Asian Music and Dance

The Navadisha Conference

The world has changed since the last Navadisha conference in 2000. There are new generations of dancers and audiences; new training models and technology; and there has been a shrinkage of public funding. Piali Ray, director of the Birmingham-based arts organisation sampad, Anita Srivastava of New Dimensions Arts Management and consultant Chitra Sundaram are the core group who envisioned Navadisha 2016 to appraise the world of South Asian dance as it is now and to look to the future. Inspirational keynote addresses; dance artists sharing their thinking; funders explaining their programmes; performer platforms; clashes between the arts and commercial sector; and a small insurrection on lack of young voices showed that when you put people in a room, something changes. 

The following is a response to some of the critical issues that emerged. It is by no means a comprehensive Conference Report as that is best produced by the organisers.

The Bird’s-Eye View

The conference aims were generalist – to ‘celebrate, deliberate and collaborate.’ The turnout of 200 delegates was excellent as it gave the sector a sense of strength in numbers. The mix of attendees allowed for multiple viewpoints. The organisers are to be congratulated for bringing together such a large number of delegates, the prerequisite for a successful exchange.

Among the major benefits was for participants to hear ‘the other side’; to encourage artists to approach funders and programmers; to learn about mentoring.

On the downside, to attract the delegates, too many individuals and organisations had to be accommodated with a speaking spot (such as the training panel with eleven members) and SADA (South Asian Dance Alliance) partner being given a large chunk of time (Akademi’s two-hour presentation on dance in outdoor spaces was heavy going). It was valuable to point out the possibilities for employment in this field but two academic presentations on the ‘political value’ of dancing in public spaces preached to the converted.

Emerging Themes

The continuing relevance of classical Indian dance to the British dance sector

Twenty-first-century dance culture should include diverse dance forms practised in the UK. Akram Khan called out for the need to maintain not only forms emerging from the Indian subcontinent but in particular the classical dance forms (“it may seem strange, coming from me,” he acknowledged). Emphasising the importance of stories in making sense of our world, he said “these forms are the carriers of our stories past, present and future.”

The value of his classical training was the underlying theme of Mavin Khoo’s address on Day Three. “My bharatanatyam Guru Adyar Lakshman constructed something so pliable that it gave me the potential to absorb another classical style like ballet when I came to this country,” he said.

Seeta Patel spoke of her wish to perform bharatanatyam as a dance style of here and now, and of the importance of regular programming of classical dance in order to enable audiences to develop a taste and understanding. Amina Khayyam echoed the same in her plea to “let kathak evolve in its own course”, repeated by Sonia Sabri’s “opening the form from within.”

Contemporary dance is a choice reflecting a choreographer’s values and politics

Shobana Jeyasingh is a contemporary dance choreographer (“I’m on the side of change”), who started her explorations from a bharatanatyam base in the 1980s and has consistently pursued the creation of a new language of dance. She told Pulse (Summer 2009): “In classical dance the script is the steps of the dance. In contemporary dance you’ve got to write the script and direct it.” 

Jeyasingh spoke of her desire to place her work in the soil where the roots get mixed up and twisted as they search for a ‘common sustenance’.

The academics help the sector by clarifying the position on the classical-contemporary dichotomy

Prarthana Purkayastha (Brunel) pointed out [in a paper that was read out for her because she was unable to attend] that the study of ‘South Asian Dance’ is framed primarily in terms of its history; and it is seen rather as an exotic side dish rather than part of the main menu. This results in a dichotomy between Western ‘modernity’ and Eastern ‘tradition’. Her argument that the move to an inclusive modernity has to come from within those working on the discipline itself echoes that made by the dancers.

Royona Mitra (Brunel) argued that ‘South Asian’ is a problematic label. The label is being removed in the programmes at Roehampton University (where Ann David is Head of Dance and Avanthi Meduri is Convenor of the current MA in South Asian Dance Studies). At Roehampton, practice and research in these areas flows through the internationally-respected undergraduate and graduate programmes.

Hari Krishnan (Wesleyan University, USA) spoke of “thinking dancers” and “moving scholars”, reminding us of the need for the academic study of dance.

The question of aesthetics

Are the gatekeepers holding the dance back by pushing their version on artists? Anu Giri, current Chief Executive of Dance Umbrella, in her summing-up remark to the Funder/Promoter panel wondered whether there was an unconscious bias and if there needed to be a ‘shift in aesthetics’. At various points, the issue of aesthetics raised its head and drew considerable emotion from the floor – Nina Rajarani challenged the ‘body conditioning’ fetish of Western contemporary being imposed on South Asian forms. The looking towards the ‘East’ from the ‘East’ (from Singapore to the Far East, Bali and Cambodia) described by Aravinth Kumarasamy, the director of Apsara Arts, was warmly applauded by the floor.

Defining one’s space

Dancers need to decide for themselves where they want to place their work and for what sort of audiences.

Farooq Chaudhury, Akram Khan’s producer/partner, decided that he “did not want to be part of the South Asian dance debate. I did not want to be ‘the other.’” Akram Khan’s international status comes from his move from the South Asian dance sector to the mainstream through embracing Western contemporary and evolving his own language. It is patently obvious that while Khan called for classical forms to be retained, he is equally aware that his position today stems from a conscious decision to join the mainstream by embracing the contemporary form.

Amina Khayyam does extensive outreach work among Bengali women and draws audiences from these communities. 

Sonia Sabri looks at common spaces between kathak, flamenco and clog dancers to “understand each other as artists” and bring down the barriers.

The most articulate voices in dance internationally? 

What was missed at the conference was the ambition to address where the art form is and where it is heading. We heard the artists’ voices which were personal visions but the conference lacked the observations of an outside eye that could comment on the commonalities and trends. Chitra Sundaram skilfully summarised the panel discussions where time allowed, but being too close to the proceedings could not act as the independent voice of a dance scholar or critic. Furthermore, the conference did not attempt to seek out and draw the most articulate voices in dance internationally. 

A lost opportunity to hear the younger voices?

The organisation, advisors and platforms were firmly in the hands of a select few who missed putting the 20-somethings into the programme. It would have been fascinating to hear from the current generation who have decided to take on a full-time career in dance and those who have shied away from it. We have an intelligent, articulate group of young dancers who are not yet in the category to make it to the ‘platform’ but nevertheless have interesting things to say.

It remained for someone outside the South Asian sector to lob the missile at the establishment – “Individuals have been in their posts for too long,” said Julia Carruthers, currently Programme Director Warwick Arts, formerly Dance Programmer at the Southbank Centre.

The curation of performances

The performances at Navadisha and those promoted under the aegis of the International Dance Festival Birmingham, running concurrently, did not set the conference alight. The opening night performance of mother-daughter Preetisha and Sujata Mohapatra, the most programmed odissi dancer in India, and the bharatanatyam duo Shijith Nambiar and Parvathy Menon, was bland and had no particular feature to recommend it apart from technical competence. It was wonderful to see Aakash Odedra, the blithe spirit of kathak dance, in the new piece Echoes choreographed by Aditi Mangaldas, but Sanjukta Sinha, although exciting to watch in her breathtaking virtuosity in an extract from Incede, had no greater depth to offer. The third night was programmed with Hemabharathy Palani of Attakkalari in Trikona (Palani had appeared in Dance Umbrella 2015 with the same work), and Subhash Viman in Morphed

The logic of selection for the Dancer Showcase and Navadisha Celebrates appeared to be on representation of the major styles of South Asian dance rather than an imaginative and thematic grouping. So it was not clear why from the panel of ‘Stars in their Eyes’ we had Sonia Sabri performing on the last evening but not Seeta Patel or Amina Khayyam. A ‘Midlands Evening’ would have allowed for all the major Birmingham dancers ‒ Nahid Siddiqui, Chitraleka Bolar and Sonia Sabri; and ‘Face of British Dance’ could have accommodated Shane Shambhu, Kamala Devam, Seeta Patel and Amina Khayyam, giving coverage to some of the best that South Asian dance has to offer. Navadisha had the opportunity of presenting the ‘New Directions’ that South Asian dance has taken. We saw flashes of it at the conference, but expediency rather than artistic choices won the day. The courage to programme an evening of ‘Intimacy’ that could have shown both Nina Rajarani’s piece with husband Yadavan and Hari Krishnan’s Skin is the risk that one would have liked the conference to take.

In conclusion, the most valuable contribution of Navadisha 2016 was to keep up the conversation among the South Asian dance sector and between the sector and the larger dance world. The art form can only move forward with a collective effort to invest in the fundamentals that make this dance art unique. For bringing us together to deliberate, we acknowledge the achievement of Producer Anita Srivastava, Co-Producer Piali Ray and Conference Moderator and Lead Consultant Chitra Sundaram.



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