Indian Contemporary Dance

Ashish Khokar concludes his piece on contemporary dance. At this stage, he needs no introduction!

In the last issue, we took up the historical and contextual background to this genre and today we will take you on a journey of contemporary trends.

There are two types of trends: one is to take a classical form and create something within its language and grammar, but not do a regular margam format but a thematic one and the other is to create a new dance language which partakes of elements of classical forms but does not depend entirely on its structure or grammar. This, we will case-study attempts in both.

Actually, it started with the Americans! in the early 1900s, two famous dancers came from America, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. On their visit to India, they saw some snatches of Indian dance forms and when they returned to America, they created their own version of Indian dances on themes as diverse as Nataraja and Bheels! Their model was copied and followed by a few and it was left to other “pioneers” to come to India.

Then came Anna Pavlova, the famous Russian ballerina. She needed a partner for her dances and chose a young painter, Uday Shankar, who became famous later as the Father of contemporary dance. Shankar was sent to William Rothenstien to learn painting originally. When Pavlova needed someone Indian to partner her in Radha-Krishna, she took Shankar. Rest is history! From America again, came La Meri and she partnered Ram Gopal – thus these Indian dance legends were seen and discovered by foreigners.

Many moons later, both Uday Shankar and Ram Gopal made Indian dances world famous. While Shankar made creative dances popular, Ram helped establish classical dances. They were followed by others like Ragini Devi, Indrani Rehman’s mother, Australian Lousie Lightfoot; Nala Najan, the Spanish-born Indian dancer (who followed in Ted Shawn’s mould); Matteo-Corolla; Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury and many more.

Today, a lot of youngsters (by that I mean those under 40!) are taking to contemporary dance. But first let us be clear about what is contemporary and what is not? Modern dance, like in America, has a language. In India it is not so. We are still searching and finding a language. Each proponent is trying out something. Most are in the process of reaching, the journey has just begun.

Astad Deboo ranks as the first and foremost because after Uttara Coorlawala, another Mumbai-based dancer, he is the only one doing solo contemporary dance of depth. He has evolved a language-of-sorts and some grammar and is today the undisputed king of this genre. His journey has not been easy, first because as a male dancer it was tough and then as a soloist. He also came on the scene in the 1970s when India was still celebrating the revival of traditional forms, so he was an oddity. But he has worked considerably and consistently and today at fifty plus, rans as the senior most.

Next in line with dance of depth and substance in this genre is Daksha Sheth. Trained excellently in Kathak and Chau, this Ahmedabad-born has shown what creativity in contemporary dance can be. And what is it? It means no repetition of either material or matter; substance or style. Each work has a new, distinct approach and stamp. That’s the hallmark of a genius. While her base is the forms she learnt, she adds and explores new idioms like Malkhamb, the street show of Maharashtra region or Kalari of Kerala.

Daksha is an excellent soloist and also creates lasting group works. That others copy from her and steal dancers from her group to enhance their own, shows how good she is, for isn’t imitation the best form of flattery!

After Daksha there is a vacuum of sorts. In the second line of artists, there are many who where trying, have tried and keep trying! Bharat Sharma had excellent support, training and family credentials but lost it to arts administration.

WIth his partner in life and in dance, Tripura, he is trying again for a comeback. The late Ranjabati Sircar (bless her soul)! was one who combined Chhau and other eastern forms to create Navanritya. But her untimely death, followed by that of her mother’s too, left a void. Aditi Mangaldas is now trying her hand (and feet) at creative dance and so are smaller groups and individuals. the notable ones are: a few students of Narendra Sharma; a few students of Kumudini Lakhia and maybe the odd one abroad like Akram Khan.

In the south, Bharatanatyam, Kalari and a smattering of all other forms have led many to experiment but none have succeeded seriously because either they are copying Chandralekha or each other! The odd Narendra-intensive Anita Ratnam group in Chennai, surfaces in the season, but there is no consistent output. Chennai is moored in Bharatanatyam. And thank god for that!

In Kathakali, the credit for innovation and meaningful contemporary interpretation goes to a French beauty, Annette Leday, whose works have been seen in prestigious forms like the Shakespear Globe Theatre, London and the Montpollier and Avignon festivals in France. But Kathakali is group art and it is better left alone. Kuchipudi too has kept away from much innovation and shows it is grounded in tradition.

What is important to note is that mere change of theme in classical dance does not make it contemporary. If Malavika Sarukkai does Srinkhala and talks of the environment, it is not contemporary dance because she still dances Bharatanatyam and environmental concerns are nothing new, even Kalidasa had it in Shakuntala! What is being done is packaging, not the creation of something new by way of an idiom, a new language. That is why mere extensions of classical forms cannot be taken as contemporary dance. I am giving examples here in different forms to show how Indian contemporary dance is still rooted in one style or the other and very few have succeeded in going beyond.

Bangalore’s Madhu Nataraj Heri has worked hard and merged various idioms to come up with interesting works which partake of Kathak, Kalari, Yoga, and Thanta. Madhu’s background has given her a solidity of foundation and on this she has built an edifice of beauty of contemporary dance-design. Her group, STEM, has the possibility of becoming an important medium for furthering contemporary dance. Good music and costumes are an additive.

Another Bangalore group that is trying is Attakalari but they are still searching. It is neither fish nor fowl. Actual dance is still to happen and even if avant-garde in approach, they lack any distinctive stamp. Maybe given more time, it may happen.

The Nrityagram ensemble (if a group of two or three can be called that) tried to create something in Orissi – a production called Sri – but it was lampooned so much by the national press that they have not showed up again! Can they compose, create, evolve? No, they haven’t shown any capacity yet. There is always hope, though.

Another guru-less group (guru bina gyan nahin) is Nritarutya (a tongue-twister of a name! When you are doing contemporary work, why name your group in such sanskritised terms?) which is trying to attempt something new but in the absence of a foundation in any given form their art is more craft and their dance more drama, for effect. Hard work and perseverance off-stage is only part of the journey; foundation and finesse are required to make dance statements.

The scene is such that if you ask a sponsor in Mumbai, contemporary work means Shaimak Davar and in Chennai it means Prabhudeva! Only in Delhi, Bangalore and Thiruvananthapuram is a sincere and serious search on. Let us hope the coming years will show some happy results because by then most would have stopped learning any classical forms properly (where are good gurus now? only teachers who run shops!) and may not have enough craft to create something meaningful of their art.

For all the talk and tough posturing, contemporary dance is yet to arrive. And when it does, what will be it worth? For centuries our traditions and classical forms have stayed and showed timeless beauty. Are we sacrificing the smell of real rose for mere packaged essence?

Next time you see a contemporary dance event, ask yourself: Did it convey anything? Did it make sense? Was there any content? What was the substance or import? Don’t be polite and pretend you liked it or understood it just because others are also pretending they did and clap out of politeness. If none, then you know what not to attend next time around!

Ashish Khokar’s authority to state all of the above comes from over three decades of consistent and solid work in the field as critic, columnist and commentator on dance.

He has authored over 3000 articles and 20 books, including editing and publishing India’s only yearbook on dance, attendance. He holds strong views on the dance scene but that is because he is a strong force on the dance scene, a bit like Dronacharya and Durvasa rolled in one! He is the Big Brother of the dance scene, who watches quietly and comments clearly, without fear or favour.

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