Page 1

History of South Asian Dance in Leicester and Leicestershire by Centre for Indian Classical Dance

Contents Acknowledgements




Local history in the national context: Historical roots and later development of South Asian dance in the UK


Early pioneers: 1920 : 1949 Post war roots: 1950 : 1978 Establishing institutional frameworks: 1978 : 1984 Educational work and performances: 1985 : 1994 Integrating into the mainstream: 1995 and onwards Entering academia: Diversion or consolidation? Talking about dance and making dance speak

8 11 13 14 15 16 17

Local history and South Asian dance developments in Leicester and Leicestershire Migration and local developments until 1972 East African Asians: No time for dance and music? Early community dance developments Asian dance and music in Leicester's education system


19 19 22 25 28

Nilima Devi’s history as an artist Childhood ambitions and dreams The search for suitable premises

30 30 33

CICD as a dance development agency in Leicester and the East Midlands Early beginnings Promoting South Asian dance in schools & the community The Asian Dance Animateur Project Putting South Asian dance on show Artistic productions with foreign collaborations

35 35 39 40 42 46

Nilima Devi as a dancer and choreographer Doubling up and facing changes Professional endeavours

50 50 54

Students’ stories


Moving on: Challenges of the 21st century

64 47

Renewing educational and promotion efforts Engaging in national debates on South Asian dance Future moves Moving down: Risk factors Pulling strings and changing styles Finale: Balancing acts

Notes and references

64 68 71 72 73 76



Acknowledgements The CICD would like to thank the many people who have contributed to the success of ‘Karman’, especially those involved in the research and production of this book. This book was compiled by Cynthia Brown and Werner Menski with contribution from Dr. Sarah McNicol, Sheetal Vyas, Rajvee Vyas and Nivedita Ganguli. Special thanks to Rupa Nathwani, who wrote an early draft of this book. Additional photographs were kindly donated by Ian Whittaker, Simon Richardson, Sally Hossack, Chris Nash and Kajal Patel. Thanks to: The Heritage Lottery Fund, who have funded this publication and its accompanying exhibition. Nilima Devi, the Board of CICD and the Karman Advisory Board. Dawinder Bansal, who produced the book and exhibition. Karl Baxter, TVS Media - for his creative vision for ‘Karman’. Exhibition curator @SumOfAllForms for help and assistance. Akram Khan for his valuable comments. CICD staff - past and present, especially Aashish Parmar who initiated this project. Colin Hyde, East Midlands Oral History Archive and Margret Frenz, University of Leicester. In addition we would also like to express our gratitude to all interviewees who contributed to ‘Karman’ and volunteer historians including; Nivedita Choudhri, Sarriea Din, Ramila D Hana, Kiron Hana, Neela Jariwala, Kaizad Johnston, Christopher Maughan, Sarah McNicol, Anisha Mistry, Nimisha Parmar, Urmila Valand, Sheetal Vyas, Rajvee Vyas, Gauthami Manoharan and Keerthana Manoharan.


‘Karman - a living archive’ ‘Karman’ is an oral history project which celebrates the lasting impact that Indian dance has had on the lives of people in the East Midlands. Throughout 2011, the Centre for Indian Classical Dance (CICD) in Leicester trained and worked with a team of twenty-five volunteer historians. The CICD was the focus for local people to come together, research this book and an exhibition - ‘Karman’. ‘Karman’ holds the voices of fifty people from very diverse backgrounds, but all equally passionate about Indian dance. Over seventy hours of oral history interviews were recorded. These are now stored at the East Midlands Oral History Archive ( This book and its accompanying exhibition were produced by everyone involved in the project. Without the valuable and generous contribution of our volunteers, ‘Karman’ would have been impossible.

Find us on facebook


Local history in the national context: Historical roots and later development of South Asian dance in the UK Early pioneers: 1920 : 1949 The (hi)story of Indian or South Asian dance in Leicester and Leicestershire did not begin in the Midlands, but in the imperial capital, London, with its many performance venues. London attracted early star performers and pioneers from India, who laid foundations for later significant contributions to the growing presence of Asian arts in the UK. Only in the mid-20th century, when a youthful elite left India to be educated at British institutions, did classical Indian dance became a visible art form. This oral history project researches the development of Indian dance in Britain, with special reference to Leicester and Leicestershire. The oldest layers of the national history of South Asian dance in Britain are today being rediscovered by several research-active dance scholars.1 The first recorded South Asian performances in Britain were at the Adelphi Theatre in London in 1847. Billed as The Bayaderes or Priestesses of Pondicherry, five female dancers and three musicians, brought over from a Visnu temple near Pondicherry, toured England and France for eighteen months. In 1886, the huge Empire of India and Ceylon Exhibition at Earl’s Court in London boasted large groups of South Indian and Sri Lankan dancers, musicians and ‘nautch girls’ in daily dance shows.2 During the early years of the 20th century, some Western (mainly Russian) dancers became interested in Indian dance. At the Imperial Ballet in 1909, Anna Pavlova performed the lead role in La Bayadere, a ballet set in princely India. Her first trip to India in 1922 inspired Pavlova to create dances based on authentic Indian movements, more so when she met Uday Shankar (1900-1977). Then a young student at the Royal College of Art, he was fast becoming the first prominent



Indian dancer in Britain.3 They choreographed two dance ballads, Krishna and Radha and A Hindu Wedding, combining ballet with Indian classical and folk dance. During the 1920s, Indian dance still played the part of the colourful stranger. Some Indian dancers stayed several months and taught a handful of fascinated English students. Among these early protagonists was Mrinalini Sarabhai, who mainly performed Bharatnatyam.4 Ram Gopal (1912-2003), already a well-known dancer in India,5 made his first appearance at London’s Aldwych Theatre in 1939, performing to full houses for three weeks.6 This heralded a meteoric British career, with an invitation to tea with Queen Mary, Edinburgh Festival performances in the 1950s, and an OBE in 1999. Ram Gopal was evidently full of charisma, able to turn people’s hearts and minds towards things Indian. Both Uday Shankar and Ram Gopal were adorned in silks with glittering jewellery and head-dresses. They tailored their performances for a western aesthetic, providing explanatory introductions to short showy dances that proved really attractive.7 During the 1930s and 1940s Ram Gopal performed Bharatnatyam worldwide, including popular theatres in London’s West End, and he arranged duets and group pieces.8 Other young dancers tried to create a place for themselves, but time was not on their side.9 Even if there had been an Arts Council (it started only in the 1940s), it is doubtful whether it would have regarded Indian dance as fit for British patronage.


Post-war roots: 1950 : 1978 During the 1950s and 1960s, more India-based dancers began to contribute to the British Asian dance scene.10 Ram Gopal and Mrinalini Sarabhai still performed Bharatnatyam and Kathakali. In 1963 Ram Gopal offered dance training in Chelsea, using an Indian syllabus with first rate teachers Rina Singha and Zohra Sehgal. Gopal himself taught Bharatnatyam, but these classes were not viable.11 Encouraged by more liberal and responsive outlooks in Britain at this time, some locally based organisations began to present Indian culture to wider audiences. The Asian Music Circle (AMC) had held regular dance classes from 1953 onwards.12 It struggled at times, but continues to promote music and dance recitals even today. 1966 saw their first long-lasting series of Indian dance classes, a great success. The AMC had brought two excellent dance teachers from South India in 1965, Krishna Rao and his wife Chandrabaga Devi, both trained in Bharatnatyam.13 They offered regular classes and performed together, infusing new energy and focus to a sporadic and often frustrating scene, transforming South Asian arts from an exoticised vision to its current place in British society.14 East African migration during the 1960s introduced more South Asians to Britain, now also the Midlands, bringing some growth and more positive responses to Indian culture.15 Avid interest in classical Indian music was created by the great sitarist, Pandit Ravi Shankar, who had first played at the Edinburgh Festival in 1958, together with Ali Akbar Khan on Sarod.16 These eminent classical musicians gradually established a performance network throughout Britain. Publicity improved and reviews began to appear. When Uma Sharma performed Kathak at the Scale Theatre in 1967, with Devilal on tabla, Reginald Massey, a prominent reviewer, was full of praise:

‘This young dancer has great vivacity and a wide range of expression…She conveyed eloquently the careful preparations of a maiden for the love tryst… the competitive duets, Jugal Bandi, … were danced with panache and style.17


In 1970 the AMC brought the great traditional Kathakali dance troupe, Kerala Kala Mandalam, to Sadlers Wells.18 Indian classical dance appeared at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, promoted by the AMC and some others. In May 1974, Pandit Birju Maharaj gave his first Kathak dance performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Kumudini Lakhia. Reginald Massey found this debut ‘such a pleasure’.19 Soon the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (1974) and later the Academy of Indian Dance (1979) were established.20 By 1976 Naseem Khan could trace the early history of South Asian arts organisations, portraying a neglected network struggling to introduce such art forms for nonIndian audiences.21


Establishing consistent dance classes was a struggle everywhere. The main problem was finding experienced reliable teachers, often women trained in music or dance before marriage, such as Balasundari who taught Bharatnatyam for many years, while Rina Singha taught Kathak. When their professional husbands moved on, these classes lapsed. Advanced pupils might carry on some teaching, but the main impetus had gone.22 Consistent development was virtually impossible and Indian dance remained largely an exotic transplanted practice, dependent on performance tourism.

Establishing institutional frameworks: 1978 : 1984 It was not until the 1970s that settled South Asian dancers made a real impact within British dance culture, strengthened by East African Asian migration to Britain. Virtually all earlier dancers were from India and most were female and not making a viable career out of dance. Gradually more dancers – both females and males – began to devote all their time to dance and sought to earn a living from it, despite many constraints. Increased mainstreaming and early educational frameworks started in the late 1970s. Tara Rajkumar, a Kathakali and Mohiniattam dancer from Kerala, founded the National Academy of Indian Dance (NAID) in 1979. When she left London in 1988, Meera Kaushik as director of NAID began to explore the complexity of the Indian/South Asian label.23 In 1997 NAID became the Akademi, still today a leading organisation for South Asian dance in Britain.24 In Leicester by 1981, Nilima Devi started the Nilmani Kathak Kendra (NKK), later renamed Centre for Indian Classical Dance (CICD). As more South Asians devoted their working life to arts, trained dancers such as Nahid Siddiqui, Alpana Sen Gupta, Piali Ray, Chitralekha Bolar and Indira Thyagarajah began to establish their own set-ups and also created some innovative dance pieces examining pertinent issues of work, resettlement and the place of women.25 Working largely in isolation, they grew more confident; starting from classical foundations they increasingly developed new methods to present South Asian dance. Particularly prominent became Shobana Jeyasingh’s famous experiments with Bharatnatyam, beginning cautiously in the mid-1980s, first in unison with Jayachandran, an Indian male dancer trained in western contemporary dance.26 Significant artistic synergies began to develop.


Educational work and performances: 1985 : 1994 By the end of the 1980s, many South Asian dancers had acquired experience of working in schools and community contexts throughout Britain.27 Cultural context is centrally important in the dance-related education work of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in London, supported by the Indian government and other sponsorship. Inaugurated in 1972 in a small office, the Bhavan soon moved to new premises.28 It provides regular courses in music, dance, languages, drama, art and archaeology and yoga to hundreds of students and is associated academically with the University of Cambridge and Trinity College of Music, London. At the initiative of the Akademi,29 the South Asian Dance Faculty of the Imperial Society for Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) was set up in 1999 to examine students in Bharatnatyam and Kathak, the two classical South Asian dance genres most frequently taught in the UK. Examining started in 2000, also in different regions. There are various levels of examination, demanding high standards.30 Outside London, Milapfest was founded in 1985 in Liverpool. It began life as a weekend festival, starring Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma on Santoor and Ustad Zakir Hussain on Tabla.31 Milap (‘Meeting’) seeks to promote cross-cultural programmes and aims to mainstream Indian art forms, helping to celebrate the cultural diversity of Britain through arts. Kala Sangam, founded in 1993 in Leeds by Drs. Shripati and Geeta Upadhyaya aims to deliver South Asian arts through innovative collaborations, including special focus on disability issues and access for people of all ages and abilities.32 Kala Sangam has since moved to Bradford and focuses mainly on the North of England.


Integrating into the mainstream: 1995 and onwards The early 1990s brought serious consolidation, some supportive funding and much self-examination. The key issues had been clearly written on the wall by dancers themselves: aesthetic concerns about the nature of integrity and identity in Indian dance; the precise character of innovation and the limits to collaboration across cultural divides. Political issues touched on how the artistic work of different cultures was treated by funding bodies.33 By the 1990s some organisations had secured consolidated public funding. Sampad in Birmingham, led by Piali Ray,34 works in partnership with other West Midlands artists and organisations, prominently Chitralekha Bolar and more recently Sonia Sabri. Manasmitra, based in Yorkshire,35 focuses on diverse educational work and delivering community-based arts activities. Kadam started in 1995 as a registered charity. Current producer of the only South Asian dance magazine, Pulse, a glossy successor (with Arts Council support) to the earlier ADiTi News produced in Bradford, it is today the leading South Asian dance organisation in the eastern region.36


Karman Book  

‘Karman’ is an oral history project which celebrates the lasting impact that Indian dance has had on the lives of people in the East Midland...

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you