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Indian Dance - Beyond Exoticism

Symposium Report by Rajyashree Ramesh
(September 2013)

There is hardly another art form that is perceived from so many different perspectives as dance. Particularly when it comes to non-European dance forms in Europe, one is quick in classifying them as exotic, historical, religious, traditional, and so forth. Taking the example of the Indian dance form Bharatanatyam, one sees how a historical, religious or socio-cultural perspective is given predominance in defining its practise, outer form and aesthetics. One oversees the fact that it continues to be a living, yet changing tradition, still being practised even globally and by dancers who not necessarily have a religious or cultural connection to it. It has traversed time and location, and dancers of diverse backgrounds today practice Bharatanatyam globally. Various perspectives on its historical development and embedding in traditions have been discussed throughout the 20th century and continue to be the focus of discourses today. Yet Bharatanatyam practitioners in Germany, like dancers of other non-European dance forms, experience a eurocentric attitude that marginalises them as „culturally specific“, „ethnic“ and „exotic“, or places their art in the past as an „ancient relict“. These categorisations do not do justice to Bharatanatyam’s uniqueness of embodying both change and continuity in its form, structure and content. We therefore thought it was time for a new discourse, which incorporates a dialogue between international practitioners, scholars and audience.

A performance that was coined the Berlin margam and which marked the culmination of Eva Isolde Balzer’s training under Rajyashree Ramesh in Berlin was followed by two symposiums: First "Art and Embodiment – looking beyond exoticism" in cooperation with Werkstatt der Kulturen Berlin on June 22nd, and second "Indian Dance in a Global Age", supported by the International Research Centre of the Free University Berlin and the Indian Embassy on June 24th. Based on the performance, which under the dramaturgy of dance historian Avanthi Meduri presented some forgotten historical elements, the symposium discussed the changing historicity of dance in approach and understanding with invited international dance practitioners and scholars from diverse backgrounds. Taking into account its relevance and practice today in the European context, the margam was discussed as a path of transformation and translation, where however the structure and form follow some universal principles. The invited speakers Ashish Mohan Khokar (historian and critique), Avanthi Meduri, Phillip Zarrilli (theatre researcher who incorporates Kathakali and Kalaripayatu) and Martin Puttke (ballet) discussed with Rajyashree Ramesh and Eva Isolde Balzer the transcultural and transdisciplinary potential of dance. Indian dance was thereby presented as a historical continuum that is in a constant process of change, and a historicity of which the modernity, according to Meduri, began in India in the 19th century. The five T's: tradition, travel, translation, transmission and transformation reflect the global practice of dance forms like Bharatanatyam.

The symposium on June 24th continued the discussion with further invited speakers Prof. Shivaprakash of the Indian Embassy, Sandra Chatterjee (dancer and scholar), and Anja Weber (dancer and doctor). Gabriele Brandstetter from the Dance Research Department of the Free University Berlin presented the keynote address. This symposium was the first of its kind in Berlin. This seminar engaged with themes around the changing meaning and definitions of dance and examined these from historical, sociological, aesthetic, theoretical, embodiment, neurocognitive and global perspectives as they are articulated in India and Europe. Some of the relevant questions discussed were:

How has dance changed historically in just the span of the last century?

How do practitioners negotiate recontextualisations? What of the old is preserved and what is changed?

What are the many innovations happening within the field of dance in the age of globalisation?

Exoticism, migrant culture or artistic endeavour? The challenges faced by dancers today, especially when practising world dance forms in Germany.

These questions were placed in a transcultural and transdisciplinary context by speakers Martin Puttke and Anja Weber, who presented neurocognitive research material on movement and emotions.

In addition to these discussions, which triggered active audience participation as on June 22nd, young choreographers of European origin with training in classical Indian dance forms presented excerpts of their own innovative work that reflected how they negotiate between dance forms and cultural recontextualisations.

The two events revealed the potential such discussions and presentations carry in enabling a discourse on non-European dance forms from a practitioners’ and above all less eurocentric perspective. Interesting to note was the fact that the history of Indian dance continues to be written in Germany and elsewhere. However as opposed to its practice in, e.g. UK or USA, its history is being written anew in Germany on non-Indian bodies and incorporated into a culturally non-specific environment. This brings challenges and opportunities. And these have to be negotiated time and again, making dance in consequence a dynamic endeavour.  Serious practice and a creative artistic approach however reveal how its form and structure, grammar and content can be culturally specific and transcultural, local and global at the same time – beyond exoticism.

Further info on the performance and the two symposiums is available here.

* Rajyashree Ramesh is a dancer, master teacher and movement researcher. She has been teaching the classical vocabulary of Indian dance in Europe for more than three decades. Her trained dancers of international origin continue to incorporate the knowledge of Indian dance in their respective professions.