- Indian Modern Dance, Feminism, and Transnationalism by Prarthana Purkayastha
This is a clearly written and well-researched text that places contemporary Indian dance in a global context and reflects, especially in the discussion of Majusri Chaki and her daughter Rajabati Sircar, issues of feminism as an inter-/extra-India discourse. The author dialogues with previous literature on dance in national and transnational identify formation and its place in religious/secular or political/aesthetic discourses, but the focus here is on the changing status of the female dancer and the intercultural social impacts. By focus on five major figures (Rabindranath Tagore [1861–1941], Uday Shankar [1900–1977], Shanti Bardhan [1916–1954], Manjusri [1934–2000], and Rajabati Sircar [1963–1999]), the text achieves specificity. Purkayastha explores the challenges these artists faced by choosing progressive forms and developing new movement in contrast with “classical” forms like bharata natyam, which were more conservative in form and often patriarchal in subject matter (often highlighting the female as enamored devotee/lover in relation to the male god/hero in pieces). The author sees such “classical” work as more transparently aligned with the nationalist project as it focused on a Sanskritic past to negate the ignominy of the colonialism period. The modern Indian dance work discussed has often been considered “inauthentic” due to its hybrid mixture [End Page 695] of Indian styles and dialogue with ballet and Euro-American modern dance genres. Purkayastha sets out to show, however, that this genre is a strong response to the Indian political and social needs of its time, that in form and content it gave women more options than the traditional repertoire, and it attests to a distinct Indian modernism that is diasporic in nature and generated from and returning to a Bengali locus after global circulations.
Although Shankar and Tagore have garnered significant scholarly attention as international figures, Purkayastha does not focus, as does most writing, on outside reception of Shankar’s dance or Tagore’s writing. For both figures she emphasizes the reception of their dance for Indian audiences. For Bardhan, whose work in the Indian Popular Theatre Association (IPTA) has merited some attention, Purkayastha does not limit her discussion to work in this IPTA period, but gives an overview of his career, clarifying how he abandoned the Communist-linked IPTA to do work for the Congress party and then established his own private company. The Sircars (who were teachers of the author’s) are discussed with detailed understanding of their movement praxis (Purkayastha danced significant roles in their choreographic works and gives us a sense of what her body did inside the pieces discussed). Throughout the work Purkayastha disrupts dichotomies that have too often been advanced in relation to twentieth-century Indian dance—for example, that “classical” forms are synonymous with any “ancient” traditions or that the upper-class Indian dancers who opted for these modern forms are merely following Western modes. She sees them as modernists with Indian characteristics.
In sum, Purkayastha abjures the mystification that swirl around devadasi temple dancers and Natyasastra aesthetics—themes that bharata natyam and other “classical” dance scholarship often harness. Modernity is not, the author emphasizes, the sole domain of the Western artist. The Asian choreographer can decide to roll on the floor, and this does not mean the work is just derivative or “bastardized and illegitimate” (p. 6) as some critics contend. Rather, these new movement explorations are a natural outgrowth of the history of choreographers who have lived lives that span the globe and cross borders. Modernity in Indian dance did not arrive with the East-West Dance Encounter in 1985 where noted dance artist Chandralekha (1928–2006) drew her line in the sand, abjuring the simpering female mold of the nayika (female lover). Stronger female images were already apparent Purkayastha contends in the works of Tagore and Shankar in the early twentieth century.
The author notes the Bengali connection as important in hybrid transnational arts practice. In chapter 1, she shows how the dance experiments at Tagore’s school at Shantiniketan had links to the practices at...