India has always had a rich tradition of classical dance, or shastriya nritya (written and compiled under Natya Shastra, the foundational text for Indian classical dance forms).
At the age of 11 years, when most children are afraid to even think of stepping on the stage, Sreya PR made her arangetram, the debut onstage performance of a student of Indian classical dance and music. That was in 2011. Trained in the classical dance form of Bharatanatyam, Sreya, now 18 years old, still remembers the resonance of the ghungroos on that day. “It’s like being a new person when you are dancing. There are no inhibitions. The stage is yours and you are the character that drives the narrative,” says the New Delhi-based BCom Honours student, who also teaches Bharatanatyam at a dance school in Alaknanda in the city. “I still have a long way to go,” she says.
India has always had a rich tradition of classical dance, or shastriya nritya (written and compiled under Natya Shastra, the foundational text for Indian classical dance forms). The origin of dance in India, in fact, can be traced back to 200 BC. Currently, however, the Sangeet Natak Akademi (the national-level academy for performing arts set up by the government) confers classical status to eight Indian classical dance styles: Bharatanatyam (Tamil Nadu), Kathak (north, west and central India), Kathakali (Kerala), Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh), Odissi (Odisha), Manipuri (Manipur), Mohiniyattam (Kerala) and Sattriya (Assam).
The popularity of these dance forms can be gauged from the fact that not just Indians, but many western artistes, too, have, over the years, travelled to India to train in them. Take, for instance, 50-year-old theatre artiste Ileana Citaristi who, in 1979, flew down to India with her parents from Bergamo, Italy, to learn the various Indian dance forms. Only 11 years old then, Citaristi fell so in love with Indian classical dance forms, especially Odissi, that she never took the flight back home. “I never thought I would stay here for so long. Initially, I started with Kathakali and then switched to Odissi. I fell in love with it… Since then, I have never looked back. Time has flown by,” narrates Bhubaneshwar-based Citaristi. After studying Odissi under Kelucharan Mohapatra, a legendary Indian classical dancer often called the father of Odissi, Citaristi established her own dance school in Bhubaneshwar in 1994 and founded Art Vision (a multidisciplinary arts academy) in 1996 also in Bhubaneswar. In 2006, she became the first dancer of foreign descent to be conferred the Padma Shri for her contribution to Odissi.
Sreya and Citaristi may have different nationalities and tongues, and may be separated by a generation, but both are united by their common love and passion for Indian classical dance. So what is it that makes these dance forms as attractive and appealing for a 50-year-old as for an 18-year-old? The answer lies in innovation. At a time when there’s a huge demand and appetite for western contemporary and fusion dances, Indian classical dance forms are innovating to stay in tune with the times to remain relevant in contemporary times.
Over the years, classical dance forms in India have undergone multilayered evolution, surviving the onslaught of time and cultural shifts, while also scaling new heights. Traces of this development can be found from historical evidences. Before the Mughal invasion, for instance, the forms of classical dances that were performed in courts spoke of a different society. After the establishment of the Mughal dynasty, grandeur became an essential element in such dance forms.
New Delhi-based Sonal Mansingh, a renowned Bharatanatyam and Odissi dancer, believes practices, customs and concepts undergo slow but continuous change. “The change generally harks back to the days of Bharat Muni’s Natya Shastra,” the 73-year-old says, adding, “The techniques of dance, music, instruments, etc, have surely undergone change, but not as stark as, say, in Europe, which suffered many upheavals, including two World Wars.”
What Mansingh states can be seen through the rise and fall of Lindy Hop (a form of African-American vernacular dance form) and Expressionist Dance (a more fluidic dance form across Europe competing against the traditional ballet). World War II, in fact, can be seen as an inflection point for both these dance forms. Expressionist Dance flourished till the war, but after things returned to normalcy, it vanished from the dance circuit, especially in central Europe. Lindy Hop also garnered a fair share of attention during the pre-war era, but as the war ended, it almost lost its charm only to find small mention in other dance forms later on.
Dance, like any other art form, is a manifestation of society and its narratives. While it represented the trickling down of nationalism during the 1920s and 30s, today, it might talk about the growing chaos in urban spaces or increasing crimes against women. The ability of dance to showcase the frailties of society through different tools such as facial expressions, costumes and rhythm has been its biggest strength. “Around 20 years back, I did my first show on women and war. It was my first commissioned programme. Everyone is living in a society full of stress and problems. So an artiste can’t not be sensitive to it. Through art, we all try to address social issues. Some people do it more, some less. It’s a personal choice,” explains 56-year-old Geeta Chandran, a Delhi-based Bharatanatyam dancer.
New Delhi-based Bharti Shivaji, a renowned Mohiniyattam dancer, agrees: “Earlier, society faced different sets of challenges such as hunger, poverty, etc. We were a poor nation back then. At that time, our dance used to reflect the economic conditions of farmers, etc. The mudras were much more fluid, resonating with the downtrodden.”
Talking about the effect of contemporary issues on dance forms, New Delhi-based Vani Bhalla Pahwa, one of Shivaji’s students, says, “Society today is plagued with instances of mob violence, rape, scams, etc. This brings in more rage and intensity in our dance forms. The facial expressions, too, change drastically. It has to be depicted in accordance with how people conceive such issues.”
Another key factor that has kept these dance forms alive and kicking is the ability of the performers to innovate within the dance form, which not only prevents redundancy, but also adds new dimensions to the art. Nobody perhaps understands this better than Odissi dancer Ratikant Mohapatra. Born to the legendary Kelucharan Mohapatra, Odissi ran in the blood of Mohapatra, but it also brought in challenges in terms of legacy and heritage. “Odissi is a heritage not only for the state, but for India as well. My father was my guru. I learned and worked with him for 35 years, but after his demise in 2004, I came to a crossroads. Either I could have continued working that way or found something deeper within. I chose the latter. I researched and came up with new variations within Odissi and have achieved success in doing so. It is distinct from what my guru taught me, but the discipline and fundamentals remain the same,” narrates 52-year-old Mohapatra.
It is interesting to note that even pioneers are not shying away from experimenting. Maybe that’s what is needed to prevent these forms from becoming obsolete or maybe innovation falls in line with the natural course of progression. Either way, the audience gets something new to watch, experience and learn. And they are lapping it up. At Delhi’s India Habitat Centre, classical dance performances take place around the year, garnering audiences in fair numbers. “The footfall has never seen a dip. People are as enthusiastic as they were 10 years back. In fact, newer and first-time viewers are also there,” reveals Vidyun Singh, director, programme, India Habitat Centre.
It’s not surprising then that renowned classical dancers do not feel any threat from contemporary dance forms or the growing fascination towards western dance forms. Most of this boils down to two major factors: the strong fundamentals of classical dance forms, and the possibility of collaboration with contemporary forms. “What are these western dance forms? There is no doubt that they are good, but people who have been performing classical dance have been engaged with it for decades. The discipline and the rigour form the base. People who take up other contemporary dance forms usually make sure they learn classical dance forms first. Your base becomes extremely strong,” says New Delhi-based Kathak dancer Shovana Narayan.
As far as collaborating with other dance forms is concerned, experts opine that one needs to keep in mind that the principles and disciplines of the individual dance forms shouldn’t overlap. Mohapatra believes one has to understand what the audience wants and how they feel towards a particular dance form. “Over the years, my research and performances across the country have taught me to keep the audience first. If in a crowd of 1,000 people, 850 can’t understand what I am doing, I am failing at my job. The audience comprehends music better than dance. So if a performance has music that attracts the audience, one should keep that. One can work on their dance form, collaborate with others, but keep the basics and discipline of the dance form intact,” the Bhubaneshwar-based artiste tells Financial Express.
Adapting with times
Despite all this, however, classical dance forms in India face two major hurdles. First and foremost is the paucity of time and depreciating attention spans of the audience. With increasing dependence on technology and lives becoming fast-paced, Shivaji says it becomes very important for a dancer to get their point across in a short amount of time. “Earlier, the audience had time to observe each mudra, thereby getting a hold of what we wanted to say. Now, our mudras have to be quick and crisp for the message to be conveyed,” the 70-year-old says.
Gone are the days when three- or four-hour-long performances were routine for classical dancers. “Earlier, we were trained to dance for long hours. Maybe three, four or even more. Now, we have performances that stretch a maximum of one or, at the most, two hours. For example, there used to be a time when we would express one emotion through 15-20 different mudras. Today, because of paucity of time, we express them through five or maybe 10 mudras. However, only the duration has changed, not the ethos of the dance form,” asserts Chandran.
Shedding light on the changing scenario, Narayan explains the transformation in the mindset of the audience: “When I was young, we would see people enjoy ‘conferences’ throughout the night—they were called conferences then. Time was not an issue, safety was not an issue. Today, the external environment inhibits this,” the 69-year-old says, adding, “Also, the requirement of the audience has changed. Back then, they would look for different forms of identity through dance. Now, they are mature and want to watch something different.”
The second hurdle is funding. Organisers say for any classical concert to reach a huge audience, one needs to scale up investment. Or, as Narayan puts it, “corporate social responsibility should become corporate cultural responsibility”.
Further enunciating the need to shore up funding, Dinesh Singh, founder, Navrasa Duende, a Gurugram-based production house involved in promoting live entertainment and performing arts, says, “A lot of thought, skill and knowledge go into organising a classical programme. Since it’s extremely technical, the nuances have to be kept in mind. Usually, classical programmes run on a budget of Rs 15-20 lakh, but there is a serious need to increase it to at least Rs 2-3 crore. It promotes and encourages artistes as well.”
Amid all this, the younger generation comes as a beacon of hope. As more and more children take up classical dance from a young age, the future can be considered in safe hands. “The younger generation is fantastic. So many kids are taking up classical dance at such tender ages,” says New Delhi-based Jayant Kastuar, a renowned Kathak dancer and former secretary of Sangeet Natak Akademi, adding, “As long as they are guided well by their gurus and parents, we will continue to produce brilliant dancers like we have done in the past… Parents have to make sure that the Indian tradition is passed on to children. What’s better than starting from home?”