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An Introduction to Indian Dance in Great Britain - Ash Mukherjee

Ash, Image Copyright JPMedias

Indian dance has gained immense popularity in the UK in recent years. Initially through a phenomenon known as Bollywood, it has burst beyond its classical forms to entertain and inspire the British public. The variety of dance forms it uses is staggering and yet an Indian essence always remains inherent in Bollywood dance routines, whatever style it is performed in.

Nowadays, the UK has a whole range of Indian dancers. There are British Asians of full or part South Asian descent working within the Indian dance disciplines of Bharata Natyam, Kathak, and Odissi. There are dancers directly from the Indian subcontinent who have taken that big leap to the West over boundaries and bridges.There are also artists who are not of Indian descent who are immersing themselves in the art of India, blurring borders and integrating cultures. All are working hard to keep their art alive in its exciting development.

The cross cultural phenomena sweeping across Britain today owes its roots to the pioneering works of Ram Gopal and Uday Shankar, classical Indian dancers of distinction working in the first half of the 20th Century. Their respective collaborations with famous ballerinas - the British Dame Alicia Markova and Russian Anna Pavlova – were defining events years before their time.

In his time Ram Gopal, with the encouragement of Mahatma Gandhi, thrived in making Indian Classical Dance relevant to Western audiences. Indian dancers now face the same challenges in utilising this ancient art form and presenting it in innovative ways, so that it is still relevant to and reflective of, the ever changing and vastly expanding multicultural society of today

In the mid to late 19th Century, as the West began colonizing the East, Europe fell under the spell of India and composers such as Bizet and Delibes created The Pearl Fishers and Lakmé.

The ballet La Bayadere was choreographed in 1877 by the French master, Marius Petipa in St. Petersburg, Russia. About an Indian temple dancer’s doomed love affair, it was based loosely on Shakountala, a poem by Kaalidaas, and one of the notable crosscultural cocktails of that period. Although it created a look that is generally regarded as kitsch today, it was surprisingly accurate in its ability to capture the authenticity of spirit in Indian philosophy.


Not very much unlike a Bollywood movie. In fact the ballet, has all the ingredients of a Bollywood movie from the 1940s or ‘50s. If one looks at the purpose behind the creation of Indian Classical Dance and Bollywood films, one finds that at its root, it is one and the same.


To grasp this point in its entirety it is necessary to understand the very reason why Indian Classical Dance was codified in the first place. In Bharata’s Natya Shastra, the treatise on Indian Classical Dance, the origins of the art was very clear.

When the world was steeped in disillusion, Brahma the Creator was asked by the people to create an Art that was to entertain and enlighten, an art that was to be seen and heard by all, as the Vedic Scriptures were too grave and ambiguous to be understood and enjoyed by one and all.”       -           Bharatiya Natyashastra

Therefore came the creation of dance performance for the masses, which is the Bharatiya Natyashastra, a sacred treatise on dance.


Vaslav Nijinsky as quoted by Romola his wife in his biography predicted that the future of dance would be film, as this would be the medium that would bring the art form to the masses.

Bollywood films as a medium were to do just that. In a vast subcontinent like India, Bollywood at one time was the sole ambassador of all the classical forms especially to dancers who did not have access to see and learn these classical forms because of their geographic location or cultural background. Bollwood films are now doing that on an international level.

The Bollywood Phenomena

Dancing is crucial to Bollywood movies, because dance is such an important part of the Indian psyche. The Hindu faith which is regarded as being a way of life states that the very Universe was created through the dance of Lord Shiva, and that its preservation, destruction and further creation is all part of the harmonious dance of Lord Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance.                                   

The audience of Indian dance is now worldwide, a result of a fascination with the Orient which inspired Ruth St. Denis and her depiction of the Nautch girls, and Ted Shawn’s dances based on Nataraja the lord of the dance.

This flirtation continued in Bhakti by Maurice Bejart, which focused on the devotional aspect of Indian Art and mythology.


British choreographers like Shobhana Jeyasingh and Akram Khan present the universality of Indian Dance by stripping it of its ‘exotic’ and mystic content.

The pure escapism of an Indian Bollywood film is designed for everyone - from the struggling farmer in rural Bihar to the successful Indian IT Consultant in Los Angeles and everybody else in between, catering to one and all, and inspiring Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber to mount an oriental extravaganza like Bombay Dreams, which exploits the universal themes of love, betrayal and ambition.


The Indian subcontinent is a big melting pot of different races, religions, cultures, and food habits. It is a place where any one ingredient can be introduced and seamlessly integrated with yet another ingredient to create varying degrees of success. One only has to see the number of ways a saree can be draped in different parts of India or a pizza being reincarnated by an Indian chef to include tikka masala, vindaloo and tandoori flavours.

After the advent of cable TV in India in the early ‘90’s Bollywood films found that it had to face the demands of the MTV generation. Bollywood dance which used to be a potent concoction of Indian Classical Dance Forms and Folk dance forms in the 30’s, and had adopted the Charleston, jive and twist in later years, now started adopting hip hop, break dancing, Latin dances like salsa and cha cha, and Arabic dance styles.

One of the most interesting examples of such a hybrid mix is that of break dancing, isolation technique and popping and locking.Jack Cole, the father of modern jazz dance borrowed a refined use of isolation from Indian Classical Dance. This technique greatly influenced Bob Fosse in his own choreography who had worked with Jack Cole.

Michael Jackson openly gave homage to Fosse by portraying the spot lit top hat and white gloves look, and blended it with the then emerging street dance styles in Los Angeles of popping and locking.

Prabhu Deva, an actor and dancer in Bollywood whose style and moves were influenced by Michael Jackson, aimed to bring the lost MTV generation back to viewing Bollywood films by creating a further hybrid style by choreographing and dancing to Bollywood music.

Thus, the refined sense of isolation borrowed from Indian classical dance by Jack Cole in the 1930’s had finally completed its circular journey around the globe and had returned home through Prabhu Deva in the 1990’s.

Acting is known as Abhinaya in India. Nadikeshvara the author of Abhinaya Darpan, or the Mirror Of Gestures defines Abhinaya as carrying the play toward the realization of its meaning. This is what the dancer/actor has to do by studying the movements of the eyes, head, mouth, neck, hands, fingers and body.

Bollywood dance, although more populist in its content however is often set to songs which are potent with meaning. Hence the dance, while being fun and energetic and an amalgamation of various styles from all over the world, has to retain its original gestural language, in order to express the lyric content of the song, which will then bring the story or mood of the film to the desired level. In Bollywood movies, the dancer or the actor has to feel, interpret and act the storyline or the lyric content of the song to take the story forward.

Training in Indian Classical Dance is, therefore, important for the Bolywood dance student not only because of the discipline and focus that classical dance training can give, or for its practice of the various hand gestures and facial expressions. It is crucial because Indian classical dance carries with it a deep rooted meaning of the philosophy behind Indian Art which is to dance the truth in absolute humility, while being entertaining and enlightening at the same time.

This is where the similarity lies with Bollywood, in that Bollywood dance does not take itself too seriously, it is there to entertain primarily, and while it also serves as escapist entertainment at times, in the process it can manage to entertain and enlighten by depicting the Absolute Truths that the audience wish to see, hear and feel repeatedly.

It has then served its purpose only too well. Indian Classical Dance and Bollywood dance was a reflection of multicultural India. We need to acknowledge that it is now a reflection of multicultural London and also the rest of Great Britain.



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