Asian Music and Dance

Transforming the British Dance Ecology

 When Pulse ran the Critical Writing workshop at the Hat Factory in Luton on 2 August 2013, one of the objectives was to give a background and context, especially to the young writers, on how South Asian dance had evolved in the UK since the mid-Seventies. A happy coincidence was that Dr Stacey Prickett from Roehampton University was putting the finishing touches to her yet-to-be launched book Embodied Politics, which covered some of the same territory.

With identity politics and issues of representation occupying a significant place in debates about dance, one chapter in my new book is devoted to exploring multiple ways in which South Asian dance has become an integral component of mainstream British culture. Embodied Politics: Dance, Protest and Identities starts in the 1970s and 1980s with shifts in the cultural landscape and engagement with state and cultural institutions. Funding opportunities emerged that were seized upon with a spirit of innovation and determination as support organisations emerged from within the field, offering stability and leadership. Some groups are celebrating their third decade of existence: the National Academy of Indian Dance founded in 1979, now Akademi; the Centre for Indian Classical Dance in Leicester; while Kadam, Sampad South Asian Arts, Milapfest and Kala Sangam all have a history of longevity and creative entrepreneurship. Dance forms such as bharatanatyam and kathak have been institutionalised along the way, not merely through codification of teaching but integrated into dance education and training regimes, shaping perceptions of South Asian dance as carriers of culture and as art forms in their own right. Networking opportunities and support structures have helped diversify the field beyond community foundations. Public performances, free events in urban squares, parks and city streets advanced the processes of expansion, exposing the accidental viewer to new forms of dance while providing professional experience to multiple generations of performers and choreographers. Introducing book material here, I explore some London events which enabled new artistic paths to be forged, celebrating and critiquing narratives of identity and nation. 

“Some groups are celebrating their third decade of existence”

One key marker dates back to 1976. Naseem Khan’s report for the Arts Council, The Arts that Britain Ignores was commissioned prior to the winter of discontent which ushered in a change of government and the election of Margaret Thatcher. Government policies responded to demographic shifts starting in the 1960s with the post-war influx of workers from former colonies from Caribbean islands, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, joined later by East African Indians expelled from Kenya and Uganda. Their families eventually followed, impacting upon education policies as well as bringing questions of race, ethnicity and national identity to the forefront of contemporary consciousness. Grass-roots amateur practices in local community halls, temples and specialist venues such as London’s Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan helped disseminate diasporic dance forms. They survived on private donations and class fees while in London, the left-leaning leader of the Greater London Council Ken Livingstone advocated funding for ethnic minority and gay arts. Arts Council support also began trickling in to South Asian dancers such as Chitra Sundaram who was funded for a national tour as early as 1982. A move into proscenium arch theatres coincided with the broader push to acknowledge the minority ethnic arts in Britain, celebrated by the official launch of the national dance organisation ADiTi in 1989, an event that in retrospect highlighted the trajectory of the field. Khan described how classical and folk dancers gathered near Bradford’s Alhambra Theatre: “At a given signal, the dancers flocked across the street to the pounding insistent thump of the Punjabi dhol. At the theatre, wave upon wave ran in unison to the large glass doors and symbolically beat on them. After the last wave, the Lord Mayor and his wife, grinning from ear to ear, flung open the doors, tossed flower petals under the advancing dancers’ feet and welcomed them in.”1 

“A period of phenomenal growth … increasing professionalisation and codification of classical forms, ranging from the ISTD and the newer offerings of CATS…”

Almost two decades later in 2007, after a performance of Akademi’s new choreography platform Daredevas, Khan noted how South Asian dancers were able to “take 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!”2 Demographic changes resulted in new, larger communities that differed from the environment Khan wrote about in the 1970s. Practitioners were inspired “to take ‘heritage’ arts beyond the immediate community and make artistic spaces for Indian dance in the mainstream.”3 The limitations of a small pool of professional dancers within the diaspora necessitated action to acquire public funding and attract more diverse audiences. A period of phenomenal growth in the field has occurred alongside increasing professionalisation and codification of classical forms, ranging from the ISTD Classical Indian Dance Faculty (formerly South Asian Dance) and the newer offerings of CATS, the government-run Centres for Advanced Training that support exceptional kathak and bharatanatyam dance students aged 11 to 18 years old. 

“A strategic decision to focus on large-scale events was marked by Coming of Age in 2000”.

Akademi is one organisation supporting dialogues and innovation, constantly interrogating aesthetic as well as political issues and themes of tradition, classicism and contemporaneity. A strategic decision to focus on large-scale events was marked by Coming of Age in 2000, a two-day spectacle celebrating Akademi’s twenty-first birthday, filling the interior and exterior locations of the South Bank Centre which was built for the Festival of Britain in 1951. One hundred performers across three generations performed for 16,000 spectators, claiming space within an iconic contemporary and classical performance venue. Assistant Artistic Director Pushkala Gopal described how the event “celebrated individuality with collective identity”, drawing in contemporary dance, classical ballet, folk dance, kathak and bharatanatyam. For composer Shrikant Sriram, “Coming of Age is poised at a moment where the term actually means something: it is the time where Asians in Britain are actually finding their own voice as British people in a number of fields…” 4 

Awaaz/Voice (2006) turned Trafalgar Square into a stage for a… consideration of the experience … the often invisible female garment worker.”

Dance has been taken to the wider public on a number of levels seen in spectacular events sponsored by the Mayor of London, inviting reflection on the grandeur and wealth that built the monuments to royal and military might, the edifices that convey a complex history of empire. Sapnay (‘Dreams’, 2005), commissioned for the Mayor’s Trafalgar Square Festival, transformed all aspects of the site into performance platforms. Kathak exponent Gauri Sharma Tripathi and bharatanatyam and classically ballet-trained Mavin Khoo blended dance styles to a remixed sound score of ‘house’ music by DJ Matt Ross. Tripathi spoke of the challenge of creating in response to various textures and levels, of having to be aware of the three-dimensionality of the body with an audience on all sides. Sapnay played the classical vocabularies against and with contemporary and balletic movement, live drumming, with dancing in the fountain (reminiscent of a Bollywood scene) pushing the boundaries of permissible access of the square’s space. Waterscapes (2003) offered a nostalgic vision of the past, set in the courtyard of Somerset House. Inspired by the Heaven on Earth: Art from Islamic Lands exhibition, Pratap Pawar led a team of kathak choreographers (including Sushmita Ghosh, Amina Khayyam, Padma Sharma and Tripathi) in an evocation of Mughal court ceremony. Groups of dancers in rich silk costumes wove through the intermittent jets of water that rose from the ground, watched over by ‘courtiers’ and the contemporary London crowds. In 2010, Shobana Jeyasingh choreographed Counterpoint in the Somerset House fountains, also inspired by the history of power, the formality and linearity in the columns and square courtyard. The process included a mentoring and training programme for fifteen dancers, exemplifying one of the many outreach type activities often associated with South Asian dance projects. In contrast, Chitra Sundaram’s Awaaz/Voice (2006) turned Trafalgar Square into a stage for a socially conscious consideration of the experience of South Asian female migrants, including the often invisible female garment worker. Awaaz could be read at multiple levels, highlighting social disparity as well as hope for the future or luxuriating in the intensity of movement alone. 

Other examples of integration into the cultural fabric are seen in the celebrations of nation in the build-up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The multi-year Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 Festival gave dance-goers an abundance of choices. The events were drawn from a broad spectrum, encompassing Britain’s multicultural diversity and postcolonial relations, seen in the South Asian dance and music 3D architectural project Mandala in Nottingham and Birmingham. In London, two Arts in Parliament programmes brought the South Asian dance classicism and community groups into the hallowed halls of government. Viewers entered Westminster Hall’s cavernous space through security checks and crash barriers; its high stone walls evoke an aura of power dating back to the eleventh century. The presentation of heritage contributes to perceptions of classical South Asian dance as evocations of elegance, discipline and officially-sanctioned art forms. Combining the linear and clear shapes of bharatanatyam gestural vocabulary with contemporary dance, Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company’s TooMortal was presented under the auspices of the 2012 London Festival, set in historic churches where small audiences stood in front of the altar, looking back to the church entrance. To Cassiel’s remix of a score by James MacMillan, six dancers dressed in red used the high-backed pews as hiding places and launching pads, the symbolic space generating depths of meaning, creating a spiritual resonance that transcended cultural specificity. 

“Another milestone …was seen in Akram Khan’s choreography of the hymn Abide with Me in the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony”.

Another milestone that signifies the centrality of South Asian Dance was seen in Akram Khan’s choreography to Emeli Sandé’s rendition of the hymn Abide With Me in the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. Asked by director Danny Boyle to create something on the theme of mortality, fifty dancers were joined on stage by Khan and a 9-year-old boy. Performed in front of a huge golden orb of light, a television voiceover linked the dance to the terrorist bombings of July 7, 2005, as images were built up of deep introspection, with torsos curved inward and weighty actions reinforcing a downward pull. Gradually a sense of community unfolded, arm movements and lunges rippled through the group as hope for the future was personified in the youth, a playful interaction with Khan culminating in the young boy being lifted above the crowd at the end. 

Melas and public festivals of all kinds offer space for the celebration of South Asian dance and music, offering professional performing experience and the chance to work with commissioned scores and high production values. Interacting with performers and choreographers from other styles, the exposure also enhances understanding of western contemporary dance structures. Bollywood and bhangra are also embedded in the popular imagination, ranging from the West End and Broadway musical Bombay Dreams with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber (2002), while the Wah! Wah! Girls, Javed Sanadi, Bollywood choreographer and Tripathi’s run at the Peacock Theatre in 2012 was accompanied by Bollywood dance classes and post-show talks. The closing ceremony of the Olympic Games on 12 August brought the Virsa Punjab bhangra group together with Eric Idle singing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ from the Monty Python film Life of Brian (1979). This inclusion generated resistance and accusations of multiculturalism ran rampant alongside celebration on blogs and discussion forums. A curry first appeared on a British menu in 1773, while the first Indian restaurant opened in 1809; the most popular national dish is chicken tikka masala (a British invention), so the inclusion of bhangra within the irreverent context of Monty Python conformed to the cheeky and chic image of the nation presented in the rest of the ceremony.

1 Naseem Khan (1997) ‘South Asian Dance in Britain’, in Iyer, Alessandra, ed., South Asian Dance: The British Experience: Choreography and Dance, Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishing, p. 28.

2 Naseem Khan (2008) ‘Dance Heritage: Stone or Water?’, Pulse, Issue 101, Summer, pp. 7-8.

3 Naseem Khan, Chitra Sundaram, Ginnie Wollaston and Piali Ray, ‘Moving Margins: South Asian Dance in the UK’, (2001) http://www.narthaki.com/info/articles/article13.html, accessed 17 November 2008.

4 Quoted in Ambika Kucheria (2006) ‘In your site: in your mind’, Pulse, Issue 114, pp. 14-15.

Dr Stacey Prickett is  Principal Lecturer in Dance Studies at the University of Roehampton, specialising in dance criticism and the relationship between dance and the wider society. Her recently published book Embodied Politics:  Dance, Protest and Identities draws together four analyses of dance explored through concepts of hegemony, politics and cultural representation in the USA and Britain.



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