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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Dance and cultural identity
Animated, Autumn 2001. Over the past two years dance anthropologist Dr Andree Grau, reader in dance at Roehampton The University of Surrey, London has been directing a Leverhulme funded research project South Asian Dance in Britain: negotiating cultural identity through dance (SADiB). Two colleagues worked with her as researchers, Dr Alessandra Lyer, an Italian dance archaeologist and Magdalen Gorringe, a British Bharata Natyam dancer. Here she reveals some of the findings

Although commonly used, the term 'South Asian dance' is not unproblematic. Indeed, an American colleague, Utta Coorlawala, commenting about SADiB rightly asked: 'Why do you refer to British persons of Indian origin as South Asian? What is gained by being lumped together with Pakistani, and Ceylonese and Burmese cultural exponents?(1) The term was coined in the United Kingdom to replace 'Indian dance'. Dance officers and practitioners argued that the dance systems falling under the category were not practised in India alone, and they felt that a generic term would be more appropriate.

I generally use 'dances of the Indian subcontinent', using the plural because to me it emphasizes both the vastness of the repertoire and the vastness of the geographical area. In my imagination South Asian dance is much more reductive. However, because South Asian dance is the label currently used by the dancers themselves, or at least by some of them, it is an appropriate term to use here.

Coorlawala also argued: 'I am puzzled as to why such a project would be run by a person with a non-Indian name?', and went on, 'I am kind of fed up by that kind of liberal on the outside, hold the reins tight on the inside way of organising projects. Having organised an information bank, how do I know it will serve South Asian interests?'(2)

This view contrasts sharply with Seema's, the artist quoted in Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's book Who do we think we are? Imagining the New Britain, who argued: 'I was born here. My parents came from Calcutta. They are among the most cultured people I know, who have a deep love of both India and Britain. For them culture is not a possession or a prison:'(3)

Culture is not a possession or a prison, indeed who owns artistic products? Artists should unquestionably own any commercial rights over their work, and debates abound about the exploitation of indigenous music, but one could argue too that once a cultural artefact is in the public domain, it becomes just that: public. In addition, in the culturally diverse world of today's metropolises it is difficult to know precisely how cultural heritages are built and what belongs to whom.

In 1991, the British Asian choreographer Shobhana Jeyasingh created Making of Maps. The inspiration for the work was a medieval European map with Jerusalem at its centre and other locations, both mythical and historical, placed in relation to it. For Jeyasingh the map suggested a symbolic construction, expressing the perspective and concerns of the mapmaker who drew it. Discussing the work and her position as an Indian dancer living in Britain, she argued: 'I suppose the first thing I thought about when I made Making of Maps was the question of heritage ... For me my heritage is a mix of David Bowie, Purcell, Shelley and Anna Pavlova, and it has been mixed as subtly as samosa has mixed itself into English cuisine ... Making of Maps really started as a process of inventing my own heritage.'(4)

Jeyasingh's heritage also includes Bharata Natyam, the 'dance language she was given'(5), the classical South Indian technique she draws from in her choreographic work. Her parents had encouraged her in learning it as part of reclaiming an Indian identity, which years of British colonialism had eroded. Jeyasingh then is a typical example where supposedly distinct heritages are implicated with each other, and where 'East' and 'West', 'Self' and 'Other', have very unclear boundaries.

The blurring of boundaries is true for all, be they artists, scholars or anything else. As the ethnomusicologist, Mark Slobin noted: 'We locate ourselves between the people we work on and the people we work with. The more the two converge, the more our position is revealed. Studying the American cantorate was particularly piquant - my "informants" looked like me, came from, lived in, and worked in similar neighbourhoods, earned about the same salary, and wrote twelve page reviews in their journals of the book I produced about them. Yet, my interests and theirs diverged so substantially that I felt little strain.(6)

It is important to keep in mind that heterogeneity is probably the true condition for everyone. Although some people may seem to be monolingual and/or monocultural it is also true that everybody has many linguistic styles - if not necessary languages - and many subcultures to draw from. Nowhere is it safe to draw conclusions about what belongs to whom.

These issues of identity and ownership have been at the heart of SADiB. In many ways, our work followed in the intellectual footsteps of the numerous studies in ethnomusicology and dance anthropology that have shown that music and dance form potent symbols for identification. At one level then it was about embodying cultural heritage, tradition, and history. Yet at another it was also about un-picking the complexity of these concepts, showing how notions of' identity' and 'tradition' in themselves are not particularly useful, unless we emphasize identity-and tradition-in-the-making. As the Jamaican anthropologist, David Scott, observed: 'A tradition ... seeks to connect authoritatively, within the structure of its narrative, a relation among past, community, and identity. A tradition therefore is never neutral with respect to the values it embodies. Rather a tradition operates in and through the stakes it constructs.'(7)

We were also very much aware of the danger inherent in any research dealing with identity in that it can be seen to 'ethnicise' its subjects and in this way continue in the steps of the very colonial discourse, which we are questioning. What is crucial here is that we are not 'othering' members of minorities, but that issues of identity are looked at throughout society and that this is done within a framework of inclusion /exclusion and of access to resources.

In the 1980s I had carried out a project looking at intercultural performance(8,9) and I wanted to pursue in greater depth certain issues raised at the time. What had interested me then was the difference of perceptions of audiences, sponsors as well as practitioners, when looking at dancers and choreographers of different origins. The Amsterdam based Czech choreographer, Jiri Kilian, for example, was made much fuss of when, searching for inspiration for a new work, he observed Aboriginal dancers during a three-day festival on Groote Eyland in the early 1980s. A Dutch television crew followed him and the result was the documentary On the Road to Stamping Ground, which was broadcast in the United Kingdom to great acclaim. The programme highlighted Kilian's creativity and he became somehow an expert on Aboriginal dance. (To be fair, Kilian's remarks on the movement material were extremely perceptive and I am not criticising him here.)

In contrast, the experimental dance works of some South Asian dancers have been received rather differently by sections of the British dance media. 'Much Asian inspired dance that is being passed as contemporary and creative is suspect because the choreography is usually based on an uncertain grasp of the innovative possibilities of Asian dance allied with, to put it mildly, a misunderstanding of contemporary Western dance idioms.'(10)

Dance writing, like other writing, is often stereotypical and prejudiced. Wheelchair bound contemporary dancer Petra Kupper has raised many issues offering close parallels to South Asian dance. She argued, for example, that a large range of embodiments are lumped together under the label 'disability', and that the disabled body is generally perceived as wanting to be 'other'. She thought it was rather tiresome that, for instance, her 'whizzing around the stage on a wheelchair', is almost always perceived, by both audience and critics, as her overcoming her limitations.'(11)

Similarly, much of South Asian dance is perceived in stereotypical fashion, linked to prejudices. When doing educational work, for example, South Asian dancers are often treated as exotica, and expected to provide a whole cultural experience, rather than as dance artists practising highly sophisticated and demanding techniques. Some dancers, for example, mentioned being asked by schools to discuss Indian food as well as dance! As if the French ballerina Sylvie Guillem would he asked to describe Boeuf Bourguignon in order to situate her dance practice!

Comments on ethnicity regularly crop up when dealing with South Asian dance - indeed this is probably true for all non-white dance - whilst white ethnicity is never an issue for dance reviewers. Over 30 years ago Joann Keali'inohomoku wrote her landmark article An anthropologist looks at ballet as a form of ethnic dance.(12) Every year my students discover it and are 'shocked' by it because they have never thought of ballet in this way. Because ballet is transnational, it is perceived as being universal and as such as a-cultural Yet, Bharata Natyam, which is also transnational, remains routed in a specific image of an ancient Indian culture, despite the historical fact that it has been largely constructed in the 30s.

Ethnicity for most is something that belongs to minorities. In the United Kingdom, as part of our professional lives, we complete many forms supporting ethnic monitoring and affirmative action. Whilst there are many variations under the labels 'Black' and 'Asian', 'White' is generally singular.(13) I am not going to go into details as to why this is so, suffice it to say that when people have been in a position of power for a long time, this becomes a natural state of affairs. They are the norm, and every body different is 'other'. Concepts such as Western/Non Western are illustrative of this. Shobana Jeyasingh put it in this way: 'The assumption [is] that "East", myself, must be a simple unchanging essence which stands for Tradition and The Past, and "West" represents change, modernity and dynamism.'(14)

It is important that we move away from the museum culture attitude and that we look at the complexities underlying processes of identification.

The issue of identity was especially poignant when Gorringe, a professional Bharata Natyam dancer, had her authenticity as a performer questioned by some of our informants. Although from her perspective the authenticity of a dance form resides in the body of the performer, and the extent to which this body transmits the aesthetic ideal embodied in the dance technique, some people linked authenticity with skin colour. Audience's expectations then, may have less to do with the inherent aesthetic quality of the dance and more to do with a supposedly cultural 'authenticity'. A performance can become the artistic representative of 'Indianness', an ethnic display rather than a serious artistic product contributing to a larger framework of theatre dance within a culturally diverse society.

Comments such as those of Coorlawala, mentioned earlier, ignore both the transnational nature of techniques such as Bharata Natyam and the multiplicity of discourses within the Indian subcontinent and the Indian diaspora. I cannot help thinking about one of Vikram Seth's characters in A suitable boy who argues: 'Dear Chacha Nehru, I felt like saying, this is India, Hindustan, Bharat, the country where the fraction was invented before the zero. If even the heart is divided into four parts can you expect us Indians to divide ourselves into less than four hundred?'(15)

The varied and sometimes almost contradictory visions of South Asian dance in Britain can best be presented by juxtaposing two London-based institutions promoting it: Akademi: South Asian Dance in Britain and The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Both organisations were set up in London in the 1970s with similar aims. Akademi, known then as the National Academy of Indian Dance, saw its role as advancing 'the education of the public in the understanding, appreciation and development of the art of dance generally and in particular Indian dance mime and music both percussion and vocal.'(16) Whilst the aim of Bhavan was to 'bridge barriers between old and new as well as the immigrant and host communities, which is accomplished through the preservation and study of the heritage of India, its art and culture.'(17)

By the time of its 21st anniversary, in 2000, Akademi had on the one hand sanskritised its name, but was also promoting itself as being cutting-edge. Its director Mira Kaushik saw it as a 'silent laboratory within which South Asian dancers have experimented and stretched the boundaries of their dance forms within a contemporary social, educational and artistic context.'(18)

In contrast, Bhavan continues to stress its role of 'educating people in Britain about the Indian community, and helping Indians to put down roots in their new home without sacrificing their heritage.'(19) It celebrates major Indian festivals (still primarily Hindu), and hosts regular concerts given by resident and visiting Asian artists. The main aim in its programming continues to be to promote and preserve the classical forms. On this principle, Bhavan does not host contemporary based work, even when based on traditional forms. In this way, it is promoting an ancient heritage and it largely ignores the fact that scholars both in the West and in the Indian subcontinent have questioned this antiquity. No mentions are made of 'the revivalist and reconstructive movement of Indian classical dance' and of its link to 'the formation of national ideology in India', as discussed by Chakravorty(20) and others.

To come hack to the issue of identity, it is important to note that when ethnicity is invoked, the concept of race is rarely far away. It is important to realise that both ethnicity and race are cultural inventions. Race has very little to do with biology. Over 98 per cent of the genetic make up of all human beings is the same and one can find sometimes more differences between two individuals belonging to the same 'race' than between two belonging to different ones. Invoking biology is simply a way of justifying power inequalities.

To classify someone as white, brown, or black may be in part descriptive and linked to external visual features. We must remember, however, that slave masters invented this terminology. As Ishmael Reed has argued, originally black was a 'commercial term'.(21) If one could say that the offspring of an African and a European was 'black', for example, then money could be made. Race is also political. The journalist Gary Young argued recently in The Guardian, 'when it comes to race, black is, and has always been, a political colour. Its shade is not fixed but fluid and determined not by concrete rules but by specific contexts.'(22)

I want to stress here that we do not have simply a white/non-white dichotomy. Binary oppositions are intrinsic to Western thinking, be it popular or academic. This does not make them true and they are highly problematic. One must also keep in mind that ethnocentrism is very much part of the human condition, in the sense that most people see themselves as the centre of the world.

The kinds of prejudices I mentioned earlier do not belong to white people only. The British Asian theatre director, Jatinder Verma, for example, in his interesting analysis of multicultural productions talked about the elinguist map of modern Britain. He lists: ' ... Hindi, Punjabi, Gujerati, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil' (all from 'his' part of the world), 'Ghanaian, Nigerian.'(23) Well there is no such thing as Nigerian or Ghanaian! There is, however, Yoruba, Tiv, Hausa and so on. If Verma had referred to 'Indian' in the sense that he may well perceive as specific sensitivity underlying all the Indian languages, as one of our consultants commented upon, but he did not. In his eyes, India is complex, Nigeria is not.

Again, this is something natural, we are aware of the complexity of what we know. Looking from afar we can talk about Indian dancing, African dancing, or Irish dancing, because we see features that seem characteristic, but looking closer it does not make sense any more. Generalisations are always problematic because they iron out differences.

The issues underlying identity throughout the world are complex. In an interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe argued: 'It is, of course, true that the African identity is still in the making. There isn't a final identity that is African. But, at the same time, there is an identity coming into existence. And it has a certain context and a certain meaning. Because if somebody meets me, say, in a shop in Cambridge, he says: "Are you from Africa?" Which means that Africa means something to some people. Each of these tags has a meaning, and a penalty and a responsibility.(24)

An analogous situation exists with the notion of British identity and in recent years, a number of conferences and reports sponsored by official public bodies have been dealing with these very issues. In 1997, for example, The British Council organised Reinventing Britain: Identity, Transnationalism and the Arts, in 1999 The Arts Council of England sponsored the conference Whose heritage? The impart of cultural diversity on Britain's living heritage, and the Runymede Trust commissioned the report The future of multi-ethnic Britain in 2000 which created a great deal of debate in political circles.(25)

At the heart of all of these discussions is the fluidity of identities that are 'both given and constantly reconstituted'(26), in what has been called 'the hybrid cosmopolitanism of contemporary metropolitan life.'(27) Although one cannot ignore the questions around privileged access and control, I would argue, in response to Coorlawala, that to have a Swiss, an Italian, and an English woman working with British Asians as consultants, is not so much a question of holding the reins as we are accused of possibly doing, as a reflection of different histories: my introduction to Bharata Natyam as a teenager was from classes taught by Vija Vetra, a Latvian (NOT Finnish!) woman, based in New York, and teaching within a dance summer school in Vienna!

Footnotes & References

1, 2. Coorlawala, Utta, Personal communication to SADiB via e-mail, 2000
3. Alibhai-Brown, Jasmine, Who do we think we are? Imagining the new Britain, Penguin, London, 2000
4, 5. Jeyasing Shobana, Imaginary Homelands: Creating a new dance language' in Adshead-Landsdale, Janet, (compiler) Border Tensions: dance and discourse, University of Surrey, 1995
6. Slobin, Mark, Subcultural Sounds: Micromusics of the West, Hanover & London: Wesleyan University Press, 1993
7. Hall, Stuart, Unsettling the 'heritage': re-imagining the post-nation. Keynote address for Whose heritage? The impact of cultural diversity on Britain's living heritage, Arts Council at England, London, 1999
8. Grau, Andree, Interculturalismedans les arts du spectacle in Jean-Yves Pidoux ed. La danse, art du XXseiecle? Payot, Lausanne, 1990
9. Grau, Andree Intercultural Research in the Performing Arts, Dance Research Journal, 10(2), 1992
10. Massey, Reginald, Asian Dance - today's malaise, The Dancing Times, July, 1998
11. Kuppers, Petra, Victim art and the aesthetic of subversion dance theatre paper presented at Momentum: Dance Theatre Conference, Department at Contemporary Arts, The Manchester Metropolitan University, 1999
12. Keali inohomoku, Joann, An anthropologist looks at ballet as a form of ethnic dance, Impulse, 1969/ 1970 (reprinted is Copeland, R. and Cohen, S.J., What is Dance? Readings in Theory and Criticism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983)
13. Interestingly, the Greater London Authority is one of the exceptions
14. Jeyasing, Shobana,Text Context Dance, in Alessandra Iyer (ed) South Asian Dance: the British Experience, Academic Publishers, London, 1997
I5. Seth,Vikram,A suitable boy, Phoenix, London, 1993
16. Akademi Declaration of Trust, 1979
17, 19. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, mission statement
18. Coming of Age, publicity leaflet, 2000
20. Chakravorty, Pallaby, From interculturalism to historicism: reflections on classical Indian dance, Dance Research Journal 32, 2000/01
21. Reed, Ishmael, Is ethnicity obsolete? In Sollors, Werner, (ed) The Invention of Ethnicity, Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford 1989
22. Young, Gary, The many in one, The Guardian, London, 28 June, 2001
23. Jatinder Verma, The Challenge on Binglish: analysing multicultural productions,
24. Achebe, in Appiah, Kwame Anthony, In my Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, Methuen, London, 1992
25. Parekh, Bhiku,The future of multi-ethnic Britain. Profile Books, London, 2000
26. Babha, Homi, Re-inventing Britain: a manifesto British Studies Now, April, 1997
27. Parekh, Bhiku, Defining British national identity, Political Quarterly, 71(1), 2000

Dr Andree Grau, reader in dance, Roehampton The University of Surrey, London. Contact +44 (0)20 8392 3372. Email

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001