Indian classical dance and the 21st century 
- Aneal Krishnamurthy, VA 

September 16, 2005 

On September 4, 2005, I attended a discussion panel titled "Making Indian Classical Dance Relevant to 21st Century Youth." I found the topic to be thought provoking and I am writing to share my thoughts on the issue. Although I am not a dancer myself, as the husband of a dancer, my interest in Bharatanatyam and other classical Indian dance forms has grown immensely over the last few years. Initially, I started going to dance programs just to accompany my wife but now, my interest has been sparked and I look forward to the possibility of seeing something exquisite. I am constantly curious as to what drives a dancer to such lengths to achieve perfection. I hope my thoughts will be of interest to you and strike a chord with dancers and rasikas alike. 

The Indian Dance Educators Association (IDEA), based in the Washington, DC area, brought together many performers over a two-day festival, "DanCelebration 2005". On the second day, a group of distinguished panelists gathered to discuss the topic at hand. The panel was composed of Dr. Sunil Kothari (the eminent dance historian and critic), Madhavi Mudgal (the world-renowned exponent of the Odissi style), Nirupama and Rajendra (the vibrant dancing duo taking the Kathak style to new heights), Manjari Sinha (the respected dance critic), Dr. Pallabi Chakravorty (an anthropologist) and moderated by Christel Stevens (a local area Bharatanatyam/Manipuri dancer and teacher). 

Each panelist made a short presentation on what each one thought about the relevance of dance to today's youth. I have summarized some of their comments from memory and I sincerely regret any misinterpretation on my part. I should note that although the topic was on making classical dance relevant to youth, the discussion also included debate over the traditional versus contemporary uses of classical dances as well as the use of dance to communicate social issues. Therefore, this article is a summary of all the various topics discussed during the panel session. 

Dr. Chakravorty, an anthropologist by profession and trained Kathak dancer, presented a video clip of her dance ensemble, "Courtyard Dancers," which showed the use of Kathak to create awareness of social issues. The theatrical piece presented was dark in mood and tone and used the rhythms of Kathak to make a somber impact on the audience. Dr. Chakrovorty recounted her own personal struggle with the relevancy of classical dance which led to the use of her classical training to engage her audiences on social issues. 

Dr. Kothari presented a video clip of a Los Angeles-based ensemble which used the Kathak style to portray a game of basketball. In the clip, we could easily recognize the swaying movements and posturing so commonly used by basketball players but interestingly set to the rhythms of Kathak. Dr. Kothari spoke of the growing use of innovation and fusion to keep classical dance relevant to youth today. Madhavi Mudgal spoke with elegance and passion on the beauty and divinity of classical dance. She also spoke of the dedication and hard work required when one decides to learn a classical dance. Nirupama spoke with enthusiasm of the need to bring happiness to the audience through the medium of dance. She spoke about rasanubhavam, the ability to be one with the audience. Finally, Manjari Sinha spoke of her own experiences with classical dance and the joy that classical Indian dance has brought to her life as a critic and also as a dancer. With those short presentations, the discussion was turned over to the audience for questions. 

One question posed was does "relevance" mean relevance to youth as students of dance or as interest in attending classical dance performances? The panel agreed that relevance meant both in terms of learning and watching classical dance. Some dance teachers in the audience lamented the difficulty of encouraging their young students to strive for a deeper connection with the classical dances. An audience member recalled wistfully, the strict way she was taught the fundamentals but that in the current world, the Guru-Sishya system seems to be fighting an uphill battle for survival and is fraught with compromises. An audience member recounted her own dance training and that because she was given such a sound foundation in the fundamentals in her youth, even at a later age, she has continued to dance. 

Another question was whether classical Indian dance can provide relevance in a social and spiritual context for modern youth? The panelists agreed that this connection could be fostered by dance teachers who can effectively convey to their students, the joy and feeling of a deeper connection that dance brings to them. One of Madhavi Mudgal's students articulated that it is not just the responsibility of the teacher to make dance relevant but it is up to the students to find their own inner connection with dance. For example, she said that emotions come from within a student and cannot be taught, no matter how good the teacher. To truly express an emotion, one has to honestly feel it, not just mime it. She described her solitary sessions where she takes herself away to a corner and focuses on the emotions she is trying to portray and then trying to feel them herself. 

An interesting question raised was, if classical dance is transformed into something unrecognizable to suit the tastes of youth today, who will portray the rich cultural history, literature and music that Indian classical dance is filled with? This question prompted the panelists to raise an array of interesting questions. Does modernization of classical dance mean the Westernization of the classical dance forms? Do the classical Indian dance forms need to be reformed in order to continue to have the support of the audiences? Why do people flock to Bollywood dance? One of Madhavi Mudgal's students spoke out and said that a key to relevance is the amount of exposure to classical dances. If all one sees on the television are Bollywood dances, one's horizons may never move beyond that. 

A passionate discussion ensued when Christel Stevens recounted an anecdote of a famous Bharatanatyam dancer who, during a benefit for flood victims, realized that her traditional item on Lord Krishna was not making a connection with the grief stricken audience and changed her program mid-stream to address their sorrow by performing thematic items more "relevant" to the audience. Madhavi Mudgal countered that it is a dancer's job to lift the audience out of their everyday existence and take them away for a brief period of time from the problems of everyday life. For example, a person who is suffering may not want to see more suffering depicted on stage. A few hours of something completely different to their everyday existence may lift the spirits, at least temporarily. Madhavi Mudgal said that perhaps the audience was finding solace in the depiction of Lord Krishna's story. 

Dr. Chakravorty argued that it is neither necessary nor helpful to create an arbitrary division between what is "traditional" and what is "contemporary." She added that beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. Her comment made me think about what beauty really means. Perhaps the focus of the panel was on beauty as depicting happiness but there is so much beauty in the artistic expression of any emotion, even negative ones like sorrow, fear, anger, strength, hate, disgust, frailty etc. When you watch a dancer who has the ability to honestly portray emotion, as rasikas, we connect with the dancer on a human and spiritual level. A dancer succeeds when the audience can see themselves in the changing expressions of a dancer's face. 

Everyone agreed that dance is part of an evolutionary process and what is traditional today was once perhaps modern and revolutionary. Relevance is not something that can be made or forced upon society, it happens as part of an organic process over time. Madhavi Mudgal added that when her guru, the late great Kelucharan Mahapatra began reviving Odissi in the 1950s, what was developed was a reconstruction of various older traditions that existed before British rule in India and the passage of the bill prohibiting temple dancing. So, in a sense, the items choreographed and danced were all new and modern for their time yet now, they have become solidly part of the Odissi tradition. In the same vein, what we think of as traditional Bharatanatyam today, is based on pioneering attempts in the 20th Century to revive the traditions of centuries past. Again, what was presented as tradition was itself an innovative idea and an interpretation of tradition. 

Dr. Kothari added that classical dance should be seen as a spectrum with enough room for all dancers and dance styles. He cautioned, however, that if a dancer presented himself or herself as an exponent of a classical dance form, whether the interpretation was traditional or contemporary, the dancer's responsibility was to exhibit a strong grasp of the fundamental elements of the classical dance form. No matter how much one tries to make something relevant, it is only relevant if it has a sound foundation. One should not dilute the fundamentals of the art form to such an extent as to add relevance to one's students or the audience. 

I worry that by asking how to make classical Indian dance relevant to 21st century, youth presupposes that the classical dance forms are irrelevant. I believe that there is room for classical Indian dances and modernized forms of the dances. In their efforts for validation, dancers who seek to push the boundaries of classical dance should not show disdain for tradition because after all, tradition is where the fundamental aspects of their dance originate. "Traditional" dancers should respect contemporary interpretations because innovation adds to the dance spectrum and makes us all richer by bringing new forms of beauty to our lives. 

Dr. Kothari made the point that mediocrity is one of the key factors in making classical dance irrelevant to youth today. As a rasika, I ask that whether one is a traditional or contemporary dancer, if dance is to continue to be relevant in our modern world and to the youth who will grow up to be dancers and rasikas, one must always present the best of their abilities. There are far too many mediocre programs these days, and when we in the audience see performers whose technique hasn't been perfected and whose expressions are lifeless, our desire to support the classical dance forms slowly starts to fade away. 

The biggest treat for us is to watch someone who is dancing so completely that is clear to us the joy he or she feels by performing. One great performance has the power to inspire. In my case, watching Madhavi Mudgal and her troupe, and Nirupama and Rajendra and their troupe over the two-days of the festival inspired me to write this article. The performances were in such stark contrast to one another. Odissi was presented in a very traditional manner with elegance and subtlety whereas Kathak was presented with energy and verve and sometimes set to non-traditional global rhythms. But, the common element to both performances was the strive for precision and perfection. The dancers were thoroughly captivating and it was clear to everyone in the audience that what they were presenting was the result of countless hours of practice and training. Though their presentations were different, all the dancers honored and paid respect to their classical dance styles by performing close to perfection. Most importantly, they never strayed from exhibiting a comprehensive understanding of the fundamental elements of their respective classical dance styles. 

Dance will only stay relevant as long as it has the power to inspire. My request to all classical dancers and teachers is to keep aspiring to new heights. The future of the Indian classical dances, is in the hands of the dancers who practice them. Through one's perfection, one has the power to transform the audience and themselves. We must never allow classical dance forms to lose their relevancy. The challenge is a difficult one but one that dancers must accept if the classical dances that are loved so much can continue to impact the world in such a profound way. 

Aneal Krishnamurthy is an admirer of the classical Indian dance forms. Although a lawyer by profession, he has been deeply interested in promoting the classical Indian arts in the United States. Through his critical writings, he hopes to share his thoughts on the current state of classical Indian dance as well as the future direction the dance forms may take.