Whispers from the Wings

Choreographing India

April 9, 2013

Queen Victoria, the Empress of India, famously never visited her colony in the East. Near the end of The Empress Abdul Karim tells the elderly, frail Queen Victoria, '…if Her Majesty can't go to India, then we will bring India to her.' The stage directions then indicate: 'a troupe of brightly coloured musicians and performers enter…Victoria looks delighted.'

I have been commissioned to choreograph this section of the play. I knew I did not want to use generic Bollywood or contemporary fusion movement languages that did not exist during the period of the play. In keeping with my post-colonial sensibilities, I also did not want this moment in The Empress to feel like a simple replication of Victorian tendencies towards carting out the 'ethnics' for exotic entertainments.

Director Emma Rice, Writer Tanika Gupta and I decided to use the classical Indian dance style of Bharatanatyam to root the performance in a specific, historically-accurate movement form from the period.

We also decided to use the entire cast, regardless of race, in the presentation, to show a vision of an entire Empire 'dancing' for its Empress and to allow for each actor to apply his or her unique intention to the presentation.

For centuries Bharatanatyam has been performed in the Hindu temples of south India as an artistic offering to the Gods. The development of Bharatanatyam in recent history is inextricably tied to events in the British Raj.

In 1799 the King of Tanjore, a patron of Bharatanatyam and its leading practitioners, signed a treaty with the East India Company. At this time, Tanjore's court artists were developing the repertoire that is currently learned and performed by Bharatanatyam dancers around the world.

In 1856, Tanjore was fully annexed to the British and cultural patronage was abandoned with artists going underground and leaving the area for Madras (now Chennai).

For the remainder of the 19th Century, Victorian codes of morality labeled Bharatanatyam and other Indian dance styles the equivalent of prostitution, which not only lowered the status of dancers, but also almost wiped the forms.

Bharatanatyam found a rebirth in the 1930s, when it was rejuvenated from its underground status as a part of Indian nationalist attempts to recapture an authentic, independent Indian nationality and a celebration of Indian cultural forms. Since then, the form has accompanied the Indian Diaspora throughout the world; I grew up studying Bharatanatyam in California.

In the context of The Empress, the use of Bharatanatyam has fascinating historical implications. During the period of the play, Bharatanatyam was a form in hiding, practiced at the margins of society.

Like most Indian cultural institutions, Queen Victoria would have had very little knowledge of Bharatanatyam, though her colonial officials were doing their utmost to root it out of society in her name.

With the rise of the Indian independence movement, led by a number of historical figures featured in The Empress, Bharatanatyam was used as a form of cultural defiance in the face of foreign occupation.

For the last five weeks, I have been teaching the company Bharatanatyam in daily sessions. We have built this movement knowledge into a choreographic gift from Abdul Karim to Queen Victoria, and will perform it as one of the final scenes in The Empress.

by Ankur Bahl  |  1 comment

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Apr 23, 11:41pm
monica sinfield

Watching the play The Empress tonight made me want to learn more about the period of Victoria and her 'love' for her servant but also made me want to get up and dance this was so vibrant and magical thank you for the joy.

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