A platform for critical engagement with dance

Re-cognising Dance (RD) was launched in August 2020 as a platform for dancers, students and enthusiasts to engage critically with the social and political histories of what comes under the umbrella term of “Indian classical dance” today. Run by Aranyani Bhargav and Mahalakshmi Prabhakar, the Scholar series is RD’s most important pillar. Since it is often difficult for dancers who do not go into academia to gain access to a critical social and political history of classical dance, the Scholar series invites academics and experts to distil their work for an interested audience.

The talks have been increasingly well attended, and the presence of both young and established dancers leads the organisers to believe that the series fills a gap that has long existed between academia and practice. Conducted over Zoom, the talks are free for anyone who signs up, and the recordings are later uploaded to YouTube for anyone interested to access them later. The speakers are encouraged to drop academic jargon for a more accessible language, and the sessions are designed to be interactive, with questions greatly encouraged.

The two say that the meetings often run over the time slot because there is so much interest generated by the discussion. Select texts by the speakers, which often lie behind journal paywalls, are also made available. According to Aranyani and Mahalakshmi, a generous sharing of information is what the Scholar series attempts to do, as well as give a space for dialogue where differing views can come up for debate and discussion.

The emergence of a platform like RD cannot be read in isolation. It doesn’t claim to be a response to, or representative of, the present debates around appropriation and marginalisation. It’s the work of a number of scholars, as well as dancers from hereditary communities, that has effected a paradigm shift in conversations in the field in the past couple of years. This has led to a renewed interest in reflecting on the history of these art forms. As questions of caste and appropriation, and of the need to create more inclusive and progressive spaces within this field begin to find a greater foothold among practitioners, platforms such as these assume greater importance.

Perhaps due to the increased time spent indoors, or the rise of alternative channels of communication, 2020 saw important conversations emerge from voices that have been marginalised so far; conversations that had been largely ignored or been used by upper-caste practitioners to create an imagined depth for their own practice. These conversations have now found in younger dance practitioners an audience willing to engage and reimagine Indian classical dance as a safer space for those from marginalised castes and classes and, most importantly, from hereditary locations.

The need to understand the lived realities of current generation practitioners, and members of hereditary dance communities, is finally being seen as paramount to understanding the systemic violence Indian classical dance has entailed, and how this violence can now be mitigated, if not completely erased.

For the organisers, the highlight is how scholars who have been inspired and guided by each other’s work, but have never had a chance to speak directly, can come together and have live conversations through the series. Scholars who have followed the careers and trajectories of senior dancers are often delighted to find them in the audience. Apart from this, it also gives young students a chance for interactions.

RD also runs a series called Discouraged, which explores the difficulties faced by dancers in India today. Young practitioners dancers are invited to share their experiences, and how these have impacted and shaped their practice. This series is an attempt to create constructive dialogue around impediments to dance as a career, and a search for ways to change the system from inside.

When asked about future plans, Aranyani and Mahalakshmi say that one immediate aim is to work on introducing dance history to children and organise workshops in schools, something for which the National Education Policy 2020 has, in fact, laid down provisions. The two were invited to speak at the first international classical dance conference organised in Latin America.

Ultimately, it is the vision of re-cognising, or effecting a change in the way dance is understood in India, that drives Aranyani and Mahalakshmi forward.

The writer is a Kuchipudi practitioner and

PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge.

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