Click here for all links

Social media links

'Contemporary Indian Dance - New Creative Choreography in India and the Diaspora' by Ketu H Katrak
- Aniruddhan Vasudevan

June 21, 2012

‘Contemporary Indian Dance - New Creative Choreography in India and the Diaspora,’ by Ketu H Katrak, as part of Studies in International Performance Series edited by Janelle Reinelt and Brian Singleton, published by Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Contemporary dance is a much-maligned form and name in some of the circles I move in. Many staunch traditionalists I know jokingly call it "Kandapadi dance" ("any- which-way dance"). Some of the reasons for this dismissal are rooted in the fact that the label "Contemporary Dance" is invoked in very loose and catch-all kind of ways. Once, I watched a piece of contemporary dance set to the much-abused, mediocre song from the film 'Titanic': "Every night in my dreams..." where the dancer really moved any-which- way suited her. Then there was a recent moment when a bunch of dancers in quasi- Bharatanatyam attire spiced up with diaphanous dupattas did kuditthu-mettu adavus, with all their ankle bells resounding across the auditorium, to a movement from Tchaikovsky. To be fair to the program, it was not announced as contemporary dance, but later I heard the dancers refer to it as "the contemporary section." 

One other reason for the skepticism with which traditionalists view contemporary dance is that they (I have, strategically, othered myself right now!) feel that there is no recognizable grammar to it, a structure you can arrive at that informs the individual works, the "langue" to the "parole," to invoke Ferdinand de Saussure, the famed structuralist linguist. Of course, a form like Bharatanatyam can, with postulations of mythic origins and divine ordinations effectively blocking a proper analysis of the whys of its structure, and with its strategic forgetfulness about its position as a re-invented, re- imagined form with textual and scriptural connections made and solidified anew in the twentieth century, often allow its practitioners to be contemptuous of new and emerging forms that do not have the cushion of such deu ex machina. 

What I hear often as critiques of contemporary dance from those traditionalists who do engage with it are to do with how to read it, what kind of a text it is. "It does not make sense to me," "It is opaque," "I liked it, but it did not move me" - are some of the responses I often hear from friends. These are also some of the responses I made several years ago, before an engagement with literary and performance theory pointed to my biases in reading and receiving. 

Ketu H Katrak's 2011 book 'Contemporary Indian Dance - New Creative Choreography in India and the Diaspora' is a great text for those who are interested not only in gaining a panoramic view of the new engagements that performers in and from India have been making, but also in gleaning useful ways of engaging with specific contemporary performance work. In a counter-intuitive response to the frequent criticism that contemporary dance is unemotional and devoid of rasa in the sense that traditional performance arts deploy it, Katrak suggests that the framework of rasa theory might, in fact, be a very useful tool in reading contemporary dance. She adds a "contemporary resonance of rasa, one that is evoked by artist's self-reflexivity that aims to make the audience both feel and think." 

I feel that this intervention by Katrak is an important one and should not be read either as an attempt to co-opt non-traditional forms of dance into a traditional framework of reading, or as a totalizing gesture that makes rasa theory a metanarrative of sorts (though her theoretical move is not without both those dangers). On the contrary, Katrak's suggestion points to some crucial aspects of contemporary dance. The oft-heard comment about the lack of rasa in the experience of watching a contemporary dance work needs to be deconstructed: it need not mean that rasa was not evoked, but that the rasa was disrupted and fragmented by a range of factors. Katrak allows this hypothesis to emerge from her reading of specific works of celebrated contemporary dancers and choreographers such as Astad Deboo, Shobana Jeyasingh, Chandralekha and Anita Ratnam. 

At one level, Katrak points to how some works of Astad's and Anita's "give full force to one of the navarasas, namely disgust. Their depicting of this emotion is different from the contained nature of representing disgust in classical dance where it is re- inscribed into a mythic frame where good triumphs and evildoers are punished." This suggests that in sustaining a rasa that is dealt with in a cursory manner by traditional performance work, and without resolving/transmuting it into what is considered a higher rasa, contemporary dance can bring reflexivity to the processes of emotional response that we might go through while watching a performance. Also, when "a collage of overlapping emotions from love to sorrow, to fear, to social fawning, to disgust are depicted in quick succession," it disrupts any sustained emotional state and frustrates us by drawing us in only to keep us at bay. Therefore, in an interesting reversal of the commonsensical complaint that such an act of distancing keeps rasa from being evoked, Katrak's hypothesis suggests that it is possible that contemporary dance might, in fact, be consciously working with the principles of rasa to deliberately effect the distance, to create a space of awareness where we can get present to our prejudices, comfort zones and habitual responses.

A key feature of Katrak's book is that she has documented the work and experiences of numerous performers in India and the diaspora in the United States, Canada and England. Far from being an empirical study of performers across the globe, it tries to understand the motivations behind creating new work, the urges behind breaking and forming new relationships with notions of tradition, and the willingness to struggle to find a new way of moving. While it might appear that the term "Contemporary Dance" might be unwieldy in the face of such varied practices, it might be important also to get present to what is primarily our discomfort with how meanings are made and how contained and unified they should be. Relatively free of (some would say "lacking in") the kind of ideological, religious, cultural and stylistic coherence that a traditional art form can produce, and also of the erasures of ideological positions that such an overarching structure can effect, contemporary dance bears new possibilities. In that sense, the question to ask is not whether contemporary dance will achieve a recognizable form with clearly drawn limits and boundaries, but to ask what kind of boundary-drawing, structuring exercises will allow contemporary dance to assert "multiplicity over unitary meanings" (Katrak's use of Bakhtin's concept of "heteroglossia"). 

I would have liked the book to have engaged with the charges of elitism that contemporary dance often faces. While Katrak has positioned contemporary dance work in the context of "growing competition to dance from the popular media of film and television," it is also crucial to see how the more globalized forms of contemporary dance she has examined interact with performance practices that are more local, regional and have concerns specific to life experiences and oppressions that stand outside the Sanskritic traditions as well as the popular and contemporary forms that are discussed in dance writing; those that are often reserved more for anthropological inquiry than for dance studies. Example: the new forms of dance and theatre used by the Aravani transgender community in Tamil Nadu. 

Katrak's book is very useful in mapping the coordinates of contemporary dance practices of certain kinds - those that have positioned themselves in the global dance scene of the English speaking world and in a critical relationship to 'classical' and traditional forms that many of them draw from. With its relying on both readings of specific performance work as well as interviews with artistes, it puts forward a dance-historical scholarship approach that is committed at once to the body and performance as texts, and to the political consciousness that produces it. 

Aniruddhan Vasudevan is a performer and writer based in Chennai.

The book is available at:

Ketu H Katrak, Professor, Department of Drama, University of California, Irvine, can be contacted at


Nice review. Would love to read the book but it is incredibly expensive for an India purse. Wish there will be a less expensive Asian paperback edition soon.
- Anonymous (July 1, 2012)

Post your comment

Unless you wish to remain anonymous, please provide your name and email id when you use the Anonymous profile in the blog to post a comment.  All appropriate comments posted in the blog will also be featured in the site.

Click here for all links
Book Reviews | Home | About | Address Bank | News | Info Centre | Featured Columns