Have TV dance shows, neo-liberalism’s baby, challenged the hierarchy of classical dance?
Excerpts from This is How We Dance Now
January 6, 2018
I found Allen Perris in his tiny flat with a bandana around his head and a loose fi tting T-shirt. He was soft spoken, modest, and accessible. He was excited about his future as a choreographer of reality shows. Currently working for Zee TV, he was looking forward to work with Star TV and other networks. He said that the audience had high standards now and it wanted novelty — although authenticity was good, it had to be blended, like Bharatanatyam with Contemporary dance. The last episode of Dance Bangla Dance he told me, had a multitude of dance categories such as Latin, Creative, Contemporary Indian, Hip-Hop, and Bollywood. He had won the best choreographer’s award, despite the presence of other wonderful choreographers on the show, who blended international dance styles, acrobatics, and Bollywood to create new forms and choreographies — something I call ‘remix’. 1
This was the new dance landscape that was revolutionising the established Indian dance hierarchies of classical, folk, tribal, and filmy. These rigid categories of Indian dances (created by the past elite nationalist narratives and by the state akademies in Delhi) were dissolving in contemporary India. A cultural war was taking place, far away from the strident corridors of party politics, and it was ushering in a new vision of a participatory democracy. A new generation of dancers and choreographers was emerging, many of them were from the lower middle and working classes with diverse caste and religious identities, as cultural producers and consumers. Indian democracy was spreading wider and digging deeper, and the older classical dances were losing their hold as the sources of symbolic capital for status and identity. These dramatic transformations in cultural values and their meanings accompanied India’s economic liberalisation. That structural shift had ushered in the rise and spread of Bollywood as a culture industry, along with an astounding explosion of television channels. This multiplication of cable and satellite channels rapidly changed India’s public sphere into a chaotic morass. It spawned a transnational and translocal cultural ia ethos that contested the erstwhile bounded national and regional (and gender) identities. The debates on market reforms continued to rage in many quarters, and as the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014, with the promise of further reforms and economic development, but also with the ideology of Hindu right-wing politics, the debates on morality and good conduct intensified even further.
The gradual absorption of Persian aesthetics and traditions over hundreds of years within the Indian subcontinent is a subject of vast importance but is explored briefly here. However, their presence in Bombay/ Bollywood films is undeniable, especially as they are expressed in the song and dance sequences through the confluence of bhakti and Sufi imageries. It is not farfetched to say that the syncretic traditions of Hindavi (medieval Hindi) and Urdu poetry found in the musical genres such as qawaali, thumri, and ghazal were developed in their modern incarnations in Bombay films (see Chapter 3). The qawaali form has undergone a metamorphosis in recent years and has emerged as a global-pop genre — so much so that Kavita Seth, a popular Bollywood singer, recently said in an interview that Bollywood has made Sufi music a separate genre. 2
The Chisti Sufi order associated with Sufi practices in the subcontinent uses qawaali performances and the notion of sama (listening as meditation) as the path to spiritual transcendence (Kugle 2007). Amir Khusro (1253–1325) applied the conventions of Hindavi bhakti poetry to qawaali, where the image of pining for one’s beloved in separation resonated with the Hindu bhakti of longing for Krishna by Radha. The most powerful embodiment of this emotion is encapsulated in sringara rasa/erotic emotion that is represented through dance. The dancing imageries, whether it be the ecstatic moment in Sufi qawaali where the body of the devotee soars upward or spins relentlessly, or in the ritual ia circular dance of raslila, represent the ecstatic moment of sublimation (Chakravorty 2005, 2009). It is perhaps no coincidence that both the mujra (traditional Kathak soiree by a tawaif/courtesan, which is a popular theme of Bombay/Bollywood films discussed in Chapter 3) and maj- li s (Sufi gatherings) invoke sensuous experiences and spiritual ecstasy through singing/dancing and mingles the sacred and the secular. 3
Therefore, these examples of poetry, song, and dancing blur the boundaries between the sacred and the secular and allow the devotee / bhakta/ashique/ lover to embody and experience ‘sringara rasa’. In the context of Urdu and Hindi poetics, Behl (2012: 26) observes:
Daaud’s use of rasa allows us to specify a Sufi poetics of ordinate love. He links eroticism and ascetic transformation through the multiple meanings of ‘juice’ or ‘essence’ (rasa) that runs through Indian notions of poetry and praxis, reimagining the Chisti theology of ‘ishq’ (love) in richly suggestive language.
The blurring of the sacred and secular is also refl ected in the absorption of the Persian secular ghazal form into the Hindu devotional thumri convention. Ghazal is known to resolve the tension between polar opposites that exists in the world. The conventions of the verses them- selves pursue both highly structured rhyming and spontaneous out- pouring of words in lines or verses that develop through stages. These conventions produce an expansion and contraction of meaning creating a constant movement akin to spinning/twist, which is the literal Arabic word root for ghazal/gazal . The imagery of spinning is reminiscent of Sufi dervishes and the essence of both is to join the lover/seeker with essence of Sufi philosophy encoded in ghazals: their eternal beloved.
This expansion and contraction, feeling and thinking, heart and mind,combine to produce great tension and power that spirals inward and outward and creates an atmosphere that I would defi ne as ‘deep nostal- gia’. This deep nostalgia is a primal moving force that fl ows through all life, art and song and produces within whoever comes into contact with it when it is consciously expressed, an irresistible yearning to unite the opposite it contains.
The pioneer ghazal queen and king Begum Akhtar and Mehedi Hussain, respectively, were known for the stylistic merging of thumri and ghazalin modern times. These gradual absorptions and accommo- dation of opposites in India resulting in Indo-Islamic syncretism might have had far reaching consequences other than aesthetic transformations and philosophical conversations. It perhaps led to the blurring of myth and history as experienced by its people summarized by Jafri (2010: 32):
Sufism lies in its success in resolving the tension between the polar reali- ties of the inward mystical experience or eternity, and the Sharia and history. Indian Sufism is heir to the martyrdom of al Hallaj, the sober spirituality of al Juniad, the ecstatic vision of bayazid… and the spiritual fl ights of Vedantic monism.
Altogether Hindu bhakti and Sufi longing form a composite whole that increasingly has been fractured and distanced through politics.
1. The ‘remix’ style is different than what is known as modern Indian dance that was ushered in by Uday Shankar and Tagore. Their ideologies and the class formations were also very diff erent than what shapes ‘remix’ (see Purkayastha  for a discussion on the dance styles of Tagore and Shankar).
2. Available at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/entertainment/hindi/music/news/Kavita-Seth-Bollywood-has-made-sufi -music-a-separate-genre/ articleshow/50959159.cms
3. See Chakravorty (2009). Bombay films have also merged the two genres in beautiful song and dance renditions in films such as Barsat ki Raat (1960).
Pallabi Chakravorty is Associate Professor in the department of Music and Dance and also Director of Dance at Swarthmore College, USA. She teaches interdisciplinary theory courses on performance and ethnography, and studio courses in Kathak dance, choreography, and composition. She has been widely published in journals of anthropology, history, dance studies, and literary studies. Her books include Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women, and Modernity in India (Seagull/University of Chicago), Performing Ecstasy: The Poetics and Politics of Religion in India (co-edited), Dance Matters: Performing India on Local and Global Stages (co-edited), and Dance Matters Too: Markets, Memories, Identities (co-edited and forthcoming from Routledge). She is the founder and artistic director of Courtyard Dancers, a non-profit community-centered arts organization based in Philadelphia and Kolkata.
This is an excerpt from This is How We Dance Now by Pallabi Chakravorty, published by the Oxford University Press, and republished here with the permission of the publisher.
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