The real cultural product of India’s new economy? It’s not Bollywood but the dance reality show

Blurring the traditional lines between classical, folk and film dance, this new format has democratised participation, argues a new book.

I set out to meet Allen sir (as he was popularly known) one afternoon with Chandan, the driver of my rented car. Chandan was my human GPS who could take me anywhere. But we did not have proper directions to Allen sir’s house, which was located in some dense and deep alleyways of south Kolkata, well beyond the movie studios in Tollygunge. We knew the name of the church next to his house and we stopped our car at different junctures to ask for directions. Everybody we asked, from auto drivers to pedestrians to shopkeepers, knew the directions to Allen sir’s house. They all knew him from TV. Chandan was pleased that I was meeting someone famous and important; he asked whether we were going to a politician’s or a film-star’s house.

Allen Perris, the choreographer of the reality show “Dance Bangla Dance (Junior),” was neither a politician nor a film star, but was a young Christian male from a modest background who was a household name in Kolkata in 2011. Not only was he a household name, but his name evoked strong sentiments about dance, culture, reality shows, and children and young adults – that is, his name brought up feelings associated with a constellation of images that were regularly seen on Bangla language TV and had audiences hooked. It was evident from the sentiments expressed by many people I spoke with that dance reality shows were unsettling the taken-for-granted cultural domain of Indian dance and music. It was a very visible part of India’s emergent, unwieldy public culture that was drawing a large number and diversity of agents into its folds, both as participants and spectators. The stage was new, uncharted, and tantalising. The audiences were passionate and captivated.

I found Allen Perris in his tiny flat with a bandana around his head and a loose fitting T-shirt. He was soft spoken, modest, and accessible. He was excited about his future as a choreographer of reality shows. He was working for Zee TV then but was looking to work with Star TV and other networks. He said that the audience had high standards now and it wanted novelty – although authenticity was good, it had to be blended, like Bharatanatyam with contemporary dance. The last episode of “Dance Bangla Dance,” he told me, had a multitude of dance categories such as Latin, Creative, Contemporary Indian, Hip-Hop, and Bollywood. He had won the best choreographer’s award, despite the presence of other wonderful choreographers on the show, who blended international dance styles, acrobatics, and Bollywood to create new forms and choreographies – something I call “remix.”

This was the new dance landscape that was revolutionising the established Indian dance hierarchies of classical, folk, tribal, and film.

These rigid categories of Indian dances (created by the past elite nationalist narratives and by the state Akademies in Delhi) were dissolving in contemporary India. A cultural war was taking place, far away from the strident corridors of party politics, and it was ushering in a new vision of a participatory democracy. A new generation of dancers and choreographers was emerging, many from the lower middle and working classes, with diverse caste and religious identities, as cultural producers and consumers. Indian democracy was spreading wider and digging deeper, and the older classical dances were losing their hold as the source of symbolic capital for status and identity.

These dramatic transformations in cultural values and their meanings accompanied India’s economic liberalisation. That structural shift had ushered in the rise and spread of Bollywood as a culture industry, along with an astounding explosion of television channels. This multiplication of cable and satellite channels rapidly changed India’s public sphere into a chaotic morass. It spawned a transnational and translocal cultural ethos that contested the erstwhile bounded national and regional (and gender) identities. The debates on market reforms continued to rage in many quarters, and as the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014, with the promise of further reforms and economic development, but also with the ideology of Hindu right wing politics, the debates on morality and good conduct intensified even further.

These rapid and tumultuous changes of the past two decades could be seen as a bewildering ensemble of contradictions.

The core contradiction was between a globalising economy and culture advocating a Janus-faced narrative of modernisation, urbanisation, and democratisation on one side, and a counter-narrative of preservation of tradition, sacred places, and the environment from laissez-faire development and westernisation on the other side. These competing narratives played out at different scales, from being entrenched in the micro-politics of the local and the vernacular to the national. The momentum of change facilitated various kinds of boundary-crossings among cultural forms, between “high” and “low,” classical and folk, Indian and western, breaking down received and accepted classifications.

The most important aspect of this chaotic newness was the spread of media, electronic communication, and globalisation. The articulations and practices of Indian dance took centrestage in the mushrooming of visual culture circulated by new media and technology. One such new cultural form is the dance reality show on TV. These Bollywood-inspired remixed global dances are arguably the most visible cultural product of India’s new economy (other than Bollywood film itself).

This book composes a multi-layered theoretical paradigm to locate, historicise, and analyse the dances in dance reality shows and the shows themselves as both an aesthetic cultural product and the lived reality of a new generation of dancers and choreographers who are among the emergent “aspirational Indians” in the new global economy. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in Kolkata and Mumbai (2006-2012) and archival research at the National Film Institute, Pune, this book explores the emergence of “remixed” styles such as Bollywood dance (derived from the song and dance sequences of Bombay/Bollywood films) and Dance Reality Shows in shaping the contours and ambivalences of India’s new public culture along with new identities of femininity and masculinity.

Pallabi Chakravorty.
Pallabi Chakravorty.

My voice as an ethnographer and the voices of the subjects of the research represented here were all caught up in this vortex of change that was unraveling the past codes of “cultural authenticity”…As a Kathak dance artist myself, trained in the tradition of the gurukul system (belonging to the lineage of a guru), I had to constantly be vigilant about my own assumptions and tastes about culture, aesthetics, meaning, and tradition. The globalisation of culture and economy in India was remapping tastes and “cultural distinctions” at an unprecedented rate, and I, along with the subjects of this research, was bewildered, restless, and looking for clarity. I was often self-conscious about my own interest in dance reality shows because the hierarchical classical-contemporary dance world I normally inhabit as a practitioner, which is often positioned in binary terms, did not view commercial forms such as these as “art” and thus deemed them not worthy of academic or artistic scrutiny. The dancers and choreographers of the reality shows I was interacting with were all too aware of the criticisms and controversies directed at them and were self-reflexive about their own engagement with reality shows.

As an anthropologist of Indian dance and culture and a performing artist myself, questions of representation, ethics, and power relations in both the world of art and fieldwork were especially troubling at multiple levels. Globalisation did not make the world flat; it highlighted the deep inequalities within and between the cultures and groups that anthropologists study, throwing into relief the inadequacies of the simple binaries of cultural insiders and outsiders. Interestingly, my identity as a cultural insider did not create any easy rapport with the communities of dancers and choreographers I interacted with during my fieldwork. To that community, I was an outsider. Not because I was based in the US, but because I was identified as a classical dancer, a cultural identity that made me a “purist” rather than a fellow dancer in some of their eyes. For instance, the famous Bollywood choreographer Saroj Khan refused to talk to me in Mumbai after hearing of my background as a Kathak dancer, claiming that her dancing and her choreographies were antithetical to the classical arts.

The globalisation and mediation of culture have deeply inflected the questions surrounding cultural authenticity and authority, which have destabilised notions of the “real.”

These questions have not only unsettled past categories of high and low culture but have complicated the certainties of our social experience through the mediation of the virtual and the actual. Now, experience itself is the interplay of different media. This in turn has complicated the notions of nearness and distance, the temporal and scalar dimensions of the “real”. Dance reality shows (and reality shows in general) exemplify these profound ambivalences of contemporary Indian culture where past categories and experiences are in dynamic flux causing the “real” and the “authentic” to blur endlessly.

This especially creates an intensely paradoxical experience when we juxtapose the embodiment of dance with media. The intersections of modern entertainment media – cinema, television, and music videos – with older traditions of ritual, music, dance, and theater are complex areas of investigation where several overlapping spheres of meaning, senses, emotions, and contestations are simultaneously at play. In the modern age of mechanical reproduction, the visual aesthetics of the past (derived from Indian philosophical, religious, and secular traditions) entangle with modern technologies of imaging from photography to YouTube videos…This book launches an exploration of this rich history and variety of the performance-visual continuum as it interfaces with the media explosion of screen dance. It is necessary to dig deep into theory in order to understand how these inter-media shape the diverse tapestry of lives, desires, aspirations, and experiences of dancers and choreographers in contemporary India.

Excerpted with the author’s permission from This Is How We Dance Now: Performance in the Age of Bollywood and Reality Shows, Pallabi Chakravorty, Oxford University Press.

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