Marg is a premier arts journal, a quarterly publication produced in Mumbai, aimed at the serious art lover. The ninety-page magazine is a handsome publication with advertisements featuring contemporary dance images in the end-pages, corporates supporting dance companies. The July 2017 issue, edited by dancer Astad Deboo and Ketu H. Katrak, Professor of Drama at the University of California (Irvine) focuses on contemporary dance in India. In fourteen engaging and highly-readable essays, it gives an overview of the state of the art form, the key players, the issues and the debates. The majority of the contributions are by practitioners themselves, which makes the writing so direct and immediate.
Some of the most fascinating discussions are around finding a universally acceptable definition of the term ‘contemporary dance’. Mandeep Raiky, trained at Laban and past performer with Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, in his keynote essay ‘“Contemporary” as a Lens of Criticality’, puts forward the idea that ‘contemporary’ is not a style as are kathak and bharatanatyam but a critical lens that allows one to “ask questions about the body and the world we live in.”
This idea of ‘criticality’ as the main definer of contemporary dance has gained widespread acceptance by the current generation of choreographers and is echoed in the contributions of Vikram Iyengar and Preethi Athreya. Iyengar, in an excellent essay, draws the distinction between classical dance in which movement is a response to an external impulse ‒ music, lyrics, emotion and never for the sake of movement itself ‒ contrasted with the contemporary approach in which “the body can be content in itself, and not only as a medium to represent something else.”
The construction of meaning and narrative through the body is a concept embraced by Chandralekha, the radical dance-maker who abandoned bharatanatyam with its religious and mythological moorings and its dissonance with the real world as she saw it. In rejecting the narrative to locate her work entirely on the body, space and time components and the meanings that could be layered on those, she is the harbinger of the ‘new wave’ of dance-makers. Angika and Sharira, the titles of her most famous works, translate to ‘the body’.
The values that contemporary dance adheres to also influence the work that is made. By its nature, contemporary represents independence and freedom from established structures, forms, conventions and hierarchies. Dance practitioners associated with the Attakalari Centre in Bangalore and the Gati Forum in Delhi take a very analytical approach to dance and dance-making, informed by dance scholarship from Western universities. They have unleashed a new energy on the dance and arts world in India, which is entirely appropriate for a nation only seventy years into independence that is grappling with its identity and place in the world.
The growth of this sector comes against all odds, with non-existent support structures spurring dancers to create their own training programmes. Attakalari, headed by Jaychandran Palazy, runs a one-year diploma in ‘Contemporary Dance and Digital Arts’ and even though voices such as Padmini Chettur are critical of the value of such crash courses, at least these are on offer. Platforms for performance such as the Ignite Festival, promoted by Gati and the Attakalari India Biennial, have similarly been initiated by dance companies with funding by corporates and cultural wings of embassies. A new entrant to the scene is Indian arts philanthropist Ranvir Shah, founder of PECDA, the annual Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance Awards.
The opening essay by Leela Venkataraman, the dance critic who has been one of the most luminous voices in dance for the last three decades, covers familiar ground. She traces the changes occurring within classical forms and the varying degrees of departure, whether in bringing a personal individualistic style as by pioneer Uday Shankar (1900‒1977), or in the new content of performance as in the feminist themes of Mrinalini Sarabhai, or in the refinement of form and presentation such as the work of Kumudini Lakhia. Never calling herself a ‘contemporary choreographer’, Lakhia deconstructed movement units in kathak to reassemble in creative ways for solos and groups. She gave kathak a modern, streamlined look.
In comparison to the current generation, India’s most prolific contemporary dancer, Astad Deboo (born July 1947) remains a maverick soloist. In a marvellous write-up by Ramaa Bhardavaj, the reader is treated to the physical and emotional journeys of Deboo as he crosses continents in pursuit of training or material (contemporary dance classes in London; Kabuki dance-drama in Japan) and in search of performance platforms and collaborators. He has performed consistently since the mid-seventies, creating works that sing out with originality, visual splendour and emotional depth. His work comes from the heart and the gut, imbued with rasa. In that, perhaps Deboo is a bridge between the classical and contemporary worlds.
This collection of writings vividly captures the exploding contemporary dance scene as it is unfolding in India today. In turn, contemporary dancers will hold up a mirror to the social and political changes as dance and life continue to connect more closely.