Dance Matters  
- Shyamhari Chakra in Kolkata 

November 24, 2006  

In an attempt to bring the scholars and practitioners together on a single platform to evaluate the status of Indian dance forms from a global perspective, the School of Media, Communication and Culture of Jadhavpur University hosted a three-day international symposium on its campus recently. While it was sponsored by the University Grants Commission, the chief architect of this timely event was US-based Kathak dancer Pallabi Chakravorty who teaches dance in Swarthmore College. 

"Dance is a vital aspect of culture. It embodies the cultural experience and expression of a particular collective identity. Notions of culture, identity and history are continually reinvented through dance. Indian dance forms have emerged as an important critical lens to analyse narratives of nationalism, trans-nationalism, woman's body and postcolonial politics. Scholarly research on Indian dance forms has spanned over several disciplines like anthropology, culture studies, performance studies, art history, post-colonial and feminist studies. The symposium is an initiative to create a new network in an era of globalisation of culture," explained Pallabi. 

Setting the deliberations into motion in her inaugural note, noted danseuse and social activist Mallika Sarabhai spoke on the sociological content and context of dance. "My choreography is a means to an end and not the end," she pointed out. Citing examples of her attempts to bring in awareness and reforms in society through the arts, she revealed that she has been constantly searching for a language (of dance) over the past 16 years for necessity of change.  

Discussing Indian dance forms ranging from classical to the Bollywood, the symposium dwelt broadly on four different dimensions - tradition and globalisation, religion and culture, gender and sexuality, and dance and social justice. 

Deliberating on tradition and globalisation during the inaugural day, dance historian Avanthi Meduri who teaches at the Roehampton University in UK, traced the historical transformation of the arangetram (debut performance) of Bharatanatyam from a sacred ritual to an expensive ceremony while Ann David, a scholar on South Asian dance practices in the UK, spoke on the complex and changing identities of British Asians as they negotiate their cultural, ethnic and religious identities through the expression of religious rituals and dance. 

While Avanthi and Ann dwelt on the Indian diaspora, Bharatanatyam teacher-performer Shreeparna Ghosal of Kolkata examined the changing face of the system of classical dance training in the Indian context. She shot several simple but serious questions on the tradition of teaching and opined "revisiting Natya Shastra is the need of the hour."  Similarly, speaking from a student's perspective, Payal Ahuja, a post graduate student of Roehampton University of London and the youngest participant in the symposium, presented a contrast picture of the teaching practices of dance in India and UK. 

With several thought provoking presentations on religion and culture, the second day appeared more exciting. While the first day's deliberations dwelt more on the Indian diaspora, the second day was a focus on the Indian scenario. 

Presenting a lecture-demonstration, Kathak dancer and teacher Amita Dutt of Rabindra Bharati University demonstrated how dance is viewed quite differently in India unlike in the West. Similarly, with the aid of a slide show, her colleague Sruti Bandopadhyay lucidly explained how Manipuri dance has been a lyrical manifestation of devotion.  

Another interesting presentation was made by scholar and critic Alessandra Lopez Royo of UK who is engaged in a comparative study of the dance sculptures of Orissan and Javanese temples. Her documentary on the style of the transgressive Odissi guru Surendranath Jena screened on the occasion showed how the 9th century tantrik shrine of the 64-yoginis of Hirapur and the 12th century Sun temple of Konark have stimulated the style of Jena. 

The most meaningful deliberation, however, came from Urmimala Sarkar of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi who examined and expressed her deep concern on the sanskritisation of the indigenous dance styles by urban practitioners and encouraged by the government.  She further emphasized on the urgency of an archival process to faithfully document dance traditions. "I am deeply disturbed but immensely inspired by this deliberation to make a film on the impact of sanskritisation," remarked Jossy Joseph, one of India's leading documentary filmmakers. The day's proceedings also included deliberations by the well-known dancer, choreographer and scholar Uttara Asha Coorlawala of US and Kalpana Ram of Macquaire University of Australia. Both of them spoke on the inter-cultural aspects of dance.  

The concluding day had two lively deliberations on the role of gender and sexuality in Indian dance. Kolkata-based Vikram Iyengar, a young male Kathak dancer and researcher on performing arts, analysed the shifting attitude of the society towards male dancers, both from within and outside the dance community. Similarly, in their paper on dance as a familiar chord in postcolonial English drama, P Naga Suseela and P Gopi Chand, both English teachers of J K C College, Guntur in Andhra Pradesh depicted the ordeal of a male dancer in the society. 

Another exciting presentation came from scholar-archivist Mundoli Narayanan of Kerala who is currently based in Japan as an assistant professor of literature. Narayanan, whose research and documentation revolves round Kathakali, spoke on the politics of representation in Kathakali and the rise of anti-hero Ravana in Kathakali repertoire. 
Although the symposium seemed quite relevant in Indian context where academic and scholarly deliberations on dance have found few takers unlike in the West, one wished that there could have been more performers, gurus and choreographers of different dance forms.  

Even if resource was the constraint (as explained to this journalist), the hosts could have invited and involved the dance exponents of Kolkata. How could a symposium on dance be meaningful without the dancers' community! One also regretted the lack of any documentation of the deliberations on the plea of resource crunch. 

A former journalist with the Indian Express group, Shyamhari Chakra is a New Delhi based freelancer writing on dance and culture. He is building up an archive on Odissi dance in Bhubaneswar.  He is a regular contributor to