Forty Years On
Tara Rajkumar OAM, founder of the Academy of Indian dance was in conversation with Ann David, (Head of Dance, Roehampton) to launch the organisation’s fortieth anniversary celebrations. In an intimate exchange at the Bhavan Centre on 17 October 2019, a picture emerged of the dance scene of the seventies.
Shivaangee Agrawal, dance artist and writer learned some surprising facts of progress but also the need for the sector to continue to hold its ground.
“There was no Bhavan, no Akademi. There was no widespread practice of Indian classical
dance. There was some intellectual understanding of it, which existed in pockets of London.”
Tara Rajkumar began by painting a vivid picture of London in the early 70s and the
near-total absence of our south Asian art world was an overwhelming image to behold. Of all
the events, performances and festivals taking place this month, I felt that this talk by
Akademi’s founder was perhaps one of the most important to attend. It offered a history of
ourselves, which is otherwise hard to come by in any meaningful or genuine depth. Over the
past two years that I’ve been involved in the professional dance scene in London, I
occasionally pick up snippets of conversation or a photo on facebook here and there that
reminds me how much I don’t know about the industry that I work in. This talk winded me
once again; Tara spoke of being a ‘beneficiary’ of Mathoor-ji; of her interactions with Ram
Gopal and Sunil Kothari; of being teaching faculty at the Bhavan alongside Pratap Pawar; of
how Robin Howard was instrumental in getting support for Akademi (then called the
Academy of Indian Dance); of how Akademi’s initial funding came through as part of newly
established anti-racism policy. She highlighted the rapid growth of Akademi, bolstered by
Britain’s awakening to ethnic minority arts in the 80s.
As much as these connections felt surprising to me, the talk also reminded me of the
slowness with which other changes occur. Tara explained that Dance Umbrella organised
her first tour to Australia in the early 80s, at a time when the ‘White Australia Policy’ was
fading and multiculturalism was being actively promoted through non-mainstream arts. And
yet forty years on, Dance Umbrella this year has programmed Mythili Prakash in what feels
like a mini victory for Indian classical dance. Will it be another forty years before they
programme the next one? Forty years on, we still use the terms ‘mainstream’ and
‘non-mainstream’ to talk about how our sector ‘fits’ into the British dance scene. Forty years
on, funding organisations are still trying to diversify the arts scene in favour of
multiculturalism. Though it is clear that Akademi has a lot to celebrate in the last forty years, I
feel frustrated by the persistence of our minority positioning.
Perhaps the most satisfying moment for me in her talk was when Tara articulated our
collective challenge. “It’s a thinking audience that you get in Britain. You bring people to the
art form, but you also have to bring the art form to the people.” Perhaps this is one thing that
we should celebrate for its unchanging nature; it is an artist’s responsibility to relate work to
life around themselves, and this becomes an opportunity to articulate, advocate and narrate.
We ultimately have a certain power to create narratives on ourselves, what we do, and who
we are - so what do we want that narrative to be in forty years time?