Bollywood invades South Asian dance

A new era in Yale’s South Asian dance scene has risen from the ashes of its traditional past.

Yale’s South Asian dance groups have experienced a shift in their musical and artistic styles over the past few years. In particular, interest in Yale Anjali — the only remaining Indian classical dance society on campus — has declined dramatically, said Krisha Desai ’14, a member of Rangeela, a “fusion Bollywood group.” In its place, a batch of new, more pop-oriented clubs have emerged, replacing the styles of old, such as Bharata Natyam and Kathak with a refreshed fervor and penchant for entertainment, said Shona Hemmady ’16, a member of Yale Jashan Bhangra.

“Anjali [performed] a very classical Indian dance,” said Hemali Shah ’16, a member of the two-year-old dance group MonstRAASity, which blends customary folk songs with a distinct modern playfulness. “It was very focused on technique, form and posture — it’s more about the beauty of the dance than the entertainment.”

Shah added that Anjali’s goal — the preservation of a centuries-old art of expression — may have eluded viewers. Tobias Kühne ’12 GRD ’18, a member of Sur et Veritaal, Yale’s only South Asian a capella organization, agreed.

“Traditional dance tells a story based on subtle hand and feet movement, which, while beautiful, can be hard to understand for non-South Asians,” Kühne said.

Bhangra, on the other hand, is a “really loud, energetic, big sort of dance,” according to Hemmady, who is one of the Jashan Bhangra team’s newest members. Established at Yale in 2009, the style is “far more accessible.”

Kühne attributed the popularity of Bhangra to its “stronger visual signals,” which are far easier for viewers to pick up on. He added that at Roshni, an annual South Asian cultural showcase on campus, bhangra has always yielded the most enthusiastic reactions from the crowd.

“Bhangra doesn’t have to be decoded,” Kühne said.

Celebrated after the yearly harvest in India, bhangra is considered a party dance, an exuberant and explosive celebration of hard work, making it far “easier on the eye” than the complex intricacy of Anjali’s ancient ritual movements once were, Hemmady said. Classical dance, requiring a lot of mental and physical strength and emphasising the perfection of every movement, “just doesn’t have the same obvious outward pop that Bhangra, Raas and Rangeela do,” she added.

But simplicity and energy are not the sole reasons for the increasing appeal of these groups.

The sheer difficulty of mastering Indian classical dance, a process which Hemmady said can take many, many years — sometimes even a lifetime — stands in stark contrast to the ease with which one can now join Bhangra, Raas, Rangeela and other groups. Desai claimed that no experience is necessary for joining the groups outside of a sense of rhythm. More contemporary forms of dance are thus open to students previously perplexed by the complexity of traditional dances, which has contributed massively to the expansion of the groups’ presence, as has the growing popularity of Bollywood on campus, Desai said. The occasional “American song mixed in” certainly does not hurt, Hemmady noted, adding that the “flairs and flourishes from American dances” they often include have been crucial in reviving the public’s interest in South Asian dance.

Roshni, the cultural showcase of Yale’s South Asian microcosm, will take place on Nov. 8.

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