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TDR: The Drama Review 44.3 (2000) 180-182

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Book Review

South Asian Dance:
The British Experience

South Asian Dance: The British Experience. Choreography and Dance: An International Journal 4, 2. Edited by Alessandra Iyer, Amsterdam. Harwood Academic Publishers, 1997; 75 pp.; illustrations. ECU 75.00.

South Asian British dance culture is facing the challenge of moving past being perceived as "exotic" and "oriental" to becoming an integral part of British and international artistic enterprise. Addressing this opportunity means experimenting with authentic traditional and classical dance forms revered as signs of South Asia's ancient cultural heritage, unassailable and perhaps unchangeable. Deviation from tradition and text-based values and techniques can lead to dance that is seen as deformed, disdained, disclaimed, or even derogatory. In asserting cultural identity through dance an ethnic group wants to avoid the charge of taking or even stealing from another (perhaps the formerly dominant) culture.

However, when artists who embody the performing arts of one society relocate to the site of another society's arts and aesthetic expectations, complex interactions and unique preservations may ensue. The composite results of such interactions are noted in Alessandra Iyer's introduction to this issue of Choreography and Dance, which addresses dialogues between what is authentic and contemporary, familiar and foreign, singular and aggregate, postcolonial and mainstream. While we have long admitted that traditions are not static but undergo continuous change in indigenous settings, less attention has been paid to such changes in alien contexts, and dialogues produced by internal and transnational discourses in the arts.

The authors in this issue are practitioners: dancers, teachers, writers and lecturers, critics, choreographers, arts administrators, consultants. All have been involved in the British dance scene for significant periods of time; two have PhDs, in art and archaeology, and in anthropology. Their choreographic interests are wide-ranging, and they move back and forth between Britain and India with ease and frequency. One contributor, Reginald Massey, has written two books on Indian dance, and another, Shobana Jeyasingh, founded an award-winning dance company. Writer Naseem Khan's 1976 report, The Arts Britain Ignores, opened a debate that continues today regarding cultural diversity and the place of immigrant culture in Britain's arts.

Issue editor Alessandra Iyer delineates the subject matter: the dances and dancers of South Asia (the Indian subcontinent) who are "based in Britain and working primarily in a British/European context," but not "the way British people perceive South Asian dance" (1). Articles focus on how Indians, living and working in Britain, have contributed to dance culture and education, including significant efforts to develop collaborations, institutions, and organizations; to establish programs and diplomas; and to initiate a place for South Asian dance in university and school curriculums. A further subject is perspectives on being an Indian dancer in Britain, though several key contributors to Britain's Indian dance scene are missing (including Nahid Siddiqui and Priya Pawar). The volume raises issues that a scholar might take up in studying this complex and continuing interaction of dance culture, dance, and culture.

India's dance traditions, encompassing classical and folk, communal and urban and modern, continuing and invented and creative, are multiple and interactive. Current discourse fuses (or confuses) indigenous and alien terms and concepts, in English and Indian languages. When such dance traditions move abroad embodied in a practitioner, a further challenge is presented: explanation for new audiences as to what the tradition is, in terms this new host audience can appreciate and understand.

Assuming that not all readers are familiar with India's classical dances, Iyer's second piece briefly addresses traditional and classical idioms of South Asian dance, noting that the classical-folk opposition is not indigenous to South [End Page 180] Asia, and that the term "classical" was adopted for India's text-based (shastric) dances in the 20th century "when the dances of India were revived, out of a need to give them equal status to that of the Western classical dance tradition (Ballet)" (5). "Classical styles" are really regional idioms: Bharata Natyam, Kathakali, Odissi, Kathak, Mohini Attam, Manipuri...


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