The show has just finished at Chennai’s Sri Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall on a Sunday evening in early September. The lights have come down and the audience has got to its feet—but not to leave. They’re not ready to return to the streets outside, to the waiting cars, the honks and the chatter, to the rain that had begun cooling the air while their attention was on the stage. They clap and cheer, willing the performers back for another bow. “No one gets a standing ovation in Chennai,” says a woman in front of me, as surprised by her own enthusiasm as she is by the audience’s. “Bangalore, Kolkata, okay. But Chennai? It just doesn’t happen here!”
Well, it just happened here. The performance was by Akram Khan Company, and it marked both the last Chennai date of the Park’s New Festival before its India-wide tour, and the first night of the British Council’s Impulse season of UK contemporary dance, which runs through to early 2013. For both seasons, Akram Khan is a big name, a dancer-choreographer who has been garlanded with awards over the last decade, who has worked with such diverse figures as French film actress Juliette Binoche and Australian pop princess Kylie Minogue, and most recently choreographed a section of the opening ceremony for the London Olympics.
Born in London to Bangladeshi parents, Khan trained in kathak as a child and in contemporary dance as an adult—a dual dance heritage that was exactly mirrored in the two halves of his Chennai programme. Before the interval, he performed three kathak solos—classical kathak, complete with ghungroos, angrakha and churidar outfit, and dancing that divided readily into established modes of narrative, expressive, formal. And he was very good. He has a strong technique, his spins whiplash but are secure, his gestures are fluid but never fuzzy. His footwork slips easily into the ‘groove’ so that you begin intuitively to sense the correspondences between the articulations of the dancer’s feet (heel, toes, arch, ball, sole, sides) and the tabla player’s hands (palm, cup, tips, pads, edges). And he has a commanding stage presence, even—perhaps especially—when motionless. If the heightened lighting and the use of cello and western percussion imparted a lightly ‘modern’ inflection to the show, this was nevertheless clear-cut kathak. But Chennai, a bastion of classical dance, knows kathak—this was not what made the audience lose its cool.
No, what caused the stir came next: a half-hour piece called Gnosis, which Khan performed with Taiwanese dancer Fang-Yi Sheu. Though based on episodes from the Mahabharata featuring the blindfolded queen Gandhari and her son Duryodhana, it is less concerned with portraying their stories than with finding physical forms for ideas. Its opening sequence sees Sheu planted on the ground like a warrior, her stance wide and deep as her arms pierce or block the air around her, in strict time to an ominously martial drumbeat; after some time, the dark figure of Khan appears behind her, starkly shadowing her actions. This is clearly not kathak, but some invented, undefined idiom that Khan has basically made up, using the Mahabharata more as a stimulus than a subject. You catch glimpses of its workings as you watch the piece. The opening section is about the stern synchronicity of sound and action, the play of arms suggesting both sword and shield so that the dance feels simultaneously combative and guarded. Another section is all about Sheu brandishing her stick as sensor, as weapon, as support, as impediment; and about Khan’s physical response: stalking, fleeing, taunting, sneaking. The final scene features a spotlight trained on Khan’s violently quivering head so that it seems to flicker dangerously, like flames; an image burning itself up.
You can see traces of kathak in Gnosis, in the dialogue between action and rhythm, in the axial perfection of Khan’s turns (even if he’s spinning on his head); but this is contemporary, not classical dance. And from my standpoint—a London resident with plenty of experience of contemporary dance, only not in India—it seems to me that part of its appeal for the Chennai audience is its newness, its unexpectedness: they don’t quite recognise what they’re seeing. In India, the field of dance has been broadly divided into several sectors. There are folk and popular styles, associated with regional cultures and notions of “the people”. There are classical styles, historically linked to independence-movement ideals of national identity through their revival and institutionalisation by such codifiers and reformists as Rukmini Devi Arundale. And there are commercial styles, dominated by the screen, whether through cinema, music videos or, increasingly in recent years, TV talent shows. But contemporary dance—where is that, what is that? It has had some landmark figures: the pioneering choreographers Uday Shankar in the mid-twentieth century, Chandralekha in the late; and a subsequent generation of practitioners including Aditi Mangaldas, Astad Deboo, Navtej Johar, Daksha Sheth, and others. Often, they have worked in isolation, but there have been some landmark meetings such as the East-West Dance Encounter of 1984 and the New Directions in Indian Dance conference of 1993. Nevertheless, contemporary dance remains a small, marginal part of the field of dance in India. But if the classical stronghold of Chennai responds so enthusiastically to it, might it become something more, establish its own sector within the field?
It has already begun to do that. Only a week earlier, the same city had hosted India’s first ever contemporary dance competition. Initiated as a biannual event by the Chennai-based Prakriti Foundation, PECDA (Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance Awards) was the brainchild of Prakriti founder Ranvir Shah and Paris-based dance producer and poet Karthika Naïr, who felt that the time was ripe for such a venture. “There is a crying need for platforms to present new dance work in India,” explained Naïr, “so that it can be seen by promoters, critics and artists, both national and international. There is an even greater need for the dance community to be able to interact regularly. PECDA is not just a competition, but also a way of meeting those needs.”
The entry requirements were simple: you had to be resident in India, and the work submitted had to be new, in a contemporary idiom, and no more than 20 minutes long. Eleven pieces were selected, with entrants from Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai. I had been invited onto the jury, on the basis of my experience as a dance reviewer for UK’s Guardian newspaper and as a former panellist for The Place Prize (a similar competition held in Britain). Prior to the competition, I gave a writing workshop at which two questions arose that were to crop up throughout my two-week visit to India, variously posed by journalists, editors, audiences, students, the great, the good, the curious, the distracted—anyone, it seemed, but the dancers themselves. And they were: (1) what is “contemporary dance”? and (2) is it “Indian”? Fresh off the plane, with my head somewhere in UK space-time and my gently perspiring body clearly in Chennai, my best answer had been: let’s look and see.
PECDA itself provided my first clues. Many of its entrants were young, emerging choreographers, and the work varied considerably in both style and quality. A punchy duet by Diya Naidu, from the Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts in Bangalore, featured two women clamped into an unstable compound creature. A less forceful male duet by French-born, Delhi-based Gilles Chuyen echoed Naidu’s embattled erotics with a lighter, more overtly mystical touch, the shadowy dancers holding aloft orbs of light as if they were celestial bodies. Ronita Mookerji, also from Attakkalari and a performer of considerable prowess, yoked her impressively honed skills in modern, street dance and martial arts to the nebulous theme of love. Mumbai-based Mehneer Sudan created a portrait—more sensory experience than performance—of an encounter between a woman and her maalishwali (masseuse), its pats and squeezes echoed by gloopy slaps and tickles on the soundtrack; by the end, my brain felt massaged into a pulp.
Several other pieces had the youthful stamp of what I call “classroom choreography” (phrases that might look good in the studio, strung together without much directorial purpose on the stage), but the strongest showed a clear choreographic intelligence. A work by Padmini Chettur, a former Chandralekha dancer and the most experienced choreographer in the competition, had the look and feel of an art-gallery installation—performers pressed against a white wall, beginning to swivel like heliotrope creatures turning instinctively towards the light, and casting sundial shadows on the wall behind them. Preethi Athreya (a former Padmini Chettur dancer) won a special jury commendation for another installation, in which she appeared with arms bound to her sides, her jittery footsteps tapping out a tremulous Morse code in a piece that was difficult to apprehend but whose poetic mesh of sound, action, speech and film and striking imagery (I’ve never seen a piano played as if it were a guitar) held me spellbound. The PECDA prize—R5 lakh, a mentorship with the Akram Khan Company and an India-wide tour with the 2013 Park’s Festival—went to a completely different kind of work: NH 7 by Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy, another Bangalorean, a deftly realised duet that drives a highway straight through a male social hierarchy, starting with two suited-booted men-about-town and ending with two unshod, short- and-vest-wearing workers, each balancing a shoe on his head—a potent image for the downtrodden.
So, did I get an answer to the question of what is contemporary dance? No: I got many answers. Contemporary dance could be figurative or abstract, highly conceptual or highly physical, small in focus or broad in scale. And good or bad, obviously. If these pieces shared anything, it was not style or substance or quality, but rather an underlying belief that the vision of their creators was more important than any particular tradition, technique or convention; a valorisation of idiosyncrasy, of creativity above conformity.
And what about the second question: is it Indian? The PECDA pieces were all made in India—but the issue of “being Indian” didn’t seem a central concern. There were, to be sure, some more-or-less Indian themes, but they weren’t obvious ones: male hierarchies, achievement pressure, struggles with the idea of duality, with social erotics. And what of dance style? Clearly, the performers had trained in techniques that included Indian classical dance forms, martial arts and yoga, and these inevitably left their imprint. But so too did other styles: ballet, jazz, hip-hop. Indian dancers, like Indian people, seem to be a polyglot lot—a multilingual bunch who are quite at home mixing and matching different idioms. So I guess PECDA’s answer to the second question would be: what do you mean, “Indian”?
If journalists, editors, audiences and organisers kept asking those same two questions, the dancers certainly didn’t. What were they interested in? At the post-PECDA party, the atmosphere still buzzing with competition tension, I strayed from the groups of organisers and officials and blagged my way onto a dancers’ table, where the focus of their talk was on the work itself: did they keep time? Was that lighting off? Was that grouping clear enough? And, working as they do in often isolated conditions with minimal financial, social or artistic support, they seemed much enlivened by two things above all: the opportunity to meet other people like themselves, and the recognition that an event like PECDA gave to their field. Dots were being joined up: they felt part of a bigger picture. Even part of the cultural landscape.
Contemporary dance has certainly grown substantially over the last decade—but do the dots join into anything that might be called a “sector”, or are there just pockets of activity? In the week I had before Akram Khan’s performance, I took a whistlestop tour to three cities to see some of the action in other parts of the country. First stop, Bangalore, and three very different dance organisations. STEM dance, housed in a beautifully airy first-floor studio in the Malleshwaram neighbourhood, was founded in 1995 by the mild-mannered but resolute Madhu Nataraj, and grew directly from the Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography founded in 1964 by her mother Maya Rao, a celebrated kathak dancer who had studied choreography in the USSR with the Riga Ballet. Kathak-trained Nataraj had also studied contemporary dance in New York, but returned determined to forge a contemporary dance style built on Indian traditions: classical dances, folk forms, yoga, and martial arts such as kalari and thang-ta. The company make a convivial group, happily demonstrating excerpts of their stage works, which freely adapt traditional styles using a choreographic method drawn from Rao’s Soviet ballet experience. STEM, you might say, branch out in modern directions while keeping their roots firmly planted in tradition.
Attakkalari, founded in 1992 in Kerala by the dynamic Jayachandran Palazhy to promote “contemporary movement arts”—an intentionally loose term—has grown into a large and many-headed creature, housed since 2001 in a renovated warehouse in Bangalore. The organisation encompasses a training school, a performance company, an educational resource, a workshop series, a community programme and, since 2000, an international biannual festival. Many of India’s current crop of contemporary dancers have, one way or another, passed through its doors. Palazhy is glad to have set up base in the youthful, enterprising environs of Bangalore. “I couldn’t have managed this in Chennai,” he says, “it would have been too…”—he breaks off, wondering how to convey the more crowded and entrenched arts scene there; then grits his teeth, and mimes clawing up a ladder. I feel glad for him too.
No one lives up to Bangalore’s young, entrepreneurial and media-savvy image more than Mayuri Upadhya and her dance company Nritarutya, founded in 2000. I meet her in a theatre the company have hired for rehearsals. In presentation, these guys are pros: they’ve pre-selected some choreographic excerpts to show, in costume; they’ve got promo clips ready on the laptop; they’ve even researched my background. The pieces they perform are sharp, smart and accessible. One work cannily combines show-off male dancing with affectionate send-ups of its own macho posturing, the dancers in film-star masks imitating trademark cinematic poses. It’s cool, without being clichéd. Another takes the mythic half-male/half-female idea of ardhanarishwar and transposes it to a tower-block, with men and women half-appearing through doors and windows. Nritarutya often present their theatre performances with user-friendly video intros, clueing the audience into how to watch the work. It’s no surprise to learn that alongside developing their theatre choreography, they do a lot of corporate and commercial work, whether creating a performance for a product launch, choreographing a fashion show, or working with film ads. Without pandering to their audience, their work feels very—how to say this?—client-focused, whether designed for an arty theatre audience or a commercial sponsor. They show me a clip of a large-scale spectacle created for an up-market wedding, for which they hired ranks of extra dancers, arrayed them in giant banks of person-sized cubby-holes illuminated with flashing light grids—and still made it look both classy and clever. I could just picture some of the young guests looking at the display and thinking: I want to get married now, too!
Next stop: Delhi. Sadhya is a performing and training company founded in 1998 by Santosh Nair, who also serves as its director. His approach has a similar feel to STEM’s: the style is rooted in Indian traditions and often references Indian themes, but is freely adapted for the modern stage—an approach that Nair attributes to the pioneering 20th-century dance moderniser Uday Shankar. His company give me a dynamic display of their polyglot style, ranging from vigorous leaps and lunges, through controlled acrobatic stretches and balances, to iconic images such as a multi-armed deity. It’s a cohesive ensemble, but for one dancer who stands out a mile: Tushar Kalia, whose exceptional technical skill, physical ability and performance quality put him in a league of his own. He had a certain articulation of the leg in the hip that was suggestive to me of ballet training; but no, he got that from chhau. Interestingly, Nair recounts that the Mayurbhanj style of chhau dance had a direct influence from ballet teachers, who gave it a more geometrical line and finish.
The Danceworx, a Delhi-based training school and repertory company uses ballet as one of its core techniques, alongside jazz, modern and social dance; Indian dance forms are introduced for senior students. Founded in 1998 by Ashley Lobo, Danceworx now has an extended network of teaching outlets, with 15 studios in Delhi and six in Mumbai. Entering the main Delhi studio where the company and advanced students train, I’m socked in the face by the pungent smells of sweat and enthusiasm, and greeted by a bright-eyed young woman whose t-shirt proclaims: “I don’t want to be a rock star. I am already a legend.” She’s one of the senior teachers. I love this place already. The students are fresh-faced and beaming, and there are a lot of funky haircuts. They have to love it to be here: the advanced training is very demanding, with classes in choreography, management, administration and production alongside intensive physical training. The school sees dance as a vocation, with students often moving into musical theatre and commercial work—if they can. Everyone knows it’s a precarious profession.
The Gati Dance Forum is also geared towards dance professionals, but it’s a world away from Danceworx. Founded in 2007 by Anusha Lall and Mandeep Raikhy, its goal is the professional development of contemporary dance as a field. In some ways it is similar to Attakkalari, but without backing any particular company or choreographer. Gati provides daily classes with guest teachers, runs a summer choreographic residency, a wide-ranging variety of workshops and lecture-demonstrations, and programmes an annual international festival called Ignite. Ultimately, they’re interested in joining up the dots for contemporary dance in India, so that it’s not just an assortment of individuals and companies but a recognised area on the cultural map. “We’re on the cusp of that change,” believes Lall, echoing the words of many people I had spoken to. “There’s a real sense of possibility on the horizon.”
Last stop: Kolkata, and I get a real sense not only of possibilities on the horizon but of problems on the ground. Whereas in the other cities I had met people separately and on their own turf, in Kolkata—a nod, perhaps, to the Bengali tradition of adda—I’m invited to a debate, a British Council-sponsored event in which a variety of dance artists (Tanusree Shankar, Chetna Jalan, Priti Patel, Sharmila Biswas, Sudarshan Chakraborty, among others) have come together with arts professionals, writers and editors. Ostensibly, the theme is dance and criticism, but the issues thrown up are legion: the marginalisation of arts journalism in favour of a Times of India “page 3” model of entertainment hype and celebrity gossip; the withholding of press tickets from critics until the end of a season to pre-empt possible negative reviews; the political machinations behind state funding of empanelled artists; the need to court sources of power and influence in order to get work shown or supported; the “feudal” culture of singular authority and ownership and the consequent mistrust of collaborative partnership; and the common practice of free ticketing, leading to organisers and artists paying attention to sponsors but neglecting audiences—and to audiences not caring about what they see.
On that sombre note, I return to Chennai, both exhausted and enlivened. And suddenly, it occurs to me that the balance between those two states is just what defines a dancer’s life. The people I’ve met have been tremendously hard-working. Dancers always are, the world over; but here in India, they also have to be phenomenal multi-taskers, turning their hands to administration, publicity, direction, stagecraft—whatever it takes—alongside arduous physical training. Often alongside college degrees or day jobs. It must be exhausting. But they also have tremendous drive and vision.
Such extremes can only be borne for so long. It’s a young person’s state, all that flux and energy; older people need more stability, more sustainability—and India doesn’t yet afford the infrastructure for that in contemporary dance. I’m acutely aware that most of the people I’ve met have been young, so on my last day I take a trip into history, to Chandralekha’s house to the south of Chennai—Chandralekha, the great choreographer who died in 2006 leaving no method or school or technique, but whose vision, like Uday Shankar’s before her, mobilised a subsequent generation of contemporary dancers and choreographers. I am warmly greeted by her former lighting designer, partner, archival custodian and all-round thinker, critic and writer Sadanand Menon. As he guides me around the artisan house and theatre where she lived and practised, I wonder what it is that the best of contemporary dance has to offer.
And I think it comes down to two ideals. First, the understanding that dance itself can be an enlightening, empowering and transformative art. It is often called the Cinderella of the arts, meaning that it is the poor relation—which is true, in India and everywhere else.
Second, there’s that word “contemporary”. What does it stand for? Modern, current, fashionable? It’s often set against classical, commercial, popular, folk or social dance, though from what I’ve seen it can clearly incorporate elements from any—or none of them. Indeed, if there was one thing that struck me as particularly “Indian” about this disparate Indian field it was its physical “multilingualism”, the ease with which choreographers and dancers mixed, matched and transformed styles and sources. The idea of “Indianness” had been important for Chandralekha in defining her contemporary practice. For Menon, the contemporary means standing in a “critical” relation to established practice. For me, it springs from an underlying ideal: freedom. Freedom to think, freedom to imagine, to express, to refuse, to invent, to be different.
Put the two ideals together, and you have something very potent, a combination of physical rigour, artful composition and imaginative freedom. It’s an ideal, of course, perhaps a mirage. For some, a delusion. But it’s the reason why the people I’ve met look not only exhausted but exhilarated. The ground reality of contemporary dance in India remains harsh, but there has certainly been a growth, a groundswell of activity in the area. Will it coalesce into a movement that is larger than any of its practitioners, stake out paths, even territories, in India’s cultural landscape? My mind returns to the words of the unknown woman, spoken in surprise on that September Sunday in Chennai: “It just doesn’t happen here!” Well, it could happen here. It is happening here.