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Updated: November 18, 2012 01:49 IST

New shores, uncharted waters

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Padmini Chettur: Her own way.
National Arts Council
Padmini Chettur: Her own way.

The existent and the emergent trends in Indian contemporary dance.

Over the years, India has opened up to a multiplicity of global influences — a process that has encouraged numerous Indian art forms to find fresh contemporary expression. Among such voices staking a claim for its own vocabulary and syntax is that of contemporary Indian dance.

“Like India itself, Indian contemporary dance seems to be multilingual,” says Sanjoy Roy, a regular writer on dance for UK’s The Guardian. “Many dancers have trained in more than one technique, from a range of sometimes quite distinct styles — such as classical dance forms, martial arts, jazz, Bollywood, ballet, folk dance or other regional forms; and choreographers freely mix and adapt such influences in their work.”

Or as poet and contemporary dance producer Karthika Nair puts it: “Many Indian contemporary dancers are ‘polyglot bodies’ who practise a number of forms and meld the various ‘languages’ without diffidence.”

Roy was in India recently, both as part of the season of contemporary dance organised by the British Council, and as a judge in the inaugural pan-Indian contemporary dance competition, the Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance Award (PECDA 2012), held in Chennai. Such initiatives argue for a deepening interest in the field, or do they?

It seems a relevant juncture to talk to commentators and players in the field, about what exists and what is emerging; about the language of expression; and whether there is anything that specifically characterises “Indian” contemporary dance?

“The answer is ‘Yes’ and ‘No’,” replies Saskia Kersenboom, Associate Professor of Theatre Studies at Amsterdam University who has, since 1975, trained in Bharatanatyam, Carnatic vocals and veena. “Some approaches take off from a very conceptual base, which seems very postmodern Western; while others configure the choreography from the base of music, melody and rhythm, which immediately offers the viewer an ‘Indian’ feel.”

“In principle, I don’t look at ‘National Identity’ but more at a ‘Personal identity’,” says Claire Verlet, dance artistic director at the Theatre de la Ville. She believes that “Contemporary Dance” is an art that is free from national borders — and the differences are not that huge between countries.

“The historical weight of traditional forms (in India) provides both a firm technical base to train in, and a firm place from which to launch into new territories,” says Emma Gladstone, Artistic Programmer and Producer for Sadler’s Wells. “‘Distinctive Indian style’ is arguably more about the diversity of styles than anything more unifying.”

In a word, contemporary dance in India today is “resilient,” says Nair. “Determination and dreams fuel the community of contemporary dancers, balanced precariously as they are between the two leviathans in Indian dance: the classical and commercial, Bollywood-related, principally.”

Contemporary dance in India has been developing quite steadily for at least the past 10 years. Verlet highlights certain key figures such as the pioneer Chandralekha, after whom “Padmini Chettur courageously deepened her own path, followed by her performer Preethi Atreya. The Gati Centre in Delhi and Attakalari in Bangalore offer solid training for young dancers, and this has a big impact on the dance community.”

Outside of India, the natural course of progression for Indian contemporary might have been to seek a platform in Asia. However, only a very few have made this step, such as Chettur, who has been a strong presence in international arts and dance festivals.

As Verlet observes, “The relationship between Indian artists and the rest of Asia doesn’t seem to be very strong. For the moment, I see rarely any Indian contemporary dancers programmed in Singapore, Hong Kong or Bangkok, except Chettur. I feel that fruitful links could be developed as far as Japan and Australia.”

Verlet notes that big arts festivals such as those in Melbourne or Hong Kong have helped Asian artists develop their work and, crucially, meet international producers. “For example, internationally renowned Pichet Klunchun from Thailand started out at a festival in Bangkok curated by Singapore’s Tang Fu Kuen.”

A severe situation

At the moment, India has few opportunities of this kind, and neither is there a professional structure in place. Currently, it would seem that choreographers not only have to make new work but also run companies themselves. It is “a situation found in many countries, but evidently quite severe in India,” says Roy.

“From my individual Western viewpoint as a theatre programmer and producer,” says Gladstone, “I see a lack of professionals to help link artists and their work with the right audiences. It is extremely testing for artists to do the fundraising, marketing, press and publicity and contractual negotiations — as well as have the energy and focus to create fresh, stimulating work. “

To help stimulate the scene, Roy hopes for a shift away from dance being seen as a field that needs subsidy towards one that offers opportunities for investment and return. “Well, yes, it would be wonderful to see the right mixture of public/ corporate investment being injected into the field,” says Nair.

She elaborates: “That is to say, on the one hand, for the State to support contemporary dance on public platforms, to include more contemporary dancers in their lists of empanelled artists, to offer residences in theatres and universities. And on the other hand, for private sector industry to see dance as an investment, and dancers as ‘brand ambassadors’ to reflect their own image.”

Also critical to the mixture would be promoters. As Gladstone points out, these are people “who can make creative introductions between collaborators, see the bigger picture, and take programming leaps.”

In terms of style and form, or the conceptual and the aesthetic, Indian contemporary dancers need to sidestep many pitfalls. Such as the trap of exoticisation, or re-packaging the Indian traditional in hip wrapping paper that makes it easy to unpack in the West.

There is also, counter-intuitively, the danger of almost too much choice, in the styles that can be accessed from the repertoire of Indian classical and martial art forms. Mere sampling of the forms, without thinking through intent and concept, leads to uneasy fusions rather than thoughtful explorations.

Therefore, to aspiring contemporary dancers/ choreographers, “try to develop your own personal language, a specific voice, a research on content and form,” advises Verlet.

Kersenboom adds: “Familiarise yourself more deeply with the natural ‘multimedia-lity’ of Indian oral traditions and their sophisticated elaborations such as Tamil culture expressed in the ‘words, sounds, and images’ concept of Mutthamizh.”

Overall, “this is a moment of great excitement,” says Ranvir Shah, founder, Prakriti Foundation. “Dynamic new energies are organically exploding in the contemporary dance world and it can only get more vibrant as the community grows. It is a genre that’s allowing many younger dancers to express themselves, in our global times, through a multiplicity of media; they are willing to take risks, with themselves, their bodies and their careers.” If Indian dance is to conquer new shores, it must be willing to go into uncharted waters.

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