A Sneak Peek into the History of Left-Leaning Socio-Political Content in Indian Urban Contemporary Dance

 

Manalmagudi Art Magazine, Tamilnadu, 2018

[Note: Contemporary dance’ in India does not have an unanimously agreed-upon formal definition; the notion of contemporaneity remains open to individual interpretation and focus of work. Here, this phrase will be used loosely – ranging from modernist explorations to postmodern experiments that involved a part of the contemporary society as a source of content as well as a part of the same (though not necessarily the same part) as the target audience.]

Introduction

Political analyst Laurence W. Britt listed certain characteristics of fascism which are to be increasingly found in the administrative process of several ‘developed’ or ‘developing’ nations including ours. Among them, along with propagation of religious fanaticism, sexism, corporate powers, corruption etc., lies a significant point: ‘disdain for intellectuals and the arts’ (and hence freedom of speech). It is not for nothing that Indian contemporary dancers – and artists in general – have been largely inclined towards left-liberalism. The current government came to power with a bagful of promises for the intellectuals in the fields of academia and culture. The promises naturally turned out to be hoaxes in the subsequent budgets, thus cutting the finance down in these fields. Among them, urban contemporary dance has in any case never been particularly favoured by Indian economy; for example, the governmental monthly salary grant, to this day, for large-scale dance-troupes is the often-irregular frugal sum of 6000/- for adult dancers – a sum that barely increased in last couple of decades and is far from being adequate for survival. Unlike the West, where urban contemporary dancers are aided with governmental subsidies and promotions (though they come with their own challenges), contemporary dance has only barely been recognized by the Indian government, that too just a few years back, without any real clue as to the past, present or future of its ‘forms’, or as a whole, its ‘movement’.

So unsurprisingly, in this general atmosphere of doom, contemporary dance is facing one of its worst socio-economic lows in history. Grants are drying up, festivals are on the verge of shutting down, or desperately wooing foreign cultural embassies or the handful of extremely selective private (thus often politically problematic) sources of money. A contemporary dance academy, for advancement of dance-pedagogy and research, is a mere dream today due to 1) the general lack of funding, 2) the endless bureaucracy of the funders – public and private alike, and 3) a lack of takers of contemporary dance among the major section of the society. Festivals and dance academies, or other smaller pedagogical centers have so far been the principal sources of earning for dancers and choreographers. With them waning, these artists will be struggling harder and harder to keep up their survival as well as the intensity of their research in order to achieve their artistic fulfillment. Will the number of upcoming contemporary choreographers keep decreasing? Will urban Indian contemporary dance, which is already mostly taken up by the upper/middle-class with a fairly sustainable socio-economic support system behind them, keep shrinking – being limited to this particular socio-economic class of people as artists and audience? Or will there be alternative initiatives as, what Jodi Dean calls, a “response to fragmentation, hierarchy, isolation, and oppression”, “a mode of address, figure of belonging, and container for shared expectations [that] can provide us with a view of political relation necessary for the present” – not only as artists but also as political people living in the present?[1] Initiatives with more inclusive attempts towards building a collective of increasing strength of contemporary dancers/choreographers with an open collaborative approach towards artists from other disciplines as well as ‘non-artists’. A collective so large, inclusive, vocal and open to exchange that it will establish an unignorable role in the larger political scenario of this country. Moreover, does the society need such a collective? I will not be able to answer these questions directly in this article; in fact, many more questions will remain unanswered in the course of this discussion. But these are the questions that will keep defining my thoughts.

Why Do We Dance? How Do We Dance?

Following this line of thought, let us delve deeper into the  third point mentioned above – regarding lack of takers of contemporary dance, which is, however, a double-edged sword. During its postcolonial development, contemporary dance on one hand alienated a part of its prospective audience and sponsors by shifting towards unentertaining abstraction – albeit with the good intention of de-objectifying the dancing body. On the other hand, in its exclusive association with artists, intellectuals and sponsors coming from a primarily English-speaking, upper/middle-class background, the so-called serious urban contemporary dance largely remained restricted to the appreciation and patronage of those selected few. Hence, the practitioners in this discipline have neither been interested in, nor have learned putting their faith in mass popularity for sustenance. In other words, even though the urban Indian contemporary dancer has identified herself as a left-leaning liberal due to her need to be free to create, speak out and ‘produce’, unfortunately she has now fallen prey to a cycle of alienation. Her political leaning is contrary to her upper/middle-class-caste aspirations (e.g. accumulation of private property, neoliberal individualism etc.); but it is that very upper/middle-class background that allowed her to enter and thrive in this world of art in the first place! In view of this inner-contradiction borne by contemporary dance, we cannot fool ourselves into believing that the reason behind this dire state of popularity of contemporary dance lies solely with the rise of the cultural right-wing and consequent silencing of the voice of the artist. Instead, we must acknowledge that one of the largest enemies of Indian contemporary dance is the impenetrable bubble of disinterest shown by the majority of the Indian urban population. This disinterest is worse than bans, boycotts and arrests.

As promised, here are a set of unresolved questions that may confuse a politically conscious contemporary choreographer’s mind. Say, she empathizes with a certain socio-political movement and incorporates its agendas in her dance-content? How do the political activists in that movement perceive her work? How much importance is it given as a part of that movement? What if there are conflicting movements that the choreographer identifies with? For example, feminism has not always been at peace with class and caste-struggles. To what extent will she be encouraged to entertain these political contradictions in her work? How will (and why should) the complex political points fit into the corporeal representational linguistic? How much agency will she have in choosing her own content? We will discuss some of these points briefly towards the end in a separate section – emphasizing certain concrete points of disconnect between the contemporary dancer and its position in the perspective of certain political movements – especially addressing class conflicts.

India is steadily advancing towards a state of cultural fascism. At some point, the easy air of liberalism that we upper/middle-class artists enjoy in our creative expression as well as everyday life is bound to be tickled by its tentacles. In view of that premonition, the inner-contradictions that the contemporary dance-world suffers from haunt me and many others in a severely disturbing way, which can be called the primary contradiction of left-liberalism. On one hand, these contradictions must be duly addressed, but on another hand, they cannot be allowed to blow out of proportion lest they strengthen the wrong hands. As artists, what weapon do we have other than our ability to express? Our skill lies at taking up socio-political content and represent them to the like-minded as well as the not-so-like-minded, in an attempt to inspire thoughts. One part of that work lies in updating ourselves with political ideas and incorporating them in our art. Another part lies in historical research, documentation and critical analysis. We must find a way to address this inner-contradiction in our creation and our research.

In this article I take this opportunity to take a quick peep into iconic dance-works created by certain giants of urban Indian contemporary dance, who played vital roles during its early defining period. If ‘class’, ‘caste’ and ‘gender’ (I specifically choose women’s empowerment here) are three major socio-political centers around which social movements are built, let me pick three significant ‘contemporary’ dance-works – Uday Shankar’s ‘Labour and Machinery’, Manjusri Chaki Sircar’s ‘Tomari Matir Kanya’ (‘Daughter of Your Earth’), and Chandralekha’s ‘Sri’ – that respectively addressed the above-mentioned subjects as their contents. There is, however, a more personal reason behind selecting these works. Even though these choreographers were before my time, I – as a resident of first Kolkata and now Chennai, and a member of the contemporary dance community to some extent in both cities – have experienced their works closely through my communication and training with their successors. While vising these works, I attempt to understand within my limited abilities as a dancer as well as a dance-audience, where they succeeded and where they failed.

Here, I would also like to point out that dance-works based on class and caste movements are rare to come by today.[2] Does that lack denote a certain disconnect between Indian contemporary dance and Indian class/caste-struggle? We will contemplate that in this article. In general, my hope is, some of the observations made here would be relevant in understanding present and future choreographies in terms of their socio-political contents, and that they would perhaps reduce (or enhance!) the juggling dilemma between our ‘personal’ and ‘political’. But before I proceed further, I’m tempted to ask a few more unresolved questions: How do we dance? That is, how do we dancers survive? Or more simply put, why should a dancer get paid? Is dance ‘labour’? Without that understanding, how shall we decide what status to be given to contemporary dance in an ideal classless, casteless, gender-equal society? Or more immediately, in a socio-political movement aspiring to lead towards such a world? These unresolved questions, along with the previous ones, are important since without a real stake and a sincere participation, the ‘revolutionary’ content of dance-works are at best mere role-playing games.

I personally believe, dance – just as other forms of art, in fact closely collaborating with other forms of art – has been an inseparable part of people’s movements, though this association has often been plagued by a mutual lack of appreciation. First of all, contemporary dance, being open to experiments, can discover new consciousnesses and expressions through the politically loaded body. Secondly, no socio-political movement is free of a strong sense of ‘choreography’ – in a broad sense of the word. And contemporary dance that has the inherent ability to partially analyze the scopes of ‘choreographing socio-political movements’ in this broad sense.[3] Thirdly, contemporary dance can play a significant role in building empowerment and solidarity intellectually and physically – especially among Indian women. Unfortunately, contemporary dance – a discipline, which is as of yet led by a handful of individuals, is a fond ally of abstraction and hence often quite subjective in essence, runs the risk of falling prey to individualism and identity politics. To save contemporary dance from that peril, the left-leaning contemporary choreographers must put a continuous effort to include their audiences as well as their peers in their political-creative journey. For this reason too, we need to revisit and re-evaluate the history of contemporary dance in India, and contemplate how to identify the points of convergence and divergence among the voice of the people, the voice of the socio-political movements, and the voice of the artist. 

History Behind the Histories

 The three choreographers we look at today worked over two ‘culturally vibrant’ metro-cities juggling between the traditional and the modern. All three danced and created works in various parts of the world, but Uday Shankar and Manjusri Chaki Sircar’s ethos were primarily rooted in Kolkata and Chandralekha’s in Chennai. So, to understand the historical background of these three pieces of choreography, let us take a quick tour of the contemporary dance landscape of these two cities.

  •  The Kolkata Preamble

About a decade back, when I first came to Chennai from Kolkata to pursue academics, I thought, my life as a dancer was over. Mine could be a standard case-study of an amateur Bengali woman dancer coming from an urban family belonging to the upper-middle-class and caste, for whom, if not a marriage then a secure job was the first and foremost priority. And yet I had danced all my life – the style freely ranging over a mixture of classical styles, Rabindranritya and semi-theatrical dance-enactments of modern Bengali songs – drawing movements also from a Khichdi of contemporary dance forms and their derivatives. The main two components in this Khichdi were Uday Shankar’s ‘Creative Dance’ and Manjusri Chaki Sircar’s ‘New Dance’.

During the 1920s, Rabindranath Tagore introduced middle and upper-class Bengali women (from ‘enlightened’ families) to the taste of moving their bodies creatively, not necessarily following classical or folk norms, nor following their traditional contents. The poet’s exposure to Indian classical forms, Western ballet and modern dance as well as folk forms in South-East Asia played an important role in developing the alloy-like form that came to be known as ‘Rabindranritya’. This was possibly the first exposure of ‘contemporary dance’ for the urban Bengali women, and had a lasting effect on many Bengali choreographers till date, including the two we discuss here. The political relevance of Tagore’s dance was possibly more in the sheer action of dancing than in its content. Nonetheless, Tagore’s dance-dramas bore politically complex statements, and were explored later by many choreographers (in particular Manjusri Chaki Sircar) to their full extent of political relevance. But Tagore passed away abandoning his vision of dance pedagogy at a murky state. Rabindranritya came to exist as something highly radical and controversial – an institution-breaking effort, blatantly hammering patriarchal gender stereotypes in urban Bengal. The same Rabindranritya, after Tagore’s demise, itself became a conservative and paranoidly possessive institution, thus unscrupulously ruining the politic of freedom that was the principal pillar of Rabindrik pedagogy. In fact, it is said that Tagore’s own fear of contamination of form and aesthetic in his music and dance began to institutionalize his art even before his death. This growing trend of cultural elitism and guarded institutionalization of form – inherited by later choreographers – Uday Shankar and Manjusri Chaki Sircar among them – stood as a bane to the propagation of Indian contemporary dance among a vast range of audience.

The other major dance-wave for upper/middle-class Bengali men and women appeared through Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA) – the cultural face of the Communist Party on India – during 1940s. Thanks to the dominance of its theater and music factions led by powerful (male) stalwarts, IPTA had placed dance (especially women dancers) in a fringe. Yet, from the writings of early-IPTA-dancers Reba Roychowdhury and Sima Das from Bengal, it is immediately visible that there was also a clear sense of emancipation, value and freedom that IPTA provided to its women dancers, even if it was partly imaginary. Moreover, through its direct connection with the communist movement, contemporary IPTA dance became politically vibrant and a means to achieve freedom in a very literal manner.

Meanwhile, in the 1930s, another choreographer surfaced in the Indian urban dance scenario: Uday Shankar, who could have become (but did not) a third major precolonial source of dance-pedagogy in Bengal. Nevertheless, he was the first modern choreographer from Bengal – coming from an affluent Bengali family, with the rare luck of having his family encourage him to explore dance to the point of sending him to Europe for that. His style was codified, titled as ‘Creative Dance’, and transformed into a pedagogic discourse much later in the 1960s, and is now taught in various institutions, though initially it was monopolized by the two independent branches run by his daughter and daughter-in-law. His innovative dance was influenced by Indian classical and folk-dance forms as well as German ballet, European modern dance and theater. His large-scale choreographic vision was unique in the Indian context – both in ambition and execution, during the 1930s and 40s. ‘Labour and Machinery’, which I will discuss as an example of representation of ‘class’ in dance-content, was a choreography that he created for his iconic musical film ‘Kalpana’. It was later partially re-choreographed as a proscenium piece by his wife: Amala Shankar. However, none of his blood-relations who continued his practice reformed his dance-form in any significant way. Nor did they take up radical political contents.

Another remarkable contemporary dance style that emerged in Bengal during 1980s and became an integral part of modern dance pedagogy in Bengal was ‘New Dance’ (Navanritya) introduced by Manjusri Chaki Sircar and later developed along with her daughter Ranjabati Sircar. Both choreographers made many original works – primarily on feminist, intersectional content, though Manjusri’s work remained heavily influenced by Tagore’s performative narratives for a long period of time. Navanritya involved a systematic deconstruction of Rabindranritya, various Indian classical dance forms, certain Western contemporary dance forms, Indian and African folk forms and martial arts, and embodied empowerment of the body and mind. Dancers’ Guild – the dance institution founded by Manjusri still bears the traces of their practice. However, ever since the untimely suicide by Ranjabati and subsequent demise of Manjusri in 1999, Dancers’ Guild too has not seen any significant stylistic creative invention, nor radical politicization of content. Manjusri’s ‘Tomari Matir Kanya’, to be discussed in the context of ‘caste’ in dance-content, was based on Tagore’s dance drama ‘Chandalika’.[4]

Incidentally, none of these institutions managed to build a sustainable structure that could provide a decent means of survival to its working members – namely, the dancers – while also keeping the creative energy and thirst for research on finding new dimensions in contemporary dance alive in them. The dancers, who were often forbidden from teaching or performing outside the troupe, or exploring other styles, were forced to take up part-time low-pay jobs or depend on their families for survival. Currently, with the financial situation worsening, more and more choreographers are taking up/being forced to take up the rentier’s practice of paying per performance, turning the life of a dancer and her sense of belonging to a specific socio-cultural class even more uncertain. In such a situation, how is one supposed to have a steady flow of takers of contemporary dance? Only when this situation is evaluated in a larger socio-political perspective, the dancers might realize the need for exploring truly collective, democratic working processes, for actively participating in live socio-political movements, as against uselessly imbibing politically static and generic content as lone individual practitioners.

  • The Chennai Preamble

Here I am in Chennai for a decade now, and yet, proving my predictions wrong, my identity as a dancer has far from disappeared. Although, the growing difficulty in finding ‘patronage’ (read funding) is not making the task any easier. So, it is vexing why I did not prudently follow my instinct of ending my dance career. Possibly because in Chennai amateur contemporary dance barely exists, and hence the level of commitment to this discipline of art is exemplarily high. Such exemplary sense of commitment to research-oriented dance has an unavoidable charm to it. I had to get hooked!

In Chennai, the attitude towards dance is markedly different from Kolkata, as are some of its main challenges. Admittedly, dance in Chennai has been socially less of a scandalous matter compared to Bengal, making life slightly easier for aspiring dancers. But contemporary dance-experiments in Bengal, which has no resident classical dance form to speak of (sans the weak claim made by Gaudiya Nritya), managed to avoid facing any serious resistance from within the dance community. The dominant Bharatanatyam ‘community’ of Chennai – a city, which is even today culturally synonymous to the innocent outsiders with the Brahmanical classical dance and music – continues to pose a hard challenge to its contemporary dancers, who are barely recognized as worth watching, or equally importantly, worth funding.

A vent to this stifled dance-atmosphere of religiosity, classicism, submissiveness to patriarchy and lack of flexibility – not to speak of a lack of political content – appeared in the form of a young Gujarati woman, who landed in this city to study Law. Chandralekha, who lived in Chennai[5] almost her entire adult life, turned into a full-fledged choreographer, in search of a contemporary, but truly Indian dance/movement-form, during the 1980s. The choice was made after her adverse experience of being hunted-down and followed-around by the state during the Emergency as a radical political-cultural activist. Having been a seeker of strength and freedom, the content of Chandralekha’s choreography extensively addressed gender, patriarchy and sexuality, and showed traces of resistance and dissent – though notably, outside organizational politics. Nor did her works become overtly political, or radically anti-establishment since 1982, when she decided to shift from her active political associations.

Evolution of the formal Indian contemporary dance vocabulary under Chandralekha defined a space for the strong and willful woman body and mind, incorporating tools from selected deconstruction of Bharatanatyam, Yoga and Kalaripayattu. Her repudiation of linear narratives, and her keen attention to understand movement and space from an unemotional, functional viewpoint as well as her almost obsessive preoccupation with freedom and creativity set her vision and style apart. Some of her dancers have continued to pursue their own path in contemporary dance or other performance forms; some have duly added their own original contribution to the lineage of politically loaded (especially feminist) dance that Chandralekha became a symbol of in the South. The choice of ‘Sri’ among her choreographies, for peeping into the subject of ‘gender’ in contemporary dance-content, principally comes from that facts that a) ‘Sri’ has been perceived as one of her ‘most contemporary works in terms of form and structure, and b) couple of years back it was selected for a reconstruction project as a part of commemorating Chandralekha’s memory on the tenth year of her demise, and I have closely seen and partially participated in the process and the discussions around it.

Despite the comparatively higher acceptance of dance in Chennai, and a higher sense of commitment of Chennai-dancers as well as an ‘original research’-based attitude towards contemporary dance that indeed came from Chandralekha’s school of thought, dance remains a difficult choice as a means of survival for Chennai-based professional dance-aspirants as well. A general attitude against institutionalization of dance has prevailed among contemporary dance-practitioners, which is great. But on the downside, there is no system that can afford to provide salary to the contemporary dancers. The art and political communities in Chennai have mostly left the contemporary choreographers to fend for themselves and they have to struggle hard to find paid shows. This economic disadvantage trickles down to the ‘rented’ dancers, making the routine of their scanty earning and opportunity to work irregular and uncertain – just as in Kolkata.

The Three Choreographies

  • ‘Labour and Machinery’ (1948): Uday Shankar

A dimly-lit Dantesque scene of a factory; the tick-tock-drudgery, sweaty fatigue and worst of all, the degrading alienation of machine-like labour, an oppressive (North-West-Indian) capitalist working hand-in-hand with the corrupt state: these are the key components of ‘Labour and Machinery’. Shaknar appears as the key figure symbolizing the resistance of the working class. He attempts to unify the workers, fails, and is humiliated by the factory-owner as well as the policemen who arrest him. Eventually, he and his ‘comrades’ are able to break the shackles of this inhuman life, overpowering the villain.

In Shankar’s iconic film ‘Kalpana’, this dance sequence is premiered as a fiction within a fiction. It is placed as a dream within the intoxicated mind of the protagonist Udayan (played by Shankar himself). Udayan, as nudged by the ambitious, jealous, selfish and morally unsound ‘vamp’ Kamini, who is Udayan’s romantic partner at that point of the narrative, is about to make a deal with a bunch of capitalists (prototypes of the villain in ‘Labour and Machinery’) as prospective financial sponsors of his dream-institute of art and culture. They sit in a classically caricatural portrayal of an upper-class orgy of alcohol, abundance and profit-oriented vileness. Udayan – disgusted at their double-standards and corruption – drinks himself to semi-consciousness, as he is dragged into this hellish dream. The dance ends with the laughter of the businessmen and their women companions and is followed by Udayan’s decision of rejecting their money.

‘Labour and Machinery’ uses space in a very interesting manner – continuously moving it with shifting formations of bodies. It keeps a minimalistic, repetitive routine of robotic movements, providing the likeness to machines. In this spectacular choreography, Shankar uses the tool of resemblance to ‘build’ the demonic machine in which nuts and bolts, gears and pulleys are constantly moving in an inhuman harmony, barely stopping for its own pieces that fall out in exhaustion. Freedom from this oppression is first symbolized by the iconic wavy arm movements performed by Shankar (which eventually became his signature), and later with valorous movements adopted from Kathakali and Chhau. These movements are strongly in contrast with the stiffly erect linearity of the workers, who are yet uninitiated in the language of protest. Use of spine (bending, raising, twisting, cringing, expanding etc.) and a varied set of actions playing with levels and qualities (jumps, falls, squat-walking, swaying etc.) create important emotional visuals. This version of ‘Labour and Machinery’ is especially interesting in its adoption within the film medium. So not only the body and the space, but also the third eye of the camera is played with. The tightly-structured choreography and the unapologetic political content might hint on the influences of Shankar’s association with certain European choreographers, such as Kurt Jooss, who played an important role in the development of his choreographic vision.

However, this choreography follows a predictable pattern of Shankar himself portraying the singular key character – a strikingly fair and lithe body, always holding the ‘center-stage’ – the only human among a hundred nuts and bolts, portrayed by a large crew acting as chorus in the ‘blackface’ guise. For now, we make a note of this trend of centrality of the choreographer, and his need for distinguishing himself from from the chorus. This is of course not unexpected. The entire film (‘Kalpana’) is centered around Shankar himself. One is tempted to ask, if we enacted the role of a labourer, what stopped him from taking the blackface guise himself, painting his body and face black? The answer must be lying in the primary contradiction that I earlier discussed about. The disconnect resulting from the contradiction between the choreographer and his content affects the entire film. For example, at the end of ‘Labour of Machinery’, Udayan rejects the corrupt capitalist’s money, but accepts the gentle-hearted capitalist’s cheque, who showers his appreciation for Udayan’s moral grit and urges that not all capitalists are bad people! Such naïve dialogues inject a doubt whether the choreographer really identified with the class-struggle that he portrayed in his work; whether, given a choice, he would have been able to move beyond his own bourgeoisie class-interests. As it turns out, ‘Labour and Machinery’ remains Uday Shankar’s only work that addresses class-struggle.

  • ‘Tomari Matir Kanya’ (1985): Manjusri Chaki Sircar

Manjusi Chaki Sircar writes in one of her early articles on Tagore’s dance dramas: “It is amazing to think of the woman characters created by Tagore, not only in his stories and novels but in his dance-dramas: Prakriti, Maya, Chitrangada fall entirely outside the classical milieu. […] their scope supersedes the limits of the Brahminic ideology inherent in classical dance. Without denying the need to cultivate tradition, it is time to ask: How long can we be limited by it?”

‘Tomari Matir Kanya’ is based on the narrative of ‘Chandalika’ – a play as well as a dance-drama written by Tagore. The dance drama was in turn based on a Nepalese Buddhist myth on Bhikshu Ananda – one of the foremost disciples of Gautam Buddha. In all versions of this story, Ananda is dragged by a magic cast by a lower caste woman (Maya, a Chandala, as Tagore described her[6]) to satisfy her daughter’s (Prakriti) infatuation and desire for sexual union with the saint, after their chance-meeting beside the well, where Ananda drank water from Prakriti’s hands: an unthinkable deed for believers in Hindu caste system (that Buddhists defied), as Chandalas were deemed untouchables. Tagore’s play marks a shift from the original story, where the point of emphasis was how Buddha’s spiritual power defeated Maya’s magic and dragged Ananda back to his senses, away from his admirer, while she prepared the nupital bed. In Tagore’s imagination, it was the emotional complexity of Prakriti and Maya that made the narrative worth visiting. Ananda, in comparison, was a linear character. His spiritual blessing that apparently brought peace to the troubled minds of the mother-daughter duo, who then ascended above desire and pride and sought refuge in submission, was almost like a pacifier for Tagore’s upper caste male identity, perhaps in battle with the poet in him, who was clearly more awed with the vibrant characters of the low-caste women.

The real point of interest in the character of Prakriti is her self-assertion as a desiring woman as well as a vocal agitator against social hierarchies and taboos, though her only assertions takes place in front of her mother – in a way making use of motherly affection. Likewise, the point of interest in Maya’s character is the tension between her strengths (e.g. expertise in ancient, powerful subaltern knowledge – deemed as ‘un-knowledge’ in the upper caste and class paradigm, skillfulness, confidence, social prudence) and weaknesses (e.g. lack of constructive dissent towards social hierarchical norms, excess of affection for the daughter). It is almost vexing how these strengths are weaknesses embellish these two characters in a non-linear fashion, such that one is never sure which is strength, which is weakness.

This humanization of characters is highlighted in Manjusri’s adaptation of this play. Unlike ‘Labour and Machinery’, where the protagonist and the antagonists are clearly defined, ‘Tomari Matir Kanya’ addresses the dual nature in humans as socio-politically complex beings. In the strong and undoubtful physical and emotional expression of the dancers, it rejects the rigid, unimaginative interpretation of ‘Chandalika’, where women are represented as victimized and misguided. As her ex-student/dancer Aishika Chakravarty writes, Manjusri in this work strongly speaks of women’s agency as “a force of social change”, celebration of “women’s collective power” and “the relative independence of lower caste women in ritual ceremonies that fall outside the Brahmanic paradigm.” She minimalizes the presence of male characters and even Ananda appears just as a source of light, or in shadows, whereas the chorus comprises of a group of strong women dancers using varied well-defined and symbolically meaningful spinal positions and resolute expression. In the ‘traditional’ performance of Tagore’s dance-drama, the chorus has been a combination of men and women dancers, who acted as fillers and mood-setters. In Manjusri’s version, the chorus is included in the symbolic syntax of empowerment and emancipation of not just Prakriti and Maya, but the entire womenfolk from the lower social-groups (who are doubly oppressed for belonging to lower-caste and lesser-sex!).[7] Her choreography of ‘Prakriti’s sexual awakening’ has become one of the iconic visual moments in the history of Indian contemporary dance. But we must note here that from the point of view of caste-conflict, the celebration of desire in ‘Chandalika’ is so powerful not because it speaks of any woman’s desire, but significantly, because it speaks of an untouchable woman’s desire. To what extent is that fact respected in ‘Tomari Matir kanya’ beyond what has already been scripted in ‘Chandalika’?

To be honest, rather than being perceived as a dance-work addressing caste, ‘Tomari Matir Kanya’ should be perceived as a feminist contemporary dance-theater aspiring to address caste, but not really directly doing so, except in the dialogues, which strictly follow Tagore’s script. Tagore touched upon the theme of caste with a lot of poetic empathy. Yet, his play ended with the moral intonation of un-achievability of the spiritual (upper-caste man) through material desire (lower-caste woman). The dissent of ‘Tomari Matir Kanya’ against this moral intonation falls short possibly due to yet another disconnect between the choreographer and the subject. The feminist questions are represented with clarity: the symbols of empowerment and emancipation of women are neatly performed through the gestures of the dancing bodies. But the caste-identity is never symbolized through the body, no gestures are invented to specifically address the caste factor. Moreover, the women characters including the chorus are strong and cultish as visual images, but simultaneously are ‘beautiful’ and ‘graceful’ in their movement in such an urban manner that they leave the audience in doubt whether it is an attempt towards humanization of the lower-caste, or Sanskritization.

This way ‘Tomari Matir Kanya’ fails to erase the marks of the privileged social position of the choreographers. The essence of Navanritya – despite deftly synthesizing over a varied range of movement-forms – somewhere retains a classicist refinement of the body, and hence, is unable to recreate the harsh, rural, mundane, un-poetic reality bearing poverty and humiliation of the specific caste. Like ‘Labour and Machinery’, ‘Tomari Matir Kanya’ too is meant for a certain upper/middle-class (and caste) urban intellectual crowd, for whom the caste issue is alien.  

  • ‘Sri’ (1991): Chandralekha

‘Sri’ uses images that have multiple significances in view of current politics of culture in India. The choreography begins with a solo section performed by Chandralekha herself, personifying an image of the Sakambhari – the goddess of vegetation that grows on the earth, representing environment as well as fertility. The image is borrowed from an ancient Harappan seal. Sakambhari lies on her upper back with her legs suspended in the air – like a tree pushing its entangling bifurcated stems through the ground. Chandralekha believed that history of Life could be preserved not through images, but through its transference into real human bodies. That is why Sakambhari’s legs are not static, but strong, articulate, and full of life – twisting, extending and contracting for twenty full minutes. The next spectacular section depicts the ancient Matrikas – the mother goddesses, rising from the dust as pillars of strength. Here, motherhood is not essentially bound to the child-bearing process, but to fertility myths and empowered sexual-spiritual-social-political agency of women – in creation and destruction alike. Then comes the section of enslavement of women in rituals of marriage, the lack of solidarity within the womenfolk (as against the collective energy depicted earlier), women’s submission to domestic labour – all these leading to a mounting fear in the women due to loss of agency symblized in the dancers’ bodies by a loss of spinal erection. ‘Sri’ ends with the choreographer’s dream of regaining the collective power of women, shown as a moving tableau of the Dashabhuja Matrika, symbolically holding destructive weapons and constructive blessings.

An unresolved critique that surfaced way back when ‘Sri’ was choreographed, and have since become more and more poignantly relevant, is pointed towards this ten-handed goddess. Durga, Mother, Bharat-Mata – these have become powerful weapons in the hand of the Indian right wing. These images have been popularly projected to be synonymous with fanatic Hindutva beliefs, which are on the rise: another prominent identifier of a fascist future that might be awaiting us. The other point of controversy in ‘Sri’ is the over-emphasis on the fertility symbol. Early feminists like Sukumari Bhattacharya raised strong critique against the romance around motherhood – both in the immediate sense of reproduction and the larger sense of creativity. For Chandralekha’s artist’s self, it is perhaps vital to celebrate creativity in the form of inception and transfer of energy. But how is the Sakambhari image likely to be seen by other women? Bharucha explains in Chandralekha’s biography: “Contrasted to this omnipotence [of the mother-goddesses], human mothers are almost destined to live under duress and a seemingly endless state of oppression. Tellingly, Sukumari Bhattacharya ends her comparison of mothers and mother-goddesses with the question: ‘Can any human mother feel any empathy with such formidable figures?’”[8] Let us also make a note of the point that seeking a certain (motherly) auspiciousness in fertility is not the only way ancient goddesses had been looked at, though, the un-motherly goddesses were often demonized.[9] Chandralekha’s vision of ‘productive woman’ seems preoccupied with the ‘good goddess’ and not the ‘bad demoness’ that other feminist discourses have sometimes identified with.

A larger-than-life motherhood, whose images are notably related to Hindu mythology, finds a place of honour in ’Sri’, but a ‘working woman’ is given a dubious status. For example, a repetitive action imitating wiping the floor comes as an image of powerlessness in ‘Sri’. But in view of the growing hostility of the neoliberal social relationships based on class-division as well as the growing violence inflicted by the upper/middle-class on their ‘subordinates’, this particular image, which can be perceived as a condescending jibe at ‘work’ itself, is on the verge of being problematic. Kancha Ilaiah writes, labour is negated in the Brahmanical private property-based social system.[10] Chandralekha – given her fierce repulsion of Brahmanism and her discomfort around private property – is of course not to be compared with that extreme. We can also safely assume that her portrayal of the drudgery and degradation of domestic work does not intend to diminish the value of the truly productive, unexploited labour hailed by Ilaiah. Yet, this specific choice of image in ‘Sri’ raises the scent of that same primary contradiction.

Just as its two predecessors within this article, ‘Sri’ too is primarily created for an urban upper/middle-class (and caste) audience. With that, we are back to a rephrased version of our unresolved question: what is the real point of incorporating socio-political content, if it is not even duly presented in front of an audience, to whom the political questions raised in the choreography has an urgent significance? Is this statement of matriarchal empowerment over patriarchally ritualistic slavery a radical thing for urban elite audience? No. At least not in theory.

The reconstructed version of ‘Sri’ (2016) seems to have the same problem. A section of the choreography was worked on with certain contemporary dancers currently practicing in India. In view of physically understanding Chandralekha’s vision and using one’s own body as a ‘preserver of history’, it was truly a great exposure for those who recognized the relation of that preservation with the need of placing their own identity as contemporary dancers in perspective. In many ways, reconstruction seems the closest way to realize a work in its full significance. But what does reconstruction mean? Should it be a verbatim reconstruction? Or should it be a critical reconstruction counting in the ethos of the new set of dancers? Some of the dancers, who took part in ‘Sri’ 1991, identified with the piece so much that it became a personal path of emancipation for them. But the feminist questions transformed with time, the stakes changed, their relations with the society changed as well. Practically, ‘Sri’ 2016 could not have accounted for that; it was after all a performance, not an academic discourse. But this is not a singular case of omission, rather, this seems to be following the general trend of omitting such academic discourses in urban contemporary dance preoccupied with form, deprioritizing content – especially increasingly complex socio-political content.

Common Traits, Merits, Demerits 

Dance-scholar Ananya Chatterjea writes about certain choreographers: “Through their work, I have also come to realize that the neat anti-fundamentalist, committed-to-progressivism aesthetic that I was looking for is in process, for these responses always emerge in relationship to changing historical contexts. And if I never found a point of arrival in this search, or never reached clarity of understanding, it perhaps signals the complex issues and messy histories that the cultural scene is riddled with. For continuing to make artistic work and for refusing to allow a fundamentalist overwhelming of their art I thank these artists deeply.”[11]

My own emotions – as a dancer – regarding the choreographers under discussion are not far from what Chatterjea articulates. These are some of the ancestors, who taught today’s urban contemporary dancers to think out of the boundaries of the over-religious, conservative classical dance. These are the pioneers, who opened an alley for political exchange between art and society, gave contemporary dance a socio-political validation, established it as an intellectual discourse as against accepting it as a decorative physical practice. They identified the significance of abstraction and deconstructed it, and one can clearly see certain turning points away from classical practice in their works. For example, hand-gestures and facial expressions (Mudra and Abhinaya) were the tools that imitated and codified the content in classical forms; it was necessary since the narrative-oriented classical forms had many restrictions on movements; whereas, it is the quality of free movements (dimension, heaviness, shape etc.) that came to act as the resembler and codifier in contemporary dance, inspiring inventive opportunities, freeing movement from its Brahmanical past. These three specific works that I discussed are also significant in their use of dramatic symbolism and stylized movements. In particular, their works were milestones in building the vocabulary of Indian contemporary art, proposing strong counterpoints to Western supremacy in contemporary dance and dance-theater.

But as I tried to articulate in the above discussions around the three iconic pieces of choreography, the alley that these choreographers and their peers opened for the future contemporary dance community, seems murky with contradictions in terms of their political involvement. While their contribution in development of forms is pioneering, one wonders whether to see them as temporary agents who dwelled on a certain political theme momentarily, but refused to live that politics. Unfortunately, in India there has rarely been systematic attempts to document the works of urban dancers (perhaps more acutely the urban dancers, since they cannot be brought under the dutiful requirement of documenting the exotic rural). Even the ones which were documented have been rarely preserved. Like ‘Sri’ or ‘Labour and Machinery’, some of these works have been reconstructed, but it seems, the reconstruction became a preserver of the form, not of the content. Besides, as I said earlier, it is becoming increasingly difficult to access the historical knowledge around contemporary dance in theory or practice, due to the lack of genuine contemporary dance-institutes, or spaces where such exchanges can happen over time. So, the current practitioners are sometimes forced to reinvent the wheel, unable to place themselves in the contemporary dance lineage. This makes our grasp on the works of these choreographers quite fragmented: their works remain limited to video excerpts, and their ideologies to quotations – static and distant, which is the worst that can happen to a practice which is ideally all about dynamic movement and intimate exchange.

Coming back to the context of socio-political themes, we are left with more unresolved questions. Let me summarize them here. Each of the three choreographers spoke of freedom from oppression in their works. To what extent did they achieve that freedom in their process, if not personally? What did these works achieve through their content, other than deeming the choreographers sensitive to these issues? Since they were mostly shown to an urban audience who were anyway in agreement (at least in theory) with the pro-equality themes, what stake did their contents have in their struggle as artists as well as activists? And if the point of these works lies not in the content, but in the form and in inventing new methods of resemblance or reflection through the body, then why choose these specific contents? Is it to establish a certain identity, but without embracing the risks of that identity? Perhaps this is why ‘gender’ (especially women’s empowerment) remained the only theme that continued to appear in the later works of these choreographers and their peers, but not ‘class’ and ‘caste’.[12] ‘Gender’ was the safest among the three to deal with, and closest to the class-interests to the social section where the choreographers belonged. As for the specific theme of women’s empowerment, the agency of the abstract moving woman body became one of the principal matters which were addressed through contemporary dance. But also, as in ‘Sri’ and ‘Tomari Matir Kanya’, several other matters such as women’s agency over administrative power, sexual desire, socio-cultural rituals etc., which were hindrances even for the women belonging to the upper/middle-class, became the subjects of contemporary dance, and gradually found a place even among classical dancers working on contemporary themes.

Voice of People vs. Voice of Art

At this point, one must admit that the responsibilities of the disconnect between the socio-political movements and the contemporary choreographers who base their works on these movements lie on both sides. As I promised earlier, let me now briefly list down what I feel might have caused this disconnect – especially between the leftist socio-political content and the urban Indian contemporary choreographer’s inherited class-attributes.

  • Multifaced conflicts between the ‘liberal’ dancer and the ‘common’ audience:
  1.  Romanticizing, vilifying, caricaturing ‘the other’: Even within the class-conscious IPTA repertoires in Bengal, scholars, e.g. Rustom Bharucha, have pointed out how the rural agrarian class and the tribal have been romanticized and simplistically identified with nationalism.[13] The same trend, followed by later contemporary choreographers, has given birth to the endless urban inauthentic folk performances, depicting unnecessarily cheerful rural characters celebrating harvest or other festive rituals – even to this date of rampant farmers’ suicide! On the other hand, vilification and caricature of the ‘unsophisticated’ worker have also often polluted contemporary dance-theater.[14]
  2. Western influence: Among the Western upper/middle-class, the number of everyday class-conflicts are comparatively infrequent and different in nature. Presumably owing to the dependence of contemporary artists on formal influence, validation and funding from the West, class-conflict gets relatively less space in thematic contemplation.
  3. The modernist-postmodernist ‘elitism’: The foundational histories, the training processes, the language of training, and the goal of that learning process in contemporary dance also play a role in alienating certain classes as participants. Although with adequate physical training anyone may imitate movements irrespective of class-identity, certain classed bodies and minds might still feel out-of-place within the everyday environment in which the practice takes place. Part of the problem perhaps lies with the taken-for-granted preoccupation with abstractness in contemporary dance-forms. Ranjabati Sircar addressed this problem as “place of emotion in modern dance”, saying “modernization is the denial of humanness—abstraction is a denial of reality and so outdated.”[15]
  4. ‘Immorality’ of dance in the public’s view: On a different note than the above points, dance has continuously been portrayed to the mass either as a cheap (and often unholy) media for entertainment, or a pro-establishment traditional decoration, or just a whim of those with excess money and time—thus beyond the affordability of the ‘lower strata’, beyond the scope of becoming a serious means of expression.
  • Conflict between left movement in India and dance

There has been a clear prioritization within the left activists in declaring which art-works represented people’s art in India. Whereas agitprop theater and certain folk forms became a cultural face of the left movement, engaging people irrespective of class and gender, contemporary dance did not have that same opportunity. It has been argued how the left leadership in fact represented the ‘upper class and caste’ Indian men, whose “bourgeois standards of respectability into socialist thought” was not conducive to dance as compared to other art forms.[16] This patriarchal trend of deprioritizing dance is still present in almost all existing class-movements.

  • Conflict created by traditional mythological influence in dance

Even though contemporary dance searches for contemporary subjects, its form and content are ironically heavily influenced by its classical counterpart. Whereas many mythological characters have come up in the form of reinterpretations by contemporary choreographers as unorthodox protagonists, the class and caste-questions (as opposed to the gender-questions) have remained largely invisible, uncritically following the original format of the source-mythologies. The vilification and caricature of the ‘lower class and caste’ in contemporary dance (say, portrayal of a working-class person as a sexual harasser, or a woodcutter as an antagonist in a dance-drama on environment) too partially stems from this casteist mythological influence.

  • Ambiguity in positioning contemporary dance within the art world, in the class-context

Dance is not appreciated as a discourse with the same measures as its artistic counterparts. Owing to its lack of ‘exchange value’ unlike say visual arts, its abstraction, disengagement from everyday life, and finally often-unacknowledged but palpable moralistic aspersions, contemporary choreographers and dancers sometimes end up living in the fringes of not just of the society, but also of the art-world itself—almost as a ‘lower class’ within the art world, in terms of ‘utility’ or ‘investment value’, and hence funding. Contemporary dance might not be listening to the voice of the people intently enough, but nor are the people listening to the voice of contemporary dance: a vicious cycle.

Gossips and Daydreams

Now that I have come to the end of this article, let me take a moment to daydream. Among my three peeps, Shankar’s active years were over way before the other two choreographers’ times, though, as a historical predecessor, his dance influenced Manjusri Chaki Sircar. I ponder, had they been contemporaries, would Manjusri and Shankar have worked together at the plane of building a new dance pedagogy or a dance-community? Unlikely, given Shankar’s de-prioritization of pedagogy: sudden and controversial shutting down of Almorah school over materializing his dream film; given the Shankar brothers’ repeated history of lack of ability and lack of interest to work as collectives; given the fact that women in Shankar’s work never appeared as a symbol of strength (on the contrary); given Manjusri’s strong feminist beliefs; given both choreographers’ projection of themselves (and their kin) at the center-stage etc. The feminist question would have been a massive barrier in an imagined collaboration between Shankar and Chandralekha as well; their aesthetic – especially Chandralekha’s vision of strong women dancers’ body was diametrically opposite to Shankar’s implementation of flowy femininity. All in all, this charismatic man might not have broken ice with these two contemporary strong-willed women choreographers, who, in particular, detested unnecessarily smiling on stage, which Shankar’s women abundantly did![17]

Manjusri and Chandralekha began making most of their significant choreographies during the 1980s – the point of intersection of the second and third wave of feminism in the West, by which time the micropolitics of gender had come to the forefront of women’s movements, and the associated identity politics had surfaced, infiltrating class and caste movements as well. Significantly, IPTA’s journey had also practically come to a halt around the same time. The Indian contemporary dance-world had begun to appear disillusioned with the artistic limitations of community-ventures directly under larger socio-political movements. Instead, more and more choreographers were being encouraged to showcase their works in forums that provided spaces satisfying individualistic aspirations of artists. This was the crossroad, where the paths of our two iconic feminist choreographers met few times. One such meeting took place in the second East-West Dance Encounter in Bombay in 1985, and allegedly it did not go well. Manjusri was severely criticized by several other delegates, including Chandralekha, for her adherence to narratives. The affinity to narratives came possibly due to the Tagorean influence, but one must also note that non-narrative never became popular in the Bengal school of ‘political dance’ until perhaps a very recent time. Manjusri repudiated the critique by stating that one could not talk about the history of non-narrative in dance without carefully evaluating the traces of cultural colonialism in it. This statement would not have been to Chandralekha’s taste, as she was vehemently looking for the truly Indian dancing body.

Chandralekha had her own demon to deal with – namely, the dominance of Bharatanatyam and objectification of women dancers in it. On the other hand, a large part of Manjusri’s war was against similarly conservative and rigid dominance by Tagore’s institution and especially its insipid representation of women in Tagore’s dance dramas. So, in a sense they were fighting for the same cause in different ways: to break the barriers of conservativeness that stood in the form of culturally monopolizing, patriarchal and discriminating institutions that, among other things, naturally, nullified women’s agency. And yet, the ideologies of Manjusri and Chandralekha around their chosen form of dance kept them afar. They rarely acknowledged one another’s work in their research and ventures in advancing the urban contemporary dance discourse. This, for me, is not only unfortunate, but an important point of critique that seems to prevail till date in contemporary dance. Especially today, in the age of social media, identity politics has become as big an enemy of left politics as the conservative forces. In the particular case of contemporary dance, petty competition over scanty funds and scantier formal recognitions have weakened the possibilities of political consolidation of like-minded souls.

Who is the contemporary dancer’s inherited enemy? Between sections of people (divided in terms of class/caste/gender), the capitalist exploits the worker, the upper caste humiliates the Dalit, the man nullifies the woman. A dancer can technically belong to any class, caste or gender. And yet, all those of us who have chosen to/could afford to establish ourselves as urban Indian contemporary dancers, rarely come from the so-called lower social strata. Is it lack of belonging to a community that bars us contemporary dancers from working as collectives? Or, on the contrary, is it our sense of belonging to the upper/middle-class (and often caste) that inflicts our privileged class-caste-attribute of inability to shun individualism? Perhaps it is both: a partially forced, partially chosen alienation.

After all, the arena of Indian urban contemporary dance never became a truly democratic community-space – neither economically, nor ideologically. Its principal fighters, e.g. the three we discussed, remained unable to create a sustainable system for their dancers – as I mentioned above. It is undeniably tough to monetize serious contemporary dance-practice in India – for the veteran and young alike. But instead of attempting to build a systematic community-effort to cure that, instead of finding ways to demand their rights, contemporary dancers stay aloof, disconnected from the socio-political content they imbibe in their work – unable to merge the ‘political’ and the ‘personal’. None of these choreographers could keep themselves away from the center-stage, owning the most spectacular solos, or the most significant roles in their creation.[18] Nor were they really able to include intersectionality of political contents – thus unable to move beyond simplistic representations.[19]

In the context of socio-political responsibility in writers, Rebecca Solnit writes: “…political struggle is to protect the vulnerability and the beautiful, and paying attention to them is part of the project.” And yet, behind preaching left-leaning political theories, writers might easily turn out to be self-centered not only in personal life, but also in professional life. Chandralekha’s fierce love for creativity managed to give birth to only a very thin lineage of significant artists – once again from the privileged class-caste background. Manjusri Chaki Sircar and Ranjabati’s consecutive unsettlingly tragic deaths shattered the identity of strong feminism and political consciousness that was built around their dance-productions. Uday Shankar abandoned his students in his dance institute in Almorah in order to make his film ‘Kalpana’. Choreographer Kurt Jooss, who had influenced Shankar in many ways, is known to have fled his home in Nazi Germany so that the government would not be able to force him to fire his Jewish dancers, whereas Shankar gave his students an ultimatum: join the film-making endeavor, or quit! This says something about the state of ‘politicization of the personal’ in the field of contemporary dance, about what to do and what not to do. One learns as much from  anecdotes and gossips as from theories.

……………………………………………………….

 

[1] Four Theses on the Comrade (https://www.e-flux.com/journal/86/160585/four-theses-on-the-comrade/); Jodi Dean

[2] ‘Caste’ has in fact barely been truly politically addressed in dance (unlike theater and films). And once IPTA faded into oblivion, the same has been true for ‘class’ as well. Among my contemporaries, Delhi-based choreographer Deepak Kurki Sivaswamy’s ‘NH7’ and though not strictly Indian, ‘Made in Bangladesh’ co-choreographed by Kolkata-based Vikram Iyenger are among the very few contemporary dance-works that have directly addressed labour and hence, class-conflict – as far as I have seen. Chennai-based choreographer Akila’s work-in-progress on a case of honour-killing in Tamil Nadu is the only contemporary dance-work on the issue of caste that I have personally encountered.

[3] A more detailed discussion on this point is beyond the scope of this article.

[4] Is it ironic or my lack of exposure or a bias that in spite of choosing Chennai as a sample space, in spite of the fact that this city is currently way deeper into caste-politics and associated movements than Kolkata, it is a Bengali choreographer’s work that comes to my mind as a representative of ‘caste’ in dance? It is also somewhat ironic, given the eventual commercialization of Shankar’s institution, that this particular work by Shankar seems to be the only work until very recent times in Indian contemporary dance (outside IPTA) that solely addressed class, or class-conflict, as a subject.

[5] or Madras, as it was called till 1996.

[6] One of the ‘lowest’ castes in the Hindu Jaati-Varna hierarchy, appointed to burn the dead as per Hindu ritual.

[7] Indian Modern Dance, Feminism, and Transnationalism; Prarthana Purakayastha. 2014.

[8] Chandralekha: Woman, Dance, Resistance; Rustom Bharucha; 1995

[9] The subaltern goddesses such as Manasa: the Lilitu: the scandalous goddess of love and sexuality in ancient Mesopotamia.

[10] Why I Am Not A Hindu; Kancha Ilaiah; 1996

[11] Dance Research Journal, Congress on Research in Dance, Winter 2004.

[12] Not so much Uday Shankar, whose take on gender was quite problematic.

[13] Rehearsals of Revolution: The Political Theater of Bengal; Rustom Bharucha; 1983

[14] One recalls Swar Thounaojam’s critique of a few very recent contemporary dance works under progress, where a rapist or a clown becomes a stereotyped figure from the working class—there are numerous such examples. (Facets Probably Needs an Additional Mentor; Swar Thounaojam; Ligament; 2017)

[15] Oblique: An Interview with Ranjabati; Ranjabati: A Dancer and her World; Sangeeta Datta; 2008

[16] The Problematic of Desire and Control in Cultural Action: The ‘Case’ of Anil De Silva and the IPTA (1940-48) (unfinished thesis). Neloufer de Mel (as referred by Trina Bandyopadhyay).

[17] Talking about influences of one politically significant dance movement over another, though beyond the scope of this article, it is interesting to note how the cultural influence of Indian communist movement and IPTA ideology – though without significant (or well-researched) intersection with the Tamil cultural-political movements – had a role to play in Chandralekha’s development throughout her early years, which were influenced by Harindranath Chattopadhyay, and hence had a lasting effect in Chennai’s contemporary dance scenario.

[18] Uday Shankar playing the fair-skin revolutionary among the blackface workers in ‘Labour and Machinery’, Manjusri Chaki Sircar and her daughter Ranjabati playing Maya and Prakriti in ‘Tomari Matir Kanya’, Chandralekha playing Sakambhari in ‘Sri’.

[19] For example, ‘Labour and Machinery’ falls prey to this in its use of skin-color and gender-wise movement-stereotyping; ‘Tomari Matir Kanya’ remains dubious in its lack of recognition of class and caste questions, in spite of caste and class being an integral part to the narrative; ‘Sri’ muddles with problematic class-questions etc.

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