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Dance Drama

It's called british natyam, Mr cameron


British PM's jibe about Indian dance ignores the fact that it's now an inseparable part of Britain's cultural landscape.

Talk about irony: the evening David Cameron made that somewhat truculent crack about "Indian dance or whatever" messing up school sports curriculum, Westminster exploded to the sounds of mridangam and tabla as young Bharatanatyam and Kathak dancers put together a riotous show for the ongoing Art in Parliament series. And before that there was Akram Khan at the Olympic opening.

There is no getting around the fact that Indian dances - not dance in singular, as per Cameron - are now an inalienable part of the British cultural landscape. At schools, community centres, culture hotspots, in one form or the other you are likely to run into ghungroos and tat-tai-ta beats inviting youngsters to sample the art at workshops, lecture demonstrations and free summer lessons.

What is often clumped together as Indian dance could have meant anything - Bollywood, bhangra dancercise, Bharatantyam, Kathak, fusion, contemporary. Indian dances have been around for six decades in UK and long enough for them to take wing in various directions to adapt to an alien setting and find acceptance as distinct forms.

"Most urban people can in Britain tell the difference between Bollywood and folk and some description of classical, except perhaps those in rural pockets and those from less privileged backgrounds. But today there is a concerted effort and cultural capital being spent to take classical arts to those it is least likely to go to in Britain, " says celebrated Bharatanatyam dancer Chitra Sundaram.

Dance researcher Janet O' Shea who has documented Indian classical dances' history in the West says the first big wave was in the 1970s when migrant professionals arrived here. Talented Tamil housewives taught Bharatanatyam to children of the Indian community making sure they strictly and faithfully replicated what they learnt back home as a sacrosanct art. In its early years Bharatanatyam was performed mostly in community spaces for NRIs.

In the 90s Bharatnatyam acquired some new labels. There was the transformion into British natyam - Bharatanatyam with a British accent as Chennai dancer Anita Ratnam jokes. It also acquired another more grand name - South Asian dance subsuming Kathak as well and including the Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Sri Lankan identities.

"What is referred to as South Asian dance is now a part of the British DNA. It is very visible - in professional dance spaces, schools, " points out Bharatanatyam dancer Anusha Subramanyam who has worked intensely and closely with youngsters and at community centres using dance as a cultural and communicative device. Dance education is in fact a huge area of employment for classically trained artistes in Britain.

Indian dances have become very different creatures today in UK. The choreographies of young dancers like Aakash Odhera, Shane Shambhu and groups like Angika often have no more than a soupcon of Bharatanatyam or Kathak. Most of it is strongly contemporary and experimental. They are an integral part of the mainstream British cultural landscape, they seek and get performance spaces far from the ghettoised centres of migrant culture.

"It is a different ball game altogether. The children of the diaspora grew up in a different culture, with little access to the moorings of the arts they learnt - the language, the literature, the context. Their dance is more geared technicalities and physicalities. Many of them end up doing experimental work, " says the indomitable Mira Kaushik who heads Akademi, one of the oldest and most active organizations for Indian performing arts in Britain.

Shobana Jeyasingh was among the earliest proponents of this genre, her dance still located in Bharatanatyam, its end product very British. Akram Khan and Mavin Khoo are other dancers in this top league of the British contemporary dance scene.

There is a very good reason why classical Indian dances changed direction in Britain, says Kaushik. "It is difficult for organisers here to programme pure classical work. It has a huge following but what seems and sounds contemporary is easier to sell, " she says. Akademi had organised the recent Indian dance events at the Parliament.

"Innovation" has become a somewhat prickly buzz word for many reasons, creative as well as financial - funding is easier if you are making a new, contemporary effort than if you are showcasing an old, distant heritage. "In many ways this was good because it allowed us access to better, more refined production and presentation values, " says Sundaram.

Interestingly, of late it is as though the whole loop has closed itself - there is rising demand for the traditional classical dances. "Indian dance is in a good place. There are opportunities again to grab spaces for classical dances. You can be creative and classical without doing a trade off, " says Sundaram.

The problem today is that over the last couple of years, in the run up to the Olympics, resources have been diverted to sports. "Under the Tory context, and in the context of the Olympics, I would say we are not in a great place, " says Kaushik. Will the money return to Indian dances? Will recession stem the flow further? The answers are hard to guess but the popular verdict for Indian dances is in - all tickets were sold out for the Westminster shows. You had to queue up to be put on the waiting list.


He is right - Indian dance is not sport. It is art like 'music or theatre. Indian dance is used in different educational contexts here which is great, but it needs to be freed from the PE curriculum. But it is a flippant statement with no real understanding behind it.

Mira Kaushik | Director, Akademi

A lot of Bollywood and bhangra goes into dancercise lessons. I think dance as exercise is more than totally doable. Fitness activity does not have to be standardized for those who are not interested. As for classical dances and the levels of fitness they need - try pulling off an araimandi (half squat).

Chitra Sundaram | Dancer

Politicians have their own agenda. As lovers of Indian dance we should make sure we create fantastic art and show that it is deserving of support and funding.

Prashant Nayak | Milapfest

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