Interrogating a decade of dance: PECDA and the contemporary dance landscape in India

Can a biennial “competition” become a focal point for nurturing and sustaining dance makers in the country? As PECDA came to a close in Bengaluru last weekend, it offered some answers

April 28, 2022 01:02 pm | Updated 01:02 pm IST

Neeraj Lohani‘s ‘Letter’ at PECDA 2022.

Neeraj Lohani‘s ‘Letter’ at PECDA 2022. | Photo Credit: Sharan Devkar Shankar/ Prakriti Foundation

“This is my first video in Insta... old school basic l hope pasand ay ga [hope you’ll like it]” reads dancer and choreographer Pradeep Gupta’s first Instagram post on February 10, 2017. He dances to the camera in a corridor weaving big movements around the metal, tile and wood that surround him. Behind him, a man fiddles with a locker key, while a third man walks towards the camera, breaking into a grin as he sees Gupta move.

Five years and 211 Instagram posts later, Gupta shares another update — a photo of himself with the Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance Awards (PECDA) trophy. Gupta was the 2022 winner of the biennial open-entry dance competition organised by the Prakriti Foundation last weekend.

Winner of PECDA 2022, Pradeep Gupta, with the trophy.

Winner of PECDA 2022, Pradeep Gupta, with the trophy. | Photo Credit: Sharan Devkar Shankar/ Prakriti Foundation

Gupta’s win sealed five editions of PECDA since it began in 2012, with a gap in 2020 due to the pandemic. Every two years, dance makers based in India are invited to submit a short video and proposal for a new performance made for a proscenium space. In 2022, 57 artists applied, of which 18 were shortlisted to perform at the Bangalore International Centre. Five performances were chosen for the finals. Dancer-choreographer Parth Bhardwaj from Bengaluru was the runner-up with his solo work Unsaid, while Kolkata-based Promita Karfa’s Aki Buki: The Ingenious Madness, performed along with Abrar Saqeeb, received special jury mention.

As the winner, Gupta receives a ₹5 lakh grant to develop his 10-minute sketch into a full-length work, along with performance opportunities in a multi-city tour. He will be mentored by French choreographer Rachid Ouramdane, 2022 PECDA jury member and director of the Chaillot-Théâtre National de la Danse in Paris. Ouramdane is a veteran of France’s National Choreographic Centre (Centre Choreographique National), a nationwide network of choreographic hubs aimed at strengthening the French dance scene.

Ranvir Shah, founder of Prakriti Foundation.

Ranvir Shah, founder of Prakriti Foundation. | Photo Credit: Sharan Devkar Shankar/ Prakriti Foundation

Perspective matters
Over the years, the composition of PECDA’s jury, largely made up of experts from the Global North, has drawn criticism for the context and relevance of its decisions. What perspectives and audiences do this jury represent when it makes decisions to support performances made in India — works that often respond to local crises and concerns
Ranvir Shah, founder of Prakriti Foundation, says that the ecosystem of contemporary performance in India is reliant on international support. “This is one of the reasons why we presented work that was finished from some of our friends and dancers who have either been part of PECDA or friends of PECDA.” Shah was referring to the showcase by former competitors and local choreographers, which ran alongside the competition segment. Having invited local and international programmers, Prakriti hopes that the showcased works will have opportunities to tour and perform widely.

For former winners, PECDA has helped expand the scope of their work. Bengaluru-based dancer-choreographer Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy had created a solo and a few works within educational programmes when he won the inaugural edition in 2012. The award allowed him to create an evening-length work. Speaking about the dance environment in India at that time, he says, “In the early 2010s, there were few places which offered the environment and skill sets to create dance work. There was the Gati Summer Dance Residency, the Attakkalari biennial and FACETS residency, and PECDA. These projects exposed more creators to the process of making work.” 

2014 and 2016 winner Surjit Nongmeikapam of Imphal shares this sentiment. “I was focussing on solo work, but after winning PECDA, I had to make a longer version of the piece and had the opportunity to begin working with other people. Manipur is also very isolated, so the award proved helpful to meet others in contemporary dance.”

From the fledgling scenes Shivaswamy describes, the contemporary dance landscape in India has grown to encompass training programmes, residencies, festivals and a few grant opportunities. Most initiatives are funded by a precarious mix of individual and institutional donations, and money raised from classes or performances. But more programmes mean more participants, and contemporary dancers are increasingly likely to hail from non-metropolitan regions. 

Gupta, for instance, is from a working-class background in Maroda, Bhilai. He started in 2014 with hip-hop and breaking, and picked up his initial dance vocabulary from TV. Participating in local dance reality shows in Chhattisgarh, he won a scholarship to do a short training stint at the Terence Lewis Dance Academy in Mumbai. There, he studied a range of “commercial” dance styles, the practices that constitute the vocabulary of reality TV and Bollywood, learning technique, and also understanding what interested him as a maker. 

‘Under Observation’ by Pintu Das.

‘Under Observation’ by Pintu Das. | Photo Credit: Sharan Devkar Shankar/ Prakriti Foundation

Watching a performance of The Kamshet Project by the Terence Lewis Contemporary Dance Company, he was struck by the images and ideas the performers offered up. “I saw animals, a man kissing a woman and then the audience applauding. It felt natural. I felt an urge to make something meaningful, and stopped running after being on TV,” he says.

Gupta performed in 2018 runner-up Purnendra Meshram’s Two Men, a choreographic process he credits with helping him understand how to process his own ideas and realise them in performance. The lockdown saw Gupta, like many other dancers, scrambling to find survival strategies. He was offered support by artist Nathaniel Parchment of the Goa Dance Residency. In isolation, struggling to feel connected to the field, he began working with wooden sticks, a prop that took him back to his childhood. 

Pradeep Gupta performing his piece ‘Bindadevi’.

Pradeep Gupta performing his piece ‘Bindadevi’. | Photo Credit: Sharan Devkar Shankar/ Prakriti Foundation

Bindadevi, his PECDA piece, emerged from that isolation. Over 10 minutes, Gupta traverses a pool of light, clamping two wooden sticks between his arm and leg. He must move with the sticks, producing tiny, sinuous movements — a ripple of the shoulders, a flaring out of the upper back. The sticks define his movement, but also constrain him. Bindadevi is named for Gupta’s parents, Jagroshan Devi and Binda Gupta, and is based on the intergenerational dynamics of a working class home, where his parents’, and particularly his father’s, aspirations shape his reality, simultaneously working to liberate and limit him.

Winning PECDA has reaffirmed Gupta’s faith in his artistic choices. “I have never gone to a dance school. I want to find my own technique. I want to learn from people. I want to allow myself that freedom. I want to embody the movement that is coming from my life at that moment.” For such artists, PECDA is an important moment in an under-resourced landscape, offering the opportunity to be seen and to receive support for their work. They can also meet peers from across the country, start conversations with mentors and funders, and experience what it means to be part of a “community” or “ecosystem”. 

Moments from PECDA 2016 winner Surjit Nongmeikapam’s ‘Meepao’.

Moments from PECDA 2016 winner Surjit Nongmeikapam’s ‘Meepao’. | Photo Credit: Sharan Devkar Shankar/ Prakriti Foundation

The Paris model
PECDA is modelled on Danse Elargie, an annual competition held at the Theatre de la Ville in Paris. Competitors must present a 10-minute work with a minimum of three performers. Finalists at Danse Elargie receive a €2,000 contribution towards the cost of their participation. At this year’s competition, PECDA 2014 and 2016 winner Surjit Nongmeikapam is a finalist for his work ‘Meepao’.

But how does a week-long biennial event foster a sense of community? PECDA’s current artistic directors, Chandrika Grover Ralleigh and Farooq Chaudhry, are hoping to address that. “One supports where one can. Institutions and initiatives are having to expand their roles to actively encompass the pastoral, as it were, and the last two years have been a learning in this direction. We need to move actively towards a dedicated recognition of this mutual caregiving within communities,” Grover Ralleigh says.

‘Within Lines’ by Parth Bhardwaj.

‘Within Lines’ by Parth Bhardwaj. | Photo Credit: Sharan Devkar Shankar/ Prakriti Foundation

PECDA, in what works about its model, and in its challenges, has become a site for crucial questions about funding dynamics, support structures and the hierarchies they might set up between the Global North and South. How can a “competition”, a term Grover Ralleigh insists she hates fervently, become a starting point for more sustained relationships between an institution and the communities it brings together? What does equitable interdependence look like? These are the questions the dance community must answer collectively.

The writer is a dance practitioner based in New Delhi.

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