The Renaissance of Indian Dance and its Consequences | MOHAN KHOKAR | DANCES OF INDIA
During the last two centuries or so, the art of dance in India was not held in much respect, due to certain norms of prudery which were introduced into India by the alien rulers. For most people in India as well as outside, Indian dancing was associated exclusively with what was performed by the Devadasis and Nautch-girls, and as a result of the social stigma attached to these women, dancing in India came to be looked upon as a vain and vulgar pursuit. This state of affairs continued well into the first quarter of this century, till the setting in of the Renaissance of Indian dance, but after this the art of dance in India rapidly came into its own and since then it has not only retrieved much of its lost prestige and glory but also made marked progress. The revival of the dance in India began a little over three decades ago, and important pioneering work in this direction was done by Uday Shankar, Rukmini Devi Arundale, E. Krishna Iyer, Menaka, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahakavi Vallathol. However, it deserves to be noted that before the revival proper began in India certain dancers in the West became interested in Indian dance and they endeavoured to present, to whatever, extent it was possible for them, dances and ballets based on Indian themes.
In fact, it can be said that it is these early attempts to produce Indian dances and Indian ballets in the West that paved the way for the revival of the dance in India. Western Interest in Indian Dance The first dancer in the West to perform Indian dance was the American ballerina Ruth St. Denis. From her early years, Ruth St. Denis was much interested in the Orient and this led her, in 1904, to compose and present her first Indian dance, which she called Radha. This proved a great success, which prompted Ruth St. Denis to take Radha to Europe where she toured for three years before returning to America. Ruth St. Denis continued to take great interest in Indian dance and during the next ten years or so she composed and performed several Indian dances in America, such as The Cobras, The Incense, The Nautcli and The Yogi. In 1925 Ruth St. Denis and her husband, dancer Ted Shawn, visited India, and after their return to America, Ted Shawn presented The Dance of Shiva, a solo number which he performed, with great success, for several years. It is to be noted that the dances presented by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn were not in any authentic Indian technique but in their own improvised Indian style.
However, the importance of these dances lies in the fact that they were able to create interest in Indian dance in America and Europe, and this interest, in due course, led to the revival of the dance in India. After Ruth St. Denis, another Western dancer, the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova took an interest in composing and performing Indian dance. She undertook an extensive world tour which lasted several years, and she visited India in 1922 but was thoroughly disappointed as she could not find any trace of the great art of dance in India of which she had heard so much. However when she returned to Europe she carried impressions of India with her and in 1923 she composed and presented two short Indian ballets, A Hindu Wedding and Krishna and Radha. For composing these ballets she took the help of Uday Shankar, who was then a student of painting in London, and Shankar also partnered with Pavlova in Krishna and Radha. In 1928 Pavlova visited India again, and on this occasion, she performed her Indian ballets in parts of India. This proved to be very helpful in creating interest in dance in India, and the seeds of the Renaissance can be said to have been sown at this time. After this Shankar played a leading part in the revival of Indian dance, and he was soon followed by two others, Rukmini Devi and Menaka who, too, was inspired and initiated into the dance by Pavlova and were destined to make positive contributions to the field.
Apart from Ruth St. Denis and Anna Pavlova, there are two other Western dancers who played an important part in the revival of Indian dance. They are La Meri and Ragini Devi, both Americans. Like Ruth St. Denis, La Meri was interested in the dances of the Orient from an early age, and this led her, in 1936, to visit India, to study Indian dance. She learnt Bharata Natya under Papanasam Vadivelu Pillai and Mylapore Gowri and Kathak from Ram Dutt Misra. And even as Pavlova discovered Uday Shankar and introduced the world of dance to him, to La Meri goes the credit of discovering Ram Gopal and introducing him to the world of dance. As for Ragini Devi, she was the first Western dancer to come to India to study Indian dance in a fairly serious manner and she was also the first to carry the Kathakali dance outside Kerala and to present it in other parts of India, which she did in 1932, with Gopinath as her partner. Thus, it is evident that Western dancers like Ruth St. Denis, Anna Pavlova, La Meri and Ragini Devi became interested in Indian dance before Indians themselves did, and this in many ways paved the way for the revival proper of the dance in India. Uday Shankar left the Pavlova company, stayed in Europe a few more years dancing and gaining valuable experience, and then came to India to become the torch-bearer of the Revival movement. In 1930, Uday Shankar took a party of dancers and for eight years he toured Europe and America.
This was the first time that Indian dance with authentic Indian music and costumes was carried outside India, and wherever he went Shankar won respect for himself as well as for Indian dance. In 1938, Shankar returned to India and soon afterwards he founded a school of Indian dance, known as India Culture Centre, at Almora. This Centre was established largely with financial help received from Shankar’s admirers in Europe and America, and here, apart from providing training in Shankar’s own style of ‘Creative Dance’, classical dances like Bharata Natya and Kathakali were also taught and for this, there were great masters like Sankaran Nambudiri and Kandappa Pillai. Having made a successful beginning, the Dance Renaissance in India soon spread to several parts of the country, with the result that the major forms of Indian classical dance began to get it rehabilitated. In the South, Mahakavi Vallathol founded the Kerala Kala Mandalam for teaching Kathakali and Mohini Attam, and it is no exaggeration to say that even today most of the Kathakali and Mohini Attam dancers who matter have some time or other been associated with this institution. About the same time, Rukmini Devi and E. Krishna Iyer rescued Bharata Natya from the depravity it had fallen into and, by themselves setting examples, gave the art a new respectable status.
Rukmini Devi augmented her contribution by establishing Kalakshetra, a school for teaching Bharata Natya and Kathakali. In the North, Menaka gave a new life to Kathak by being the first woman of respect and learning to take this part from the Nautch-girls and to perform it professionally. As early as 1936, Menaka even took a company of Kathak dancers to Europe and her performances at the International Dance Olympiad in Berlin won her three of the highest awards which, understandably, immediately raised the status of Indian dance in the West as well as in India. And, finally, Gurudev Tagore contributed his share to the Renaissance by introducing Manipuri dance as a subject of study in Santiniketan. Apart from bringing about a general rehabilitation of the major forms of classical dance in India, the Renaissance also helped the emergence of the art of ballet in India. Ballet, it must be pointed out, is an art which is new to India, for though dances and dance dramas and operas of sorts have existed in India for a long, there is no tradition of ballet, according to the Western concept, in India. In ballet there is a story or theme, there is choreography, decor and music but the music is purely orchestral and no songs are allowed. Uday Shankar’s Contribution Ballet was introduced into India by Uday Shankar, and he learnt the technique and the presentation methods of this art through his association with Anna Pavlova and his long stay in Europe.
Shankar’s early ballets, such as Tandava Nritya and Shiva-Parvati Nritya Dwandva, were rather simple and were composed largely in Shankar’s own style of dance. In this style, the bulk of the movements and steps were original, but Shankar also incorporated traces of certain classical and folk dances of India and of dance forms he saw in Europe. Later, when Sankar made an extended stay at Dartington Hall, England, he came under the influence of the German dancer Kurt Jooss, who is an upholder of the Free Expression Dance movement in the West, and this goaded Shankar to produce ballets like Rhythm of Life, Labour and Machinery. Many years afterwards Shankar took another step forward when he used the South-East Asian technique of shadow-plays and produced” two ballets, Ram Leela and Buddha. Other Developments Shankar’s example was soon followed by several other dancers in India. One of the first to do so was Menaka, who broke ground by producing four Indian ballets, Krishna Leela, Deva Vijaya, Malavikagnimitra and Menaka Lasyam. It should be pointed out, however, that these ballets were not composed in the creative dance style of Shankar but in the Kathak technique. Later, a number of other dancers followed the lead given by Menaka and began to produce ballets using classical modes of Indian dance. The work of Rukrmni Devi, Mrinalini Sarabhai and Gopinath is particularly important in this connection.
They have produced a good number of ballets using Bharata Natya or Kathakali or, in some cases, both together. The creative dance style evolved by Uday Shankar was further developed when he established the India Culture Centre, at Almora. This school produced a large number of talented dancers, many of whom later contributed a good deal to the development and spread of ballet in India. Some of those, all of Shankar’s school, whose contribution in this direction has been truly outstanding are Zohra Segal, Narendra Sharma, Devendra Shankar, Sachin Shankar and Shanti Bardhan. Bardhan, who is unfortunately no more, made a noteworthy contribution by producing the ballet Ramayana in which he used an original technique wherein the dancers move and act like wooden puppets. It should also be mentioned that the art of ballet in India received a tremendous fillip from the forties onwards when, as an outcome of the national upsurge, a number of important ballet and theatre organisations came into existence, such as the Indian People’s Theatre Association, Indian National Theatre and India Renaissance Artists. Indeed, some of the early ballets produced by these organisations, such as The Spirit of India, India Immortal, The Discovery of India and Rhythm of Culture, are still regarded as classics in the field. The Role of Tagore Rabindranath Tagore, for his part, did much to help the revival of dance and the spread of ballet in India. Using Manipuri as the basis he evolved an individual technique, which came to be known as the Santiniketan style of dance, and in this, he composed and presented many dances and dance dramas, the themes of all of which were taken from his own songs and plays. With these productions, Tagore toured several parts of India and these presentations no doubt added to the dignity of Indian dance and also helped draw students from all over India to Santiniketan who, later, were instrumental in carrying the Santiniketan style to practically all parts of the country.
Consequences of the Renaissance The Renaissance of Indian dance began rather abruptly, but it has moved fast and has now achieved what by any standard are imposing dimensions. This has helped the resuscitation of the art of Indian dance as a whole, and all forms of Indian danceclassical, folk and tribal-have benefited. In fact, through the rendering of timely succour, many traditional dances and dance dramas have been saved from completely sinking into oblivion. Such was the state of neglect in which they existed on the eve of the Renaissance. Another major consequence of the revival has been that a member of traditional dances and dance dramas has been carried from the temple to the stage, and this is something which would have seemed impossible even two decades ago. Such was the sanctity attached to these arts. for instance, one can see the Kuchipudi, Bhagavata Mela, Kuravanji and Krishnattam on the stage; yet only a few years ago, so orthodox were the regulations connected with the staging of these dance plays that performances were allowed only in certain temples and only at specified times in the year.
Folkdances and tribal dances, too, have earned a new lease of and this has received its greatest fillip from Folk-Dance festivals which for some years have become an important feature of Republic Day celebrations in Delhi. In recent years similar festivals have also been organised in several other regions of India, and these have helped not only to unearth hidden and dormant forms but also create a wider interest in folk and tribal dances of all parts of India. The cinema, which is a product of the modern age, has also been affected by the Renaissance of Indian dance, for the dance has come to be one of the most important ingredients to ensure the success of a film. In the early days of the film in India, dancing was occasionally included to provide diversion and the technique used was a version of the decadent Nautch, but in recent years classical dance forms like Bharata Natya and Kathak have been successfully used in Indian films. On the whole, however, it can be said that it is rare that one sees pure and good dance in an Indian film, for what is generally presented is an adulteration or hybridisation of various Indian dance techniques, and more recently, there has also been a tendency to incorporate and ape dances and rhythms of the West in Indian films. All in all, the three decades or so following the Renaissance have been very eventful in the history of Indian dance. And, though in the more recent years one has seen, to some extent, a lowering of standards brought about mainly by unscrupulous charlatans and dabblers in the art, one is at the same time happy to find the art of dance gain a new and more honoured place in popular esteem and also the emergence of Indian dance as an art with an international status.