My company undertook a three city tour of India in November 2010. Although it lasted just ten days it felt as if we had made a journey of epic proportions whose resonance we aim to unpack in this web site. Choreography of course is about journeys of a totally different kind, one which is undertaken in the enclosed spaces of dance studios and in the abstract, elastic and hyper geographical space of the imagination. The most telling influence on what shapes a dance work is the process by which it is made – the strategies used to generate and select movement, the compositional decisions made, the emotional or narrative landscape that one chooses to place it in through the choice of music, design and site. The historic and economic culture of the choreographer obviously influences all these acts, mostly subconsciously. However, the dance work itself is not offered primarily as evidence of that culture but as evidence purely of itself. We don’t enjoy Merce Cunningham’s work as an example of white American culture though I am sure he would have made different creative decisions had he grown up in Mumbai. Similarly the importance of Chandralekha’s work transcends the fact that she was an Indian citizen though it undoubtedly contributed to her genius.
Sometimes artists with non European roots find that the their work is exclusively seen through the prism of cultural norms under which the greater purpose of the dance work is often subsumed. My sincere wish is that this web site and its contents, in seeking to understand the significance of these British made dance works of the Indian Diaspora in their journey to India, does not exacerbate that condition! Rather it is offered with the intent and hope that, while we comment on and learn from the meeting point of two cultural homes and reflect on the debates and responses that it provoked, we also reveal something of the process of dance making itself.
Dr Jyoti Argade, Senior Lecturer at the University of East London had a close relationship to our entire Indian tour playing a significant role in its production as well as being an academic collaborator throughout. In her role as dance scholar she led the post performance talks in Bangalore and Mumbai. and had first hand experience of all the performances, talks and workshops in the three cities that we visited contributing to an ongoing critique of the experience. Her reflections on the present and historical context to our tour (Bodies and Cities) the workshop in Bangalore (Mutant Mudras) and the press response to our visit (Pressing For a Story) can be found in the following pages.
Dr Avanthi Meduri, Reader in Dance and Performance studies at Roehampton University contributes a paper (Traces and Trails) on shifting definitions of Indian-ness, which can be found on the Delhi page.
Avatâra Ayuso, a long standing member of my company, records her thoughts and impressions on her first trip to India in words and images in “The View from the Wings”.
Our trip to India generated many conversations and responses (collected as the Diaspora Dialogues in this site) which in turn triggered further exchanges and reflections between Jyoti Argade and myself. Dancers from my company and those from the cities that we toured to also add their voices. My own and often random impressions are collected as a series of “Homecomings”.
I am very grateful to celebrated Bharatha Natyam dancer Malavika Sarukkai, India’s premier dance critic Leela Venkataraman, writer and translator Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan and Casper Abraham audience member from Bangalore for giving us their permission to make what was a private conversation available for perusal and comment and to Doordharshan New Delhi and Arshya Sethi for their kind permission in allowing us access to their televised interview.
My thanks to ResCen for making this web site possible, to the team at Shobana Jeyasingh Dance company for their hard work in producing the tour to India, to our company of dancers, musicians and crew who did a brilliant job of communicating my work and to our sponsors Arts Council England, The British Council India, Tata UK, The Taj Hotels, TVS Motors for their invaluable support both in finance and in kind. I am also deeply grateful to Professor Lord Bhattacharyya and Anita Bhattacharyya without whose interest and support our 2010 India tour would not have been possible.
The construction of this site began over the summer of 2011, a time bisected by a ResCen collaborative project at Taipei National University of the Arts also involving dancers and choreographers from the Beijing Dance Academy. In Taipei the issue of Chinese-ness was a recurring feature and it is interesting to note the commonalities between ArtsCross Taipei 2011 and Home meets Home. There are questions and resonances shared between these Asian contexts and also distinctive features in each one.
Relevant to both Asian contexts is the changing tectonic plates of the global economy affecting the national narratives of India, China and the UK in recent years. Also relevant is the ways that the arts reflect and/or challenge the national narratives. The broad issue of modernity is itself a tangle, especially in dance, especially in Asia, where issues of modernisation have been part of a national discourse since Independence in India and the revolution in China; whereas most often the discourse in the UK has been about 'putting the 'great' back into Britain' (the most recent attempt by David Cameron drew a pointed response from The Hindu newspaper). In dance the tangle stems from our history of 'modern dance' which, as Sally Banes has reminded us, is not the same as 'modernism' in dance – an art movement whose features, such as foregrounding the materials of the medium, are most clearly seen in what we call postmodern dance.
In addition, modernity and modernisation used in relation to 'developing nations' imply a sense of linear progression; what Doreen Massey has referred to as the error of imagining only one pathway to development, with the West as the model for modernity and modernised societies and economies. This understanding of the developing nation of India ignores the history: in the past 4,000 to 5,000 years of recorded human history it was Asia that was economically dominant over Europe, until the Industrial Revolution when Europe, and then the 'new world' of the Americas, began to dominate global trade. But the notion of the dominance of European modernity seems firmly fixed, as does the discourse of the 'new world' discovered and developed by Europeans. If modernity and modernisation raise this tangle of issues, perhaps it is better to talk about the 'cosmopolitan' limiting notions of linear progression, and allowing more easily the concept of a recurring phenomenon. Nonetheless, I sense that 'the modern, modernisation and modernity' are potent concepts in India today, as the growing sense of economic vitality has fed into the project of 'nation-building' – a project that is familiar to me from my adolescence in Canada where I recall the debate about which design should feature on the new flag. Of course in the case of India, the project is about a return to a significant world role, the latest manifestation of a series of nation-buildings throughout millennia.
On my first visit to India during a gap year in 1972-73 I was surprised by the strength of regional identity – it seemed at times to supersede ideas of nation and even religion. The almost complete absence of television and the multiplicity of languages made the Voice of India Radio the main conduit for the nation. But the evening entertainment I experienced in Indian homes most often involved the singing of songs, or story telling, both linked inextricably with local identity. The economic context of the 1970s was defined by what Uday Kumar has identified as Gandhian ideas of self-reliance, participation and traditional skills mixed with soviet principles of large-scale industrialisation and central planning. However, the reality was that the importation of most foreign goods was virtually banned and India strongly exhibited what JK Galbraith identified as a mosaic of identities – I later realised that perhaps India could be best understood by westerners as a subcontinent where, like Europe, a history of fluid borders and shared beliefs was intersected by strong local or regional traditions.
The development of India in the intervening years has fed the debate about 'Indianness' and whether, as Jayanchnadran Palazhy of Attakkalari and I discussed in the 1990s, 'modernisation is westernisation'. It is not so surprising then that the issue of 'Indianness' was a recurring theme during SJDC's tour to India, within the context of an economically resurgent country facing the dual forces of greater world attention and a more mobile, urbanised, globalised population. In some ways the identity question may also be seen as a reaction to and/or against globalisation and mobility: the search for a fixed point from which to make sense of the greater availability of choice for many in questions of location, grounding and home. Therefore identity, even hybrid identity, is brought into the debate, a fact demonstrated by the Indian government's establishment of the Non-Resident Indian (NRI) status.
Perhaps this is also a recurring reaction to the history of regional diversity, but the concern for 'Indianness' seems to be more intensely evident in dance which is seen in a theatre context as a carrier of traditional culture, despite the prevalence of Bollywood and youth dance forms in India, and despite the fact that at least some 'traditional' dance forms have been re-formulated, or even reconstructed, as happened with baratha natyam (and incidentally the form known as Chinese classical dance).
This concern for tradition in dance stands in contrast to another long Indian tradition: one of absorbing, internalising and owning change - embracing the 'new' while retaining a strong sense of 'self', thereby ensuring a continued vitality and vibrancy. The history of the subcontinent illustrates that the strength of a culture should be measured not in its ability to maintain a frozen and unchanging tradition; rather cultural strength is demonstrated by an ability to engage, absorb, adapt and remain 'relevant' (to use Chandralekha's word) to the society with which it is in dialogue. And cosmopolitanism, even east-west cosmopolitanism is not new to India.
The vibrant Gandharan civilisation brought Greek and Indian subcontinent civilisations together, producing an outpouring of art, some of which, like the Gandharan Buddhas of 1st-2nd century CE, must have looked 'Eastern' to Westerners, and 'Western' to Easterners as artists and artisans drew on Greek and Indian traditions creating a vibrant hybridity through exchange and cross fertilisation. This is only one example of the cosmopolitan in history - a history erased in Europe over the centuries, and reconstructed to portray the Renaissance and Enlightenment as purely European events, creating a self-generated modern world with links only to classical Greece and Rome. Europeans diminished the cosmopolitan, erasing the links to Asian and Arab cultures, so that Kipling in 1889 could articulate the commonly held view that 'never the twain shall meet', even though the meeting had taken place, on more than one occasion – so much so, that recent scholarship has determined that the exchange of art and artefacts was so active in 16th century Europe that cross-cultural exchange should be seen as the norm, with notions of cultural identity largely formed because of these international, intercontinental exchanges.
Does this really matter today? Well yes, especially as the way we understand the past determines how we view the present, and determines our ability to imagine the future. In 1907 Sir Frederick Upcott dismissed Indian steel-maker Tata by saying that he would eat every pound of steel they produced. In 2011 Tata Steel was in the Fortune 500 listing of the world's largest companies. And arguably, still today the West's inability to deal with the changing economic and geo-political environment stems from national narratives which excluded the East-West exchange of knowledge and replaced it with a narrative of superiority which then led to colonialism.
In India the 'Indianness' debate might also be seen as a reaction to the ways in which the East-West relationship was defined during the colonial period; but it is heightened today by the rapid emergence of mobile populations and global cities, networked and diverse, with citizens of intercultural hybrid identy/ies. Today, the question 'where are you from?' has been replaced by 'where are you based?' Many of us are not rooted - there is no 'home coming' only 'homecomings' and we, and perhaps governments, are not sure how this will play out. But we have been here before, perhaps not in such numbers or with such mobility, but the cosmopolitan, creative, cross-fertilised meeting places have been potent contributors to world culture. I sense once again the opportunity for a flowering of creative expression as our narratives are renewed, and interwoven, and Home meets Home.