The Magnificence of the Indian Classical Dance, Kathak

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Table of contents

  1. Writing Dance, Writing Refusal
  2. Daksha Sheth
  3. Mallika Sarabhai

Contemporary performances of Indian Classical Dance offer to be a platform for presenting and understanding ideas about nationalism, anti-colonial discourses, and the formation of an ideology of a modern nation-state in India. My aim is to explore the concept of decolonizing the body in post-colonial, post-independence India, by understanding the use of Kathak as a dance form by various artists. I establish that as the historiography of Kathak as a dance form is tied to post-colonialism in India, performing kathak in contemporary India has also become a means of decolonizing the body, breaking from the colonial influence and a process of revival and cultural contestation. Focusing on performative narrativization of the dancer’s ability to construct a political poster for claiming and reclaiming both the culture and the body, I show how the struggle to negotiate a balance between tradition and transformation gives the dancers’ the agency to contest the ideals and challenge the norms established by colonialism, anti-colonial nationalism and the juxtaposition of modernity upon traditional values.

In this essay, I aim to explore how history and politics shape the Indian Classical Dance, in contemporary India today. Further, the paper identifies how individuals use ideas of embodiment and refusal through dance to gain agency while functioning in the larger socio-economic and political forces. Of the eighteen dance forms that can be classified as Indian Classical, I chose Kathak, which is a premier dance form of Northern, Central and Eastern India. Kathak is now practiced everywhere in India, however, I limit my focus to the dance form as practiced in East and West India namely the states of Bengal and Gujarat. It will be apt to mention here that, I am viewing this process of refusal through dance both as a Kathak dancer, a womyn in Gujarat and as an anthropologist. I therefore, find myself negotiating the interpretations of such social material, embodiment and the idea of refusal to gain political and social agency while writing this essay. Therefore, the narrative here incorporates the experiences of the Kathakars or the dancers, their journey with dance, their representation in the post-independence India and locates Kathak as an embodied form of gaining political agency. It will be important to keep in mind that the ideas that I put forward here are influenced by my engagement and experience with issues of identity and asymmetrical and the fluid structure of power in Indian classical culture.

As already established, the paper works within the broader framework of the concept of decolonizing the body through a dance form, employing refusal and contestation as a tool. Using Audra Simpson’s concept of refusal, I try to understand the embodied attempt to gain political and social agency amongst dancers and performers of Kathak. In the part of the essay that will follow, I explain the anthropological use of the concept of Refusal and agency, next, I introduce the concepts of heteroglossia and dialogic performances as platforms to understand refusal in the context of Kathak, and how refusal assists performers in decolonizing the body. The essay incorporates stories of dancers and choreographers who creatively synthesize art and activism creating new possibilities for dialogue, and re-claiming their bodies, to contextualize how refusal plays into these multifaceted and complex vocabularies of movement.

This part of the essay uses the concept of refusal and agency to understand how innovative dance practices have helped performers in India gain social and political agency. This analysis helps throw light on the following aspects of refusal in the context of the Dancers that I mention in the later parts of the essay. Refusal can be seen as generative, affiliative and willful. Refusal to submit to the norms, refusal to perform the inscribed norms and the refusal to continue being colonized and discriminated can be understood by both the idea of the concept of refusal and the distinct corporealities of these fluid bodies. While examining the notion of identity in relation to individual agency in the context of contemporary performances of Kathak in Bengal and Gujarat, I find the concept of refusal and resistance extremely useful in opening new ideas to examine political agency, embodiment and embodied ethnography. I use already existing ethnographic data to develop the analysis of performer interaction and their use of refusal. The stories that are told by the authors that I use to support my claims, “demonstrate some of the claims that micro-moments of interaction on and off stage are critical moments of complex cultural and ideological work” (Sunardi, 2015, 158). Sohini Chakraborty, in her book, Traversing Traditions, writes about a woman who left the house of her “own volition without first making breakfast, in her 32 years of marriage.” She further writes, “she went on to say that through doing dance in a class, she had come to the realization that her husband had never told her not go out or put such rigid limitations on her, instead these were her own restrictive ideas of marriage that had been negatively shaped by the society” (Chakraborty, 2011, 224).

Pallabi Chakravorty, in her book, Bells of Change, writes about another such dancer, who gains agency through teaching dance to children aged ten to fifteen. “Kasturi, a dance teacher, appeared to be a critical observer of the changes in Kathak. She saw herself as a proponent of tradition, but not completely opposed to innovation.” She further writes the story of Kasturi, “more people are interested in classical culture in my hometown than in the city of Kolkatta. Here, everybody likes MTV Stuff. I don’t like the westernization that is happening in dance these days. My favourite part about Kathak is the abhinaya. The power of abhinaya is such that it can even transform the ugliest creature into a beautiful woman” (Chakravorty, 2008, 120).

Refusal, very simply can mean, saying no. But, in anthropology, and the present ethnographic context, refusing goes beyond just refusing to agree or just saying no. Refusal is used both generatively and strategically by the dancers in these stories to resist depoliticization, domination and western influence on the classical form of Kathak dance. “Refusals illuminate limits and possibilities” (McGrahanan, 2016), refusal in this context is about both the social and the political realm which serves to open new and creative possibilities to gain agency and freedom to the individuals. According to McGrahanan, “Refusal might be thought of as a stoppage, an end to something, the breaking of relations. And it might be just this. However, the ending of one thing is often the generation of something new” (2016), and through dance, the performer or the dancer is working with the body to create a channel of ideas, rhythms, expectations, and potential for empowerment. “All of these together form the basis of a physical identity” (Chakraborty, 2011, 224), which is reclaimed and recreated through resentment, and the realization of the will of the self, against social norms and coercive forces of the society.

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The Kathakars or the performers produce certain corporealities through the disciplined hand and foot movements, also using them to embody refusal to submit to the norms that stem from the colonial and modern histories in post-independence India. Therefore, refusal helps me extend the idea of story-telling through dance beyond just performance. Kathak, through the embodied expression of refusal becomes a structure for the dancers to create, erase, claim and re-claim identity and agency. The body through its ability of being scripted becomes a site for refusal. In the next part of the paper, I explore that the dancers take up refusal in generative ways and insist on the possible over probable (McGrahanan, 2016). They use the ability to mix the traditional forms with new variations as a platform of refusal and to re-claim their bodies and identities. Through the discussion of concepts of Heteroglossia, fluid corporealities and dialogic performances, it is possible to understand how refusal in the way these dancers use, aligns with hope and produces and reproduces community that traverses domination and depoliticization.

Writing Dance, Writing Refusal

Kapila Vatsayan, as quoted by Ketu Katrak, 2011, states that “Indian dance is not merely a matter of articulating the different limbs of the human body…it [is] the most chiseled expression of a larger and more complex background of an Indian worldview and its distinctive speculative thought…” (1). The body and the senses of the dancers who practice Kathak, gain the ability to be scripted and be bound into postures that add to the meaning of the dance. This ability, or articulatibility gives rise to a “cohesive vision of artistic creation” (Katrak, 2011: 14) as can be seen in the dances of Astad Deboo, Mallika Sarabhai and Daksha Seth. Writing dance in an ethnographic form and using refusal as a focus point, allows us to perceive dance in the “contextual web of social relationships, environment, religion, aesthetics, politics, economics and history” (Diedre Sklar as quoted in Ketu Katrak, 2001, 2).

The agency and creativity that the above-mentioned dancers use helps them create an “in-betweenness” as Homi Bhabha describes third space. The in-betweenness is the space where the individual identity is at stake, it is erased, and recreated, often changed after negotiations with the society and the self. This in-between space, in my opinion becomes the site for refusal, where new content, ways of engagement and creative methods of resistance are generated. Such transformative dance practices bring new insights in the social world, and add a political agenda to the performances, as will be seen in the performances of Sarabhai and Seth. Use of art to bring social change and weave it with political issues, is seen by these artists as a way of creating new identities and ways of representation. By using their bodies and the dance form in itself as a site of refusal, these contemporary performers of Kathak, break boundaries of traditional styles by challenging them and highlighting the ambiguity of the form of dance and social injustice by negotiating and transforming the content, while also creating new forms in a different context.

Freeing the body from Kathak’s strict postures, in an attempt to create new content, is the agency that the dancers hold in the in-between space where they negotiate their identities in the greater framework of post-independent modern India. The creativity, which is expressed within the traditional forms and the new versions of Kathak co-exists with the idea of refusal and extends “horizons, thematic content, and kinetic language” of the dance form (Katrak, 2011, 11), generating new versions of Kathak to delineate ideas about social and political agency from colonial influences, anti-colonial nationalism and the authoritarian governance, giving rise to new vocabularies of movement. These vocabularies reflect how refusal is deliberatively used to distort and play with Kathak as a traditional dance form, and to present it in new ways disrupting its boundaries, therefore creating new possibilities.

In my opinion, refusal therefore, becomes a new movement vocabulary in dance, as will be seen in the dances of Sarabhai and Deboo. The performers that I chose to talk about here, use multiple social discourses to leave Kathak open-ended and disrupt the possibility of closure. Using Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia here opens up our possibility of understanding refusal. The combination of existing discourses to construct dance performances that incorporate various ideological positions helps me understand the attempt of the artists to refuse to follow the traditional notions of the significance of Kathak. The impossibility of closure, challenges authoritarianism, and creates spaces for challenging dominant discourses through simulative dance performances. By letting dance and refusal speak for itself, we can then appreciate how movement is thought in different cultural contexts (Katrak, 2011, 21), and how the performers make meaning of their lives. A short analysis of the usage of dance by dancers like Daksha Seth, and Mallika Sarabhai based in Bengal and Ahmedabad, will help in understanding the multifaceted use of refusal in creating a collective politicization of the audience and the community around.

Daksha Sheth

Sheth combines, ropework with Kathak and Chhau (a form of traditional pole dancing), using the fluidity of Kathak and the strenuous weaponry of Chhau, Sheth creates movements and postures that depict self-conscious modernity and the importance of rituals and ceremonial folk forms in Indian dance. Her dances, attempt to address “contemporaneity in the de-culturalised language of mind-body movement” (Katrak, 2011, 95), using ideas and themes from the Vedas and ancient mythological stories to create an universal body language. Her attempt to create such a language is to make the Indian arts accessible to the audiences who do not have knowledge of the Indian arts and their ethnic boundaries. This agency to combine art forms with sound and light scapes to create a new body language gives Sheth the ability to negotiate her identity both cultural and personal in modern India.

Mallika Sarabhai

Sarabhai’s innovative work in Gujarat contributes significantly to the attempt of using art to shed light on gender and sexuality issues in India. Her art based activism and the belief in the power of art to transform the society is another example of viewing refusal as generative and affiliative. Her work has become a platform for many dancers and artists to create a community that resists political authority and systemic violence. By involving story-telling and using her powerful voice to create effects that emotionally grasp the viewers, Mallika Sarabhai has taken the traditional dance form to a level where artistic expression becomes a universal language for activism. By refusing to limit dance and storytelling to just forms of entertainment, Sarabhai uses dance to tell social realities and rejects the forms of oppression legitimized by the society.

These innovative practices, that use Kathak, and the body as tools of refusal delineate a new vocabulary of dance and refusal, that is multi-layered and complex. It helps us understand what an anthropological analysis may look like when “culture is disaggregated into narratives rather than wholes, when proximity to the territory that one is engaging in is as immediate to the self” (Simpson, 2007), and when these dancers use refusal in both generative and deliberative ways to be heard and to raise a voice against social injustice. The experiences of Sarabhai, Sheth, and the two women who run their dance centers help innovate and excavate possibilities of using creative resentment to unfold themes like ethnicity, gender, sexuality and depoliticization of the masses. This analysis helps me incorporate and understand the role of anthropological critique in establishing a decolonized, post-colonial discourse.

Kathak, I argue, then, for the story-tellers and performers, becomes a landmark of political agency, self-definition and identification. Through beautiful movements, and powerful new vocabularies, Kathak provides a concrete manifestation of the vision we have spoken of (Vatsyayan, 1977, 17). The experiences of the dancers using Kathak as a tool of refusal, tell us how complex techniques, polyvocal ideas and political activism all faithfully synthesize into a singular platform, which gives the dancer the agency to experiment and create, while also giving the agency to re-claim their identity beyond societal and social influences. The stories that are briefly mentioned here, and the stories that yet remain untold help me weave a discourse of Kathak dance as a resource of vocalization and politicization (Chakraborty, 2011, 225). Contemporary versions of kathak help excavate a trajectory of untold discourses which give the performers the autonomy to re-frame their identity and decolonize the body. Hence, contemporary kathak dance is not just an elite dance form in India, but a project of cultural activism that aims at decolonizing itself and the performers.

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