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Re-Imaging the Past: A report on Reimagining Indian Dance: Moving Forward
- Uttara Asha Coorlawala
Photos: Ellen Wallap, Courtesy: The Asia Society, New York

November 6, 2018

In her opening remarks, Rachel Cooper, the Asia Society Director of Performing Arts and Cultural Programs, spoke of how the event had been conceived as part of an ongoing celebration of The Progressive artists of Bombay from 1949s - 1990s. The commemorations included primarily, an art exhibition of the original works of these artists, as well as symposiums, lectures and an evening of dance to underscore how these artists had come together as rebels to give visual form to the idea of India as "secular, heterogeneous and united."

The dance concert opened with a new old film of Ted Shawn's Dance of Shiva, inspired by and assembled during his travels in India in 1927. (The brief film was new to me because parts of it had not been seen before and old, because it had been recorded in 1946 by which time Shawn was already 55 years old.)

What followed, Mea Culpa consisted of Hari Krishnan's blatant celebration of queerness in movement, liberating the body from its cultural and social prison, and thereby critiquing the mores that bind. As stellar dancer Phil Strom cavorted with the grace of an ostrich in his tulle tutu to the martial bombastic pounding rhythms at the end of the William Tell Overture accompanied by mridang improvisations by Gowri Shankar, I contemplated the ironic link between Mea Culpa and the opening video. Upon finding that in India, gods (male and LGBTQX) danced, Ted Shawn ("Father of American Modern dance") sought to bring honor to men who danced in then puritanical American society. Lord Shiva offered the ultimate legitimation of the need for men to dance. And now, Hari Krishnan finds in America a liberation where he uses his choreographic skills honed on his impeccable traditional Bharatanatyam training to break free. Mea Culpa, may we all be forgiven for what we repress and express.

Mea Culpa

Parul Shah

Enduring Silence was the title of an exquisite Kathak-based contemporary dance choreographed and performed by Parul Shah. Parul thoughtfully integrated gats (gaits) of Kathak with realistic and abstract gestures to show the plights of women "facing harsh realities." While I did not see harsh realities, I was on edge following her superb transitions between moods. Tracing a variety of spirals with her hands and expressive torso, punctuated by darting flashes, Parul Shah built her dance through a series of intense contrasting moods, from stillness and nazakat, through voluptuous legato womanly transitions, to a finale of dazzling tatkar and spins. Contemporary and live sounds of the sonorous cello, tabla and violin of Jake Charkey, Narendra Budhakar, and Arun Ramamurthy respectively were very much a part of the full experience, (rather than serving as mere accompaniment). I could just keep on watching this mesmeric dancer, etching her passionate and complex interweaving lines into my mind.

Rethinking Orissan dance by Kuldeep Singh was presented as a work-in-progress with a most beautiful plumage constructed from sari shreds tied in a riot of pleasing colors. It reminded me of Goeffrey Holder's abundance approach to costume design except that our dancer was wearing Indian kurta Patiala pajama, and turban. Kuldeep has a lot going conceptually with a background in philosophy, art and Odissi but as a choreographer manipulating a movement technique, we are just starting out.

Kuldeep Singh

Sheetal Gandhi

The masterly (mistressly?) Sheetal Gandhi followed with her clearly constructed excerpt from Bahu-Beti-Biwi. Although I have seen the full solo work live in its entirety at least twice before, the excerpt that Sheetal Gandhi performed, still surprised me. With her voice and body, (trained in modern dance, African and Kathak) she incorporated fluid transitions between Gujarati, Hinglish, and Lucknow Kathak (di tham_ di tham_, digga digga thum takka tho...) while she narrated an exchange with her mother on the 'advantages' of arranged marriage versus the trial-and-error pitfalls of romance. Remembering love, the mom, has hitckees or hiccups. Her body recalling its loss breaks into uncontrollable twitches. Repressed desire and memory erupt through the body despite the character's attempts to stay respectfully in control. I found this sympathetic, profound and unsentimentalized exchange to be deeply moving. Sheetal is not just a perceptive artist but a professional who knows how to organize her skills in surprising and fresh ways.

Kuldeep Singh, Sheetal Gandhi, Parul Shah, Hari Krishnan, Rajika Puri and Rachel Cooper

Holy Cow(s)
Pic: Shana Hillman
The evening concluded with another witty and this time overtly political caricature from Hari Krishan which incorporated shoes, ankle bells, and - would you believe it? - a tender touching duet.

Finally some ruminations on the theme - a meditation on the Bombay Progressives. This concert did not reference or historicize the dance equivalent of the Bombay Progressive Artists Group, i.e. the New Directions group of breakaway choreographers who radically questioned their inheritances between the 30s-90s. Rather choreographers here presented decidedly American and twenty-first century viewpoints on the interactions between Indianness, and global culture. Taking the cue from Rachel Cooper's opening speech, I recall Homi Bhabha's lecture, a few days before this performance where he had spoken of how art is to be seen not just in a linear trajectory, but from multiple contemporaneous perspectives of its own time, perspectives whose angles may or may not converge. Reimagining Indian Dance: Moving Forward...was not a historicizing, or a nostalgic homage to a group of painters or dancers, but rather a re-imaging of some of the values that Progressive group of painters espoused - provocation, beauty, color, the repressed body, identity, nationalism as both ugliness and as indisputable heritage.

Congratulations to co-curators Rachel Cooper (Director, Performing Arts and Cultural Programs) and Rajika Puri for leaving us with a take-away of re-imaging past values on fresh and eloquent bodies who speak vividly and distinctively to our global present.

Reimagining Indian Dance: Moving Forward
Four dancers and choreographers of Indian descent present recent works that speak to contemporary issues. Each works pulls from its performer's understanding of - or departure from - Indian dance forms.

Uttara Asha Coorlawala currently teaches technique and dance history courses at Barnard College/Columbia University, and is an excited follower of global recirculations of traditional and new dance.