REFLECTIONS ON NAVADISHA
by Anita Ratnam
I watched intently as the 3 forms rolled on the ground. One roll, then another. To one side, then to the other. Arms held in "shikara", outstretched. The raked auditorium at the Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) was fortunately suited to our craning necks, most of us wondering how the choreography would evolve. It did not. Just more floor work and rolls of the head and neck in the now-so-familiar-back-to-the-audience placement. Yet, this was a slice of a new piece called 'Tat' by the talented group Sankalpam which carried all the prerequisites in its publicity material: lovely computer-animated photographs and blurred images in an attractive brochure containing relevant quotes heralding the new dance project. I asked my friend, a dance administrator from the U.S seated next to me, "How many rolls on the ground does it take to apply for a grant these days in the U.K?" He looked at me and grunted as if to say, "There you go again, you cynic!"
Cynicism was however the last feeling in my heart when I arrived in Birmingham for the much heralded and long awaited Navadisha 2000 dance conference, initiated by the dynamic Piali Ray who heads Sampad, a South Asian dance organisation which has a well established presence in U.K Midlands region. After the very successful conference on New Directions held in Toronto in 1993, there had been no other congregation of South Asian dancers and dance-makers outside India. The growing phenomenon of Indian dance (called 'South Asian' dance, to use politically correct terminology) among the diaspora around the world and the coming-of-age of the dance form in its own cultural context was in urgent need of acknowledgement and assessment. This long felt desire was reflected in Navadisha 2000 where performers, choreographers, dance-makers and artistic directors from India, U.S, Canada, Malaysia and South Africa gathered. Even a lone, enigmatic contemporary dancer from Spain called Karim Karim came because, as he put it, "Where else could I get a sense of camaraderie and a sense of where I really belonged?
The previous evening I was one of the hundreds in the MAC theatre who cheered and hooted at the end of a spectacular performance by British dancers Mavin Koo and Akram Khan. Their duet called 'No Male Egos' which stormed the British dance world in 1999 with sold out performances everywhere, was an exhilarating display of physicality and sensual energy without compromising classical perfection in Bharatanatyam, ballet, Kathak and contemporary dance styles. the same evening we witnessed the quiet elegance of Birmingham based Kathak dancer Nahid Siddiqui who cast a spell of hypnotic beauty with her slow and meditative 'alaap'.I was so energised by the performance that over a late night coffee, I discussed the amazing sureness and maturity of South Asian dancers in Britain with Janaki Patrik, Lata Pada, Rathna Kumar and Ramli Ibrahim.And now this lack lustre presentation by very talented dancers, who had just a few minutes earlier, showed their clarity of thought and approach with an excerpt from an earlier work called 'Ulaa'.
We should all be proud of the hallmarks of what our dance has achieved in Britain. But at what cost? Among several hundred classically trained dancers, only Nina Rajarani and Mavin Khoo were making a living out of performing, touring and practising the traditional form. Was there more funding available for contemporary dance due to an overarching political objective within Britain to make all cultural expression ultimately a British expression? Why was Shobana Jeyasingh's point of view not represented? Her success is something for all of us who are in South Asian dance to celebrate and not to envy and bitch about as, I gathered, did happen when Shobana shot into the U.K arts limelight with her artistry 7 years ago.
In the session titled " The inspiration for dance", David Bintley, artistic director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet discussed the purity of dance. He spoke about the need to preserve the the origins of each traditional dance form, about how he was not in favor of a non-Asian learning South Asian dance,even as he was not in favor of a South Asian learning ballet or modern dance. There was a deadly silence in the hall. Janaki Patrik from New York stood up to challenge Bintley's statement and called it "racist". Ramli Ibrahim followed suit. In the torrent of outraged comments from most of the crowd confronting Bintley for putting his foot in his mouth, the hapless victim tried to untangle the mess he had brought upon himself.
Not all segments of the conference were controversial or confrontational. There were excellent sessions on the health of a dancer, the relevance of international collaborations and the enormous untapped network of South Asian dance all over the world which is a powerful system fuelled by the internet.
Discussions ranged from the size of the grants that some dancers had received, the quality of their work, constant struggle of all those engaged in South Asian dance to assert their identity in Britain, the role of the increased savvy of marketing and publicity in the success of some dance companies, and the often glaring disparity in what the blurbs said and what was actually performed. Sampad, Aditi, Akademi and Kadam made a formal announcement stating that they would henceforth be sharing resources and information in the hope of strengthening the identity and image of South Asian dance in Britain.
In between the sessions, many discussed the monograph specially prepared for Navadisha by Indian writer Ashish Khokar and included in all the press kits. In it Khokar had given dancers ratings ranging from 5 stars (Daksha Sheth) to 2 stars (Mrinalini and Mallika Sarabhai).
At the Nehru Centre, a young thing called Honey was bubbling with her presentation when placed alongside the regal and slightly disapproving Nahid Siddiqui, a politely silent Subodh Rathod, and a thoroughly bemused 'yours truly' after a quietly restrained performance by Chitra Sundaram who announced her return to the London scene after 20 years. After Honey's 'shimmy and shake' routine (minutes after Chitra's performance) to which she added some alapadma mudras and attami movements to call it "her own style of Bollywood choreography", an international banker in an impeccable Bond Street suit asked, "Where can I join your classes?" Of course this prompted laughter round the hall.
Where will South Asian dance go in Britain from here? Looking at pop artist Keith Khan's demonstration of a plastic frame around Madhuri Dixit and Jar Jar Binks, I admired the ease with which these musicians and dancers of South Asian descent crossed genres and pulled images and inspiration from the world they were born and the society they now lived in. While excited at the possibility of coming to India and showing their work, travelling to the sub-continent was not high on their priority list. Both artistes were already busy with a full travel calendar and engagements in Europe.
Knowing little of the dance scene in Britain, I understood finally why we in India so little of dancers from the U.K as compared to dancers from North America. The system in Britain has developed so well s to take care of the performer, choreographer, dance-maker, scholar, dance animator and researcher. No wonder then that the Arts Council in Canada (according to Lata Pada) is looking at the British model as a prelude to framing its own South Asian dance policy.