It’s time to break dance records

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Nothwithstanding its many problems, the dance scene is suffused by a general sense of well-being. Dancers are performing in “India and abroad”. All is well. Where do we go from here?
Going by the last few years, the next frontier is the creation of world records. Being in the local record books is passe; a glance at the Guinness Book of World Records throws up several dance records set in India in recent times. Interestingly, many of the events involving large numbers of dancers were organised
by various state governments.
Why the need to set records? On the Guinness World Records website, a note reads, “...to our readers, a world record is more than a simple fact: it’s a means of understanding your position in the world…a yardstick for measuring how you and those around you fit in. Knowing the extremes — the biggest, the smallest, the fastest, the most and the least — offers a way of comprehending and digesting an increasingly complex world
overloaded with information.”
India has interesting records to its name. The maximum number of Kathak spins in a minute (103) are credited to Vidha Lal, who set the record at a promotional event held by Guinness World Records in India. The US-based Anuradha Subramanian was the oldest Kuchipudi dancer to perform her Rangapravesam at 59. The government of Mizoram has had 10,736 people perform the bamboo dance (Cheraw) in 2010.
What’s in a name, asked Shakespeare of his readers. In Kerala, names are everything, as any dancer would tell you. It is common for dancers to prefix the names of the institutions where they studied dance to their names when they embark on a professional career. Stretching this custom a little further, Guinness Kalamandalam Hemalatha lets her name say it all. Hemalatha was consumed by the urge to create a record when she heard of the Guinness Book of World Records a few years ago.
Hemalatha holds the record for the longest dance marathon by an individual. She danced continuously between September 20 to 26, 2010, for 123 hours and 15 minutes. She spent two years preparing for this feat. She describes her daily routine in the run-up to the record attempt, “For two years, I ran every day to build my stamina. I danced and rehearsed daily. I went on a special diet and cut down on sleep to build endurance.”
Hemalatha remarks that she had to repeat her items every few hours. But she also worked on adding variety to her repertoire. Among her new choreographies are pieces on
Mother Teresa, EMS Namboodiripad and Tom and Jerry, which she performed during the course of the record attempt.
Now, Hemalatha, who runs her own dance school in Thrissur, is keen on breaking another record, perhaps by assembling the largest number of Mohiniattam dancers in performance. The record for the most Mohiniattam dancers in a single performance is currently held by the Art of Living Foundation — 1,200 Mohiniattam dancers performed at their Silver Jubilee Celebration in Kerala in 2006.
In the case of group records in classical dance, there are conflicting desires — it strikes one as odd that we wax eloquent about it being a mode of solo performance, and take up cudgels for the spiritual quotient of dance most willingly, but simultaneously view the act of quantifying classical dance as a evocation of national glory.
The Kuchipudi record in 2010 where over 2,800 dancers performed a thillana at Gachibowli stadium in Hyderabad inspired the Odissi record in 2011, where dancers at Kalinga stadium performed a piece specially choreographed for the occasion.
Set aside the organisational urge of governments or huge foundations to make certain socio-political and cultural statements by supporting and organising world record attempts, and what comes through is humbling — the earnestness of the dancers who make up the numbers at these events.
In Orissa, for 10 days, about 550 dancers rehearsed in searing tropical conditions every day, for about seven to eight hours. On the day of the final rehearsal, even as bystanders tried to keep out of the sun and save themselves from the oppressive heat, the dancers “soldiered” on, their dupattas firmly ensconcing their heads, some wearing socks to protect their feet.
Individual styles of dance are further divided into sub-styles or gharanas. Making these gharanas meet in a single 30 minute performance could be read in different ways. Perhaps this is a nod to homogeneity in the attempt to represent a colourfully fraught group as a united body, for a greater purpose. This is not to cast aspersions on the intentions of the choreographers, for whom this has been a new and interestingly-handled choreographic challenge. Yet, by the staging of dance as a form of extremity — as world record, one is already moving away from its usual existence as focused performance, where the relationship of the body to space is different.

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