Glimpses into the past, present, and future of solo dance 
- Ketu Katrak 
Photos: Miles Brokenshire 

June 20, 2010

A provocative title 'Solo Dance' catches our imagination during an excellent Symposium  (June 4-5, 2010) exploring "Perspectives from South India and Beyond", presented in Toronto, Canada, by InDance in collaboration with the Royal Ontario Museum and Friends of South Asia. The gathering included dancers, choreographers, and scholars from India, North America, and Europe. This event, distinctive in its careful curatorial organization, was a realization of the vision of Hari Krishnan, Artistic Director of InDance and Davesh Soneji, scholar of South Indian history, both deeply knowledgeable about solo dance from South India, "particularly in its manifestation" notes Krishnan in the Symposium booklet, "as Bharatanatyam [that has] emerged as a global signifier of South Asian culture." The Symposium was delightfully balanced between performances of present day Bharatanatyam and Contemporary Indian dance, and scholarly papers traversing the history of devadasi dance in the 19th and 20th centuries including its transformation by nationalist and Brahmin influences. Dancers from India and North America appropriately had the last word in a closing Plenary where they shared their processes of creative choreography, and discussed challenges and rewards of doing solo work in the late 20th and 21st centuries. 

Saskia Kersenboom
A profound sense of reverence opened the Symposium with "the first songs (and ritual dances) greeting the gods" in the temple, rendered expressively by Saskia Kersenboom, who has studied the repertoire (for nearly twenty years) from P Ranganayaki, dedicated to the Murugan temple in Tiruttani (Tamilnadu, South India) in 1931. Ms. Kersenboom conveyed a deeply devotional feeling with gentle lyrics, taking the audience through the daily rituals punctuating different times of the day until nightfall when she sang the gods to sleep with the sweet lallis (lullabies). 

The tone was set for the Symposium's showcasing of solo performing artists, and the many-faceted discussions of hereditary devadasis as the original custodians of music and dance. The Keynote by Professor Janet O'Shea, two Special Sessions by noted musicologist scholar, BM Sundram, and dance critic Sunil Kothari, three panels with nine speakers covered a rich terrain of well-researched papers with accompanying visuals. 

O'Shea addressed the complex terrain of solo dance usually associated with tradition, and group/ensemble work with innovation or experimentation. She both investigated and challenged these categories and examined competing aesthetics facing solo dance in the 21st century. Dr. Sundaram recounted anecdotes of meeting devadasis, including their resistance to unfair branding of their profession and their efforts to fight the 1947 legislation banning their practice. Although they did not succeed, Dr. Sundaram drew attention to their "radical forms of resistance and artistic virtuosity." Kothari's screening of Venkatalakshamma's abhinaya - a devadasi from Karnataka, provided rare visual documentation of how solo dance "was preserved and supported by the ruling elite of Mysore."

Anita Ratnam
Patricia Beaman
Solo dance performance by Anita Ratnam in a spell-binding 15-minute version of her longer piece, 7 Graces that references the goddess Tara of Tibet, and evokes the "feminine transcendental" was introduced by Krishnan as "non-linear, using mythology as metaphor, even abstracting mythology and movement as maps to navigate inroads into new movement and contemporary sensibility." A neo-baroque solo by Patricia Beaman, Accumulating Venus uniquely "deconstructed the Passacaglia de Venus (1725)" as noted in the program, "juxtaposed with modern themes of celebrity, rejection, sensuality and power." Leela Samson's talk, 'Reflections on my Journey' was interspersed by a moving performance of her Bharatanatyam choreography including a dance to a North Indian thumri
Leela Samson
Other memorable performances included a "Plenary dance performance of Padams and Javalis: Solo dance as crafted by T Balasaraswati," rendered by a senior disciple, Shyamala. Bala's unique abhinaya style where the soloist moves with the talam even as she interprets the lyric poetry was exquisitely brought to life via Shyamala's flowing abhinaya, and ease of moving with the different talams. Another performance highlight was InDance's presentation of "Nineteenth-century solo dance repertoire in the twenty-first century," honoring the memory of devadasi dance with live orchestra wherein scholar Soneji wore his nattuvanar "hat" most ably. It was heartening to see Krishnan's rigorously trained and expressive multiethnic dancers, present five solos from the devadasi repertoire learnt by Krishnan from hereditary performers. Indeed, despite legislation to eliminate devadasi dance, it has survived. An added delight was to see Krishnan himself dance with Srividya Natarajan in an energetic choreography of solo dance re-interpreted as a duet, a successful "choreographic experiment pushing the form of the svarajati." Krishnan introduced (with power-point) each dance item's technique, time-period, and composer with keenly researched historical material. 
Srividya Natarajan and Hari Krishnan 
in Chakravakam Svarajati
inDance's Hiroshi Miyamoto
in Kaivara Prabandham
Among the nine scholarly papers, a few made original contributions to dance scholarship such as Joep Bor and Tiziana Leucci's fascinating discussion of "The European performances of five devadasis in 1838 and 1839." Bor and Leucci traced the devadasis' 18-month journey (with three musicians) from a Vishnu temple in Pondicherry brought to France by impresario EC Tardivel. As noted in the Symposium brochure, they were "billed as the 'real' Bayaderes or Priestesses of Pondicherry" landing in Bordeaux on July 24, 1838, the first devadasis to travel to Europe, dancing for the French royal family at the Tuilleries and becoming "instant celebrities." Bor and Leucci's extensive archival research into articles and newspaper reviews conveyed positive ("they dance not only with the feet but the whole body") and negative ("they speak a language in their dance resembling that of the deaf and dumb in gestures") impressions of the devadasis during the Orientalist vogue in Paris of the 1830s, and their influence on major French ballerina Marie Taglioni, even Anna Pavlova. Their impact continued even after they left Europe.
inDance's Nalin Bisnath in Kuravanji
inDance's Shobana Raveendran in Salam Daru
inDance's Sreyashi Chakraborti in Modi
inDance's Vinod Shankar in Jatisvaram
Davesh Soneji, in "Salon to cinema: Telugu Javalis in colonial South India" discussed the origins of the javali, as "a musical and literary form" in the 19th century Mysore court. Javalis in Telugu and Kannada languages were "modern songs" as noted in the program, "modeled on the older Telugu padam genre . . . performed by devadasi-courtesans during salon performances patronized by elite Brahmins and landowning communities." Soneji noted a fascinating historical detail - many javali composers were in the colonial civil service as clerks or postal workers. Although the javali's life was short, they were performed in early Telugu cinema. Soneji made a useful scholarly intervention in using the words "devadasi / courtesan" interchangeably, thereby asserting a sense of solidarity among South and North Indian artistes who performed monumental service in preserving the arts. Kersenboom added that not all devadasis were dedicated to temples and that it is important to underline the prayoga (environment, context) of the temples with many-faceted duties.

"Twentieth century shifts in solo dance" panel included Teresa Hubel's useful historical analysis about "the suppression (though not the destruction) of the matrilineal culture of the dancing women of South India," its transformation into middle-class notions of femininity that persist today even in the diapsora. Srividhya Natarajan discussed "the social and psychic dimensions of the relationship between the nattuvanar dance teacher"  and a feminist student, also noting caste and class hierarchies. Anne-Marie Gaston's "Living the transformations in Bharatanatyam from 1964 to the present" shared research on solo dancers moving from Chennai to Delhi in the 1970s where they encountered the synergy of different Indian dance styles. 

Symposium group
The final panel, "Reflections on Contemporary solo dance, identity, and selfhood" included papers by Ketu Katrak analyzing the interplay of dance and theatre in the work of Los Angeles based Post-Natyam Collective's artist Shyamala Moorty; by Chitra Sundaram on South Asian dance in Britain having become "a spectacle." Sundaram noted Shobana Jeyasingh's major contributions in contemporizing Bharatanatyam that paved the way for Akram Khan's "paradigm-shifting" movement work. Rathna Kumar delineated her dance journey for 35 years in Houston, Texas and the increasing requests for group dance, short items, and Bollywood style dance.

Overall, the Symposium was an exhilarating experience of two packed days with transcendent moments of joy in witnessing performances and path-breaking intellectual challenges of scholarly discourse and discussion. As a participant, I would eagerly welcome a follow-up Symposium on the rich history of Indian solo dance that enlightens our current performance practice and scholarship in the 21st century. 

Ketu H Katrak, University of California, Irvine.