In a parched landscape, a dance competition keeps artists’ dreams alive

The Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance Awards has created an ecosystem for dancers in India, where resources and opportunities remain scarce.

Published : Jun 26, 2024 11:00 IST - 11 MINS READ

“Meepao”, choreographed by Surjit Nongmeikapam, from PECDA Showcase 2022.

“Meepao”, choreographed by Surjit Nongmeikapam, from PECDA Showcase 2022. | Photo Credit: Prakriti Foundation

Dancers in India’s contemporary dance landscape stretch the field’s meagre resources to grand ends, working alone and together, juggling any available space, time, and funding to sustain their practice. Any emergency throws their carefully wrought budgets and lives into chaos. In 2017, the dancer and choreographer Diya Naidu found herself contemplating this chaos when she missed a flight from Mumbai to Hyderabad during a six-city tour for The Park’s New Festival. She was one of five choreographers invited to tour a performance at the festival, following a stellar showing at the Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance Awards (PECDA) in 2016—both events conceptualised by the Prakriti Foundation.

Delayed by a series of small mishaps, Naidu and 21 other artists had missed the flight’s check-in window and were now stranded at Mumbai airport, worried about having to buy expensive last-minute tickets to make it to their next show in time. Used to expecting very little from funders and patrons, the artists reached out to the festival team with great trepidation. They were quickly given replacement tickets, and the missed flight was never mentioned again. “In 2017, you were still very grateful to be platformed, invited, curated… for every free meal you might have been given,” Naidu said.

In a landscape of few resources and opportunities, this was a significant gesture. It epitomised the warmth and the camaraderie she had grown to treasure at PECDA.

A biennial event, PECDA offers financial support, mentorship, and performance and networking opportunities to choreographers who enter an open competition. Run by the Chennai-based Prakriti Foundation, the awards have had six editions since 2012, the latest being in March 2024. The winner receives funding to make a full-length work and spends time with a mentor during an international residency or workshop. Choreographers use their funding to hire dancers and artistic collaborators, defray production expenses, and pay for rehearsal space, besides the costs of their own time. The finished work is invited back to the next edition of the awards. Several other finalists receive professional development opportunities or, like Naidu, are invited to tour their works.

“Vaasipinnal 12”, choreographed by Chandiran. R. Shortlisted for PECDA 2024.

“Vaasipinnal 12”, choreographed by Chandiran. R. Shortlisted for PECDA 2024. | Photo Credit: Prakriti Foundation

PECDA wears the air of a reunion; dancers converge on it from all corners of the country, spending an extended weekend together watching performances, participating in discussions, and taking the pulse of the field. Back in 2012, when it began, large contemporary dance gatherings were restricted to a few biennial events, the Attakkalari India Biennial in Bengaluru and the Ignite! Festival of Contemporary Dance in New Delhi, among them. State support for contemporary dance was sparse. The term “contemporary” was yet to enter the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s institutional vocabulary; until 2014, it gave awards and grants for “Creative and Experimental Dance”, defining the category in terms of stylistic expression instead of temporal significance.

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In the 2010s, artist-run community initiatives were setting up spaces and platforms to grow local dance scenes across major metros. They were supported by a mix of international cultural institutions, occasional state funding, and individual donors, who were often artists themselves. But while they could raise funds for specific projects, it was hard to find the crucial support needed to build infrastructure—establish spaces, acquire resources, guarantee a baseline level of functioning—that would make them into sustainable hubs for local dancers.

  • Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance Awards (PECDA), is a biennial pan-Indian open-entry competition of works in progress for contemporary choreographers and dancers.
  • PECDA was blueprinted in 2012 by dance enabler Karthika Nair. It is run by the Chennai-based Prakriti Foundation, and the awards have had six editions since 2012, the latest being in March 2024.
  • The winner receives funding to make a full-length work and spends time with a mentor during an international residency or workshop.

Ranvir Shah, founder-trustee, Prakriti Foundation, started considering the PECDA model in the late 2000s. The foundation had organised festivals and presented work, but it wanted to do more. The poet, producer, and curator Karthika Nair came on board to define a framework. “There were what I call the 3 Ms: the prize money, the mentoring, and the ‘market’ of [touring] five to six different cities. We wanted to let young choreographers find and create their own language [by being] catalysts who nurtured them and created a sense of community,” Shah said of PECDA’s origins.

Platform for young dancers

The competition quickly became an important platform for young dancers, who filled out a simple application form to enter. Those who were selected were offered support to travel to the competition, where they had opportunities to meet one another, going beyond their usual networks of peers from the same school, training background, company, or city. PECDA does not discriminate between choreographers with years of experience and those who are just starting out.

Aseng Borang, winner of the 2018 edition, was a first-year student in a master’s programme when she won. The validation helped her feel more certain about a future in the arts. She said: “In 2018, I was competing with artists who… were already established. So there was a sense of achievement that somebody like me, who probably was never even considered a choreographer or an artist, was given this platform, or that the jury felt that I deserved it. I went to PECDA and I won, and then I came back to Delhi, where I was still a student. There was an interesting [juxtaposition] of studying and being recognised as an established artist. I think it really pushed me to see a future, to see an ecology where I could position myself as an artist.”

Saïdo Lehlouh (jury member and mentor at PECDA 2024) speaking at a session titled “Discussion: Expanding the Contemporary Dance Practice—Present and Future”, at PECDA 2024.

Saïdo Lehlouh (jury member and mentor at PECDA 2024) speaking at a session titled “Discussion: Expanding the Contemporary Dance Practice—Present and Future”, at PECDA 2024. | Photo Credit: Prakriti Foundation

Nair, who directed the first four editions of PECDA, explained that it was blueprinted on three international reference points: the Place Prize of the UK, which gave selected choreographers space and resources to develop a full-length work; Danse élargie of France, which demystified the application process by not demanding complex descriptions of works-in-progress from choreographers who were not usually trained to write them; and Premio Equilibrio of Italy, an annual national dance award that Nair co-curated with the choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui for six years.

“Blueprinting PECDA meant that the references needed to be adapted to the realities and financial, infrastructural possibilities in India,” Nair said. “PECDA, as Ranvir christened it almost immediately, was not a solution: it was meant to be a first step, a platform to showcase, and support, new work… also a meeting point where the same work could get seen by international programmers. Any award comes with its own set of problems, beginning with the idea of a superlative in something as subjective as an artistic work.”

The festival’s co-director in 2022 and 2024, Chandrika Grover Ralleigh, described PECDA as a “landing” for dance makers. While every edition still has a “winner”, the event has been reshaped to offer sustainable support. Eddie Nixon, artistic director of The Place and 2024 co-director of PECDA, was able to consider these changes over several editions, having been a jury member in 2016 and 2018. In this edition, each of the selected choreographers was matched with an established artist from the dance scene in India and supported through a process of mentoring and feedback in the months before the competition. “The focus was on trying to surround the choreographers with a bit more creative support along the way so that their creation would feel a little more like an artist development journey. The work developed, critical relationships were formed. We are really trying to develop PECDA into something that is a rich contribution to art-form development rather than just a biennial competition,” Nixon said.

PECDA editions

A typical edition of PECDA occurs over three or four days. The last two editions were held in Bengaluru, which has long been a hub for dancers who move there to attend training programmes and workshops, and stay for the collaborative possibilities and teaching opportunities it offers. Over two days, the selected choreographers present short performances. Of these, five performances are chosen for the final. The period between the two rounds of performance is tense. Competing for PECDA, most choreographers have already spent weeks or months developing and rehearsing their short performances. The mood is jovial, but the stakes are high.

Being in the final increases choreographers’ chances of being able to develop their 10-minute iteration into a full-length performance. A longer work requires more rehearsal, greater time commitment from dancers, plans for music, set, and light design. It is also more likely to be positioned as a stand-alone performance, justifying the costs incurred to rent a venue, plan travel and accommodation, and market an event.

Winner Jasmine Yadav; runner-up, Anjali A.R.; and winners of the Karthika Nair Best Dancer Award, Priyanka Chandrasekhar and Khulem Tennyson, at PECDA 2024.

Winner Jasmine Yadav; runner-up, Anjali A.R.; and winners of the Karthika Nair Best Dancer Award, Priyanka Chandrasekhar and Khulem Tennyson, at PECDA 2024. | Photo Credit: Prakriti Foundation

Increasingly, artists in the Indian ecosystem do not rely on being invited by venues to perform. Instead, they plan their own tours across major metros and a few smaller cities, sometimes travelling to multiple venues in each city, performing at proscenium venues of varying sizes and makeshift studios. Sometimes, they hold workshops as they go along, disseminating their knowledge and simultaneously cross-subsidising performance costs. The profits can be slim; dancers may recoup their costs and have a little left over but do not come even close to significantly earning a livelihood from performance and touring.

This is true of most independent dancers, barring those with regular corporate or entertainment industry gigs. Performing or making work independently does not cover rent, pay for health insurance, or cover the cost of time off due to injuries. Teaching is a steadier prospect and also a sustained way of developing one’s artistic practice, with many dancers carrying ideas from their works into the classroom, and vice versa.

Wealth of possibilities

For Pradeep Gupta, winner of the 2022 edition, teaching is also a way of giving back, using the knowledge he has gained to bring new people into the field. Gupta started out as a self-taught artist, watching YouTube videos and parlaying dance reality show wins into a scholarship to a dance institute in Mumbai. He was then able to work with other dancers, even appearing in runner-up Purnendra Meshram’s work, “2 Men”, at PECDA 2018.

From “Discussion: Expanding the Contemporary Dance Practice—Present and Future” at PECDA 2024.

From “Discussion: Expanding the Contemporary Dance Practice—Present and Future” at PECDA 2024. | Photo Credit: Prakriti Foundation

Gupta’s 2022 win opened up a wealth of possibilities; the money he was awarded allowed him to focus on making a work without financial pressures. He also learned a lot from being able to see works by other artists and having opportunities to travel. He said: “I didn’t want to waste that information just on myself. So, I thought, let’s share this with the dancers of Chhattisgarh, who mainly follow Bollywood or hip-hop. I thought it would be good for them to understand other body languages or different kinds of practice. I started my workshops, not just in my native place (Maroda, Bhilai) but also in different cities in Chhattisgarh. The idea of the workshops is to make a community here where I can survive, because in Chhattisgarh there is nobody I can speak to about my art.” Teaching allows Gupta to pass on what he has learned and build a community of peers who hold space for his artistic preoccupations.

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What does PECDA’s future look like? Each year, the competition gets more diverse, welcoming participants with no direct links to big-name institutions or metropolitan dance scenes. In a few editions, Shah hopes, the competition may evolve into other forms of support. “Maybe we can then move to fellowships and mentorships within the community, with senior choreographers, and also create more regular spaces for interaction and discourse,” he said.

PECDA’s biggest win

There have been gaps along this journey; PECDA skipped an edition in 2020 due to COVID-19. The pandemic posed a challenge for most dancers; while it opened up digital possibilities, it shut them out of the physical spaces where most of their work happened. Choreographers who employed full-time dancers were forced to disband their companies as work dried up. Everyone seemed to be teaching Zoom classes.

“Folktale”, choreographed by Surjit Nongmeikapam. Winner, PECDA 2016.

“Folktale”, choreographed by Surjit Nongmeikapam. Winner, PECDA 2016. | Photo Credit: Prakriti Foundation

The master’s programme in Performance Practice (Dance) at Dr. B.R. Ambedkar University (where both Borang and the 2024 PECDA winner, Jasmine Yadav, were students), had to pivot from plans to facilitate field research and full-length performance works to figuring out how dissertation projects could be executed on camera in students’ homes, negotiating shared domestic spaces or restrictive family environments. Dancers who had migrated to cities like Bengaluru sometimes had to move back home to cut costs.

In a landscape defined by precarity, institutional initiatives have been slow to return. To survive and run a national competition successfully is PECDA’s biggest win. For independent dancers, life has gradually bounced back, but survival remains an exercise in grit and ingenuity, and every initiative helps.

Ranjana Dave is an independent artist and writer. She explores how people build relationships with other people, ideas, objects, and ecologies—what make us social beings. She is the editor of Improvised Futures: Encountering the Body in Performance (Tulika Books, 2021).

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