Tradition in Modernity
As we mark 74 years of independent India, I find myself asking what it means to me to say I am proud of my nationality. We are living out a strange time in the history of our people – in between plenty and not enough, torn between pride and fear, more connected, but more divided, than ever. What is it that we root our pride in our Indianness to?
As a classical dancer in 2021, I have had to navigate a fairly modern, westernised life, in parallel with a deep connection with the history, literature, culture, and spirituality of the Indian subcontinent. While the latter comes with the territory of being a practitioner of a traditional art form, the former is simply the nature of many of our lives – one that was defined by English education, urban living, exposure to global pop culture, and aspirations that probably differ dramatically from those we inherited our artforms from. I have often thought that it will take me a lifetime to grasp and appreciate the profound and complex responsibility it places on my shoulders to understand and live out the choices I’ve made as an artist.
Thousands of kilometres away from home, at the end of a dance residency in Paris, I found myself in a conversation with the contemporary and ballet artist who had been the Director of a week-long exploration of choreography. I had spent the residency trying to find ways to transcend the geographical boundaries that hindered the relatability of my work. I had attempted to eliminate elements from my pieces that required detailed study and context to be truly appreciated. And perhaps I did too good a job. As my Director complimented me on how I was able to shed the historical and cultural information in my performance that would have made it inaccessible to those at the residency, I felt deeply guilty at having accidentally shed something so inherent to my practice as an Odissi dancer. That isn’t what I had intended to do. And I have never forgotten that interaction.
However, while troublesome, this impossibly difficult process of questioning, learning, and unlearning, has allowed me to make important decisions about my identity as an Indian dancer. We occupy an industry where questioning, bending of rules, and the attempt to find a space for classical arts in a modern world is often met with annoyance, rejection, and being labelled as “inappropriate” or “disrespectful”. But in my opinion, this very process is what has allowed me to forge a relationship with my identity that is more meaningful than one formed through blind inheritance.
I have never felt more Indian than when I’ve been outside India. As an Odissi dancer, fortunate enough to have travelled the world as a performing artist, I have been able to share a part of my history, and by extension of myself, with the world. Through performance, writing, and teaching, I have enjoyed the privilege of being able to introduce people across the world to the diversity of expression so inherent to my country – the dances, music, craft, weaves, mythology, philosophy, literature, and practices of the millions of citizens of this nation.
But I was lucky. I had the freedom to make my decisions, ask questions, and also criticise and reject things about “tradition” that have no place in the life I lead. I have found comfort and security in celebrating different religions, languages, and schools of thought. And no one has told, or will ever be allowed to tell, me that I am less Indian for doing so. It is in the questioning of everything, in the ability to add sugar to an overflowing cup of milk, in embracing diversity and the amalgamating nature of everything here, that I will celebrate India.
While this may be a tightrope most of us will tread for the better part of our entire lives, it is, finally, where my pride in my nation has found its home.
Meghna Das is a practicing Odissi dancer, choreographer, and teacher, based in Bangalore, India. With performances across the country and the world, and 3 full-length productions under her belt, she is also the founder of Akar Productions – a production company that hopes to help change the environment in which the classical and folk arts are produced, performed, and watched in India today.