Articles and Interviews

Climbing Up the Downward Timeline; A Reflection on Indian Dance Today

Written by Justin McCarthy

Attired in bright silks, adorned with elaborate jewellery, bells on ankles, striking the feet and moving with stylised facial expressions and hand gestures to artfully sliding vocal and instrumental melodies atop a continuous, complex percussion accompaniment - this performer would be the visual/aural moving-in-time perceptual representation of Indian dance for audience members ranging from first-time viewers to spectators somewhat familiar with dance to experienced and/or knowledgeable ‘witnesses’. For the uninitiated it could be a dazzling surface impression of an unfamiliar exoticism, and while for those previously exposed to dance it could be a four-dimensional image of a set of particular cultural patterns, for the informed and intimately involved it is the coded signage of a familiar communications medium.

Is it Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi or Orissi? How about Kathakali, Mohiniattam, Kudiyattam, Manipuri...? Apart from a mind-boggling plethora of styles, the Indian dance forms can be said to possess more or less shared modern and contemporary performance histories. What is seen on stage today is generally a comparatively new art form, a recreated or re-imagined dance which is a wonderful aesthetic approximation of what it may have been like in a variety of pasts – researched pasts, invoked pasts, dreamt pasts. While this neo-classical dance came into being during the first half of the last century, it stands in direct reverse chronological relationship to a series of temporally diminishing avatars of itself. These incarnations form a chain of historically receding images from the dance’s 20th century reinvention (called renaissance by many), back through its 19th century codification and state of semi-stasis, further past to its 18th and 17th century place among the courtly and religious arts, down through medieval garbs and eventually descending into ancient mist. This backward-moving chronology has corresponding concrete visual archives. While the 20th century is obviously documented through films and photos of almost all the well-known dance exponents, the 19th century is partially captured in smudgy daguerrotypes as well as paintings, quite often of the official East India Company variety, depicting dance (‘nautch’) parties and religious processions with dancers. As technical means of reproduction decrease down the timeline, high definition is lost and we see dance through temple and palace frescoes and sculpture as well as in poetry and detailed technical treatises.

This historicity is an essential component in the building of an identity for Indian dance. The fact that much, if not all, we see today is an early to mid-20th century conscious refashioning of an idealized dance existing in a partially imagined past is crucial to understanding and appreciating its uniqueness. Embodied within this reconstruction is a fascinating process by which historical memorabilia, i.e., cultural ‘objects’ including literature, myth, music, philosophy, etc. are, with the discrimination afforded by hindsight, selectively showcased, using quasi-rational methods of juxtaposing, highlighting and shadowing to evoke Antiquity. While in the sphere of the arts the Occident in the 20th century continued working-out its equation with the Enlightenment-spawned idea of revolution, art acting as a metaphor for the new rejecting the old, that new in turn rendered old and transformed by the next new, India posited its recreation of ancient dance as an atemporal reply to externally-imposed colonialism and internally-present feudalism. While the West put to the forefront the idea of the individual genius engaged in a dialectic of upheaval, in India the creative persona was dissimulated behind the act of the recapturing of the ficto-historical moment.

In contrast to the dynamic and positively unique face presented by Indian dance in the first half of the 20th century, by its second half most dancers had begun to believe in, buy into and sell the idea that this dance was a miraculously living example of a fixed and sacrosanct classicism that somehow hadn’t budged for centuries. And as the nature of dance education was (and in most cases still is) determined chiefly by those concomitant with this view, a whole generation of complicit innocents was formed. Though this period of self-satisfaction did create a space in which some excellent dancing thrived, its sustainability was threatened by the intentional ignorance of history on the part of its proponents. The issuing in of the technologically-connected global community cast doubts on suspect ideas of cultural permanence, leaving most of us bred in an impossibly smug purism confused and dismayed. But, and to a much larger degree than is generally acknowledged, a surge of new research by academics (mostly Indian and mostly teaching at American and British universities) has started peeling away pseudo-ancient patina and illuminating each successive image of the ‘pastward’ timeline, deconstructing the compelling reconstruction of a dance legacy, leaving none of us with the useful excuse of not knowing.

We find ourselves today in the thick of a polemic with forces variously arrayed, as they were in literary feuds of 18th century France, on the sides of the ‘ancients’ and the ‘moderns’. The ancients draw their strength from the defence of an immovable classicism. In the face of all-too-evident rebuttals based on informed readings of a plurality of histories, they resort to an article of faith of the sort, "I believe, many believe, therefore it is so." And such is the force of false ideology that those who beg to differ are constantly impelled to use this fictive ‘classical’ as a reference point for their views.

What is the battle all about? As with almost all art forms today, Indian dance is obliged to constantly re-evaluate and by consequence revalidate itself. A general state of accelerated transformation where everything exists in the immediate future (just about to happen) verbal tense, Indian dance, too, must be adept at predicting each next moment for its immanent survival. Fortunately, the dance milieu in modern India began serious self-evaluation in its nascent period, and this process of analysis continues up to the present with seminars and colloquia accompanying most major dance events and festivals. But the discussions within these symposia often lead rather quickly to the inevitable the ancients vs. the moderns impasse, a simplistic reduction at best. With a view to better understanding the situation, I propose three broad dance groupings as the basis of a temporary overview.

The first group would be the ‘classicists’, who with self-imposed rigour try to adhere to the grammar, vision and construct of what was arrived at by the mid-20th century. The second group would be the ‘moderates’, who attempt to recast the dance in more up-to-date contexts while trying to retain what are perceived to be its most essential signifiers. The third group (and many will be surprised by its inclusion here) would be the ‘contemporaries’, a new wave of Indian dancers who, in their work, either pay homage to or consciously invert representations of their ‘classical’ past.

The pure classicists of the first category are mostly conspicuous by their near invisibility. The few there are negotiate a fragile world wherein co-exist both the real and the unreal, the real being the potent beauty arising from congress with the non-real and the non-real being the artificially constructed but nevertheless aesthetically valid performative configurations bequeathed by the dance renaissance. This dance at its best can connect to a sense of deep poetic repose which does, surprisingly, filter the past in a positive, albeit curatorial, sense. It is characterised by simplicity in delineation and sobriety of music. On the negative side, it can be frumpy and uninspired.

The moderates are by far the most numerous and well-situated, thus brushing most conspicuously with the danger of parochialism and its ‘ugly traditionalist’ countenance, an unconscious kitschy blend of now and then. More likely to mix genres, time periods, etc., this group has the greatest mass appeal. And it does express a willingness to engage with the larger world as it were, though that larger world seemingly encompasses anything from ancient metaphysics to aeroplanes and aliens!

The third estate, the contemporaries, are the newest and most controversial entrants on the scene. Their work is most likely to contain fragments of past, present and future, ideas of body politics and music ranging from primeval thumping to high-tech pulses. At their worst they can be dismissive in the most simplistic of manners. But in a positive sense they can act as a refractive barometre of the state of Indian so-called classical dance as well as a harbinger of things to come. And many of its practitioners feel real compassion for the dilemma of the ‘classical’ in the present situation.

The ideal dancer, choreographer, academic and/or viewer would hypothetically transcend and navigate these territorial categories. Such individuals could act as bridges in a scenario which is undeniably vibrant but at the same time confused and divided. The inherent physical instability of dance is its compelling factor. Applied at a less visceral level, this imbalance can slip us through and slide us across divisive semantic and thematic partitions. Through the prism of neo-classicism we can delight in ancient fiction while the middle path can sustain the much needed continuum in a time of flux and the avant-garde can tantalise us with new and strange transformations of beauty.