It is used today to reinterpret various myths and legends, instill a sense of self-esteem, personal discipline, social awareness in people and to create a basic initiation into aesthetics and for even clinical therapy.
Kalindi Ghosh in Kolkata is applying the nuances of Manipuri dance to treat cerebral palsy. She conducts classes in what she describes as dancercise for patients and is achieving amazing results.
In Mumbai, Shekher Gaekwad provides a forum for “rather shy women” to learn socialisation skills. According to this former film choreographer, the ability to shake a leg to pop tunes is considered an essential social skill today.
Then there is Arjun Khandelwal in Delhi who is known for her school of dance therapy, targeted at social workers engaged in rehabilitating the mentally challenged. “I also conduct workshops for the physically handicapped,” informs the Bharatanatyam exponent.
“The effort is to release dance from its conventional trappings,” observes Kumudini Lakhia, a Kathak maestro. “But then, change is part of life’s process. Earlier, classical dance consisted of solo performances. Today, there are more of group dances. There is more of research being conducted into dance forms.”
Another celebrated danseuse, Amala Shankar (wife of the legendary Uday Shankar) also sees nothing wrong with the experimentation, so long as it serves a social purpose. She points out that her late husband had himself fused western elements in Indian dance, without compromising on either genre.
In fact, popularising the classical tradition is by itself, a calling for some. Some like Padmini Ravi, a Bharatanatyam artiste finds the pure form “too slow and monotonous” and after dancing for 33 years, now finds the need to explore new possibilities to generate audience interest.
“Bharatanatyam is a technique which, fortunately or unfortunately is intertwined with religious themes,” explains Ravi. “A time has now come to give it a different approach. The attempt should be to convey contemporary social themes without diluting old forms.”
At another level, the focus has shifted to extravagant costumes and audio-visual effects so as to keep the “communication going” without being too stringent on the rhythm, expression, posture and stepping aspects of classical forms.
This approach has led to what is being given the name of “creative dancing.” Not only does it appeal to the youngsters (who were at risk of straying into western-oriented dances) but allows for a good deal of improvisation and experimentation, suited to special needs of students - particularly the handicapped.
In fact, in cities like Kolkata and Delhi, “creative dance” has become the latest buzzword in art circles. Many exponents even regard it as an independent genre and are not in the least apologetic about it.
One such is Tanushree Shankar: “Creative dance requires a classical balance. Music, light and drama have to come in the right proportions. Moreover, this is a platform to appreciate the more rigid classical styles. Dance, like any other art form, must cast itself in the contemporary mould to be relevant.”
Adds Chennai-based Anita Ratnam: “In the mid-twentieth century while the West was turning away from classical dance and evolving its own style of modern expression, we in India, thanks to the British attempts to suppress our culture, took a reverse turn and embraced all that was traditional.” Dance is no longer regarded as an idle artistic pursuit, but a full-time occupation with all its trappings of cutthroat competition, career advancement and attendant perks. If there is no money in it, it makes no sense pursuing the art.
“There has to be a purpose behind making dance a career option,” says Shamsher Khan, an accompanist on the tabla. “You need to make it financially viable, no matter what you do - create drama on stage, use disco lights, flashy costumes, engage events organisers, run training institutes, organise publicity.”
It is this market-driven approach explains the changing complexion of Indian dance traditions. Whether the motive is social or commercial, the ultimate test of success lies in keeping the cash registers ringing. Efforts at being true to the purity of the classical idiom are purely incidental - no matter what people say.