In this ambitious book, Leela Venkataraman delivers a detailed account and perspective of the rebirth of Indian classical dance — called ‘Neo Classical’  by Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan — from the 1930s to half a century later. The title suggests a total history of dance since the years prior to Independence to its present day. Delving deep into the past to find the country&’s rich heritage, resulting in the resurgence of dance among other things, was singularly due to an-all round effort to find an Indian identity, towards  the last lap of the struggle  for freedom.

Prior to this revivalist movement, dance had been a part of temple rituals and the royal courts. To make dance proscenium-fit was a herculean task. A sea of change was needed to save this precious wealth, that was waiting in the wings.  The story of this saga has been meticulously told by Leela Venkataraman from its inception to modern times, not only in its content, but also about the presentation, the changed audience and a change in approach by gurus  and the performers themselves. A book of this genre was long overdue to give the reader an overview of our dance tradition; of the nucleus around which this extraordinary art form developed in its different stages to what it is now.

Critique and author, Leela Venkataraman has researched on the detailed progress of dance and has taken the reader on a journey through seven classical dance forms of India using both  quantitative and qualitative methodology,  which involved using materials taken from a variety of sources and conducting interviews, thereby enabling her to examine her subject from different angles.

Gripping details of each form has been covered minutely but separately because each has  a different history.

In the Bharatanatyam section, the author  dwells extensively on  Rukmini Devi Arundale&’s contribution to the reinvention of Bharatanatyam from Sadir. History was created when Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai agreed to teach Rukmini Devi.  The door was left wide open for the art of dance, which was the exclusive domain of the Devadasi to make a jumpstart to reach the homes of conservative Brahmin families. Devadasis or temple dancers came under censure in the early 20th century, till it was completely discontinued in the wake of the independence  in 1947. Contemporary to the times of Rukmini Devi, who was bent on making Bharatanatyam of a high order, fit for stage presentation, a bright star appeared in the firmament of dance.

Balasaraswati, hailing from the Devadasi family was a legend whose art was difficult to surpass and to whom “sringar was an all-encompassing mood which included all the other moods.” She says “artists like her are born not made.” Pioneers in Bharatanatyam and the contribution made by its early  gurus”, as well as individual dancers who have made a mark is a veritable list of who is who.

The evolution of Kathak from the narrative traditions to ballads and other traditions with a history of temple and court tradition and the nautch girls who shared a similar fate as the  devadasis has been well chronicled. The epic story of  Guru Durga Prasad, of Lucknow  gharana Kathak, teaching Nawab Wajid Ali Shah himself and his torch-bearers, the legendary Kalka Bindadin and then onto Shambhu Maharaj, Lachhu Maharaj and Achhan Maharaj and Birju Maharaj who is a living legend. Other  gharanas like the Jaipur, and Raigarh developed side by side. Kumudini Lakhia&’s creative instinct gave Kathak a new perspective. Kathak Mahotsav envisioned by Keshav Kothari in 1980 gave Kathak a pan-Indian outlook by attracting the best talents.

Likewise the history of Kathakali, which is a  complete theatre; its unique costume and make up and story-telling ability and the setting up of Kerala Kalamandalam by Vallathol, has been captured in 25 pages.

The source of Sattriya dance of Assam was the product of the Bhakti movement started 500 years ago in the Sattras, monastic traditions, founded by Shankaradeva and nurtured by his followers is being performed outside the Sattras, like the other classical dance forms since 1950. It was only in 2000 that it  was  raised to the status of classical dance, with the dance form Ojapali being an integral part of it . Among practitioners of  Sattriya dance today, mediocrity has set in, in the  absence of in-depth knowledge of Sattriya missing among dance practitioners. 

 Manipuri, ranked as one of the first four dances of India to be given the nomenclature ‘Classical’, was largely due to Rabindranath Tagore and West Bengal, as early as 1892 in an earlier version of  Chitrangada, as per reports of Guru Singhajit Singh. In Manipur, Manipuri dance is an inextricable part of worship even today. Worship of Radha and Krishna came in the wake of Bhakti movement from the time of  king Bhagyachandra, while the existing Lai Haroaba and Thangta continues being performed.

The history of Mohiniattam is inextricably intertwined with its visionaries —  poet Vallathol and Mukunda Raja. Mohiniattam, a purely female dance was looked down upon, till it was resurrected by  Kerala Kalamandalam. The future of Mohiniattam according to the author depends “not so much on the dance form as in the proficiency of the dancer in communicating across cultures.”

As in other parts of India, devadasis of Andhra Pradesh also came under condemnation and went underground by 1947.  The Bhagavatulus — all male performers settled in Kuchipudi village — is how the dance got its name and performed a dance theatre called Yakshagana. The Andhra identity and Kuchipudi were promoted by ardent scholars giving the dance form its rebirth. A new branch named “Vilasini Natyam” was the product of intense research carried out by Swapnasundari on the Andhra Devadasis. With the loss of many legendary gurus, Kuchpudi is presently going through a lean phase.

Gurus and scholars of Odissi were induced to integrate their dance efforts  in one banner. With this aim in view Jayantika was held in 1957  and a standardized performance format was arrived at  with not always a unanimous decision. Present here were Guru Pankaj Charan Das, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Debaprasad Das, Mayadhar Raut, scholar/dancer Dhirendranath Pattanaik. Today, a lot of Odissi activity is kept alive through Odissi Research Centre, Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi and through the numerous festivals as well as seminars and symposiums. Privately-run institutions seem to be doing a lot of positive work for the improvement of Odissi. As is true of all other dance forms,  Odissi is still growing. 

A well-referenced book, with a first-hand knowledge of accounts giving the reader a deeper insight into the dry facts of history.  To take it to proscenium space, a ‘concert format’ had to be  developed at the outset. This continued for half a century, but with cultural give and take and dance reaching foreign lands , a change in perception and practice was inevitable, not without an attempt to stay rooted in its identity.

The subject being too vast, the author has kept modern dance outside her purview. She has clarified that the book is a product of her experiences in the last fifty years and the perception is her very own.

In a further chapter,  she has dealt with the changing relationship of the teacher and the taught, with interesting details. The teachers of yore were greatly revered and taken with unquestioning faith. “If a mistake were to be detected, the guru&’s tattukazhi — the stick with which he keeps the beat — would fly through the air, aiming for his knees”. In the absence of an adequate number of performance platforms, teaching has become a necessary option and in many cases mediocrity has crept in. A lot of cloning has been taking place; styles of schools have disappeared. However, dancers like Nartaki Nataraj have stuck to the style of her guru Kittapa Pillai.

 With the offspring of traditional gurus not taking to the same profession , the gharanedars are fast vanishing. Although not all in the audience of today have sharpened awareness,  “dance will continue to exist at various levels, good, bad and indifferent.” Festivals by multitasked dancers and their institutions have become quite common. A discerning audience, which is sadly becoming less and less by the day,  is what the classical arts need, whereas  those wishing to learn is on the rise. Only time will show the fruits of the work of Spic Macay in enthusing young people to be interested in the arts. As of now the audience consists mostly of senior or middle-aged citizens. However, dance in post-independent India has come to stay due to the sheer instinct of survival. Great art will thrive and excellence will emerge from amongst the existing milieu.

The book provides  glimpses of the modern scenario of dance and has focused on  individual dancers. It is perfectly organised and lends itself successfully  about all that has to be said about each of the forms. Relying heavily on historical evidence as well as archival material, the book reveals the author&’s erudition, reaffirming  her credentials as a dance historian. The layout and typography are attractive and will surely adorn libraries of dance schools as well as hold a place of pride with connoisseurs and collectors.  It is an excellent resource for dance scholars, teachers/gurus, performers and connoisseurs.

(The reviewer is a dance critic)