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Home Meets Home
didn't speak to me
Bharatha Natyam
“Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company was a perfect choice as the opening performance for Gati's Inaugural festival, IGNITE! As a former SJDC dancer for five years, and now one of the directors of Gati, a leading national dance agency that organised IGNITE!, I felt that the company's dynamic history and its particular engagement with the vocabulary of Bharatanatyam made it a crucial component in the discourse of contemporary South Asian dance discourse. Amongst the new generation of contemporary dance practitioners in India, there are quite a few who have either worked with Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company in the UK or have been influenced by her work in one way or another. The fact that the company had never performed in India before made its performance at IGNITE! 2010 a historic occasion for the contemporary dance scene in India.”

Mandeep Raikhy  former SJDC Dancer and Programme Director of Gati
Sacred
no Indian-ness hesitancies forms of modernity
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  Homecomings  
  Jyoti Delhi
Arrival in Delhi means changing from the easy cosmopolitanism of Bangalore with its IT culture to the more formal and grand glories of Lutyens’ cityscape. The technical narrative of our Indian tour is a fraught one as the production values that have been set for a middle scale tour in UK meet the restrictions of our tour budget and the technical theatre practices in India. One of the big questions that is being asked is why we need a forty eight hour get in. Where performances rely on the private hire of theatres this is a vexed issue. The answer, I hope, is self evident in the stunning lighting designs of Lucy Carter and Guy Hoare.

It becomes clear to me through blogs and reviews that to some degree and to some people I have become unrecognisable. This is a surreal experience. Like Ulysses on his return to Ithaca I seemingly sit masked by change and journeying. A young Delhite searches for “Indian-ness” in my work and fails to find it. This makes me wonder how much cultural content one can communicate through choreographic

 
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  structures and compositional modes. The rhetoric of dance of course is full of it but the rhetoric that is displayed in my work comes from so many different sources and changes from one dance work to another.

We have a workshop organised by Gati which though well attended does not really give us enough time to deliver anything of much depth.

Max Mueller Bhavan is the venue for a “meet the choreographer” session in the busy Ignite Festival schedule.It is chaired by Jyoti and Vikram Iyengar, a dancer and theatre practioner from Calcutta. As usual it is after the formal event that people really ask you the questions that they are burning to ask. An amazing variety of people asked me all kinds of questions – there is such an intellectual buzz here and a boldness of thought. I could have stayed talking for days!

In fact I am asked to do a lot of talking at Doordarshan, the state owned TV channel. A very wide ranging interview is conducted by Arshiya Sethi. We sit in a set that reminds me of a suburban semi in England but which looks very exotic in central Delhi.

 

 
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spacerTraces and Trails
spacerFaultline/Bruise Blood in India/London
by Dr Avanthi Meduri, Reader in Dance and Performance studies at Roehampton University
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  I followed the after-trail of Jeyasingh's India tour and picked up on the dance buzz that remains as a residue in the performance trail. I spoke with different sectors of the dance community, including choreographers, dancers, dance-teachers, producers and writers. All were impressed with double bill performances of Faultline (FL) and Bruise Blood (BB), commented on the remarkable skill and energy of the dancers but tempered their positive responses by remarking that it was not- Indian! I found this 'not-Indian' comment, expressed as an aside, and accompanied with the shake of the head or just a bashful smile to be significant because it marks an ambivalence, revolving on the double axis of fascination and disavowal, which seemed to define audience perceptions of Jeyasingh performances in India. The nay-saying head gesture suggested that Indian audiences were perplexed, yet desired to find an appropriate identity framework to view the double-bill performances!

In Britain Jeyasingh's work has always challenged audiences to reappraise easy identity categories. At Roehampton University for instance, we teach Jeyasingh's Faultline (FL) and Bruise Blood (BB) not as 'Indian' but rather as 'British-Asian-Indian' choreographies and situate the work within a dual British-Asian framework. We do so because both choreographies deal with Indian-Asian and African themes of alienation and disaffection in London's Southall communities and also because they use a hybrid vocabulary drawn from many dance histories as basis for movement generation in the studio. Further, her staging conventions reference wide range of influences including opera and film genres. Equally, music choices have ranged from a commission from Tamil film maestro Ilayarajah to hip hop. Although students tend to focus on Bharatanatyam vocabulary when writing their papers, we urge students to explore the 'not-British, not-Indian' choreographic vision visualized in both works, and to focus on both identity markers simultaneously.

While Indian audiences were quick to recognize the Western markers in the two choreographies (and hence the non-Indian response), they qualified their remarks in further conversation and acknowledged that the kinaesthetic presence of Bharatanatyam dance vocabulary, and Jeyasingh's own identity as British-Indian choreographer marked these as non-Western-Indian productions!. The productions did not 'look Indian' because they were not staged within familiar Indian conventions, about which I will say more later. 'Not-British, Not Indian,' Jeyasingh's choreographies were received in India, as they are in the UK, in the 'not-not' space of negative dialectics. I leveraged this creative opening and used it to forge new conversations with Indian audiences within the double historical framework and thematic of British-Indian dance migrations and globalization.

Since the 'not-Indian' comment found its written articulation in Delhi, and was disseminated largely by word of mouth and through what I describe as the dance buzz circuit, I wanted to compare this with views from dance critics and professionals, spoke with Sadanand Menon, Anita Ratnam and Leela Venkataraman, who had witnessed Jeyasingh's productions in Delhi, and urged them to share their thoughts with me. Menon, is a long time colleague of the late Chandralekha, and executor of her artistic legacy; Ratnam is a famous contemporary Indian choreographer and editor of Narthaki, the on-line dance journal; and Venkataraman is a dance critic whose reviews command respect in Indian communities worldwide. This distinguished trio witnessed the development of Indian contemporary inscribed itself in a long thirty-year international history going back to the late 1980s. As was to be expected, the trio viewed Jeyasingh's productions as initiated spectators and through the lens of that history. Their comments were grounded in history and the memory of prior choreographic visions.

Menon urged me to consider the 'relevance' of Jeyasingh's choreographic vision to the Indian contemporary dance scene. He took me down memory lane and described how the late Chandralekha constituted a uniquely Indian contemporary dance vision by using Indian music, Indian themes, Indian costume, Indian rhythm, Indian yoga, Indian martial forms and blended these with Bharatanatyam vocabulary. Indian on the outside, but international on the inside, this was the unique double sited Indian international vision that Chandra shaped for Indian Contemporary dance in the 1980s.

Ratnam referenced Indian contemporary dance history by remarking on staging conventions adopted by Jeyasingh dance company. She argued that Jeyasingh might have considered introducing her double bill herself and before the curtains went up. This interaction, she argued, would have helped Jeyasingh forge an emotional connection with her Indian audiences and also established the Indian identity of her work. Jeyasingh's Indian presence on the 'Indian' stage would have situated the double bill within an Indian-international framework.

Venkataraman reinforced Menon's and Ratnam's observations in her review published in The Hindu newspaper and read widely by the dance community. Although impressed with the awesome professionalism of the production Venkataraman remarked that the chorographer's vision was understood 'only in parts' and elaborated her point in this way: "while the initiated eye noted the passing Bharatanatyam phrases (impeccably rendered by Madrid-born Avatara Ayuso), the power in every movement of Devaraj Thimmaiah and the live appearance of the sari-clad soprano Patricia Rosario OBE, no Indianness characterized this unique creation, unmistakeably located in the salad bowl or melting pot (as one would have it) of globalized culture." (Italics mine) The purpose of this essay is to recontextualize the trio's insightful comments through the framework of Indian dance migration while focussing on two key non-Indian staging and choreographic tropes used in Jeyasingh's performances.

Indian-ness a Changing Historical Concept
Indian-ness is an important historical concept for me. But it is also a changing historical concept as I have seen dancers and choreographers use Indian-ness differently in the three geographical countries of India, US and the UK where I have lived and worked. Elsewhere I have described how pioneer dance revivalist Rukmini Devi Arundale constituted an Indian identity for twentieth-century Bharatanatyam in her Kalakshetra institution in the 1930s. She re-staged this modern vision on her temple stage theatrical structure and used the three historical symbols of Nataraja, Indian guru, and emblems from the temple to visualize her modern vision (Meduri 2008c). While the temple stage structure crossed the Indian oceans, and is used in local Indian and diasporic practices of Bharatanatyam, practitioners use it selectively to constitute old and new, traditional and contemporary notions of Indian-ness in global cities of London, New York and Chennai (Meduri 2008c).

Similarly the Indian contemporary dance movement, which has also crossed the boundaries of the Indian nation, has changed its identity over time. In the late 1980s, both Chandralekha and Jeyasingh stripped down Rukmini Devi's temple stage structure and envisioned new ensemble productions that focussed on the grammar and movement vocabulary of Bharatanatyam. Together they articulated similar (Indian) and British-Indian iterations of Indian contemporary dance in India and Britain that gradually diverged. In the early years of the 1990s, Jeyasingh worked in collaboration with Indian contemporary dancers, and commissioned Chandra to work with her dancers in 1991. They had common ground, in those early years, because Jeyasingh was working exclusively with Bharatanatyam vocabulary: her works "looked Indian" and were framed as such.

But this 'Indian look' was replaced by a more 'urban look' when Jeyasingh began to focus more keenly on issues around urban imaginaries, youth cultures and globalism experienced differently in transnational cities like London and Bangalore. By the late 1990s, Indian contemporary dancers from Bangalore, recognized as a centre for Contemporary Dance, auditioned to work in Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company (SJDC), and performed in company productions in the UK. Returning home after gaining considerable work experience in the UK, ex-company affiliates and dancers from the company continued to develop a 'new urban look' for Indian contemporary dance in India.

It is worth noting that Anusha Lall and Mandeep Raikhy, Festival Directors of the Ignite Festival, which produced the Jeyasingh double bill in New Delhi, are both ex-dancers from SJDC ! Returning to India, they founded Gati Dance Forum in 2007 to develop greater opportunities and infrastructure for Contemporary Dance. I see Gati's contemporary dance festival as representing an historic intervention because it created a new trans-national and 'generational' platform to discuss questions around cultural identity, history, and memory. The four-day festival focussed on "Contemporary Indian Dance in A Globalized World," and urged spectators to 'see' works from around the world within the dual frameworks of Indian nationhood and also that of migration, British-Indian diaspora formations, and globalization.

Old and New Staging Devices
Ratnam explained that while youth audiences thronged to Jeyasingh performances in Delhi, and were captivated with the hip hop beat music, sheer professionalism and energy of the dancers, they did not seem able to grasp the layered complexities in the two choreographies. She elaborated this by explaining that, unlike in the West, audiences do not read programme notes. Although explanations were read from off stage, Ratnam maintained that it would have helped if Jeyasingh could have introduced the pieces herself. She averred that her stage appearance would have established the Indian-identity of the two pieces, and also inscribed the performance itself in a long discursive history, one in which the classical dancer arrives on stage, carrying the marks of a long heritage history including her dancing costume, dancing bells and jewellery and provides English commentaries for the dance she is about to perform and executes this performance with the help of gesture (mudras), and sound (music). I marked this theatrical moment as being hugely important in Indian classical dance history as the dancer arrogates to herself the dual role of being a dancer and also the interpreter/dancer-historian of classical Bharatanatyam and both simultaneously (Meduri 1996; 2008).

 
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  Jeyasingh is fully aware of the power inherent in this staging convention as she has used it herself when performing classical Bharatanatyam in the UK in the 1980s. Yet she set aside this familiar staging convention and relied instead on programme notes and explanations to frame her work. The programme notes explained that although FL is inspired by Gautam Malkani's Londonstani the text is not used literally but metaphorically, and combined with the 'sensual and soaring soprano voice of Patricia Rozario.' Since both FL and BB feature an amalgam of many dance histories and musical influences, Indian audiences were invited to view the choreography from any point of view. The choreography itself was plot-less and Indian audiences, accustomed to narrative cues, had to read the performance as a choreographic text. Unlike Chandralekha, Jeyasingh did not provide any Indian markers or theatrical frames to facilitate audience viewership of her work. This was the first staging challenge posed by the work.

Living Traces in Choreography
Indian audiences looked to the costume by way of entry (and this was non-Indian); others focussed on the music (which was non-Indian); still others focussed on the themes (which were not Indian but British-Indian). All visual markers that framed performance from the outside were Western and not Indian. Dance experts, however, pushed past these block-aids and focussed on Bharatanatyam vocabulary, adavus, phrases and gestures rendered impeccably by the Spanish Avatara Ayuso. But this Indian-ness, inhering within the choreography, was perceived as not being enough because Bharatanatyam vocabulary is used sparingly in Jeyasingh choreographies and in a completely unique manner.

Isolated Bharatanatyam phrases, juxtaposed with diverse dance vocabularies appear in both pieces, only to vanish and reappear again. This evanescent method of choreography and composition is novel in India as few contemporary choreographers work with Bharatanatyam vocabulary in this way. Venkatarman noted this evanescence and marked it as a new "vigorous hybrid style wherein the Bharatanatyam impulses are interred in a larger dance vision not polarized by ethnic identities. A cosmopolitan, diasporic aesthetic that that is shot through with historic Indian references, in a personal matrix of her own making, this is the trace paradox that lies at the heart of Jeyasingh's work.

I have said elsewhere that Bharatanatyam vocabulary, interred within Jeyasingh's choreographic vision, irrupts like a flash, fades, vanishes and reappears like a signature theme in her works. Understated but ever-present, Bharatanatyam vocabulary stands at the source of Jeyasingh's inspiration and creation (Meduri 2008c). This signature vocabulary contains a 'trace' of Jeyasingh's history and identity as Indian-born Bharatanatyam dancer/choreographer. Yet this trace is not something Jeyasingh is able to describe in 'originary Indian' terms as it is multi-sited, always in conversation with other dance vocabularies and adapting itself to reappear as something other, different, and transformed, reflecting the relational identity of the hyphenated Indian. Homi Bhabha explains that 'What is theoretically innovative and politically crucial is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These in-between spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood—that initiate 'new signs of identity' (1994:1-2).

Identity, Relevance and Choreography
As an Indian-born British immigrant choreographer, living and working out of London, Jeyasingh is pressed to define her work in relation to her originary identity. When asked to speak, Jeyasingh describes her identity historically and discursively and without denying either her Indian-ness (Her mother lives in Bangalore, she studied Bharatanatyam in Sri Lanka and India) or her British-ness. Yet she queries these East/West binaries by pointing to their imbrications in a long postcolonial history going back to the Raj politically, and to Anna Pavlova and Rukmini Devi Arundale in dance terms (Jeyasingh, 1998). Although the complexity of her work is an expression of her complex migrant history, she has always questioned the use of identity as a useful tool to understand her work. How necessary is identity/biography to understand choreography? Jeyasingh presses this question in most of her writings and public lectures.

Menon provided another 'Indian' perspective on this thematic of identity by recounting an anecdote from Contemporary Indian dance history. Chandra and Pina Bausch it seems, were featured as a double bill in Calcutta: Pina presented Nelken, and Chandra staged Yantra. A French filmmaker wanted to know what was common between the two performances. Chandra responded by saying "everything is common between us. We are relevant in our own contexts." Like Jeyasingh, Chandra did not posit identity as being necessary to understand choreographic vision, yet she insisted on 'relevance' as the universal keynote for the articulation of the Contemporary dance movement, locally in India, and also internationally.

Jeyasingh also uses the term 'relevance' to describe her work but integrates this with history, travel, and migration. She insists that relevance itself, like her travelling, migratory identity is a changing, mobile, and multivocal concept. She remarks that "Late twentieth century living has made Captain Kirks of us all (1995, 192). Consequently, her identity/heritage is a mixture of many histories, cultures and languages, which Jeyasingh has written about and which we see embodied in her choreographies (Jeyasingh 1998: 48). In the past two decades, Jeyasingh company dancers and associates have replicated her hybrid vision, albeit differently, in the Indian subcontinent (Briginshaw, 2001). Does this dispersal make Jeyasingh's work 'relevant' in India or did the indomitable Chandra mean something else by it?

Questions of Impact
Jeyasingh met with audiences in a 'meet the choreographer' forum organized in Delhi and endeavoured to deal with two recurring themes of fascination and perplexity we have been exploring. In these Talking Dance sessions, Jeyasingh did not explain what is Indian in her work, nor did she elaborate on Indian-ness but turned these two questions back on the audiences and asked them to reflect on it.

In the one-hour Doordarshan interview, Jeyasingh spoke about her travelling identity, provided a context for her work, and forged a personal and emotional connection with Indian audiences. The interview was telecast nationwide and was viewed by dance communities dispersed in Bangalore and Chennai and created an impact. Is Indian-ness a recognizable quality or is something hidden, "invisible like the foundation of a building, she asked? Younger generation audiences watching the national telecast, were grabbed by this comment which seemed to resonate with their rapidly globalizing, Bollywood life-styles, experienced differently in the global cities of Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

The national telecast notwithstanding, I noted a curious lack of a critical discourse in mainstream newspapers and shared my thoughts with Menon. He agreed with my observation and put this down to what he called no 'media response', which he claimed to be the signature feature of the post 1990s era in the arts. He explained that when Pina Bausch visited India in 1994 and her work was presented in four main cities of Calcutta, Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai the media was curious about her vision and wrote full length articles in arts pages. "The written word doubled the impact of the event."

To create an Impact in this new world of 'no-media' response, Jeyasingh it would seem, would need to work in India and create a discourse for her work there as she did in Britain. The now 'unfamiliar' aspects of her work would be transformed into the 'familiar' and we could then have the beginnings of a new international dance dialogue and discourse. This transplantation work is already underway in Bangalore city as Jeyasingh has been working with Bangalore dancers since the 1990s, continuing into the present.

New Diaspora Dialogues (2010-2011)
So what did the Jeyasingh tour achieve for Indian-British contemporary dance? It alerted us to the fact that there are indeed many contemporary dance iterations within India and abroad. All these iterations have different orientations and are inscribed in different Indo-German, Indo-British, Indo-American, Indo-European and Indo-Asian histories. Together, they represent a surprising diversity.

Although a preliminary conversation on Indian contemporary dance, within a global framework, has begun, we need to deepen and extend this dialogue to include academics, artists, critics, and producing organizations. The tour also alerted us to the fact that Indian dance criticism and scholarship would have to engage with travel, migration and globalization as new defining concepts in Indian dance historiography and criticism. Recognizing these to be the new historical themes of our times, the research faculty at my institution Roehampton University, created a new postgraduate MA in South Asian Dance Studies, focussed on 'home' 'nation,' migration and globalization (Meduri, 2011).

This is clearly an exciting moment in dance history as new conversations and dialogues are being initiated by the new millennium cosmopolitan generation, working out of translocal cities like London, New York, Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi. Interestingly, these travelling cosmopolitans are working creatively, both within and across national borders, and re-defining traditional dance history, theory, cultural production and choreography, along new historical pathways and trajectories, unimagined in the 1980s.

 
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spacer Bibliography
Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994).
Briginshaw, Valerie.A (2001) 'Hybridity and Nomadic subjectivity in Shobana Jeyasingh's 'Duets with Automobiles'' in Briginshaw, Valerie. A, ed. Dance, Space and Subjectivity, NewYork: Palgrave pg 97-109.
Jeyasingh, Shobana (1998) 'Imagining Homelands: Creating a New Dance Language' in Carter, Alexandra ed. The Routledge Dance Studies Reader, London, New York: Routledge, pg 46-52
Jeyasingh, Shobana (1990) 'Getting off the Oriental Express: Shobana Jeyasingh on classicism east and west', Dance Theatre Journal, 8 (2), (Summer), pg 34-37
Meduri, Avanthi (2011) "Enhancing Dance Research Through Research and Reflection," Pulse, 113 (Summer): p. 18
Meduri, Avanthi (2008a) "The Transfiguration of Indian/Asian Dance in the UK: Bharatanatyam in Global Contexts," Asian Theatre Journal, Vol 25, no. 2 (Fall): pp. 298-329
Meduri, Avanthi (2008b) "Labels, Histories, Politics: South Asian Dance on the Global Stage," Dance Research, Vol 26, 2 (Winter), 2008c, pp. 223-244
Meduri, Avanthi (2008c) "Temple Stage as Historical Allegory: Rukmini Devi as Dancer-Historian." In Indira Viswanathan and Devesh Soneji eds. Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in South India, Oxford University Press: New Delhi
Meduri, Avanthi (1996) Nation, Woman, Representation : The Sutured History of the Devadasi and her Dance (Unpublished PhD thesis), NewYork : NewYork University.
Meduri, Avanthi. 1988 "Bharatanatyam: What are You?" Asian Theatre Journal, vol 3, no 1, (Spring): 1-23.
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