Christopher Bannerman considers the globalisation of South Asian dance
Written in 2006.
Today in Britain, the influence of South Asian culture, whether in music, film, literature, theatre or dance is more widespread and profound than ever. From popular to ‘high-art’ forms, the vitality and freshness of British cultural life owes much to this phenomenon. However, focusing only on the British context can disguise the fact that after decades of pioneering work, South Asian dance forms are present on a global scale; they are making, and I believe, will continue to make, a significant contribution to world culture from their new foundations as global forms.
We might interpret ‘foundations’ to imply a single edifice, constructed in a discrete physical location. In fact, these foundations are multi— and transnational and the edifice is fluid, flexible and therefore vibrant and vital. History has shown us that art forms travel, inspiring significant cultural exchange – Kathak’s migration and its transmogrification into Flamenco has been documented and explored artistically. But the present circumstances of globalised communications and rapid movements of people have resulted in an unprecedented matrix of dynamic development and exchange which is generating and sustaining a new artistic pluralism. Both tradition and innovation are nourished and renewed in this context as performers, teachers, students, critics and audiences are linked and often interlinked in dialogue and exchange through communications technology and travel.
This is the arena in which Akademi operates and this is the process to which it contributes. Through its pioneering development of Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) syllabi for Bharatanatyam and Kathak, through the classes it is offering to aspiring performers and through a new South Asian dance strand in London Contemporary Dance School’s BA (Hons) Contemporary Dance, Akademi is making a major contribution to the dance forms themselves, and to the rewriting of the map of British dance.
Other dance forms have made this journey in the past and the most appropriate parallel that springs to mind is ballet. We often refer to Danish, French, English, Russian and American ballet, and we are beginning to say Japanese, Chinese and Korean ballet as well. Although the roots of ballet were firmly located in France, the development of ballet is seen as an internationalised project.
This is now true for South Asian dance, as evidenced by the use of that blunt instrument of enquiry, the internet. On 19 January 2004, the google search engine provided 514,000 entries for South Asian dance and 2,190,000 for Indian dance, (as against 153,000 and 480,000 entries respectively on 26 January 2001). While these are geographically defined terms, the entries defy this restriction. The traditional gharanas of kathak have been joined by a Toronto gharana, and informative websites posted in Sydney, Australia and Missouri, USA detail the requirements and planning necessary to present a successful arangetram.
It is clear that there is much activity that is not represented on the web. Research by Akademi in the mid-1990s in London indicated that a significant amount of South Asian dance teaching takes place in school halls and homes for the benefit of individuals and specific communities without reference to public spaces or display. The addition of these classes to Akademi’s network enhanced the strategy of inclusion which has augmented recent projects such as Escapade at the South Bank Centre in London. The exchange is widening, and will continue to widen, as this work contributes to a redefining of what classicism, narrative, musicality, expression, virtuosity and ageism have meant in dance in the West. A redefining, too, of the place of dance in our society as South Asian dancers engage in portfolio careers of performing, teaching, creative workshops and educational work.
The depth of the tradition and the wealth of energy now being channelled into this mission ensure that world dance culture will be enriched by this widened dialogue. We are on the edge of a paradigm shift which has already begun, but which has certainly not ended. The decades to come will provide us with new visions of dance and we will all be richer for it.