South Asian Dance in the UK

Ram Gopal by Houston Rodgers, 1959

Ram Gopal by Houston Rodgers, 1959


The Bayadères at the Adelphi, printed playbill, Adelphi Theatre London, England, October 1838

The Bayadères at the Adelphi, printed playbill, Adelphi Theatre London, England, October 1838


Uday Shankur and Simkie, Gaity Theatre, London, England, 1937

Uday Shankur and Simkie, Gaity Theatre, London, England, 1937

Temple dancers

Dance in India was for thousands of years associated with Hindu temples and the temple arts. Dancers were known as Devadasis (temple dancers) or Bayadères. Dance was a sign of prosperity for the temples and the stories told by the dancers were used to educate ordinary people in the ways of the gods. Temple dancers lived and worked in the temples and the dances were handed down by the Devadasis and by dance teachers called Nuttuwanas.

Alongside this, a folk dance tradition developed in villages across India and over the centuries many different forms of dance evolved. Gradually, the reputation of the temple dancers became associated with their skills as courtesans, although uniquely among Indian women of the time, they were educated and could read, write, sing and play musical instruments.

Tanjore Quartet 

Because of its association with prostitution, temple dancing (and temple dancers) was banned in the 19th century. Four brothers, known as the Tanjore Quartet, were responsible for developing Indian dance in this period. They systemised the dances of the Bharata Natyam, the oldest traditional form of Indian dance, thought to originate in the 9th and 10th centuries when many new temples had been constructed. The choreography, stories and music chosen by the Tanjore Quartet were based on the traditional movements of the Devadasis and the myths of the poet Tagore. This was seen as the golden age of Indian dance.

First South Asian dance in the UK

The Bayadères

The first Indian dancers to be seen in Europe were the Bayadères (Indian temple dancers), who appeared at the Adelphi Theatre, London in 1838. Audiences were familiar with temple dancers in ballet and Marie Taglioni had appeared in a ballet entitled Le Dieu et la Bayadère (God and the Temple Dancer) earlier in the decade. However this was the first time that real Bayadères had appeared in London.

Uday Shankar (1900- 1977)

In 1923 Anna Pavlova invited Uday Shankar, a young dancer from Udaipur in Rajastan, to collaborate and appear with her in the ballet, Radha Krishna. They had met when Pavlova toured India in 1923.

Uday Shankar had no formal training in classical Indian dance but encouraged by the Maharaja of Jhalawar (to whom his father was secretary) he had a great knowledge of Indian art.

It was Uday Shankar who really introduced the West to Indian dance. After touring across India learning folk and classical dance he travelled to Paris in 1931. Here he began to choreograph his modern Indian dance. His work influenced many modern dance choreographers of this period, including Martha Graham and Ruth St Denis. Shankar toured extensively across Europe and visited London on many occasions.

This photograph of Uday Shankar and his leading dancer Simkie was taken during a season at the Gaiety Theatre in London in 1937. It shows the expressive use of the face, especially the eyes, and the stylised hand movements called 'mudras', which are used to express the action and emotion of the dance.

Simkie often danced with Shankar in the 1930s. She was, in fact, not Indian by birth, but a French girl who took the Brahman faith. Shankar not only revealed Indian dance to the world, he revitalised it and gave it a new status in India itself. In 1938, he founded the India Cultural Centre in the Himalayan foothills to be a school and study centre for all aspects of Indian dance.

Ram Gopal, photograph by Houston Rogers, 1956

Ram Gopal, photograph by Houston Rogers, 1956

South Asian dance since 1945

After World War II (1939 - 45), Indian dancers and companies became regular visitors to London, including Mrinalini Sarabhai and Ram Gopal. Over the last 25 years, South Asian dance has become a major part of the British contemporary dance scene and Asian communities now living in Britain have developed the traditional art forms in new directions.

Asian British institutions like Akademi and AdiTi have promoted South Asian dance in performance and in education and the community. Prominent figures include choreographer Shobana Jeyansigh and director of Akademi, Mira Kauhik.

Ram Gopal (1912 - 2003)

Ram Gopal was born in 1912 and trained in classical Indian dance from an early age. Like Shankar, he took up dance in opposition to his father’s wishes. He had a good knowledge of Indian dance traditions and was interested in developing the classical dance tradition for new audiences. Western audiences were captivated by the magnetism of Gopal’s performance and christened him the ‘Indian Nijinsky’.

This photograph shows Ram Gopal in a Kathak dance. The full skirt is called a 'ghagara'. Kathak dancing is characterised by these spins called 'chukras'. In some schools, teachers put bricks round a dancer's feet so that if they move off the spot, they will bruise their toes. This ensures that the footwork is precise and that each separate beat is exact.

An Indian dancer's training was extremely rigorous and thorough. Gopal described the foundation of the technique as 'pranayam', the science of breathing. Each gesture demanded a special way of breathing. Every morning before dancing Gopal would breathe in and out 60 times, 30 times for each nostril. This control allowed Indian dancers to execute the most exhausting dances without showing tiredness or signs of effort.

Ram Gopal performances included extracts from the four great schools of Indian classical dance, the all male Tanjore Temple Dance Drama, Bhagavata Mela Nataka originally performed exclusively by female temple dancers, the all male Kathakali dance drama, and the lyrical Manipuri dance.

Gopal was proud of the authenticity of his music, costuming and style. He also rediscovered many folk dances from all over India and incorporated them into his productions. He once said, 'I feel I have justified the past, while keeping in touch with the present'. Kathakali is a form of dance-drama (from 'kath' story and 'kali' performance). Kathakali performers do not speak but express the action through mudras, poses, and facial expression while the story is narrated in songs accompanied by drums.

Uday Shankar, black and white photograph, mid 20th century

Uday Shankar, black and white photograph, mid 20th century

South Asian dance forms

Bharata Natyam originated in the temples of southern India. The strong lines of the dance are embellished with intricately expressive hand gestures.

Kathak is a story-telling form from Northern India. It is characterised by fluid body movements, complex rhythmical footwork and contrasted moments of speed and stillness.

In Kathakali gods, heroes, demons, and spirits are characters in the retelling of the great stories of Hindu literature and legend. The performers wear highly stylised costumes and elaborate make-up to give the impression of a mask.

Mudra is the elaborate hand and finger language found in Indian art and dance. The positions of the hands and fingers have a precise meaning – almost everyone knows the gesture of prayer, the hands held at chest height facing upwards with palms and fingers pressed together. Dancers exercise the hands and fingers over many years to achieve amazing flexibility.

This photograph of Uday Shankar was taken in London in 1937. Shankar was no stranger to London. He had studied painting at the Royal College of Art, when he first decided to introduce Indian dance and music to English audiences. It was also in London that he and Anna Pavlova worked together on the Radha Krishna ballet. The photograph shows the expressive use of the face, especially the eyes, the stylised movements, and the gestures called 'mudras', which characterise Indian dance. There were hundreds of 'mudras' and few in Shankar's audiences could have understood them. There was no need.

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FAMILY EVENT: Discover the enchanting world of The Nutcracker ballet with dance performances this Christmas and New Year.

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