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Cultural Exchange in Transition - Sasha Waltz & Kiran Nagarkar

Background Reportage by Yogendra
(July 2013)

The 1990s: North America and Western Europe had won the Cold War against communism with democracy, capitalism, and atomic arms build-up. Their economic and social system seemed superior and without alternative, and some thought it was only a matter of time until that view would spread everywhere and world peace would prevail. In those days, German-Indian cultural exchange meant that one country tried to impress the other with its great cultural achievements. At the Indian Festival in Germany in 1991/92, India meant to score with top-notch ensembles of its classical music and dance traditions. And Germany sent established contemporary artists such as Pina Bausch, pioneer of modern dance theatre, to India.

It remains questionable whether these efforts had any lasting impact or helped mutual understanding. The single spectator who jumped up and expressed his appreciation loudly in the middle of a classical Indian concert in the auditorium of the Technical University of Darmstadt, in perfect accordance with customs in India, was a unique exception - and ample demonstration of the utter lack of understanding of the rest of the audience, sitting stark and stiff and mute through the performance. And the audience at the performance of Pina Bausch's ensemble in Calcutta probably only sat in complete silence, because they did not have the slightest clue of what was happening in front of their eyes.
Today the world is multipolar, complex and confusing. Everyone is intertwined with everyone else economically. The international financial system is about to collapse from time to time, and climate change threatens our livelihoods. Simultaneously global and regional powers are jousting for power and spheres of influence. The promotion of cultural exchange in the traditional sense hardly seems to be an issue any more for state agencies in Germany and India. When Germany organised "Germany and India 2011-2012: Infinite Opportunities" in India, its main project was the "Indo-German Urban Mela", mobile pavilions travelling from city to city with presentations of German business corporations and a cultural programme which, amongst other things, included a beer garden. And during the much-heralded "Days of India in Germany" 2012 - 2013, India mainly restricted herself to sending envoys to cultural events that took place anyway. It seems as if cultural exchange between India and Germany is not running any more in state-controlled, one-way streets separated from each other. Instead, protagonists from different areas act as producers, and artists from both cultures work together in multidisciplinary projects. Two recent examples may illustrate this.

In January 2013, the Berlin-based choreographer Sasha Waltz, 15 dancers of her company and four soloists of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra were working guests in Calcutta. They did not just show one of their finished productions but developed something new from scratch together with an Indian dance troupe led by Padmini Chettur. The project was specifically tailored to its venue - the performances took place in a 250 year old former city palace. The audience could walk through the rooms and watch site-specific music and dance performances everywhere, partly fixed and partly improvised, with a musical spectrum that ranged from Bach to Stravinsky, Ravel, Berio and Penderecki and large group choreographies taking place in the inner courtyard of the palace. Such a project does not produce any lasting work by its very nature, but its unique and unrepeatable interweaving of space, dancers, musicians and audience certainly created a sharp contradiction to a mass culture merely fuelled by economical considerations. Here is a short documentary on this project (in German).

In May, a stage version of "God's Little Soldier" by Indian novelist Kiran Nagarkar had its world premiere at Theater Freiburg. The controversial 700-page book reflects religiously motivated extremism in the modern age of globalisation by means of two very unequal Indian brothers, and was taken to the stage with a dazzling colourful Bollywood musical touch. Showpieces of the staging of German-Swiss director duo Jarg Pataki and Viola Hasselberg were the dance and music scenes, with a motley multicultural live music ensemble and the theatre's movement choir. In charge of the dance was Aakash Odedra, a choreographer and dancer with Indian roots from the UK, who combines classical Indian Kathak techniques with contemporary dance. And the music was mainly developed by Ravi Srinivasan, a composer, singer and percussionist with Indian roots living in Berlin, drawing heavily on Indian classical and spiritual music, as well as Bollywood elements. The production continues playing at Theater Freiburg, will also be shown in Oberhausen and Hamburg in 2014, and is later to be staged in Mumbai. Next performance dates and short video impressions here.

IMost likely, the audience in Calcutta has grasped as little of Sasha Waltz's project as it has of Pina Bausch's Tanztheater. And the German theatre audience's appreciation of Freiburg's production of "God's Little Soldier" probably merely dwells on well-established Western traditions of enjoying a certain exotic oriental feel. But at least the artists involved in these two projects are likely to have engaged in a deeper analysis of a different culture in course of their work, however alien it might have appeared in the beginning. The projects might really have broadened their horizons. That alone would be a good result and a remarkable progress.