As one would expect from such a renowned critic and dance writer, Leela Venkataraman’s latest book is painstakingly researched and benefits from both the author’s balanced, analytic approach and the constellation of beautiful dance photographs scattered throughout. Its aim is vast: to explore the evolution of eight classical Indian dance styles from the struggles of independence through the ‘Dance Renaissance’ period of the 1930s‒1970s up to the present day. What is so impressive is the depth and detail brought to a publication that would be more readily expected as an edited collection by a range of experts than the product of one author.
Venkataraman openly admits her bias towards more in-depth knowledge of the development of bharatanatyam compared to the other classical forms. This comes through in the Introduction, with an insightful account of the transition of sadir – the dance belonging to the Devadasi – to the classical bharatanatyam we recognise today. The author acknowledges this narrative may be familiar to some readers. However, her engaging account becomes a useful reference point for the seven other styles explored.
Set out in separate chapters, the development of bharatanatyam, kathak, kathakali, sattriya, manipuri, mohiniattam, kuchipudi and odissi are traced with exacting detail and the warmth of a true rasika. Reading this book was certainly a journey of discovery for me, and I am sure even well-informed dance historians will happen upon many new names, connections and ideas to enrich their understanding. As the chapters progress, a number of common themes emerge. The importance of national and regional identity as a catalyst for the development of classical idioms and the changing role of the dance and dancer in society are seen from a variety of perspectives. Likewise, the importance of lineage is a common thread. In passages that read rather like a family tree, Venkataraman credits the gurus and those who worked at the sidelines in shaping each dance form, as well as the disciples on whom its continuity relies. Thankfully, this vast record of human endeavour is illuminated by vibrant anecdotes and evocative descriptions of memorable performances.
The tension between establishing and maintaining boundaries to protect the ‘traditional’ identity of a dance form, with the need to foster creativity, is another perennial issue confronted in the book. Venkataraman has a sensitive and open-minded approach. However, this renowned critic does not shy away from judgement and is forthright in criticising approaches on each side of the argument which either dilute the form and promote mediocrity or propagate the myth of cultural purity and promote stagnation.
The main body of the book provides a wealth of knowledge that serves as an invaluable resource for dancers, teachers and historians alike. The analysis in the final three chapters focuses on teaching, patronage and the contemporary/classical dialectic. Drawing out the themes that are woven throughout the preceding chapters, Venkataraman identifies issues that will strike a chord with dancers across disciplines. In setting down a testament to the committed life’s work of so many, Venkataraman challenges today’s artists to strive for excellence by guarding against complacency and encouraging a holistic approach to developing artistry, which demands commitment, creativity and intelligence.