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Traditional vs. Contemporary – a Kathak Tale

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 This week on a Facebook group that I belong to, someone posted this excellent link for our consideration. It is a series of letters between a dancer and an awards and festival organization. In it, an accomplished Kathak dancer, Aditi Mangaldas of New Delhi, turns down a prestigious award for her body of work. Why? Because they didn’t honor her for her Kathak; the award was in the category of Creative and Experimental Dance, and not in Kathak–her life’s work. The exchange further brings to the fore a discussion about what makes an art for what it is–how rigid should our definitions be to maintain tradition, while still being flexible enough to accommodate natural evolution and growth of the art form?

And I am sure you will see the parallels here for bellydance and our intra-community struggle to define our art accurately. Let me share a few snippets, and hopefully you will see the commonalities that many dance forms–art forms!–share when it comes to evolution, tradition, costume choices, personal interpretation, preservation of ideals, and much more. I read it and it was all-too-familiar, and I thought you would enjoy it, too.

“All my work has been in the field of Kathak, 80% of which is in the classical idiom and 20% is contemporary work, which is also strictly rooted in Kathak. Over the years, I have persevered towards preserving, making it relevant, letting it harmoniously and homogeneously evolve, helping the stream of Kathak to expand and be ever rejuvenating and full of energy and life.”
-Aditi Mangalds

I think this quote embodies a how a lot of “evolutionists” in the bellydance world feel today. They feel is a significant part of their training and production is firmly bellydance. Yet some are dismissed for the 20% that is not. This asks all of us to question, “What is the line in the sand for traditional versus modern?” At what point has an art form evolved so far from its root that it has become someone else, or is at least best identified as such for clarity? Evolution seems natural to many, and repulsive to others, yet as Aditi put it so well:

“When you say traditional, what does one mean? How far back in history do we go? The structure of the Kathak ang, musical accompanying instruments, literature, ambience, presentation, costumes have all undergone constant evolution and refinement. Kathak has developed and grown, adapted, changed with a change in context to the community or the ambience. It has been enhanced by the relentless inputs of great artists and dancers. Each dancer, albeit from different gharaanas, has constantly expanded the vocabulary of Kathak, “Aaharya” being an integral part of this change.

Would you not agree that there is no absolute in what we call traditional? But in fact an evolution in which many factors play a part.

 It’s tough for me whenever these debates come up in the bellydance world. I can see both sides of this issue. Just because I am a fusion artist, doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the passions of those who hold the traditional forms sacred. Just because I don’t agree that the art should remain the same doesn’t mean I am blind to all the ways in which it is often all-but-obliterated in the name of change. But drawing the line, identifying how much is too much, is impossible to agree on. Instead, focusing on the spirit behind some of Aditi’s most poetic words might help us regain some perspective (the bolding is her emphasis from the original post):

“We need to recognize the multiplicity in classical arts. They are not and have never been uni-dimensional. Like a river, tradition needs to rejuvenate itself and flow. Preservation can only happen by a constant input of evolution. We don’t need to be afraid of change but be observant. Change is the only constant in life.

Kathak today is an amalgamation of multitude of tributaries that has fed it over the centuries. To reinforce it, maybe we need to make sure that this gushing water is always rejuvenated by fresh input from today’s performers. Only the substantial will remain, all else will fall away like dead skin.”

Read the entire exchange between Aditi and the festival organizers here:

But more importantly, what do you think? Is there a line, and if so where would you draw it? After reading the full article, would you put as much emphasis on costuming in your definition of the dance? What are the major elements of “traditional bellydance” in your mind? 

I always welcome your thoughts, so please share them in the comments below!

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Shay Moore is the director and primary instructor at Deep Roots Dance in Seattle, WA. She loves writing, movies, costuming, knitting, cooking, and bellydance to the moon and back again; and loves her amazing husband and doggies even more than that.

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