The world has always used dance as an instrument for social activism. India, with its gamut of social issues, must take a strong step forward in dance activism
Sometimes people counterpose dance and politics, as if dance has no politics. This is mistaken. In fact, art has its own way of being political. Indeed, every art form has its own distinctive way of being political. Of course, the more imaginatively and brilliantly art is conceptualised, the better its chances of conveying its political message aesthetically. The use of activism in the arts can be abrasive to watch if aesthetics aren’t kept in mind.
Some wonderful art — theatre, music, poetry, cinema and painting — has resulted from activism and social change — Bertold Brecht’s play Fear and Misery of the Third Reich was against Fascism, George Orwell’s book against totalitarianism titled 1984 , Bob Dylan’s song ‘Hurricane’ raised awareness about racism against boxer Ruben Carter, Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, painted in response to the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, and The City of God, a Brazillian film about the growth of organized crime in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro.
Dance too has been aesthetically used as an instrument for social activism in the past. Isadora Duncan’s dance is a fine example of dance as a form of political and national embodiment, according to Andrew Hewitt, author of Social Choreography. It was an activist stance against anti-authoritarianism, rejecting set formulations in dance, resisting the “authority” of written notations of dance, without compromising on aesthetics.
Dance also played an activist role in resisting Colonialism. Jesse Phillips-Fein cites the example of African slaves who used dance beautifully to maintain their cultural traditions and identity, during and after slavery in the Americas.
Dance was used as a means of worship and to continue their religious traditions, thereby demonstrating the power of dance as a means to resist cultural obliteration.
Choreographers across the globe have created work about socio-political issues such as racism, HIV/AIDS, poverty, gender identities, and feminisim. In New York in the thirties, workers from the Communist party and various unions trained with Martha Graham, Doris Humphray, Charles Weidman and Helen Tamaris, resulting in the Workers Dance League, whose slogan was “Dance Is a Weapon in the Revolutionary Class Struggle”.
Activism in dance also took the form of questioning. Choreographers used several tools — be it a narrative, or a clever use of performance space in terms of stepping out of the ‘blackbox’ theatre setup and site-specific choreography — to make the audience a part of this questioning. This challenges the passivity of spectators and activates their engagement with the work in question.
Dance has been utilised as a tool of activism in India as well. There was a time when dance in India by embodying nationalism, played an anti-colonial role.
More recently, two dancers who immediately come to mind are Chandralekha and Mallika Sarabhai. The former has addressed issues of manifold significance as well as oppression of women in India in her work “Sri”; and the power of female energy in “Sharira”. Mallika Sarabhai’s repertoire consists of several pieces on violence and conflict in India and she is well known for being a politically committed artist during the rise of Hindutva in Gujarat.
More recently, young choreographers in Gati’s Summer Dance Residency have creatively deployed dance to highlight the plight of Irom Sharmila, to reflect on today’s society, to explore questions about the politics of the body etc.
However, I also see a lot of Indian dance, classical and contemporary, remaining confined to mythology or abstract form. India is a country with no dearth of socio-political issues to address — whether it’s regarding gender, class, caste or the environment. I believe there can be a lot more dance activism in India.
Dance can be used as an incredibly powerful tool to make people aware of these issues. Indeed, it should be used to activate and engage the minds of our audiences; to be a reflection of sorts to society; to show our audiences what they see all around them without really looking. The changing face of dance is, after all, an indicator of social change. Dancers should be its agents.