South Asian dance in Britain
By Chris Bannerman
“South Asian dance” as a designation evolved largely in the West in the 1980s, as an alternative to the term “Indian dance”, in order to embrace practitioners who may have had Pakistani or Bangladeshi roots. The term “Indian dance” is still used almost interchangeably, in part due to the origins of many of the forms in what is now present – day India, and in part due to the India dominance of dance activity in the subcontinent today. However, the term “South Asian Dance” also indicates a broader relationship to the subcontinent and has gained currency amongst the international diasporic community, as it is felt that is privileges progression and development.
The introduction of South Asian dance in Britain in recent times can be traced to the legendary performances of Uday Shankar and Ram Gopal in the 1960s, which attracted large audiences, but which were frequently seen as exotic displays from a far away land. However, the 1970s saw the arrival in the UK of numerous families from the Indian subcontinent and with them came the dance practice of their homelands, largely at that point, the dance forms, Kathak and Bharata Natyam.
Kathak, a North Indian form stemming from a tradition of story telling, developed through stylistic schools, or gharanas, led by families of dancers. Bharata Natyam, previously known as Dasi Attam or Sadir, developed in South Indian, and a relationship to sculpture is demonstrated through the karanas or poses, which are evident in both art forms.
Dance in the subcontinent
Kathak and Bharata Natyam dance forms were widely practiced in the subcontinent and had developed over centuries in what in now present – day India. In fact a myriad of form had evolved, usually associated to a specific region, but common connecting threads were the focus on themes and narratives from religious mythology, the use of hand gestures to convey meanings and an articulated use of facial expression. Much of this can be related to principles set out in the natya shastra, almost certainly the world’s oldest text on stagecraft.
These forms had, however, undergone major change in the subcontinent, through individual contributions and a variety of interventions, including the Moghul period and the European, principally British, colonial period. Some results of the Moghul patronage of Kathak can be seen in the virtuosic quality of the form today and the presence of secular narratives alongside themes from Hindu mythology.