From fields to the stage: Journey of Indian dance in South Africa

A virtual event will trace the 160 year journey of Indian dance in South Africa, carried there first by the indentured labourers

When SS Truro arrived in Durban from Madras on November 16, 1860, aboard the vessel were not just 342 Indian indentured labourers but also a slice of Indian art and culture. Subsequently, many more Indians were brought to Natal in different ships. They were housed in cramped, dirty barracks and were made to work from sunrise to sunset on the plantations. “In that life of misery and hard work, it was music and dance that brought them some cheer,” says Vasugi Devar Singh, author of the book, Bharathanatyam: A journey from India to South Africa, who started Indian dance classes in Durban in 1975.

The first batch of labourers came from South India, and “they performed therukoothu in open grounds, under trees or temporary shelters, particularly in Mount Edgecombe along the North Coast of KwaZulu Natal,” says Vasugi. Other dance styles were brought in by workers who came from other parts of India.

To mark 160 years of the arrival of Indian indentured labourers to South Africa, the South African Indian Dance Alliance (SAIDA) has organised virtual performances and a global dance conference. In association with the 1860 Heritage Centre and Narthaki.com as digital partner, SAIDA will trace and document the journey of Indian dance from ‘Indenture to Stage’.

SAIDA youth wing at the Nelson Mandela tribute show  

“This event is important not only from the cultural aspect but is a way to revisit history. The trials faced by the indentured labourers are part of the story of how Indians established themselves as a community in this country. Today, we talk about that journey with pride because our culture and heritage have kept us unified. And in this landmark year, we need to highlight and celebrate it,” says Smeetha Maharaj, chairperson, SAIDA, and Principal, Nateshwar Dance Academy.

The most difficult period was not just between 1860 and 1911, when more than a lakh labourers were brought from India and treated with scant concern. It extended into the apartheid era, when the cultural boycott of South Africa shattered the creative dreams of many performers. Some Indians with funding and community support travelled to India to pursue their art. “In 1959, Salochana Naidoo, the first woman to train in Bharatanatyam and have an arangetram in India, inspired other young women including the well-known Nydoo sisters, Rani and Prema. On their return to South Africa, they began to teach youngsters, conducting classes in the garage or backyards of their houses,” says Vasugi, who is among those who travelled to India. She learnt from Sharmilla Mohanraj at the Balasaraswati School of Dance at Madras Music Academy.

Bharatanatyam performers at Nritya Aangan Festival  

Creative influences

Artistic exchange between communities was an exciting outcome of South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994. Though classical and folk forms helped Indians establish their identity in a multiracial society, they designed their performances to reflect Afro-Asian sensibilities. “Artistes should not insulate themselves from diverse influences. It broadens perspective and helps art to be inclusive. As a classical artiste, I experience the spirit of India even while absorbing the essence of other cultures. Through the political and social upheavals, art has been a constant comforting factor,” she says.

Choreographers have explored concepts of multiculturalism, cross-culturalism, contemporary, tradition and innovation. “Besides Bharatanatyam and Kathak, enthusiasts are pursuing Odissi and Kuchipudi too. The global conference ‘Voices across waters’ on November 21 and 22 will host speakers from the Indian diaspora in Surinam, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Mauritius, Reunion and Fiji, who all have a shared history of indenture. The young invitees at the conference will address the question, ‘From here to where,’ looking at future challenges and issues,” says Smeetha.

The virtual presentation on November 16 when the SAIDA event is to be launched will trace the development of Indian dance in South Africa through a collage of recorded performances that will showcase various dance genres that have defined the diasporic culture over the past 160 years.

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