“didn’t speak to me” return — Diaspora Dialogue

Jyoti: In 1985, when the Sangeet Natak Academy presented Chandralekha's Angika to Delhi audiences, dance critics denounced her work as lacking “drama”, being devoid of “spirited entertainment” or merely was an “exhibition of potpourri.” (Bharucha, p. 179, 183). For many, there was no narrative or story that kept audiences entertained through the performance. Of course, there were others, like the writer, Arudra from Sruti Magazine, for instance, who lauded Chandra's groundbreaking modern work as “a proclamation of the necessity for innovation” (Bharucha 168). That was a different moment for Indian dance when the “authenticity” or “purity” of forms like bharata natyam, were beyond deconstruction. Representing bharata natyam out of the traditional format was practically a moral affront to tradition.

Times have changed, yet in my conversations with audience members after the show, particularly in Delhi, I was met with responses to the lack of “classicism,” “Indian-ness” or “authenticity” in your work. Some claimed that living abroad with the luxury of public funding has caused you to fuse, hybridize or westernise bharata natyam, propelling you farther from creating work that appears Indian.

How would you compare that moment when Chandralekha debuted Angika in 1985 to your experience of presenting bharata natyam-influenced contemporary dance in 2010? Do you think similar criticisms and appreciations of her work extend to your own?

Shobana: I had the privilege of working with Chandra when she created a dance work for my company – “Speaking of Shakthi.” She was an extremely inspiring person to be with in the studio, and I was struck by the boldness of her choices and her invigorating demands of the dancers. I lived in a poky basement flat off the Holloway Road where you couldn't swing a cat and where on numerous occasions the Arsenal Football fans added a touch of unwelcome piquancy to my life! Whereas when I visited her in Chennai, I was bowled over by her beautiful spacious house with its own auditorium by the beach and surrounded by trees. So the availability of resources (whether private or public) do not always follow predictable paths!

It is a fact that funding for the arts in India come mainly from corporate or private sources, and in Britain it comes via high taxes and is distributed by the state. I fail to see how this affects choreographic choices in the studio! There are many who receive public funding in Britain and have decided to remain as classical dancers and choreographers. In fact, for many years, I was funded to be a classical Indian dancer in Britain. It is when I started to choreograph that I decided to explore the connections between dance and my life in that basement flat in Holloway. My work doesn’t claim to be bharata natyam, so looking for BN as evidence of my Indian-ness seems a bit pointless. When I meet an Indian businessman in his trousers and shirt, I don’t judge his craft by the lack of the more patriotic veshti or kurta. I presume he chooses what is best for his work. Similarly the craft of the choreographer is in the selection, choice and design of movement in its production, and that is what I hope to be judged for. As Hanif Kuriesh’s character says in My beautiful Launderette, “I am a professional businessman not a professional Pakistani!” The same goes for choreographers.

By the time I got to know and admire Chandra, she was already a much respected figure in India, However, I can imagine the intensity of response to her highly individual work. In my mind, I never really thought of her as a strictly contemporary choreographer, but more as someone who cared about a rigourous and more accurate historicity in Indian dance. She seemed impatient of “false history” but wanted to go to a more ancient and seminal root of movement in India and produced some striking work in the process.

I too want to be true to history – not the communal history of a country but a more personal one, which has to somehow synthesise the racist football fan with the purest of bharata natyam adavus.

Return to Diaspora Dialogue

Works Cited
Bharucha, Rustom. (1997) Chandralekha: Woman Dance Resistance.  India: Harper Collins.