Jiwang is soulful, cathartic fare with a dash of cheekiness, but not yet transcendental

  • review written by Ranjini Ganapathy September 19, 2020

Where do emotions go to die and how do they live over and over again? One of the most straightforward answers to this is in and through songs respectively, and in this instance, the timeless Malay jiwang songs from the eighties and nineties repackaged as an assortment of skilful and meaningful dance performances by four highly expressive bodies and presented as a playful and yet profound karaoke dance film.

Jiwang is a tribute to the deeply evocative lyrics present in the slow rock songs of the Malay music scene and grants viewers full permission to indulge and actually take pleasure in feeling it all unapologetically. It is an invitation by dance company, P7: 1SMA (pronounced as Prisma) to deep-dive into the realm of the soulful through the lyrical and the musical.  

Personally, I am intrigued and inspired by the company’s guiding principle to frame “dance as a strategy and Malay as a concept”. It is both clever and highly necessary, especially if we want to move forward as a progressive nation of people. The diversity of the Malay community and its nuances seem to be very rarely explored in mainstream media.

I feel privileged to have been able to gain access into the contemporary Malay world to savour a sliver of a rich social landscape through this generous offering but I am left with wanting more lashings of it, just a tad more. I am woman enough to admit that I can’t get enough of a good thing. I also confess that within a safe and private space, I do have a propensity to berjiwang, be excessively emotional, perhaps less reservedly than others and so, in spite of being stirred, I wanted to be moved to somewhere, another plane of consciousness. I call it transcendence.

“Nostalgia for lost love is cowardice disguised as poetry,” wrote author, Jeanette Winterson in an opinion piece many years ago. I have come a long way from being some kind of a coward having learnt strategies to cope better when confronted by unsavoury parts of my emotional history. Time, too, is an ally of softening blows and healing. Sometimes, there is simply no way of avoiding it, especially if it creeps up on you. Emotions form the core of the human condition. Nobody is immune from maladies of the heart. This collection of jiwang songs is one of many antidotes, an accessible form of self-medication.

The word ‘Jiwang’ explodes gloriously onto the screen against a psychedelic background accompanied by a burst of peppy intro music. In the comfort of my home, I feel relaxed and ready to enjoy the show. I am greeted at once by a bare-boned set-up of what seems to be a large rectangle taped on to the floor of the black box. The dancers walk into the set, carrying their own chairs and personal belongings. The chairs are placed outside of this designated performance space and the dancers sink comfortably into their seats.

When the first dancer steps into the ring, slouching his shoulders and dragging his feet to the doleful rendition of Siapa Di Hatimu (Who Is in Your Heart) by Rahmat, I recognise at once that he is, to some degree, transformed into a receptacle of restrained anguish. Orange lights flood the scene. There is a heaviness about him and the way he tells a story with his body. The camera angles are all over the place and there are overlapping images of him superimposed onto the screen. Emotional regulation is a messy affair.

Assuming the stance of a man burdened by the weight of his loss, he hardly lets his feet take off from the ground. A subtle allusion is made to The Thinker, a bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin, an image employed to represent the act of philosophising, when he places a hand on his head, tugging at his hair, while the other hand is stretched out to the back. His gnarled fingers resemble a claw. He then lifts one foot off the ground and pivots on the other making one round on the spot. In spite of the internal torment, his movements are controlled. He finishes his presentation by removing his sunglasses exactly when the words on the screen read “until I was removed” and gently places that and a handkerchief towards the front where a make-believe shrine is instantaneously erected to honour the demise of a love story which cannot go on. I take this to mean that he has wept enough to let it go.

Emoting more significantly than the first dancer, the second performer dances her heart out to Teringin (Longing) by Shima. She mouths the words of the song showing how emotionally invested she is in this lyrical narrative and I, too, feel like I want to belt out this number. Looking straight into the camera, I see her telling me her story of yearning. She has made an effort to connect with me eye to eye. I reciprocate, watching her with rapt attention. Her flailing arms work in unison with her twisting, contorting body. There is a push and a pull. A melange of movements both weighted and animalistic seize hold of her. The rawness of her turmoil is palpable. Her dance, too, does not escape the streaming of orange lights, which wash over her, and the superimposition of composite images of her captured at different angles. At some point, she is shown to be drenched in water. An outpouring of emotion is suggested. The floodgates have opened and she is kneeling, writhing in pain even. The emotional release exhausts her. Finally, she treads the ground, lightly, slowly, deliberately. I am relieved for her and myself.   

The third dancer takes her spot and begins to move freely and joyfully to the tune of a familiar song. Perasaan breathed to life by the smooth and saccharine vocals of Anita Sarawak is the Malay version of Feelings by musical group, The Bee Gees.  I welcome the change in mood. It is refreshing. I realise then that I did need this break from the overbearing tedium brought on by the heavier, contemplative songs from before. Clearly, I lack stamina in wallowing for too long. The scene unfolds in black and white. Disco fever vibes are in the air as the dancer lets go and lets loose. Her stylised movements are reminiscent of that era I mention above. She is flowing, and picking up pace in her storytelling. Images of the handkerchief and a pair of sunglasses come to the fore and the scene is now in colour. The dancer is smiling and squirming on the floor in pure ecstasy, it seems. Her way of experiencing an emotional release is a contrast to that of the second dancer’s. This dancer is spent but in a state of bliss.

The camera focuses on an ornate box with intricate carvings. In it there is a piece of cloth, some kind of a sarong, and some photographs. The fourth soloist is a compelling, nimble-footed storyteller whose movements are quick and light even though the soundscape to which he is dancing is dense with a sense of finality. I struggle to appreciate Salam Terakhir (Final Greetings) by Dato’ Sudirman as it unfolds aurally. I diagnose myself with a case of jiwang-fatigue. The dancer is charismatic and convincing and manages to successfully retain my attention. He lays out photographs on the floor. The sarong, too, gets the same treatment. He then spins around with the box as if the box were leading him in his movements. The special effects add a nice touch of magic when the piece of fabric starts flying and he is twirling. The dancer is smooth and slick in his execution of movements. He rolls and slides on the floor effortlessly. The photographs too fly off from the ground in a flurry of activity. Memories belong to a floating world of fleeting moments, sometimes at the mercy of a faulty faculty. The dancer packs the items back into the box only to take them out again. Sentimentality is a clingy little thing. The image of the sarong occupies the screen. This must be the metaphorical drawing of the final curtain. His dance down memory lane ends here.

I exercise autonomy in an ironic fashion by allowing the algorithms to pick the next couple of songs for me. The male duet is presented as a tug of war. Emotional regulation is a struggle of power. The male dancers dance in and out of sync with each other, never letting go of each other, but there is also rising tension. The video stalls, mimicking a technical glitch. One of the dancers breaks away from the other after this dramatic pause. The remaining dancer lies on the floor, seemingly withering away. The conflict has died a natural death.

“Please enjoy your waiting,” the words on the screen tell me cheekily. The four dancers take their place on stage, each one of them occupying a particular spot. One waits for her cup noodles to cook, the other folds clothes, another does his makeup while the other seems to be planking. Menghitung Hari (Counting the Days) by Krisdayanti plays in the background. Solitude is the theme as is represented by the four dancers engaged in solitary activities. Nobody can eat for you. The folding of clothes is an immersive act. Nobody can wear a face like you can or want to and most certainly, nobody can exercise for you either. This is choreographic genius I think to myself. The message is harsh but true and also strangely comforting, if you allow it to be.

When it comes to experiencing physical pain, nobody can feel it for you. It is a personal endeavour one has to ride out alone. However, experiencing emotional pain can be a shared experience. When someone in the group takes it the hardest, the other dancers come to tap him on the shoulder – a friendly gesture to encourage him to come out of it. They then return to their seats. I am moved and in awe at the profundity of this entire episode.

The dancers have successfully performed a two-pronged role as individual characters and conduits for us to collectively experience an emotional release in a myriad of ways. However, what was missing for me was a dance or two which could have had strong narrative arcs. These dances could have involved all four dancers to tell a story together. I am thinking moving, masterful music videos. I would have very much liked to have seen synergy amongst the dancers.

The words, “Biar tenang jiwaku…” or rather “Let my soul rest” come to mind. It did rest but I also wanted it to soar at the end of it all. Jiwang is soulful, cathartic fare with a dash of cheekiness, but not yet transcendental. It was close to being it though.

Ranjini Ganapathy is a trained secondary school teacher by profession. Based in Brisbane, she works as a creative arts educator integrating her passions of crafting and dance into her language lessons. She also spends her time as a volunteer tutor teaching adult migrants English and finds great fulfilment doing so.

Living with a condition

I let out a yelp as my face contorted itself into a crumpled mess of agony. That was how my day started in bed, not out of it as one would naturally hope for. With clenched teeth on a half-bitten lip, I propped myself up to lean against the bed frame. The cool brass on my sticky skin did not offer me an iota of comfort; the pain in my neck was beyond excruciating. With my head involuntarily tilted to the side, it seemed as if my right ear was leaning in to tell my right shoulder that something was anything but right.

As an aspiring performing artist, my solo dance recital was two months away. It was the first thing that crossed my mind. I had worry written all over my face. Confusion enveloped me as I did not possess the language to make sense of what was actually happening to me in those moments of intolerable discomfort. I did not know that I was under attack by a belligerent bundle of pinched nerves that had strategically unleashed a spasm to seize my unsuspecting neck.

I stared at the lifeless clothes I had placed on a hanger the night before. My physical form did not give the carefully chosen ensemble function that morning and for a while, the mornings that followed it. I did not go to work for two weeks and two months later, neither did I take my place on stage. My day job duties as a teacher were put on hold and the solo performance was shelved while I struggled to make sense of my diagnosis: cervical spondylosis. It was a degenerative condition and how I had effectively managed to accelerate the age-related wear and tear of my spinal discs still perplexes me today.

‘Hi! Yes, I am finally back. I am basically a twenty six year old with a neck of a sixty two year old. I am fine now,’ I reassured my circle of concerned colleagues with a laugh. They politely laughed in return. It was a well-rehearsed shallow response I had somehow learnt to casually utter in jest to mask the depths of my despair. The uncertainty of actively pursuing a dance career in some way seemed unfathomable. It was both disappointing and devastating. The death of a dream weighed heavily on my mind and before I realised it, I slowly slipped into a downward spiral of depression.

My earlier days of learning how to deal with chronic pain were peppered with a number of appointments at the orthopaedic clinic. Some were scheduled out of necessity while some were sought out as acts of sheer desperation. An occasional session of physiotherapy ordered by the doctor offered some reprieve, but it was not enough for me to face life bravely, not until the day I was presented with pearls of wisdom, which I eventually learnt to wear with a smile.

Providence was clearly at play on the day I was sitting down looking forlorn after a follow-up appointment at the orthopaedic clinic. All of a sudden a nurse approached me, looked me in the eye and told me these golden words: ‘You be your own healer.’ She was the very nurse, who was assisting the doctor, who had seen me and felt that she needed to say that to me once I was out of the room.

Those words of hers never left me but they never really showed their power in one explosive burst either. The words simply lingered in my consciousness, and because I heard them often enough, it became a truth for me. Slowly but surely, I learnt not to underestimate the quiet ways of my inner truth for it was transformative beyond measure.

My chronic, arthritic pain is still there and every day, it poses a challenge. I do not readily welcome what feels like a congregation of fire ants in my neck, which then proceed to run amok down the insides of my arm, but I do learn to ride out these episodes with humility and a greater kindness towards myself.

Having a condition does not mean you live in constant fear of your limitations. You simply learn to condition yourself to a new way of being and living. And so, I still learn.

 

Colleagues who care
Shout out  to my supportive ex-colleagues from Anderson Secondary School. Photo courtesy of Nasyitah.

 

Note: The views expressed above are based solely on the personal experiences of the author. She speaks for herself and scribes to unearth her truths hoping to grow for the better in her own time and space.

 

 

‘Dilettante- Dancer’ In The Dark

A painfully honest self-appraisal on what it was like to learn the age-old art form of Bharatanatyam in a diaspora, fall through the cracks, and pick oneself up bruised but more battle-ready than ever.

 

 

Rama
Lord Rama yearns for Sita.

 

Grovelling in the dark

With my body erect, chest puffed up but not in pride, and fingers configured purposefully into codified gestures to depict a bow and an arrow, I cautiously assumed the pose of the regal Lord Rama, the heroic protagonist of the ancient Indian epic— the Ramayana. Intense concentration to keep count of the beat translated itself into a look of worry on my face. With furrowed brows, my countenance betrayed the faux confidence displayed in my standing posture.

‘Walk in talam,’ my dance teacher had gently commanded after pressing the play button on the stereo system. Mellifluous sounds of the flute filled the entire dance studio but I felt small standing in the corner waiting to make my entrance as the distraught but restrained Lord Rama, who had lost his wife Sita, to the demon-king Ravana in the keerthanamNee Uraipai Hanumane’.

This was one of the items that I was rehearsing as part of a repertoire, which was to be presented as a solo thematic dance recital. In the parlance of Bharatanatyam, an arangetram marks an important milestone in the dancer’s pursuit of this art form as she ascends the stage as a debutante and signals to the dance fraternity that she is committed to honing her craft, and growing with it. Traditionally, one would perform her arangetram after years of seriously studying various elements such as stylised hand gestures, neck and head movements, rhythmic cycles and the permutations its combinations allowed for in the form of tricky, intricate jathis and much more. What Bharatanatyam offered was encyclopaedic in content; it still remains to be an expansive and intriguing world of strictures, ambiguities, and therefore a myriad of possibilities too. Traditionally, a dancer should have also completed learning an entire margam in the format set out by the Tanjore quartet, who were authorities on the art form and established this format in the 18th century. However, my dance journey was anything but conventional, much less traditional. Traditional, to say the least, is a problematic word, and altogether a different ballgame, which I am sure, holds court in the learned discussions of researchers and scholars, but not me for I was a dilettante-dancer in the dark.

Discovering the language of dance

My late dance guru, Smt. Neila Sathyalingam had given me some autonomy in deciding what I would like to explore thematically for my arangetram. It was not a debut performance in the strictest sense for me as I had just about amassed 11 years of experience performing intensively and extensively under the Apsaras Arts banner masquerading as a company dancer with no real credentials by then. Of course, I had not seen myself that way until fairly recently when the realisation of not having learnt nor understood sufficient theory on rhythmic patterns hit me like a brick while I was preparing for my solo dance performance. However, ironically enough, I have to admit that it was during this process of preparing and training for ‘Mrigadaya’ that I began to understand the hastas and appreciate abhinaya in a manner that I was not able to before. I felt as if some divine force above was shining light on my learning and gently guiding me to experience intimately from within what an enchanting and effective language Bharatanatyam was. In spite of my own limitations perceived and otherwise, I had always striven to give the best of myself in every single performance. Every role in a production was something I took seriously and I tried my best to dig deep from within to give more in terms of tangible technical precision and emote from a place of unsettling unfamiliarity. I had always been rather inhibited as a person but Bharatanatyam constantly and relentlessly challenged me to open myself up to the world of unbridled and yet measured emotions. Nevertheless, the roles in the productions became somewhat perfunctory in nature for me as I had not been offered, not even a bit of intellectual nor creative space to grow into a truly thinking performing artist.

Training for ‘Mrigadaya’ was a refreshing change. Maami entertained my idea of wanting to explore this theme, encouraged me to press on and persevere even though I suffered frequently from episodes of chronic arthritic pain, and most importantly, she saw me as a creative being and gave me room to choreograph sections within dance items to flex my artistic muscle. This did not mean that the entire journey was a smooth sailing endeavour. My weaknesses as a dancer were highlighted and amplified under the well-meaning scrutiny of my dance guru, Maami and my dancer teacher-friend, Priyan, whom I affectionately called my ‘thambimaster’. My own insecurities too became more pronounced and wreaked havoc in my mind. It was during this process, that I realised that I was operating on the premise that I was disadvantaged as a dancer on many levels without concrete theoretical understanding of components such as bhavam, ragam, and talam. To be honest, I was overwhelmed having to suddenly confront and come to terms with all the gaps in my learning of the art form thus far. I recoiled and reeled in shock but resolutely chose to rise to the occasion. I was going to show up to every rehearsal by putting on a brave front, soldiering on because I knew that this show had to go on. Every dance step was a step closer towards a source of powerful light, which I knew contained many illuminating truths for me at a personal level. Every time I danced, I understood myself and my place in the world a little better, a little more authentically each time.

Riding out the bumps

I had just turned 19 when I joined Apsaras Arts and my dance experience up until then had only comprised of learning adavus, undergoing one theory and practical examination and performing one item for Navarathri. On hindsight, I have tried to reflect as objectively as I could on how bumpy a ride my journey in dance had been. I had lost 7 years only learning adavus at a particular dance school. I did learn a couple of wonderful things there though. For instance, we began the class by doing warm-up exercises, Surya Namaskar and other yogasanas for a good half an hour. Naturally, the intention to prepare our young bodies for the rigours of the art form was present. It cannot be denied that that it was a well-considered initiative but that did nothing for the fact that I remained largely invisible as a student for all those years. I was one of the handful of 10 year olds in a sea of 5 year olds, for whom the steps had to be repeated ever so frequently on a weekly basis. I lost interest as it became a weekly ritual for me to repeat what I had learnt the weeks before week in and week out. Boredom crept up on me quickly and I went missing for months only to return and learn the same old adavus without any real progress. Clearly, I did not feel challenged. I could not articulate this then so I was only able to rationalise why my positive learning attitude in the beginning had disintegrated into wilful rebellion in my late teens. However, I can appreciate this low point without which I would not have had the impetus to give myself one more chance to learn Bharatanatyam.

I had a taste of it again as a member of the Indian Dance Club in National Junior College. If not for our dance instructor Maalika Girish Panicker’s innovative choreography and encouragement, I would not have realised how much dance meant to me. I was even elected to be President of the club and I loved how my fellow dance peers were intelligent and hardworking young ladies and men, who motivated me offstage and on. The Singapore Youth Festival gave us the opportunity to be driven. We worked hard to receive the accolade of Gold with Honours in 2001. It was a big deal to us and the school.

A couple of years later, in my first year at the National University of Singapore, I joined Apsaras Arts of my own accord. It was one of my first adult decisions. It did not strike me back then that I was already more than a good ten years too late but I remained unfazed. More so than anything else, I was hungry to learn Bharatanatyam. The vigour of my age helped whet my voracious appetite to know more about this mysterious art form. Even the sphinx seemed less mysterious to me. My first introduction to Hindu mythology was through these dance lessons. Bharatanatyam paved the way for me to pick up nuggets of information about a cultural heritage that I had never really taken ownership of. I did not grow up on diet of Hindu mythology and Indian classical literature; this meant that stories from epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana were alien to me. My family hardly visited temples either. I was merely passing off as a Hindu with no real understanding of Vedic knowledge nor its practices. My parents may not have known the importance of a traditional arts education or how invaluable mentorships of a personal nature in this field were, but they were my cheerleaders, my pillars of support. Even if I had been dancing on shaky grounds all along, they were immovable columns of encouragement, who built me up time and time again.

Making peace with pieces of the past

I cannot surely say what avatars Apsaras Arts had assumed as an institution prior to my joining it but I had come in at the time when the swift tidal wave of change for it to transition and transform into a premier performing arts company was already set in motion. Maami, as my late dance guru was affectionately called, asked me to show her what I had previously learnt in my fragmented dance journey fraught with frustration. I showed her some adavus and perhaps, some raw talent was detected but more so than that, my dance teacher did sense a copious amount of enthusiasm and eagerness that was too palpable to ignore. Within a matter of months, I was thrust onto the stage for a performance and while rehearsing for it, I was fortunately singled out for an overseas dance trip within a year of my joining. As much as I remain thankful for all the chances I have had to perform over the years, the truth remains that I had learnt dance without a proper syllabus. For Maami, the real examination was about how well we were able to perform under pressure. I was and am by no means technically brilliant but I tried my best to ape with finesse. I am not here to debate if this was the right approach or not. Neither am I here to play victim but rather liberate myself from the shackles of my own thoughts and debilitating doubts.

Life would have it that I should stumble into the vast world of Bharatanatyam and be besotted with certain aspects of it and so, I must traverse this world to make sense of my place in it. Who is anybody to deny anybody an opportunity to take his or her place in this expansive ocean? I am here and I will carve myself a space as I take agency of my learning.

 

Hanuman
Hanuman sets off for Lanka in search of Sita.

 

Lessons from Lord Hanuman and liberation

In ‘Nee Uraipai Hanumane’, Hanuman was preparing himself to embark on his mission to save Sita from Ashokavanam. I, too, am making myself ready to set off on my own journey to learn and understand Bharatanatyam better. Just as Hanuman was devoted to Lord Rama, I, too, am devoted to making it a part of my life and the lives of others. Although, I am not completely sure in what capacity I will be able to fulfil this mission, I do hold onto the belief that like Hanuman, I will find the strength from within and be guided by it.

When I reinitiated myself into this art form at the age of 19, I had already come from a household and a culture that was divorced from the socio-cultural and political context which Bharatanatyam had originated from. Today, I am a 33-year-old woman, who has her feet planted firmly on foreign soil. I am further away from the proverbial Motherland whose historical and intellectual fecundity gave birth to Bharatanatyam but I am more emotionally connected to her than I have ever been before. The only way forward is for this self-confessed dilettante to stamp her right foot with a thaiya, her left on a thai, and dance herself out of this darkness.

Note: The views expressed above are based solely on the personal experiences of the author. She speaks for herself and scribes to unearth her truths hoping to grow for the better in her own time and space.

Glossary

Bharatanatyam: a well-known south Indian traditional dance form

talam: cyclic rhythms/recurring unit of rhythm

keerthanam: a form of musical composition

Nee Uraipai Hanumane: one of the many songs in Rama Natakam, a musical drama based on the Ramayana

arangetram: debut performance, first appearance on a public platform after completion of a prescribed course of study

jathis: a combination of steps set to different rhythmic patterns

margam: a formatted repertoire

Mrigadaya: A thematic performance centred on the role and symbolic significance of animals in Hinduism, art and culture performed by the author

hastas: hand gestures

abhinaya: the technique of communicating a message to the audience

thambi: younger brother in Tamil

bhavam: a state of mind

ragam: a melodic mode in Indian classical music

adavus: basic units of dance

Navarathri: a festival devoted to the worship of Goddesses in Hinduism

Surya Namaskar: A Sun Salutation, which acts as a warm up routine in Yoga

yogasanas: Yoga poses

Lord Hanuman: the monkey deity in Hinduism known for his loyalty to Lord Rama

Ashokavanam: a historical site in the Ramayana

thaiya thai: rhythmic syllables