The artificial dichotomy between traditional and western dance forms comes in the way of new hybrid forms.
Within Indian dance, there are several traditional and indigenous dance forms. Relatively recently, more and more Indian dancers have been exposed to western classical ballet, modern dance and what is loosely termed as western contemporary dance. The mixing of two indigenous Indian dance forms, of classical western and Indian forms, or even of Indian traditions and western modernist dance have resulted in a genre called ‘Indian contemporary dance', which may also involve deconstructing Indian traditional and western modernist forms in an Indian context. This genre personifies hybridity in Indian dance.
Presenting this hybridity has been somewhat problematic in India. The traditional Indian and modern western forms have both found patrons and practitioners within India. But as they found their distinctive spaces in the world of Indian dance, they opposed each other in a contradictory and dichotomous manner. Moreover, this dichotomy increasingly appeared to be uncompromisingly rigid. This rigidity has persisted over the years, and is reinforced by both the traditional-classical and modernist-‘westernised' communities of dancers. Many classical dancers question the need for contemporary inputs into Indian dance, claiming that there is enough value and richness in Indian traditions. In turn, some modern dancers question the contemporary relevance of the ancient poetry, the mythological and religious narratives. Thus the dichotomy becomes normalised and hybridity becomes problematised.
The reason for this is that the dichotomy is deliberately made rigid by putting systems in place to keep this so. Both classical and contemporary practitioners feel the need to safeguard either what they perceive to be a dying ancient tradition or a small and very niche contemporary form of artistic expression. Hybridity in Indian dance requires that this dichotomy be dissolved (because it utilises both traditional and modern dance). But this is easier said than done.
Examples of Indian classical and modernist movements in dance prove that theoretically, this dichotomy can be dismantled. I found that the lines between them are not stark and rigid, but really quite blurry. Bharatanatyam, for example, is at once classical and contemporary. Bharatanatyam is ‘ classical' in its mythological narrative, the fact that it is ‘ traditional' and ‘ ancient'. But it is also a departure from the ‘ classical' — in its transformation from ‘Sadir' to ‘ Bharatanatyam', from temple to theatre, in content (as the Tanjore Quartet modified it) and the change in caste-class dynamics of its practitioners. It ‘reinvented' itself periodically and continues to do so. Examining Indian contemporary dance, Chandralekha's work was arguably contemporary. She addressed ‘contemporary' issues like feminism and the importance of body and breath. Yet her work exclusively utilised classical forms like Bharatanatyam, Kalaripayattu and Yoga. The classical and contemporary in India are clearly not mutually exclusive.
Ignorance of the other
Despite this obvious fluidity between classical and modernist Indian dance, the dichotomy exists due to two main factors. The first is ignorance of other dance forms. Classical dancers who say contemporary dance has no technique or discipline, or contemporary dancers who say that classical dance has only technique and discipline are simply ignorant about the other form. Dancers who open their minds to another dance form would realise that there is much to learn from it that perhaps their own dance form did not teach in the same way. What is needed is not a premature and hasty judgment, but a deep understanding of the ‘other' dance form. The acceptance that the contemporary-classical binary is an inevitable reality is then an excuse to not do this hard work.
Secondly, the existence of the binary seems to conceal a closed-mindedness amongst practitioners. It is not uncommon to hear of discouragement regarding learning other dance forms — gurus who hint at catastrophic consequences for shishyas who show interest in contemporary dance, and contemporary dance teachers who want students to ‘shed' their classical backgrounds before entering their classrooms. This is not to say that all gurus and teachers are like that. But one does hear of these occurrences frequently enough to illustrate that the dichotomy plagues the minds of not just some dancers, but also their teachers.
These factors, among others, make the binary appear rigid when in fact it is fluid, and have stood in the way of hybridity because they don't permit the two worlds of classical and modern to meet. The acceptance of this incommensurable difference promotes the idea of competition and opposition amongst the two genres. In turn, closed-mindedness and lack of understanding justify the existence of this binary. Having established that this irreconcilable opposition is unnecessary because the classical and contemporary in India flow into and draw content from each other, this article attempts to unhinge the idea of a pre-existing classical-contemporary bipolarity that invades the minds of many dancers, teachers, critics and spectators, and highlights some of the real possible reasons — the lack of understanding and open mindedness — for why the dichotomy persists despite its obvious irrelevance in the world of Indian dance.
The writer is a Delhi-based dancer.