Indian dance has come a long way since the era of the devadasi. Scholars and dancers came together at a unique symposium in Toronto recently to unravel its complexities, and to share their personal journeys.

Does solo Indian dance have a future? What is its history? What are its present challenges in India and the diaspora worldwide? Such issues were the subject of scholarly papers and lively performances in a Symposium (June 4-5, 2010) entitled “Solo Dance: Perspectives from South India and Beyond” held in Toronto, Canada by InDance company in collaboration with the Royal Ontario Museum and its Friends of South Asia. The event was envisioned by Hari Krishnan, Artistic director of InDance (Toronto) and Davesh Soneji, scholar of South Indian history, both deeply knowledgeable about solo dance from South India, “particularly in its manifestation” notes Krishnan in the symposium booklet, “as Bharatanatyam [that has] emerged as a global signifier of South Asian culture.”

Dancers, choreographers, and scholars from India, North America, and Europe attended the proceedings balanced thoughtfully between performances of present day Bharatanatyam and contemporary Indian dance, and scholarly papers traversing the history of devadasi dance in the 19th and 20th centuries and its transformations.

Innovations

The tone for the symposium was set in a reverential opening with Saskia Kersenboom performing “the first songs (and ritual dances) greeting the gods” in the temple. Professor Janet O'Shea's keynote addressed the complex terrain of solo dance usually associated with tradition, and group/ensemble work with innovation or experimentation. In a special session, noted musicologist B.M. Sundram recounted anecdotes of meeting devadasis, and their resistance to the 1947 legal banning of their practice. Dance critic Sunil Kothari screened rare visuals of the abhinaya of Venkatalakshamma—a devadasi from Karnataka. Solo dance performance by Anita Ratnam in a spellbinding fifteen-minute extract of her piece, ‘7 Graces' was introduced by Krishnan as “non-linear, using mythology as metaphor.” A neo-baroque solo by Patricia Beaman, Accumulating Venus uniquely “deconstructed the Passacaglia de Venus (1725).” Leela Samson's talk, “Reflections on My Journey” was interspersed by a moving performance of her Bharatanatyam choreography including a dance to a North Indian thumri.

Other memorable performances included a “Plenary Dance Performance of Padams and Javalis: Solo Dance as crafted by Balsaraswati”, rendered by senior disciple T.Shyamala who brought to life Bala's unique abhinaya style where talam is maintained even as the dancer interprets the lyric poetry. Another performance highlight was InDance's performance of “Nineteenth-Century Solo Dance Repertoire in the Twenty-First Century” with Krishnan's rigorously trained and expressive multiethnic (Indian-Canadian, Japanese-Canadian) dancers who presented five solos from the devadasi repertoire learnt by Krishnan from hereditary performers. Krishnan danced with Srividya Natarajan in an energetic choreography of solo dance re-interpreted as a duet.

Among scholarly papers, Joep Bor and Tiziana Leucci's original research on “The European Performances of Five Devadasis in 1838 and 1839” traced the 18-month journey of these first devadasis, brought to France from a Vishnu temple in Pondicherry by impresario E.C. Tardivel. They danced for the French royal family, becoming “instant celebrities.” Bor and Leucci quoted from newspaper reviews of the time, both complimentary and derogatory: “they dance not only with the feet but the whole body”; “they speak a language in their dance resembling that of the deaf and dumb in gestures.”

Wide ranging

Davesh Soneji discussed the javali's origins as “a musical and literary form” in the 19th century Mysore court. Many javali composers, noted Soneji, were in the colonial Civil Service as clerks or postal workers. Soneji used the words “devadasi/ courtesan” interchangeably in order to assert solidarity between South and North Indian artists and their monumental service in preserving the arts.

“Reflections on Contemporary Solo Dance, Identity, and Selfhood” included papers by Ketu Katrak analysing the interplay of dance and theatre in the work of Los Angeles based Post-Natyam Collective's artist Shyamala Moorty; by Chitra Sundaram on South Asian dance in Britain having become “a spectacle”; by Rathna Kumar on her 35-year dance journey in Houston, Texas with increasing requests for group dance, and Bollywood style dance.

The closing Plenary chaired by Hari Krishnan appropriately gave the platform to solo dancers from India (Leela Samson, Anita Ratnam) and North America (Peggy Baker, Denise Fujiwara, Patricia Beaman) who evocatively shared their processes of creative choreography, and candidly discussed the personal sacrifices and rewards of doing solo work in late 20th and into the 21st century. Across geographical distances (based in India, Toronto, or New York), their experiences echoed with uncanny resonance as they shared similar experiences over their three to four decade-long careers.

Their words in the present brought the entire Symposium full circle—from early 20th century legislations into the local and global realities of our world today, even as they gestured to the hopes and challenges facing solo dancers in the 21st century.

Feeling the connection

Why should I travel 10,000 miles to Toronto and share the stage with two other senior dancers from Chennai? Simply because the three of us may live in the same city but we almost never meet and certainly would never have watched one another on stage on the same evening. T. Shyamala ( senior student of Balasaraswati), Leela Samson of Kalakshetra and I performed the traditional, classical and modern from South India. I not only felt ‘connected' to my female colleagues but found my own sense of 'place' in the larger dance discussions that emerged out of the InDance event. While solo dance is losing its sheen with the public and dance presenters the world over, this seminal conference reminded me of the source of the great tradition of Bharatanatyam and its multiple avatars around the globe. The conference also brought home the sober fact that the intellectual centre of Indian dance has shifted outside India with the brilliant academic papers and presentations by diaspora speakers and western scholars.

Anita R. Ratnam

Ketu Katrak is Professor, Comparative Literature, at University of California, Irvine, USA

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