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Climbing Up the Downward Timeline: A Reflection on Indian Dance Today

Justin McCarthy
January 31, 2011

Attired in bright silks, adorned with elaborate jewels, bells on ankles, and moving with stylized facial expressions and hand gestures to artfully sliding melodies atop a continuous, complex percussion accompaniment; this performer would be the visual representation of Indian dance for audience members ranging from first-time viewers to spectators more familiar with the art form. For the uninitiated, it could be a dazzling surface impression of an unfamiliar exoticism; for those previously exposed to dance, it could be a four-dimensional image of a set of particular cultural patterns; and for the informed and intimately involved, it is the coded signage of a familiar communications medium.

Is it Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, or Orissi? How about Kathakali, Mohiniattam, Kudiyattam, or Manipuri? Apart from a mind-boggling plethora of styles, Indian dance forms can be said to possess largely shared modern and contemporary performance histories. What is seen today is generally a comparatively new art form, a recreated or re-imagined dance which is a wonderful aesthetic approximation of what it may have been like in a variety of pasts; researched, invoked, and dreamt. While this neo-classical dance came into being during the first half of the last century, it stands in a reverse chronological relationship to a series of temporally diminishing avatars of itself. These incarnations form a chain of historically receding images from the dance’s twentieth century reinvention, back through its nineteenth century codification and state of semi-stasis, further past to its eighteenth and seventeenth century place among the courtly and religious arts, down through medieval garbs and eventually descending into ancient mist. This backward-moving chronology has corresponding concrete visual archives. While the twentieth century is documented through films and photographs of almost all the famous dance exponents, the nineteenth century is partially captured in smudgy daguerreotype as well as paintings, quite often of the official East India Company variety, depicting dance parties and religious processions with dancers. As technical means of reproduction decrease down the timeline, high definition is lost and we see dance through temple and palace frescoes and sculpture as well as in poetry and detailed technical treatises.

This historicity is essential for building an identity for Indian dance. The fact that much, if not all, of what we see today is an early to mid-twentieth century conscious refashioning of an idealized dance, existing in a partially imagined past, is crucial for grasping its uniqueness. Embodied within this reconstruction is a fascinating process by which historical memorabilia (literature, myth, music, philosophy, etc.) are, with the discrimination afforded by hindsight, selectively showcased. In the sphere of the arts the Occident in the twentieth century continued working out its equation with the Enlightenment-spawned idea of revolution; art acting as a metaphor for the new rejecting the old, that new in turn rendered old and transformed by the next new. On the other hand, India posited its recreation of ancient dance as an atemporal reply to externally-imposed colonialism and internally-present feudalism. While the West put to the forefront the idea of the individual genius engaged in a dialectic of upheaval, in India the creative persona was dissimulated behind a recapturing of the ficto-historical moment.

In contrast to the dynamic face presented by Indian dance in the first-half of the twentieth century, by its second half, most dancers had begun to believe in, buy into, and sell the idea that dance was a miraculously-living example of a fixed and sacrosanct classicism that somehow hadn’t budged for centuries. And as the nature of dance education was – and in most cases still is – determined chiefly by those concomitant with this view, a whole generation of complicit innocents was formed. Though this period of self-satisfaction created a space in which some excellent dancing thrived, its sustainability was threatened by the intentional ignorance of history on the part of its proponents. The emergence of a technologically-connected global community cast doubts on suspect ideas of cultural permanence, leaving most of us bred in an impossibly smug purism confused and dismayed. But, and to a much larger degree than is generally acknowledged, a surge of new research by academics – mostly Indian and teaching at American and British universities – has started peeling away pseudo-ancient patina and illuminating each successive image of the “pastward” timeline, deconstructing the compelling reconstruction of a dance legacy, leaving none of us with the useful excuse of not knowing.

We find ourselves today in the thick of a polemic with forces variously arrayed, as they were in literary feuds of eighteenth century France, on the sides of the “ancients” and the “moderns.” The ancients draw strength from the defense of an immovable classicism. In the face of all-too-evident rebuttals based on informed readings of a plurality of histories, they resort to an article of faith that says, “I believe, many believe, therefore it is so.”And such is the force of false ideology that those who beg to differ are constantly impelled to use this fictive “classical” as a reference point for their views.

What is the battle all about? As with almost all art forms today, Indian dance is obliged to constantly re-evaluate and, consequently, revalidate itself. A general state of accelerated transformation where everything exists in the immediate future, Indian dance, too, must be adept at predicting each next moment for its immanent survival. Fortunately, the dance milieu in modern India began serious self-evaluation in its nascent period, and this process of analysis continues up to the present with seminars and colloquia accompanying most major dance events and festivals. The discussions within these symposia, however, often lead rather quickly to the inevitable ancients vs. moderns impasse; a simplistic reduction at best. To better understand the situation, an alternate model of three broad dance groupings should be considered.

The first group would be the “classicists,” who with self-imposed rigor, try to adhere to the grammar, vision, and construct of what was arrived at by the mid-twentieth century. The second group would be the “moderates,” who attempt to recast the dance in more up-to-date contexts while trying to retain what are perceived to be its most essential signifiers. The third group – surprisingly – would be the “contemporaries,” a new wave of Indian dancers who, in their work, either pay homage to or consciously invert representations of their “classical” past.

The pure classicists of the first category are mostly conspicuous by their near invisibility.They negotiate a fragile world wherein co-exist both the real and the unreal; the real being the potent beauty arising from congress with the non-real, and the non-real being the artificially-constructed but nevertheless aesthetic configurations bequeathed by the dance renaissance. At its best, this dance can connect to a sense of deep poetic repose which does, surprisingly, filter the past in a positive, albeit curatorial, sense. It is characterized by simplicity in delineation and sobriety of music. Yet, on the negative side, it can be frumpy and uninspired.

The moderates are, by far, the most in number and well-situated, thus brushing aside the danger of parochialism and its “ugly traditionalist” countenance; an unconscious kitschy blend of now and then. More likely to mix genres and time periods, this group has the greatest mass appeal. It expresses a willingness to engage with the larger world, as it were, though that larger world seemingly encompasses anything from ancient metaphysics to airplanes and aliens!

The third estate, the contemporaries, are the newest and most controversial entrants on the scene. Their work is most likely to contain fragments of past, present, and future ideas of body politics and music ranging from primeval thumping to high-tech pulses. At their worst, they can be dismissive in the most simplistic of manners. But in a positive sense, they can act as a refractive barometer of the state of Indian so-called classical dance, as well as a harbinger of things to come. Many of its practitioners feel real compassion for the dilemma of the “classical” in the present situation.

The ideal dancer, choreographer, academic, and viewer would hypothetically transcend and navigate these territorial categories. Such individuals could act as bridges in a scenario which is undeniably vibrant, but yet confused and divided. The inherent physical instability of dance is its compelling factor. Applied at a less visceral level, this imbalance can slip us through and slide us across divisive semantic and thematic partitions. Through the prism of neo-classicism, we can delight in ancient fiction while the middle path can sustain the much needed continuum in a time of flux, and the avant-garde can tantalize us with new and strange transformations of beauty.

Justin McCarthy is a musician, dancer, choreographer, and teacher. He has headed the department of Bharatanatyam at the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, New Delhi for the past two decades. Email:


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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