Taboo twirl

September 10, 2023

Prejudices associated with dance have been its undoing in our society

Taboo twirl


hese days the theatre plays are under direct attack from the state censors over the pretext of ‘lewd dance’ practices.

Dance has been something of a sticking point in the cultural expression in this society. During the early days after the creation of the country, dance was, so to say, a part of our cultural expression as heritage, but gradually it got separated and was denigrated for being something that was pretty specialised in a negative sense. There were supposed to be professional dancers who were different from those wanting to expresses their emotions through bodily movements. As a rank amateur outlet, it is cherished; the most garish display being at weddings.

Dance as an autonomous art form was always under pressure and there were underhand and over the board moves to make it synchronous to some external cause. There were dances that were linked to religion and religious rituals. Some dances were linked to many of the mythological narratives that have come down to us. In the process of serial purges, themes like harvesting and patriotism have proved resilient.

The number of institutions that taught or imparted training dance dwindled for economic reasons as well as because of the prejudices associated with dance. There were hardly any dance shows in the country and on television. So the continuity that is so essential in the development of an art form became weaker and thinner. The end result was that dance became an imitation of dance innovations taking place elsewhere, mostly in India.

The only platform that offered dance or accepted it were the films. The musical numbers were integrally linked to the dance numbers. In the Indian films that became a standard pattern as even the male character were supposed to dance to their songs unlike in the past when only the females were supposed to do that.

There has been no integral growth of dance in our society because the practice has been looked down upon. The few classes held at arts councils too were pushed out to the sidelines and gradually became irrelevant because the dance gurus, maharajs and samrats died or became too frail. The remaining enjoyed no great reputation. Some sections of the population targeted dance and the dancers, condemning those as instrument of vulgarity and lewdness.

The only platform that offered dance or accepted it was the films. In the early Indian films, the male actors just sang while the female actors danced to their tune. There has been no integral growth of dance in our society because dance has been looked down upon.

Some of the famous budding dancers like Nahid Siddiqui left the country in the mid-1970s and looked for greener pastures in the world that catered to the diaspora. The local talent had nowhere to go except resort to imitations. They also had no place to perform. Dance was forced into a junior position in the overall performance spectrum. It was supposed to be illustrative to some main theme. It lost its autonomy.

And so grew the emphasis on the tableaux. This illustration of whatever was more acceptable and readily understandable left no room for ambiguity and thus was not questioned. The sentiment – mostly nationalism - became more aggressive and the dance numbers were shoved into formats that were basically tableaux in character.

As far as the films were concerned, the releases began to dwindle and the human resource looked for other venues and found one in the theatre. The stage shows thrived and became financially autonomous. The strict censorship and the societal backlash produced a craft and an ability that was difficult to catch and so be indicted. Adlibbing and repartees became the signature norm of stage acting. Dance numbers too were improvised and drew greater applause when exaggerated. Some people started to throng the theatre where instant requests could be complied with. Some of the dancers performed to the requests of the audience and were rewarded with more opportunities.

The theatre scene is now an amalgam of film dance and music and the mujras that have been outlawed can be performed only at the houses of the rich. The dance for the general populace is restricted to the theatre floors and stage and the box office receipts correspondingly are exaggerated and overpriced.

Arbitrary bans are not a solution to anything. These only results in the activity going underground or finding other ways to manifest itself. Human feelings and emotions are best expressed in the requisite form. Disallowing free expression in the expectation that some of these sentiments will cease to be is a false hope. It is here that a critical decision has to be taken. Are we strong enough to face ourselves as humans or too frail for that and must to shy away from the reality?

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

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