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Looking back to move forward

Published : Jul 10, 2018, 1:51 am IST
Updated : Jul 10, 2018, 1:51 am IST

Re-envisioning and introspecting is critical to understand the ever-evolving medium of Indian classical dance.

Carolina Prada from Columbia.
 Carolina Prada from Columbia.

Re-envisioning, introspecting and understanding the ever-evolving Indian classical dance is a particularly valuable endeavour given the overabundance of influences in our interconnected world. Looking Back to Move Forward is the official 2018 message of the International Dance Council, CID, Unesco, Paris. Confucius said: Study the past if you would define the future.

Annual Art Without Frontiers seminars in the 1990’s considered issues in the transmission of Indian performing arts. Some of the insights, concerns and recommendations addressed earlier will be brought forward by scholars and writers, gurus and performers July 25-27 at the India International Centre, New Delhi.

The scope of presentations and discussions are aimed at virtually anyone interested in Indian culture and its transmission to new generations. Young dancers in particular will discover both meaning and methods in successfully pursuing their art.

On July 25, gurus will share the challenges and requirements of maintaining suruchi (aesthetics) in both their teaching as well as in performance for today’s students and audiences. Pt. Birju Maharaj, the undisputed master of the Kalka-Bindadin gharana of Kathak dance, has played a pre-eminent role in developing the art and sharing it with unmatched numbers of students and audiences.

Raja and Radha Reddy are regarded as solely responsible for bringing Kuchipudi onto the cultural map of the world. Raja has also agreed some of his core principles of performance and teaching authentically.

Less known to the public but having tremendous influence on India’s perception of classical performing arts though over 40 years of producing and directing virtually every quality Doordarshan production of dance, music and theatre, Guru Kamalini Dutt has mentored many of the leading dancers of Delhi with her erudite knowledge as well as teaching Bharatanatyam to a select few.

While Kathak, Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam thrive primarily in urban centres, Seraikella Chhau is still nurtured from its roots in Jharkhand. Pt. Gopal Dubey is the foremost torch-bearer of Seraikella Chhau today, honored by both a Sangeet Natak Akademi award and a Padma Shri, his perspective on the endangered authenticity of a fragile tradition will take the discussion into issues of the transmission of tradition in rural India.

On the same morning, young professional disciples of these and other senior gurus will share their understanding, thoughts and ideas about their place in evolving tradition. In both sessions gurus and disciples will also share their perspectives on how their art helps make an inclusive society and gives nourishment and joy to themselves and their audiences.

Sharing Classical Dance for 21st Century Youth is the focus of the July 26 Continuity and Change Seminars. Educators, parents of dancers and dancers of every level will benefit from these sessions along with other arts aficionados.  Media intersection with Guru-Shishya Teaching is the focus of the opening session curated by Guru Kamalini Dutt, who was also the Founder Director of Doordarshan Archives. She is joined by Smt. Sudha Gopalakrishnan of Sahapedia. Sahapedia is an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. This web platform provides many options to approach a subject: articles, videos, listening to interviews, image galleries and virtual walks through historic sites and natural spaces. They also collaborate with institutions to curate and host material from their collections as well as from individuals.

Effective Lecture-Demonstrations for Schools & Colleges is the theme of the second session on sharing classical dance and music for 21st century youth. We all know how influential early exposure to the arts is to make this part of a life worth living. In this session we look at the best practices in making the performing arts of India assessable to school and college students through the lecture-demonstration format. All the panelist have extensive experience in lec-dem organising or presenting or both.

Rupi Mahindroo is the vice president of The Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music And Culture Amongst Youth (SPIC MACAY), the pre-eminent volunteer movement promoting intangible aspects of Indian cultural heritage.

Alongside its grassroots capacity-building projects in rural India for the unemployed and underprivileged, IRCEN (India International Rural Cultural Centre), national integration and preservation of  cultural heritage are shared though regular lecture-demonstrations by dancers and musicians. Paulami Guha, herself a fine exponent and teacher of Odissi, represents IRCEN both as administrator, teacher and performing artist.

Sitarist Shubendra Rao, leading disciple of Pt. Ravi Shankar, will share his extensive experience of how best to communicate an understanding and appreciation of classical Indian music. He not only has extensive lecture-demonstration experience within India and internationally but is working to bring music education into schools though the foundation established with his musicologist/cellist wife, Saskia Rao-de Haas called GLocalized music education.

In the 1970’s and 80’s the USA dedicated federal funds to Cross-Cultural Integration and Integration Through the Arts for school districts across the nation. The pre and post preparation for schools was part of the structure to maximize the impact on students. I will share some of the best practices learned from 250 school shows for the Los Angeles Unified School District and 200 more spread across Beaverton, Oregon; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Shreveport and New Orleans, Louisiana, San Diego, California and schools across Michigan.

Indian Classical Arts as part of the World Cultural Community on July 27th morning at the India International Centre Annexe will be a visual as well as oral treat. Dr. Sunil Kothari will share historic images from his vast archives as he looks back into little known connections by great artists. He has personally interviewed and interacted across the globe with international artists performing Indian classical dance and transnational Indian artists who have taken Indian dance abroad.

Dr. Arshiya Sethi has just returned from a Fulbright Senior Fellowship in the USA. She is up-to-the-minute on the scenario of transnational dance: performance, performers, audiences, patronage and the scope of possibilities here in India in relation to America. Bharatanatyam exponent Rama Vaidyanathan is one of India’s finest globe-trotting ambassadors of dance and will share her experiences.

The Indian Council for Cultural Relations is the nodal government of India body promoting cultural exchanges with other countries and people. The majority of international students of classical Indian dance are supported by ICCR with scholarships and the student visas granted with these. It is also the major “exporter” of Indian culture to every corner of the earth through Indian embassies and designated centers.  ICCR sends performers, exhibitions, cultural books, musical instruments, and even teachers to make Indian arts part of the world cultural community. Former ICCR director-general, Amarendra Khatua, and possibly current director, Riva Ganguly Das, will add considerably to the scope of this discussion.

The individual lived experience of internationally born classical Indian dancers will be the final session on July 27th.  These artists have not only learned and performed classical Indian dance but are choreographers and teachers as well. They are part of the overarching themes of transmission of tradition and continuity and change in Indian classical dance.

Guru Justin McCarthy began studies in Bharatanatyam at the Way of the Dance School in Berkeley, California, moved to India in 1979 to study under Subbarayan Pillai in Chennai before settling in Delhi to learn for decade with Leela Samson at the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra. He has been the senior guru at the Kendra for decades, leading their troupe which performs his original choreographies, known for stretching the parameters of Indian dance styles without violating their essential identity.  As a musician with professional performance background on piano and other keyboard instruments, he also composes the music for his choreographies. He also teaches from his cultural expertise as a faculty member of Ashoka University.

Carolina Prada from Columbia is one of the finest exponents of Mayurbhanj Chhau today. She came to India in 2008 as an ICCR scholar at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra for Odissi where she discovered Chhau.  She is the senior disciple of Guru Janmejoy Saibabu, recipient of this year’s Sangeet Natak Akademi award. Her training in Tai Chi Chuan, yang style and other disciplines such as Aikido, Kung Fu, Capoeira, Belly dance, Mexican Aztec Dance, and Colombian swordsplay provided the physical skills to master the martial-arts based Mayurbanj Chhau. She is committed to maintaining the style in both traditional and new choreography without succumbing to the lure of fusion to which Chhau easily lends itself. She has danced at the Khajuraho and Konark festivals, Madrid’s Sonika Bollywood, NYC’s Erasing Borders and the Nehru Center in London

Besides participating in this seminar session, Carolina will present her own choreography DORADO: The treasure within on July 26th at IIC during an evening of dance premieres of 20th century poetry in six languages - choreographed by artists in four Indian traditions.

French Mohiniattam exponent, Brigitte Chataignier is coming from Paris to participate in the Looking Back to Move Forward  Dance Festival that includes this seminar session. Originally trained in theatre arts, mime, classical and contemporary dance, Brigitte began the study of Mohini Attam in 1987 at Kerala Kalamandalam, under Guru Smt. Leelamma and then with Guru Kalamandalam Kshemavathy, who included her in her troop for three years and also studied Carnatic vocal music. She founded the Prana Company in Paris to promote Indian and contemporary performing arts, and now commutes between France and India for research, new repertoire and performance, working closely with musicians and specialists in India and France, integrating her own choreography into new projects.

Brigitte will also be performing July 25th at IIC a traditional Mohiniattam repertoire followed by her contemporary dance evolved out of Mohiniattam.  Brigitte gave an outstanding performance in a Videshi Kalakar Utsav in the 1990’s which significantly shifted the paradigm of recognizing international exponents of Indian performing arts as artists and not merely students. Alliance Francaise has provided its auditorium for her Mohiniattam to Contemporary Dance Workshop on Saturday, July 28 morning and showing the film,   Dance of the Enchantress, made with acclaimed director Adoor Gopalakrishnan on July 29th at 6 pm. Manasa-Art Without Frontiers Facebook page or can give you more about these and other events of this unique Looking Back to Move Forward Dance Festival.

Sharon Lowen is a respected exponent of Odissi, Manipuri and Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chau whose four-decade career in India was preceded by 17 years of modern dance and ballet in the US and an MA in dance from the University of Michigan. She can be  contacted at

Tags: indian classical dance, international dance council, indian classical arts