Indian Dance Traditions Research

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India has always appeared in minds of Europeans as by far the most exotic and fabulous country. Such image of a country also applies to dancing. When there is a need to depict marvellous landscapes or cheerful characters, a choreographer would usually opt for ornate Indian costumes, charismatic Hindu gods and sumptuous Indian settings. According to Hindu mythology, dance was elaborated by Brahma, the Hindu god of creation. Another famous Hindu gods: Shiva, Krishna and Kali are usually presented while dancing. Dancing is usually dedicated to Hindu gods and is a type of worship. Thus, dance is a sacred popular motif in Hindu mythology. Despite the deep interest, Europeans did not always manage to perceive and recreate the Indian dance as it really is. Indian dance tradition was rather complicated and intricate for Europeans. This literature review focuses mainly on two scholarly works that give a profound insight into the Indian dance tradition in European understanding.

The research paper titled Yearning for the Spiritual Ideal: The Influence of India on Western Dance 1626–2003 (2006, p. 97) written by Warren focuses on transition Indian dance tradition underwent in Europe and USA from 1626 to 2003. Similarly, Meduri (2008, p. 223), the author of the second research paper titled Labels, Histories, Politics: Indian/South Asian Dance on the Global Stage also focuses on Indian dance tradition in Europe and USA. Although, both authors have Indian dance as an object of their papers, they study its different aspects. While Warren is interested in history and transition the Indian dance has undergone, Meduri is more concerned about the current status of Indian dance culture in Europe and the USA.


Warren (2006, p. 98) states that, since 1498 European imagination was inflamed with the picture of marvellous country possessing unimaginable wealth. Such image of India was created partly due to the trade links the Europeans established with subcontinent. The merchants would bring unknown before silk, gold, precious stones, rare spices and many other novelties back in Europe. Since then, exotic image of "the Indies" inhabited minds of many people of the Western civilization. Soon, from people's minds the image was shifted to the ballet stage. As Warren outlines, exotic image of India appeared for the first time in Grand Bal de la Douairière de Billebahaut at the court of Louis XIII in 1626. Since then, Indian themes began to appear regularly on European stages. Thus, Louis XIV was dressed as the King of India in an equestrian ballet in 1662. Louis XIV wore huge feathered headdress and rode a caparisoned horse. French interest in India rose even more, when la Companie des Indes Orientales was organized in 1719.

Indian tradition was brought to Germany by Jean-Georges Noverre the author of a ballet, Allessandro nelle Indie, in Stuttgart in 1760. He also published a book, Les Lettre sur la Danse, where he criticized the costumes and masks popular at that particular time. In 1766, Aline, Reine de Golconde, an opera-ballet, was a great success at Paris Opera. The opera-ballet was further transformed into a ballet with a number of what Europeans thought to be traditional Indian dances. There was another version of Aline, Reine de Golconde performed in London in 1812. Warren states that numerous versions of Indian theme reveal the Europeans being astonished by India. However, in 1810, Les Bayadere's opera-ballet appeared. It proved India dance tradition to be totally invented by Westerners. The way Europeans depicted India in costumes, settings and dance movements bore no resemblance neither to authentic Indian dance movements nor scenery. Thus, India was a mere European fantasy showing no relation to reality.

The first noble performance depicting "authentic" India was the Lalla Rukh, ein Festspiel mit Gesang und Tanz performed in1821. The dancers wore costumes more or less authentical to Indian ones. Aladin, ou la Lampe Merveilleuse also became a European trend. Auguste Garnery made a rather detailed research on Indian costumes, however, the overall picture reflected French fashion rather than Indian reality. Thus, although being very popular, authentic Indian dance tradition was still unknown to the Europeans in XIX century. Not a single person had neither studied nor seen remotely Indian dances.

The situation began to change when in 1838, an Indian family of musicians and dancers came to Paris and gave performances at the Théâtre des Variétés. After performance, the dancers were visited by Theophile Gautier, a profound Romantic poet and critique, who afterwards wrote a thorough description of Indian dances. Amani, a main Indian dancer, became a model for a sculptor Barre who casted her image in bronze, depicting her nose ring, waist cinched with the typical metal belt and ankle bells. This Indian family brought an authentic, however, rather unexpected representation of India to Europeans.

Sacontala ballet was the first successful representation of Indian costumes and colourful settings performed in Paris Opera in 1858. This particular performance represented a truer vision of India. In 1868, using Indian themes Hippolite Monplaisir created a hit, Brahma. However, Monplaisir still used the scarf dance, a European vision of Indian dances. Thus, till the very XX century, Europeans again managed to depict only drama and wealth of India.

Dramatic change happened in 1906, when a young American dancer, Ruth St. Denis, performed Radha, showing her own perception of Indian culture. Ruth St. Denis was looking for spiritual enlightenment that India could offer. The dancer made a tour in Europe with her Indian programme gaining major success. From 1914 on, she performed even more elaborative works on Indian motifs, for example, Street Nautch (1922), A Dance Pageant of the Life and Afterlife of Egypt, Greece, and India (1916), Leagend of the Peacock (1914).

Wheelwright (1992, p. 56) points out that the vogue for Indian exotica was also fuelled by gorgeous Mata Hari and Tortola Valencia, who performed Hindu dances. In 1910, Diaghilev Ballet performed Scheherezade, a successful orientalist ballet. Further, The Dance Dream (1911) created by Alexander Gorskyi was staged in London. A young Indian under the influence of opium searches for spiritual ideals. Money (1982, p. 322), in his book speaks about Anna Pavlova, a great Russian dancer who came to India in 1923 to see "Bayaderes." The woman was extremely surprised to find out that classic Indian dance was not that popular in India. Having returned home, Anna Pavlova commissioned a ballet, Ajanta's Frescoe that had great success.

Europeans got an idea of how Indian dances should be performed only at the beginning of the XX century. Indian dances are more about hand, eyebrow and head movements with some swift turns and stomping of feet. The difference between traditional Indian dances and Indian dances performed in Europe turned out to be striking.

Warren names Russel Meriwether Hughes to make a major impact on Indian dance acceptance in the USA. She studied Kathak and Bharata Natyam with gurus. Using the learned techniques, she performed Hindu Swan Lake. Together with Ruth St. Denis, she opened a School of Natyam, where they taught Indian techniques to new generation of dancers. Loney (1984, p. 233), speaks about the talented Jack Cole, a School of Natyam graduate, who presented a revolutionary fusion of American jazz and Bharata Natyam. This new form of performance became rather popular and some of his works often appeared in Hollywood films.

Beginning from the mid XX century, European dancers began to turn to source in order to learn techniques of Kathakali, Manipuri, Bharata Natyam, Odissi, Kuchpudi etc. Dancers would go to India to study the techniques and, afterwards, share their acquired authentic knowledge with new generation of European artists. Finally, Westerners regarded Indian culture, Indian dance tradition in particular, as an authentic and unique phenomenon.

Thus, Warren in his research Yearning for the Spiritual Ideal: The Influence of India on Western Dance 1626–2003, brought under discussion the impact India made on Western dance tradition. The author comprehensively depicts the transition the image of Indian culture underwent through XVII till XX centuries. Being perceived as a mere fantasy, Indian dance tradition has further proved to be extraordinary and unique cultural phenomenon.

Meduri, in his paper Labels, Histories, Politics: Indian/South Asian Dance on the Global Stage (2008), similarly to Warren studies the Indian dance tradition in Europe and the USA. However, the scholars focus on different aspects in different timeframes. Vincent Warren described the evolution of Indian dance from1626 to 2003, while Meduri studies his object starting from the year 1920.

Meduri investigates the doubled South Asian/Indian label, which scholars use to describe Indian/South Asian genres of dance in the United Kingdom. Thus, there is the "name question" under discussion. Prior to main object exploring, Meduri conducted a preliminary research that showed that re-naming occurred in the UK in the 1980s as a result of overwhelming globalization. Although, the old term – Indian– did not disappear, a new term “South Asia “ was introduced just to double the old one and, at the same time, delineate musical and dance forms of South Asia.

The term South Asia relates to the countries of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Pakistan. This term was initially used to denote Area Studies programs in the UK and US. Afterwards, the term was appropriated by British Arts Council. In 1998, a new syllabus for Kathak and Bharatanatyan was compiled institutionalizing the genres as South Asian Dances, but not Indian. The label was further institutionalized in British Academia. Thus, the South Asian label is rather widespread in the UK today. Moreover, it is dominant as has appropriated the Indian term. However, a number of choreographers, dance teachers, dancers, and administrators question the South Asian label, trying to revive the term "Indian."

Usage of the label relates to the issue of identity outlined in the work of Burt (2000, p. 128). The scholar states that one should think beyond identity. Burnt finally comes at formulating a post-identical critique. Grau (2012, p. 24), argues her position and proposes to retain the focus on identity as it serves to appreciate non-western dance.

Meduri poses a question in his paper when his students often ask him: What is South Asian about Indian-Odissi, -Bharatanatyam and -Kathak? Students appear to be insulted by the general term application towards a specific and unique cultural phenomenon. Meduri relates the issue to the increased dance migration of Indians to other states that causes dispersal of Indian and Asian dances through a number of contexts, such as nation-state formation, immigration, globalization, interconnection among local and global dance traditions, dance teaching, chorography and practice.

The issue whether it is appropriate to relate Indian dance forms to South Asian label has been discussed by British scholars for quite a long course. Thus, the issue was depicted at the South Asian Name Conference in 2014. Grau expressed her positive opinion on the South Asian label. She stated that the term "Indian" might be inappropriate as it evokes the feeling of lost heritage. According to Grau, South Asian label is more neutral notion. However, many speakers at that conference fought the South Asian label as it overshadows the notion of cultural difference giving no historical reference.

Khilnani (2004, p. 22), speaks about the South Asia label as a term elaborated by the USA cartography during the years of Cold War, that simply denoted geopolitics at that time. According to Khilnani, South Asia is a mere spatial term that relates to the Asian Bloc of world. Thus, no wonder that South Asia notion delineated the studies programs of research in the USA. In such way, South Asian label relates the dance to geoponics, a region known as South Asia in particular, while Indian label puts the dance within particular context in Indian history.

Meduri has also found out that the term "South Asian" is alien to British context. It was successfully borrowed and further adopted from the USA by British Academia. Thus, a term "South Asian" appeared in the USA in the 1950s as a geopolitical category, it re-appeared in the United Kingdom as an immigration, academic and political category.

Meduri also focuses on the differences between the Indian and British Indian dances. This issue was discussed during the Negotiating Natyam conference in London in 2005. The conference focused on the issues of British Bharatanatyan as a diasporic phenomenon. At this stage, Meduri introduces the notion of "Other." The author speaks of British Natyam as Other in relation to Indian Natyam. This two terms should be differentiated as possess different cultural features.


This literature review focuses mainly on two research papers that has Indian dance as their object. Labels, Histories, Politics: Indian/South Asian Dance on the Global Stage is a scholarly paper written by Meduri. The author discusses the issue of double label (Indian/South Asian Dance) with the aim of denoting authentic Indian dance traditions. Meduri traces historical context of origin of the term a and provides the readers with three main reasons for the South Asian label emergence, which are immigration, globalization and simplification for the purpose of conducting academic research. Unlike in the Avanthi Meduri's paper, Warren in his research tries to provide the reader with the opportunity to track evolution of Indian dance from a mere exotic image to a sacred and meaningful dance tradition.