|Since 2010, the international contemporary dance festival “IGNITE!” has been held in the Indian capital of New Delhi. True to its name, this festival organized by the Gati Dance Forum is dedicated to sparking the development of an environment to support a new dance community in India and nurturing it with a long-term perspective. The festival is organized by the Gati Dance Forum, a group of young dancers who gathered with the objective of forming a dance community and creating a context for dance rooted in India, which also has access to the country’s traditional dance. In this interview we speak with the organization’s cofounder and Managing Director, Mandeep Raikhy, about their aim to nurture dance in an Indian context that also provides access to the country’s traditional dance forms.
Interviewer: Takao Norikoshi [dance critic]
A dance festival that values dialogue
This year the IGNITE! Festival was held from January 11 to 18. It was my first time seeing the festival and I found its program very interesting. The first three days were conducted like a conference from 9:00 in the morning to 7:00 in the evening (5:00 on the third day) with specialists in everything from Indian traditional dance to contemporary dance giving talks and the artists who would be performing coming out to giving talks intermixed with actual dance demonstrations. In the evenings on these first three days there would then be just one full-scale performance. In contrast, the schedule for the second half of the festival consisted of workshops and master classes, and in the afternoon a series of large and small performances, I found this very unique.
Compared to the scale of the inaugural festival in 2010, IGNITE! is now almost twice the size. This was the first time we used this format of having the conference before the performances begin was a conscious decision. The aim of our festival is to build conversation, but once the performances began the practitioners (artists) were so busy with their own set-ups and performances that any conversations we had curated through the festival were not attended by the people performing at the festival. So, it felt like it was undoing all the sense of debate or conversation that we wanted to do with the organization. So, this time we said, how about designing the conference and placing it right before the festival? It’s almost like inviting people and then locking them up in a room (laughs). So, in that way the purpose of the festival could be realized.
This time we had 80 practitioners invited from across the sub-continent. In the beginning we imagined this to be a space dedicated to dance in India, but now we have expanded that notion to include South Asia as our area of focus. Because we feel like we share the same history with our neighbors and we are dealing with the same physical resources. And, we share traditional dances through these borders, so it is a conversation that we can share with our neighbors. And we can continue to expand the conversation from South Asia to Asia and then to a global conversation.
Your venues were the Goethe Institute in the German Embassy and the Institute of Cervantes in the Spanish Embassy.
The Goethe Institute has been our first partner and they gave us the space in their hall from year one, that’s how we started our relationship them. It is such an inviting space and its run by people who are so supportive, so we have tried to make it our festival hub. And, we are working with the Institute of Cervantes for the first time, because they have such a beautiful gallery. It was perfect this time for a site-specific work by Padmini Chettur titled “wall dancing.”
I thought the festival program was very attractive. On the first day you had Choy Ka Fai performing the “SOFT MACHINE: SURJIT AND RIANTO.” Ka Fai is an artist from Singapore, this work treated the relationship between the traditional dance of India and Indonesia and contemporary dance. On the second day Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy was quite impressive. They were invited from Kashmir where tensions between India and Pakistan continue, weren’t they? The piece they performed, “Brittle Frames,” is a very political work that contained many battle-like scenes. On the third day was Chettur, whom you just mentioned, presenting a conceptual piece.
I think there was a range of voices that were highly political at this festival. In the “Mixed Billed) 1” category had four young choreographers from the region who had a very, very strong statement to make. You had someone like Mirra (performing “According to official sources” who was challenging what marketing is doing to do the body, this whole system of marketing—which is quite recent at just 60 or 70 years old—is doing to the human body. Then someone like Venuri Perera (performing “traitriot”) from Sri Lanka who is looking at what has happened to the female body as a result of the civil war in Sri Lanka; to someone like Post Natham Collective (performing “super ruwaxi: origins”) who don’t want to place themselves in any particular geographical area in the world, and they call themselves “trans-national” and they are talking about sexuality, gender, location, to re-challenge all of these things, the notions we have about the body in all these different contexts. So, yes, a lot of the work at the festival is very political.
On another day you had a performance of a collaborative between German, Indian and Bangladesh artists co-choreographed by Helena Waldman and Vikram Iyenger titled “Made in Bangladesh,” which was also a powerful work that treated an actual disaster, the Savar building collapse. May I ask how you select the works for your program?
The selection process has sort of evolved over the last three editions of the festival. We have always had a selection committee, so there’s a very open process of inviting applications for a period three months, and it has been open to practitioners working in India and other parts of the world. And, we have provided a framework for the festival from the very beginning, to say the festival is dedicated to dance in India, either in its content or in its context. So, it’s a loose framework but it is also not so loose, and I think every practitioner has a sense that, “OK, my work belongs to this festival, to this framework.”
So, we solicit applications and every time we form a selection committee, which is a combination of visual artists, curators, dancers, choreographers. The committee usually has eight to ten members, and we feel it is important to have a panel that is diverse in their backgrounds, as with being from outside the dance world, because otherwise we would be stuck what we think we like, which we definitely don’t want. We wanted a complex kind of process where if there are things that we don’t like but the committee has a valid argument for, should be in the festival then. We look at the works and have a discussion why it fits into the context [of the festival] and we have a framework which is about quality, about a certain kind of criticality that the work brings with it and its relationship to the context. And we usually discuss it until everyone on the committee agrees of the decisions.
I was surprised to see that a lot of the performances in the festival were free. I have hard that in India there is a tradition of wealthy people providing performances of dance and other arts that they invite the common people to for free. Is this true?
Yes, there is an existing culture, especially in Delhi, of people expecting performances to be free. People go to performances that are free and just walk out of them when they think they are done with it. And that is something we wanted to change from the beginning. We were principally opposed to performances being free, because a lot of work goes into creating the performances. We don’t want performances to be free, but we try to make them accessible, so we keep the ticket prices low (from 200 to 400 rupees (approx. 390 to 770 yen)), which is about the price of a cup of coffee at a café. But, we want people to feel that they need to pay for art.
May I ask you what your budget is for the festival?
The “reduced” budget of our festival—because we didn’t make our budget—was about 700,000 rupees. We gave ourselves six months to look for corporate sponsors to make our minimum festival budget this time, but a month before the festival we realized that we weren’t going to make our minimal budget, so we decided we had to go to community fund raising [150,000 rupees] again—which we have done once before—and we realized that what this also does is that it gives the festival a community ownership as well. It tells people that this is actually a crucial space for the city’s cultural landscape and makes them ask how they can help sustain it. And when we do it we find to our surprise that the biggest support and the most willing support comes from the artists and practitioners themselves, even though they have very little income. So the total support we get from a large number of people like these is actually larger than the support we get from a few wealthy people.
Gati Dance Forum
How did the Gati Dance Forum that is now the organizer of the festival come to be formed? It was started in 2007, wasn’t it?
I will start with the summer of 2005 when I had just finished my studies at the Laban Centre in London when I met Anusha Lall in Delhi in a yoga class. She had just come back from London as well. We didn’t know each other at all before. In that summer of 2005 we just thought of making a work together. We started rehearsing together. We didn’t know what we were going to create. And in that summer we realized, very soon into the rehearsal process we found ourselves not really wanting to make a work at all. We started talking about why it is that we were not really prepared to make a work and we realized after having a lot of conversation that actually, there was no context [in India] into which to create [contemporary dance]. There was absolutely no funding, and we felt like we were going to create and end up showing it to our parents...there was no community to show the work to. There was no infrastructure—we were rehearsing in her living room on a hard floor in the peak of summer—in June in New Delhi, at 46 degrees and no fan. The biggest gap that we felt was that there was no community that could look at your work and critically give you some feedback. We said OK, lets stall this process, it feels like we are creating into a vacuum that has absolutely no context around it.
Miraculously in 2007, Anusha’s aunt lent her a basement. So she (Anusha) says maybe this is the moment to start working toward gathering a community of dancers in one place through conversation. Once a month we curated a workshop, or a film screening, or a discussion, to come and meet and talk about what our needs are as practitioners. Apart from our different training backgrounds, what actually binds us together, what are our concerns as a dance community. It really started off as a forum, as the name suggests. And what Anusha did at the time was to set some principles for our activities.
Would you tell what are some of the specific principles that guide your activities?
One such principle is of inclusivity—to say that we are not going to decide what contemporary means for us. We definitely do now want to impose that notion on the field, but to keep the lens through which we look at dance in the country really wide, to say that all different kinds of things can fall into this conversation, which we are calling contemporary. The other principal we began working with was this principal of criticality—to say at all points, we want to be able to look at dance practice with a very critical eye, meaning to be self-evaluative, thinking about [things] in a way where it’s not based on assumptions. Even the word contemporary itself—is it really relevant to the range of work that is happening in the country, is that really a term that is relevant for us, or do we need to start finding new language for the kind of work that's happening? The word contemporary comes with...a very heavy Western connotation. So, how can we then constantly challenge even the vocabulary that we use.
The third principle was to focus very directly on work that’s happening in India. We decided to start in a way where we really incubated a space for contemporary dance in India—for new practice in India, where we literally had to hold the walls against the rest of the world from coming in and influencing it too much. We thought that the movement here was so lacking in confidence that the minute you open the doors it will lose even more confidence, or it begins to mimic what is happening in other parts of the world. So that specific kind of approach can easily be wiped out. We really wanted to protect the scene for a few years, to let it find its own language, its own context, its own sense of identity before it interacts with the rest of the world.
Since you mention that, I noticed that most of the larger works on the festival programs were collaborations with other countries, particularly from Europe. Is this to provide a sort of cushion to prevent direct performance invitations to Western companies by making them collaborative works?
Yes. Of course, dancers will have to go abroad eventually, but until then we want them to be protected. We invite dance instructors from all around India and have them do residencies at our studios to learn. And of course, we run IGNITE! in a way that will contribute to dance performance in India.
However, you yourself have studied dance in London, haven’t you?
Yes. I studied for a BA at London’s Laban Centre for three years. After that I majored in dance again at another university and continued to work in London. But eventually I found that being a Western contemporary dancer just wasn’t ’sitting on my body’ at all. And I had serious internal conversations about Identity and what Indian-ness means when living in the UK. And at that time when I saw a performance of a London dance company using traditional Indian Bharata Natyam dance, I was charmed by it I knew that was what I wanted to do. After working with that company for four years, then, having been in London for seven years, I was so homesick, and I was certain that I didn’t want to be a part of a conversation that would have me getting funds to display my Indian-ness in the UK. I realized that the only conversation that I wanted to be a part of—and it was actually an absent conversation—was in India. So, one morning I realized that I just had to return home.
So, you and Anusha who had recently returned from London took the lead in formally establishing the Gati Dance Forum in 2007, and I find it interesting that you chose to call it a forum.
We thought about it actually for a while. In fact, we had this moment last year where we wanted to just reconsider how we framed the organization because for a lot of people it was unclear sat again and tried to think of ways to make it clear. We definitely didn't want names like center, academy or company at all. Center definitely rings of something that established itself as the center of something. It doesn’t ring of a community. So, we didn’t want to do that. After this rigorous re-questioning we came right back to ’forum.’ What we are really trying to do, no matter what we are addressing in the field, ’conversation’ is at the heart of it. Conversation between people, conversation about dance practice, and we felt that we wanted to retain that, so it never becomes only about performance and it always has something to do with building a discourse.
In 2007, when we felt the need to move to a larger building, we hired a space that we could renovate, and to help fund the renovation we solicited donations from the dance community and dance enthusiasts to donate large or small amounts and then we put each of their names on a brick used in the renovation. So when you go to the building you can see their names on the walls.
Please tell us about the main activities conducted by Gati Dance Forum today.
We have five main areas of activity: Creation, Education, Research, Advocacy and Dance Community Building. Creation means creation of new works through residencies, commissioned works as well as artists in residence within our space. In Education we are looking at building an MA program in Delhi later this year. In Research, we are currently in the middle of writing a book on contemporary dance in India, which should be out later this year as well. We have commissioned about eight to ten young researchers to write about contemporary dance. In Advocacy, we are trying to build a sense of ownership over the field so that the practitioners feel that they are not just receiving support but are also helping to build the future of their field.
The fifth key area is Dance Community Building. So, that is what our building in the center of Delhi does. We have put it under the heading of artist development and community building. There are two studios and when dancers use them for commercial purposes they can use them for less than half of the usual price. We wanted people to be able to come to our building as a neutral space in the city where people of all different disciplines can come in and meet each other and share skills and palpably feel this sense of a growing community. So, we get no money for our own work from Gati Dance Forum.
Would you tell us about your budget? What are your main sources of support?
A lot of our work through the year goes into finding support structures that will give us a budget that is sustainable in the future. The question of sustainability is very important, and because of it we release our budget to our trustees but we don’t release it on our website. The core supports we have are the Goethe Institute, Cervantes Culture Center and the Royal Norwegian Embassy. The Royal Norwegian Embassy and the Goethe Institute recognize ours to be and important area for development and we have really been lucky to have their support. Because it has helped us move from being a collection of artists to being an organization that can support itself. The Goethe Institute has been especially good supporter of our activities from the beginning with a lot of trust. Without these two supporters, we wouldn’t exist. But the conditions in the country are always changing and we need to keep looking for new support organizations.
And now, miraculously—but not without a lot of work—we have managed to get support from Sangeet Natak Akademi, which is a body for the performing arts (founded in 1952) that is independent from the government but gets its money from the government. So we have now been able to get its support for our IGNITE! festival. So it really feels like we have achieved something with all our work in the field of advocacy. It feels like we have managed gathered support from the government, and I think it everything to do with the fact that we decided from the beginning that we didn’t want to go into this “we” and “us” and “you” kind of discussion at all. And I think that is exactly the kind of attitude that has helped us secure support for the festival. From the beginning, it was about being in conversation with government agencies rather pointing fingers at them.
The state of contemporary dance in India
I would like to ask you to speak in a bit more detail about the state of contemporary dance in India. I now know that Gati Dance Forum has been a pioneering presence, but what was the situation like before you began your activities? Were there any artists who particularly influenced you?
There have been many in the modern history of Indian dance, and there are many different trajectories. So I think it is very difficult to say simply who are the key players.
Speaking geographically, for example there is an entire trajectory from Chennai in the south, going from the Kalakshetra Institute (Established 1936. Concentrating primarily on preserving the traditions of Bharata Natyam dance and Gandharva Veda music) to Chandralekha (a master of Bharata Natyam who became a spearhead of Indian contemporary dance performing internationally) to the new generation with Padmini Chettur (one of her dance company members). Many dancers have come out of this trajectory.
Then there is Mumbai (Bombay) where you have had Astad Deboo (studied traditional Indian dance like Kathak and Kathakali and modern dance and also performed in Pina Bausch works), making work for many decades. He was a game-changer in many ways, back in the 70s. In Mumbai there is also the Terence Lewis Academy (teaching a wide range of dance from Bollywood to contemporary dance and martial arts) that gives dancers very solid training.
There are trajectories in Delhi like Uma Sharma (a reformer of Kathak) and Uday Shankar (an important figure who introduced Indian dance to the world, performed with Anna Pavlova in 1923).
For the last 10 years or so, Bangalore, thanks to the “Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts, “ and its various projects, has really become the hub of contemporary dance in the country.
India is a country with a long an diverse history, and there are dance artists who have left their mark in different regions of the country, aren’t there?
That’s right. One of the things we want to do is to have a map of India and begin to populate it with historical trajectories, so that each practitioner looks at their own history and place it on that map. So, it will really give a sense of the complex history, and it is a sense of history that is collective and not one experienced by just one person.
Many young Indian dancers don’t know the background behind the development of contemporary dance. Some only had reference points that were sitting on YouTube, or in other parts of the world. And we really felt that it was urgent for us to join those dots and say that there has been a history of contemporary dance practice in India and there have worked for decades and have had works that are investigative and are highly critical and we should be able to refer to them.
That’s why a couple of years ago we thought of devising a course that looked at dance in a complex way, to look it through training, creation, critical thinking, critical studies, professional development, so writing skills and analytical skills, as well as relationships with other allied disciplines like lighting, theater, dance, music to see how we can engage with all these different disciplines to be able to instill some key information and ideals that enrich your own creative base.
What about the relationship between traditional and contemporary dance? Some people try to fuse the two together and some come to contemporary dance because they want to be free from tradition. What is it like in India?
It’s pretty much the same here in India as other parts of the world, where the minute you say contemporary or imagine this word contemporary, people want to throw [out] everything they have which has anything to do with tradition and go straight to starting with a blank space, which is as valid as anything, except there is a severe loss of [existing cultural] information. If your body is carrying an entire history of a form, it’s very easy for practitioners to sort of throw it out. It’s this analogy of throwing the baby out with the bathwater—even what is crucial for you to retain goes down the drain. I think there is a tendency for that. Or there is the opposite tendency of working from within the tradition and being very protective about it, saying that nothing here can shift.
The kind of space that we wanted to set up right at the beginning was a space that could be in between these two apparently polar worlds—a space in between that could begin to loosen the nuts and bolts of the traditional forms, as well as encourage new work from practitioners that are working from within the forms. I’m not sure how successful we have been there, but that has really been our hidden agenda. I don’t think we’ve successfully managed to encourage a generation of work coming from tradition and evolving into practice that’s relevant today, but there have been many examples of residents who have come in with their traditional forms and make something with a remarkable shift within their own practices.
In the case of Akram Khan, he is Bangladesh-British born in London who is active in the European contemporary dance scene with a style incorporates some traditional Indian Kathak dance elements. How is he viewed by Indian dance artists?
His work is very accessible and very highly produced, so like people around the world, I think most Indians love his work. I saw his performance using Kathak two years ago, and the one criticism that I heard in the air was that in the process of trying to make Kathak dynamic, it actually became quite hard and lost the fine quality that we associate with Kathak. And not being from the Kathak tradition at all, I could sense that too. But, he has definitely been a game changer who has made contemporary dance accessible to a wider audience.
Do young dance artists do work for India’s Bollywood movie industry?
Bollywood is a very organized industry, so there are minimum wages for dancers. So the Bollywood dancers are working within a very organized system, which is completely different from independent dancers. Many young [independent] dancer practitioners are making their living by teaching at schools and gyms and that is a way they earn enough to survive, but to make a living just as a dancer just by creating works and touring it, I don’t think anyone can do it in India.
Has there been any change in the audience that comes to dance performances?
I think in the beginning we felt like we only had young audiences, four years ago, even for the festival. In the first festival we had, we literally had to drag people in. In a large hall of 425 seats, we realized that there were about 15 people in the audience, 10 of which were the festival team. Now we have a mix of people, young people, people who are in college, young dancers, to people who love the arts in general. And older generations that are interested in the classical arts as well are seeping into this audience pool. Which is exciting. There is this general wave of curiosity that didn’t exist earlier.
Finally, I want to ask what may be a difficult question. In almost any country in the world today there are people who are saying that dance is an extravagance. To get to the IGNITE! festival, I took a taxi from my hotel and it went along a route where there were many poor people living on the street, which was quite a disturbing experience for me. Would you tell me what your thoughts are about the relationship between dance and the society?
It is a difficult question. There are times when you walk out on the street and it seems like what we are doing is a luxury. But, I don’t think it is a choice of one or the other. I think all of these things have to happen together. As much as one needs to alleviate poverty and make sure there is enough education, the development of the arts is as important. The way I make sense of it is that first thing a child does in their education is really starting with art. You start drawing, you begin to make sense of words through shapes, you begin to recognize colors and you begin to learn movement patterns. In that sense all of those things are so important, they are the beginnings of your life. They are core human needs. So, the arts are really at the heart of any kind of development. So, that is how I make sense of it and rationalize dedicating myself to this field.
Thank you for giving us so much of your time for this long and very interesting interview.