Is something afoot with contemporary dance in India? The founders of the Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance Awards certainly thought so when they launched the biannual PECDA competition in 2012. The idea for the awards came from Paris-based, Kerala-born dance producer Karthika Naïr (profiled in issue 126 of Pulse) who, having witnessed a variety of contemporary dance competitions in Europe – Danse Élargie in Paris, Premio Equilibrio in Rome, The Place Prize in London – felt that something along similar lines might work in India. The founding of Delhi’s Gati Dance Forum in 2007 and its biennial Ignite! festival in 2010, the continuing growth of Bangalore’s Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts (founded in 1992, with its own biennale since 2000), the growing number of Indian contemporary dancers and choreographers working independently of classical institutions, the growing number of international companies visiting India – all this gave a sense that there was, indeed, something afoot.
So she got in touch with Ranvir Shah of the Prakriti Foundation – a broad-based arts organisation that showcases and develops work in music, poetry, performance and visual art – to see if he might be interested in producing a contemporary dance initiative. He thought it was an excellent idea, and was keen to help promote and emergent scene. As with Danse Élargie, Premio Equilibrio and The Place Prize, the idea of a competition was designed as the hook (talent contests of all manner and matieral have become a global as well as an Indian phenomenon), but it was far from the line and the sinker too. Yes, there would be prize money for the winner – 500,000 rupees in the 2014 edition – and publicity for all participants: the competition finals would take the form of a public performance, with press attention. But more than this, the competition was designed to be a stimulus for growth, on two levels: for individual artists, and for Indian contemporary dance as a whole.
On the artistic level, the prize money came with conditions, commitments and other rewards. The winner would undertake a mentorship programme with an international company (in both 2012 and 2014, this was Akram Khan Company) and use the money to develop their work into a complete piece (competition entries are just 15 minutes long). The finished work would then be toured nationally as part of the Parks New Festival, one of Prakriti’s largest undertakings. Runners-up (the category was introduced in 2014, to help spread the benefits of the awards), would receive mentoring at Attakkalari and a performance slot on their Biennale.
But perhaps more important than this – though far less tangible – is the idea that PECDA can act as a fillip for the contemporary dance scene in India. Practitioners often work in considerable isolation and with precious little support, and certainly both times I have been at PECDA, several participants commented how valuable it was to meet each other, to see and to discuss each other’s work, and to put their own work in context. PECDA also has an international jury with varied backgrounds, in 2014 comprising myself (writer/critic) and Emma Gladstone (director of Dance Umbrella) from London; Claire Verlet, programmer at Théâtre de la Ville in Paris; Saskia Kersenboom, an expert in Indian dance history and culture from Amsterdam; and Indian resident Arundathi Subramaniam, a poet and former head of classical dance at the National Centre of Performing Arts in Mumbai. This brings to bear a variety of perspectives and interests on the entrants’ work, for which feedback is given (though this is an area that several participants have asked to be formalised further). But there are other motivations too, least the fact that two international dance curators are present; indeed both Gladstone and Verlet have already been in discussions about programming with some of the entrants, as a direct result of the competition. As Naïr sums up: “There is a crying need for platforms to present new dance work in India 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.”
And what of the pieces themselves? I can only speak for myself here rather than as a representative of the judging panel, but I’d say that the overall standard in 2014 was higher than for the first edition; certainly the 16 entrants were much better at keeping to their time limit! The winner was Surjit (“Bonbon”) Nongmeikapam from Manipur, whose work Nerves, for five male performers went down as well with the audience as well as the jury. Inventively mixing the styles of its performers – encompassing folk, martial arts and contemporary movement – this piece effectively evoked the physical and emotional stress of living in conflict: the dancers ducked shoes swinging on strings like stray bombs, snagged the red ropes that caught them like netted fish, clashed sticks to evoke both the corporal threat and the unsettling rhythms of battle.
Kolkata-based Prasanna Saikia gained one of the secondary prizes for Mind Diabolique, an intense, finely crafted study in anxiety and uncertainty which made particularly effective use of electronic sound and abstract screen projections. The other went to Mumbai-based Mehneer Sudan for 8/Women in Love, an introspective, subtly inflected evocation of love’s many faces in which a beautifully realised film backdrop (by Supriya Nayak) served as a frame for a series of choreographic cameos. The jury also gave a special commendation for performance to Diya Naidu from Bengaluru, for her full-bodied work-in-progress Red Dress Waali Ladki.
Of course, there were many notes of quality among the non-prizewinners too. For myself, I’d single out Hema Palani’s C Dance for its striking physicality and bold gender-reversals; Anuradha Venkatapuram’s An I on Me for the gravitas and interiority she brought to an essentially abstract bharatanatyam style; the thought-through solos Virieno Zakiesato (Desert Wind) and Avantika Bahl (Home) which balanced the sense of a minimal surface with a rich but hidden internal landscape. And I’d also point out Ammith Kumar’s Thithi/Tatva, not for its jazzy style or its shaky though indupitably energetic choreography, but simply bcause it had the unusual distinction (in an Indian context) of exploring dynamic group compositions and partnerwork.
It’s clear from that selection that the range of styles and approaches was very diverse – which, for a contemporary dance platform, is just as it should be. For while people can and should argue about the competition format (is it appropriate? does it work?), the judging panel (should it be all-Indian? all dance insiders?) and the awards (should there be more categories? more mentoring and feedback?), everyone seemed in implicit agreement with the idea that contemporary dance is by its nature multifarious and many-headed – unruly perhaps, but one that values freedom of thought and expression. Those freedoms have, of late, come under increasing attack in India, which makes the underlying aims of PECDA – along with organisations such as Attakkalari and Gati, and the many smaller groups and individuals who make up the contemporary dance world – something to celebrate, to promote. In this light, the support for PECDA lent by that bastion of classical tradition Kalakshetra (accommodation for the entrants, the auditorium for the competition itself) was gratifying. And while it was certainly strange to witness the idiosyncrasies, transgressions and improprieties that contemporary dance permits acted out upon the Kalakshetra stage, it was also mightily satisfying. It seems that something is, indeed, afoot.