Asian dance with UK twist

Choreography and Dance
October 16, 1998

As someone involved in the British Asian arts scene for over two decades, I regularly get phone calls from enthusiastic university graduates who want to talk about some aspect of the development of this topic for their dissertations. They seem to think that the British Asian experience as reflected through the arts began only when they entered further education. They believe that the cause of multi-culturalism was pushed only when Amita Dhiri appeared as Millie in This Life and Shobu Kapoor as Geeta in EastEnders. In reality, British Asian arts have been evolving for more than 20 years as a product of artists with cultural antecedents in the Indian subcontinent but who were born or are living and working from Britain.

In any field, British Asian arts are now at the leading edge. This is now recognised by many institutions including the British Council, which regularly sends British Asian artists abroad as "cultural exports". What we have lacked is written material. So it was with great pleasure I turned to this special issue of Choreography and Dance, which delves into the practices and language of South Asian dance in Britain.

It is a collection of essays by dancers, choreographers, educationalists and journalists. It begins with an analysis of the terms of reference, and goes on to talk about the early developments. This is followed by articles by dancers and choreographers about specific pieces of work, ending with the role of South Asian dance in higher education. The authors rightly point out that the history of South Asian dance in Britain can be traced to the early part of this century to Uday Shankar and Ram Gopal. Shankar was launched in the West by Anna Pavlova, while Gopal worked with Alicia Markova.

The personal writing style lacks a formal thread that would give the reader an idea of the logical development of the art form in Britain. As an academic journal, it assumes readers will follow the specialised vocabulary: the writing is by dancers for dancers.

We learn about the problems faced by artists such as Shobana Jeyasingh and Nilima Devi on trying to "sell" themselves to an audience that has no understanding of their art form; or the problems a choreographer such as Richard Alston faced when collaborating with Jeyasingh. There seems to be a gender bias: there is no essay by a male South Asian dancer. It would have been interesting to read about Jayachandran or Darshan Singh Bhuller.

Another omission is a piece looking at whether there is a dialogue between South Asian dancers in Britain and their counterparts in India, many of whom tour Britain regularly and work with dancers in this country. These are all important points in artistic debate about British Asian art in this country.

Suman Bhuchar is a freelance journalist and television producer.

Choreography and Dance: South Asian Dance: The British Experience

Author - Alessandra Iyer
Editor - Alessandra Iyer
ISBN - ISSN 0891 6381
Publisher - Harwood
Price - £15.00
Pages - -

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