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Contemporary Dance in India
- Dr Sunil Kothari

July 23, 2017

Marg volume 68 # 4, June –September 2017
Edited by Astad Deboo and Ketu H Katrak
Marg Foundation, Mumbai 400001
Price Rs. 350 / $14 (plus postage)
To order

After the publication of New Directions in Indian Dance (Marg vol. 55 No. 2, December 2003 and its reprint in 2005, edited by Dr Sunil Kothari), the major important work on the subject was published by Prof Ketu H Katrak of Irvine University, California: Contemporary Indian Dance, New Creative Choreography in India and the Diaspora (Palgrave Macmilan, UK). It has covered in depth the subject with interviews of major dancers who have been creating contemporary dance within India and Indian Diaspora abroad. Another welcome addition to the writings on Contemporary Dance in India is the critical thinking in: Tilt Pause Shift: Dance Ecologies in India edited by Anita E. Cherian published in November 2016 by the Gati Dance Forum in association with Tulika Books, New Delhi.

The present work under review further probes the many features and challenges facing contemporary dance in India, prominent since the 1980s. It focuses on what makes this style Indian, how does it differ from contemporary dance in the West which has its own history, how are Indian classical dance styles interwoven into contemporary choreography by India's performing artists, discussing if contemporary dance in India is a predominantly urban phenomenon as evident from the number of major practitioners residing in major cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, and Kolkata etc.

Other issues like how do emerging artists in this style train and accomplish cutting edge work, how this work is supported financially and what are the available venues for contemporary dance in India.

The contributors to this special issue are practitioners of contemporary genre. There is also an outstanding biographical article on contemporary dancer Astad Deboo by Bharatanatyam exponent Ramaa Bhardvaj. In an earlier 'About A Dream' by Carol Andrade, a thematic Ad Portfolio, adds to information on Astad Deboo's Astad Deboo Dance Foundation. This 'unstoppable one man wonder dancer' at 70 continues to astound us with his amazing creative choreographic works.

All these contributions make up for sumptuous reading on Contemporary Dance in India. In their introduction, both editors mention that it remains a challenge for many young artists who wish to learn Western movement techniques, and wish to find ways to bring them into contemporary dance language in India.

Paying homage to Chandralekha and her iconic choreography drawing from Bharatanatyam, Yoga, Kalaripayattu martial arts along with a growing hybridity of multiple movement vocabularies and interdisciplinary use of multi- media, masks, theatre techniques and visual arts , the editors draw attention to how dancers weave together these performative elements and arrive after many years at their signature choreographic styles.

Indeed difficult to define this genre of Contemporary Dance, the contributors to this special issue have attempted to spell out from their own experiments, evolutions, innovations, what they think is contemporary dance. Some writers and dancers view 'contemporary' as a reference to a particular period or style, whereas others emphasize that contemporary dance in India must be seen as 'distinct from Bollywood style dancing, a global contemporary phenomenon, with its own purposes , mainly entertainment.'

After an overview of 'Contemporary Dance in India' by Leela Venkataraman, interesting discussions are found in significant issues as addressed by Ranjana Dave. She draws attention to Post –liberalization (post-1980s) when with greater number of artists being able to access and afford dance training in the West, without a classical lineage, but keen to learn 'new' dance language, have found their way to urban dance schools set up by professional dancers which teach mix of jazz, ballet, modern dance and contemporary techniques. The contemporary dance landscape in India is unique in how it is informed by tradition, the socio-political context and a range of global practices within and beyond the performance arts. She has started Dance Dialogues in Mumbai for meetings and discussions to probe these issues further.

Based in Kolkata, Vikram Iynegar, trained in classical Kathak from his childhood under Jaipur gharana veteran dancer Rani Karna, in his essay 'Categorizing Dance: A classic case of Contemporary Confusion' raises several questions: 'What does classical dance have to gain by an engagement with how contemporary dance views the moving body, physical space and accompanying ideologies and political positions.' His works - Across, Not Over; Made in Bangladesh and Shunya Se - are described with critical lens and offer enough explanations to his own queries.

Worldwide known for her initiative of e-portal, Chennai based Anita Ratnam, in her 'Neo Dance in India: A Personal Prism,' through her career as a classical Bharatanatyam dancer to her arrival at what she calls Neo Bharatam, articulates her personal journey culminating in collaboration with choreographers, scholars, musicians, theatre groups, costume designers, and creating her contemporary works like Ma3ka, 7 Graces, Neelam, A Million Sitas. She mentions how she has shifted gears by auditioning and creating a professional group of women to work under Netherland based choreographer Kalpana Raghuraman. The result was Padme, a neo-classical work performed by classical Bharatanatyam and Odissi dancers all in their 20s.

Two of the titles 'Contemporary Classist' and 'Intersectionist' are often used to describe her. But she says she is never boxed by categories or boundaries in what she does and wants to do. Historically, she had started The Other Festival with Ranvir Shah, in 1998 in Chennai, which had launched many a dancer in their career as contemporary dancers. Multi-talented, she has curated three major dance centric conferences from 2011 to 2013 for Natya Darshan - 'Mad and Divine' co-ideated with Ketu H Katrak, 'Epic women', and 'Purush: The Global Dancing Male' with dancer, choreographer Hari Krishnan.

The editors have divided discussion in two sections: Pedagogy, Performances, Festivals and Looking Ahead. Mandeep Raikhy under former title speaks of dance education in India by clarifying, problematizing, drawing relationships between terms as 'contemporary', 'choreography' and 'criticality' in the context of dance today. Known for his landmark works, Inhabited Geometry (2010), A Male Ant has straight antennae (2013), and Queen Size (2016), he has trained in London with Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, and is currently Managing Director at Gati Dance Forum in New Delhi.

He has arrived at few principles that allow him and dancers working with him to create new frameworks for transferring information, knowledge and ideas related to dance. He finds nomenclature and definitions to be a rich source for new questions, parameters, and paradigms. He says 'defining, re-defining, un-defining and problematizing concepts such as 'choreography', 'contemporary' and 'Indian' lies at the heart of his practice and discourse today.'

Madhu Nataraj in 'Natya and STEM Dance Kampni' asserts that her institution is known for its belief in engaging recognizably Indian movement aesthetic to create contemporary Indian dance vocabulary. Tracing her journey after she returned from New York in 1995, after getting exposed to work in contemporary and modern dance studios, she established STEM Dance Kampni, STEM standing for Space, Time, Energy, Movement…the precepts of choreography. Daughter of legendary Kathak dancer Maya Rao, who had trained under Shambhu Maharaj and Sunder Prasad, Maya had unique opportunity to learn choreography in the Soviet methodology in Moscow.

So it was natural for Madhu to branch out after having thoroughly trained in Kathak to explore avenues for establishing essentially an Indian dance vocabulary for contemporary Indian dance. She revisited Hatha yoga, Kalaripayattu, and Thang Ta with her newfound love for Limone technique and slowly a distinct alphabet began to emerge. She believes that dance cannot exist in isolation and collaboration has been the foundation of their signature style. In past two decades Kampni has commissioned designers, musicians, composers, writers, dance therapists, film makers, to create collaborative works.

Joining hands with Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography, India's only college offering a professional graduation in choreography, in 2005 it became Natya and STEM Dance Kampni, where tradition and modernity exist. With around 75 choreographic works and tours in over 20 countries their most recent project is the creation of an interactive dance on canvas choreography in collaboration with artist S.G. Vasudev.

Another major institution in Bangalore for contemporary dance is artistic director, dancer and choreographer Jayachandran Palazhy's Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts. Rowshini Karunanithi is Manager, Project Development and Public Relations Officer at Attakkalari. She is committed to widen the reach of contemporary performing arts in different arenas. With her intimate working of the institution she has given an overall view and working of Attakkalari with its multifarious activities including Dance and Movement Arts Education, inter-disciplinary arts practices, healthy life styles and evolution of an inclusive society. It is an organization that has meaningfully garnered knowledge and wisdom from our rich physical and performance traditions on the one hand, and the latest information and skills created elsewhere in the world, on the other, bringing these vital components together to develop a unique Indian contemporary movement idiom. It also provides holistic education for students, ensuring their comprehensive and wholesome development as young artists.

Of its many interlinked programmes including Diploma in Movement Arts and Mixed Media,, internationally reputed Attakkalari Repertory Company, TransMedia Technologies, FACETS Choreography Residency and the Attakkalari India Biennial, one of South Asia's biggest festivals of contemporary dance and digital arts, bringing 200 artists across 25 countries to Bangalore, Attakkalari has gained indisputable relevance today when there is a huge resurgence of dance activities in India.

Jayachandran believes that for young people to make their careers economically viable there is need for structured, good quality training facilities and infrastructure for creating as well as performing new works, besides developing avenues for teaching. Attakkalari has a full time Diploma Course for this. Soon they are planning to have a third year and offer the program as Bachelor's degree. Attakkalari Mobile Academy for past two decades has spread dance education at schools, colleges, corporate houses and the community. It serves Education Outreach Programme by travelling within Bangalore and outside.

Prakriti Foundation of Ranvir Shah in Chennai has had vast exposure and experience in watching and co-curating with Anita Ratnam 'The Other Festival', which later on has resulted in his initiative of The Park's New Festival. He has also started with help of Karthika Nair, poet and dance producer based in France, Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance Award about five years ago. It offers a small purse to a young choreographer /company for a work in progress, to be completed within a year, with mentoring from an international company. The productions are showcased in The Park's New Festival, which is India's only private national performing arts festival that presents works across six major metros of India. And with help of Karthika Nair it aims at its presentation internationally.

The world of contemporary dance still operates in isolation, Ranvir feels and quotes cultural commentator Sadanand Menon: 'It means standing in a "critical" relation to established practice.' Ranvir avers: 'Are we in the process of creating a contemporary Indian Dance community?' 'Are there spaces to rehearse?' 'What are the dance community's collective aspirations?' Contemporary dance in India is a close reflection of our moment in cultural history: troubled, yet fertile and full of promise.

Arundhati Subramaniam's account of curating dance at NCPA throws light on what she concludes: 'My attempt was to establish the spirit of inclusiveness, to affirm a direction that recognized the uniquely symbolic nature of Indian dance - one in which purism and innovation, tradition and the individual talent are not mutually exclusive but part of a rich and fertile continuum.' which is an online resource, founded by Dr. Anita Ratnam 16 years ago, is a go to site for information on Indian dance artists, events and publicized activities from all over the globe. Lalitha Venkat in her role as Content Editor, having overseen the website, observes that it provides several examples of artists and companies from India and the global Diaspora, who have contributed to an evolving understanding of contemporary Indian dance. gives information about various contemporary Indian dancers and companies from India and abroad. The Indian Diaspora, for a nominal annual contribution get their monthly activities publicized in the Narthaki website and its popular monthly newsletter. She rightly observes that the reviews of contemporary Indian dance are few since there are hardly any writers equipped to critique these performances knowledgeably and from a critical standpoint. The need of the hour is informed critics whose writings can increase awareness of contemporary Indian dance. Despite social media, Whatsapp, Facebook, the responders are a scattered lot from across the globe and it does not translate into full house for their work. However one cannot deny the power of internet, as the world is continuously shrinking, but one requires a curious critical mind to learn to truly appreciate the complexities of both 'classical' and 'contemporary' Indian dance.

Under Looking Ahead section, Padmini Chettur, who had worked with Chandralekha for several years and in several productions, has expressed her worries and concerns about learning Western movements from standard schools offering contemporary dance, which results in mere watered down version of a Western dictate. Not opposed to adding movement vocabulary from the West, she has posed right questions: 'Is there a way to re-politicize minds of young dancers?' 'Can the Western systems be questioned and become a tool rather than a bible?' 'Can we for a moment pause and look at ourselves and stop our import of dance, dance competitions and residencies as the only way to encourage the practice?'

Padmini mentions that in the present climate of the country at a time when the Ministry of Culture talks of "cultural pollution", it is perhaps more difficult to have the conversation about what is "pure", what is "Indian", what is "Western" and what is not. She feels that the discourse is to do with decolonization- not a blind rejection of Western physical knowledge systems. She cautions that the economic support from the West has to be viewed from the point of view that the partnership with them has to be on our own terms and not as a means for Western dance spaces to expand their markets or even to invade the intellectual dance space of developing dance scene. Let us look forward and imagine our own future and mould this ourselves; if we do not, it will be moulded for us.

In conversation with Rakesh Khanna, who studied contemporary music at the University of California, Santa Cruz, before switching to maths and moving to Chennai, where he co-founded alternative publishing house Blaft in 2007, Preethi Athreya, exploring dance speaks about her work 'Conditions of Carriage' in which lot of jumping is involved. After a long discussion in which references are made to Conway's Game of Life, symmetries of the 10x10 grid or arrangement of polyominoes, the process is clearly explained by Preethi. But those not familiar with these aspects will find it difficult to comprehend it. In the end she concludes about body by what Ram Bapat says: 'We have to act from the body today because our bodies are being stolen from us. Capitalism allows the portrayal of the body, in the performing arts, etc., but never allows us to have a functioning real body. Because that body is subversive. That body is beyond their capacity to control. They want bodies as safety valves, and they want bodies as automatons. With our dead bodies, we carry dead democracies.' Not very easy to follow, but one can sense what she means. In the way that arts are fast developing in a globalized economy, we find ourselves in a market- driven society that values the body only if it is yoked to the cause of profit making.

Surjit Nongmeikapam from Imphal is profiled by journalist James Khangenbam. This Manipuri artist after studying for BA Choreography from Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography in Bangalore, when trying to create his own venture, found his creative concepts changed after attending a ten week summer dance residency at Gati Dance Forum in 2011. He returned to Manipur and has been organizing workshops with his mentors like Karolin Ken from Sweden, Hip Hop dancer Prosenjit Guy Kundu from USA, Butoh dancers Agu Tara, Takao Kawaguchi from Japan and light designer Ryoyo Fudetani. In words of James Khangenbam, 'Like fingerprints that differ from one person to another, contemporary dance movement is unique for each individual.' Surjit is a pioneer of the contemporary dance movement in Manipur, expressing current concerns.

Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy from Bangalore poses questions: 'What is Indian in contemporary dance from India?' 'What is the role of contemporary dance?' 'Do we, as art makers relate to the society?' 'How do we find a place in a system that perceives dance as either tradition or entertainment?' 'Can we develop a system that encourages critical thinking?' 'Can contemporary dance be performed in rural India?' He wishes that through healthy debate and an understanding of the above inquiries to be able to think through a way to discover a voice that is particular to this region and time, which concentrates on present-day conditions and influences.

In last article 'Conclusion,' the editors deal with multipronged problems that require different solutions. The funding reality is bleak as classical dance is being favored by government agencies. Increasingly dance companies rely for their survival on corporate funding, presenting shows for business clients. Funding challenges are often met with grants from Max Muller Bhavan, Royal Norwegian Embassy, and rarely by Sangeet Natak Akademi. Gati Dance Forum raised '1.5 million rupees through successful crowd funding campaign,' which gives one hope that there are alternative means to raise funds.

New Degree courses have started at Ambedkar University and Ashoka University, both near Delhi, which focus on contemporary dance and performance aesthetics. Today many youngsters are drawn to Bollywood and some take classes in both classical styles and Bollywood dance. Bollywood style entertainment can pay lakhs of rupees for multimedia spectacles but they are a far cry from contemporary dance as it has been discussed. The editors conclude that 'nonetheless, individual creativity, the calling to build new movement vocabularies and the increasing professionalization of the arts scene in the tech-savvy India gives us hope for future endeavours'.

In keeping with Marg's established high standards, the designing of this special issue by the ace designer Aurobind Patel and lay out by T.V. Narayan, with excellent photographs of contemporary dance works by several renowned photographers makes the issue visually rich, giving glimpses of works of prominent dancers and choreographers. It indeed is a collector's item.

Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and critic. He is honored with Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Senior Critic Award from Dance Critics Association, NYC.

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