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The Transformation of the Classical Indian Dance Tradition of Kathak in Terms of Social and Cultural Changes

A project funded by the National Science Centre (Poland)

Coordinator: Katarzyna Skiba MA

Duration: March 2014 - February 2016

The project aimed at articulating relationships between the transformation of the Kathak dance tradition in the new public sphere of the big cities, and the rapid social and cultural changes occurring in late colonial and post-colonial India. The intention of the author was to describe Kathak dance as an art reactive to the context of a rapidly changing political, social and cultural context, thus reflecting social change, which can be traced through the analysis of various modifications which the dance underwent over the past century. For this purpose, two phenomena – which particularly reveal the transformative impact of the historical context on Kathak dance – have been examined: the Indian dance revival, launched in the 1930s, and contemporary attempts to modernize the classical art of Kathak, termed as ‘innovations in tradition', or ‘contemporary Kathak', initiated in the 1980s. The former provided critical arguments for underlining the influence of nationalist discourse on the process of formulating the criteria for classicism in Indian dance, particularly in the form determined by the institutional patronage of the Indian government. In contrast, experimental choreographies have been examined as a space of increasing globalization, "liquefying" the national boundaries and narratives.
The results of the research have been developed through the analysis of source materials and audiovisual documentation, collected during three-month fieldwork carried out in dance schools and cultural centers in New Delhi, Lucknow, Kolkata and Ahmedabad. Applied methods included: interviews with Kathak dancers, teachers and choreographers, observation of dance classes and performances and archival research (in Sangeet Natak Academy, Archive and Research Center for Ethnomusicology in Gurgaon and New York Public Library). Scientific consultations with specialists in South Asian studies, anthropology and ethnomusicology in the United States formed part of the project.

The archival materials and data collected from the interviews allowed to explore late colonial and postcolonial history of Kathak. On the basis of interviews and observations, the author depicted the reality of contemporary dance practice, internal differentiation, hierarchy and dynamics of relationships within the community of Kathak dancers, especially the exponents of Lucknow gharana. The author has also investigated the phenomenon of social construction of the categories of "tradition," "classicism" and "experiment". Data gathered through interviews, observations, and performance analysis supported the diagnosis of current tendencies in Kathak art development, as well as the attitude of the local dance communities toward the imperative of faithful reproduction of the aesthetic canon and a postulate to innovate the repertoire. Social background and ethnic identity of the artists, their geographical location, religion, education and mobility have been considered as important factors of cultural hybridisation, to be seen in Kathak.

The research highlights the role of dance as a tool for political and social propaganda in India, deconstructing stereotypes and Orientalist imaginaries of classical Indian dances as centuries-old traditions, rooted in Hinduism and Sanskrit culture. The results of the project demonstrate the scale of Kathak evolution in reaction to globalisation and transculturation, as well as the postcolonial conditioning of the dance development.