Critics' view of the future of Contemporary Dance:
Dr. Sunil Kothari's illustrated talk on 'New directions in Indian dance'
- Sumi Krishnan, Sydney

August 6, 2008

Sunil Kothari,
Geoff Rundle (Woollahra Council Mayor),
Margie Medlin (Critical Path Director)

On the 24 July 2008 at the official launch of Critical Path's new Research Residency Room Program in Sydney, Helen Martin, Critical Path's Project Manager said that the objective of Critical Path is to invigorate dance in Australia, through the creation of the richest possible environment for choreographic research and development. She said the program offers research opportunities to choreographers and dance makers, nurturing diversity within a supportive critical environment. Its purpose is to help artists publish research outcomes in a range of forms such as public forums and seminars, conferences, research papers, web content development, exhibitions and dance sharings and showings.

At the official launch of Critical Path, Dr. Garry Lester and Dr. Sunil Kothari were called to give a talk. Dr. Lester has worked in the area of performance for more than thirty years as a performer, choreographer and teacher, ranging from dance, drama, visual and fine arts. He traced the development of dance ballet from 1920 to modern dance in Australia. He drew upon the concept and influence of Ballet on modern Australian dances. Dr. Sunil Kothari talked about "New Directions in Indian Dance."

Dr. Kothari said that the dialogue between East and West has been going on for a while. He referred to Uday Shankar in particular who he said took his works abroad back in the 1930's. He talked about Uday Shankar's body of works, institutionalizing of dance by Gurudev Rabndranath Tagore and Vallathol Narayana Menon at Santiniketan and Kerala Kalamandalam respectively, and the pioneering work of Rukmini Devi in the field of Bharatanatyam. He showed a rare photograph of Rukmini Devi in a ballet costume, he had obtained from Monash University, Melbourne from the collection of Louise Lightfoot, an Australian dancer who also studied for some time with Rukmini Devi in India in the thirties. Rukmini Devi during one of her travels to Sydney, had taken lessons in ballet under Anna Pavlova's trouper Cleo Nordi, and later on at the suggestion of Pavlova returned to India and took lessons in Bharatanatyam. The rest is history. Today Kalakshetra dancers are all over the world.

In India however a deep seated need in modern dancers to tell the "real story" saw new stories being extolled through classical dance forms. Amongst many were dancers such as Mrinalini Sarabhai, Kumudini Lakhia, Chandralekha, Narendra Sharma, Late Manjushri Chaki Sircar and her daughter Ranjabati Sircar, who created Navanritya based on Tagore's dance style.

Sunil Kothari, Malathi Nagarajan
(C V Chandrasekhar's student) and Sydney's children

Issues like dowry suicides in India have been depicted in dance by Mallika Sarabhai. He mentioned about the shift in the class of dancers and also shift in the theme of dance and new vocabulary of dance in India. He then screened excerpts of Sharira choreographed by Chandralekha in which elements of yoga were incorporated. Of the few excerpts, one on Cricket choreographed by Lata Pada from Toronto, in Bharatanatyam, had an instant appeal to Australian audience and Indians in Australia. Cricket through Bharatanatyam movements was very interesting. An interesting mix of concepts and style. He referred to the modern works of dancers such as Priti Patel and Daksha Sheth who used materials such as ropes and sticks and long flowing fabric to depict a new type of choreography. Interestingly he said that contemporary dance has always been challenged by the alternative interpretations given to it by the viewers more often contrary to that intended by the dancer.

Dr Kothari also talked about the works of Kumudini Lakhia in the style of Kathak. In an article, Kumudini Lakhia herself said this. "Today one finds choreographers from outside India, Germany, France, USA, wanting to weave Indian classical dance into their own work. I have myself collaborated with some of them. Whether the end product is a success or not is irrelevant. The point is that the different dance ideologies of the world have started a dialogue and are now keen to appreciate and approach each other's cultural heritage. It is now time we create an international dance forum, a sharing that can only enrich our thought processes and bring the world of dance closer." (

Kothari however warned that cross cultural works could be successful only when a dancer had mastered the techniques of his or her own style completely before looking at adopting other styles or considering contemporary themes.

With the advancement of the World Wide Web, technological and other tools, the modern contemporary dancer sees opportunities and becomes the catalyst to cross fertilize dance cultures to form new hybrid trends in dance. Inevitably reference to the increasing trend of Bollywood was made. However Kothari was quick to add that whilst there would be no one who can replace some of the great stalwarts, Bollywood dance choreographers have made their mark on the platform of 'Indian modern' dance in India. He referred to the famous dance choreographed by Kathak maestro Birju Maharaj in the movie Devadas. Interestingly he said that so much effort has been put into the choreography of dance in Devadas; however its ultimate result whilst spectacular was also the end result of expert filming and editing.

Painter / Photographer Shiva from Malaysia,
Sunil Kothari, Klaus Krischok (Director, Goethe Institut),
Sarah (Goethe Institut), Anandavalli (Artistic Director
of Lingalayam Dance Co in Sydney)

Kothari concluded the talk on a positive note stating that whilst the study of classical dance was important, necessary and continues, contemporary dance forms are emerging. Change is inevitable and he warned that one must be cautious not to put down these ventures. As a critic he said, "My job is not to throw darts at a dancer and pick on his artistry but to understand and sympathize with his or her creative intentions and see it without prejudice." He said a true dancer sees dance and dance related topics, postures, stories in anything which leads to the origin of new forms of dance and new ways of its telling. Rapid commercialization has resulted in a general fall in standards. However, he said, dancers should and are trying to capture "spiritual" essence that existed say in 'Mandaps.' He referred to the Manipuri style of dancing where dancers dance in the 'Mandap,' a practice that continues to this day. The association of one's relationship to a supreme power through the mode of dance remains a dancer's ultimate aim.

A large number of local Indian dancers and Australian contemporary dancers attended the talk and an interesting general discussion followed after the talk was over. The illustrated talk was organized through the courtesy of Lingalayam Dance Institute and its director, renowned Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam dancer Anandavalli. Margie Medlin, the Director of Critical Path, thanked Dr. Kothari for his brilliant talk.

Sumi Krishnan thanks Dr Kothari for providing salient excerpts from his talk given in Sydney. She is a regular contributor to