Some say it's all about black clothes and rolling on the floor, but the issues before Delhi's Contemporary Dancers go beyond costuming

Contemporary Dance, said one venerable critic famously, is that which cons the public temporarily. Ok, he was making a dig at classical dancers who opted for off-beat themes and exchanged their gold bordered saris for leotards to lure audiences and sponsors. Approximately 20 years after this statement made the rounds of Mandi House, the fraught relationship between Indian classical and Contemporary dancers and their potential sponsors and audiences remains just that: fraught; in fact, perhaps a little more complicated.

The hierarchy of the various arts has always been debatable in India — a country whose image in the modern world has been inextricably linked to its ancient art heritage, and which regularly uses culture as an export and promotion tool. Well-known Contemporary choreographer Bharat Sharma sounds irritated with the system that has created more problems than solutions for the art scene in the six decades since independence. But while the dances billed as classical — including Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Odissi, Manipuri and Kuchipudi, etc. — are considered ‘Indian' and part of the nation's heritage, the Contemporary dancers feel constantly snubbed.

Bharat, currently running the Bhoomika Creative Dance Centre founded by his late father, the eminent Narendra Sharma, points out that Contemporary Dance never got the billing it deserved. “There are no forums, no place for people to perform,” he says, asking, “Where are the festivals of Contemporary Dance in India?”

While classical dancers have Khajuraho, the Chennai ‘December season', and various other events across the country and throughout the year to apply for programmes, says Sharma, there is no such opening for performers of Contemporary. But Indian Contemporary Dance does continue to thrive, however starved of funding. In Delhi, to name only two, not only is the Bhoomika troupe continuing to perform despite the demise of its founder over two years ago, but Gati, a forum for young dancers, regularly works with young choreographers and is planning its first festival, Ignite, this November. Is it necessary to divide the dance festivals up into categories to find space for the Contemporary dancers?

Those in charge of the existing festivals — whose conceptualisation Sharma feels is in any case outmoded (temples, religious festivals, etc.) — are not willing to make a slot for Contemporary Dance there. All in all, he feels there is always a “patronising” attitude towards Contemporary Dance.

Problems of perception

Meanwhile, dancer Anusha Lall, director of Gati, points out, “Gati was a space created for dancers, whether classical or Contemporary”. However, it is better known for providing opportunity to choreographers who want to create an idiom of their own. Anusha says Gati has received encouraging support for its events from the Sangeet Natak Akademi, which has even expressed a willingness for a long-term tie-up.

Sharma maintains Contemporary Dancers face a problem of categories. While SNA says it supports only classical dance, theatre agencies like the National School of Drama say they support theatre. Obviously the problem lies in perception. Anusha's personal quest for a contemporary idiom has been through Bharatanatyam, and many at Gati work that way. This seems to be the ‘accepted' manner of working, which gets Sharma's goat.

“The only thing is we create our own technique,” he explains, and feels it is outdated to dwell too much on exhibition of skill. He recalls when his father was at Bharatiya Kala Kendra, established classical artistes would taunt him saying, “Arre zara ghunguroo baandh ke toh dikha den!” Uday Shankar spent more hours improvising individual technique than learning classical forms, emphasises Sharma. The other aspect is that Contemporary Dance is considered ‘western', which is laughable, he adds. “Is there anything like Eastern Dance?”

Anusha admits many complain they can't understand Contemporary Dance beyond a bunch of people on stage wearing black clothes. “And this is true, because there has not been investing in Contemporary Dance,” she remarks.

At a recent Gati performance, she says, many in the packed house may have been dissatisfied and confused, “but at least they were intrigued.”

No denying that. The human body has myriad expressions. It will dance.