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Change of an Era

Change of an Era

18 June 2013

Ann David discusses how the ISTD Classical Indian Dance Faculty has come of age

“Names, once they are in common use, quickly become mere sounds, their etymology being buried, like so many of the earth's marvels, beneath the dust of habit.” Salman Rushdie 

As Shakespeare famously wrote, “What’s in a name?” We might answer, multiple views and multifarious voices, evoking pasts, presents and futures. The recent change of name of one of the ISTD’s dance faculties from South Asian Dance to Classical Indian Dance reveals a complex mix of histories, political positions and strong individual opinions. Sitting alongside other ISTD faculties whose titles embrace a classical component (Classical Greek, Cecchetti Classical Ballet, Imperial Classical Ballet), the new term Classical Indian Dance now describes the actual styles covered by its syllabi and examinations, namely those of Bharatanatyam and Kathak. Both these classical forms have been at the forefront of interest in the UK for several decades and there are plans to extend the syllabus to include in the future two more increasingly popular classical styles, Odissi and Kuchipudi. The ‘new’ name will continue to represent these styles accurately. 

For many, the move away from the generic ‘South Asian’ terminology has been a relief. This rather broad name has encompassed not only classical dance forms such as Bharatanatyam and Kathak, but also performances of contemporary Indian dance, as well as the film/popular dances (Bollywood) and folk traditions (Bhangra, Garba, Raas) and has always retained a very specific UK identity. But its lack of specificity has been a concern and, as one commentator said, “We called ourselves South Asian but we did Indian things!” Most agree that coining the term in the 1980s was a political move, created for funding bodies and arts officers, as well as for institutionalised use, despite its reductionist and generalist labeling. As scholar Avanthi Meduri wrote, “Arts officers working in the employ of the British Arts Council, well-meaning academics, venue managers and funding agencies were all implicated in the momentous rechristening of Indian forms as South Asian forms.”1 The main UK Indian dance organisations – Akademi, Kadam and Sampad – embraced the title and in 2001 even developed a new consortium called the South Asian Dance Alliance (SADA), an online information resource.2 In 1999, the newly created ISTD faculty also incorporated the name South Asian Dance. Will the move by the ISTD faculty to change its name now affect the collaborative work and the excellent dialogue within the consortium, as some have speculated? 

There is little doubt that the umbrella title of South Asian Dance had and continues to have a place and usage in the world of the arts. In the 1990s, artists “were both willing and able to articulate their engagement with such a monolithic label, because of its expediency,” noted academic Andrée Grau3. Today, classically trained dancers who work outside of the classical form using text, spoken word and contemporary techniques find classical Indian dance as a descriptor too narrow for their choreographies. In the recent debates about this name change, one dancer even questioned using the word ‘dance,’ asking, “Is the term ‘dance’ the appropriate way to represent our Indian forms?” Another stated that “South Asian dance will still speak for all dances that have come out of South Asia and people of that origin and training… What else would I call any of my own work that is not strictly classical?” Others challenge the use of the term ‘classical,’ unhappy with its elitist connotations and Western conceptualisation. The politics of names, of course, loom large in the title of the ISTD, the Imperial Society for Teachers of Dancing, with its colonial, imperialist history. Academic Stacey Prickett underlines this, stating “the very title of the ISTD labels the ideological structures upon which a colonial relationship was based – imperial.”4 So names cannot be value-free; they are heavily burdened by the baggage of history and politics. 

Yet we need to remember that the ISTD faculty is primarily established for the pedagogy of dance – of the teaching and examining the technique of the specific dance styles. Performance, creativity and contemporary choreography may come at a later stage but they are not part of these examinations. 

What is being taught and examined is the technique of the classical Indian styles of Bharatanatyam and Kathak. And many of the ISTD teachers and their students noted that they have always spoken of teaching and learning ‘Indian Classical Dance,’ hardly utilising the term South Asian Dance. These teachers, when canvassed about the name change, variously said, “In my opinion this new name truly reflects the nature of the work it offers,” and “It is the proper and actual name,” as well as “Congratulations for the new and most appropriate name,” all showing full-hearted support for it. Others commented that the name Classical Indian Dance Faculty has brought a more classic and dignified approach and is more elegant on the tongue, as well as creating a more unique identity. 

Perhaps this is, as some have noted, a time of juncture and of change, a time to move forward whilst embracing the past. Perhaps it is the moment to distance ourselves from the generic geographies and return to specificities. It’s also the occasion to indicate the confidence now invested in these classical dance forms in the UK in celebrating their origins in the actual name of the faculty. 13 years on from its inception as part of the ISTD, the new Classical Indian Dance Faculty recognises the success of both Bharatanatyam and Kathak in the UK and, with its new name, states Faculty Chair, Sujata Banerjee, “Anyone can call themselves a Classical Indian Dancer no matter where he or she comes from.” 

Ann R David, University of Roehampton 


1. ‘The Transfiguration of Indian/Asian Dance in the United Kingdom: Contemporary "Bharatanatyam" in Global Contexts,’ Asian Theatre Journal, 2008, 25, 2, p 299 

2. www.southasiandance.org.uk 

3. South Asian Dance in Britain: Negotiating Cultural Identity through Dance (SADiB report) Roehampton, University of Surrey, 2002, p 43 

4. “Techniques and Institutions: The Transformation of British Dance Tradition through South Asian Dance,” Dance Research, 22, 1, p 16–17.

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