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Urmimala Sarkar Munsi

Towards a “greater“ goal: From local to the gobal in dance (1970 – 1990)

Urmimala Sarkar Munsi

The period of 1970 – 1990 in the context of dance focuses on a string of issues in terms of performance, definitely entering a different stage after the whole post independence phase dedicated to reforms and the building of cultural identity according to the Neheruvian vision. The nationalistic vision shaped the ‘ideal’ dance, the ‘ideal’ dancing body, the ‘ideal’ dance narrative, the ‘ideal’ dancer, all of which, since independence, have been reiterated time and again by the funding bodies, governmental patronage, the writings on dance and so many other things that somewhere along the line, this vision became everyone’s idea of the ‘truth’

With the well-known binary of Classical and non-classical dances institutionalized and engraved into the post-colony picturization of Independent India – any effort to make dance a tool as well as the site for new thoughts, communication and vocabulary, has been a path, greatly resisted and contested by many. The need to deviate from the easy and usual path of communicating a text, mythical or otherwise, was felt by many, at different times and in different places. The story of many such endeavours (designated as good /bad, successful/ unsuccessful, mainstream/marginal) go largely uncharted as they remained largely outside the interest /focus zone of the government institutions, and funding agencies. These endeavours, though much less than in theatre, have been born out of resistance, and a process to find a language of articulating the ongoing need and creative agency of the dancer as a part of the society.

The focus of the most historiographical research in dance remains focused on the colonial hangover and reforms of the first half of the twentieth century. While it really becomes necessary to look at the policies and practices of The Government institutions, in their endeavour to continue and strengthen the past Nehruvian model of UNITY IN DIVERSITY, still continue to look at dances, to find out the justification of the claimed classical roots. Changes, whether brought about over time by the community, or through selective and specific restructuring by interested parties.

Multiple micro-histories of power politics leading to particular journeys of choice (of thematic, contextual, ideological, and funding issues) by certain individuals/ forms, accompany the oft-silent stories of complete enculturation , deletion, restructuring of forms, in order to keep up with the requirements set forward by the changing goals of the funding bodies, and the government. The story includes the micro/macro-level changeovers in terms of dance forms, presentation, themes, and content – also bringing in personal / general reflections of the changing political and social scenario of the years, between , 1970 and 1990.

The larger than life representation by the Indian state of the culture in the contexts of the local festivals like Konark, Khajuraho, and also the festivals beyond the international border created a “accepted format” for all performers, even where the state itself did not lay down the ground rules for inclusion, leading to a particular enculturing process for urban as well rural performers.

In terms of state patronage, several things happened during this time, to change the way one dances or looks at dance. On one hand, the effort to situate the dancing body in a sacred, pre-sculpted context of a temple as seen in all the festivals held in famous archaeological sites like Konark Sun Temple, Khajuraho Temple, etc, and on the other hand the state patronage to the local ‘folk’ dances by making the part of the carnival-like fairs and festivities of the state – speaks of a neutralizing effort to wipe out voices of difference/ resistance in order to create a generic identity either related to “Indian-ness” or/and a sweeping state/regional membership.

A bit of history to provide the links for the string of beads..

The ‘70s

The strong constructive ideology of Neheruian era gave way later to parliament centred decision making of political nature around and about the cultural image of the country for various reasons. But the Performing arts were identified from the pre-independence times as one of the ways in which identity and ethnicity could be created and projected. And this did not change over the years. The kind of funds the state committed to arts/culture was unprecedented and large by international standards. What happened to those public funds is another matter of course.

The ‘60s and ‘70s were the times when India was forced to take sides in a bi-polar world of American/ Soviet divide. For the cultural bureaucracy in India a ‘resurgent’ Europe was a site to counter the American/Soviet divide. And Franco-German brand of cultural discourse was a potentially safer site to ‘engage’.

The then Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi had declared on many occasions that had she not entered politics, she would have been a dancer – she was proud of her understanding of Indian culture and liked to refer to the fact that she had studied dance at Tagore’s Shantiniketan. A clear difference on the basis of domains of privilege, accorded to the classical dance traditions – ironically already represented and danced by the urban, brahminic, elite female dancers , as against that of the ‘folk’ categories, was established and recognised. Many of these so-called ‘folk’ artistic practices belonged to traditions which had fed into the so –called classical traditions. The recognition came through funding bodies – both governmental and non- governmental, and clear separation of ‘high’ and ‘popular’ art.

Many choreographers had begun to travel to other countries around the ‘60s and the ‘70s, to exchange ideas and expertise. As India’s political stance was inclined more towards the socialist countries, between late 60’s and early 70’s, Igor Mosiev was invited twice from Moscow to help establish some institution to explore ‘new directions in dance’ and also to advise Indian bureaucracy on the future design of cultural planning mostly keeping in mind the bipolarity of classical and folk in Indian tradition. Around 1973, a meeting was held between Usha Bhagat (then in Prime Minister’s Office), Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan and Zohra Segal. Zohra Segal was invited back to India to start a ‘folk’ dance ensemble. The understanding was that the Prime Minister’s Office would support the organization for one year for get the process of starting the institution underway, and then the Department of Culture was to provide for its continuation. An office was established in Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA) in Rabindra Bhawan, Delhi. Democratic access to theatre and dance by all who wanted to practice it, was being restricted and restructured , planting the concept of a state managed popular culture . Teachers from different forms, resource persons, students, existing troupes and representatives from different states got together to start the process of establishing the National Folk Ensamble formally in 1975.

Once Zohra Segal took charge of the national folk ensemble, the heritage building of Mandi House was allotted for the folk ensemble to move into it. It became a forum for bringing together efforts of regional representatives from different performance backgrounds and people from left and liberal backgrounds to work together.

However, in spite of repeated requests from Zohra Segal for continued and promised support after the first one year, to Dr. Mohan Khokar, the then director of Sangeet Natak Akademi , nothing could be done to bring the next allotment of funds. The Department of Culture had also by then washed its hands off the project and the future of the Folk Ensemble was bleak. In spite a huge demonstrations and media support, the project could not be revived.

Emergency was declared and the activity of the ensemble came to an abrupt end. At that point Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, who was a prominent member of the Department of Culture, was appointed on every committee for the development of the arts.

The ‘80s

In the post emergency period, a project was developed by the Goethe Institute (Max Mullar Bhavan in India), had a director whose interest in Indian dance was on a personal as well as a institutional level and he was instrumental in designing the first of the EAST- WEST ENCOUNTERS, which became the meeting places for performers, a new brand of critics, an intellectuals from various fields. The Encounters, in the opinion of some dancers of those times, became a site to practice international cultural politics, not dance. Extensive discussions on these encounters were reported in the newspapers. Those chosen, and those not chosen, became adversaries. Cultural heavyweights and planners, promoting the ‘Hindu’ vision of sanskritic/Brahminic history and origins of dance till then were side-lined by these new festivals to create a new area of interest – more west-friendly, and more ‘cosmopolitan’, by the very nature of their presentation.

Conceptually, East-West Encounter was a strange mix of the inverted opposites of the bureaucratic perception of dance since it had become an arm for diplomacy. Contemporary dance from Europe engaged with a deeply conservative, high profile, state supported brand of dance in India. The entire credit of identifying, encouraging and building on ‘modernity’ in Indian dance was handed over to the west and pinned to a date that was in 1980s, while the Indian side reserved for itself ‘constructed’ Indian classical dance (not even other traditions in India) to provide a counterpoint. Scholars argued that since the classical dance styles were product of assertion of national identity, and product of anti-colonialism, they themselves were ‘our’ kind of ‘modernity’.

If one looks at the state patronage, several things have happened during this time, to change the way one danced or looked at dance. On one hand, the effort to situate the dancing body in a sacred, pre-sculpted context of a temple as seen in all the festivals held in famous archaeological and tourist sites like Konark Sun Temple, Khajuraho Temple, Puri Beach etc, and on the other hand the state patronage to the local ‘folk’ dances by making the part of the carnival-like fairs and festivities like APNA UTSAV (literally meaning ‘our own festival’) by the Department of Culture and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations – speaks of a neutralizing effort to wipe out voices of difference/ resistance in order to create a generic identity either related to “Indian-ness” or/and a sweeping state/regional membership.

While one large part of the dance community in India still chose to remain insular in the safety net of tradition and state patronage, there was an on-going effort by some dancers/communities to define and redefine the body and its movements in the changing backdrop of the society out of a need to speak through the medium they use most comfortably for communication – their own bodies.

One major change, many a time incorporated and claimed to be within the larger canvas of theatre, and in an effort to subvert the overwhelming pressure of the ‘Classical Dances’ was of expanding vocabularies of movement praxis of the body by incorporating several ethnic dance / movement genres. Using this expanded vocabulary and the new found freedom of expression, the practice and presentation became bifurcated into two different areas for the first time for many performers – especially seen in the works of some women performers of that time, whose chosen and presented position of gendered choreography also followed a westernized feminist path, as they themselves tried to negotiate the need of the global into their daily local existence and creativity. The principal issue being that of the audience and patronage, the work of Chandralekha, given her position of a conscious thinking dancer, and her negotiation with the new emerging global product called ‘Indian Dance’ is one of the important area worth further research. Based on the documentation of her earlier productions and her presentations at the Festival of India, one can clearly see the path of change.

The ‘80s saw an immense amount of region- state- centre- international festivals movement of the ‘folk’ forms, after the Nodal agencies of Zonal Cultural centres started in 1986. The seven onal Cultural centres North, South, Eastern, North-east, central, western etc according to their own website (accessed on 19/8/2010) are formed for the following purpose:

The Seven Zonal Cultural Centres functioning as an autonomous body under the Ministry of Culture, were set up during 1985 to 1986 with the objective to preserve, innovate and promote the projections and dissemination of arts of the zone falling under the broad disciplines of Sangeet, Natak, Lalit Kala and Sahitya so as to develop and promote the rich diversity and uniqueness of various arts of the zone and to upgrade and enrich consciousness of the people about their cultural heritage. Special efforts are made to encourage folk and tribal arts and to preserve and strengthen the vanishing art forms....

The objective of setting up of ZCCs was to cut across territorial boundaries and to reach the larger identity of cultural relationship and commonality, to provide facilities for creative development of arts and literature with special emphasis on folk and tribal arts. The Zones were, on the one hand, to emphasise separate identity of the States in their Zones, and also to bring out the cultural kinship between the States. The ZCCs were meant to lay special emphasis on people's participation and revival of vanishing arts. The emphasis was to outreach by also having cultural performances in open areas for the common people not restricted for the elitist audiences.

At the same time, the ‘80s brought about a surge of saffronization which again provides another string of beads to the whole understanding of the period. After the emergency was over, and the consequent poll debacle of Indira Gandhi and the Congress Party, when Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, she was less populist but at the same time, needed to mobilize electoral pluralities. She started engaging with communal themes, sometimes openly engaging with the religious majority Hindu (80%) section of the population, and choosing to rally against the religious minorities. After her assassination, her son Rajiv also flirted with communalism – mainly rallying for the Hindus, but at times also taking a pro-Muslim stance. Narendra Subramanian, in his article “Ethnicity and Pluralism: An Exploration with Reference to Indian Cases” (2010: 500), writes:

As Hindu Revivalism has been more consistently intolerant, its support more widespread, and its activities less hampered by the state, it has damaged social pluralism more than either the Sikh or the Kashmiri movement has. Hindu revivalists have increased attacks against on-Hindus and their place of worship, rival trade unions, student unions, theatre troupes, artists, and textbook publishers. (

The all-out saffornization of politics took concrete shape over the 2nd half of the ‘80s and in the beginning of the ‘90s. For people of independent India, growing up in the multi-ethnic amalgam of the so called “melting pot of races”[i] Rama was a known figure, hero to some, god to many, and just a well known figure of an universally known and popular story to the rest. Thus Rama was a part of life for so many Indians, regardless of their religion, ethnicity, class, gender or any other exclusivity that the country accorded to its citizens – long before the revitalization of Rama became a political project. The renewed politicized interest in Ramayana – and the re-establishment of Rama in public life through a series of events – the television mega-serial of Ramanand Sagar, the demolition of Babri Masjid, and the highly politicized issue of Ram-Janmabhumi and the riots thereafter, have forced the entry of Rama in a newly revalorized Avtar- a figure of a Hindu God, where the name of this god becomes the cause of severe rupture in society instead of the cohesive cultural theme or unifier. In that period, Rama assumed new importance as his social, cultural and political existence was publicized to further the cause of fundamentalist Hindu Politics, while Ramayana, or the innumerable adapted texts thereof, continued to be the most performed Indian theme. – many a times as a weapon i the hands of the political parties.

Documentation to be provided:

Chandralekha, Dooradarchan and ICCR clips, and SHARIRA – a film by Ien Lall.

Manjushree and Ranjabati , performance clips

Apna Utsav Clips

IGNCA Website


The Websites refered to:

1. Website of the zonal cultural centres

accessed 19/07/2010

2. The forced inclusion and the ambiguous state of Chhau between Folk and classical

accessed 29/07/2010

Jharkhand tribal protest song and video – uploaded July 05, 2009!

3. Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts Website

Accessed 24/07/2010


1. Babri Masjid Demolition
Babri Masjid Demolition –
6th Dec. 1992 Exclusive_ Babri Masjid demolition.flv
The day Babri Masjid was demolished
Vidhwansh: documentary on Babri demolition-1
Vidhwansh: documentary on Babri demolition-2
Vidhwansh: documentary on Babri demolition-3
Vidhwansh: documentary on Babri demolition-4
Vidhwansh: documentary on Babri demolition-5
Vidhwansh: documentary on Babri demolition-6
2. Ramamnand Sagar made Television serial – “Ramayan” for Television in 1986
Ramayana Shri Ramanand Sagar's (with English subs)138
Sri Rama & Sita mata's wedding
Jai Ram Sada
3. Leaders of Hindu Fundamentalist parties using Rama’s image and performances for campaign
Ram Rath Yatra : 01
Ram Rath Yatra : 06
Workshop Posters:


Bhaba, Homi. 1990. Introduction to Homi K. Bhaba ed. The Nation and Narration, London: Routledge, Pp 1-7.

Bharucha, Rustom (1998). In the name of secular: Contemporary cultural activism in Indi. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Bharucha, Rustom, 2001. The Politics of Cultural Practice: Thinking through theatre in an age of globalization. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Bharucha, Rustom. 1995. Chandralekha: Woman, Dance, Resistance, New Delhi: Harper-Collins.

Bharucha, Rustom. 2008. “Remembering Chandra” , Dance: transcending Borders. (Ed. Urmimala Sarkar Munsi). Delhi: Tulika Books. Pp 3 – 18.

Chaki Sarkar, Manjusri. 1984. Feminism in a Traditional Society, Shakti Books: Calcutta.

Chakraborty, Aishika. 2008. Ranjabati: The Dancer and Her World, Kolkata: Thema.

Charsley, Simon and Lakshmi Narayan Kadekar,ed (2006). Performers and their arts. London, New York, New Delhi: Routledge.


Chatterjee, Partha (1994). ‘Secularism and tolerance’, The nation and its fragments. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


Coorlawala, Uttara Asha. (1994), Classical and Contemporary Indian Dance: Overview, Criteria and a Choreographic Analysis, Microfilm of unpublished manuscript of Ph.D dissertation, New York university.

Kapoor, Anuradha (1990). Actors, pilgrims, kings and gods: the Ramlila of Ramnagar. Calcutta: Seagull Books.


Nandy, Ashish, Shikha Trivedi, Shail Mayaram & Achyut Yagnik (1995). Creating a Nationality: The Ramjanmabhumi Movement and Fear of Self. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Subramanian, Narendra (2010). “Ethnicity and Pluralism: An Exploration with Reference to Indian Cases” (2010: 500), Ethnonationalism in India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp- 488 – 517.


Vatsyayan, Kapila. 1974. Indian Classical Dance, New Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.

Vatsyayan, Kapila. 1978. Traditions of Indian Folk Dance, New Delhi: Indian Book Company.

Vatsyayan,Kapila. 1998. “The Crafting of Institutions”, Idependent India: First fifty Years, ed. Hiranmay Karlekar, ICCR, Delhi: Oxford Universiy Press, pp. 489- 503.