On Performing Dance History

By Sammitha S.

Research Affiliate,
Antara Artists’ Collective Trust, Bangalore

History is more than just a succession of events that have occurred in the past. Being a source of collective memory and identity, people relate to their present identities through their history. They seek their pasts through historical narratives which are either disseminated in public or passed down traditionally. In India, historical narratives have taken the form of oral and performative narratives until colonialism brought with it the Western methods of recording history though written texts and documentation. Even today, parents send their children to classical dance classes, music classes etc. to “go back to their roots”. However, what is taught as classical dance today is largely a modernized and institutionalized version of tradition. Dance is no more used as a primary medium for passing our history but is perceived as an object from the past that has to be recovered. By making dance, the subject and the method of narrating history, STEM dance Kampni’s “Kathak through the ages” was an attempt to restore the lost agency to dance as an art and break it from being viewed as a lost artefact.

The focus of the event was to represent the history of a dance form on a public platform. It was an opportunity for the dancers to tell their own story, the story of their own community, the story of their tradition and the historical identities embodied in them. It was a chance to let people know where they come from in their own language, instead of having academicians write about them. What is really unfortunate is that the story that was told did not seem to be their own. The roots of Kathak were traced back to the kingly courts of Rajasthan and Mughal emperors, limiting the history of Kathak to the four walls of the royalty. The story of “Kathak through the ages” was divorced from the story of the dancing community. In constructing Kathak as an art of the Hindu and Muslim royalty, the narrative covered Kathak only in its performative spaces. A dancer inhabits a world beyond the stage, beyond the performance space and the gaze of the audience. Nooks and corners where the dancers dwell, teach, learn, practice and let the dance touch their lives in a fundamental way are primary spaces where art comes into being. Their identity as Kathak performers is only the tip of the iceberg eclipsing a deeper emotional and spiritual interiority beneath it. Being Kathak dancers did not just give them their identity as dance practitioners but their social, political, cultural and aesthetic lives were organized around it. The artists’ story of Kathak is hence an intersection of the many worlds they inhabited simultaneously. Narrating their lives would hence narrate the story of Kathak from their eyes, also helping people make sense of their contradictory social position as stigmatized artists.

The changes that their lives underwent reflect in the changes that the dance form itself underwent.  During the Indian National Movement when India sought for a pan identity, Kathak was “revived” into a respectable pursuit by the upper-class and middle-class women and was institutionalized into a classical dance. While the dance form was appropriated into the middle class, the tawaifs and the baijis were no more perceived as practitioners of art. The tawaif and the baijis, whose own art was alienated from them and their identities were made into symbols of immorality, found no mention in the narrative. With the advent of modernism, as the princely states became obsolete and came under the government, they had to migrate to urban spaces and dance in the mansions and bungalows of the upper class Britishers and nawabs. The cultural production during the Indian National Movement, took decisive twists and turns when dance was made more instituional, “classical” and consequently homogenized. These lived experiences of uprooting, dislocating and displacing the identities of the people are not dead events of the past, they are living collective memories residing in the mind and body of the community, which is handed down across generations in the spaces of practice.

True, what was narrated in the event was history, with its facts correct, also informative of the evolving aesthetics of the dance form, but it made history a project of valourizing the dance form more than putting forward an honest and a critical world view which is not available in to the public. Even though, it was a performative narration one could not overlook the fact that most of the story that was to be danced, was literally “told”. Moreover, what was “told” was essentially in the form of a chronological calendar of dance history. The narration did not evoke a sense of orality and performativity but a textual quality of narration pervaded across the performance. In a culture where performance and orality were both – means of transmitting and site of recording history, the body became the text itself.

What the dance performance included was the Kathak compositions from different gharanas. Though, we were told the event involved mixed media, it was disappointing to see that this “mixed media” was reduced to a mere slideshow at the background-a series of images. It was disappointing to see cliched images like Taj Mahal in the backdrop while showing the dance performed in the Mughal courts. While making a “mixed-media” performance offers the fluidity and freedom to navigate across different media, it is also required that this freedom is challengingly exploited. The slide-show in this event simply did what could not have been done easily in dance. It seemed to be present just to make up for the lack of the resources in one medium. However, the acoustics and the lighting were well used to recreate the effect of Rajasthani courts and Mughal courts aiding in transporting the audience to a different time and space. The performance picked up mid-way though it started on a low note. As the performance progressed, the dancers reflected a great level of accuracy and a good sense of rhythm. Their control over the body was perceivable especially in the non-narrative, technical compositions.

People had travelled distances and waited in anticipation to witness the magic of the meta-format of the performance, promised to them through pamphlets and other promos. But “Kathak through the ages” was not fully a story of Kathak in Kathak. The event was an introduction to the different gharanas of Kathak through narration and dance for the people but a celebration of Kathak from a partial perspective.

Sammitha Sreevathsa finished her MA in Philosophy from MCPH and is currently a research affiliate at Antara Artists Collective Trust, Bangalore. Sammitha is pursuing research in dance from both philosophical and historical perspectives. She can be contacted at sammitha.sreevatsa@gmail.com

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