Kathak, the classical dance of North India, combines virtuosic footwork and dazzling spins with subtle pantomime and soft gestures. As a global practice and one of India’s cultural markers, kathak dance is often presented as heir to an ancient Hindu devotional tradition in which men called Kathakas danced and told stories in temples.
The dance’s repertoire and movement vocabulary, however, tell a different story of syncretic origins and hybrid history—it is a dance that is both Muslim and Hindu, both devotional and entertaining, and both male and female. Kathak’s multiple roots can be found in rural theater, embodied rhythmic repertoire, and courtesan performance practice, and its history is inextricable from the history of empire, colonialism, and independence in India.
An analysis of primary and secondary sources, ethnography, iconography, and current performance practice illuminates new data about hereditary performing artists, gendered contexts and practices, and postcolonial cultural reclamation. The account that emerges places kathak and the Kathaks firmly into the living context of North Indian performing arts.
This according to India’s kathak dance in historical perspective by Margaret E. Walker (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).
Above, Birju Maharaj, one of the consummate kathak performers of our time; below, in a rare seated performance, Maharaj depicts the sensuous world of a young woman as monsoon season approaches.
BONUS: The finale of a performance that includes some of Maharaj’s star students.
Having established herself as a leading performer of bharata nāṭyam, by 1960 Chandralekha Prabhudas Patel—professionally known as Chandralekha—felt a need to move beyond the genre’s boundaries and began to pursue ideas about fusing Indian dance traditions with modern idioms.
Chandralekha was a firm believer in the need for resuscitating older forms with contemporary energy, drawing also on martial art and therapeutic traditions. Always a controversial figure, she criticized plastic smiles, fake religiosity, and mindless repetition of mythological themes. A voracious reader, a gifted writer, and a poet, she lived a full life and influenced a whole generation of young dancers.
This according to “Rebel with a cause” by Sunil Kothari (Sruti 269 [February 2007] pp. 16–19).
Today would have been Chandralekha’s 90th birthday! Below, a brief documentary about her life and work.
When World War II broke out, British ballet was only a few decades old, and few had imagined that it would establish roots in a nation long thought to be unresponsive to the genre.
Nevertheless, the War proved to be a boon for ballet dancers, choreographers, and audiences, for Britain’s dancers were forced to look inward to their own identity and sources of creativity. Instead of withering during the enforced isolation of war, ballet in Britain flourished, exhibiting a surprising heterogeneity and vibrant populism that moved ballet outside its typical elitist surroundings to be seen by uninitiated, often enthusiastic audiences.
Ballet proved to help boost morale, to render solace to the soul-weary, and to afford entertainment and diversion to those who simply craved a few hours of distraction. Government authorities came to see that ballet could serve as a tool of propaganda; it functioned within the larger public discourse of sacrifice, and it answered a public mood of pragmatism and idealism.
This according to Albion’s dance: British ballet during the Second World War by Karen Eliot (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
Above, Robert Helpmann’s Miracle in the Gorbals (1944), one of the works discussed in the book; below, a documentary about reconstructing the dance in 2014.
Filed under Dance, Politics
What happens when machines teach humans to dance?
Dance video games transform players’ experiences of popular music, invite experimentation with gendered and racialized movement styles, and present new possibilities for teaching, learning, and archiving choreography.
Dance games are part of a media ecology that includes the larger game industry, viral music videos, reality TV competitions, marketing campaigns, and emerging surveillance technologies. The circulation of dance gameplay and related body projects across media platforms illuminates how dance games function as intimate media, configuring new relationships among humans, interfaces, music and dance repertoires, and social media practices.
This according to Playable bodies: Dance games and intimate media by Kiri Miller (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
Above, a Just dance session; below, a Dance central session. Both game series serve as case studies in the book, which draws on five years of research with players, game designers, and choreographers.
Earlier treatises placed śṛngāra (love/the erotic) among the aesthetic qualities known as rasas, but the 11th-century Śṛngāraprakāśa, attributed to Bhojarāja, King of Malwa (inset), was the first to assert its supreme importance.
The treatise includes highly detailed typologies of love—for example, chapter 22 alone discusses 64 stages of love, each subdivided into 8 categories, each of which is then subdivided into 8 more categories, with hundreds of illustrations from poetic works in Prakrit and Sanskrit.
This according to “Bhoja’s Sringara prakasa: A landmark in the evolution of rasa theory” by V. Subramaniam (Sruti 190 [July 2000] pp. 37–41). Above, a classic image of Krishna and Radha in the moonlight; below, the legendary T. Balasaraswati’s depiction of Krishna’s childhood provides an embodiment of śṛngāra in bharata nāṭyam (filmed by Satyajit Ray).
Filed under Antiquity, Asia
The Ewe of Ghana have a long history of incorporating musical elements from other cultures into their traditions.
Recent developments among the Tagborlo family in the master drumming for agbadza funeral dancing (above), influenced to some extent by contacts with Western popular music, involve humor (including graphic sexual jokes), taunts, and quotations from popular songs in a manner resembling sampling procedures in rap music. These innovations are entirely within the tradition—the basic rhythmic structure, cultural context, and instrumentation remain the same.
This according to “’My mother has a television, does yours?’ Transformation and secularization in an Ewe funeral drum tradition” by James Burns (Oral tradition XX/2 [October 2005] pp. 300–319). Below, agbadza drumming and dancing at a funeral in Atsiekpui, Ghana; the master drummer on the far left conveys verbal messages through references to speech rhythms and tones.
Related post: Dagomba dance-drumming
Filed under Africa, Humor
The EVIA Digital Archive Project is a collaborative peer-reviewed digital archive of ethnographic field videos for use by scholars and teachers; it is also an infrastructure of tools and systems supporting scholars in the ethnographic disciplines, including ethnomusicology and ethnochoreology.
Since its founding in 2001, the project has been developed through the joint efforts of ethnographic scholars, archivists, librarians, technologists, and legal experts, with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Indiana University, and the University of Michigan. There is no charge for access for educational purposes. Above, the videographer James B. Weegi assists the ethnomusicologist Ruth M. Stone with materials that are now part of her EVIA collection.