Some dance practitioners in India firmly believe that a comprehensive and holistic approach to the study of dance is also multidisciplinary. The International Bureau of Education defines a “multidisciplinary approach” as “an approach focused primarily on different disciplines and the various perspectives they bring to illustrate a subject, theme or problem”. A multidisciplinary course is a course “where the same subject is studied from the point of view of several disciplines”.
Such an approach to dance would therefore include perspectives of more than one art of movement. Dance, as we know, has two dimensions, one bodily or physical and the other mental. Thus, the multidisciplinary approach to dance is also best seen as a two-pronged approach.
It is first of all the dancing body. Here, “multidisciplinary” could mean understanding the bodily aspects of one’s primary dance form through additional learning of other dance styles or movement disciplines. Learning other forms expands the physical vocabulary of the body and increases its versatility, as different dance forms emphasize different aspects of muscle strength and offer different types of body conditioning in terms of flexibility, balance, reflexes. , instinctive awareness, breathing, etc.
Several dancers have used this approach to better understand their body, strengthen it and prepare it for dance, and enrich its vocabulary. Among the former is Uday Shankar, who added elements of European theater, folk and tribal dances to his innovative style. Sitara Devi and Rukmini Devi studied ballet in addition to their main disciplines, Kathak and Bharatanatyam, respectively.
Chandralekha turned to yoga in the 1960s in order to “heal” her “dance-torn” body and then incorporated martial arts and movement into her practice. Intercultural dancer Uttara Asha Coorlawala and Kathak dancer Daksha Sheth are other prominent dancers who work with yoga and other forms of movement.
Infuse Kathak with Yoga
When asked why she turned to other movement vocabularies, Daksha said, “Kathak was in my body for 20 years” before she saw Chhau and wanted to explore it. “But for a person who has never squatted – we use totally different muscles in Kathak – my body was not capable.” Through injuries, she realized she needed awareness, conditioning and strengthening. “When I saw a demonstration of Kalaripayattu, I thought, this is what I should learn for holistic conditioning of my body.” She ultimately infused her Kathak choreographies with yoga, Kalaripayattu, and Mallakhamb.
The second “part” of the multidisciplinary approach concerns the spirit of the dancer. It involves, in a sense, the “physical form” of the mind. When I talk about the mind, I include the intellect, but also mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and other aspects – all crucial for dancing. This is best done by an information process of dance with meditative techniques, but also with disciplines like literature, theater, music, art, philosophy and so on. As I had stated in a previous article for this article written in 2012, “For any type of dance, body and mind must be exercised equally and used creatively.”
The hereditary dancers or “devadasis” seem to have definitely approached their art in a “multidisciplinary” way. They were rigorously trained in dance but were also required to have a significant mastery in other arts, be it music (vocal and instrumental), poetry, languages or literature. These former masters of dance knew that learning several disciplines can only enrich their dance and inspire creativity.
Like Chandralekha, who drew heavily on sculpture, painting, poetry, literature and philosophy for her dance, Daksha explored multiple disciplines to create a distinctive contemporary body of work that has been critically acclaimed.
Recognizing the value of such is crucial for classical dance, especially its pedagogy, especially if the notions that existed when I was a dance student persist today. With the exception of music, which was seen as complementary to dance, true dedication invariably meant a singular focus on the particular form. A deviation from the theater or sport, for example, was considered an unwarranted distraction. I remember hearing about heartbroken 12-year-olds who had been taken out of dance productions because they had signed up for a weekend acting class or had been tricked into believing that learning a another style of dance or performance would contaminate or dilute their “pure” classical training.
As the understanding of dance, body, inspiration and creativity evolves, my sincere hope for the world of Indian classical dance is that it takes the most holistic approach – a multidisciplinary approach. I firmly believe that this is the most effective way to transformively enrich your body, mind and practice. This confidence does not come just from my own experience as a dancer and choreographer, but from a glance at how some legendary artists have used this approach to their advantage. In fact, maybe it was the secret of their genius.
The dancer and choreographer is the founder-director of Bangalore ‘Vyuti’.