My Last Essay on Classical Indian Dance

By Donovan Roebert


When I was younger and less foolish in many ways than I am now that I am older, I was, however, still foolish enough to compose introductions to my intended writings before their substance had been fully put down. This is no longer the case because I have learnt that one’s intentions never turn out exactly the way one planned. This, my last essay on classical Indian dance, is therefore the introductory one.

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On the Freedom of Odissi to be Itself

By Donovan Roebert


While it was still in the making, the reconstruction – or what I have preferred to call the ‘reincarnation’ – of Odissi was subjected to the kind of simultaneous myth-making that characterized other classical Indian dances being revived in that period. I am speaking of course of the period, roughly 1930 – 1960, when these dances were being refashioned not only for their own sakes but for larger cultural, national and international purposes. In these decades the rebuilding of these dance forms was accompanied by much trumpeting of their great antiquity and direct derivation from ancient texts, temple sculptures and so on. It became the norm that these myths be invoked in order to affirm their classical status and the preeminence of such a classicism among the dance forms of the world.

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On ‘Pseudo-Spirituality’ in Classical Indian Dance

By Donovan Roebert


The occasion for this essay is a remark made about Bharata Natyam by the author of ‘The Undoing Dance’. In the course of an interview about her book, Srividya Natarajan referred to much of what passes for classical dance nowadays as ‘pseudo-spiritual’ and ‘boring’. It would be hard to misread her statement as not making a comparison between the hereditary and revivalist forms, but I want to leave that aspect aside for the moment. I think, at any rate, that I know what she means, which is that much of what pretends to spirituality in the dance today is really only a shallow sentimentalism, its superficiality emphasised by its own stress on fastidious coyness and false charm. And so far as that goes, I agree with her, but without going so far as to confine this fault to the revivalist form alone.

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The Sanitizing and Cleansing of Bharata Natyam

By Donovan Roebert


Before I move on to the substance of this essay, let me try to make clear immediately what I mean by ‘sanitizing’ and ‘cleansing’ in the context in which I intend to use these terms:


Anyone who has read something of the modern history of Bharata Natyam will have come across the idea of its having been ‘sanitized’ by prudish Brahmin revivalists (often summed-up in the person of Rukmini Devi Arundale), who objected to its erotic, sringara-based content and form. Of course the idea of its having been thus sanitized has other connotations too, and to these I will return in due course. The clarification I want to make here, at the outset, is that I will be employing this term, well-worn in general recent usage, with reference only to the revivalist movement and the alleged depradations it wrought on the hereditary Sadir tradition. It is not necessarily the case that I agree with these implications.

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A Personal Approach to Dance Criticism

By Donovan Roebert


A personal approach to appreciation and criticism of dance is never the one that begins with a theory about dance, nor will theorized preconditions advance me much beyond the theoretic. The innocent approach, the honest one, begins with the question : ‘Why does this particular form of dance, and this particular rendition of it, have these particular effects on me?’


(When I depart from Grand Theory about dance I am thrown back on my own resources and forced to consider this recital that is now before me, in this moment of its arising on its own terms, as also on mine, before I ever presume to generalize. What is this dance, and this dancer, considered apart from every other, saying to me and to me only, as an experience distinct from what I ought to be experiencing.)

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On the Movement from One Adavu to the Next

By Donovan Roebert


The movement from one adavu to the next is always a fresh re-embodiment of a motion that is not only ancient but captive to stylization. It is a setting free of an imprisoned idea, a letting go of a captured unit of code into the forum of the vital, the liberation of a codified insight from the field of death into the pastures of the living. The dancer reaching from adavu to adavu is in this sense a partaker in the miraculous, a worker of the impossible act of transubstantiation, the dead letter re-made into living flesh.

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Rasa in Filmed Classical Indian Dance

By Donovan Roebert


Filmed dance seems to me an artistic entity almost entirely different from the live recital. But I don’t want to revisit here arguments of the kind that were made in the early 20th century by audiences who resented the switch from live theatre to celluloid : the loss of personal intimacy, of the charged group atmosphere, the elements of risk, extemporization, spontaneity, the smell of theatre paint, and so on.

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