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Classical dance takes a global spin in the new age

Osmosis: With the increase in international travel, local performers are seen to borrow artistic sensibilities, movement vocabularies and western stagecraft for their works. Photograph: (Others)

WION Kolkata, West Bengal, India Apr 27, 2017, 08.12 AM (IST) Suparna Banerjee

 

We are living in a fast-paced world. The rapid flow of ideas, people and technology is significantly reconfiguring politics, culture and economy, and the arts are no exception. Indian classical dances, such as Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Odissi have been undergoing significant transformations in terms of genres and presentations, both in India as well as abroad. Artists are experimenting with multiple forms, ranging from traditional repertoire to creating hybrid genres. The goal has now become to explore a certain cultural identity as well as look beyond it. Thus, Indian classical dances have evolved to display a complex tapestry of race, ethnicity, culture, history and mythology. 

 

Undoubtedly, globalisation has impacted the creative processes of classical dance practitioners as well as production strategies of dance companies virtually everywhere. For global consumption, movements in contemporary pieces are not as stylised as were prevalent in traditional ones. Facial expressions, one of the important aspects of Indian classical dances, are minimally used. Instead of the cyclical rhythmic structure called "tala", choreographers are devising temporal fragmentations to reveal their complex travel trajectories. New costumes have become popular while traditional ornaments and elaborate facial makeup have been abandoned. 

 

Traditionally, the classical dances were abounding in mythological tales about Hindu gods and goddesses but now the narratives are woven around themes of in-betweenness, shifting identities and existential crises.
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A distinctive shift is also observed in relation to the narratives. Traditionally, the classical dances were abounding in mythological tales about Hindu gods and goddesses but now the narratives are woven around themes of in-betweenness, shifting identities and existential crises. With this new approach, the sacred imperative of Indian classical dances is also displaced, yielding room for postmodern themes. Titles of danceworks have accordingly shifted from the conventional to the topical. Notwithstanding these transformations, there are many dancers who conform to the "tradition" and prefer not to incorporate global influences in their practice.

 

Globalisation as a social phenomenon highlights the blurring of boundaries of culture and nation. Consequently, fusion manifests as a choreographic tool, denoting a cultural blend of disparate elements. Depending on artistic choices, new practices, such as Flamenco Natyam, Tap Natyam and Kathak-Tap to name just few have emerged out of hybridisation of dance forms. 

 

A wide range of collaborative ventures has made its way in which choreographers are bringing together different disciplines. Concepts from neuroscience, biology, and surgery are being incorporated into dance sequences. Given the fact that questions of "purity" and "tradition" are so deeply embedded in the vein of Indian classical arts, it is no wonder that such phenomenon would raise debates around the issues of authenticity and cultural appropriateness. In fact, these transformations have attracted the attention of connoisseurs and critics alike. However, proponents of the new forms argue that cross-cultural mixing offers them multi-levelled and varied horizons as opposed to a single language.  

 

Globalisation displays juxtapositions, mainly of tradition and modernity. Many artists have attempted to infuse a sense of speed and urbanism in their contemporary pieces to delineate this aspect. Multiple cityscapes are projected onto screens to mimic the lives of artists, which are constantly in flux, creating inaccessible spaces of desire and urban spectacle. By bringing in aspects of variegated places and fragmented timeframes linked to personal events, new forms of dances create new spatio-temporal aesthetics. 

 

By bringing in aspects of variegated places and fragmented timeframes linked to personal events, new forms of dances create new spatio-temporal aesthetics. 
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Danceworks created in India aspire to attain global stature. With the increase in international travel, local performers are seen to borrow artistic sensibilities, movement vocabularies and western stagecraft for their works. In such choreographies, artists tend to include varied images, languages and cues from the lands they have visited. A complex embroidery is woven with a wide range of techniques that are interlaced with histories and cultural inflows, which in turn, are pushing the geographical boundaries of the creations.  

 

As the digital technology finds its way into the world of art, a dancer’s body is no longer regarded as a fixed symbol of identity.  The assemblage of the living and the digital body makes the stage a malleable entity, wherein identities of these performers are imagined and re-imagined. The digital body is often used as a device on the stage to articulate suppressed feelings of aloofness, liminal identity and nostalgia. These unprecedented artistic developments have paved the way for new psycho-visual aesthetics. Through these continuous disjunctures and reconfigurations, Indian classical dances often usurp the name of "contemporary dance".

 

It is interesting to note that funding bodies use alternative names for dances from disparate cultures, which function more like umbrella terms. For instance, ‘South Asian dance’ in the UK situates all Indian classical dances under the same label as several Asian dance forms, which undeniably problematises the boundary of the forms. In this context, the questions that come to the forefront are: do artists identify with such labels? Or, is it possible to fix their identities in some essentialised past in this age of globalisation? Such shifts not only make the border of the choreoscape more flexible than ever, but also that of dance labels. 

 

Despite the unprecedented cultural exchanges happening around, the challenges that many teachers and practitioners face time and again encompass concerns related to the replication of traditional pieces for acceptance from local audiences. Failing to do this might incite not only criticism, but also a certain furore. The problem with which dancers grapple today is centred on adhering to traditional canons, without being repetitive. So when the borderlines of Indian classical dances are ruptured and negotiated, crosscut by the notions of politics, economics and aesthetics, to change or not to change is a significant dilemma! 

 

Whether these cultural diffusions can be controlled in an era of global transference is an issue. Whether Indian classical dance forms retain their current nomenclatures or hyperglobalisers coin another set of names using prefixes, say for instance, ‘global-’, ‘Mc-’ or ‘trans-’, this blend of endurance and novelty is, nevertheless, going to be an interesting space to watch in the future. 

Suparna Banerjee

Suparna Banerjee is an independent artist-scholar. She obtained her PhD in Dance Studies from the University of Roehampton, UK.

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