The use of dance as a celebratory spectacle is not uncommon in a global sporting event. The Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, as well as the Chess Olympiad in Chennai, both held earlier this year, had one thing in common: both used dance in the opening/closing ceremonies. While the link between sports, national identity, and nationalism is often easy to make (it is helpful that players wear outfits emblazoned with the name or flag of their countries), do the dances at these events gesture towards contemporary conversations around identity and belonging as well?
What is of interest, since both events played out almost simultaneously, was the kind of dance used to signal Indian/South Asian and, coincidentally, Tamil identities in both contexts. This article is in fact a reflection on a similar point Sitara Thobani raised in her book Indian Classical Dance and the Making of Postcolonial Identities: Dancing on Empire’s Stage on the Welcome Modi1 event which took place in Wembley Stadium in 2015. She states that the event offered “a fascinating example of … nations being performed into being through a transnational encounter premised on specific cultural and artistic performances”. Thobani notes the overwhelming presence of Indian classical dance to signal Indian national identity. But in both the instances discussed in this article, it is not just the nation that is called into being but, interestingly, a linguistic and cultural Tamil identity as well.
This article looks at two dance choreographies and stages, both part of a transnational encounter by virtue of being hosted at a global sporting event, where Indian as well as South Asian identities are negotiated in the choice of dance involved. While the Commonwealth Games had Usha Jey merging the distinctive dance vocabularies of Bharatanatyam and hip-hop, as well as a kuthu presentation, the Chess Olympiad stuck to a more structured movement pattern in a minutely choreographed dance-drama.
Both choreographies elicited excitement, and I am left enthralled by how Indian/South Asian dance travels and is made a vector of an identity that is enmeshed in international, national, and local politics of belonging and citizenship. Are the aesthetic choices telling of a bigger story? Of the aesthetic possibilities offered by multiple dance forms, there must be a reason some are chosen for the global stage. The aesthetics involved in this choice offer social and political readings carried by the dancing body.
Doing justice to who I am
To start with, what might Usha Jey’s juxtaposition of kuthu and hip-hop convey? Jey has reflected on her Sri Lankan Tamil identity, and the taking up kuthu, as an artist of the diaspora (she lives in France), is an assertion of that identity. Jey’s choreographies, blending Bharatanatyam and hip-hop (which she refers to as hybrid bharatam), go viral on social media. Three girls in checked green Kalakshetra sarees glide in and out seamlessly through the distinct but equally joyful movements of Bharatanatyam and hip-hop, jasmine in their hair. In the text beneath the YouTube video, Jey states that her aim was “to keep the essence of each dance and create something that do justice to who I am”.
It is this choreography, slightly extended, which was invited to the Commonwealth Games with another kuthu choreography added. Kuthu—also referred to as dappankuthu—is an energetic dance style originally performed by Dalit and other subaltern communities but appropriated by Tamil cinema in the late 20th century and converted into a popular urban dance form.
For Jey, “hybrid bharatham” communicates her amalgamated identity, encompassing her Sri Lankan Tamil roots and her French present, while kuthu speaks to the vernacular identity. Jey does not appear to create hierarchies between the styles. Dance travels through bodies, takes up residence in the varied circumstances these bodies find themselves in, and emerges translated. Transformed to give a clearer picture of what is meant by that shifting, slippery thing called identity. Dance in these instances appears uncircumscribed by the labels of classical/folk/street/ Indian/South Asian. And that is how a Paris-based Sri Lankan Tamil artist performs what is considered an “Indian” dance style, a “classical” style at that, and complements it with hip-hop and kuthu, and views it as intrinsic to her identity.
Individual dancers often break the rigidity of meanings that labels and classification provide. For Jey, it is her Tamil identity, both cultural and linguistic, that seems to take precedence. The kuthu2 in particular has a raw, unrehearsed energy. It does not make for spectacular viewing, but the three dancers are unabashedly dynamic on stage, and that spirit is infectious. The choreography, notably, was performed to music written by Yuvan Shankar Raja, whose father, Ilaiyaraaja, in July 2022 became the first Scheduled Caste artist to be nominated to the Rajya Sabha in its 70-year history.
These individual choices read differently when they are situated on the cultural stages of global sporting events. The events are seen as matters of prestige, where the host country attempts to put its best foot forward. My overwhelming memory of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010 is of the big plastic screens embellished with the words CWG 2010 that hid the slums and their inhabitants from view. Each kind of visual and performance associated with such sporting events, then, is an attempt to either obfuscate what one wants to pass unnoticed or further spotlight what is deemed of importance. This is a performance of the national imaginary of the host country for an international audience.
For the UK, especially in the context of escalating calls to decolonise universities, museums, curriculums, schools, histories, food habits, social customs, statues, policing, and more, the presence of kuthu and hybrid bharatham takes on significance. To begin with, the inclusion of dance forms not intrinsically seen as part of the social fabric of the British community points to how the UK situates itself as a multicultural space. It positions and prides itself on this imagined melting pot where all cultures can claim visibility as well as become equal bearers of British identity. The kuthu and hybrid bharatham dances confirm this stance.
The merging of hip-hop and Bharatanatyam presented by visibly brown/South Asian bodies is undoubtedly meant to signal a democratic dialogue between the diasporic and the “Western” identity, where each benefits mutually. Kuthu, and other styles under the label of folk, were a part of the opening ceremony. But again, in the context of the UK, labels that translate meaning within India such as classical or folk seem to carry little weight. Instead, South Asian becomes the overarching label. Unlike India, where questions around purity and authenticity are frequently thrown at dance, the UK stands to benefit from the visible alteration of dance vocabularies of its minority communities.
As much as the UK might try to signal its multicultural national imaginary via dance, the ground reality for South Asian dance and dancers is vastly different. In September 2019, Arts Council England (ACE) commissioned a combined mapping study of the South Asian dance and music sector in the UK. The need for the report3, published in 2021, arose due to a significant lack of applications and awards for Arts Council funding from South Asian applicants. One of the more amusing quotes in the study was from a dancer who claimed that in a school with nearly all Asian kids, the students had never come across Kathak. “If I told them it was a vegetable, they’d have believed me,” the artist said, pointing to the visible lack of representation even among the South Asian community.
The idea of the minority
Unsatisfied with certain aspects of the report, Pulse, an online publication on South Asian dance and music responded4, and one of the points it raised was that South Asian music and dance forms continue to be viewed as minority art forms for a minority people, without considering the question of people of other backgrounds being invested in South Asian dance. Interestingly, the idea of minority is complicated in the report itself, with a key finding being a strong perception that “South Asian” mostly referred to arts and practitioners linked to India. The report states that the term “South Asian” is disingenuous, implying that even within the minority group, there are other minorities marginalised to a greater degree.
The performance at the Commonwealth Games, the report by the Arts Council, as well as the response by Pulse all indicate different and often competing ideas of representation and identity under the umbrella term of South Asian dance.
The Chess Olympiad had many cultural performances, of which I discuss only the dance-drama on the genesis of Tamil culture. It was conceptualised and directed by Vignesh Shivan, choreographed by Shiamak Davar, with a voice-over by Kamal Haasan. It began with an excerpt from the Purapporul Venbamaalai, a grammar treatise from the sixth century (some say ninth century) that describes the region we now know as Tamil Nadu as existing before the advent of agriculture. “Contemporary” dancers dressed in white moved across the stage in abstract movement. As they travelled across the stage, their steps made visible the cartography of India, or at least peninsular India, as though their movements were calling the region into being, echoing Thobani’s sentiments raised earlier in this article.
The use of the sixth century treatise is a familiar trope to indicate both the antiquity and continued existence of the region. The voice-over spoke of stone tools at least 1.5 million years old excavated in the region. As a relatively young nation, India continues to use magnificent choreographic spectacles to highlight its antiquity and longevity to communicate its deserved presence on the global roundtable.
The choreography journeyed from early man to the Cholas, Pandyas, and Cheras, all depicted via martial dance movements, to modern Tamil Nadu. The voice-over at one point stated that “we”, signifying both the Tamil people and perhaps India, “were industrious even before it was a word in the West”. This pitting of ancient Indian industry against present Western standards seems to ripple with unresolved postcolonial anxieties even 75 years after independence. Seven decades on, India still uses performance to stress its long and rich history before colonial rule.
The dance-drama introduced varied art forms, literary texts, and mythological and historical icons. The words Bharathanatyam, jallikattu, chakyar koothu, kurunji, silambam, Silapathikaram, Tolkappiam, Tirukurral, Kannagi, Thiruvalluvar, Bharathiyar were all depicted via the dancing bodies, all in celebration of the longue durée of the Tamil people. Significantly, Bharatanatyam was the only dance that got the stage to itself; the others were seen as a melange of colour, indistinguishable in the crowd. This echoes Thobani’s idea that Indian classical dance is overwhelmingly used to signal Indian national identity. Here, interestingly though, it was used to exhibit Tamil identity. Modern Tamil Nadu was limited to a mention of “soaring GDP”, Tamil cinema, post-tsunami resilience, and the Tamil diaspora dispersing seeds of this ancient culture across the world.
As much as highlighting postcolonial anxieties, the performance was equally a reflection of the tussle between national and regional identity. The mention of jallikattu, for example, brought to mind the 2017 attempt to ban jallikattu and the protests that erupted over the ban by those who consider Jallikattu intrinsic to Tamil identity.
The language debate
Tamil Nadu has also been at the forefront of the language debate, rejecting Hindi imposition. “Sir, it is up to my friends in UP to have a whole-India; it is up to them to have a Hindi-India. The choice is theirs,” said T.T. Krishnamachari in a Constituent Assembly Debate in 1948.
Tamil Nadu has also seen movements that sought to remove all borrowed words from the Tamil language, especially those of Sanskrit origin. In this context, the various references to early texts, including the Tolkappiyam, emphasised the long and unique poetic heritage of the region as well as its modern rendition in the poetry of Bharathiyar.
The opening ceremony also witnessed controversy over the absence of singer and song-writer Arivu from the performance of his global hit with singer Dhee, Enjoy Enjaami. Like the earlier performance that celebrated the legacy of the Tamil people, Arivu’s lament or oppari portion in the song too is dedicated to his forebears, who have been marginalised and robbed of their land, and is directly linked to his family history. His grandmother Valliamma was taken from Tamil Nadu as a bonded labourer to Sri Lanka and returned to find herself landless.
Like Jey, Arivu’s art comes from personal reflection on identity and place, and his absence from his own performance, where he became a disembodied recorded voice while Dhee took centre stage, can only be seen as emblematic of how caste plays out on the stage of India itself. The reference to Ilaiyaraaja earlier highlights the same struggle for visible representation on the predominantly upper-caste political stage of the Rajya Sabha. According to data, there have been 139 nominated members from 1952 until now; only four of these were from the SC community and only one from the ST community. Among 17 in the category of “artists”, nine are Brahmins, three from dominant castes, and no one from the SC or ST communities. The Chess Olympiad watered down these political overtones and focussed instead on Dhee’s dulcet notes urging everyone to enjoy, enjaami.
I started this article expecting it to end more clearly, with neat divisions between kinds of performance used and why. Instead, I have only arrived with more certainty at the idea that “performance is political”. Individual identity in performance is complicated by competing national, regional and local identities provided by the transnational sports stage. The question is, how many identities does it take to shape a performance?
Ranjini Nair is a Kuchipudi practitioner and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge.
- The kuthu choreography was performed during netball match half at NEC and also during athletics at Alexander stadium according to Usha Jey’s twitter.