Asian Music and Dance

Dance Heritage – Stone or Water?

Heritage is arguably one of mankind’s greatest assets. But how should dance heritage inform practice in the twenty-first century? Naseem Khan looks at the interplay between continuity and change.

The line-up at the end of ‘Daredevas’ would have shocked my dance teachers, if the event had been transported back to the 1960s. On the one hand, they would have approved of Shrikant Subramaniam’s beautifully crisp silk dhoti. And they would have liked Payal Patel in her flowing traditional kathak garb that embodied all the subtle elegance of the style itself. But the rest –  oh, horrors! Who were these other characters who had infiltrated the line up! Black leggings, punkish gear: not even any bells! To make it worse, they clearly had no sense of shame. There they stood, taking a bow along with the other proper dancers, accepting the warm applause of the South Bank audience as if they were not interlopers and impostors – as if they were really entitled to it!

Of course, mindsets were very different then, and history played a part. When I started learning dance – first of all with Pandit Ram Gopal and then more intensively with Professor Krishna Rao and his wife Chandrabhaga Devi – the influence of newly independent India was strong.  Nation-building was the order of the day; and with it came an insistence on the longevity of tradition, its unbroken purity and glorious heritage, with it. As young dancers, we saw ourselves as sheltering beneath the skirts of Mother Tradition, who gave us everything we could ever ask for and everything we could ever possibly need. Never move out, our teachers would say. Don’t go and take classes more widely, not even with people working in the same style. Don’t go and watch dancers who have committed the cardinal sin of learning more than one style. They could not possibly be ‘authentic’. We acquiesced and – you might say – were governed in fact by a mixture of timidity, purity and snobbery.

All that is understandable. The community in Britain at that time was very young, and it clung fast to a principle of no change, impelled by the need to maintain some connection with the known and the valued. My own childhood was lived within a tiny Indian enclave in Birmingham, peopled entirely by doctors – apart from one solitary engineer. In 1939, records show that there were just 100 Indians in the city. It was a community without infrastructure – no shops (buying fresh spices meant a trip to Pathaks in London), no community centre (we hired drab school halls), for quite some time no mosque, gurdwara or temple. But despite that, a sense of roots was maintained with a kind of defensive ferocity. At a recent conference on ‘Heritage, Legacy, Leadership’, the United Nation’s  Rapporteur on Racism, Doudou Diene, talked glowingly of culture. He called it ‘the inner heritage, the inner force that keeps us all going’. My community would have endorsed that.

Ironically, all the issues that were present then are now returning in a rather different form. No-one could have missed the flurry of books, conferences, workshops, films, debates and newspaper articles  all focusing on the troubled issue of heritage. In this case it is British heritage and identity, adrift in a sea of flux and uncertainty. The settled frontiers of Europe are shifting; globalisation has shrunk the world and building cities with a Starbucks and McDonalds on every corner, from Kazakhstan to Kathmandu. Terrorism has undermined the old sense of stability and created divisions. 

The South Asian dance world has been dealing with questions of the place of heritage and tradition for a very long time.

In a sense, the South Asian dance world is in a privileged position because it has been dealing with questions that arise around the place of heritage and tradition for a very long time. They are far from simple. ‘Heritage’ itself can come over as being something solid and concrete. Blue plaques screwed into walls and calls to preserve notable buildings, tend to make us see it as something to be protected. ‘Saving the heritage’ calls up images of objects being wrapped carefully in tissue paper, of carefully controlled environments with the temperature and light levels maintained just so, in order to preserve the item involved. There is no engagement to be had with this bit of heritage. It is too fragile to endure the human touch: best just to tiptoe round it and breathe softly. How do we rate such acts of respect that quietly advise us to leave heritage untouched?  

We cannot avoid discussing heritage without coming up against two major interrelated themes. The first is memory. How does it connect with heritage? Some questions can’t be avoided. How, for instance, can we reproduce the past, when our values and sensibilities are so much of the present? And how accurately can we remember the past anyhow? How subjective is our understanding of heritage?

The issue of subjectivity came up strongly for me recently.  I am the chair of a community organisation formed by local people that came together a few years ago around an East London heritage site. It is called Arnold Circus, and it’s a little hill with gardens on two tiers and a large flat surface with a Victorian bandstand right in the middle. Once it was the jewel of the first social housing estate, built by Victorians in the 1890s. But the bandstand area and hill – built symbolically out of the old Dickensian slums – gradually decayed. Our charity is in the process of rescuing it. But in a certain way we don’t need to. It still exists, in people’s memories. The older people remember the estate as a cosy place where everyone was in and out of each other’s houses all the time. Young adults remembered days when they had been part of the gangs and hung out on the bandstand, alarming people who started avoiding it. To them it had been their sanctuary, a private place to drink, smoke and be bad. And yet a set of voices saw it as a wild spot, demanded that it should be left overgrown and quiet, and ideally locked up so that only residents could use it.

The bandstand is an official heritage site, but whose heritage is it? Each group we talked to saw the bandstand in a particular light, and in relation to their own lives and needs. It had become frozen in their memories in one point in time, and mostly in terms of their own past.

Heritage cannot be considered – paradoxically – without also accepting the companion dynamic of change. A sense of heritage grows and is formed by an emotional engagement, by an individual act of ownership. We create our sense of heritage by our own imaginations, and we build it into our own DNA. Our feelings about heritage are integrally connected and interwoven with our idea of who we are. And that in its turn connects with what we want to pass on, and why we find it so very hard to have it challenged. 

That of course accounts for the tension at the heart of dance. How do we accept change but at the same time hold on to the essence of the past? Why choose? And this quality of being able to contain duality or ambiguity brings us back to dance. It has been quite common for dancers to complain that funders discriminate and favour contemporary over classical work. But that creates a construct that seems to establish two separate developments. Where is the line to be drawn that keeps heritage alive but does not at the same time ossify it? A short time ago, I got the chance to explore that suggested dichotomy in a project called the Intercultural City, for the research body, Comedia. 

It was based around a series of interviews with artists of all sorts about how they saw their practice. What choices did they make, and how were they determined? Peter Badejo, for a start, rejected the whole idea of a dichotomy. “There’s no way you’ll have a tree with good leaves without a taproot. You can’t modify without a foundation.” Shobana Jeyasingh echoed his conviction: a baseline of tradition had to exist, however attenuated it might become, or seem. “To have a juncture,” she said, “You have to have something to disjuncture from…” Other artists – particularly visual artists – talked about the way in which their own heritage existed as a kind of compass, quietly influencing direction of travel rather than acting as a rigid anchor. Artist Lisa Cheung’s engagements with communities are flavoured by her Chinese background in the kind of imagery and devices to which she is drawn and the kind of spirit that infuses her work. But that is very far from seeing it as ‘Chinese’. It was very clear that the division between past and present was artificial. There was constant interplay, back and forth, between the two states. 

Heritage is alive. It grows out of a taproot, and it creates flowers that might be surprising even to the tree.

Each of these artists used heritage – consciously or unconsciously – but reinvented it. Heritage is alive. It grows out of a taproot, and it creates flowers that might be surprising even to the tree. It exists within a number of time zones, and time itself is not linear but layered.  The line-up at the South Back centre expressed that fact perfectly, and so did the performances that interleaved the presentations at Liverpool’s Transitions conference. Sarra Whicheloe and Shane Shambhu worked at different ends of the Bharatanatyam spectrum, but shared a sense of a base however diverse the work turned out to be in the final analysis. And people at the conference were able to attend the premiere of ‘Bahok’. Choreographed by Akram Khan for a company that included dancers from Beijing who were trained in classical ballet, it provided another take on heritage revisited. The piece itself – set in an anonymous departure lounge – was in fact an interaction between memory and change. For ‘Bahok’ means ‘carrier’ in Bengali, and Khan’s dancers carried within them slivers of memories. Expressed and danced in different configurations in the piece, the diverse stories shifted, changed, mutated. They were funny, resilient, sad, poignant. The styles were diverse, with kathak and ballet and contemporary shining through. 

So whose heritage? In this case, the work existed at a crossroads, taking in views from many sides. Holding on to memory but at the same time accepting change – maybe that is the very best place to be.  



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