Contemporary Indian dance drew much attention at the just-concluded Edinburgh International Festival, among the few international festivals dedicated solely to performing arts.
A troupe led by Kathak exponent Aditi Mangaldas represented Indian dance with two recitals - one traditional and the other contemporary - in the Scottish town last week. The response from the audience was effusive, according to reports received here.
Contemporary dance in India, unlike in the west, has evolved from classical roots. Over the last 60 years, traditional dances have moved beyond the confines of temples to the proscenium. A group of early experimentalists in the 1950s, all accomplished classical dancers, worked around traditional performance styles and introduced chorus-type group dances with free-flowing movements.
Dancer Jayachandran Palazhy in his treatise "Performing Arts in India: Dance and Theatre" observes that "today an artist's engagements are often outside structured and institutional set-ups".
"Students of dance are seeking diverse inputs in their education that was virtually impossible a few years ago. Training in established forms of dance as well as other physical traditions such as martial arts, sports and body care systems from qualified teachers and institutions...experimenting with one's own peers, learning from videos or through the Internet and being influenced by styles that are seemingly at opposing ends of the spectrum, are all part of the dance activity in the country," Jayachandran says.
Jayachandran, who has spent several years training abroad, links the rise in the popularity of contemporary dance in India to the opening up of the Indian economy, easy access to the Internet, increased mobility and the change in attitude towards the emerging arts as career options.
Experts say while in the west, contemporary dances drew on elements from modern and post-modern dances together with elements from classical ballet and deconstruction by icons like Martha Graham, in India pioneers like Rabindranath Tagore and Uday Shankar broke through conventions to give traditional dance a contemporary colour in the early 20th century.
According to Kathak guru Vikram Iyenger, Tagore brought the grace of Manipuri, the precision of Bharatanatyam and the drama of Kathakali to create the "Rabindra Nritya" stylised fusion at Shantiniketan. "But I think the father of all Indian contemporary dance is Uday Shankar. He was the one who followed his heart to assemble material from different dance forms to create a new idiom. Before Uday Shankar, Tagore's style was the precursor of contemporary dance in India," Kathak exponent Shovana Narayan said.
"Most dancers have basic training in a traditional style, which is later amalgamated with a western style. Contemporary dance with classical roots is now finding its own space. Even in the west, it did not evolve overnight; the movement took 150 years to evolve," Narayan says.
"I am satisfied with the contemporary style in the Kathak idiom," says the danseuse, who draws from Kathakali, Bharatanatyam, Manipuri and Chhau and also moves from Kalaripayattu to narrate new stories about changing times.
One of the pioneers of the contemporary dance movement was Chandralekha, whose unique style could not be copied after her death, says Bharatanatyam veteran Prathibha Prahlad. The Chennai-based Chandralekha used "dasi attam" - a form of temple dance - with yoga and Kalaripayattu in her contemporary minimalistic productions to talk about social angst and freedom. Chandralekha was often known to describe her productions as "celebrations of the human body".
"If you look at the growth of contemporary dance in India, most of the practitioners are classical dancers. After rooting itself in classical dance, the dance style took to contemporary forms as a rebel movement," Prahlad said.
There is a strong sense of style in Indian contemporary dance, Prahlad says. The dancer modernises her content in the framework of Bharatanatyam. Prahlad interprets Krishna in "Call of the Flute" in the backdrop of the rural-urban divide in a new contemporary India. Krishna wants to return to his flute, village and Radha - the symbols of the countryside he left behind.
History and cataclysmic events like the two World Wars, along with literature and folk traditions, find expression in contemporary dance in India, says Odissi exponent Sonal Mansingh. "The technical aspect plays a huge part in the contemporary Indian dance; the music is a mix of tabla and jazz. But the inspirations for the body language are from other Indian dances," Mansingh said.
"I have been on the stage for 50 years. I am always contemporary, because I live in contemporary times," Sonal Mansingh signs off.