“Sacred” return — Diaspora Dialogue

Jyoti: Indian “classical” dance is indelibly connected to the sacred, the spiritual, and the religious. In my guru's classroom, we grew up translating devotional poems to the Hindu gods through the lexicon of bharata natyam's facial expressions, hand gestures and postures. For many practitioners and enthusiasts, Indian “classical” dance is a form of yoga. It is a devotional act. It is a religion in and of itself.

Though modern dance in India has taken multiple trajectories over the past 25 years, a great deal of it still explores spiritual concerns. Chandralekha's work, for instance, was quite mystical through its references to tantric texts and the spiritual environment she shaped with yogic movement, music and pacing. India's leading contemporary dance company, Attakkalari, built its themes for Purushartha (2006) from Hindu Laws found in the Dharmashastra, And Nritya Utya's Artistic Director, Mayuri Upadhya, claims that she derives much of her inspiration for her work from colors and themes of Hindu mythology.

As a former dancer who performed varnams dedicated to gods like Shiva or Muruga, how would you explain your shift from performing religious works as a dancer to shaping urban cosmopolitan bodies as a choreographer wherein your object of devotion (at the least common denominator) became the dancer's physicality in space? Further, following Ananya' Chatterjea's provocative question, is there space for the secular in Indian classical or contemporary dance?

Shobana: Undoubtedly, Bharata Natyam’s main narrative content engages totally with religion and religious practices. The non-narrative technique, as in a item such as Jathiswaram, is spiritual in the way that all rigourous deeply experienced physical activity has the potential to be both transformative and transcendent. Similarly, ritual whether religious, communal or self- made, has always been a strategy for focus and belonging. Indeed, the secular and the religious as mutually exclusive fields, I feel, is a very European construct which arose from its particular history (the rise of Protestantism for example), and I am not sure whether it is useful to apply it elsewhere.

Certainly, an excellent dancer like Mavin Khoo seems to bring the same devotional intensity to both ballet and bharata natyam. On the other hand, contemporary dance has dealt with religious themes. The Dhananjayans did a dance drama on drug addiction for instance. Personally, I don’t think I experienced the shift from bharata natyam dancer to contemporary choreographer as a shift from the religious to the secular. The dancer’s body is the vehicle for many stories, and it is up to the choreographers and dancers to choose what type of stories they choose to tell.

The change that I did feel was leaving the comfort of a hierarchical structure (guru/shisya) to a more communal one where status was a much less defined and more dynamic experience since both dancer and choreographer both faced the unknown of a pristine, new story.