This Thing Called Culture Dance

Why were Indian dance-dramas referred to as ballets?

Uday Shankar’s works were extremely popular in the West  

Imagine, 50 years ago, dance critics were called ballet critics, when they wrote reviews . How and why did this reference come about? It was in 1830 that the first ‘ballet’ on an Indian theme was done. ‘Le Dieu et la Bayadere — The God and the Dancing Girl’.

It was choreographed by Filippo Taglioni, father of great ballerina Marie Taglioni, and first performed in Paris in October 1830. Clearly, West knew of temple dancing girls as the devadasis were known then in the West. In 1877, another ballet on the same theme, La Bayadere was produced in Russia. It was choreographed by iconic ballet master Marius Petipa and was first time performed in the famous Maryinsk Theatre in St. Petersburg. The pivotal role in La Bayadere was undertaken by Marie Taglioni and later by Anna Pavlova.

So what is ballet as an art form? If Indian dance is known today universally it is due to this format that was widely popularised by the West in the last few centuries. Ballet is a group classical dance with music, no dialogue, major scenography and choreography. These are four important and different ingredients. Add, Indian democratic way of doing things: a sutradhar or a counter point.

Classical dancing pushed to the back under a long colonial rule, had a revival through mythological and historical productions all through the last century. How best to use our classical forms in group art form was inbuilt in Kathakali and Yakshagana traditions but both had dialogue. To use Kathak or Bharatanatyam in a story line, linear or otherwise, was a challenge for traditional masters or nattuvunars.

This ballet format also helped eschew strictly classical structure and language and helped go beyond the routine stories of kings and gods; saints and sinners. Ballet could depict hidden themes of hunger and greed; humans and even animals.

What appellation would suit this form? ‘Oriental Dance’ no longer had the same connotation. Modern dance it was not because in structure and substance its base was still classical. Ballet was generic and general. Besides, it was a popular word worldwide. So it stuck. From 1930s to 1980s the word has been used liberally.

The second ‘Indian ballet’ to be produced in the West was ‘Lalla Rookh’, also called the ‘Rose of Lahore’. It was inspired by Thomas Moore's oriental romance of the former name and first produced in London in 1846. Its choreography was by Jules Perrot. Then in 1858 came Kalidas’ ‘Shakuntala.’ This was based on the book by Theophile Gautier and choreographed by Lucien Petipa, brother of the famous Marius Petipa. This was premiered in Paris. So one sees major destinations — Paris, London, Moscow — taking to themes Indian even before India had.

Why were Indian dance-dramas referred to as ballets?

In 1899 came ‘Talisman’ and its original story included Akbar, the King of Delhi; Damayanti the King’s daughter. Noureddin the Maharaja of Lahore and Amravati , goddess of Heavenly Spirits! The cultural mish mash was complete with total disregard to real history. ‘Talisman’ was followed by ‘Scheherazade’, based on a tale in Thousand and One Nights. It was first produced in Paris of 1910 and choreographed by Michel Fokine, music by Rimsky-Korsakov and decor by Leon Bakst. The scenography separated ballet from Indian classical dance aesthetics, which is high on the art of suggestivity.

In western ballet, direct depiction of a scene, with elaborate sets, became its hallmark. Sets by masters like Sergei Diaghilev find mention in later works of Indian pioneers like Ram Gopal.

What Ram and Uday Shankar did 1930s onwards were ballets. The content was Indian. The aesthetics were western. Remember, they were catering mostly to European audiences and once successful there, were celebrated in India. Their success helped many reach out. Ananda Shivram to Australia with Louise Lightfoot. Guru gopinath with Ragini Devi to the U.S. Madame Menaka from Bombay to Berlin. Sadhana Bose in 1941 created ‘Bhookh’ on the Bengal famine. 1n 1944, Zohra and Kameshwar Segal produced ‘Reptile’, a work on the divide-and-rule policy of the British. At about the same time of national upsurge came in 1942, the Indian People’s Theatre Association or IPTA. And IRA (Indian Renaissance Artists). Together they created many outstanding ballet works. These included ‘The Spirit of India’, ‘India Immortal’ and ‘The Discovery of India.’

All these ballets were in Uday Shankar style. Only Ram Gopal used mostly Bharatanatyam and Madame Menaka, Kathak. It must be pointed out that slowly Indians deviated from the original and created their own genre. Operatic ballets, Madame Menaka the example. Songs were rendered by singers or dancers themselves (this was never the case with and in western ballet) and scenography was done away with. Rukmini Devi followed this at Kalakshetra with many productions and soon ballet became dance-drama. Which is what Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Melam traditions were anyway to begin with.

After Independence, the word ‘ballet’ became so popular that dancers named their groups after it: Shanti and Gul Bardhan's Little Ballet Troupe (Gwalior then Bhopal); Sachin Shankar Ballet Unit (Bombay). And so it goes.

The writer, a critic and historian, is the author of several books and edits attenDance, a yearbook

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2021 7:23:54 PM |

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