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History of Classical Indian Dance

Following a research project and proposal from leading dance organisation Akademi, a new Society Faculty was created in 1999 to examine in both Bharatanatyam and Kathak. Examining started in 2001 in various regions of the UK, with expansion into Europe, Canada and the US, along with enquiries being received from other parts of the world, including Australasia, India and Pakistan.

Bharatanatyam

Bharatanatyam is the sophisticated inheritor of the codified Dasi and Sadir dance traditions that evolved over many centuries in the temples and royal durbars of southern India. It is hallmarked by its geometrical positions, extended limb lines, strong footwork and complex rhythm sequences, embellished by a ‘language’ of hand gestures and elaborate narratives conveyed by stylised expressions of body and face.

Kathak

Kathak originated as a danced story-telling form in northern India in the precincts of Hindu temples, acquiring in Mughal courts its now signature flourishes and charisma: subtly held body and limb lines, and a delicate expressiveness of face, showcasing a lyricism studded by bursts of intricate rhythmic patterns executed by fret-like footwork, fleeting arm movements and spins, punctuated by dynamic stillness. Bharatanatyam and Kathak dancers require, respectively, knowledge of classical Carnatic and Hindustani music from southern and northern India.

The development of Indian dance in the United Kingdom 

Over a period of a little more than 150 years, Indian dance in the UK has made a stimulating and substantial journey. It has developed from being exhibited as an exotic artefact of the ‘jewel in the crown’ that was India, to becoming an established and exciting element of the contemporary British dance scene.

In 1838, traditional Indian temple dancers or devadasis appeared in performance for the first time in Europe at the Adelphi Theatre, London. Between the 1920s and 1960s, a number of non-devadasi modern, professional Indian dancers were presented and feted in the UK and Europe. These included Uday Shankar, Ram Gopal, Ragini Devi, Mrinalini Sarabhai and Indrani Rahman. Gopal’s was among the early attempts to set up a fully-fledged Indian dance school in London but it did not take root. 

By the mid-1970s, however, when Naseem Khan’s seminal report on British ethnic minorities’ arts was commissioned and published (1976), there were a significant number of immigrant teachers from the South Asian diaspora running thriving ‘Indian classical dance’ classes in the UK, and during the 1980s these dance forms, their performers and schools became extremely popular. 

By the 1990s, Indian dance in the UK was firmly embedded in the ‘contemporary’ dance category in arts policy, and, for inclusivity reasons, officially and widely called ‘South Asian Dance’. Thereon, the ethos of contemporary dance impacted on the genre(s). For example, ‘hybrid’ works (that is, those which drew upon mixed dance techniques and styles) were being created by choreographers, heralded by Shobana Jeyasingh. Jeyasingh, like other artists who followed her, was trained in but contested the strictures and structures of classical Indian dance. These new and exciting works attracted attention and were offered public funding. Nevertheless, vast numbers of South Asian-origin British youngsters continued studying Indian classical dance as ‘authentic’ forms of their cultural heritage, and these forms were holding fast to their place on the world stage.

The story of the Faculty 

In 1996, the dance organisation Akademi, under the artistic directorship of Mira Mishra Kaushik, sowed the seeds for a South Asian Dance Faculty of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing. Explaining her impetus, Kaushik has said: 

“By 1995–96, South Asian dance was beginning to flourish [in the UK] and bring many South Asian qualifications [and] imported systems [which] suffered from out-dated syllabi irrelevant to the British education system and incoherent assessment infrastructures” 

(Akademi, 2009). 

Encouraged by Mike Browne, the Society’s Chief Executive at the time, Akademi created, funded and managed a three year syllabus research project, led by Sushmita Ghosh. It involved consulting over a hundred teachers of classical Indian dance in the UK and abroad, and sampling their existing curricula.8 Akademi offered to the Society proposed Kathak and Bharatanatyam syllabi devised by Ghosh and Pushkala Gopal, respectively, and helped recruit David Henshaw as Founding Chair of the South Asian Dance Faculty in 1999. 

Under Henshaw’s championing and meticulous chairmanship, the Faculty Committee commissioned Ghosh (Kathak) and Nina Rajarani (Bharatanatyam) to fine tune the syllabi and formulate specifications in line with the Society’s pedagogical and examination systems. CIDF acknowledges the contribution of many teachers from within and outsidethe Faculty to this significant endeavour. Examining in Kathak and Bharatanatyam started in 2001 in various regions of the UK, with expansion by 2014 as widely as Amsterdam, Dubai, Johannesburg, Toronto and Seattle. 

In 2012, the CIDF, in the way of ‘coals to Newcastle’, presented its examination curricula and criteria to dance teachers in Mumbai and Delhi – the first initiative in India for the Society. Hosted by the British Council in the two cities, the reception was warm, with teachers asking for examinations, especially at the professional conversion level. In 2009, CIDF celebrated its 10th anniversary with a ticketed showcase entitled Misrana at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, featuring its top-graded ISTD-examined talents. 

Misrana now takes place at regular intervals. Of special note have been the Faculty’s popular classical Indian dance teachers’ forums, started in 2010, and held regularly in various cities with local partners. These invite both members and non-members to expand their teaching skills, create a supportive network and recruit non-members to the Society way of dance teaching and examining. Another feature is that the Department for Education’s national Centre for Advanced Training programme in South Asian dance takes into account applicants’ CIDF grade level achievement. In 2013, CIDF had the special honour of bestowing the ISTD’s rare International Fellowship award on the Kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj, whose Ang Kavya text is prescribed reading for CIDF Kathak examinations. Dubai hosted the largest CIDF examination to date with approximately 130 candidates for Kathak.

Dancing forward 

Bharatanatyam and Kathak have taken root globally, spearheading the spread of other Indian dance forms. Their traditional ethos, pedagogy, and customary practices, such as the lack of insistence on warm-up and cool-down, have also migrated alongside. Some of these practices, if not adapted to new geographic and cultural climates, might arguably endanger students and teachers on health and safety grounds, while adherences to other traditions may restrict these practitioners from flourishing by engaging with others in the dance sector with confidence and agency. It is in this context that the achievement and mission of the Faculty is significant. 

The CIDF respects and embraces traditional techniques, repertoire and wisdom, while incorporating in its pedagogy and vision updated practices that foster understanding, talent, curiosity, responsibility, growth, safety, creativity, confidence, agency and, above all, the promotion and enjoyment of proficiency in dancing. 

CIDF keeps abreast of changes in the UK’s official educational qualifications requirements, updating the syllabus and specifications to ensure that students and teachers are kept up-to-date. Three revisions completed by Faculty members have been undertaken to date. This is all part of the Faculty’s aims, identified by the committee, as seeking “to advance our members’ teaching success, and grow our membership at home and internationally.