I. The Library
I know I’ve posted about the vintage films I’ve been able to find at the New York Public Library’s Mid-Manhattan branch, but I am not sure I’ve given an appropriate tribute to the NYPL’s Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. I have found a very good bunch of books at this library, and I am never disappointed by it.
I know that the Library for the Performing Arts was given deserved praise in an a blog post a couple of years ago – in Cinema Nryta Gharana, that is, where Cassidy Minai talked about her once-in-a-lifetime (so far) trip there, when she spent a whole day researching the library’s archives with Ragothaman of Bharatanatyam and the World Wide Web. I actually met them during that visit, but I arrived only for the last half hour, which is the usual amount of time that I give myself.
I will have to set aside a good several hours for that library sometime. It is a very nice environment to be in, much more aesthetically pleasing and comfortable than the branch at Midtown (as one would expect, since it is at Lincoln Center). But my visits usually end up being for no more than half an hour (and sometimes less than that) because I always end up rushing in too late after having to do other things and underestimating the time I would have and then having to check my stuff out in a hurry because it’s closing time. The “check my stuff out” part of that is also something significantly different from the experience of someone who goes there to research. I have spent time in the research room upstairs once in a long while (again, without giving myself enough time), but my main purpose for going there usually is to rush in to get something that I can read at home or, more importantly, read on the buses and subways. And, much to my surprise, even in those rushed visits, I always find good things.
II. The Books
Possibly by coincidence – or maybe as cause and effect – my increase in visits to the Library for the Performing Arts has coincided with my desire to try to contribute a little more space on this blog to talking about things that I read. Of course, this is mainly a music, film, and dance blog, but sometimes my knowledge about all these things gets enhanced by a lot of reading, and sometimes it actually comes from old fashioned hard copy with a nice cover and a spine. So, I’d like to devote the second half of this post to just a few books that I have picked up at this library in the past year. These are not all books about Indian films (in fact, only one is, and it’s my least favorite), but three out of the four are mostly about Indian dance (and dancers), which I often consider to be just as important.
Actually, the first book that I want to write about discusses Indian dance and dancers in ways that are not only important but also unique…
1. Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labor by Priya Srinivasan: I had been planning to write a more full review of this book, and one day I will. But I need to set aside the time to write a review that will do it justice, because I was highly impressed by much of the splendid writing as well as the fascinating mix of social themes and the sometimes dazzling leaps of internal thought association. The book centers on a century or so of the social history of Indian classical dancers visiting the United States, performing in this country, and immigrating here (with different levels of difficulty, depending on the time in history). In its relation of that social history, it delves quite a lot into how much Indian classical dancing in the U.S. is a kind of immigrant labor (for the most part), unique in special ways but also very much like other kinds of immigrant labor. Sometimes the analysis touches on Marxism (even paraphrasing lines from Capital at one point), but other times, Srinivasan refers to the ideas of various more contemporary or postmodern social theorists who’ve written about national and ethnic identities.
One good chunk of the book actually is a kind of social mystery story, involving a search for the true roots of the dances of Ruth St. Denis, especially the sources of her dance education. The solution to this mystery turns out to be very different from the usual legends surrounding Ruth St. Denis; in fact, it turns into a kind of expose revealing likely blatant appropriation. (The nature of that appropriation is cultural and then some: We learn that some male Indian dancers who apparently tutored St. Denis were not at all recognized for the effort and were probably paid poorly and employed under bad conditions. The story does not reflect well on this pioneer of American modern dance.)
[Ruth St. Denis]
The chapter about St. Denis probably contains the most interesting factual content in this book, but the quality of the book comes less from the facts it relates than from Srinivasan’s imaginative analytical observations, which she often relates as thoughts that came into her mind while she was involved in very unspectacular activities, such as researching in the library, buying a sari, or watching a colleague’s dance performance. (A dance performance can be spectacular to watch, but she relates one instance in which she was actually half asleep while watching one, and she shows how her mind drifted in a half-dreamlike state into very interesting range of memories and associations.) Once in a while, the writing gets a bit too academic, but it seems that this was done deliberately in order to satisfy the demands of colleagues or maybe “superiors” from the university (something that I have seen happen a few times before). Fortunately, though, there is little of the repetition that we see in other academic works. The writing is surprisingly economical, as though Ms. Srinivasan really did contemplate the meaning and usefulness of every word.
Sometime in the future, when I am able to take time to review the book more thoroughly, I will bring out a bunch of quotes to illustrate why I like the writing here so much. But right now – especially since I am trying to stick to (relatively) short reviews – you’ll have to take my word for it – and/or try to find a copy of the book to look at, yourself, which I highly recommend.
2. Gods Who Dance by Ted Shawn: Speaking of Ruth St. Denis, I was pleased to find this book written in the mid to late 1920s by Ted Shawn, Ms. St. Denis’ then-husband as well as partner in dance and choreography. It is a somewhat quaint chronicle by Shawn of a tour with St. Denis’ dance company through Asia, North Africa, and Spain. A theme runs through the book about how all these cultures had dancing gods because dance was the first great art form of civilization (or something like that), but it’s related pretty minimally and is prominent only in the first chapter, when Shawn talks a little about the dancing god Shiva. There are three chapters focused specifically on dances on the Indian mainland and a couple of more chapters on related countries (such as the one that was called Ceylon at the time). Out of all the dances, Shawn seemed to be most disappointed in the “nautch girls” of North India, probably because he expected so much of them (they had been a big inspiration for his work with Ruth St. Denis). Also, it’s clear that he wrote this book prior to the great 20th century revival of Indian classical dance and the production of so many films that featured it.
Shawn seems to have the most affection for Adivasi dancers such as the Santals and Kurukhs, as well as for some of the Devadasis in the Hindu temples. It’s clear that he has greater affection for dancers from societies that he considers more primitive, and in his descriptions of the Adivasi dancers, he clearly praises these tribes in terms of their being noble savages. His descriptions would be considered politically incorrect in the present day, but anybody reading this book will be very much aware that it’s a product of its times, and these descriptions add to the quaintness. Additionally, Shawn expresses a sense of wonder at the sight of all these dances that was probably very different from what any famous American dancer/choreographer would feel today, due to the fact today, any one of us (famous or not) could find these traditional dances on a video, or, if we’re lucky, witness them in some “global” show on a stage. Shawn actually was a good writer overall, so when we read his expressions of wonder, the wonder becomes contagious, helping to make many parts of this book enjoyable.
3. Indian Film by Erik Barnouw and S. Krishnaswamy: This is apparently a famous book. My blogging and Facebook friend Surjit Singh said that it was considered the main academic source on Indian films before a “flood” of other academic works that occurred in recent decades. It does contain a lot of information, but I found the writing to be very dry, and the book is cluttered with too many intricate details about the economics of the industry. I actually am someone who is interested in how the workers fare in any industry (hence my strong interest in the approach of Sweating Saris), but I am not that captivated by the sight of tedious charts showing the proportion of money going to each kind of worker and other charts listing every production company for numerous different languages and the company’s output, etc. Actually, I could have gotten more interested if the writing around those charts had some more life to it. I was happy to see details about some of the developing trends in periods that most interested me, like the ‘30s and ‘40s (and these decades are also the most extensively chronicled, even though this book was written in the early ‘60s). I was therefore glad to get all the information that I got from it, but at the same time, I wasn’t that unhappy when I had to part with it to check it back into the library.
4. Kathak by Shovana Narayan. This is actually one of several in a small series, Dances of India, published by Wisdom Tree. I saw some others in the series, and each was in the same nicely put together format, combining the text with very pretty photos by Avinash Pasricha. I flipped through the book on Bharatanatyam, but the Kathak edition was the one that caught my attention the most. Partly, I guess it is because I know about the author (she is renowned) and I had watched videos of her dances. But part of the reason is that Kathak really has become my favorite Indian classical dance, and I am very happy to learn all I can about it. The book informs about Kathak in a direct and basic way: It tells about the different features of the dance, and it also tells a little about the history. I must admit that I don’t remember any high points in the writing – no particular passages that really impressed me, etc. – but maybe that is partly because I borrowed this book close to a year ago, before all the others that I’m mentioning here. On the other hand, I know that I did learn from it. Shovana Narayan has apparently written quite a few books on Indian dance, so obviously, a good number of people like to read her (no doubt including some of the good number who like to see her dance). Thinking about this, I guess I would like to see some of the other books that she’s written. Maybe I will find them in future trips to this excellent library, where I will try, at least once, to set aside a more substantial amount of time to browse and even do research.