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On the Dilemmas of Artistic (Con)Fusion: Dance

On the Dilemmas of Artistic (Con)Fusion: Dance

When is "fusion" really fusion -- the metaphor for the colliding of two powerful cultural forces -- and when is it simply (con)fusion? Smitha Radhakrishnan discusses Indian dance in Part One of her series.

By Smitha Radhakrishnan

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Duration: 7:37

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Desi Dilemmas
Connecting Personal Issues to the Big Picture

Smitha Radhakrishnan has been publishing her podcast Desi Dilemmas from Podbazaar since November of 2005. On August 2007, she joined Asia Pacific Arts. Desi Dilemmas weaves together narratives, opinion, and research with Indians on three continents, to place common issues facing desis in a larger social and economic context.

Questions? Comments? Write to her at desidilemmas@yahoo.com.

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Listen to Smitha Radhakrishnan's podcast

 

For kids like me, growing up in hinterlands of the South Asian diaspora -- suburban Phoenix, to be exact -- Indian dance and music were not really seen as forms of art. They were forms of culture. To learn and perform these things was to "keep up" culture and heritage, a kind of inoculation against the evils of Americanization. It's not an uncommon sentiment: if you were to browse the websites and mission statements of schools of Indian dance all over the US, you would find words like "preserve," "carry on," and "pass down" used liberally, usually paired with words like "ancient" and "authentic."  

There's a boatload of baggage that comes along with the inculcation of Indian art forms as cultural inoculation. For one, it implies there is something absolutely ancient (and therefore essential) that is in danger of being corrupted. And if that's the case, then change or adaptation goes against that.  But how can you claim "authenticity" if you're just soaking up whatever cultural environment you're in?

Despite the overwhelming dominance of this view of things, a loud and visible counterpoint has emerged. And as much as the diaspora has fueled a veritable rebirth in the "traditional" Indian performing arts -- just like any good dialectical movement, it's also given birth to its opposite: folks who are interested more in different kind of "authentic" artistic expression. That is, with regards to the self and one's own (bi)cultural experience, not based on an unchanging somewheretime for which we only have mythical, often dogmatic references.

You'd think fusion would be most popular amongst the diaspora, people seeped in American culture and Indian mixed with anything from folk to modern to cabaret, in a dizzying range of costumes and musical textures. When I was growing up, "film dance" seemed to me like kind of an insult. Like, "Yeah, you know, what she does: it's more, you know, film-y." But in recent years, it seems to have come into its own as Bollywood dance classes have become as ubiquitous as their classical counterparts -- and far more popular. It's become an easy reference point for Indian dance. 

It's common to see "fusion" dance in less glossy settings than the big screen. Some years ago, I was a part of a South African dance company that was decidedly and very self-consciously of the "fusion" variety: Indian women doing Indian dance while African men did African dance, dancing side by side, hand in hand. The colors of the newly democratic South Africa mixing together in breathtaking harmony. And although this portrayal is gutsy and moving and important in a still largely segregated South Africa (where the Indian purists used to cringe at seeing bejeweled Indian girls rubbing shoulders with African men on stage), it still stuck closely to the idea of dance as culture. Two dances getting together translates directly to two cultures getting together.  

Whether in the extraordinary social and cultural context of post-apartheid South Africa or not, the idea behind fusion is fairly simple: some element of "the classical" is "retained" -- sometimes movement, sometimes music, sometimes rhythm -- plus something "else" -- presumably something opposite, be it Western or modern or African, depending on where you look. At least that's the idea, an idea which, in itself is chalk-full of all sorts of Orientalist metaphors.  

Whatever the idea though, more often than not, it doesn't quite work because it always runs the risk of being not quite convincing enough to even the semi-trained eye. Classical dancers who suddenly start flailing around on stage, trying to present a newly-acquired vocabulary of modern dance look just as silly as pop music stars trying to adopt some random Indian-ish kind of movement. This is not to say that there haven't been important exceptions. In India, artists like the legendary Chandralekha have been upsetting purists and delighting the adventurous for years. But it's still a rarity to see a "mix" that really works.

But every so often, it works so well that the promise of true fusion is fulfilled. Take the work of New York-based dancer and choreographer, Parijat Desai. Parijat has been trained in both classical Indian dance and modern, and the result is something utterly unlike either. The Parijat Desai Dance Company performed in New York on October 18-20th and had a rave review in the New York Times Dance section on the 22nd.  The article said that the dance "avoided ritual," which seemed to mean that somehow the "ritual" of classical dance was bad.  But, the review didn't go deeper than that.  

To me, the thing that works so well about Parijat and her dance company is that they've taken Bharatnatyam and modern and a bunch of other things -- notably folk, which comes off in a stunningly fresh and breathtaking rendition of Garba, a traditional folk dance from Gujarat -- and made it into something distinctive. Desai has carefully, thoughtfully, and painstakingly created a new vocabulary for movement: something so tight and polished that all the influences contained in it meld together quite seamlessly.  

To me, the popularity of "fusion" dance belies its complexity. To do it well takes a level of dedication that few are up to in the long run. For it is a long run. And not only is it difficult, it's unsettling, impossible to put into a box or a category. It's the absolute antithesis to Indian dance as an inoculation against the influences of the Western or the American. Are we ready to give up on the old inoculation idea now that a new artistic generation has taken shape? Doubt it.  But we can dream.  

Asia Pacific Arts