Thursday, November 25, 2010

Demolishing Dichotomy: The Battle between Classical and Contemporary dance in India

Simmering to the surface slowly but surely within the world of Indian dance, is a full-fledged battle between classical dance and contemporary dance. With eyes and ears open, wherever I go, I observe walls being erected, not demolished. This dichotomy strives only to destroy the future of dance and dancers in India because it further divides an already fragmented community, and creates unnecessary disunity and distrust, making any hope for a supportive and generous community of dancers, less of a reality.

Time and again, classical dancers in Delhi have questioned the need for Indian contemporary dance. The argument is poor – We have so much in our traditions, why do we need contemporary dance? It is akin to saying – we have such wonderful black-and-white films, why do we need film in colour? But surprisingly, I find many contemporary dancers being equally closed-minded about classical dance, turning their noses up at the many years of training and hard work that classical dancers go through.

And thus, the dichotomy becomes normalized - it is not uncommon to hear a narrow-minded classical dancer say – ‘Contemporary dance is just too experimental and arbitrary. There are no rules, dancers just go up there without any formal training, perform anything, and call it dance.’ Equally common is the complaint of an arrogant contemporary dancer – ‘Classical dance is so boring. It’s so technical and rigid. There is no room for creativity and improvisation. It’s pretty and all, but it’s hollow.’

I find both viewpoints equally ignorant, ill-informed and prejudiced. I also find the rate at which the dichotomy is getting consolidated highly alarming. I am trained primarily in Bharatanatyam. But having trained in other forms, and having researched a little on dance, as I came to question several things about dance and the systems in place within dance, I found myself more grounded because I was more aware. But I also felt lost, especially as I became increasingly aware that people believed in this dichotomy between classical and contemporary – Where did I fit in? Was I classical? Was I contemporary? Why couldn’t I be both, or neither? A lonely place to be, I found myself perhaps too classical for contemporary dance and too contemporary for classical dance in India.

Upon realizing that I possibly lived and danced in this limbo-like space, it became imperative for me to examine and understand how important, necessary and justified this dichotomy between classical and contemporary really is. What I found was that this dichotomy is easily demolished, and should be.

I attempted to answer two questions I set for myself in the quest to demolish dichotomy – One, what makes something classical or contemporary? And two, if they are indeed not quite so dichotomous (a hypothesis I attempt to prove in the course of this article), then why does this binary exist so rigidly? 
Leela Samson

Classical implies several things – when we speak of the classics, we often refer to the ‘ancient’, and traditional. We also associate it with religion in India. Classical art is also often seen as quite literal. Ballet is often prefixed with the term ‘classical’, and Bharatanatyam is considered a classical Indian dance form.

Astad Deboo

Then, what about contemporary dance? As was pointed out to me by a well-known choreographer recently, contemporary dance does not have a permanent code. Arguably, it has several definitions and forms, but the possible common threads that run through it include going beyond the classical and traditional, and creating something modern and not ancient. It can also be defined as abstract and not literal. In India, there has been a move away from the ‘classical’ for many years now, as dancers through the years have explored different methods, intentions and directions for Indian dance.

Having examined the possible explanations of classical and contemporary, the dichotomy between the classical and contemporary may seem obvious at first, and even justified – the former is ancient, the latter is not. One is literal, the other abstract. One is a reaffirmation of traditional values, the other is a breaking away from them. The former has religious affiliations, the latter occupies a more ‘secular’ space. But upon deeper analysis, it becomes clear that the lines separating the two are not clear and sharp, but really quite blurry.

Bharatanatyam has a complex and contested history, but is arguably classical and contemporary at once. The myth that Bharatanatyam is an ancient traditional dance form has been shattered by many scholars before I did so in my master’s thesis earlier this year. It is not an uncontested claim. But going by the rough definition of ‘classical’ in the above paragraph, Bharatanatyam does of course have elements of the classical in it. It does involve spirituality and devotion – and in some senses – that is partly the religious aspect of Bharatanatyam. It also draws its roots from an ancient dance form, performed by Devadasis in temples. I would argue that that itself makes Bharatanatyam a contemporary form too. It drew from – but in many ways also departed from the ancient and traditional dance form that was called ‘Sadir’. It broke away from it spatially in its move from the temple to the proscenium stage, in terms of content from ‘sensual’ (sringara) to ‘spiritual’ (bhakti), and also in terms of class and gender – traditionally performed by lower caste women taught by lower caste men (nattuvanars), now it is performed primarily by upper caste/class men and women.

Leela Samson's troupe - 'Spanda'
As far as the abstract and literal is concerned, Bharatanatyam is capable of both. Some dancers perform it very literally, word for word according to what the poetry says, while others have found abstractions by reading between the lines in the ancient poetry. In my own modest way, I attempted to portray social evils like untouchability and the prohibition on Dalits to enter temples through 14th century texts in a padam. My last performance was also a shift in focus from the divine aspect to the human aspect of Bharatanatyam, a contemporary departure from the comparatively traditional emphasis on god. So how could I label Bharatanatyam as classical and only classical, when I found so many elements of the contemporary in it?

Chandralekha's 'Sharira'
I find the dichotomy between classical and contemporary demolishing even upon examining Indian contemporary dance. Chandralekha’s work is an obvious example. Her choreography utilized Indian traditional art forms, yet the content of the work was very contemporary. She moved away from the religious narrative, while simultaneously going back to tradition. Other Indian contemporary dancers, whose work I was able to see at the Gati Ignite! Festival of Contemporary dance, also seemed to constantly indicate that this dichotomy is unnecessary. The Indian contemporary dancers showcasing their work either launched into contemporary dance from a classical dance background, or were rooted in modern and contemporary dance but were moving towards exploring classical dance forms. Either way, the blend between classical Indian dance and Indian contemporary dance was utterly obvious.

Anusha Lall's 'Tilt'

I found the above inferences and observations so obvious upon analysis, that it is possible to say that the dichotomy dissolves, at least in theory. However, my argument that the two are fluid should not be mistaken with a claim that there is no difference between classical Indian dance and Indian contemporary dance. While I do insist that they should co-exist, and even derive content from each other, I admit that the difference must be recognized. My next question then is this – should difference necessarily symbolize incompatibility? The logical answer to that question is – No. The difference between classical and contemporary dance certainly should not symbolize their incompatibility with one another. It must not signify a corrosive co-existence. Unfortunately in India, I find that despite the fact that this dichotomy between classical and contemporary is clearly ‘demolishable’, it not only exists but breeds incompatibility and constructs borders of caustic barbed wire between the two forms. It is for that reason that I set myself the second question – why is this binary so rigid?

Perhaps for some dancers, the dichotomy, it’s potential to be demolished, and simultaneously, its pervasive rigidity is a non-issue. I have experienced dancers reacting to my questions about this unnecessarily rigid dichotomy with utmost impatience and dismissal. But that this dichotomy is made to exist so strongly is undeniable. To my mind, there are several reasons for this and they are all inter-connected. 

The first is obvious – there is simply a lack of awareness about the other’s dance. A classical dancer who says contemporary dance has no technique or discipline, or a contemporary dancer who says that classical dance has only technique and discipline are simply blissfully ignorant about the other form. Any dancer who opens his or her mind to another dance form would realize that there is much to learn from it that perhaps their own dance form could not transmit in the same way. And by learning, I don’t mean that a contemporary dancer should attend a few weeks of beginner’s Bharatanatyam or that a classical dancer stumbles into an improvisation class. What is needed is not a premature hasty judgment, but a deep understanding of the dance form that you don’t call your own before you start to judge it and its dancers. I think that the acceptance that this binary is a reality we can do nothing about becomes an excuse to not do this hard work. It is easier to criticize than to attempt to understand. Thus, my first point is that despite the blurred boundaries, it is ignorance that makes the dichotomy rigid.

Secondly, I think the existence of the binary veils closed-mindedness amongst dancers in India. Particularly in a system where the Guru-shishya relationship becomes more than just a teacher-student relationship, the closed-mindedness of a dance teacher can be easily transmitted and even imposed on the students of dance. It is not uncommon to hear that teachers discourage students from learning other dance forms. Some Gurus imply dire consequences for a shishya who shows interest in contemporary dance while some contemporary dance teachers want students to ‘shed’ the classical background before entering their classrooms. This is not to say that all gurus and teachers are like that. Of course not. But one does catch wind of these occurrences rather frequently. So, closed-mindedness is the second factor that turns this fluid relationship between classical and contemporary dance into a rigid dichotomy.

Moreover, the lack of platforms to perform in India contributes to the rigidity of this dichotomy. Dancers and patrons of dance have several different viewpoints on this. I illustrate this point by relating a discussion between myself, a senior dancer, a dance critic and a cultural organizer a few months ago.

The senior dancer claimed that there are more platforms to perform now, than there were when she was a young struggling dancer and argued that young dancers today are just not patient or disciplined enough to wait fifteen or twenty years for the platforms to be available to them.
The dance critic argued that while it may be true that there are more platforms than before, there are also many more dancers today than there were in the previous generation, so the competition for space is that much more - the situation is not necessarily better and could be worse.
The cultural organizer, in turn, stated that it is not true that more platforms exist for young dancers today, and argued that senior dancers and young dancers are vying for the same few platforms to perform, and that young dancers suffer as a result.
My interjection came in the form of disagreement with the statement that all young dancers are impatient and lack discipline.

Whatever the reality, it was obvious that talking about platforms for dancers did not make for smooth and comfortable discussion. Here, all the players in the debate belonged to the classical world of dance. Bring contemporary dancers into the debate and the competition for space arguably becomes even tighter. Where classical dancers had fought amongst themselves for platforms to perform, with the prominence of contemporary dance in India, now the two could turn on each other and not just fight amongst themselves. Thus, the lack of platforms becomes another reason for the consolidation of this dichotomy between the classical and contemporary in India.

To sum up – I argue that the acceptance of this dichotomy promotes the idea of competition and opposition amongst the two forms. In turn, the closed-mindedness and lack of awareness and understanding justifies the existence of this dichotomy. The dichotomy and the dancers are caught up in a vicious circle. Having established that this dichotomy is unnecessary because the classical and contemporary in India flow into one another and draw content from each other, this article attempts to demolish, and certainly questions the idea of a pre-existing classical-contemporary dichotomy that invades the minds of many dancers, teachers, critics and spectators and highlights some of the real possible reasons – in other words, the problems of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and sharing space – for why the dichotomy appears to persist despite its obvious irrelevance in the Indian world of dance.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Complexities of Audiences

On the 17th of November, 2010 - I performed at Preet Bhavan, an NGO in a village called Preet Nagar 20 kilometres from Amritsar. The performance was an intriguing experience for me. I was scheduled to perform a shloka, an alarippu, a devotional narrative from the Ramayana, a coquettish Javali, and my new Tillana. I had expected the crowd to be different, but I did not expect what was in store for me. The first few rows were children from the village, then a bunch of rows were farmers and their wives, and the backbenchers were rowdy boys and men, a few of them under the influence of alcohol. Moreover, the sound system had collapsed and the already impatient audience was not willing to wait very long for it to be set right. The announcements explaining the pieces also did not seem to grab their attention. As I stepped onto the stage in the beautiful open air theatre, the hooting and whistling already started. Barring a handful of people who were genuinely intrigued and curious about what they were seeing, a majority of people were disinterested. What followed was constant banter, laughter, whistling and hooting, and more. The organisers looked sheepish at first, but as the performance progressed, they were more and more embarrassed, and towards the latter half, were so infuriated by the audience that they stopped my performance before I went on for the Tillana.

After they decided to cut short my performance, I sat in the the dusty room which was the 'green room' letting past conversations with dancers come floating into my thoughts. Conversations about how audiences don't appreciate dance, and how certain places are just inappropriate for a 'holy' dance like Bharatanatyam.

At first, as I stepped into the green room between the first and second piece, I identified what I was feeling as a sense of frustration. How could the sound system collapse suddenly when just a few hours earlier, the music for my dance pieces were blasting through the speakers? Why were the announcements being repeated more than once? Who were these people that had gathered?

As I went on to perform the piece from the Ramayana, I found myself gauging the reactions of the audience with apprehension in between verses. Understandably, I was momentarily shaken out of the joy and complete abandon I usually feel when I'm on stage. Though the hooting still continued in spurts, I saw the looks on some of the childrens' faces. They were laughing in bits, but at other times, they were quite transfixed. In the next pause I had, I saw the men and women sitting in the middle rows - they, too, seemed to have settled down, and were straining to watch the performance through the crowds that were getting up to leave even as the piece was still going on. By the end, when the organiser told me - 'We're stopping it. You're being disrespected and we can't tolerate that', I found myself telling him - 'I don't feel disrespected at all. Whatever is happening is only understandable'.

And really, wasn't it? I was dancing a 'high art', a predominantly upper-class dance form that mostly metropolitan cities of India were familiar with, that mostly the elites are exposed to - for an audience that had only ever seen Katrina Kaif and Malaika Arora dance on television, and whose ears were accustomed to hearing Punjabi beats and songs sung typically in Delhi at wedding sangeets. Was it really their fault that they were reacting the way they were? They had never seen Bharatanatyam being performed before. They didn't know how to react, how to sit through a classical dance performance, when to clap, whether to cheer or not, and what to say.

The experience took me back to a conversation that took place on a public forum in Delhi regarding audiences. There, dancers clashed with a university student over the question of whether or not dancers should adapt to their audiences, what it meant to pandering to an audience and where it is and isn't appropriate to perform. I suspect that some dancers would've felt humiliated and disrespected in the position I was in, at Preet Bhavan. I felt different though. I did not pander to the audience at all, but if I was asked to perform there again, I would not dream of refusing. And I'll tell you why. After the performance, a tiny bunch of very apologetic villagers and townspeople approached me to tell me how wonderful they thought my performance was. They also said - 'we/those villagers don't know how to behave. Please don't take it badly'. One comment moved me specially. A couple came up to me and said in punjabi - The people have never seen anything like this before. It was wonderful that Bharatanatyam was brought to these people. They haven't understood it, and some showed little patience for it, but some of them really enjoyed it. And the next time they turn on the tv and they see something that resembles Bharatanatyam, they probably won't change the channel immediately. It's a start. Specially for the impressionable children.'

I was quite moved by those words, and stood by my decision to do this again even more strongly. Of course they didn't understand what was going on, and it was completely understandable that many of them left. But I don't believe that the audience was to blame. I later reflected on my role in making my performance accessible to them, and found that I could've made the announcements shorter, I should have come out and explained the pieces myself - demonstrating the mudras as I spoke so that it was easier for them to follow the story. It would be arrogant and presumptious of me to expect that they should understand, and too bad if they didn't. It was my responsibility to my audience. This doesn't mean that I am pandering to the audience. It just means that I am communicating differently. So yes, in that sense, I would adapt to the audience. What is wrong with that?

Admittedly, as an audience, they had a responsibility as well. But only someone who is aware of their responsibility can act upon it. These people were experiencing a completely new phenomenon, and it is our fault as dancers and patrons of dance, and the fault of the government whose cultural bodies are only promoting film-based dances in India and abroad, that they don't know how to react at a classical dance recital.

If I am asked by the organisers to dance there again, I will definitely do it. And I will adapt my performance to suit the audience. I will simplify the explanations and demonstrate the pieces differently. How else am I to reach out to a new audience? I cannot afford to conduct the performance as I would conduct it in New Delhi. I have to conduct it like I'm performing in Preet Nagar. Does this mean I lower my art form? I don't think so.

At the end of the day, its a matter of perception as well. I could've focussed on the fact that many of them left, or I could've remembered that many of them stayed, despite not understanding. I chose to take back with me, the memory of the latter interpretation. And I will go back there to perform again, and I will have to adapt to the my audience. I will do it, knowing that they will understand better the alien form before them, and that therefore they will be the better for it. And so will I.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Ignite: My Observations

Last week, Delhi saw the birth of something quite special. Initiated by the Gati Forum, the Ignite! Festival of Contemporary Dance in India, provided a new space for creativity in the field of Indian contemporary dance, as Anusha Lall (a dear dear friend), director and founder of Gati said. I had the privilege of working for the festival, primarily as the Company Assistant for the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company from the UK, but also as a volunteer for the festival on the whole.

The experiences was exhausting and enriching at the same time, but as I rest out the exhaustion, the enrichment will stay with me for a long time. As a volunteer, in the midst of running around, being at someone of the other's beck and call even at 11pm at night or 7am in the morning, one could squeeze in the time to watch performances, talk to the performers, meet with informed and uninformed audiences, interact with other young dancers and much more. It has been quite an experience.

Apart from the one day that I was performing myself at the Attic (an avoidable clash of dates that completely slipped my mind), I was there everyday, watching and absorbing everything that I could. Below are some of my thoughts and observations about the festival and the performances I watched.

I managed to watch four dance performances properly. The first was the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company from the UK. I was instantly struck by the physical agility and flexibility of the dancers. Their double-bill 'Faultline' and 'Bruiseblood' had immense potential, although sometimes the pieces didn't speak to me, I later thought. But I think I went into Kamani Auditorium with the intention of seeing something in partiucular - and that intention was satisfied. I wanted to see, specially, how organically Bharatanatyam and western contemporary dance were melded together. This worked for me. I have been searching for an organic fusion of this for a while, since many choreographers today seem to be experimenting with the two styles. I found it here. The movements were organic and crisp, and one could tell that Shobana had been working on this style of dancing for two decades. I did feel at some point that there was very little that was Indian about this contemporary dance performance. The 'Meet the Artist' session the next day helped to understand more. It also made me think that as spectators, we must learn to be less judgemental at first glance and try and understand the choreographers intentions, limitations and strengths before we jump to criticise (something I find young inexeperienced dancers in India doing more and more). Shobana explained that she worked with whatever she got. Her choreography of the same pieces would've been completely different had she worked with dancers who had a stronger background in Bharatanatyam, than in Ballet or contemporary dance. "I work with what I get", she said. Fair enough. 

Mehneer Sudan, a young choreographer affiliated with Gati was the next performance I saw which I hadn't seen before. I was moved. Her piece 'Closure' was emotionally charged, heartfelt and genuine. With enough but not too much emphasis on technique, she managed to express something to me through her face as well. I have been told that one of the big differences between Bharatanatyam and contemporary dance is that in classical indian dance, we use the face to express, but in contemporary dance - its the body. Many a contemporary dance performance display stone-cold expressionless faces, perhaps as a way to emphasize their expression through bodily movement. Mehneer did both. Her face and body expressed a lot. I really enjoyed it, and hope to see more of Mehneer's work.

Running around between Religare Art Gallery, and Max Mueller Bhavan, I managed to reach Preethi's performance slightly late. Preethi, Anusha and I went on Leela Samson's troupe 'Spanda''s tour in 2002 to China and Japan in 2002. As a sixteen year old, I was only just being exposed to contemporary dance and knew nothing of Preethi's work at the time. The little of the performance that I saw, I found quite interesting. What I really liked about it was the play with speed during her speech section. Even otherwise, her floorwork was 'messy' in a very controlled and beautiful way. By 'messy', I mean there was no balletic technique there, she was just feeling through the movement. I think so, anyway. Another performance I enjoyed.

Sudesh Adhana concluded the four day festival with his performance with a Norwegian dancer. They used acrobatics, circus moves and dance to create quite a funny piece. Their use of props was very interesting, and they had a lot of them. In the beginning, I did wonder what their piece was really trying to say, though. Witty and funny as it was, the piece suddenly took you into the depths of hell when the Norwegian dancer tells the story of how he bumped into a girl at the train station who fell onto the tracks. He "wanted to help her"...and the auditorium is engulfed by the deafening sound of a train engine whizzing past. Eerie. On the whole, I really liked the rawness of the piece.

Ignite! has been a wonderful experience. I wish it success and a long long life! India needs it. A few interesting things came up at the seminars as well. I was able to attend the network seminar, and found a few points interesting, and worth mentioning, as I end with some points to ponder - 
1. The Sangeet Natak Akademi and ICCR are loaded with money, said one panelist who is on a committee of both organisations - so why are the arts so underfunded in India? Where is that money going??
2. ICCR is being pushed to send only film-based choreographers overseas to showcase Indian culture - who has initiated this and why is this not being opposed to?
3. 735 crores are set aside by the Ministry of Culture annually for the promotion of Indian culture. Of that, 150 crores is surrendered because they feel there are no 'imaginative plans' - who defines what is imaginative? And what is happening to the remaining 580 crores?
4. Finally, Delhi is choc-a-block FULL of some of India's most well-known classical dancers - where WERE they? We didn't see them at this festival! Are we really a network that wants to support one another? Or are we getting trapped in this increasingly accepted binary between classical and contemporary? 

Watch out for an article about the battle between the classical and the contemporary on this page soon.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Post-Performance Reflections

Last evening, I performed at the Attic, a small, cosy space in Connaught Place. I performed a shloka and alarippu in misram, and then an ashtapadi, a kirtanam, a padam, and my very own brand new tillana.

I think from the moment I stepped onto the stage, and perhaps even before that - I had a feeling about the performance. First of all, I did my own make-up. While Bri Mohan ji is a terrific artist in his own right, it was something else to be able to have control over my own appearance - the colour on my face, the shape of my eyes, nose and lips.

I had been very clear to highlight what I wanted to emphasize in announcements. My performance was introduced as - "Aranyani’s performance explores the ways in which Krishna and Rama relate to the human world. For a while now, Aranyani has been exploring the relevance of Bharatanatyam beyond the religious narrative, and one that is inclusive of secular audiences. Aranyani’s claim has always been that she does not merely relate stories of gods, but describes and explores the human emotions that underpin the myths. Most human emotions are universally relevant. They transcend race, gender, class, religion and nationality. In this respect, Aranyani explores stories about Krishna and one tale about Rama in terms of the vast depths of human emotions they are able to describe through mythology. The pieces chosen in this performance display varied emotions from the mischief of a little child, to the worries of a father, the demands of a teacher, the stubbornness of an adolescent girl, the feelings of suspicion and fear, the sting of regret, and the meditative potential of initial pangs of love."

The performance went very well, if feedback is anything to go by. There was a 'meet the artist' session after the performance before which I had enthusiastic applause through 3 or 4 bows - unsual in Delhi for a classical dance performance. As the questions were asked, I slowly became more and more confident about answering them, and I think I did very well in explaining what I had wished to do in the performance.

Leela Venkataraman, dance critic for the Hindu, asked me whether in a piece about the Ramayana, it was possible to completely remove the devotional and spiritual aspect of dance, and perhaps whether it was even fair to do that.

I clarified that in my view, there is a difference between devotion and spirituality. And I also clarified that while the announcements highlighted the human aspect of the characters in the Ramayana, I was in no way trying to say that the pieces were devoid of spirituality or devotion. I was merely highlighting a shift in focus from the religious aspect to the human one.

I think I may rethink the use of the word 'secular' in my announcements, or perhaps I will need to explain what I mean by 'secular' in a deeper sense. That would only make my announcements longer, but I think its worth it. Sadanand Menon, a good friend and an art critic himself, although very quiet, interjected in this particular discussion between Leela ji and me.

Others asked me whether I changed my dancing when I perform abroad. I said I didn't. In fact, when I began to perform outside of India, I went with the assumption that my audience would be unfamiliar and would understand little. And so from the very beginning, my announcements were long and explanatory. I admitted that in fact, my way of dancing/announcing has changed over the years in India, not outside. Because even within India, I have shed the presumption that people know what I'm talking about. Although culturally more familiar, I believe for the one or two people outside the familiar territory, it is worth speaking for longer and dancing for less if it means I will reach out to more people.

There were many other interesting questions that made me think before answering, but it was good that I got a chance to explain a few things. I was extremely tired and unwell, and bleeding from the foot to boot, so we ended the conversation after 25 minutes or so.

From the feedback I got, everyone had a favourite piece, but largely Ni Urai Pai (Ramayana piece), the Padam and my Tillana got some critical acclaim, so to speak.

Hearing feedback about the Tillana was a relief. Leela Venkataraman mentioned that my tillana could have had longer movements, but in the space provided in the Attic, it was nearly impossible to do even static movements without compromising on the full stretch of an adavu. Some spaces, I hope spectators will understand, are not meant for Tillanas. I chose to do the Tillana because I had promised my musicians that I would choreograph it by this time, and that I would perform it. It was also a good space to test it out, since the audience was small, although quite an informed one. But mostly, everyone I met absolutely LOVED the tillana. I was overjoyed and relieved, and hope to perform it on a larger stage where its dynamism and intricacies can really shine through!

Now, I'm off to volunteer at Gati's IGNITE! festival of Contemporary Dance - a first of its kind festival in Delhi that I am happy to be a part of!

Friday, November 12, 2010

What is dance?

When it comes to explaining what dance is, several definitions are available. It refers to the movement of the body. It is a form of expression. It is also a mode of social interaction. But definitions of what constitutes dance are dependent on social, cultural, political, aesthetic and moral constraints. Dance can be defined in terms of technique, but also as ceremonial, competitive, combative and narrative.
It is my argument that the definition of dance, like dancing itself, is not static. If one is to be inclusive and not divisive in one’s approach to dance, then the definition of dance has to be fluid. It must evolve along with its cultural, political and social surroundings. It must also be open-ended in order to include new creative minds and choreographies.

Why do I say that dance cannot have one static definition? It is because dance itself changes – its history has shown that. In order to demonstate this, I take the example of Bharatanatyam, arguing that this one dance form itself does not have one fixed definition. Thus, ‘dance’ cannot be defined as a fixed, rigid entity.

Just as the west made an evolution from Ballet to Contemporary, from Isadora Duncan to Martha Graham to Merce Cunningham, Bharatanatyam too, evolved greatly over the ages. The earliest accounts of Bharatanatyam (in texts dating around the 11th century) point towards the fact that it was performed in temples by Devadasis, or servants of the gods. Devadasis performed what was called ‘Sadir’ in the temples. At this time, perhaps dance was defined by its space in the temple, and by the relationship of the dancers to the temple, and to larger society.

Devadasis are commonly labeled as courtesans or prostitutes. While this is not entirely wrong, it was not always the case. According to Janet O’Shea, a dance scholar, during their prime, Devadasis were highly respected in Indian society. They enjoyed high status and were associated with ‘auspiciousness’ due to their ‘wedding’ to the temple deity. Devadasis offered their dance, Sadir to the temples and performed temple duties. They enjoyed patronage from the temple, as well as some wealthy patrons with whom they occasionally had sexual alliances. Dance was defined by the temple, and by the sensuality of the dancers.

During colonial rule, the Devadasis came to be stigmatized. This stigma attached to them, I argue, came about due to Victorian notions of sexuality. The same notions that pronounced Khajuraho temples to be vulgar and obscene, and the Indian native to be barbaric and overtly sexual, tainted the Devadasi as the prostitute. It is important to acknowledge the role of the Indian Nationalists in the incarceration of Devadasis, who could not respond to these colonial allegations towards the natives by exemplifying the Devadasis as a source of national pride. Here, we find that dance came to be redefined due to imperialism and Victorian ideals.

During this time, the content of Bharatanatyam also changed. Devadasi performances largely comprised of sensual stories about love from Jayadeva’s Gitagovindam. Pioneers of dance such as Rukmini Devi Arundale introduced Nataraja to the Bharatanatyam repertoire. Nataraja, a more severe and less sensual deity, contributed to the redefinition of Bharatanatyam from being a sensual dance to being a more ceremonial dance about the vanquishing of impurities, and celebrating the awe and devotion to Nataraja. ‘Sringara’ or sensuality was thus replaced by ‘Bhakti’ or devotion. While the acclaimed ‘devadasi’ dancer Balasaraswati found the purification unnecessary and even perhaps insulting, Rukmini Devi thought it imperative to the evolution of dance in India. And thus Bharatanatyam’s definition changed once again.

Today, Bharatanatyam finds itself redefined again and again. Bharatanatyam is not defined by national boundaries anymore. It is practiced and performed all over the world. Moreover, formerly a dance form practiced only by lower caste women, today it is performed primarily by the Brahmin elite. In this sense, class also played a role in defining this dance. Further, gender made its contribution to the redefining of Bharatanatyam – earlier where men were either the Gurus or the patrons or spectators, today they practice and perform Bharatanatyam.

In contemporary India, the content of Bharatanatyam has also become broader. Chandralekha has expressed femininity, sexuality, mathematics and physics through the idioms of Bharatanatyam, Kalaripayattu and Yoga. Some argue that what she performed is not Bharatanatyam, but others argue that if the definition of Bharatanatyam is defined more broadly and fluidly, then what Chandralekha did was a part of what constitutes Bharatanatyam.

Other dancers like Shobana Jeyasingh have connected movements originating from Bharatanatyam with other western styles. Again, if one is to define Bharatanatyam in its rigid sense, Jeyasingh’s work falls out of the spectrum of what defines Bharatanatyam. But otherwise, it may be seen as another branch of Bharatanatyam.

Several young dancers in India are exploring new and different ways of expressing themselves through Bharatanatyam, while others have explored the vocabulary of Bharatanatyam to develop movement in contemporary dance in India. As a young Bharatanatyam dancer myself, I constantly try to delve into its definition to find ways to highlight its relevance and contemporaneity. Loosening the ropes around the guarded definition of what Bharatanatyam is has been very rewarding for me. By broadening its definition, I have been able to reach out to audiences that do not understand the language or culture, or the religious aspect of it, but have understood the dance – as a form, as a mode of story-telling, and as a mechanism for social change. As a dancer, what more can you ask for.

To conclude, I believe that the beauty of defining dance lies in recognizing its dynamism. Dance is not static, and neither can its definition ever be. Dance will redefine itself constantly – in order to remain relevant and important to contemporary society. I would even say that it will redefine itself in order to survive. Some believe that Bharatanatyam had to shed its sensuality in the Victorian era, otherwise it may have been forced into extinction. Along similar lines, Bharatanatyam begs to be redefined today, in sync with contemporary society.

Ultimately, dance today is what we make it today. It is different from what it was fifty years ago, and it will be different in the fifty years to come. I don’t think this is alarming. In fact, it is a natural progression from one period to another. I don’t think that dance can or should be ‘museumised’. It must not stay the same as ‘it always was’. Definitions of what dance is must change. Dance was never meant to have a single definition. If it did, such beautiful varieties of dance would not exist in the world. Dance was also never meant to be rigid or static. Fluidity and dynamism are after all, the raison d’etre of dance. As for its definition – it is imperative to creativity and improvisation, that its definition remain open-ended, broad and fluid.

Bharatanatyam and me: A blog entry from 2007

Whilst rehearsing for my upcoming performance in London, I sat back and thought about Bharatanatyam for a while...What drew me to it as a child? What kept my passion incessant once I grew up enough to look beyond my childish passions? What draws me to it even today, to drive me to risk an obviously precarious career in it? Why do I love it so much? Why do other people not love it as much as I do? Millions of questions that were begging to be answered. Questions that I'd attempted to answer before and drawn different conclusions for, each time.

When I was little(nearly 5 years old), my parents took me to several dance performances, and there was one that I didn't fall asleep in the middle of (its not that the other performances bored me..its just..most performances were past my bed time then!). It was my guru, Leela Samson's performance. I watched her, entranced. By the colourful costume, the shimmering jewellery, and the sheer grace, and perhaps I understood  a little about the depth and grace too.

I pointed to her and said "Mama, I want to do that!" And so it all began. Years and years of struggle and learning. Till I was about 12, I unquestioningly loved it and danced it - in class, at home, even on the beaches of goa in a tiny little swimsuit.

It was when I was 12 that peer pressure stuck it's head out and I began to open my eyes. My friend said to me - We all have something - I've got my basketball, shes got her golf, she's got piano, and you...have your Bharatanatyam. I wasn't impressed. I didn't like the label at all. In school, I had other things I wanted to be passionate about. I wanted to be "cool" too. And I thought for a brief period of time, that Bharatnatyam was not. Because no one did it. I felt like I wasn't a part of my peer group anymore. I wore kurtas, while others wore tank tops. And nobody wore saris! I had unmanageably long hair while others had swanky haircuts. I had kajal(eye kohl), while others gave me slack for it for having the remnants of it left in my eyes at school. I was going to dance performances, while the others went to the latest movies. I had to leave in the middle of day long 'parties' because of dance class, while the others played truth or dare. I missed all the fun, I thought!

It wasn't long before I found out that that was my identity. I became proud of what I had become outside the dance class, because of what I did, in it. And I began to symbolically show the finger to what people considered to be cool. I liked my long hair, my bindi, my kajal, my kurta, and the values I'd inherited because of dance classes three times a week for the last 10 years. And it wasn't long before people caught on. Or perhaps the trends changed for whatever reason.

I began to perform 'professionally' with my guru at that time. Whatever little money I made (which was a lot for me!), I used to hand over to my parents to put in the bank account. I didn't spend it. It was around this time that I also started really doing Abhinaya. Dance pieces that had a story to it, and that required 'acting'.

My Arangetram was one of the most important days of my life. I remember every minute of it, from the moment I woke up, till I moment my head hit the pillow at night. And without sounding too arrogant, I was relieved and happy that it went off well. And without sounding too proud, I knew that all the hard work that I had put into it had paid off. It wasn't a perfect Arangetram. I was nervous at the start, and obviously my abhinaya wasn't as mature as it would be 5 years later, but at the age of sixteen..I still felt at peace on stage. And I was happy that I didn't make any mistakes, get nervous and blank out, or fall flat on my face.

And over time, I wondered why such a beautiful art form, and others like it were being completely taken over by Shyamak Davar and Bollywood. While being a Bharatanatyam dancer was now considered oh-so-cool, I wasn't happy. Because still, no one tried to understand it. And that's when I started seeking answers.

Bharatanatyam is very stylised, and so I understand when people say that they can't understand it. But it's like any other art form. If you follow it for long enough, the grammar becomes familiar, and you can understand it deeper. It's not an impossible task. It just requires a bit of interest. And that's not very difficult. The movements require only an understanding of beauty and an appreciation of geometry. The hand gestures aren't infinite. And moreover, the feelings and emotions we display on stage are real emotions that we feel and express every single day. And that's why I think Bharatanatyam trascends time, and is not a 'victim' of stylisation. Rather, it is a stylised expression of what we all have felt before and will feel again, from the time we are born till the time we die.

I don't know if I will ever be good enough to take the stage by storm. And just last night, someone in a LIPA studio asked me if I was going to make it as a dancer, considering that there are millions of other dancers just like me, with the same aspiration to dance. I just said - "I don't know..but I'm going to try!"

I don't care much about fame at all, and I know that Bharatanatyam as a means of livelihood is a luxury only a few exceptionally talented dancers can afford. But I know how I feel when I'm on stage.

I'm not looking to be a "famous dancer". I just hope that one day, some day..I will perform on stage, and someone sitting in the auditorium will be moved by it.