What is Tradition?

Trained in the classical Indian dance forms of Mohiniyattam and Bharatanatyam, Raina and Govind will be teaching their respective art forms at Studio J. Whilst deeply in love with and immersed in the traditional aspects of their training, ‘What really is tradition?’ is a question that Raina Peterson and Govind Pillai often ask.
In the first of this 2-part series, Govind describes his dance practice and how he aims to reinterpret traditions through dance performance and teaching.


What is Tradition? By Govind Pillai

The dance practice that Raina and I focus on is perhaps best described as a tree with ancient roots and fresh new leaves. Our roots are deeply planted in a rich classical Indian dance tradition where the soil is teaming with nutrients and minerals – the learnings from thousands of years of dance wisdom planted by our cultural ancestors. We love standing here, in that soil, it’s where we belong. We teach from here, we belong here, we feel safest here. But from here – we sprout new leaves as we experiment with learnings from other cultures, more modern times and our own life stories.
I really believe that challenging tradition ‘gets you closer to its soul’ and opens up ‘new ways of doing things’. To elaborate further, it’s a bit like a delicious baked cauliflower recipe of my mum’s. Like any old tradition, there was always a bit of mystery about what lay underneath that made this so delicious! One day I embarked on learning the recipe from amma. Getting closer to and learning its composition made me start thinking “yes THAT’s what makes this delicious….but ….WHAT if I replaced the cumin seeds with aniseed which I had only recently started cooking with? How about doing this whole step at a different point in time, or perhaps in more modern equipment – would that create something I might like better?
When we expose the heart of something old that we love, I feel there is an urge to see if we can somehow make it even better by bringing in something new that we have learnt ourselves. Perhaps this is the very reason so many traditions have changed over time, passing from one generation to another. We are all trying to make them better, and more relevant to our lives today, and that’s OK.

Govind is trained in Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance form from Tamil Nadu, and Raina is trained in Mohiniyattam, which originates in Kerala. The two styles are quite distinct: Mohiniyattam comprises of slow, circular, sinuous movements while Bharatanatyam tends to present with lines, angular formations and pronounced rhythm. There are certain structural similarities between the two styles, and working together has challenged us both to find ways to be synchronous (and create positive tension), seeking harmony between the sharpness of Bharatanatyam and the roundness of Mohiniyattam.

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