"Rabindranath Tagore's invention of an entirely new dance style liberated dance from the formulaic choreography and narratives of classical Indian dance"
-- Dr. Mandakranta Bose, 'Indian Modernity and Tagore's Dance' in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 77(4), Fall 2008.
The 1920s and 1930s witnessed many dramatic changes in the world of Indian arts and culture, including the birth of an entirely new genre of Indian dance. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Asia's first Nobel Laureate, was instrumental in this. The resulting dance form, which was first taught at the liberal arts university that Tagore founded in Santiniketan, is widely acknowledged to be the first 'modern' dance of India. The people of Bengal (the eastern state of India which was Tagore's home state) still refer to the style as 'Rabindra-nritya'.
What distinguishes this genre of dance? To understand this, one must first understand the nature of Indian classical dance. India has eight established classical dance forms, each with historic roots in a different part of India, all of them with traditions that go back many centuries. While these dances share some common rules laid out in the ancient Indian text of dance, 'Bharat Natyashastra', they are each distinctive not only in their style of movement, but also in the type of music they are performed to, and the dancers' costumes. The dances are all strongly rooted in Hindu religious traditions and the themes focus heavily on Hindu deities (the sole exception is 'Kathak', which was heavily patronized by the Muslim aristocracy and hence developed a more abstract 'theme-free' style). Classical dance practitioners view themselves as upholders of unchanging artistic traditions, and immense emphasis is placed on maintaining the 'purity' of each dance form. Experimentation and innovation are looked upon with suspicion and tolerated only in very small doses.
The dance form that Tagore initiated differed from the traditional Indian classical dances in at least three significant ways.
- Themes: India in the 20th century was a country of many religions. The university that Tagore had founded in Santiniketan not only had Indian students from every religious background, but also numerous foreign students. Thus, the new dance form had to be easily adaptable to 'secular' songs and themes, and be equally welcoming to the non-Hindu and the Hindu participant.
- Music: Tagore remains the most innovative songwriter that India has ever seen. He wrote more than 2,200 songs, and he invented almost 500 unique new tunes by mixing classical and folk music from different regions of India and also drawing from Western music. Any dance style meant to accompany his songs had to be more adaptable to variations in music and rhythms than any single classical Indian dance could be.
- Innovation: While Tagore had a healthy respect for tradition, he was a passionate believer in innovation and artistic creativity, and strongly believed than any art-form that prided itself too much on its 'unchanging' nature would eventually stagnate. Thus, he envisioned a dance-style where creativity and experimentation were to be encouraged rather than frowned upon.
The basic 'formula' used to create the new dance-genre was remarkably simple! It started with a mixture of two very separate classical dance forms, and renowned teachers of each form were invited to join Tagore's university at Santiniketan, and to work together to 'blend' the styles. One of these classical dance forms was 'Manipuri', unique in the extreme fluidity of its torso and arm movements. Manipuri is the one classical Indian dance where ankle bells are rarely used, because the footwork is so light that the bells barely audible! The other classical dance form was from south India. Five of the eight Indian classical dances are based in the states of south India, and while each is distinctive, they all share the common characteristics of bold and audible footwork, structured arm and torso movements, and an emphasis on facial expressions. Tagore initially selected 'Kathakali', but any of the other south-Indian styles ('Bharatnatyam', 'Kuchipudi', 'Mohiniattam' or 'Odissi') work just as well. Just like mixing two starkly different primary colors creates a unique new color, mixing Manipuri with a south-Indian classical dance immediately creates a unique new style of dance unlike any that had existed before.
To further broaden the aesthetic scope of this new dance style, Tagore encouraged the addition of movements from the numerous folk dances of India where the music was appropriate. While lacking the precision and sophistication of the classical styles, folk dance styles can bring elements of liveliness and communal joy to dance that the classical styles cannot provide. And thus, the new concept of a 'fusion dance' combining the different Indian dance styles was born.
The style gained rapid popularity. The concept of Indian fusion dance was taken up and carried forward by other maestros of dance such as the Uday Shankar, Manjushree Chaki-Sircar, Shanti Bose, and one of its most recent proponents, Sukalyan Bhattacharya. In keeping with the philosophy based on which the style was initiated, its major proponents have continued to experiment with it, pushing boundaries not only in terms of mixing the different dance-styles, but also in terms of costuming, music and themes.
One unsolved problem has been finding an apt Indian name that defines the style! 'Rabindra-nritya' is no longer entirely appropriate, since the style is also performed to music by current songwriters in addition to Tagore's songs. Other terms, such as 'Nava-nritya' ('New dance') and 'Anibandha-nritya' ('Unfettered dance') have been attempted, but have failed to gain traction among either Indian or International audiences. The term 'Indian Modern Dance' is probably too broad, since that encompasses the dance schools in contemporaneous India that teach mostly Western dances or the ubiquitous 'Bollywood' dances. Thus, for the lack of a more elegant and imaginative name, the dance style is most often referred to simply as 'Indian Fusion dance', or more elaborately, 'Indian Classical-Folk Fusion Dance'.