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Bishnupriya Dutt

Celebrating a Global Debut in the Performing Arts : (The ‘India’ Festivals and the 1980s)



The cultural scene in India in the 1980s was dominated by one jamboree after another, a series of spectacular festivals held in UK (1982-83), France (1985 ), USA (1986), U.S.S.R.(1987-88), as well as in Sweden, Japan and numerous other smaller scale festivals. Indian performing culture till now protected and nurtured as ‘national culture’ was broadening out to encompass a global audience, generating a great euphoria and promises of a grand universal design. While at the beginning of the decade long project, there are signs of anxiety, frequent rejections and often incoherence, by the time of the festival at the USSR, it had become far more systematically organized and more powerfully executed. Beneath the surface it also became more politically contested and more fraught with tensions. Seen as the trademark of the young ’usurper’ Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in reality it marked the culmination of Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s break with the past and the Nehruvian holistic visions of culture and ideology. The festival culture, in that sense also allows one to construct and investigate a landscape of a different sort, namely the international arena and their cosmopolitan circuits of importing and disseminating culture in a globalized world.


Archive : Festival of India in France : documentary (Archive of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations).


The 1980s was the first decade since independence (1947) when India was not engaged in military encounters or internal political crises which triggered in 1975, an internal emergency. The new cultural orientation was the manifestation of state’s endeavor to promote oneself at a time of peace and consolidate support for a new leadership and its focus on accelerated capitalist growth, a global perspective and consolidation of the power of the State. The policies since independence which had created strong control over cultural projects and institutions were now mobilized with modifications to propagate the growing power of the State (at the cost of the nation). In terms of State-Nation dichotomy and politics and culture nexus, the festivals came to signify a far more crucial role in promoting the power and authority of the State than attributed to it. The shifts towards a global with Indian performing arts a commodity was unprecedented in post colonial India and not only representative of the new trends but were representational practices that would shape India’s relation with global (capitalist) powers at the fag end of the cold war. The new national-ethnographic orientation which Stuart Hall attributes to globalization was a marked shift and cannot match his optimism in this regard[1].


  1. The post independent era and cultural projects under Nehru usually concentrated on smaller states, bilateral relations with special performances following the NAM, SAARC summits or other such good will diplomatic interactions. They had a regional focus, in foreign policy perspective while the mode of representation, in the performances, still remained within the national identity markers. While visual arts had been made fashionable to Western audiences within the popular cultural arenas of the Imperial metropole since early colonial period, performing arts had been given a nation’s protection and developed as the post independent India’s cultural mnemonical representation. Visions of such utopic conceptualization as ‘unity in Diversity’, cultural reconstruction of ‘classical’ and authentic Indian arts and the experiments of a new Federation and accommodating complex cultural networks of the popular were mostly concentrated in the domains of the new performance culture. The International festival culture of the 1980s did not hesitate to abandon all the pre priorities accorded to the performing arts.
  2. The festival calendars had a marked western capitalist block orientation, a very crucial political statement at the time of cold war and India’s close alignment with the socialist block. Read as Rajiv Gandhi’s obvious preference for western capitalism it was also Mrs. Gandhi’s choice to steer India away from any ambivalent commitment to the cause of economic growth and reiterating loyalties to capitalist expansion. In the post emergency phase, (1977) reprioritizing capitalist growth was consecrated and institutionalized. By the 1980s, the ideological concerns of Nehruvian and post independent visions were formally closed to what is referred to as ‘death of ideology’


Sudipto Kaviraj, Critique of Passive Revolution

In State and Politics in India (ed Partha Chatterjee), OUP Delhi 2009



Reading the archive : The festival at the USSR held over a period of one and a half years with over 2000 performers going from India seemed to be the artistic pinnacle,, the festival in the USA was regarded as an artistic failure. The US government had no control over its cultural institutions, regarded as the domain of private enterprise. They could not match India’s cultural exports and received a great deal of negative publicity from the media and the bureaucracy. The cultural failed initiative did not however dilute the political and economic initiatives, infact enhanced it. In the US the festival came under the Secretary of State and part of direct political relationship. The festival in USSR was also the first exchange project of this kind and the large scale and prolonged festival held at different states and cities all over the USSR was possible because of the Soviet system and its cultural priorities. Rajeev Gandhi’s public appearance and support of Gorbachev signified a different meaning than reiterating its past cold war loyalties.

The changing shifts and last vestiges of oscillation could still be detected in the contrast of the presentations in the USA and USSR. The socialist ambience supposedly allowed a freer expression of left and political expressions but in actuality the state controlled systems, institutionalized in USSR and now increasingly implemented in India allowed a more organized cultural channelization than possible in any other national, regional and local spaces. For example the Socialist ideological nostalgia brought a number of liberal left performers in the festival circuit, conspicuous by their absence in the other festivals. The Soviet authorities courted theatre which in India always had far more political and radical characteristic. Folk or the popular forms were for the first time selected and brought to the national forum before being transported to the international arena. The long one and a half year long festival was designed to create a non centric festival circuit with extensive touring in different cities and states of both the USSR and India .Seminars colloquiums were supposed to make the collaboration with the USSR more productive rather than just export import of alien culture with ethnographic characteristics. All the apparent trends of the difference were however within real politiks manipulated to create a new directed controlled cultural shift and crucial bargaining points.


Cultural policy veering towards political or economic priorities can never be exactly replicated through cultural expressions or performance per se. Close monitoring and framing of the programme by the State however does capture parallel connections .The process in a sense works two ways with directed cultural focus reemphasizing and even pre empting the paradigm shifts.


Reading the archive :


  1. A crucial departure with the past came with the festivals being transformed from the control of institutions like the Sangeet Natak Akademi to the Indian Council of Cultural Relations directly under the External Affairs Ministry, Government of India. The cultural Institutions since independence enjoyed a large degree of autonomy and minimum bureaucratic control. Loosely under the department of education, post independent India had no ministry for culture. The cultural institutions were run by resource people not through bureaucratic recruitments but handpicked and groomed by Nehru. Knowledgeable specialists, they played key roles in the pre independent nationalist phase as well as post independent cultural orientations, related to education, curriculum, patronage, archiving and documentation, reconstruction and preservation projects and coordinating national with cultural orientations. The festival project of the 1980s saw a systematic marginalization of these iconic women from the cultural scene or sometimes even removed unceremoniously from the committees.
  2. Large scale replacement and marginalization of the older performers and the generation which had come to be associated with post independent Performance projects and embodying the new nation’s Indian identity. Though a number of the divas and iconic senior performers were represented, a large number of new performers were for the first time given a national and international exposure. Although representing the same genres the younger dancers were dancing quite apparently to a new text which did not prioritize the vision and ideology hitherto associated with these performative expressions The contrasting texts positioned the identity concerns , challenges of a colonial culture along with the new visions of secularism and modernism against aesthetic, spiritualism , Indian mysticism etc. In the context of dance there was a definite shift towards feminine and devotion manifested in a new body expression accentuating rather than dialoguing with the Orientalist bodies. Reading personal comments, media coverage and post festival reporting within such positioning it is easy to discern the negative and disparaging publicity around the older performers. Discredited as ‘divas’ there are numerous references to their tantrums, middle age appearance and loosing beauty and its repercussion on performative forms which depend on aesthetics and sublimity of physical beauty. The new positive epithets were on ‘nubile bodies’. ‘youth’ and also their complete subservient relations with the male gurus now becoming the repository of Indian classical forms. Monopoly of women in the area of the feminine domain of culture was systematically being replaced by male star personalities.
  3. The performance culture presented at the festivals noted an evolution to a new mode of ‘packaging’ appropriate for being circulated subsequently as commodity in the global cultural market. The focus had shifted to create an authentic, timeless, romantic, exotic Indian performance package which as Appiah describes as a new combination of the ethnographic with the modern[2] and Bharucha frames within a more critical perspective[3]. The long and elaborate structure of the Indian classical performative genres were now reduced to a representative skeletal forty five minutes capsules, while the intricacies of the text and its subversive playfulness giving the performer an agency were explicitly abandoned .Very strictly structured formats with no leeway for the performer to innovate and create a sub text were the new modified material which became the vogue post festivals. For the music industry it was a period of creating east west fusion with two of India’s a major composers playing and recording with western groups or orchestras, Ravi Shankar playing with Geroge Harrison in US and Moscow Philamornic Orchestra in the USSR and Dr. L. Subramanium with the Pink Floyd in US and the Leningrad philharmonic in the USSR were the first new products in the new global market. The collaboration depended on short independent pieces by two groups improvised separately with only a short finale bringing the two in dialogue. For both Pandit Ravi Shankar and Subramnium it meant also a shift from the intricacies of Indian classical to lighter hybrid musical compositions. Music and dance usually ascribed to abstract content however replaced vestiges of a text which existed in the minds of the performers while creating a new nation’s mnemonical cultural identity


Clip : Music of Subramnaium :

L. Subrmanium Live in the USSR (with two Soviet symphony Orchestras (Includes fantasy on Vedic chants)


The truncated capsules was now a ‘brand’ value building on what till now were symbolic markers of Hindu upper class nationalist orientation but severely critiqued and debated. As stable brand markers these would now be declared sacrosanct and canonical for an entry in the global festival market. These would build on the most decadent stereotypes and appearing as a culture propagating fundamentalism and a right orientation in politics. A contrast to Nehruvian and more important Gandhian secularism such modifications, I would like to discern and detect through the performance itself. What we see as a parallel trends between politics-economics and culture with loose links I would argue is a fundamental structural change within the performative genres and usually ignored or leveled out in the euphoric declaration of contemporary eye witness and nostalgia.


  1. A catalytic supplement but one which creates an inherent structural change to such a trend is the new emphasis and dependence on spectacles and technology. The economy of cultural practice and its ideological implications in effect create an irreversible shift. The new spaces accommodating huge technological equipment destroy the space of the solo performer and her power to communicate. Within the post independent repertoire the individual texts were related as the audience associated the performer with her project and agenda within the larger national projects. She was the one conversant with the text and communicating to the audience. Her audience came to patronize what her name stood for. With the enormous opening out of space, introduction of group dances and filling up the space with scenographic lighting designs replaced the mind of the performer and the intensity required for such abstract arts with body contours and silhouettes of the ideal godlike feminine. At a general level of communication the dialogue between the embodiment and representation looses out in such an unstable and dazzling space. The audience and performance spaces were in actuality renovated and restructured, supposedly for the Soviet performers and technology was to become imperative and the artist the first casualty.


Closing ceremony of the festival of India in the USSR

(Kumudini Lakhiya : the Story of Kathak)


Keeping the festivals and the performance in the foreground I would like to explore historically and theoretically the experience through the Performing Arts the complexities and problematic of globalization and the shifting notions of local, ethnic and the global within an anomalous post colonial context. Certain formative conditions must exist if a national culture like the post independent India’s reconstruction projects is to aspire a world identity and its relation with its position in a highly international and industrial world economy and the fact that this ex colony have long been placed at the periphery of a global communication and art exchange with the performing arts as the new entrants. The complexity and contradictoriness arises, with the Performance exported, the artist is placed within a new cultural locus. The negotiations were more appropriate given the anxiously protected nation’s cultural locus and the multiple complexities of the Indian performance Arts even within it own habitus and shifts to the national. The methodological frame which I want to approach combines the logic of mass production and consumption within globalization of culture with segmented models on lifestyle and identity and a post colonial experience.

[1] Stuart Hall The Local and the Global : Globalization and Ethnicity, in Dangerous Liaisons, Gender, Nation and Postcolonial Perspectives, (ed Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti and Ella Shohat University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis London 2004

[2] Kwame Anthony Appiah, Is the ‘Post’ in the ‘Postcolonial’ the ‘Post’ in “Postmodern’? in Dangerous Liaisons, Gender, Nation and Postcolonial Perspectives, (ed Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti and Ella Shohat University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis London 2004


[3] Rustom Bharucha, Dimensions of conflict in Globalization and Cultural practice: A critical perspective. In Conflicts and Tensions (ed) Helmut Anheier and Yudhishtir Raj Isar.Sage, New Delhi 2007.