a note on contemporary choreography from a South Asian dance-artiste
by Anita R. Ratnam, Chennai

Nov 2001

The room was filled with eager faces and bright eyes. I was looking at more than 65 dancers and sizes waiting for me to start barking the two magic words. "Let's dance!". For a choreographer about to begin a workshop, this is normally a dream situation. So many people wanting to take a dance class! However, in this particular situation it was quite unusual since just the day before I had checked to find out that only 12 people had registered for my class. What had changed? What prompted so many more to decide to throw off their shoes and rush onto the dance floor on that Saturday afternoon on September 8?

The answers lay in the historic Bharatanatyam conference, which had begun in the city of Chicago just two days before. For a full forty-eight hours, performers, teachers and scholars had debated, dissected and analyzed dance performances and dancers before a large and enthusiastic audience gathered from across the United States and as far away as Alaska, the UK, Spain and Australia. However, there was one disjunctive note. Whenever a dancer from the Diaspora tried to question the Indian choreographer or performer the morning after the performance about their artistic process or choice, they were summarily dismissed and trivialized.

The mounting frustration and pent up energies locked in for a full two days had finally burst in the form of a mass presence at my workshop titled "CREATING NARRATIVES: The Structure of Choreography in contemporary South Asian Dance". I had planned on conducting a fairly serious and intensive session with a handful of dancers but was quite unprepared for this mass demonstration, which seemed to state, “We are here and will not be shut out of the process anymore!” I changed the structure and the tone of the workshop at once and threw myself into ensuring that the participants had a full-body experience. Folk dance, Indian film dance, Butoh-style slow-motion movements, abstract choreography drawn from traditional Indian images like the conch shell and the bow and arrow, spatial movements, level changes... I took them through a mosaic of movement experiences like a television remote control device switching channels. At the end of two hours all I could see was a sea of red, sweaty faces totally exhilarated and thanking me profusely for what I frankly thought was more fun than pure art. If I could have renamed the workshop it would have been called "MOTION. COMMOTION. EMOTION".

This particular event as a preface to my larger thoughts is deliberate. The large and rapidly growing number of Indian dancers interested in new movement invention is huge. Trained primarily in classical techniques learned from teachers in India, these dancers, termed disparagingly as "NRI-dancers" by the India-based artistic community, are a growing force in the cultural map of the worlds they inhabit. From Detroit to Lausanne, from Perth to Durban, Indian dance led by Bharatanatyam is a cultural tool by which the diasporic community has asserted its presence and roots to heritage.

Where does the dialogue for contemporary movement arise in this closely guarded space of ritual, rules, formalism and correctness? After all, I was convinced in my many travels around the world, that Bharatanatyam was only good enough for the 'wannabe' doctor, lawyer, scientist, or software engineer. An arangetram was as expensive as a new car and many parents asked their daughters to choose one or the other! Where was the space for any dialogue on modern or contemporary thoughts and actions in this fiercely locked-out arena, which resembled a mental fortress? Obviously I had underestimated the eternal curiosity of the Indian mind to explore, investigate and adapt. After all we were a historically resilient people eternally capable of renewal in the face of adverse hostility. And what was this present wind of 'cultural correctness' sweeping through Indian dance called? One critic called it the 'Talibanisation of Indian performance'. Somewhat extreme perhaps but then not far off from the truth. The siege mentality that has overtaken the traditional dance community in India and their self-appointed role as being the custodians of culture is somewhat discomforting. Perhaps the greatest compliment paid to me by senior gurus like CV Chandrasekhar and Sonal Mansingh who attended my workshop was "Only you could have done it!"

As a dancer and as a woman, I am in love with dance and consequently, with life itself. The vocation of a dancer is more than a job, it is a calling. It is more than a life's work. The dancing space is sacred, not only in the terms of reference ascribed in ancient texts, but also in the daily practice of it. Folk dancers and drummers who dance every evening after a hard day's work in the fields, traditional temple performers whose lives depend upon serving GOD during important festivals, actors who fuse movement with voice culture, young performers and students all over the world who want to learn new movement and the dynamics of cultural memories embedded into our South Asian bloodstream - these are the artistes who are the focus of my work.

To be able to create new dance in India requires a whole new attitude about oneself and about one's relationship to the craft and the art of dance. The vocabulary of Bharatanatyam is wide and diverse. It has been recognized by early modern dance pioneers like Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham and Erik Hawkins. In recent times, Mark Morris, Paul Taylor and Ralph Lemon have created repertory pieces with Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam kinetics. In the UK, this particular dance style has been recognized as a world dance form alongside ballet, jazz and flamenco. The word 'Indian' has been removed from the phrase defining Bharatanatyam which releases it from any cultural baggage that the country may have and offer it as a gift to the world. As modern dance icon Isadora Duncan once said about her love of Egypt, "I want to be Egypta, the soul of Egypt and not the weakness that the country may possess." I am blessed to be born an Indian, a woman and above all, a dancer. I encounter doubt and prejudice in my life every day but that only renews my commitment to my life and art. Dance-art is not a mirror to hold up to reality, it is sometimes, as Brecht has said, a hammer with which to shape it.

A great Indian seer Shri Aurobindo once said that it is only the artiste in the new era who has the power to see truth with 'violent clarity'..