OBSERVATIONS ABOUT DIASPORA
Nritya Sammelan 2000: May 5 - 7, Durban, South Africa
by Anita Ratnam
e-mail: anita@narthaki.com
Jun 2000

Even as far back as 140 years ago, Indians were taken as indentured labour to South Africa to work for the British and underwent decades of incredible hardship and suffering just trying to keep body and soul alive. In an atmosphere of hostility and rampant discrimination where the 'brown skinned Indian' was caught between the native African and the domineering Afrikaner, the Indians' only moorings for identity and self-respect was religion and culture. Africa was THE DARK CONTINENT and the pariah of the world due to the ugly specter of apartheid. There was little information that seeped through to the outside world and so little was known of our brethren who seemed trapped in a time warp.

When apartheid was dismantled in 1994, the world exhaled in relief and the Indian community heaved a sigh of relief. For so long they had clungonto semblances of identity through dance and music and the two mainforms of classical expression were Bharatanatyam and Kathak. Those wholearnt dance in the 40's, 50's and 60's in India and who had migratedafter marriage to South Africa had managed to set up modest schools andconduct arangetrams and performances in their local constituency. Because the Indian diaspora is by and large made up of Naidoos, Pillais,Govendars, Maharajs and Singhs, the two main Indian languages prevalentwere Tamil and Hindi. So, regionally, South India and North India wererepresented by the two dance forms Bharatanatyam and Kathak respectively. Dance programs and specially arangetrams graduallybecame a status symbol with each guru and her students trying to outdothe other in scale and expenditure. The emphasis was less on dance andmore on image building.

Nritya Sammelan 2000 was a historic event because it sought to unite allthe styles of Indian classical dances as well as those Indians who wereworking in contemporary dance and theatre in South Africa. To be theonly delegate invited from India was an incredible honor for me. SouthAfrica has 7 provinces. Teachers, students, choreographers, funders,dance makers, and scholars congregated at the conference. South Africacomprises of three distinct groups and today the term South Africanmeans black, white and Indian. How is Indian dance trying to create aSouth African identity is the issue that the conference aimed toaddress. With the solo Bharatanatyam format beginning to lose itspopular appeal and resemble a museum piece, Suriya Govender, JayPather, Dr. Ranjith Lalloo and Jayesperi Moopen spoke and showed someof their very different contemporary work which was relevant andintelligent in the context of their own artistic search.

As the global identity for the Indian itself is being redrawn, Indiandance is coming under increasing scrutiny. Since Ballet is not called“European Dance” and Flamenco is not labeled as “Spanish dance”, onevery important observation which was made was that Indian classicaldance has to divorce itself from the country tag “Indian”. Associationwith the motherland would become problematic if Bharatanatyam or Kathaklook to become world dance styles. With several artistes of non-Indianorigin taking to Indian dance and excelling in it like Veronique Azan,Janaki Patrik, Ramli Ibrahim, Chandrabhanu, Mavin Khoo and IleanaCitaristi to name only a few, to force an Indian identity along withreligious overtones on to the dance form will only impede its journeytowards true glory.

Right in the middle of the conference, and soon after my address inwhich I spoke about the need for teachers and practitioners of Indiandance to give up their fortress mentality and psyche of being undersiege from 'hostile aliens', a lady in the audience who identifiedherself as Ms. Manasa Devi Govender questioned the very authenticity ofthose who taught and learnt Bharatanatyam. She said that unless oneknew the Tamil language and Saiva scripture, understood the worksThevaram, Arutpa, Siva Nyana Botham and Thirukkural by Saiva saints likeAppar, Manikavasagar, Sambandhar and Soondaramoorthi, one was notqualified to teach. I immediately quoted the incident about DavidBintley in Birmingham at the Navadisha 2000 conference earlier this yearwhere he voiced a similar theory that white Britishers should not taketo Asian Dance and vice versa. Janaki Patrik, a Kathak dancer from NewYork had stood up then and called his comment 'racist'. I replied toMs Govender that I had grown up in a strict Vaishnava household wherethe only truth was Narayana and not Siva. My divine dancer was Krishnaand that made me an equal inheritor to the tradition that she was tryingto own. There was wild applause in the audience to my response and atthis point Ms. Govender left the conference. The very next day herstatement to the local paper called The Independent in Durban waspublished echoing the exact sentiments she had expressed to me.

This kind of internal bickering within the Indian community needs to becontained wherever a gathering of this nature takes place. When disputeslike this spill out into the mainstream media, it does not serve us wellculturally or politically. Kudos and applause to the two brave convenersSmeetha Maharaj and Vasugi Singh for their courage, determination andpersistence in making Nritya Sammelan 2000 an outstanding conference. The landmark international conference saw the morning sessionsjuxtaposed with two evenings of performances at the Playhouse Theatre,Durban. These performances were very unusual because it brought all thenine major classical and contemporary dance companies from the variousprovinces of South Africa onto the same stage. The first day featureddance performances by Bharatanatyam Dancers from Kwa Zulu Natal, Kathakby Nateshwar Dance Company, Modern Dance by Siwela Sonke Dance Company,Contemporary Folk by Jhankaar School of Dance, Traditional Folk byGujarati Hindu Sanskruti Kendra and a fusion of Bharatanatyam andtraditional Zulu dance by Surialanga Dance Company.

The morning session of the second day featured seminars in threesessions. The guest speakers who gave a Global Overview in the firstsession were Pratap Pawar, Sreekala Bharat, Krishnakumari Narendran andI. Vasugi Singh, Smeetha Maharaj, Vaibhav Joshi and SritheviPadmanathan spoke in the second session about Traditional Indian Dancein South Africa. The final session on Indian Dance and Education inSouth Africa were elaborated by Suria Govender, Gerard Samuel and SumagyPaideya.

The topic for the concluding day seminar was New Directions in IndianDance in South Africa. The participants were Dr. Ranjith Lalloo,Jeyesperi Moopen, Jay Pather and Lilane Loots. International delegateswho performed in the evening were Pratap Pawar, Vaibhav Joshi andmyself. The event was very widely covered by the mainstream press, radioand television and the lively DJ's at Lotus-FM giving the event a greatdeal of publicity including live interactive talk shows.