Listen: Dance Professor Pallabi Chakravorty on Indian Reality Show and Bollywood Dancers

This semester, Associate Professor of Dance Pallabi Chakravorty discussed her current ethnographic research on reality show and Bollywood dancers as part of the Second Tuesday Arts & Humanities Cafe series. Chakravorty's areas of interest are reflected in the classes she teaches, which include Kathak, dance theory, and dance and anthropology.

Sponsored by the Aydelotte Foundation, the Second Tuesday Arts & Humanities Cafes are a monthly series that highlight the intellectual relevance of humanities approaches to arts and culture. Topics have ranged from visual narratives in Japan to reflections on life and death in South Indian religions and current intersections of theater, dance, and music performance in the United States. Events are geared for individuals with no formal background in the arts and humanities. The only requirement is curiosity.


Audio Transcript

Pallabi Chakravorty:   Hello everyone. Thank you, Yvonne, for a wonderful introduction. Also, thank you to Humanities Café for having this series. This was a wonderful opportunity for me to get out from my work, which is this book that I'm writing right now. I will be presenting some sort of an outline of that book.

This is a work that I have been doing in India, from 2006 through 2012. It is based on my ethnographic research, among reality show dancers and Bollywood dancers. Why did I want to do this research? I am trained as a classical Indian dancer. The style that I do is Kathak, and my work, most of my research has been on classical Indian dance forms, and various other things concerning classicism, and gender, and nation.

This particular research, I really wanted to get out of my comfort zone and challenge myself to see what was happening in India right now. There's a lot of turbulence, cultural turbulence and dynamism in India, and this understanding of this age-old tradition, ancient Orientalist sort of perspective on India is a big problem really. There's a lot happening and a lot happening in the cultural and the political sphere.

So I thought that why not look at something that's exploding on television, which is dance reality television shows. Lots of dancers there, lots of musicians there, so that's how my research started. I thought that what I'll do is give you a pictorial outline, first, of my research.

Let's go through some pictures, and see if we can trace some of the events, some of the things that are happening. Then I'm going to talk about the three most important conceptual framework of my book, which is the theory part, which I'm not going to go deeply into today.

Can you hear me if I ... So I should stand here, right? Okay. Let's start with where do we see Indian dance, in terms of its representation from the past. One of the places we see is here, right? If you go to India, you have to go to the beautiful temples. This is Ajanta Ellora, and a cave that really goes back to sixth century AD and I went to visit there. It's in western part of India, Aurangabad. If you've never been there, it's one of the most outstanding experiences that you'll ever have. I visited a few years back, and I was so inspired that I started dancing among the sculptures.

This is from eastern India, again dancing figures from temples sculptures. This is when you first, I mean not first, but this is something you'll be [inaudible 00:03:20] in India. You have to come across these beautiful dancing sculptures. Interesting thing about Indian temples is there's a congruence of architecture and sculpture, they appear together. This is Odissi dance, which is a classical Indian dance from Orissa and this particular temple goes back to 13th century AD.

Now there are lots of other classical Indian dance styles. I'm not going to go in-depth into all the other styles, but this is another place where you do see dancing and this is the miniature painting genre from Kotli India. These paintings, which are absolutely full of these dancing figures really you'll find in the Muslim and Hindu quotes of India. The style that I perform, Kathak dance, comes from this particular milieu.

So there are about five to seven different classical Indian dance styles and each one belongs to a particular region. Why they're important in modern India, why do we even care about these classical dances is because it's connected to cultural nationalism. When India was getting independence from the British, music, dance, painting, sculpture became very important for claiming a particular kind of national identity, of civilizational lineage.

Interestingly, it's not just the dancers from temples and the miniature paintings that became important, but also there are lots of treaties, really ancient. One of the most treaties is [Nato Chastre 00:05:12] and this is a dance treaty actually which goes back to 2nd century BC to 2nd century AD, very old. Then throughout you will see one of the most important works is by Abhinavagupta in 10th century AD. So that was also treaties on dance and music.

In all of these treaties you see that the importance of music and dance and creativity. In Indian philosophy you find that religion, creativity, music, dance, literature, poetry, it's inseparable. It's really they all come together. It's a very interesting approach to dance, to music, to religion, to philosophy. So that's why I thought that I really needed to look at the theory of emotion which is a part of this philosophy, even if I'm looking at modern dance forms or post-modern dance forms, for lack of a better terminology, to look at dance, television reality show. Because we have such a strong sensory history that what does it tell us about these transformations that are going on in modern India?

The other aspect of this is Bollywood films and because all these classical dance forms really went into films and there's a lot of history on this. There's a lot of social reform movements that are connected to these forms and these dances which stigmatizes prostitutes, there's a lot of that. I'm not going to go into all of that, but what you have to remember is the revival of dance in modern India, which claimed a certain kind of classicism and certain kind of pure civilizational lineage.

Then we come to the contemporary period. Sorry, you're not yet in the contemporary period. So I thought I'd give you some styles and the importance of these styles. Again, this is [inaudible 00:07:28]. I'm calling them Neoclassical because they are all reconstructed and revived, but these are classical Indian dance forms. This is 20th century, like I say, because they were revived around that time. And this is a representation of the yogi body. So the idea, we all know what yoga is and people practice yoga all the time. But Indian dance is connected to this particular understanding of the body and mind, yoking together. It produces a certain kind of body, a certain kind of transcendence and spirituality which you actually enter through your practice of dance. This is the basic philosophy of doing classical dance forms.

This is, again, part of [natyam 00:08:12] the same form. This is from southern India. Both of them are from southern India, Tamil Nadu. This is called Abhinaya which is a very important aspect of classical dance forms and this uses, like you know Indian dance uses lot of facial expressions. So the emotive aspects, it's not only in the body when you are expressing something, but is also expressed through your face and your expressions and through gestures, which we call mudras. So every sort of motive can be expressed through a mudra. It's very codified, it's a highly codified sort of genre, extremely classified and there are lots of taxonomies attached to them.

So contemporary period, Bollywood, this is where this interesting change. If you want to talk about change in contemporary Indian, the cultural sphere, we have to understand a little bit about the role of Bollywood and the Bollywood industry. This is when in the 1990s there was this liberalization of the economy that happened in India. It's a very important structural change that happened to the economy. Before that it was an [Heruvian 00:09:28] command economy, socialist kind of an economy. In the 1990s the markets were open and with that lots of important things happened.

One of the things that happened was media. Media, globalization, I'm an anthropologist so we look at these dramatic changes in some parts of the world as media and globalization. In India this was basically attached to the liberalization of the economy. So what happened was in the past television, we had just one state television, Doordarshan, and every image that was represented there was controlled by the state. So we had these classical Indian programs that were beamed from television every night and we grew up in that milieu. Classical Indian dance was important, we all learned because it gave us a certain kind of ideal Indian identity, ideal female identity. All of a sudden there was a big shift from one Doordarshan channel it became hundreds and then thousands of cable channels, satellite television and all kinds of images started trickling in.

Of course, one of the most popular shows was Dallas I think at one point. Being exposed to different kinds of lifestyles, different kinds of dancing, so what I found, interestingly, was when I was doing my fieldwork that most people I was talking to were all hip-hop dancers. So I asked them, hip-hop and how did you learn that? From television, just looking at television and copying. That whole understanding of how to learn, how knowledge is transmitted through a generation had shifted.

It was the most amazing discovery for me because, again, we have to do a comparative thing because classical Indian dance, you have to study all your life. There is something called the Guru-Sishya parampara or ustad-shagird relationship. It comes from the Islamic tradition, one is a Hindu, one is the Islamic tradition. But there is a syncretic sort of version of this where you actually learn from one teacher all your life. It's a very close relationship and it's a very particular relationship.

So that seemed to have really been challenged and people are learning from workshops, from taking classes from different people, traveling all over the world. This idea of hybridity or cosmopolitan identity became very important and Bollywood was a big force in that, and Bollywood industry, the way it was spreading its products. You have the birth of the item number. Now what is an item number? Item number are these song and dance sequences in Bollywood. So I don't know if you've seen Bombay films, because they were called Bombay films prior to the 1990s. After 1990s, you have Bollywood. It also is a reflection of the liberalization and the structural change in India.

Bombay films, if you look at Bombay films, of course, there have always been song and dance sequences. People just like to sing and dance in India. Even our gods and goddesses dance all the time. So we always had it. They're not like musicals, it's a very particular genre. So then these song and dance sequences were now being called item numbers and they had their own individual separate identity from the film. They were highly influenced by MTV, as you can imagine, and be able to circulate on their own in music video.

Music videos became very important and this is what I was learning throughout during my field work, that these people who were dancing, not just the heroine, this is an important heroine, but the people in the back, all these backup dancers, they used to be called extras at one time. Then they were called backup dancers. Now they're called junior artists, which also tells you how they are becoming important, they are now artists. All these people dancing in the background and this particular kind of packaging that is associated with these song and dance sequences are called item numbers.

You have then with the item numbers, the item boys and the item girls. So this was now redefining what is femininity and what is masculinity in India. So you can look at these images, you can go through the images again to see how we are looking at the yogi body of the bharatanatyam male dancer and what does it look like today. It's a very different construction of masculinity and femininity, both.

Like I said, that it's a very different construction and also you can see the backup dancer. When I was doing my field work in Bombay, Film City, this is where they do their shooting and stuff, I found many of them have traveled from America, from Eastern Europe, because it's better livelihood for these dancers. There's actually constant work in Bollywood, so they can make a living from dance. So it really draws an international dance artists and this is the idea of cosmopolitanism, hybridity that is represented through these item numbers that are danced by the item boys and item girls. This man you see he is iconic. His name is Shah Rukh Khan and you notice, people are crazy about him and mostly because he can dance. Dancing is very important. If you can't dance you can't be a hero in Hindi films.

This was my focus really. This is the context. But I was really interested in is to kind of go into the most local product, the most local representation of this mega industry of Bollywood and all of the stuff that was happening. So I thought, okay, let me look at dance, television, reality show because this is everywhere. Any channel will have their own various different versions, and it's also regionally produced. So this is a Bengali dance television reality show that was happening in Calcutta, not Dhoom Machale or dance Dhoom Machale and I followed a few people, like what anthropologists do, follow a few people and I build their life histories.

Sanjukta, this lady you see here, she has been trained in various dance forms because that's important now, otherwise, you wouldn't get work. She has won quite a few actually contests. As you know, dance reality shows are always the framework is contests and so you have to win. It's very important to win. It's all a question of winning or losing. So she has an amazing career. Already she is pretty frustrated, this other part of it in terms of how much these people have to struggle to survive. That's the other thing which I can't really incorporate today. The kind of work these people do, the number of hours they devote to their dancing is just unthinkable, and the world that they belong to.

It was also interesting for me, and which I'm going to go into a little bit more, is basically this is the first time in India that you see a different group of people dancing, which was also the most fascinating thing for me. Because in the past, dance usually belonged to the elite, Brahmin high caste people, when it got revived in modern India. Now prior to to that, I can go into that but I will stop, depending on the time I will tell you what the dance history is about, what really happened to the traditional dancers prior to independence, which was my first book really, Bells of Change.

But really you find the elite dancers mostly dancing, especially among the women, educated elite, and the what we call the hereditary male dancers. Now these are the males who come from the traditional dance lineages. They are called Gurus. All the females are also now called Gurus but usually the dance is to reside with these male teachers who believe to some kind of long lineage that traces itself back to ancient times. It was very important to establish your lineage, your identity through those kinds of kinship traditions.

Now, you found that and you found these modern high caste educated women dancing. For the first time since the 1990s you see the working classes actually participating in this dance culture. So it's very much about Democratization, some kind of deep rooted Democratization that is taking place, which is also fascinating for me because, again, my earlier research looked at classical Indian dance like Kathak and its Democratization among the lower middle classes in India.

I love doing ethnography and I was actually very fascinated with the fact that there was something happening prior to the 1990s or even into the 1990s that how dance was used as cultural literacy by the state government. Because, again, prior to the 1990s it was very much state controlled by the academies, by the dance and music institutions. I found that they were really pushing this, making lots of regional institutes to educate the people who might not have access to really expensive dance classes. So I had argued that classical Indian dance is functioning like cultural capital in terms of democratization of these forms. That if you know classical forms, music and dance, then you have certain legitimacy as this ideal Indian citizen, that you are "cultured", simply that you have this cultural capital to actually go walk into a room and claim certain identity.

Now, that has completely been turned on its head. It's almost like classical dances and music are suffering. They are now really threatened by these large industrial conglomerates like Bollywood and so forth. In fact, I have argued previously that the state is a hegemonic state actually sort of perpetuates a certain kind of classicism to claim certain kind of ideal identity. Now I take it back. I mean, it seems like my research was uhhh. Because all of this happened so quickly. This is dramatic change since the liberalization of the 1990s and the state, academies, they retreated. They're no longer cool. It's no longer cool to be classical dancer in India. If you're from the younger generation you'd rather be doing contemporary hip-hop, salsa, Bollywood. This is cool.

So this is my theoretical academic perspective talking, that it's sort of now, it seems like talking to people associated with some kind of a feudal past. I don't think people are consciously thinking like that, but it has a lot of baggage, let's say. That people don't like that baggage anymore, they want to be modern, cosmopolitan, highbred, global and classicism doesn't do that for them, the younger generation. So dance reality show, it's a really interesting lens through which you can see all of this contestations and dichotomy of the classical and modern and all of that. This is one of the things that I saw.

This is important because these are the celebrity judges from Bollywood, not very different from the reality show formats here. But what is interesting is that these people are the new authority figures. So the Gurus or the teachers of the past who were the authority figures of classical Indian dance forms are no longer considered authority figures. In fact, they are now struggling to make themselves visible because they are old and hackneyed and, again like I said, not cool. These people are glamorous figures, they're all fantastic dancers, they can do any style you want them to do. So these are the cooler people.

The person in the center his name is Hrithik Roshan. He's a fabulous dancer, really, truly, absolutely stunning dancer. He's a hip-hop dancer, again, self-trained. So this is something I kept coming across. "Where did you learn?" This is usually, "Who's your teacher, where did you learn?" He said, "No I never went to a school. I learned on my own. I looked at videos and learned through looking at videos." I said, "Oh, my god and people can learn so much just by looking at videos." Well, apparently, yes.

The other two are Bollywood choreographers, Farah Khan and I forget her name, the other person. But these are from the industry, these people are from the industry, extremely important as far as choreography and they are "choreographers". Which, again, is a new term in Indian dance. Choreography was not part of the dance vocabulary in the past. I'm not going to go into why it wasn't. But if you look at classical dance, this is very close to music composition. Most of the innovations and all of that is in time rather than in space. So choreography has a different orientation.

But now everybody wants to be a choreographer, not a dancer as much as a choreographer because that has prestige. These people are very much part of that discourse. They brought that idea in. There are other forces there, like contemporary Indian dance. Again, I'm not going into that because "contemporary Indian dance" comes out of classical tradition and, again, it's practiced by the elite. So it has its own place, but it's very few people who are doing it. It's internationally important in terms of artistic value, but what I'm looking at in terms of democratization of a form, I don't think that it really holds a candle to what's happening in the Bombay film genre.

So these pictures are from my ethnography in Calcutta and in Mumbai. So this is a dance class which I used to hang out a lot in these dance classes. The Star Jalsha is a particular television channel and these people are preparing for their dance contest. Again, the way they are learning, I call it cut-and-paste embodiment. So this idea, because embodiment is one of the things, or the body, becomes important, one of the concepts that I look at. So this particular way of learning or how knowledge is being transmitted now is very interesting for me. These classes go on for 9 to 10 hours, so this is how they are reversing.

This is in Mumbai again. This young man, his name is Vikram [Budadhi 00:25:38] and he does, again, Bollywood choreographer, MTV, music video and they have incredible schedules. So one of the most frustrating things for me was while I was doing my ethnography was to actually have a timeline for anything because things just kept changing. I could not have any kind of fieldwork strategy, in terms of when I should need this person. Nothing could be fixed, nothing could be fixed. And their lifestyles are such that you can't expect them to give you a particular time. It was mostly about waiting patiently and just hanging out. So it was quite a learning experience, especially from here, having such tight schedules and things like that. Not having a schedule at all was quite something to get used to.

So it's one of, again, the auditions for a dance reality show, Dance India Dance. It's one of the most important national shows. You can make it or break it if you become a winner in this. You can make it. This is really important because, like I said, these are, many of them are coming from the working classes. They have no schooling, many of them are [inaudible 00:26:53] college or school. So if they appear on this reality show it's almost like being counted. Some kind of citizenry is going on here, some kind of way of being visible in India. It's a large country full of people.

Also, because this is they look at it as a pathway to elite networks. Once they make it then they'll know all these important choreographers I told you about and this is their ticket to middle class status. We are just talking about middle class status, we're not talking about becoming rich or anything. They think they're going to become rich, some of them do. But even arriving at the middle class status, buying the flat that they see advertised on the billboards, buying that nice car, this is a good enough attraction for them.

These are the two choreographers and one of them I followed, Pashka [inaudible 00:27:55] the one on your left and he came from a really small town, a low caste and low socioeconomic sort of position, to becoming more or less established locally in Calcutta. He does various different styles. The person next to him, Remo D'Souza, is an amazing story. He came from nowhere, like nobody knows. He even changed his name, some people say. Like from the footpath to becoming one of the most choreographers in Bollywood, so he is one of those people. Never went to any school, learned everything on his own, fabulous dancer, full of style and attitude, like wow, Michael Jackson reborn kind of thing. Because Michael Jackson is very important in this narrative. He's specter is everywhere here. He's amazing and what is possible, coming up in terms of his social position.

This is I say hundreds, actually thousands of aspiring dance contestants waiting outside. This is what I found for the DID or Dance India Dance show. They were waiting for an entire day and night. They came from eastern part of India and just to be auditioned for less than a minute. So this is the kind of aspirations that you see. So I'll stop here. I'll just quickly tell you about, since it is part of how I'm theorizing all of this, is that there are three concepts that I want to quickly go over and then open it up for questions.

One of them is, I wanted to start with desire and subjectivity and the connection between the two. So I kind of looked at the convergences and divergences of continental and Indian philosophy in terms of how desire has been talked about, discussed. And the convergences I found, interestingly, was gaze, people who know [inaudible 00:30:05] gaze becomes very important in terms of talking about media and subjectivity. In the Indian concept we have [darshan or nezir 00:30:13], these are, [darshan 00:30:14] comes from Hindu philosophy, the [nezir 00:30:20] comes from Islamic Urdu poetry.

The most important concept that I was deconstructing throughout this process is Rasa theory, the Indian aesthetic theory of emotion. Like I said, the Indian dance, to understand Indian dance music, poetry, everything, you have to go back to these Sanskrit theory of emotion which becomes important. Although it's coming from ancient India, it becomes important because these things were revived during India's independence. That this is what became important in claiming classicism. So the way the classical dance and music were reconstructed went back to these Rasa theory, although it belongs to ancient India.

So it's Indian aesthetic theory of emotion and it talks about, it starts with devotional desire kind of thing, desire for God. This desire for God really is about your desire for love, because you reach God through love. I'm really simplifying. That kind of desire, the most prominent sort of expression of this in dance is erotic love or what we call Sringara Rasa. This particular kind of love is also, all rasa is also about distillation of combining different moods or feelings and distilling or cooking them so that the essence comes out and we call it taste. Tasting the emotions, so emotion is very physical. Emotion, that's why dance becomes important, it's very bodily, it's not something that is out there. Although we talk about spirituality, that spirituality is very embodied and it's very bodily.

Desire becomes a very important framework through which you can see some of these things because desire now has a different meaning and it's the aspirational desire. Desire for aspiring theme, desiring for what is called the celebratory culture. Again, simplifying, desiring for a commodity and people have talked about commodity, aesthetics, and what that means from the Marxian tradition. So this kind of voluptuous desire, desire for things, looking certain way, brand clothing, all of that is very new in India, so I'm calling it aspirational desire. And that, of course, rests with class mobility.

All of this means that you can now enter, for the working classes, the middle class status. And somebody said that you no longer have to be in the waiting room of modernity, that everybody can be modern. This is what I was hearing. That we all have a chance of being modern in India today. This is where the dance reality show and Bollywood is coming in.

So I'm talking about it in terms of remix. Rasa is no longer possible, it's a remix of different things and remix is what you see in terms of hybridity, cosmopolitanism, embodiment, the cut-and-paste embodiment. So this is where it is right now. There's other stuff going on in India politics right now. There's a Hindu right-wing government. So when the 1990s liberalization started the vision was different. Westernization and cosmopolitanism was okay. Now it seems like there is going to be a lot of contestation regarding that, the questions of cultural pollution and all of that is there right now.

So I'm not going to go into that, I'll stop here because it's always so much turbulence in that part of that world. That's basically what my work is about. Hopefully, I can finish it and submit in a few months. Thank you.