THE ADVENT OF INDIAN DANCE IN SOUTH AFRICA
(AN EXTRACT FROM THE M.A. DISSERTATION:
TRACING THE DEVELOPMENT OF BHARATHA NATYAM AS A RELIGIOUS AND THEATRICAL DANCE FORM IN THE CONTEXT OF SOUTH AFRICA)
BY VASUGI SINGH
In order to understand and appreciate Indian dance as we know it today, it is essential to precede this with a brief discussion on the living conditions of Indians during and after the indentured period. The accommodation Indians were offered was extremely primitive. The “coolie barracks” were overcrowded and soon became slums. Working hours extended from 6am to 5pm. On Saturdays work stopped at 1 pm, after which rations were handed out. Suffering and unhygienic living conditions gave rise to a “high degree of diseases and illnesses”. Because of the drudgery experienced in their daily lives the early immigrant hungered for diversion and recreation. Although the Indentured labourers were considered illiterate by the British colonialists, they certainly did not lack a quest for religion, music, song and dance.
Indian dance, particularly Bharatha Natyam and Kathak, was not introduced in South Africa for many decades following the arrival of the early Indian settlers. The early dance forms that did exist then were known as North Indian Nautch (a light lilting dance style) and the South Indian dance drama, the Therukoothu.
Performances were presented in open grounds, under shaded trees and under crudely constructed shelters with only a demarcated area for a stage.
The Therukoothu or “street dance” had its beginnings in the ancient popular mode of story-telling. During the post-harvest period in the rural areas there existed a “lull” in the lives of the early Indians, and religious education in the form of story telling was
pursued fervently. The performers were only men who also played the roles of women. The earliest performances of this dance form began in Mount Edgecombe along the North Coast of KwaZulu Natal, and were part of the annual religious celebrations known as Thirunaal, which means “Festival Day”
Since the first batch of Indentured labourers were mainly from South India, and from an agricultural background, Therukoothu. made its appearance in almost all Indian settlements on sugar estates in South Africa. Bharatha Natyam was non – existent. Even in India the British had dishonoured the art form which was only revived in the 1930s and it became known in other parts of the world . South Africa is one such country. It is important to note that Therukoothu in no way influenced the development of Bharatha Natyam in this country.
However, before the pursuance of the ancient classical dance styles of Bharatha Natyam and Kathak in S.A, many folk styles emerged during Hindu festivals, highlighting socio-religious festivals such as Navarathri, Deepavallie, Krishna Asthami. At the more popular social events eg. Harvest festivals (Pongal) and wedding celebrations, folk dances such as the South Indian Kummie, Kolattam and and the Gujerati Garbas were performed respectively.
Since Natal had the largest Indian population, localities such as Pentrich, Pietermaritzburg, and the suburbs of Clairwood, Overport, Mayville,Cato Manor, Stella Hill, Puntans Hill, Riverside, Seaview and Central Durban became centres of cultural activities. Further afield, Indian Culture thrived in regions like Port Elizabeth, East London, Kimberly, Fordsburg,Vrededorp, Benoni, Germiston and Pretoria.
Classical dance forms particularly Bharatha Natyam and Kathak were not introduced into South Africa for many decades following the arrival of the early Indian settlers. Between 1860 and 1940 these classical forms were virtually non-existent. Based on the premise that Bharatha Natyam suffered a decline in status in India and that only after the 1930s was there a resurgence of this ancient temple art, could be a reason for the interest and subsequent introduction of this art form to this country.
The interest in the performance of Indian dance was introduced and kept alive through the Indian film industry which was major influence on style and technique in the 1930s. It was much later that the north Indian classical dance form, Kathak, surfaced. In the 1960s girls from South Africa started travelling to India to study the art form professionally. The interest has since spread and broadened with initiatives such as the Eisteddfod movements and cultural organisations. Many girls with profound talent for dance were discovered during these competitions.
The system of apartheid premised on the tenets of racial segregation and discrimination was effective in reducing the status of Indians to second-class South African citizens. The negative impact of this political ideology was experienced in the social, economical, political and cultural development on the Indian Community. Ad a protest against the infamous apartheid system in South Africa, the International community embarked on trade sanctions and disinvestments campaign as well as cultural and sports boycotts. Despite the cultural disinvestments campaign the Indian performing arts have enjoyed unprecendented growth in this country. One of the reasons for this was that students from South Africa travelled to India to study the authentic genres in music, song and dance. In the face of a major obstacle like the cultural boycott, the South African of Indian decent can be commended for employing creative ways in importing the performing arts from India to the land of their birth.
Unlike their white counterparts, government funding was unheard of. The community rallied together and raised the necessary funds to send talented students to study in India.
Indian nationals who settled in South Africa through marriage tutored the early dancers, They were,, Dr Thirupurasundree and Shrimati Sharda Naidoo and Shrimati Janaki Naidoo. They introduced Indian classical dance that resembled the ancient art form . The first few students who learnt the early dance styles were Komala Moodley, Kanya Kumari ( The daughter of the late Dr Goonam) and Padma Maistry. Others who learnt and performed were Mynawathi Pillay and Ragupathy Pillay, Devaki Kander and Jugadhambal Pillay.
The earliest South African Indian dance teachers (Studied the art during a short visit to India) ,teaching mainly north Indian folk styles akin to Kathak were Mr P.R.Singh and Mr Donald Singh. Their students were mainly males because women were not allowed to perform.
In 1959, Salochana Naidoo left for India where after two years of intensive training she had her “Arangetram”(equivalent to a graduation). Subsequently, other young women travelled to India. In the 1960s The Nydoo Sisters, Rani and Prema, Jayalakshmi Naidoo, and Kumari Ambigay qualified in the ancient dance style of Bharatha Natyam . On their return many young women studied classical dance under their tutelage. Inspired by these teachers many of their students then proceeded to India and returned to South Africa on completion of their Arangetrams. This batch of girls included Vasugi Singh (author of this article), Manormani Govender, Kantharuby Govender, Yogambal Singarum, Vyjantimala Naidoo and Savithri Naidoo (Cape) and Jayespree Moopen (Gauteng).
Maya Makanjee was one of the first South African dancers to have obtained a BA Dance (Bharatha Natyam),University of Bombay. Smeetha Singh was at that time the only South African girl to pursue the study of Kathak in Bombay.
Today, classical dance, both Kathak and Bharatha Natyam, has evolved into a fine art form and can claim a status of its own amongst all other performing arts both nationally and internationally. There are numerous schools where Indian dance is being taught and the interest has continuously gained momentum since its inception.
It must be noted that in the face of numerous obstacles experienced by Indians in South Africa, they fervently pursued an art form that was beyond the boundaries of the host country. It would appear that a shift in place and time would not deter their quest in maintaining and perpetuating a cultural heritage so steeped in religio-ritual and aesthetic character. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the classical dance Bharatha Natyam to have successfully earned the reputation of being the most popular in this country.
Post 1994 introduced the question on national identity. Traditional Indian dance was reaching a greater multi-racial audience, no longer an exclusive Indian audience. Subjecting classical dances styles to innovation initially created resistance from the traditionalists. However the South African trailblazers in the field of innovation and experimentation are Jayesperi Moopen, (Thribanghi Dance Company), Jay Pather (Siwela Sonke Dance Company) and Prof. Suria Govender (Surialanga Dance Company). These choreographers draw from different cultures in the South African diaspora and use African, English and Indian music to highlight and juxtapose traditional and contemporary movement. Some very professional and successful productions have been presented in the true “Ubuntu” spirit. Nineteen years into democracy, terms and concepts like Fusion, Interculturalism, Multiculturalism and Cross- culturalism, is still being debated where innovative and experimental work is being concerned.
More recently the Bollywood dance genre has grasped the Indian community in South Africa at fever pitch. Unfortunately gyrating movements to popular music becomes a passing phase and relegated to club dancing and mass entertainment.
The classical forms of Bharatha Natyam and Kathak remain popular in many of the dance institutions judging from the number of Arangetrams and Rangmanch Pravesh produced annually.
In the area of Indian dance, there is a continuous flow of performing artists and relevant technology in and out of the country after the Indian Government established its Embassy in the Indian Consulate in South Africa. This has impacted positively on the state of the art and the South African community at large.