Tracing Roots: A Perspective on Indian Contemporary Dance

By Ishika Seth

September 24, 2021, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Close up headshot of an Indian woman.
Photo by Rob Fadtke (ZoArt Photography). [ID: Ishika is a brown-skinned South Asian woman with dark brown hair wearing a white tank top with a sweetheart neckline, her hands in gestural movement. She is looking to the side with her eyes closed and a soft smile on her face.]

I came to the US from India in 2003 to attain my BA in Dance from San Jose State University. Hoping to pursue a career in dance in the US, I approached Mona Khan Company, a Bollywood Dance company, upon graduation for teaching opportunities. I had never studied Bollywood Dance but the familiarity of the music and the culture drew me to it. After teaching, performing, and choreographing with the company for several years, I went on to become the Assistant Artistic Director and continued in that position for over a decade. Now, as I restart my journey as an independent artist, I am trying to articulate what my style of Indian Contemporary Dance looks like by tracing its roots and looking at it in relation to other Indian Contemporary artists.


When I was a child, I held a piece of dance history in my hands—my grandmother’s diary from her time at the Uday Shankar Dance Center in Almora, a town?? in the state of Uttarakhand, India. My grandmother attended “The Center” as she called it in 1945. I grew up listening to her stories about Shankar, looking through photographs of her in various costumes and of Shankar in rehearsal with his dance troupe. I vividly remember her talking about a piece based on machinery; in my imagination the work consisted of bodies forming enormous structures and moving parts in physically impossible ways.

Uday Shankar pioneered an idiom of movement in the 1930s that he called Creative Dance. It was devised from different dance forms including Indian classical and folk dance forms, like Bharatnatyam, Kathakali, and Manipuri, and Western forms like ballet and expressionist dance. Shankar was the brother of the famous sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, who danced in his brother’s dance troupe for a few years before he began his study of music. Inspired by painting, sculpture, music, poetry, photography, and theater, Uday brought together various aesthetic sensibilities from the East and the West, collaborating with artists, including the ballerina Anna Pavlova. Despite or perhaps because of the fact that Uday was not formally trained in any particular dance form, he is widely recognized as the father of Indian Contemporary Dance.

My own dance training mirrors the eclecticism of Shankar’s choreographic practice. It began during my childhood in India where I spent time practicing yoga with my grandmother, learning dances for weddings and cultural events, and dabbling in different classical and folk dance forms, including Bharatanatyam, Odissi, and Bihu. My formal dance training began with Jazz with Ashley Lobo at The Danceworx in New Delhi, during my college years. I was drawn to the staccato movements, leg extensions, pop music, and discipline required of the form.

After four years of Jazz training, I went to study Indian Contemporary Dance with Santosh Nair who had been a part of Narendra Sharma’s modern Indian dance company. Sharma himself had originally been part of Shankar’s dance troupe. Nair’s background was in Kathakali and Mayurbhanj Chauu, a dance form that incorporates elements of martial arts and movements inspired by nature and daily life. For instance, there are movements informed by the parting of hair, applying a tika to the forehead, and washing dishes, as well as the movements of water and the walk of a stork. It is a powerful dance form: the basic posture is a deep plié-like position called chauk.

With Nair, I had to find a sort of fluidity in my torso and a more grounded posture that was in contrast to my Jazz training. His choreography drew heavily on Mayurbhanj Chhau, consisting of asymmetrical postures, held balances, and quick floor work, and demanding a certain athleticism. His choreography developed organically through improvisation and movement tasks assigned to the dancers, and explored abstract themes as well as Hindu mythological stories.

I hoped to perform with Nair’s company, but the gender gap seemed an obstacle. The company was male-dominated, and the men, who were deeply trained in Mayurbhanj Chhau, had a better grasp of Nair’s style and were thereby given featured roles. As a woman, my roles were limited; I recall handing the men their swords while they performed a dynamic Chhau segment in one particular work. I craved an all-women work with the sort of dynamic choreography Nair choreographed for the men. I also wanted more stage time. When I approached Nair about it, he said I would have to learn Chhau.

So I started training in Mayurbhanj Chhau with his guru, Guru J.J. Sai Babu at the Natya Ballet Centre in New Delhi, where I also began to study Kathak with Guru Geetanjali Lal. Unlike Chhau, Kathak has a very upright posture with intricate wrist movements, fast rhythmic footwork as well as chakkars where one turns on the heel of the foot. I did get to assist in the creation of an all-women work soon after. In the meantime, I applied to study in the US to deepen my training and knowledge of modern and contemporary dance forms.

In India, I had completed my Bachelor’s in English Literature, and came to SJSU for a second Bachelor’s in Dance. At SJSU, I studied Modern, Jazz, and Ballet. My years at SJSU were extremely challenging because almost everyone had grown up taking classes in these forms, whereas I hadn’t taken my first Jazz class until the age of seventeen. I was often discouraged by the gap between me and my peers when it came to technique but when it came to choreography, I was in my element. Learning how to craft choreographic works, how to manipulate time, space, and energy, was life-changing. To this day, I draw from the notes from my choreography classes with Fred Mathews.

As an Indian immigrant with both formal and informal training in diverse dance forms, I have developed an Indian Contemporary choreographic practice that references various dance styles based on the concept of the work. Sometimes I make a conscious choice to dissect form, adding petit allegro footwork from ballet to Kathak hand gestures, for example. But mostly, the release and flow of contemporary, hand gestures of Kathak, the expressiveness and lyricism of Bollywood, narrative structure of Indian Classical dance, contractions and swings from modern dance, vocabulary from Mayurbhanj Chhau, and most recently, elements of waacking emerge together on their own.

In addition to drawing from the multiple techniques I’ve studied, my version of Indian Contemporary Dance relies heavily on storytelling. Storytelling is an intrinsic part of South Asian culture, and for me, it is the act of storytelling rather than the traditional stories themselves that influence the form. Initially, after graduating from SJSU, my works were more abstract and modern. But a decade of dancing with Mona Khan Company added a lyrical element to my choreography. Even in Bollywood, the lyrical interpretation originates from Classical dance forms where the mudras (hand gestures) are deeply meaningful and can be very specific, like depicting a tree, or a bow and arrow. Now, most of my works evoke a theme or idea, and I am less interested in abstraction and more in excavating stories from my life, experiences, culture, and engaging with social and political issues.

Indian woman sitting on a bench under a tree.
Photo by Rob Fadtke (ZoArt Photography). [ID: Ishika is a brown-skinned South Asian woman wearing an red Indian skirt with black trimmings and black crop top, her grandmother’s silver anklets and large necklace, sitting on a greying wooden bench under a tree with her arms and legs crossed, feet pointed. She is looking down and has a slight smile on her face.]

For dancers who practice South Asian Classical Dance forms, just stretching the boundaries of a particular form can push it into the realm of contemporary. But to an audience only vaguely familiar with, say, Bharatanatyam, it may still resemble Bharatanatyam; they may not see the nuanced changes, the deliberate bending of form, the subtle breaking from tradition. The practitioner, however, may identify as an Indian Contemporary artist because they are deliberately dissecting the form or using traditional movement to explore contemporary themes. For example, Nava Dance Theater uses Bharatanatyam to explore contemporary themes such as the MeToo movement. Even though the movement draws from Nava artistic director Nadhi Thakkek’s training in Bharatanatyam, training her dancers share, the themes are contemporary. New York-based artist Amita Batra defines herself as a storytelling artist who draws inspiration from the ideologies and techniques of various dance styles, most prominently modern, contemporary, and kathak. And Amit Patel, a Bay Area artist, blends Indian and Western dance forms to break gender stereotypes and explore his identity as a first-generation American and Queer Desi. Further, the diversity of South Asian classical and folk dance forms further complicates any effort to define an Indian Contemporary aesthetic. An Indian Contemporary dancer with an Odissi background looks different from someone with Kathak training, or another who primarily practices Garba.

Even though many artists are drawn to Indian Contemporary because it allows room for individual expression, those coming from classical dance backgrounds often face derision. There is this underlying anxiety about the dilution of Classical dance forms when they step into the contemporary space. Some believe that the purity of the Classical form has to be preserved while others are less concerned with preservation and more interested in artistic evolution. Traditionalists often become cultural gatekeepers who don’t want to see these dance forms diluted or used in settings that they deem inappropriate.

Indian Contemporary is an idiom that acknowledges but is not bound by tradition. My style is born of a collision of tradition and innovation, one that reflects my reality as an immigrant, Indian woman. It  provides a way of creating that enables me to be true to who I am. I believe that a dance form is not more sacrosanct than the artists who embody it. Indian Contemporary helps me to acknowledge my childhood learning while articulating the importance of formal training. The body memories of these different forms enable me to create in a richer way than if I were to chase the elusive purity of a single form. It is also an act of resistance to value cultural and folk dance forms rather than seeing them as less than Indian Classical and Euro-centric dance forms. Indian Contemporary dance is a living, breathing, ever-changing, and evolving form, so my idea of it keeps evolving as well. Ultimately, I choose my own voice, messy with overlapping textures, a disarray of roots but with endless possibilities to explore.

This article appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of In Dance.

Ishika Seth (she/her) is a South Asian choreographer, dancer, dance educator, immigrant, storyteller & mom based in the Bay Area. She was the Assistant Artistic Director of the Mona Khan Company from 2011-2021, choreographing various festivals and events, being a featured dancer, defining class curriculum and helping guide the artistic vision. Since 2007, Ishika has presented her work at various venues in & around the Bay Area and also self-produced shows at NOHSpace & CounterPULSE in collaboration with other artists. She studied Indian Contemporary, Mayurbhanj Chhau, jazz, and yoga in India and graduated with a B.A. in Dance, specializing in modern dance, from SJSU. In her works, she strives to blend elements of her cultural background with her eclectic training, examine and dismantle social constructs, and to find the intersection between art & activism.