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The many contra facts and fractals of dance scholarship

July 25, 2018

This is my first of the monthly column I hope to write for Narthaki for a long time to come. I have titled it 'Soch' as each column will have one idea that I will explore, exfoliate and excavate. I debated about calling it some of the more resonant synonyms of soch, like 'khayal' and 'chintan' because of their more ponderous meaning, but soch is a sufficiently significant starting point for a flight of imagination, light as a bird and ever on wing!

I would also like to honour the place where Narthaki founder Dr. Anita Ratnam offered me this column - Malta, by locating the perch of the first Soch in this magical Mediterranean island embedded in the embrace of azure waters. Nestled between southern Italy and northern Africa, Malta's beautiful shores, baroque architecture, ancient monuments, to say nothing of its mouth-watering cuisine, make it a highly sought after tourist destination.

The University of Malta is located in Malta's capital Valetta, in a building that dates back to 1592, and is part of the heritage heart of this old city. It is worth noting that the University of Malta started its Dance Studies department only in 2010, and yet managed to host the prestigious and premium conference of the Dance Studies Association, to coincide with the milestone of Valetta being the 2018 European Capital of Culture. The Dance Studies Association (DSA) is an international organization of dance scholars, educators, and artists that aims to "strengthen the visibility and increase the reach of dance as embodied practice, creative endeavor and intellectual discipline". Formed only in 2017, as the merged entity of the Congress on Research in Dance (CORD, founded 1969) and the Society of Dance History Scholars (SDHS, founded 1978), DSA is both grounded in, and extends, the work of those two organizations.

Its theme of the conference this year was "Contra: Dance & Conflict", a hard to comprehend pairing since dance is often used as a metaphor for things of peace and harmony and the making of beauty. But anyone who is even remotely associated with the constituency of dance will recognise the attrition inevitable in the reality of dancing, dance-making, and scholarship surrounding dance, which is often one of conflict. Further, the frequency of conflict within and around dance, stems from the fact that some of the most creative impulses that generate dance ideas, are kindled in the first place by the friction of conflict. Many of the conference papers presented how choreography has represented, exposed, or challenged practices of violence, combat, and war. But the conference did not restrict itself to just contra as creative, and concerned itself equally with dance's role as a vehicle for reconciliation. It moved beyond practice to ponder on the conflicts even within dance studies.

Despite the discomfort of the title and the expense of getting to this tourist hub during the balmy summer months, premium time for touristic traffic, three and a half days of deliberations, papers, animated sessions, panels, alternative format sessions, film screenings, workshops, master classes and keynote addresses, successfully churned the mind and provided food for thought around dance and contemporary issues. For instance refugees, homelessness and migration was a prominent subtheme, made poignant by the fact that just a week before the Conference started, on 5th July, 'Lifeline' a migrant ship full of over 200 refugees was permitted to dock in Maltese waters, after being denied admission by other EU countries. And right through the duration of the conference that concluded on 8th July, it was conducted virtually under the shadow of the refugee ship, the spectre of the raging refugee crisis reflected in the tone, tenor and content of many presentations on dance.

Which is why I wonder why, contemporary crises, and there are plenty of them, from violence against women, marginalised and minorities to global warming, pollution and environmental degeneration, to farmers' distress, they don't seem to get reflected in dance in India. How is it that those who can hear the 'anhad naad', those who recount repeatedly how after hearing the cry of a bird hurt fatally, steeped in 'karunya rasa', Valmiki was compelled to write the shlokas (from shoka) of the Ramayana, themselves don't seem to hear the cry of their fellowmen. Whether near or far, they are fellowmen since ancient Indian wisdom decrees the world to be a family - 'vasudhaiv kutumbakam'!

It is the 'dharma' of all sentient beings, more so artistes who enjoy a higher emotional quotient, to not remain silent or inactive when fellow humans are in trouble. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad gave us the mantra 'Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah....," the daily ardas of the Sikhs end with the blessing "Sarbat da bhala" and in more recent times, Gandhi relit the lamp of compassion with the words of Narsimh Mehta singing about "... peed parayee jaane re". As artistes today we have no choice but to "weaponise" our art!

Dr. Arshiya Sethi, trained in Kathak, has served as dance critic, commentator, institution builder for the arts, having created both tangible and intangible institutions and equities. She has been a Fulbright Arts Fellow (2003-2004) and a post doctoral Fulbright (2016-2017). Her doctoral work has been on the link between politics and dance in the case of Sattriya. She is presently working on the intersection of dance and activism / social justice as well as Indian dance in the diaspora.

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