The Changing Face of Indian Classical Dance
Indian Classical Dance is rooted in its rich tradition. The content, especially emotive content, has been one of the prime factors to bind the art to tradition. This emotive content is derived from musical compositions the dancer performs to. These compositions have been penned by different composers, from 500 BC till last year (Kokkar 11) But irrespective of the era or the composer, the content predominantly dwells around two themes – one that is religious and the other that reflects a man’s perspective of a woman.
As all forms of Indian classical dance trace their origins to temples, their content revolved around religious themes. Once the temples lost their patronage, they could not maintain the upkeep of the dancers, who then turned to the local chieftains and landlords for support. The newer compositions added then were imbued with amorous overtones, an attempt to please the new patrons. All compositions were penned by men and performed by women, and the themes revolved around what a woman went through in her relationship with her male partner. In the name of tradition, Indian classical dance continues to dwell on these two themes exhaustively.
In the early 20th century the dominance of the “male gaze” and the strong religious content of Indian dance came under critical examination. (Kothari 13). Many dancers started questioning the repertoire and its content which did not keep pace with the social changes. Contemporary choreographers, with their unique creativity, and their varying external influences or exposure, started creating innovative work to address this lacuna in content. However, the experiments of the choreographers with the content drove some changes to the form itself. Thus, through a symbiotic process both form and content fostered an evolution of dance. As a dancer and choreographer myself, I believe that dance cannot be considered an artefact but an evolving entity; both in its form and content. However, given that artists also have a larger responsibility of being ambassadors for a culture, an inorganic shift both in form and content does question this cultural identity.
The starting point of any innovative effort stems from the choreographer’s share of exposure to the world and the influential factors in his or her life which prompts him or her to step out of tradition. One of India’s pioneers in modern dance, Uday Shankar, was born in India but moved to London to join his father at the impressionable age of twenty. (Massey 222,223,224). His stay in London exposed him to ballet. He brought elements of ballet, Indian dance (both folk and classical) and painting to his performances. He broke away from the classical pattern of adhering movement to the metrical cycle (Tala) and aligning emotion to the lyrical word (Sahitya) (Vatsayana 21). His creations brought forth change in both form and content triggered by his western influence.
Another stalwart figure in the history of contemporary dance was Dr. Manjushri Sircar. She was influenced by the compositions of Rabindranath Tagore, a poet and a Nobel Laureate. “The rich musical structure of Tagore’s compositions and the depth and subtlety of the imagery of his poetry needed expression in dynamic movements in a style far removed from the classical” claims Dr. Sircar (34). Dr. Sircar formed her own dance called Navanritya , where she imbibed the best from several forms of Indian classical dance including Odissi, Bharatanatyam and Manipuri (Sircar 40). Dr. Sircar’s Navanritya is a classic example of change in content effecting a change in form.
It is also noteworthy that some contemporary choreographers brought out a change in form which had an impact on traditional forms too. Contemporary choreographer Chandralekha was a feminist and social activist. Her ideas had an impact on her works. Her work brought out the superiority of the female energy. Her use of the male and female bodies unsettles the audience with its overt physicality; however it provokes the audience to feel closer to their bodies thereby recuperating their inner energies. This is the sentiment Chandralekha sought to achieve with her creations. Chandralekha used Bharatnatyam dancers to do yoga, dance and martial artists interchangeably in her works. Slow but energized lunges, kicks, stretches and leaps characterized her creative work (Sharira). She retained the purity of the Bharatnatyam line and set it in relation to allied body disciplines like yoga and martial arts (Chandralekha 57).
The form and structure of Indian classical dance in the traditional setting has also undergone changes. Sangeet Natak Akademi, India’s national academy for music, dance and drama identifies eight classical dance forms in India (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_classical_dance). The evidence of the existence of these Indian classical dance forms can be traced back to the Indian scriptures and temple architectures. The temples of India dating back to the first century AD have architectural evidence in the form of stone carvings and scultptures depicting dancing women in vivid poses or Karanas. However, a closer observation of these figures would reveal that over the years the form of the dance has gone through an organic progression. As Chandralekha points out in her essay ‘reflections on new directions in Indian dance’, “History of dance cannot be seperated from the history of various stages of society. The variations in dance are like variations in soil, climate, trees and vegetation.”
By comparing the temple figures with dancers from the last twenty five years, one can perceive a definite change in form. Fluid body lines have been replaced by angular positions; a relaxed pace of the dance has been sensationalized by speed and a minimal usage of space has been taken over by increased spatial coverage. An avid observer of the dance scene rightly describes his expectation from the artist as “I want the dancers to make love to time and space, I get enthralled to see clean geometric lines constructed by the body using the continum of time and space” . Sujata Vijayaraghavan, well known columnist, commented in her article in The Hindu, “In the past few years, Bharatanatyam, one of the most sophisticated and evolved dance forms, seems to have imperceptibly metamorphosed...Perhaps it all started with Chandralekha's ‘Angika,’ which brought back into focus the power, the energy and the lines of body movements in nritta (pure dance)” (Vijayaraghavan, Sujatha).
The form has been evolving either due to the influence of creative thinkers or changes in the audience’s aesthetic perception. The problem surfaces in viewing these forms in its rigid classical boundaries . Merging the synergies of the various Indian dance forms would set it free and packaging them thus would make the vocabulary rich and vast for contemporary dancers. Many contemporary choreographers like Anita Ratnam, Chandralekha synergized many Indian art forms to give creative expression to their ideas.
As a performer in the traditional setting, I have witnessed a gradual progression in the form of classical Indian dance during my performing career. However the question of content has intrigued me. When I shared my mental tribulations with other classical Indian dancers, I found out that I was not alone in my musings. “I enjoy dancing the items presented by the rich repertoire but feel the need to add to the repertoire with items of social relevance” argues Vidhya Subramaniam, Artistic Director of Lasya Dance Company, Cupertino, CA. She also adds, “The implicit faith we had in our teachers and the traditional family settings made it easy for us to identify with the themes of these items. However it does become challenging to pass on the feeling behind these pieces to a student far removed from this traditional setting.”
Ramaa Bharadvaj, the Director of Angahara Ensemble in California, is a dancer, teacher, choreographer and actress with over three decades of creative achievements. Her performances have been listed by Orange County Register as the Most Memorable World Dance event for three years: 1992, 1997 and 2000. In her interview with Nartaki online magazine she says, “There is so much material to draw from in our own tradition. They just need to be reinterpreted with a contemporary flair. For example, the story of Krishna lifting the Govardhana Mountain itself offers a significant environmental concept when Krishna says, “Why do you have to worship Indra? Worship the trees, the mountains, the cows.” But we have to also remember that history has progressed creating new stories as powerful as the mythological ones, complete with the miracles of man’s strength. We have to make room for their portrayal as well.”
Given this paradigm shift in thought, both among contemporary free thinkers and those following the traditional dance, the classical tenets of Indian dance are constantly placed under the microscope. While these changes in form and content are essential for any art form, I believe an inorganic shift in form might shake the identity of the dance itself. In 1993, the same question was raised in a choreography workshop organized by George Lechner, entitled “New Directions in Indian Dance,” and a debate ensued on what constitutes Contemporary Indian Dance (Coorlawala 168). When contemporary dancers address the issue of content using dance vocabularies far removed from the Indian culture, it makes one wonder whether the creation can be called Indian contemporary dance or would it suffice to call it just contemporary dance. Was the word “Indian” used only because the creator was an Indian? Dance, music, architecture and literature act as icons of a country’s culture. In today’s shrinking world, the societal boundaries are blurring but to lose one’s individuality would mean that we have nothing of ours to pass on to the next generation. If the form has evolved allowing for change, then do we need a seperate category of artists called “contemporary dancers?” Can this content be incorporated into main stream dancing itself?
As a performer and teacher, I have often wondered about my conviction in the content of the repertoire. Do I teach my students the same content passed to me by my teachers? How do I make them see sense in the mythological content and its occasional absurdity? As a teacher of an ancient art, I feel I hold both the responsibility of passing on the tradition and inspiring my students to think on their own. Indian classical dance has lived through several social changes; the performers and teachers have been adapting this art to the changing needs of the society. However, with the generations becoming shorter leading to rapid changes in the ideologies of today’s society [audience], a faster rate of adaptation would make the art more appealing to the current students of the art form: the future custodians of the art. These students are clearly a modest representation of the audience. I believe that they are driving the call for adaptation; the need to appeal to both the reason and aesthetics of the students is motivating teachers and performers to actively create avenues for further evolution in the art.
List of Works Cited
- Kothari, Sunil. Introduction. New directions in Indian dance. Ed. Sunil Kothari Mumbai, India: Marg, 2003. 10-18.
Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar and critic. In his introduction to the book, he has traces the history of Classical Indian dance. He logically analyzes the rigidity that has crept into the dance form over the ages. He sets the context for the rest of the book which is a compilation of essays from different people who have contributed to the evolution of Indian dance. He has drawn attention to important events like the East- West Dance Encounter conducted by George Lechner of Max Mueller Bavan in 1984 and significant contributors like Uday Shankar, Manjushri Sircar, Usha Coorlawala and Chandralekha in tracing the progress of Indian dance. He has however only brought out the evolution of dance in the contemporary realm and not in its traditional setting.
2. Chandralekha. “Refletions on new directions in Indian dance.” New Directions in Indian Dance. Ed. Sunil Kothari. Mumbai, India: Marg, 2003. 50- 58.
Chandralekha is an Indian classical dancer who used the idiom of Indian classical dance and aligned it with other Indian arts like Yoga and Martial arts to create a new dance language. She argues that the evolution of dance is closely related to evolution of societies across the world. She points out several archaic social values inbuilt in Indian dance and thus it becomes unresponsive to the dramatic social, historical, scientific human changes that have occurred around us. She feels it is important for dancers to understand the power of their basic form and explore its close links to other disciplines like martial art. This is a point that interests me as it was closely linked to my thesis. The most important part of the essay for me was her take on capitalizing on her training in a a classical dance form like Bharatnatyam but not get lost in its content. She feels one has to comprehend its inherent energy and see it in relation to other allied physical disciplines in India - like yoga, ancient martial arts and allied life activity with its investment in physical labor. However I feel she doesn’t talk about the emotive content of the dance form which is a very integral and differentiating aspect of the art form. She feels one has modernize tradition through a creative process.
3. Dr. Manjusri Chaki Sircar. “Tagore and modernization of dance.” New Directions in Indian Dance. Ed. Sunil Kothari. Mumbai, India: Marg, 2003. 32-45.
Dr. Sircar is an exponent of Modern Indian dance and formed her own version of Indian dance called Navanritya. She outlines Rabindranath Tagore’s strong impact on her and the entire dance field. She claims that lyrical content and emotive concepts are very unique to the Indian tradition and thus considers it misleading and immature to give it up for only pure dance movements, a step that my further encourage “cultural colonialism” by the west. She however confers that lyrical text is more of an aural support and the dance pieces could exist independent of text as well. I found her essay very useful in substantiating my premise of content influencing structural form and vice versa.
4. Subramaniam, Vidhya. Personal Interview. 25 April 2011.
Vidhya Subramaniam is the Artistic Director of Lasya School of Dance, Cupertino, Ca. She is a classical Indian dancer, instructor and choreographer. She is a senior to me in the field of Indian classical dance and her works display a good mix of traditional and contemporary thought. I have also read a few of her articles. I felt she might be able to offer a teacher and choreographer’s perspective to the future of Indian classical dance. She reaffirmed my personal dilema of teaching traditional content in its original sense to today’s students of classical dance. She showed conviction in the traditional art but also felt the need to add to the repertoire. She also added that younger audiences are more open to changes to content than the older ones who are more set in their ways. The interview with Vidhya was able to bring a more practical approach to my paper.
- Vijayaraghavan, Sujata. “All leaps and Jumps.” Hindu: Web. 5 April 2011.
This article was written by Sujata Vijayaraghavan, a well known dance scholar and critic in The Hindu, a popular English newspaper in India. She points out the changes that are taking place in the basic form of traditional Indian dancing due to external influences. She argues that dancers are sensationalizing their dance with leaps, jumps and other idioms from contemporary dance forms. She observes the growing need of young as well as senior dancers and teachers to attract the audience with attempts at innovations to the form and structure of dance. Her article brought forth the influence contemporary Indian dances on one hand and the audience expectations on the other had on creating a change in the form of traditional Indian dances.
6. Massey, Reginald. India’s Dances: Their History, Technique and Repertoire. New Delhi, India: Abhinav, 2004. 222-224.
7. Vatsyayan, Kapila. “Modern dance: the contribution of Uday Shankar and his associates.” New Directions in Indian Dance. Ed. Sunil Kothari. Mumbai, India: Marg, 2003. 32-45.
8. Sharira. Dir. Chandralekha. Perf. Tishani Doshi and Shaji Lal. 30 Nov. 2009. Youtube. 25 April 2011.
9. Bharadwaj, Ramaa. Interview. Narthaki online magazine. Chennai, India : July.2002. Web. 26 April 2011 <http://www.narthaki.com/info/intervw/intrvw45.html>
10. Coorlawala, Uttara Asha. “Reinscribing “Indian” dance.” New Directions in Indian Dance. Ed. Sunil Kothari. Mumbai, India: Marg, 2003. 168-176.
- Kokkar, Ashish Mohan. Bharatnatyam. New Delhi, India: Rupa & Co, 2002. 11-13.
- "Indian Classical Dance." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 20 April 2011. Web. 25 April 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_classical_dance>