South Asian Dance: An Art Britain No Longer Ignores
Submitting InstitutionRoehampton University
Unit of AssessmentMusic, Drama, Dance and Performing Arts
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Creative Arts and Writing: Film, Television and Digital Media, Performing Arts and Creative Writing
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies
Summary of the impact
This case study details the impact of South Asian dance research on its
practitioners and organisations. Immediate beneficiaries include artists
engaging in, and organisations supporting, South Asian dance. Through
them, we have given prominence to dance genres outside the established
canon and fostered broader understanding of dance in a culturally diverse
society. By articulating the relationship between artistic practice and
the social, political, and financial mechanisms of late twentieth- and
early twenty-first century Britain, our research has influenced creative
practice, teaching and dance writing, as well as contributing to the
practicalities of artists' business ventures and grant applications.
The research underpinning this case study was undertaken over a period of
fifteen years. The following researchers worked individually and
collaboratively on four fully-funded interdisciplinary projects: Grau
(1993 to date), Professor of the Anthropology of Dance; Prickett, (2000 to
date), Principal Lecturer in Dance Studies; Lopez y Royo (1999 to August
2013), Reader in Dance and Visual Culture; Meduri (2005 to date), Reader
in Dance and Performance Studies; and David (2007 to date), Reader in
1. South Asian Dance in Britain: Negotiating Cultural Identity through
Dance, 1998-2001, directed by Grau with Lopez y Royo, with
contributions from David (prior to her appointment) and Prickett.
The project examined the place of South Asian dance within the
multicultural fabric of contemporary Britain. Findings indicated the
emergence of an exciting professional theatre practice in the UK and a
lively parallel community practice. It also became clear that the two
practices did not interact, and that the general public still had little
knowledge of South Asian Dance genres. On the other hand, practitioners
of, and organisations supporting, South Asian dance were keen to engage
with academic researchers; the project's Advisory Board (all from outside
academia) appreciated the opportunity to help shape the research.
2. New Directions in South Asian Dance: Postcolonial Identity
Construction, 2002-2007 led by Grau with Lopez y Royo, David, and
Prickett, and with input from Meduri.
In this project, while taking new approaches influenced by postcolonial
theory, we focused on the aesthetics (Lopez y Royo) and pedagogy
(Prickett) of the dance genres. This was a response to our collaborators'
critique that our emphasis had been on the contexts rather than on the
dance. Rich and productive debates between artists and scholars about
classicism, communication and the use of rhythm unpacked choreographic
techniques and ways of engaging with diverse audiences on issues of social
justice. The fluidity of the genres' boundaries and the process by which a
canon and a tradition are constructed and re-constructed were articulated.
Developing from project 1, the research revealed South Asian dance as a
vibrant contemporary art dance in Britain, while popular dance, especially
in its Bollywood incarnation, was gaining public recognition (David). Grau
also examined issue-based work through the collaboration with the Indian,
Ahmadabad-based NGO Centre for Non-Violence through the Arts (directed by
Mallika Sarabhai). After her appointment in 2005, Meduri's work on
performing the postcolonial archive, the transnationalism of Indian dance
and Rukmini Devi contributed to the research.
3. The Southall Story: A Cultural History of Britain's 'Little India'
since 1979, 2011-2013, a project hosted by the University of
Exeter, with David as co-investigator, documented the cultural history
of Southall, West London. David explored the multi-layered relationships
between the popular genre bhangra and socio-political organisations and
events, demonstrating that dance can operate at the centre of social
analysis and play a key role in documenting and reconstructing a
community's historical moments.
4. Interweaving Performance Cultures. Meduri joined this project,
based at the International Research Centre of the Freie Universität
(Berlin) for the 2012-13 academic year. She examined the limits of
`interweaving' within the performance of translations of dance culture.
The year's work culminated in two international meetings open to the
general public: 1. Indian Dance in a Global Age (Berlin) a
collaboration with the Tagore Centre and the Indian Council for Cultural
Relations (a reviewer commenting that Meduri `put together this whole
symposium with purpose and flair') and 2. Performance in/and the
Public Sphere (Tangier), a collaboration with the Moroccan NGO
International Centre for Performance Studies.
References to the research
1. Grau, Andrée (2002) South Asian Dance in Britain: Negotiating
Cultural Identity Through Dance, report to the Leverhulme Trust (can
be supplied by the HEI on request).
Grants: Leverhulme Trust (c. £60,000); South Bank Centre (c. £2,000) for
Talam on the Thames in 2001, opened by the Leverhulme Trust
Director, a large public event, which disseminated the research through
debates, workshops and performances, reaching a public beyond the South
Asian Dance community. The event was described as `The highlight of this
year's Summer on the South Bank Festival'.
This 80-page report established Roehampton as a centre of excellence for
South Asian dance, was read widely by the community, and continues to have
an impact today. Its main themes were picked up by Akademi, South
Asian Dance UK, in a number of wide reaching symposia in high
profile venues, where team members presented their research in greater
2. Meduri, Avanthi ed. (2005) Rukmini Devi Arundale: A Visionary
Architect of Indian Culture and the Performing Arts Delhi: Motilal
Banarsidass Publishers (can be supplied by the HEI on request).
Grant: The research was carried out when Meduri was a Ford Fellow and
Academic Director of the Centre for Contemporary Culture, New Delhi. The
book was launched under the auspices of Abdul Kalam Azad, then President
of India. It is seen as a key text in South Asian Dance Studies.
3. David, Ann R. (2007) `Beyond the Silver Screen: Bollywood and Filmi
Dance in the UK', South Asia Research, February, 27: 5-24 (DOI:
The article is currently number 9 in the most cited, and number 24 in the
most frequently read articles of the journal published during the past two
4. Prickett, Stacey (2013) `Encountering the South Asian Diaspora: Dance
Education, Heritage and Public Performance in London' in S. Prickett, Embodied
Politics: Dancing Protest and Identities London: Dance Books,
134-177 (in REF2).
5. Grau, Andrée (2013) 'Political Activism and Dance: The Sarabhais and
Nonviolence Through the Arts', Dance Chronicle, Volume 36, issue
1, 1-35 (in REF2, DOI: 10.1080/01472526.2013.755599).
Although not long out, the article is currently number 17 in the most
frequently read articles of the journal.
Grants: items 3 & 4 were part of the many outputs of Project 2, item
5 continued Grau's work on dance and social justice started under Project
2, funded by an AHRC grant in collaboration with the School of Oriental
and African Studies, London University and the University of Surrey (c.
£100,000 to Roehampton). David's outputs for this project led to an AHRC
grant towards The Southall Story (Project 4) hosted by the
University of Exeter (c. £25,000 to Roehampton).
6. Meduri, Avanthi (2012) "Geo-Politics, Dissensus, and Dance
Citizenship: The Case of South Asian Dance in Britain," in G. Brandstetter
and G. Klein (eds.) Dance [and] Theory, Bielefeld: Transcript, pp.
177-182. (Book chapter, can be supplied by the HEI on request).
Grant: Fellowship awarded to Meduri (c. £40,000) from the International
Research Centre, the Freie Universität, Berlin.
Details of the impact
Working with artists, public dance organisations and NGOs in the UK and
overseas, the focus of our research on cultural life also benefits the
communities that it investigates. Making South Asian dance more visible
within the artistic landscape, it engages with civil society and helps
artists thrive. We have engaged in long-standing dialogues, formal when
mentoring or sharing a platform, and informal through discussions with
those who have attended events we participated in and/or who read our
research publications. Our research has benefitted both individuals and
Our research is embedded in our contributions to the professional
magazine Pulse and the widely-read newspaper CONFLUENCE: South
Asian Perspective, enriching discussions on South Asian dance.
Moreover, the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) acknowledges
our work and commissioned Meduri (2008) and David (2013) to write for DANCE
Magazine. Aimed at their 7,500+ members in 75 countries and drawing
on the team's research (e.g. issues surrounding the term South Asian dance
or the global reach of Indian dance), the articles share ideas that are
relevant to the Classical Indian dance faculty, but also inform a wider
dance audience. Our research has also reached the mainstream media, for
example, we have worked alongside journalists, enabling their access to
our field sites and presenting our research through their reporting, such
as David's contribution to a BBC News audio slideshow in 2008.
Through communicating our research to broader constituencies, we are
contributing to the development of a framework for dance criticism aimed
at the next generation of writers/critics coming from the South Asian
dance community. We formalised our collaboration with Kadam, the
publisher of Pulse. The magazine and its associated social media
outputs reaches 1000+ dance enthusiasts. We helped set up Critical
Writing 2 in collaboration with the well-known dance critic Sanjoy
Roy and dancer Mavin Khoo (with whom we have been working for over a
decade). This workshop was aimed at a small group of aspiring dance
writers, enhancing their skills and increasing their confidence to write
for Pulse. Prickett delivered the workshop, drawing from her
research into institutions, politics of funding and relations of power
(2013, from project 2). Two writers were subsequently published in the
September 2013 issue. There were also contributions to dance blogs
including writingaboutdance.com and http://abundantart.net.
The collaboration will continue in 2014, linked to the residency at
Roehampton of US-based artist-scholar Ananya Chatterjee.
Kathak practitioner Sonia Sabri noted that Prickett's research helped her
to better articulate the distinctiveness of her work within the British
cultural landscape. In 2009 she asked Prickett to join and chair the board
of her company, Sonia Sabri Dance, thus ensuring continued collaboration.
Ongoing dialogue saw her present with Prickett at the Women in Asian
Theatre Symposium, University of Lincoln (2013), an encounter valued
by the artist for illuminating and communicating the uniqueness of her
practice. Prickett had also articulated the particular negotiations
involved in presenting the body, in dance, in environments where neither
is promoted. She contributed to Sabri's conceptualisation, with due
cultural sensitivity, of her highly successful 2011 performances and
workshops in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. In 2012, the company became a
National Portfolio Organisation, funded by Arts Council England, a process
assisted by Prickett's analysis of funding for dance companies outside the
mainstream canon. The resulting financial stability allowed Sabri `to plan
for three years in terms of artistic vision'.
Shalini Bhalla, the creator of Just Jhoom! (an accredited
Bollywood and bharatanatyam-derived fitness genre copyrighted in 2012),
notes how our research challenged her assumptions and inspired her to
think about cultural activity within an entrepreneurial framework. She had
`focused on Bharata Natyam...only exploring avenues within that
discipline' as she had `an internal conflict - some would say snobbery -
between the classical and the popular'. She felt empowered to reassess the
hierarchies within South Asian dance, reflecting on 1. Grau's observations
(1993) that western classification of dance, into classical, folk and
primitive, tells us more about class and race than dance 2. David's
analysis of Bollywood within diasporic communities (2010) 3. Meduri's
investigation of Rukmini Devi's cultural vision (2005). She `became less
rigid in [her] thoughts about classical versus popular' and started a
Bollywood dance class. Our research helped her find the right niche for Just
Jhoom!. Becoming one of the Asian Women of Achievement 2013,
the judges commented: `Shalini [...] turned an art form into a very
successful business and is making a huge contribution to bringing an Asian
dance form to the wider community and to a full range of generations -
from the very young to the elderly.'
Our research also contributed to the development of the work of
independent artist Anusha Subramanyam, in her capacity as bharatanatyam
Programme Leader at the Centre for Advanced Training (CAT) for South Asian
and Contemporary Dance (funded by the Department for Education and hosted
by Birmingham's DanceXchange). Prickett's analysis of the ISTD syllabus
(2007) and Meduri's discussion of the dispersal of the Rukmini Devi legacy
in the diaspora (2005) helped her contextualise her teaching within a
global context. Subramanyam noted that David's research and ongoing
dialogue on dance in Indian UK society has shaped her thinking in her own
community work. Grau's work on the Sarabhais' social commitment through
dance (2013) validated Subramanyam's own artistic engagement within an
ethos of social justice. Through such recognition she feels empowered to
explore the emotive and gestural grammar of bharatanatyam and combine it
with a contemporary dance style that generally shies away from such
Urja Desai Thakore, director of Pagrav Dance Company, came to our
research initially through an Arts Council sponsored mentorship for
research and development towards Baharan — Spring (2009).
Mentoring by David in 2008 started a journey that took her artistic output
into new directions. David's research helped illuminate and challenge the
cultural values and assumptions that she held about the place of kathak
and how it might be viewed. Today Thakore sees multiculturalism or the
global reach of South Asian dance forms as potential subject matters.
Fellow artists have noticed a marked shift in her work, commenting: `This
is something we never expected from you'.
Similarly advised by Meduri through an Arts Council mentorship in 2011,
Divya Kasturi drew upon our research dealing with identity construction
when she devised NowHere, a work that articulates two
sensibilities of `nowhere' and `now here' and negotiates boundaries
between the classical, traditional and contemporary aesthetics. Our
reflections helped her articulate such issues within her artistic
practice. The work toured internationally and was well received. A Dublin
critic described NowHere as `an interesting fusion of cultures
...[it] depicts a journey in search of one's identity'; whilst another
critic wrote that Kasturi appeared `to shed her past upon entering a
multilayered examination of her tradition and identity'.
Long-established choreographers have also been keen to engage in
intellectual dialogue with us. Shobhana Jeyasingh, for instance, invited
Meduri as a consultant to help her unpack the way in which her
choreographic work could be analysed within a broader framework of
globalised dance and diasporic dialogues (from projects 2 and 4). The
impact of this work was such that when, for the first time since its
inception, her company was invited to undertake a ten days tour in India,
she asked Meduri to contribute to this HOME meets HOME project.
The result was the essay `Traces and Trails' (http://www.rescen.net/Shobana_Jeyasingh/HmH/delhi.html),
which not only provides new spectatorial theories based on the `look' and
`trace effects' in world choreographies but also makes academic theory
accessible to a broad audience.
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Director Sonia Sabri Company, http://www.ssco.org.uk
- Director Just Jhoom! http://www.justjhoom.co.uk,
- Director of Pagrav Dance Company, http://www.pagravdance.com/#/home/.
- Divya Kasturi, independent artist.
- Director of Beeja, http://anushasubramanyam.com
Internet sources where our interventions are noted
- David, Ann Audio slideshow on BBC News website on Tamil Dance in
Pulse: Announcement and programme for Critical Writing
- Article by Harshini Vakkalanka in The Hindu (7.01.2013), a
major national newspaper in India, reporting on a talk given by
Meduri at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. The article
highlights Meduri's research on the transnationalism of Indian dance
and on the need to examine it from a global perspective.
- Recent review of Meduri's edited collection listed in 3.,
describing it as an `inspirational read'. http://www.maduraimessenger.org/printed-version/2012/august/book-review/