- Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women and Modernity in India, and: Kathaka: The Tradition: Fusion and Diffusion
Kathak, the classical dance of North India, has moved from intimate court performances to grandiose concert halls and the globalized world of media and diaspora in less than one hundred years. Through this journey, dance and dancers have negotiated and struggled with processes of tradition and transformation. These have been further complicated with questions of authenticity and authority, including who has the right to define what is or is not kathak, and who can or should speak for the dancers themselves. These questions are often answered through references to the dance's past, said to be rooted in the practices of male, Hindu storytellers. Yet, this history itself is controversial, not the least because it seems to privilege one voice while marginalizing others. Two recent books about kathak, dance scholar Ranjana Srivastava's Kathaka: The Tradition: Fusion and Diffusion, and visual anthropologist Pallabi Chakravorty's Bells of Change: Kathak Dance, Women and Modernity, approach these questions about the dance's past and present in very different ways.
Central among kathak's marginalized voices are those articulating the experiences of women. Chakravorty's Bells of Change purposely sets out to redress this imbalance. Identifying herself as an "insider's insider," Chakravorty revisits her own experiences as a middle-class Bengali women who studied kathak dance in Kolkata during her youth. She merges her personal experience with the research tools and theoretical frameworks she learned completing her doctorate in anthropology in the United States. This multifocal approach allows her to combine narrative and reflexive voices while situating her study in anthropological, postcolonial, South Asian feminist, and Indian aesthetic theories. Using these various means, Chakravorty offers what she terms "an objective analysis of culture, power and identity, in combination with subjective experience and emotion" (2). More specifically, her aim is to provide "a self-conscious intervention to locate, identify and legitimize little known women dancers in Calcutta . . . [and to] restore them as subjects of their own history" (12).
Bells of Change contains six chapters and freely mingles theory, ethnography, and reflexivity. Chapter 1, "Locating Dance," functions as a frame for the study, moving through several subsections that clarify the book's theories and methodologies. The second chapter, "From Nautch to Classical Kathak," looks at the dance's history through a unique and rather controversial lens. Whereas standard histories of kathak outline a linear progression from temple to court to urban stage through the activities of male hereditary dancers, Chakravorty places kathak's history firmly in the salons of female hereditary performers called "nautch" or "dancing [End Page 105] girls" by the British. Her goal is to legitimize the legacy of female dancers, "completely marginalized in the official representation of classical Kathak" (27), and thus provide a foundation for the book's subsequent focus on female voice. The research here is particularly solid and potentially of great interest to feminist and cultural historians, in addition to dance scholars.
Chapter 3, "Public Modernity and Classical Kathak," uses a largely theoretical framework to analyze kathak's intersections with modernity, hegemony, globalization, and locality. In the next chapter, "Women and Kathak in Everyday Practice," Chakravorty's personal voice returns as she knits together experience from her own embodied practice, "life stories" of professional and amateur women dancers, Indian aesthetic theory, and Hindu mythology. She uses these disparate means to demonstrate convincingly how women in India emerge as "actors who make choices" and as subjects of their own dance while inhabiting "the patriarchal domain" of the Indian classical dance world (113-14). This is the book's strongest chapter, combining original fieldwork and indigenous theory with incisive critical thought regarding women's subjective and individual actions within patriarchal social and artistic contexts. By comparison, chapter 5, "Tradition and Innovation," breaks less new ground. The first section, "Traditional Organization...