Indian Contemporary Dance

There is much confusion about what is Indian, what is contemporary and what is modern in the dance world of India today. Let us examine these words and their meaning and their import.

While contemporary dance can be modern, the reverse is not true. Modern is not necessarily contemporary. Please understand the difference because even most dancers are misinformed about definitions! “Modern dance” means a language, which is understandable or appreciated or communicates. Anything can be contemporary. It has no set language, structure or design or result. This is true of design or dance; films or photography. Anything done in contemporary times is so but it may not necessarily be modern.

Basically, India has a rich heritage of tradition of classical dance and folk, tribal and ritual practices. Over centuries, these forms have developed and have become set by way of codification and practice. Essentially, an oral art, it has been passed down from masters (gurus) to disciples (shishyas). Although it has a long history, during the colonial rule of about four hundred years, some of these forms did not get enough patronage and thus languished. The purpose of this piece is not to give you readers a boring history lesson which you often read in columns and writings of dance recreating history of forms.

Let me bring you back to reality and focus on what is Indian contemporary dance. Or should it be Contemporary Indian dance, as it is used wrongly. Any dance can be contemporary. Ditto other art forms. Thus, the correct usage is Indian Contemporary Dance (when talking of a genre) not contemporary Indian dance because that way even Kathak or Bharatanatyam done today would amount to that.

India has a rich heritage and a living tradition of classical and folk dance. That we know. Countless writers, scholars, historians and budding journalists have waxed eloquent about the “great Indian dance tradition”. In the last fifty years of dance writings, most writers have concentrated on reviving and resurrecting age-old classical forms. Why, as recently as two years ago, the national (some call it notional!) academy – the Sangeet Natak – invented a classical style, the Sattriya of Assam, which is basically a monastic prayer as taught in the Sattras of Assam, into the eighth classical dance form of India by according Sattriya dance a classical status. In doing so, the Akademi thought it was creating the eighth wonder of the world of Indian dance. Maybe.

The real wonder of India (and more so in the context of this piece) was Uday Shankar, born exactly a little over a hundred years ago (1900). He had no background in dance, was trained to be a painter and by chance evolved to become the “father of Indian modern dance” (in the context of his time, that is pre-independent India) or as we would call it today ‘Indian Contemporary Dance’.

Why not call it modern? Because, modern dance would mean it has a certain decipherable language, it has a structure and it has distinctive features. Let us examine what all these are. Just as you first learn alphabets, then words then make sentences, which can be understood, likewise in genres of art forms the language has to be realised, understood and communicated. Just doing anything on stage would not help.

What is a language? Say in Bharatanatyam, the adavus are units of dance from which a “line” is created. The hastas convey words or symbols which a poet (on whose text an item is composed) weaves into songs which are set to structured music to which the various ingredients of a dance-form like mudras, netra (eyes), leg-positions and body movement go in making a complete style or form or language. Thus you see Bharatanatyam in araimandi position, not standing straight as in Kathak. Orissi is performed in tribhangi (or three bends in body) and Kathakali in mutta agattuka. Each form has its grammar, style and substance that make it that form.

In modern dance in India there is no set alphabet, sentences or language, which is why it is not a form or modern dance genre. It is not easily understood by most in the audience. And because it is not understood, most think it is modern! Everyone is too polite and think if some dancer is doing something on stage and others are sitting and watching it too, then it must be good! Out of politeness everyone is thinking that of each other and they all also clap in the end! But if you asked most, none understand it and fewer appreciate it! What a dilemma! And imagine then a critic has to make sense and sound sensible in the review. Hah1 What a task!

Today many proponents of the so-called modern dance debunk classical dance. Only empty vessels make the most noise. Uday Shankar did not debunk classical dance, this is important to understand. In fact, he took wrist, eye, and neck movement from popular forms in Kathak, Kathakali and Bharatanatyam and also partook of folk movements and created his own style which was understood, appreciated and followed. The fact that audiences liked it was first proof of it registering and then many learnt it showed that it made sense for few to learn and continue his work. Thus, he is a pioneer, He has many followers but only three or four of his disciples did meaningful work and they are Zohra Segal, Sachin Shankar and Narendra Sharma. The fact that none of these created lasting students who would carry the style forward perhaps reflected more their poor absorption or teaching quality rather than Uday Shankar’s style. Today, only his daughter Mamata Shankar carries on the style without spoiling it.

After Shankar, there was a girl from Bombay (Mumbai now) called Uttara Coorlawala and she made a serious attempt at “modern dance” but her career was short and she shifted to America. Astad Deboo, also from Bombay, trained in Kathak and basic Kathakali, created his own signature style and succeeded in establishing his own signature. But his journey was lonesome.

Why? There are several reasons. One, after independence, India was busy reviving and re-establishing its classical styles so there was less focus on or patronage to “modern” things. Two, there were few teachers of “modern style”. After Uday Shankar the movement died. In the seventies, many learnt from “modern” dancers abroad, especially America (where there is truly a “modern dance culture” because there was less of “classical culture”, historically America being a young, multi-cultural country); then it was dubbed as not being Indian! Thirdly audiences were not exposed to it so the style had a slow birth.

In the mid-1980s, a few classically trained dancers (that’s important to remember in our discourse here) like Chandralekha and Kumudini Lakhia tried to use their training in a particular form and extend it. By that I mean, either they changed the structure of items by doing an essentially solo performance as group work (instead of one person doing a tillana, five did it, affecting space and movement) or used unexplored themes from mythology and contemporary life. Birju Maharaj, the king of Kathak had already shown the way so it was easy for Kumudini to follow and Chandralekha had Ram Gopal who in his times created everlasting beauty with traditional material. The only difference was historical or because of history! Ram Gopal danced in a time when Europe was at wars and India was still a colony. He presented the best of beauty of Indian classical forms in easy, short understandable items whereas fifty years after him Chandra was more concerned with feminist themes and urban angst and still used Bharatanatyam, Kalari and yoga to showcase it. In dance, the material is like an ocean. There is no end in sight. To say, we would do only this or that means your own limitation or that of your guru and teacher not that of the dance forms.

The lot which is worse off and what we see today mostly, is the half-trained and half-baked ones. They don’t have the patience to learn any one form properly and have no foundation or grounding in any one form (like Chandra or Birju have). Thus they create some poses and half-baked stuff on stage. The result is for all to see: thin audiences, no sponsor and no genuine interest.

There is a trend now to use jargon like “deconstructing dance”, “movement art”, “demystification” and all that nonsense but that is essentially an excuse to palm of self-indulgence as art on stage. I can stand in my diapers on stage and move here and there and call it by some esoteric title — “Emptiness”, “Search”, “Void” — and use some stolen music from famous composers worldwide without giving them credit (for which such dancers can be legally sued in some countries!). No wonder such folks perform to empty halls and are not to be seen after a show or a season.

Who are doing really sensible and solid work today? What is the yardstick? Who are the youngsters we can look forward to in the next decade? Who are the chosen ones and why? We shall discuss that in a future column, ok?

We, at Drishti, are grateful to the noted writer, critic, historian, editor and publisher, Ashish Khokar, for enriching our readers with his perspective and views.

When we began Drishti, Ashish Khokar, the friend of dance, was among the first active dance critics and scholars we approached to help us. He encouraged us by writing a regular column despite his many commitments, especially as a writer of regular columns worldwide and as a prolific author of books, including the unique yearbook on dance – attendance. We now occasionally request him to share with our readers some of his thoughts and insights, vested with him by his long years of experience and exposure. This piece is one such on a burning issue: Indian Contemporary Dance.