours in 2019. She has been acting, singing and dancing for theatre since 2010. With a BA in English and MA in Linguistics, she worked full-time as an editor at Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd for a year, after which she has been freelancing while also pursuing dance.
DAY 1 - 6th March 2020 (Friday)
Panel 1 – The future of Villupattu and Harikatha – Bharathi Thirumagan and Vishaka Hari in conversation moderated by T. Kalaimagan
This discussion focussed on delineating the cultural life of two art forms of South India –
Villupattu and Harikatha. Vishaka Hari addressed the contradictions that exist in attempting to date an originating point for Harikatha and elaborated on the nuances of the regional mutations of the same in Tamil. This one-person theatre art form has survived several millennia and precedes the Puranas and the Vedas.
Bharathi Thirumagan shed light on the age-old story telling art form of Villupattu. From its inception, topics that have remained integral to Harikatha almost always focussed on the Supreme Paratma, positive thoughts channelized through bhakti and more often than not, weaving stories of Bhaktas in preference to the stories of Gods. Thematic concerns of Villupattu enveloped singing about lifestyles, cultures, and social existence. What is really interesting is that this particular art form kept on updating itself on several issues so that the connection with the people was never rendered redundant and it never came to a point of becoming obsolete. It is not constrained by place or time as it can be performed in any situation for both, learned as well as lay audiences.
The discussion meandered towards the nature and scope of reception of these two art forms, where exuberant positivity was witnessed. Vishaka Hari recounted instances wherein the audiences were overwhelmingly affectionate across the numerous stages on which this splendid art form has been performed. Harikatha as an art form has found its takers to be very loving and engaging to the extent that the excitement and enthusiasm it births becomes contagious. The current situation of Harikatha’s reception seems to call for more awareness and eagerness to know. Irrespective of caste and gender, this eagerness is incessant. This has pushed the contours of these forms as the zeal to know more and the interconnectedness between the artist and the audience has opened up new grounds for experimentation. This, in a way, has also bridged the misconstrued gap between art and knowledge as both, in the context of a complete dependence on a slow yet steady audience who are cultivating their awareness, have been married to one another for a long-term holistic existence. Similarly for Villupattu, the reason for enacting it is not solely for entertainment but is also for elevating the soul. People have expressed the connection they have felt to the art form, despite not understanding the language in which it was performed. As an example of this, Thirumagan recounted how her father had the opportunity to perform in front of Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda, who appreciated his performance.
The discussion moved on to the topic of digital contribution to these forms, where the general idea was that the demand for new and more is pushing practitioners to innovate in order to ensure sustenance of the art forms and themselves. One prominent platform in this area is Youtube. However, whether the impact made by this platform is for the better or worse is still in question. On one hand, it definitely brings together people all over the world - an artist can get appreciation from someone they have never met or from someone who lives on a completely different continent. On the other hand, a viewer can choose to fast forward through, pause, or cut short a performance abruptly, something that cannot be done in a live performance. Here, Hari draws a comparison between Youtube and food. Success on a digital platform is like a cup of payasam. It is a good comforting dish in a meal but cannot be the sole dish in a meal.
Deliberating on the future of the arts, both artists were confident that there will be a period of complete knowledge and fuller appreciation, where people will seek out information. This in turn, will lead to the rediscovery of lost and forgotten forms of arts going back to our roots, which will enrich our culture even more.
Thirumagan firmly believes that her art form will outlive her. Although initially hesitant on a meaningful longevity of Villupattu, a performance of the same by 20 youngsters in Kalakshetra reinstated confidence that her art form has come out of being endangered. The panel ended with a genuine and heartfelt request to parents and larger institutions of state to bring awareness of these traditions to the next generation, by encouraging and aiding them in pursuing their passions and not simply forcing them into less fulfilling. For, everyone has untapped potential within themselves that only needs a mentor for guidance. The panel concluded with the conviction that everything has been already foretold by the prescient sages. All we need to do is rekindle.
Panel 2 – Future-proof your voice – A Session on voice health and fitness – Dr. Prakash
This panel highlighted the importance of voice fitness and healthy practices in order to prevent vocal stress. In this hour-long talk, Dr. Boominathan explained the importance of conserving our voices and how. His presentation addressed four different themes.
First, he pointed out the uniqueness of a singing voice. He then spoke about the functioning of the larynx, an organ that serves as the vocal instrument in human beings. The presentative provided a clear explanation about the delicate biological and nervous operations that facilitate the human voice and by extension; what throttles a performer’s voice during a performance. He explained how the uniqueness of a singing voice is determined by a wide pitch range, efficient length and tension, creation of optimal mucosal wave, symmetry in normal VF vibration, balanced grip on pitch, loudness and onset and the general requirement of the selective activation of adjacent muscles for all skilled physical activity. Several factors influence the voice and these can be categorised as constitutional (like age, hormones, general health, personality, larynx strength); personal (career goal, musical training, style, diet and lifestyle, exercises, vocal and non-vocal habits); and environmental (acoustics, public address system, dancing and singing, interference of the ensemble).
Second, he focussed on the attributes that differentiate a singing voice from a speaking voice. The differences can be attributed to one or all of four major attributes – consonant articulation and nasal resonance; quality and rate of speech; breathing mechanism; pitch, loudness and their control.
Third, the presentation steered towards comprehending the vulnerability of the voice
mechanism. Here too, Dr. Boominathan simplified probable weaknesses of the voice in three different groupings of variables – biological, physiological and performance shedding light on the perspectives of health and fitness. Discrepancies in maintenance of vocal health and fitness of a singer wrap have the potential to affect music knowledge, aspirations, creativity along with skill-set and performative capacities in various intensities. There are a horde of symptoms that indicate a troubled voice (for eg., restricted vocal range, vocal fatigue) which can lead to general anxiety and fear. This fear can give way to denial of the problem. This can be avoided through a number of measures - proper training that aims at enhancing vocal performance in singers, avoiding delays in seeking treatment by putting off visiting a doctor out of fear or by finding comfort in remedies not recommended by a professional, by clearly stating the purpose of the treatment, which will help establish the severity of the voice problem.
Finally, he recommended choice-based strategies keeping in mind physical characteristics in order to help rectify existing harmful practices and future proof the voice.
The main takeaway from this session was the understanding of the concept of voco-ergonomics. Voco-ergonomics was developed for improving voice and speech as tools of communication. It consists of factors and measures that work towards creating the best possible voice and speech production and enhancing hearing (perception). Voice ergonomics accounts for personal and environmental factors such as taking care of the health of the voice organs and adopting fewer loading activities and working practices. It also includes observing and treating noise sources and acoustics, activity and working practices, postures and indoor climate properly for voice and speech production at work and in other environments. He spoke at length as to how risk factors for a singing voice, enhancement of singing techniques and prevention of voice problem are intertwined to the extent that all require sufficient knowledge, perception and awareness at their disposal.
The session concluded with the reiteration of the importance of learning to take care of one’s body to ensure fitness and survival of the arts in the long term. One has to think of one’s health, for that is what ensures the sustenance of arts across generations.
Panel 3 – Culture as Innovation – Gita Wolf and Anita Ratnam
The panel started with Anita Ratnam posing an intriguing question to the audience – how wonderful it would be if all of us could nurture a spirit of innovation and a desire to inspire?
The focus of the discussion was both, the visual and the performing arts and was a genuine attempt at showing how in this diverse subcontinent of India, tradition and modernity are interwoven. Anita Ratnam, through a presentation of her works spanning almost 30 years from 1990 to 2019, fleshed out the crux of her argument. She stood by the fact that in order to make oneself capable of ensuring that the performing arts survive, what becomes of utmost importance is making every movement one’s own.
The session moved on to Gita Wolf’s presentation, in which she discussed the place of physical literature in the age of technology. She posited that the book, as a 500-year-old form, is enduring as it keeps alive the sense of touch and feel, making the experience of reading a cumulatively stimulating experience. She took the stance that despite the unprecedented flow of pdfs and kindle editions in the markets, the very personal, intimate and familiar act of turning the page of a book cannot be duplicated by a faceless act of scrolling up and down. She spoke at length deconstructing and explaining the collaborative endeavour required to publish one book Her enterprise Tara Books publishes books with illustrations catering to all genres and ages. Her entrepreneurial venture also happens to be the first such organisation to work with folk and tribal art traditions, with individual artists and similar collectives to bring them into the formats suitable for publishing. Her endeavours came across to me as an optimistic effort to immortalize perspectives, outlooks, and lives and in the process, shatter the rusty fetters of homogeneity. A multitude of ideas come to the forefront when introduced to people in the form of the written word. But Gita Wolf prefers to express stories through drawings and illustrations. For example, some works are inspired by scroll paintings by Patuas in West Bengal and books are made emulating a similar format but made available in a different medium. And often, in such a process, children are brought closer to nature. Some stories involve woodland creatures, for example, and this can evoke a connection to nature even for a child growing up in a city. Wolf’s projects endeavour to explore how the format of the book can be used meaningfully and bring about holistic methods of engaging with books. She also elaborated on how she has harnessed local efforts to make handmade books using recycled paper - to restore all senses, to feel and value the paper and the ink.
The panel was of the opinion that technology cannot substitute everything we can do and
constant servitude to it will only diminish the creative potential harboured within. One must
take technology in stride and utilise it in ways that does not breach the relevance of several
other art forms. People who have the courage to innovate make traditions omnipresent through gradual and organic methods. We learned what it takes to be an innovator. It calls for risk-taking, relentlessness to push boundaries, a readiness to fail, and an overall playfulness. The reality of the capitalist and consumerist world was also commented on, as arts like these
populate an ambiguous area between creation for a market and the pursuit of dreams. Creation is fundamental and rudimentary but an individual creator is neither an outlaw nor living off the grid. Thriving in a functional society makes his works his channel of communication with people around. And to a creator, critical insight and constructive criticisms are the best gifts.