Asian Music and Dance

Carving a Corner for Contemporary Dance in India

On the eve of the fifth Attakkalari Dance Biennial, Jyoti Argade notes that a new audience is emerging in urban India with a thirst for watching contemporary live performance and argues that Bangalore’s technological edge also makes it the hub for contemporary dance in India.


The crash of a brass cymbal slashes the silence of the performance hall. A bamboo flute’s gentle raga caresses the space like smoke curling from the tip of an incense stick during a ceremonial rite. Rushing forth in an overwhelming crescendo, the distorted and digitised sound of wind suggests that the tale to be told is unstoppable – travelling a far distance, carrying with it memory, history and gesture. 

On 10 February 2009, Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts premiered Chronotopia at the Fourth International Attakkalari Dance Biennial in Bangalore. Attakkalari is known for its choreographic explorations of myth, transnational cultures and technologically-driven performance aesthetics. For me, it was one of my first experiences of watching non-classical Indian dance in this South Indian capital of arts, science, industry and culture.

The opening scene of Chronotopia begins with a dimly-lit stage. Holding fluorescent lights upright like candles, three dancers – one female and two males – place the tubes on the floor in the middle of the stage, creating a trinity of light in a long straight line. This opening of Chronotopia is reminiscent of an invocation traditionally performed at the start of a classical Indian repertoire, beseeching blessings from God, the guru and the audience. The three dancers’ movements appear heavy, as if laden by grief and tragedy. Recorded incantations delivered by a male overtone singer anchor the melancholy of their gestures. The dance picks up from slow to quicker spins, citing versions of the vatta chuvatu in kalaripayattu and brahamaris in bharatanatyam. Motion-captured projections of their tube lights – flipped horizontally – create an image of ladders across the stage’s screens, connecting the ground to the heavens, linking the future to the past, re-telling the second-century Tamil epic of Chillapathikaram – a story of love, betrayal, revenge and martyrdom that narrates the episodic journey of the protagonist, Kannagi. Jayachandran Palazhy, the Artistic Director of Attakkalari, chose Chillapathikaram for Chronotopia because the text “lives within us, it is a story that is told to us from the time of being children, it is a living story”.1

Choreographed by Jayachandran and Attakkalari’s dancers with motion-capture technology and real-time animation, this work combines a matrix of movement styles – from bharatanatyam to kuchipudi, from the martial arts of kalaripayattu to capoeira, and from the popular styles of jazz and street dance to positions gleaned from yoga and tai chi. Release-based techniques learned by Jayachandran at the London Contemporary Dance School in the 1990s, and developed in dialogue with kalaripayattu and bharatanatyam at his Bangalore-based Centre for Movement Arts over the last decade, complicate negotiations of nation, language and global culture on the proscenium of Ranga Shankara, one of India’s most experimental venues for theatre, located in Bangalore, India’s Information Technology capital. 

Named Chronotopia after Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the Chronotope, the presence of multiple voices in the work is clear. Part of Jayachandran’s process in creating this work was to access the multiple languages in the body, or what he calls the ‘civilisational movement histories’ that reside in all of us.2 Through a series of choreographic tasks, Jayachandran explored the dancers’ experiences of childhood, their pedestrian motions through urban and village spaces, and their relationship to a living text like Chillapatikaram

To illustrate these ‘civilisational movement histories’, Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts used quite spectacular technology to visualise the dancers’ legacies of movement in space. Cameras filmed the motion of the dancers’ bodies, 3-D software processed these images, and projectors beamed large-scale live video that resembled fading spectres of the dancers’ motions onstage. It is a haunting and magical sight that points to both the fleeting nature of human existence and the traces we leave behind. 

The Complexities of Categorisation

Like other works by Attakkalari, including Trans Avatar and Purushartha, Chronotopia re-orients categories that position the classical against the folk, and the modern against martial arts. Indeed, audiences are accustomed to viewing a complex of Indian classical, martial and global techniques in Bollywood movies, for instance, or more intricately as in Rukmini Devi’s reconstruction of bharatanatyam which is widely accepted as an amalgam of dasi attam, Western ballet and yoga. This 1930s reshaping of dasi attam into what is now a national and ‘world’ dance technique occurred at the advent of modern dance’s development in the United States and Western Europe.

“…Whether you label a dance classical, modern, or folk, contemporary is a sensibility.”

So how do we get around not calling an Indian classical dance form like bharatanatyam modern? Many dancers including those performing in a classical context articulate the problem of separating classical styles from modern or contemporary work. For instance, following a performance during the 2009 Attakkalari India Biennial by the world-renowned odissi troupe, Nrityagram, a male audience member asked the artistic director, Surupa Sen, whether her company ever intended to perform contemporary or modern fusion work. With a twinkle in her eye, and after asking him to re-formulate his question three times, Ms. Sen replied, “I’m not exactly sure what you mean by contemporary, but whether you label a dance classical, modern or folk, contemporary is a sensibility.”

And it appears that Bangalore audiences are searching for that kind of sensibility, as was the case for the audience member above who hoped the company would fuse odissi with something legibly ‘modern’. Nrityagram was one of twenty companies performing at the Festival, half of which were from all over India, the other half from South America, West Africa, Western and Northern Europe, South Korea and Canada. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations along with corporations and multinational companies partly financed the Festival. This array of international dance available to audiences in a cosmopolitan centre like Bangalore coincides with the array of international goods available to Indian consumers following the economic policies pursued first in 1984 by Rajiv Gandhi and accelerated by P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1991. The liberalisation of India’s private sector, and, in turn, the rapid socio-cultural effects caused by Bangalore’s IT revolution, have arguably shaped the consumption and practice of Indian contemporary dance in this South Indian city. Audiences are more diverse, stemming from all over the country and the world due to the demand for highly-skilled technology-oriented labour. And the dance landscape reflects these changes by showcasing classical, contemporary and regional forms that appeal to more cosmopolitan spectators. 

“‘Modern’ dance in India is hardly a recent phenomenon.”

Though the categories of classical, contemporary or post-modern dance in India are, at best, useful in describing genre, and at worst, historical and arbitrary, ‘modern’ dance in India is hardly a recent phenomenon. Chandralekha, extolled as the mother of Indian ‘modern’ dance, staged Angika in 1985. Ananya Chatterjea suggests this work marked the beginnings of Chandra’s career as a contemporary choreographer, paving the way for many dancers to critique the politics of forms named classical or traditional. Decades before Chandralekha performed her deconstructions of the ‘classical’ body through the movement lexicons of bharatanatyam, kalaripayattu and yoga, Narendra Sharma of Bhoomika Dance Company in Delhi and a senior disciple of Uday Shankar, created what his son, Bharat, calls ‘modern’, anti-colonial dances. Other choreographers who have challenged the parameters of classical forms over the past two decades in very distinct individual styles include Padmini Chettur, Tripura Kashyap, Mallika Sarabhai, Astad Deboo and Daksha Sheth. Sheth, for instance, trained in the North Indian Lucknow school of kathak during the ’70s and ’80s, and proceeded to explore other movement forms including hatha yoga, Mayurbhanj chauu and pole mallakhamb to invent an athletic, circus-like style. Also trained in kathak, Astad Deboo went abroad to the London Contemporary Dance School in the ’70s, then to New York for further training in Graham technique, and later studied with Pina Bausch. Often gaining recognition in India after touring abroad, and attaining a currency of ‘export quality’ in their creations, these artists continue to create work with international support from the British Council, the Dutch agency HIVOS, the Alliance Française, the Ford Foundation and the Goethe Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan. Local funding often comes from the Ratan Tata Charitable Trust, the India Foundation for the Arts and various departments of Corporate Social Responsibility. Unfortunately, though the Indian Government offers miniscule grants, a scarcity of funding for the arts is available, and many artists find themselves conducting workshops and performing at multinational corporate events to make ends meet. 

Glocal Spaces/Glocal Marketplaces

By one advertising executive’s accounts, ‘abroad is now in India’, writes Leela Fernandes in her important work on the Indian middle class. Citizens of cities like Bangalore see their city and nation as a global centre, and recent graduates need not go abroad to attain a level of global sophistication. The global or ‘glocal’ is at their doorsteps, as seen in the malls, cineplexes and international festivals like the Attakkalari Biennial or the Hay Literary Festival that took place in Trivandrum last November. A new type of citizenship is emerging that revolves not only around the consumption of commodities, but also around the consumption of contemporary cultural production, whether it is Bollywood movies made by Indian producers for Indians at home and abroad; Indian literature written in India about India by Booker Prize nominees and winners; and of course, contemporary dance like Attakkalari’s wherein Jayachandran’s collaborations with new media artists from around the world reveal a futuristic vision of Hindu mythology and regional folklore that is quintessentially Indian, in which the company uses (as Jayachandran says) “Technology [that] allows us to transcend the ordinary, allowing us to imagine something new.” 3

Ritty Lukose writes: “For members of societies that are actively being transformed by globalization, consumer practices and discourses become an increasingly important axis of belonging for negotiating citizenship, in other words, for the politics of social membership, for negotiations of public life, and for an understanding of politics within the nation.”

Communities of choreographers in Bangalore, including Mayuri Upadhya of Nrityautya, Madhu Natarajan of Natya STEM, and Dil Sagar, an exponent of kalaripayattu, are actively positioning themselves as contemporary artists – nourishing and consuming from the marketplace of Indian and non-Indian techniques that include ballet, jazz, hip-hop, salsa, feldenkrais, yoga, kalaripayattu, kathak, bharatanatyam, kuchipudi, contact improvisation and release-based movement to name just a few in Bangalore alone. 

“New…audiences of contemporary dance are ‘Liberalization’s Children’.”

This kind of local/global, or glocal, sensibility in their choreography is furthering a kind of citizenship that is much different from the generations that preceded them. The previous generation of dance consumers and practitioners, the children born after the 1947 moment of Independence, were burdened by the anti-colonial ideals of the nationalist movement, the glorification of India’s classical past, and the romanticisation and upliftment of the rural poor. In contrast to the ‘Midnight’s Children’ of Salman Rushdie’s imagination, the new practitioners and audiences of contemporary dance are ‘Liberalization’s Children’, a term that Ritty Lukose uses to describe those children raised with rapid economic growth, free market capitalism, satellite TV, mass media, Hinglish in Bollywood films, and, of course, the internet. Also called zippies, for their fast-paced life, ambition and ascension into income brackets that are 3–4 times the amount their parents made (Lukose), the citizenship these youth perform through the consumption of goods, and various forms of artistic production, points to a cosmopolitanism where the world has also come to India, as India goes out into the world. 


Eager to see new work, as shown by the large attendance at the Attakkalari India Biennial in 2009, and contemporary dance events that regularly occur around the city, audiences are learning to decode contemporary movement language, instead of piecing together stories recognised from the Hindu pantheon by classical soloist bodies. This is happening in Bangalore, in particular, which is considered a Mecca for contemporary Indian dance, largely due to Jayachandran’s Attakkalari Centre for Movement and Research, and because of the numerous classical dance institutes across the city. However, in my conversations with young contemporary choreographers and dancers, they claim that this contemporary development is still in its nascent form partially because there is such a rich tradition of dance to negotiate. Choreographers practise their citizenship through a desire to create something in India from the resources available there rather than re-inscribe a model where one has to go West to learn skills to innovate at home. Connecting the global to the local, and performing a new kind of ‘glocal’ identity through contemporary dance, choreographers and dancers continue to deconstruct the legacies of nationalism, tradition and the politics of classicism embedded in their bodies. However, their investigations, as the dance marketplace grows in diversity, point to a level of citizenship driven by an internationalism grown at home.

“…Audiences are learning to decode contemporary movement language.”

Jayachandran Palazhy In Conversation

Jayachandran Palazhy speaks to Isabel Putinja on the thinking behind the Biennial Festival and his views on technology, contemporary dance, Bangalore audiences and much else. 

What is the main theme/focus for the Attakkalari Biennial 2011 and how did that evolve from past Festivals?

The theme of the next Attakkalari India Biennial (28 January to 6 February) is Traditional Physical Wisdom, Innovation and Technology. There will be a focus on young choreographers from South Asia and India as well as the UK. This is an important initiative because it will give young choreographers an opportunity to present their work during the festival and develop their creative expression by having the chance to work with experienced mentors. There will also be master-classes and a seminar on the body and performance. The Biennial offers an excellent opportunity to witness the work of a lot of young artists as well as a chance to actively engage through workshops and network and share ideas with international artists.

What influenced/inspired the creation of this year’s Biennial world premiere by Attakkalari’s Repertory Company (if indeed there is a world premiere)?

At the Biennial inauguration Attakkalari will be presenting a new work: Aayodhanam, invoking the martial spirit. This work is inspired by kalaripayattu, the martial art from Kerala. We have been researching different aspects of kalaripayattu, its movement principle, its history and its various manifestations. It has had a big influence on Indian classical and contemporary dance: it played a big role in the creation of kathakali and contemporary Indian choreographers like Chandralekha and Daksha Sheth also incorporated it into their work. It has also been introduced as part of the training at Kalakshetra. It plays a pivotal role in body aesthetics and movement principles.

While developing this production I was not interested in the ‘fighting’ aspect of kalaripayattu but rather the social ethos behind it and the way it uses the body as a tool to reach out to a higher level. It celebrates the body as a vehicle for this. So this is more of a philosophical exploration. 

What movement languages do you use in your company’s work at present?

Besides kalaripayattu our work uses elements of capoeira, yoga and contact improvisation. We’re also interested in collaborative work with other dance languages and traditions. For example, we are currently working on another new work with CcadO, a Korean dance group, which will explore both Indian and Korean movement languages to come up with something which is Pan-Asian. 

How does Attakkalari’s movement idiom challenge categories of ‘classical’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘modern’?

We have the highest respect for classical and folk forms which are part of our heritage. However, we don’t feel we need to limit ourselves to these forms. Our outlook is contemporary and we need to have our own language with which to express our contemporary experiences and memories. The traditional vocabulary is one of the many forms which help us create and understand different aspects of the body. We’re not bothered with labels: the language we come up with responds to our own context.

Why do you think technology has been so central to Attakkalari’s creations?

Technology was born with the lighting of a lamp. Today technology is a cultural component of life. We can’t do without it. We can only guess, with time, the role that technology will play in the future. Life is increasingly technologically-enabled. 

With digital technology you can have non-linearity. You can think not only in linear terms. You also have the ability to transform a set in a fraction of a few seconds in terms of the look and feel. If you can incorporate technology at the conception of a piece, it has a lot of potential. But you have to use technology in a way which does not reduce it to only that. 

How do you approach your collaborations with artists across the world?

Each of our collaborators brings something specific to the work. I explain the concept or idea of a piece and as long as the other person grasps this, it doesn’t matter where he or she is from. Such collaborations often lead to interesting experiences where each artist is challenged to take a different, unfamiliar path by using a structure and process which is different to their own. They’re challenged to do things in a different way and their creativity blossoms as a result.

How would you describe the development of contemporary dance in India and Attakkalari’s contribution in supporting its evolution?

There are a lot of young artists in India who are exploring contemporary dance and who have been involved in our various projects either as part of the repertory or diploma programme. Attakkalari has established a benchmark which has helped to increase the quality of performances. Our technical department has also played a role by developing the aesthetics and quality of performances. This has been a team effort thanks to our various departments, including the research and technical departments. Our diploma in movement arts and mixed media offers the most comprehensive training in contemporary dance in India because it includes training in bharatanatyam, kalaripayattu, ballet and contact improvisation but also anatomy and light design.

How do you think Bangalore audiences respond to contemporary dance?

Bangalore is a good place to be because it’s a receptive and accepting city. The audience is developing. Numbers are increasing and so is the number of events. Audiences often have to make a choice. We also have a lot of interest in our evening classes, school outreach programme, and corporate workshops. In this way we are also developing a new audience. What we also try to do is educate our audiences and develop their ability to articulate. We reach out through meet-the-artist sessions, workshops, presentations and lecture-demonstrations in schools. In the process we educate ourselves too because our art cannot exist without an audience and we learn from them too.


This research was made possible by a Fulbright Fellowship in India from 2008–2009. Special thanks are also due to Jayachandran Palazhy and Pankhuri Agrawal of Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts. 


1. Jayachandran Palazhy, personal interview, October 9, 2009. / 2. Ibid. / 3.Ibid.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. 1981. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. Print. 

Chatterjea, Ananya. Butting Out: Reading Resistive Choreographies Through Works by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Chandralekha. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004. Print.

Fernandes, Leela. India’s New Middle Class: Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.

Lukose, Ritty A. Liberalization’s Children. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. Print.



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