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Home Meets Home
         
 
  Homecomings  
  Jyoti London
This is where it all starts. This tour will be a culmination of a question that used to be popular in many Meet the Choreographer sessions – “so has your work ever been seen in India?” That seemed to be the litmus test of authenticity – recognition “back home” of both the critical and the simpler visual kind. “Away” sanctioned liberties, the questioner seemed to imply, but how will it stand up to the orthodoxies of home? This question has not been asked of me in London for almost a decade but now I find myself addressing it. The very first press interview I do from London for an Indian journalist is introduced with “In spite of your strong ties with India, how is it that you are performing here for the first time?”
Followed quickly by another —
“I am very surprised that with over two decades in existence and with your Indian roots and so many accolades it has taken this long for Indians to see a performance by your troupe.”

Yes I am surprised too. I do not really have an explanation.

I remember many years ago (definitely in the last century) talking to a British Council officer about just such a tour and the words “coals” and “Newcastle” being mentioned! However both the British Council and the Indian Diaspora have changed and come of age, culturally speaking!

 
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  Video  
 

Video trailers for the two productions can be viewed on the
Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company website.
 
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The realities of 21st century belonging can’t be contained within neat geographical dichotomies but nevertheless any potential visit to India by my company was inevitably going to be burdened by queries and expectations.

The other more mundane but equally stress inducing burden was the sheer expense of taking a production with a touring cast and crew of 12 and a demanding technical design at a time of shrinking budgets for and confidence in the arts. In the event it is a case of sheer palpable desire triumphing over financial caution.

 
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spacerBodies and Cities
spacerThe location of home and the search for Indian-ness
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  Jyoti For individuals living in their respective diasporas, the location of “home” is laden with profound negotiations of belonging and difference. The classic “push and pull” between cultures, the pressures to assimilate, or the longing to return home fill the stories of migrants arriving in new lands. For Shobana Jeyasingh, however, the notion of “home” is less about a romanticized past, or a resolute adoption of a new culture. Rather, Jeyasingh works at the borders of multiple geographic and cultural locations, positioning this border as a productive site for invention, tension and exchange. Born in Chennai to Tamil parents, Jeyasingh spent some of her childhood in Malaysia at a predominantly Chinese school. As student, she studied bharat natyam in a boarding school in Sri Lanka as well as in Chennai under Valluvoor Samaraj Pillai. Later, she moved to the UK for her BA in English Literature and MA in Renaissance Studies. Indeed, Jeyasingh's life cuts across margins, borderlands, and hybridized realities. This experience, arguably, has imbued her work with a complex of “imaginary homelands,” to borrow from Salman Rushdie's seminal essay. But while Rushdie writes of the memories of home, the act of looking back, and the "Indias of the mind" (Rushdie 10), Jeyasingh’s act of looking back involves an excavation of the memories of the body, that living, breathing, dynamic home of gesture, language, and relentless history.

The question of returning “home” to India for Shobana Jeyasingh and her dance company, then, is not a simple one. Certainly, the company's inaugural tour of Faultline and Bruise Blood to India from the 6th to the 15th of November, 2010 was an historic moment for the company and for the contemporary Indian dance world. Yet, India is one part – albeit a major one – of a matrix of cultural and geographic locations that informs this choreographer's work. Shobana relies on a dialogue of techniques and movement histories that not only occurs between dancers’ bodies, but occurs across an individual body as well. If returning to India, was a homecoming, then it was also a return to the geographic origins where bharat natyam was shaped, named, and still practised by tens of thousands across the world. It was also a return to a community of dance practitioners, spectators and critics who have been following the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company’s work since its inception more than two decades ago.

When Shobana came to London in the early 1980s as a student and bharat natyam dancer, Indian "modern" dance had very few practitioners in both India and abroad. The deconstruction of classical forms like bharat natyam, odissi or kathak, for instance, was hardly encouraged by dance gurus and critics. Chandralekha's debut of Angika in 1985 in which she deconstructed the “classical” body through bharat natyam, kalarripayattu, and yoga, met with extreme reviews that either applauded it as genius or deplored it as tiresome. Other choreographers in India who challenged the contours of classical technique during the late 1980s and early 1990s include Daksha Sheth and Astad Deboo, both of whose primary training was in Kathak. Sheth studied the North Indian Lucknow style during the 70s and 80s, and proceeded to explore other movement forms including hatha yoga, Mayurbhanj chauu and pole mallakhamb to invent an athletic, circus-like style. Deboo, went abroad to the London Contemporary Dance School in the 70s, and then to New York for further training in Graham technique, returning home to create work that challenged the conventional format and mythological narratives of kathak recitals.

More recently over the past decade, Jayachandran Palazhy, who trained at the London Contemporary Dance School in the 1980s, has pioneered the progression of contemporary dance in India through the Attakkalari Centre for Movement and Research located in Bangalore. The centre trains dancers in kalarripayattu, bharata natyam, release-based contemporary techniques, and yoga. His repertory company, which consists mostly of graduates from the centre, collaborates with designers, composers and digital technologists from North America, Japan and Western Europe. Indeed, Palazhy's performances mirror the shift in the consumer marketplace that resulted from India's economic liberalisation first in 1984 and more dramatically in 1991. This liberalization, as I have argued elsewhere, has also affected the culture of the dance marketplace, nourishing the practice of ballet, western contemporary, jazz, hip-hop, salsa, contact improvisation, and Feldenkrais, in addition to the more established movement practices of yoga, kalaripayattu, kathak, bharata natyam, and kuchipudi that have been practised in Bangalore for several decades.[1]

The multiplicity of diverse dance forms that a transnational city like Bangalore affords speaks to the importance that cities play in the development of contemporary dance. As Valerie Briginshaw argues, "The particular ways in which cities and subjects 'mutually define' each other are evident when interactions of dancers with urban landscapes are examined. Bodies and cities can be seen to 'inscribe' each other" (36) [2]. After all, at the heart of Shobana's work has been an interest in the uncontainable dimensions of these inscriptions in an urban environment. The pulse, movements, tensions, turbulence, multiple locations, and cosmopolitan histories of cities and their denizens thread through each of her choreographic works. To present these works in India's cosmopolitan capitals is significant to the company in that it tests the readability of these dynamics that Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai share.

Moreover, there is something of each of these Indian cities in London and vice versa. Bangalore is India's Information Technology capital and is a major centre for providing professional services in finance, engineering and media around the world. Delhi is the country's political and cultural capital. Mumbai is both the commercial and financial capital of India. Though not in equal measure, London shares qualities of the above economies, industry, and systems of parliamentary governance with each of these Indian capitals. Pointing to the commonalities between India's cities and London, Shobana

 
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  claims in an interview with The New Indian Express, “I see a bigger difference between the people of London and an English Village than London and Bangalore. Thus, it seems fitting that the double-bill of Faultline and Bruise Blood – which could only have been made through the lens of an artist driven by the friction, restlessness and intensity of an urban landscape – was experienced by cosmopolitan audiences who are indelibly marked by the relationship they have with their own cities.

However, like the multiplicity, fragmentation and disjuncture that global locales represent, the response in each city to the performances varied. Bangalore, a centre for Indian contemporary dance, largely responded to the established presence that SJDC has in the cultural imagination of choreographers and dancers working in Bangalore. Former SJDC associates and dancers, Veena Basavarajaiah, Chitra Srishailan and Preeti Sunderajan, have been creating contemporary work since leaving the company in the last decade and have, in turn, influenced the growth of the contemporary dance community. Audiences in Bangalore came to the performances with a great deal of anticipation, marvelling at the conceptual cohesion, the intense training of the dancers, and the double bill's excellent production value. In Delhi, where SJDC performed as part of Gati's inaugural contemporary dance festival, audience feedback centred more on political concerns of Indian-ness, identity politics, and choreographic process. In Mumbai at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, we had over 20 Bollywood dancers present who clapped thunderously during the performance. Audiences seemed to be taken by the music, the virtuosity of the dancers and the spectacle of the performance with its many dimensions of beatboxing, opera and film.

As one of the producers of the tour, I did anticipate a range of complex responses to Bruise Blood and Faultline. In the process of producing SJDC's performances in India, I expected that dance audiences would aim to locate the bharat natyam in Shobana's choreography, which many did. For the general theatregoer, I thought some would try to discover a narrative in the work. This desire to locate the narrative or story surfaced in most of the press articles written about Bruise Blood and Faultline, And for those with a keen eye, I suspected they would discern the deconstruction of multiple techniques on individual dancers and on the ensemble as a whole, which many artists, particularly in Bangalore and Delhi, indeed distinguished.

What I did not anticipate, however, was how definitions of Indian-ness would so often come into play. In my conversations after the Delhi performance, particularly, audience members asked where is India in this work? Are NRIs (non-resident Indians) still concerned with identity politics? What does Londonstani, the text that inspired the company's production of Faultline, have to do with an Indian reality? What is curious about this question of Indian-ness for 1st and 2nd generation immigrants is that Indian-ness is an idea that we have had to define, defend and challenge as soon as we are marked as the Other in the west. The onus is often upon us to provide context to who we are by explaining our food or dress, by guiding the correct pronunciation of our names, or shortening them for easier pronunciation, or by clarifying that the Hindu religion is a monotheistic faith rather than a polytheistic one, and that it is not the only religion in India. What I was not necessarily prepared for was how we needed to explain our Indian-ness to Indians who read the choreography as western, the aesthetics as western, and even the themes of Asian boys in Southhall in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings as western.

For Leela Venkatraman, one of India's most noted dance critics, Indian-ness in Indian dance often arose through costumes and facial expression, neither of which was discernibly “Indian” in Shobana's work. And for some dancers who attended performances wearing skinny jeans and tank tops – thus, relaying a particular western Indian cosmopolitanism -- the burden of locating Indian-ness or bharata natyam in Faultline and Bruise Blood superceded a recognition of bharata natyam's influence on gesture, weight, and suspended tension in space that defines much of Jeyasingh's work. According to some of these audience members responses, was it perceived that bharata natyam, one of India's most widely performed national dance forms, was at risk of splintering in its international circulation through the diaspora? Can dance only be Indian if it references the technique literally instead of the fundamental dynamics of how a body moves through space? And finally, why is it that dance performed or choreographed by persons of Indian descent is bound by a nationalist inclination to label it Indian if it meets a series of requirements, i.e., hand gestures, linear narratives, hair styles, yogic shapes and eye make-up?

The attempts to culturally, artistically and politically locate Shobana's work in India never quite met a resolution. But it was clear that this choreographer's deep, complex and intimate relationship with the subcontinent shone through the dynamic of exchange, border crossings and the globalism that is at the heart of London, Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai. At the risk of categorising her approach as a choreographer, Shobana, I believe, exemplifies a class of "new cosmopolitans". These cosmopolitans, in the words of Gita Rajan and Shailja Sharma, "blur the edges of home and abroad by continuously moving physically, culturally, and socially, and by selectively using globalized forms of travel, communication, languages and technology to position themselves in motion between at least two homes, sometimes even through dual forms of citizenship, but always in multiple locations"(2) [4]. It is Shobana's diverse and discerning use of language, grammar, and embodied histories across and between multiple locations, geographies and nations that points to the protean nature of identity. To try and locate the Indian-ness, the British-ness, or the Tamil inflection in her work is as fleeting an attempt as slowing down the raw speed, dynamic phrases and fragmented contours of the next step in her sui generis choreography.

Dr Jyoti Argade

 
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  [1] See Argade, Jyoti. "Chronotopia: Bangalore Contemporary Dance and the Embodiment of Historical Memory." Dance and Spectacle, 9 - 11 July 2010, University of Surrey. Society of Dance History Scholars Proceedings, 2010. Web. 15 May 2011.

[2] See Briginshaw, Valerie. "Keep Your Great CiIty Paris!' – the Lament of the Empress and other Women." Dance in the City. Ed. Helen Thomas. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997. 35-49. Print.

[4] See Rajan, Gita and Shailja Sharma, eds. New Cosmopolitanisms. Stanford University Press, 2006.

 
     
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