§restituire, lenire, ridistribuire
Restitution and the Writing of Indian ‘Classical’ Dance:
Rethinking Social Justice for Marginal Communities
by Priyanka Basu

Why Restitution?

Restitution and dance might sound somewhat disparate and seemingly implausible, given the ephemeral nature of performance itself. Moreover, restitution has largely been understood through material culture, their place in colonial museums, and the cultural violence that is still inflicted upon erstwhile colonies of the Global South. Dan Hicks’ (2020) recent study on colonial violence and cultural restitution in the context of museums in the UK is particularly important here in understanding what they underline as a ‘theory of taking’. Citing Marcel Mauss’s The Gift: Forms and Function of Exchange in Archaic Societies, Hicks writes how the establishment of the anthropological museum was not guided by the principle of gift-giving but through forcibly taking; as such this ‘theory of taking’ necessitates not only a discourse on the ‘life histories’ of objects but also of their ‘death histories’, i.e., the killing of people, objects, and culture. (2020: 24) Does this framework of the ‘theory of taking’ help us conceive how restitution and dance can be brought into dialogue with each other? How does dance writing, practice and pedagogy similarly reflect upon cultural violence within post-colonial societies and how can a revisioning through restitution address this concern?

The context for this essay is Indian ‘classical’ dance, as recognised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Ministry of Culture in India [1]. ‘Classical’ dance [2], as dance scholar Pallabi Chakravorty rightly points out, «is not a monolithic category» (Chakravorty, 1998, p. 115). The canonisation, institutionalisation and textualization of performance and cultural practices, as scholars have repeatedly shown, were linked to nationalist-revivalist movements in colonial India and later moving on to create a uniform imagination of Indian history and heritage. While revisiting Chakravorty’s essay on the construction of ‘classical’ dance in India, I choose to focus on the ultimate question that she poses in her insightful analysis- ‘is it creating a space for the ordinary people to participate and perform?’ (1998: 120). Perhaps before answering whether ‘classical’ dance is emerging as a democratic and inclusive space for the ‘ordinary people’, we need to probe the connotations of the ‘ordinary’- is it alluding to yet another all-pervasive uniform epithet, the ‘folk’ [3]

Historical discourse on ‘classical’ dance in India has focussed primarily on the issues of postcolonial nation-building, gendered representation on- and off-stage, as well as institutional/religious patronage of upper-caste and upper-class dancing bodies. The practice, research and writing on Indian ‘classical’ dance remains silent on issues of diverse cultural labour that goes into the production of ‘classical’ dance repertoire and pedagogy. Cursorily, this includes the labour of artisans, tailors, stage craftspeople among many others. Recently, emergent artistic voices such as that of Nrithya Pillai (2021) have raised the question of religious majoritarianism, silencing of dissent, caste mimesis and cultural appropriation of the labour of marginal communities in the ongoing practices and pedagogy of Indian ‘classical’ dance. Pillai’s own subjective position as a member of the hereditary performing caste (Bahujan, as she delineates it) asserts the colonial and continued post-colonial violence that ‘classical’ dance perpetrates on such communities; communities and women practitioners within them from whom cultural forms were appropriated, sanitised, and upheld as national intangible heritage. 

Restitution entails both a condition of disempowerment and a possibility of redressal of that condition through dialogue and action. By acknowledging the disempowerment and concomitant effacing that ‘classical’ dance pedagogy and practice engage in, I look into an alternative pedagogical framework involving dialogue, dissent, rethinking, and co-choreographing. Following from the emerging critique of cultural violence of Indian ‘classical’ dance on marginal labouring bodies, this essay proposes a rethinking of dance writing, pedagogy, and practice through the overarching theme of restitution. While acknowledging the fact that restitution and repatriation are generally understood through material culture in museums, these terms can go beyond to accommodate the concerns and demands of the formerly colonized marginal communities; the anti-nautch movement in colonial India, orchestrated by the British administration and buoyed by upper-caste Hindu elites witnessed the decline of several cultural practices—mostly of women—and stigmatised perceptions of performing communities (often entangled with forced sex-work) (Durba Mitra, 2020). Bearing in mind the several possibilities that restitution holds, e.g., in recognising, making visible, and rethinking, this essay reiterates the crucial need to write the marginalised voices back into the discourse of Indian ‘classical’ dance. It does so by rethinking dance history, pedagogy, and practice through a social justice framework and particularly by applying a critical pedagogical context in the footsteps of Paulo Friere’s ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’. In doing so, this essay underscores the vital concern- ‘how can we ensure such practices don’t reinforce neo-colonial ideologies?’

Hindoo dancing girls, probably at Secunderabad. Captain Allan Newton Scott, 'Sketches in India; taken at Hyderabad and Secunderabad in the Madras-Presidency...edited by Charles Richard Weld, Barrister-at-Law' (Lovell Reeve, London, 1862). Credits: Photo 961/(70), British Library Board.

‘A Pedagogy for Liberation’: Rethinking Teacher-Student Relationship in Indian ‘Classical’ Dance

Imagine a traditional training space (gurukul) in Indian ‘classical’ dance replete with material markers (such as presiding deities) and spatial delineations of hierarchies- god, teacher, senior students, beginners and so on. The neat spatial demarcations impinge on the structured grammar, prescribed body movements, and the permissible/impermissible gestures of ‘classical’ dance. While it creates a hyperconsciousness of the body in training (often aggravated by conscious and unconscious body-shaming), it does not create an awareness of the absences that go into the making of the ‘classical’ dance repertoire [4]. Where are the actual physical labours of artisans, stage craftspeople, costume-makers, and even domestic workers included in this space? While constantly bearing in mind the elitist appropriation of cultural practices from marginal communities in colonial and post-colonial India [5], we are also witness to the everyday effacement of other kinds of physical labour. This is even truer in the context of the proscenium performance space for Indian ‘classical’ dance practitioners (most often as soloists), where the class and caste-based hierarchies of the training space is simulated onto the stage-space. The «obligation to give and the obligation to receive» (Mauss, 1966, p. 10) predominates the imbalanced pedagogical practices in Indian ‘classical’ dance. Considering the spiritual quagmire that Indian ‘classical’ dance is rooted upon and routed to learners, the students’ obligations to give and receive reproduces a continuum of power-imbalances, effacement, and refusal to dialogue or dissent. To borrow from Mauss’s important rationale behind gift-giving, «[…] one gives because one is forced to do so, because the recipient has a sort of propriety right over everything which belongs to the donor» (1966, p. 11). Giving, in our current discussion, entails submitting bodily, mentally, and economically. The religious and spiritual prescriptions of institutions, canons, and texts remove possibilities of dialogue, let alone the consciousness about privilege, the silencing of the labour of marginal communities, and the need for social justice. 

Neo-colonialism, as Kwame Nkrumah rightly points out, operates beyond the ‘economic field’ to include the «political, religious, ideological and cultural spheres» (1965, p. 239). In the post-colonial set up it co-creates (with postcolonial elites) and perpetuates neo-colonialist strategies under the guise of ‘development’, which dovetails a pseudo-evangelical rhetoric of preservation, legacy-building and showcasing. The realm of the ‘classical’ performing arts (music, theatre, and dance), thus resuscitate old-yet-new idioms through which gatekeeping is made possible. To ensure an antiquity for ‘classical’ performing arts is to ensure a uniformity of religion, language, class, and gender; a uniformity that shuns dissent, dialogue and learning as to why and how social justice is vital. Akin to the museumization of material culture from erstwhile colonies that colonial museums of the Global North still practice, uniformity in Indian ‘classical’ dance cancels re-interpretation to foreground ‘traditional continuity’ and offers cursory tokenistic inclusion of marginal individuals to fit into the global trends of ‘diversity and decolonisation’. One is forced to ask- whose diversity and decolonisation is Indian ‘classical’ dance aspiring to uphold? Internally, within the national context as this question problematizes the centre-state imbalances, within the geopolitical reality of South Asia it shows the epistemic violence over ‘smaller nations’. 

The task of redressing is, therefore, more imperative than ever within the realm of Indian ‘classical’ dance. It is here that Paulo Freire’s pedagogical framework can be implemented within the existing structures of training in dance to create consciousness and sensitize learners about effacement, empathy, and activism. I use the phrase «culture of silence» (Shor and Freire, 1987, p. 123) to point out a semblance between the docile and passive pedagogy of Indian ‘classical’ dance and what I had introduced as the ‘death histories’ of material culture following from Dan Hicks. Aggression is an important dimension of this ‘culture of silence’, as Shor and Freire show in the context of school classrooms in the Global North: «This environment is symbolically violent because it is based in manipulation and subordination. It openly declares itself democratic while actually constructing and reproducing inequality» (1987, p. 123). The issue of inequality, in the case of Indian ‘classical’ dance is further complicated with learners from marginal communities, especially those coming from disenfranchised Dalit backgrounds along with economic instabilities. There is an undeniable impasse in the economic aspect of Indian ‘classical’ dance pedagogy and practice- that of the precarity of the livelihoods of performer-pedagogues themselves and hence the extraction of wealth within the pedagogical structure through ‘first-entry-to-the-stage’ rituals such as Arangetram, Manchpravesham and others. Such structures and hierarchies of showcasing help in propagating the myth of heritage preservation thus locking up the training/grammar/legacy within the bodies of a chosen few; it reproduces the same gatekeeping mindsets that ensures the running of colonial institutions such as museum with its displayed artefacts- captioned, systematised, and inaccessible.

A critical pedagogy framework informing Indian ‘classical’ dance is a possible first step towards humanising a practice that can teach care-work as an important lesson to the learner [6]. The route towards such a critical pedagogy lies in unlearning, learning, and co-creating (in this case, co-choreographing). Freire writes about the role of the educator in analysing methodological rigour «The educator with a democratic vision or posture cannot avoid in his teaching praxis insisting on the critical capacity, curiosity and autonomy of the learner» (1998). While ensuring critical capacity, curiosity and autonomy of the learner, a holistic pedagogical process also demands unlearning (and the will to learn) on part of the pedagogue. Dance scholar and practitioner, Urmimala Sarkar Munsi has proposed a model for this open and democratic training through subjective exercises of practice-informed pedagogies and cultural unlearning: «The unlearning […] may be produced within the performative dialogues during the process of the practice-informed research structure» (2017, p. 147). The prerequisite of this unlearning is to think how to and how not to replicate received movements. The routine repetition of ‘classical’ idiom and movements is inevitable to the preparation of a performer, however, to resituate the same movements in one’s surrounding socio-political context is to humanise the practice. Re-interpretation is key to restitution projects and leads to co-creating, writing, performing, and putting the onus back on communities who have been robbed of their material culture. Repatriating in Indian ‘classical’ dance needs to go beyond tokenistic inclusions and caste-mimesis, as Nrithya Pillai has shown to ethically and empathically engage with histories of cultural violence that has gone into making a ‘classical’ dance form (in her case, Bharatanatyam). At a time when national histories are being rewritten to accommodate and ensure ongoing epistemic violence over disenfranchised communities, Indian ‘classical’ dance pedagogy needs a critical turn not as a mimesis of Global North’s ‘decolonising the curriculum’ but as addressing the colonialism of the mind inherited and internalised over decades [7].

In 2020, while the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement was at its heights forcing colonial museums to reconsider how to display information vis-à-vis their hoarded artefacts, a plausible outcome for many institutions lay in retaining original captions along with new re-interpretations of these objects. Whether or not such an intervention was meant as a long-term strategy merits a longer and separate discussion. Considering the current discussion and by way of summing up what restitution means in Indian ‘classical’ dance is to indicate the multiple re-interpretations that performance practice involves. Restitution in Indian ‘classical’ dance is transforming property ownership to relationship (borrowing from the reflections of Marzia Varutti). The route from property ownership to democratic/empathetic/co-creative relationship is rooted in critical pedagogy- to think dance responsibly, and to write dance with those to whom it originally belonged. 


[1]  The recognised ‘classical’ dance forms include Bharatanatyam (Tamil Nadu), Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh), Kathakali and Mohiniattam (Kerala), Kathak (Uttar Pradesh), Odissi and Chhau (Odisha), Manipuri (Manipur) and Sattriya (Assam). See, <<Dance | Ministry of Culture, Government of India (indiaculture.nic.in)>> as accessed on 04 July 2022.
[2]  In emphasising the complexity and violence embedded in the term ‘classical’, I am also alluding here to a recent interview with Kolkata-based Odissi dancer-activist, Srabanti Bhattacharya who points to the inherently rigid and elitist roots of the epithet, ‘classical’ (linked to the upper classes and castes).
[3] While much has been written about the ‘classical’ and ‘folk’ binary, the aims and objectives (nos. x and xi) of the Sangeet Natak Akademi itself demarcates such classification as an official body.
[4] In thinking along these lines, I am referring to Usha Iyer’s recent book, Dancing Women: Choreographing Corporeal Histories of Indian Cinema (2020) where is writes about the uncharted labours of choreographers, technicians, make-up artists, costume designers and body-doubles that go into the making of the star dance-actress. Priya Srinivasan’s (2012) intervention into the existing discourse on Indian ‘classical’ dance is crucial in trying to understand the Indian dancer as labourer themselves.
[5]  Davesh Soneji’s ground-breaking work, Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India (2012) assert the aesthetic and performance practices of such marginalised communities and the need for a revised methodology recognising their labour.
[6]  I am extending Freire’s statement, ‘To be human is to engage in relationship with others and with the world’ (1974: 3) to propose a methodology of care in a new model of dance education. This, however, is not a new practice and many practitioners are thinking beyond the ‘classical’ framework to imagine and implement how to think dance.
[7] Royona Mitra’s (2022) important essay on choreographic touch at the intersections of race, caste and gender explicates the inequalities of Global North and South through the medium of contact improvisation method- a method that the Global North discourse dominates.


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Varutti M., 2022. Rethinking Restitution: From Ownership to Relationship, in «Routes & Roots» [Special issue on ‘Return, Soothe, Redistribute’], Domenico Sergi, Nur Sobers-Khan, Anna Chiara and Giulia Grechi (eds.). as accessed on 05 July 2022.

Dr Priyanka Basu is a Lecturer in Performing Arts in the Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London. She has previously worked as the curator of the ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ project at the British Library. She is currently finishing her first monograph, The Cultural Politics of ‘Folk’ in South Asia (forthcoming from Routledge UK). She is trained in the Indian ‘classical’ dance form of Odissi and has performed in Japan, India, and the UK. Her research interests include folk and cross-border performances, performance archives, film and dance histories, and intermediality between print and performance.