Asian Music and Dance

Contemporary Indian Dance: New Creative Choreography in India and the Diaspora

Palgrave Macmillan’s ‘Studies in International Performance’ series has published one of the most significant books to come out on Indian dance studies scholarship in recent years: Ketu H. Katrak’s Contemporary Indian Dance: New Creative Choreography in India and the Diaspora. A book such as this has been long overdue in terms of contribution to the field. Scholarly literature on contemporary dance in India and in the Indian diaspora has tended to be scant, despite the burgeoning interest in cutting-edge, radical and experimental dance work emerging from the global south within academia and the arts industry worldwide. To date, Sunil Kothari’s edited volume New Directions in Indian Dance, published in 2004 by Marg Publications, was the only serious predecessor to Katrak’s monograph. Yet, although Kothari’s book successfully managed to amass a range of different and significant voices from the contemporary dance world in India, Katrak’s book goes one step further and locates Indian contemporary dance practice firmly within the framework of current theories on gender, sexuality and ethnic identity.

Katrak’s preface as well as her introduction clearly delineate key definitions of contemporary Indian dance, the central questions in this book, and the trajectories she has taken in exploring those questions. In her preface, Katrak defines contemporary Indian dance as those genres that both continue and depart from inherited legacies of art-making. Katrak also very importantly underscores the difference between the North American and the Indian contemporary dance scenes: while the former consisted of monolithic figures such as Graham and Cunningham, Katrak avers that contemporary Indian dance is predominantly polyvocal, in spite of the presence of such influential figures as Chandralekha and Astad Deboo. It is this polyvocal nature of work made in the realm of experimental dance in both India and the international South Asian diaspora that Katrak then goes on to map through her six carefully-constructed chapters.

Katrak begins her journey, surely enough, with a historical re-telling and critique of the twentieth-century reconstruction projects that excavated and transformed sadir to bharatanatyam, and reinstated several other classical dances firmly within the consciousness of a colonised, fractured and increasingly nationalistic India. Chapter 1 therefore does a very good job of reviewing already published literature in the field (such as that by Amrit Srinivasan, Avanthi Meduri, Janet O’Shea and Pallabi Chakravorty) and also highlights the contribution of Uday Shankar, Ram Gopal, Narendra Sharma and Chandralekha to the realm of Indian dance experimentations. It is from Chapter 2, however, that the book begins to turn in a fresh direction. Astad Deboo’s works are cogently discussed here, as is Shobana Jeyasingh’s corpus of work, and although at first glance the two choreographers could be seen to inhabit seemingly disparate worlds, Katrak does manage to weave together her analysis through her focus on the abstract in their choreographic work. 

Perhaps the most interesting segments of this book are in Chapters 3, 4, 5 and 6, where Katrak offers a sweeping yet close enough view of both established and emerging artists from India and the global Indian diaspora. Whereas Chapter 3 is split along the lines of local and diasporic innovations in kathak (Nataraj, Mangaldas, Sheth), bharatanatyam (Johar, Sarabhai, Pada), and personal journeys of discovery or rediscovery (Chettur), Chapters 4, 5 and 6 largely focus on either work in the diaspora or the transnational exchanges between artists in India and the global North in the recent past that have led to a cross-fertilisation of ideas in dance across national and international borders. It is in these sections that the under-examined and overlooked dance experimentations of diaspora artists come to light. Also, these chapters seem to signal the growth of a highly mobile generation of artists in the twenty-first century who seem to have located themselves artistically between the interstices of multiple cultures. Katrak’s discussion of these artists as wide-ranging as Anita Ratnam, Hari Krishnan and Akram Khan underscores the importance of the migration and exchange of ideas that shape much of current, hybrid contemporary dance work today. 

There are some rather important omissions in this book, such as the absence of any discussion of the work of the feminist choreographers Manjusri Chaki Sircar and Ranjabati Sircar (who both were also part of the 1984 East-West Dance Encounter that Katrak usefully highlights as a watershed moment in the history of contemporary dance in India). However, such oversights notwithstanding, Contemporary Indian Dance is an example of solid academic research done in the field, and as such, a most welcome addition to dance scholarship. 

Dr. Prarthana Purkayastha is a lecturer in Theatre and Performance at the University of Plymouth.



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