Suria Govender

This monograph was first delivered as a paper at SADDYT/ADDSA UBUNTU Conference at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, 13 - 16 July 1994


(Department of Drama, University of Durban-Westville,

Private Bag X54001 Durban 4000 South Africa)

ISBN 1-874994-03-X







What meaning does an audience construct out of the following set of signals? A White man singing Zulu lyrics accompanied by musicians interpreting a contemporary South African arrangement that includes traditional maskanda music. At the same time a group of people obviously of Indian descent is performing Indian classical dance with the objective of interpreting in traditional gesture language the Zulu and English words which the White man sings. The dancers seem so committed to the performance that they even sing along with the White man as they dance.

At worst this performance could be perceived as an indiscriminate throwing together of disparate South African cultural artefacts in order to force an acceptance of the result in a much publicised programme entitled ‘Many Cultures One Nation’. Its exploitation of traditions and conventions of different South African art forms would smack of cultural imperialism of the worst kind accompanied by the ‘ambivalent ethics of cross-cultural borrowings’ (Bharucha, 1991).

At best it may be perceived as the culmination of a long-term deep involvement and living experience with different cultures within the South African milieu. It may also be seen as a response dictated by the inner necessities of the history of a politically conscious artist.
This inquiry will attempt to answer some of the questions that arise when evaluating fusion or intercultural works (these terms are used interchangeably in this article).

This term generally refers to any piece of art which may result from the creator's decision to present different cultural forms together in a single performance. In this case the choreographer selected Zulu music and song, Indian dance and the English language - which represent the three predominant cultures of the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. In attempting to fuse these elements, the creator was consciously or unconsciously pursuing the singular aim of identifying and redefining a South African art form. Interculturalism in dance may therefore be said to be linked to a world view. This includes such aspects as the mental attitude that precedes performance, the performance process, and the theoretical writings that accompany and follow performance. ‘A fairly recent addition to theatrical vocabulary, interculturalism, then, is a state of mind as much as a way of working’ (Marranca and Dasgupta, 1991: p. 11).

The discussion of the Indian fusion dance piece presented at the inauguration of President Mandela in Pretoria in 1994 will explore the world view, practice and mental attitude of the choreographer, performers and audience with the objective of contextualising it within the discourse of interculturalism.

Since it is the belief of the writer that interculturalism in dance describes both a method or critical perspective and a style, this inquiry will begin with an analysis of the principles of composition utilised in the creation of the dance piece under examination. Following this, an attempt will be made to answer some of the questions that arise when one tries to evaluate any fusion art.

It is necessary to precede this, however, with a history of the dance company involved and the method employed by the choreographer in creating the work. In 1994 the Surialanga Dance Company of Durban was invited to present ‘a gift of art’ to the first democratically elected president of South Africa. The cultural part of the inauguration celebrations took the form of a programme entitled ‘Many Cultures, One Nation’. The theme was welcomed by the company whose prime objectives included intercultural experimentation and empowerment through dance.

The company consisted of trained Indian classical dancers, most of whom had graduated from different schools of dance from Durban and its surrounding areas in KwaZulu - Natal. Those members of the company who had been through a full training programme were entitled to teach the ancient art of Bharata Natyam, one of the four main classical dances of India.

Their training with this company, however, included some aspects of ballet, contemporary dance using mainly the Alexander technique and North Indian dance. The objective of this varied programme was to enable them to interpret a varied range of dance pieces.

The core company had trained together for a year while others had only worked together for approximately two months before the presentation at the inauguration. This 17-member company is attached to the Department of Drama (University of Durban-Westville) and has presented its work on many occasions, including at gala perfomances for Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh and Sonya Gandhi.

The piece of music chosen on the occasion of the inauguration was written during the internment of President Mandela by Johnny Clegg, a well-known South African musician, and his multi-racial band Savuka. The song had both Zulu and English lyrics. In order to understand the principles of composition used in the creation of the dance, it is necessary to make reference to the lyrics of the song. As it is an item of interpretative dance, the word takes on greater significance. A translation of the song entitled Asimbonanga follows.

The refrain in Zulu:

Asimbonanga Mandela thine lape konah lapesheli konah

means :

I don’t see him

This Mandela ours

Where is he? Where is he staying?

In answer to this question the lyrics continue:

The sea is cold and the sky is grey

Look across the island into the bay

We are all islands

when will come the day

We'll cross the burning water.

The refrain is repeated and many aspects of the Mandela figure are communicated through gesture language. He is seen as the fighter, the yogi or one who meditates, as the prisoner, the man of letters or the advocate, and finally as one who has evolved to the stage where his third eye has been opened. This last action symbolises the advanced stage of spiritual enlightenment attained by him.

Other great heroes of the struggle are revered and Stephen Biko, Victoria Mxenge and Niel Aggett are specifically mentioned. Then a challenge is issued in Zulu to all South Africans. Loosely translated, it means ‘You, you and you when are we going to reach the promised land?’. The song ends on a celebratory note anticipating the release of the great leader.

An aspect of Bharata Natyam practice which is relevant to the present discussion is the fact that this South Indian classical dance form is divided into nrrta or pure dance and nrtya or interpretative dance. The basic difference between the two is that although both have hand gestures, they perform a decorative function in pure dance adding to the aesthetic quality of the art while in interpretative dance the hand gestures take on specific meanings depending on the context in which they appear.

A common aspect of Indian music that structures a Bharata Natyam dance composition is the unusual amount of repetition which a refrain is subjected to. These are interpreted in many different ways during the course of the dance and represent a challenge both to choreographer and dancer who are forced to use a variety of compositional and performance techniques to unpack even a single notion or metaphor. Some of these include the use of different mudras or hand gestures, changing gestural or non-metric rhythms, and varied interpretations of metric rhythmic patterns. At other times a different mood may be perceived through subtle changes of facial expression or a slight movement of the head and/or body. The most important element in Bharata Natyam and indeed all Indian dance practice is the following. No matter how a line is interpreted rasa is expressed at all times. This illusive term forms the sub-stratum of Bharata Natyam technique and connotes such ideas as mood, flavour, sentiment and attitude of the dancer, all of which help to mould the final interpretation of the theme by the performing artist.

A similar practice was employed in the dance interpretation of Asimbonanga. Apart from the changing hand gestures referred to above, an interesting feature is the rasa content of this piece that depends on many different sentiments experienced and communicated by the dancer. It progresses through various states from sorrowful and empathetic through aggressive and heroic and back to empathetic, this time accompanied by the uplifting aspects of celebration, love and ecstasy. Many of the hand gestures and images which support the dancers' journey through these emotions and attitudes have been gleaned from research on Mandela, the man, his family's heraldry, his common postures and pursuits, and his pastimes. He is portrayed as the man of letters, the leader, the fighter, the son of the royal house with shield and spear in hand, the yogi and the pacifist.

Apart from interpretative dance sequences, pure dance sequences were created to express the celebratory sections of dance. The dance proved to be satisfying for all the dancers involved because this presentation tested their expertise in the major skills areas of Bharata Natyam, i.e. pure dance, interpretative dance, acting and the communication of rasa or mood and sentiment.

At this point it is pertinent to note that the fusion or intercultural experimentation was concretised mainly in the connections made between the dance, the lyrics and the music and the cultures represented by these. This may be classified as conservative fusion or interculturalism because the dance can still be recognised as almost totally South Indian and classical in nature. By extension, therefore, the dominant power structure in terms of the artistic treatment of this piece was Indian classical dance. The influence of other styles of dance are visible, however, mainly in the form and group shapes, and sometimes in the impulses which propel the dance movements.

As a rule Bharata Natyam is a solo dance form with special conventions dictated by the temple hall area in which it was usually performed as a prayer to the gods. Its two-dimesionality and frontality were shaped by the necessity of the performer to face the image of the deity to whom she was offering her devotional dance.

The dancers in this company had to be coaxed into exploring many more dimensions of space and were encouraged to use diagonals and other floor patterns thereby becoming more sensitive to the back and sides of the body as opposed to the front. In addition, each dancer was encouraged to lend his/her individual technique to the group effort and to be part of the larger milieu of communication instead of presenting an individual voice. Group sensitivity exercises assisted the company to gain a greater sense of community and trust, and although they were sometimes divided into two or three groups within the larger group, an interdependence was continuously visible between them.

Group sensitivity was especially important to interpreting the penultimate section of the dance in which different individuals who had died during the course of the struggle are revered and honoured by means of Hindu ritual. Victoria Mxenge and Steven Biko are honoured by the symbolic offering of fire, flowers and incense. The resonances this section has for Zulu ancestor worship is clear and served to concretise the link between the two cultures that predominated in this dance. Niel Aggett is portrayed as the healer who takes his patients beyond good health. They become so empowered that they become new leaders who inspire their followers to strive together with them for the freedom they deserve. The last section of the dance ends in a flurry of pure dance movements celebrating the power derived from the long history of struggle and from the hope symbolised by the man ‘who will, one day, be free’.

Thus far an attempt has been made to analyse some of the technical aspects of composition and design employed in the realisation of this work. At this juncture it is appropriate to turn to some of the philosophical questions that should concern any creator of fusion work. As Indian culture was the dominant structure that informed the piece, the creator had to be conscious of falling into the trap of being subsumed by the ideology of cultural imperialism. A question that has to be faced squarely is, when is an experiment in interculturalism merely a fashion statement? Is it the measure of one's ability to buy and sell anything from any culture?. One of the first considerations which informed the creation of this dance was that the audience exist as equal partners with each other in the context of the theatrical experience. With a predominantly illiterate audience as far as Indian dance is concerned, the use of Zulu and English lyrics assisted in levelling the receptive field of the audience. Among any audience of Bharata Natyam, those of Indian descent are especially privileged as many of them understand the language that is used. They are accustomed to the music that usually accompanies such dance and in some instances are able to read the ornate gesture language. In this case the situation was reversed with the ‘Indian’ section of the audience required to listen and watch a little more attentively than the rest. Apart from language, the sumptuous dress and elaborate gestures of Bharata Natyam usually tip the power relations heavily on the side of the performer. So the second consideration was to correct this imbalance between performer and audience.

In order that both artist and audience could peel away the layers and actually find the truth of the experience together, the dancers were called upon to absorb both the Zulu and English lyrics in a very special way in order to interpret these proficiently. The emotions, mind and body of the dancer are stretched in order to meet the uncompromising demands of bhava or facial expression, angika or body expression and rasa which evoke the mood or flavour of the theme. `In order to effect the translation of the dramatic text, we must have a visual and gestural picture of the language - body of the source language and culture' (Scolinicov and Holland 1989 : p.37). In terms of dance style and costume then, this work evoked the Indian subcontinent very strongly but its message and musical and sound accompaniment placed it very much in South Africa. In the opinion of the writer, the most palpable moment of this fusion occurred at the point when the closed fist, the Black power sign symbolising the movement led by Stephen Biko, was taken up by one dancer (a woman by choice) while the corps de ballet performed Indian rituals which honoured the great souls who had paid the ultimate price during the struggle for freedom. Fusion artists can easily be accused of cultural appropriation if a ritual is taken out of context and performed merely for the physical action. In this case the use of this ritual sprang out of the context of Zulu and Indian ancestor worship with its commensurate ideas of spiritual empowerment.

According to some critics and purists within the South African Indian community inter-culturalism and fusion is acceptable as long as the Indian artefact is kept pure. It is not to be changed in any way to include any other culture or language. What therefore becomes acceptable is a foregrounding of the artefact of the subsidiary culture by the pure Indian artifact thereby perpetuating the latter’s cultural superiority.

In this piece, Western and African culture represented by the music and song alternately formed the foreground or background to the Indian cultural artifact that was predominantly represented by the dance.

The one factor above all that validated the Asimbonanga intercultural experiment was the fact that dancers of Indian descent who live in KwaZulu-Natal were meeting what was a historical necessity. Although they have lived closely with Zulus in this region, the parameters of their relationship - that of master and servant - was fashioned generally by the policy of apartheid. They were given an opportunity to refashion their relationship with this group of people by exploring local Zulu culture through the interpretation of their language and music. The practice of Indian classical dance demands a very close relationship between the music and dance, the word and the gesture, therefore the dancers were expected to imbibe every aspect of the accompanying music and lyrics.

Although they knew little about Zulu culture, they were not in the position where they had experienced Zulu culture only through artefacts like documents, ethnographics, slides, photographs and performance techniques. This dance piece was performed by a company which had lived through events such as the release of Nelson Mandela and the birth of the new South Africa; marked by the country's first ever democratic general elections. They were therefore dealing with material that is part of their own biography and part of their audience's as well. The value of living closely with the culture that one is exploring makes for a theatrical event encompassing much fairer exchange between cultures and therefore between audience and performers.

A factor that has frustrated fusion artists in the past was that South African Indian culture was reduced to a commodity which was shaped, transported and marketed by bureaucrats to different communities both within and out of South Africa. The policy of separate development determined its shape which was supported by a static view of tradition where the past was an immutable and eternal point of reference. The over-emphasis on original sources supported a purist art form which allowed no space to address the social, political and cultural realities that existed in the surroundings.

Fusion dance like any other form of theatre has layers of reception. A worthwhile creation attempts to transcend the superficial level of the sensory delight that is buoyed by the ego of the audience. Through a consideration of the similarities, contrasts and synergies that exist among different cultures, every fission artist should have as her goal the enrichment of the audience and the performer, and through them the enrichment of the cultures even if it occurs in the most imperceptible way.

If interculturalism is born through the meeting of the self and the ‘other’, the real challenge is to maintain the reciprocity of this dynamic. All too often, the self or more precisely, the ego, dominates over the ‘other’ culture, and words (and all gesture) become a mere extension of one’s own ethos. In exploring ourselves through another culture, one must ask what the particular culture receives from our intervention. Of what use is it if we alone gain from the encounter?’ (Bharucha) 1991: p.155).


maskanda : Derived from traditional Zulu music and usually performed with acoustic and electric instruments in solo and group performances respectively.


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