A Conference Investigating Heritage Through Dance 

transition|Heritage - Dead or Alive?

Naseem Khan

‘Heritage’ is in the air at the moment – there’s a whole rash of events and publication and debates - books like ‘The Politics of Heritage’ and ‘The Global View of National Identity’, major conferences like the recent one at London’s City Hall on ‘Heritage, Legacy, Leadership’.

It is not hard to find reasons for this. Migration, globalisation, social change – all contribute to a sense of uncertainty. Inevitably debate has turned to hunt for verities, a continuing sense of Britishness (whatever that is) and a set of secure and unchanging values. It is – said the keynote speaker at the London heritage conference last week - the ‘European trauma’.

For those of us involved in Indian dance, the whole question of heritage and its place is not unfamiliar. We have been dealing with it for a long time: it is in fact our core debate. But the issues have now been shifted because they are located in the broader arena of the mainstream heritage debate. What was a micro debate for the dance community has become a wider macro debate that focuses on the whole idea of authenticity.

When I was younger and learning Bharat Natyam, the idea of authenticity was utterly sacrosanct. We were instructed to never change anything. We should dedicate ourselves to one style and one style alone. We shouldn’t even go and look at another style, shut our eyes. Blinker Ourselves into purity. And even in our own style, we should never ever even go to another teacher. Purity was all, both here and in India from where the urge for authenticity travelled.

In the context of the times, it is understandable. Communities themselves were young and barely rooted in Britain. I was unusual in that my parents had come just before the second world war in the 1930s, and our focus was the tiny Indian community in Birmingham – a wholly middleclass set of doctors and one engineer. Immigration was in its early days, and culture in general was guarded as a precious possession. I remember regular meetings of the Indian Association of the time in obscure back rooms and unknown areas of Birmingham where we were regaled with music and dance (even though I, as the child of a Muslim father – and greatly to my frustration – , was not allowed to learn dance). Fidelity was all – faithfulness to roots, safety, and loyalty.

That sense of preciousness is still very strong in a number of communities and in Europe at large as migration grows. At last week’s conference, the UN Rapporteur on Racism, Doudou Diene, talked glowingly of the function of culture – as ‘the inner heritage, the inner force that keeps us all going’.

The idea of heritage as a force, and a dynamic, feels very relevant to dance, but hard to pin down. How can it be defined in dance and in culture as a whole? It is generally talked about as something to be passed down – an inheritance: it is your identity, people will say. ‘Passing down’ …. the phrase calls to mind an image of something small and concrete: a secret thing, an object – maybe a beautifully carved box or a treasure chest, containing ….what? Is that how we regard heritage, as a thing outside ourselves?

Look around at our towns and cities and we can see instances of heritage – relics and leftovers of the past preserved, with their blue plaques, in a spirit of fidelity. How do we rate such acts of respect that quietly advise us to leave heritage untouched? We cannot avoid discussing heritage without coming up against two major and inter-related themes, memory and change. These in their turn generate three questions:
? How can we reproduce the past, when our values and sensibilities are so much of the present?
? How accurately can we remember the past?
? How subjective is our understanding of heritage?

Come with me to an unusual site in East London to start to unpack those questions. I am the chair of a community organisation that has now become an official charity. We are a group of local people that came together a few years ago around a heritage site. It’s called Arnold Circus and is a little hill with gardens on two tiers and a large flat surface with a Victorian bandstand right in the middle. It had been the jewel in the crown of the first social housing estate, built by Victorians in the 1890s. It is very handsome and indeed is officially listed. But the bandstand area and hill – built symbolically out of the old Dickensian slums that were not thrown away – gradually decayed. The band went away and the gangs moved in. the plants got overgrown and the railings were broken and the bandstand itself was vandalised.

We are in the process of rescuing it. But to say that it needs it, in itself needs qualifying, for in some way, it still exists. In people’s memories, it is still there, intact. We collected memories and reactions from people for a DVD. The older people remembered the old estate as a cosy place where everyone was in and out of each others houses all the time. When her mother made potato cakes, one woman recalled, she’d bake four at a time, making them for a number of children and not just for her own. They were poor but they had shared, and life was safe. The bandstand had been a focus where they had all met, socialised and also courted there.

But there was another Arnold Circus. Young adult males – when we cornered them – remembered they had been part of the gangs that had hung out on the bandstand and alarmed people who started avoiding it. To them it had been their sanctuary, a private place to drink, smoke and be bad. And then there was the Brazilian woman who was outraged that schoolchildren were coming up to plant and clear the ground and that we were bringing the bands back. It’s not meant to be like that, she had fumed angrily – it should be left overgrown and quiet, and ideally locked up so that only residents around the estate could go there!

The bandstand is an official grade II listed heritage site, but whose heritage is it? Each group we talked to saw the bandstand in a particular light, and in relation to their own lives and needs. It had got frozen in their memories in one point in time, and mostly in terms of their own past.

I was part of a research team once that was looking at the role of public parks and open spaces. We focused, in one section of it, on the park bench. If you watched – as we did – a single bench over the space of a day you would see how its clientele changed hour by hour. Mothers and small children, couples, kids after school, dog walkers, office workers. And each of them felt that for the small space of their occupation that that bench was ‘theirs’.

The public and the personal intertwine. A sense of heritage grows and is formed by an emotional engagement, by an individual act of ownership. We create our sense of heritage by our own imaginations, and we build it into our own DNA. Our feelings about heritage are integrally connected and interwoven with our idea of who we are. And that in its turn connects with what we want to pass on, and why we find it so very hard to have it challenged.

Memory resists it, but we cannot avoid the power of change. We need to balance the fact of memory with the fact of change. Everything in our own experience, our sense of who we are – and hence our heritage – changes. We can see that in dance however unchanging we believe the canon to be – fast Thillanas for instance have increasingly become the thing. Our views of what is acceptable and beautiful also change, and, however fixed we might believe we are, our views of ourselves and our needs contradict it. the dynamic is writ large as well as small in our own lives. Look at the public arena, and we can see that multiple identities and multiple narratives have replaced homogeneity as the dominant mode. We are seen increasingly as bundle of identities, with the major one changing according to the context. That does not mean disintegration or a frantic process of disconnection, but rather a layered evolving quality of experience, growing around a central core. Dance can show a similar characteristic. I’ve long been fascinated by the apparent polarities that people talk about between classical and contemporary work. How true is it, I have wondered. In 2006, I had the chance to explore this dichotomy under the aegis of a project called the Intercultural City, for the research body, Comedia.

It was based around a series of interviews with artists of all sorts about how they saw their practice. What choices did they make, and how were they determined? Peter Badejo, for a start, rejected the whole idea of a dichotomy. ‘There’s no way you’ll have a tree with good leaves without a tap root. You can’t modify without a foundation.’ Shobana Jeyasinghe echoed his conviction: a baseline of tradition had to exist, however attenuated it might become, or seem. ‘To have a juncture,’ she said ‘You have to have something to disjuncture from…’ Other artists – particularly visual artists – talked about the way in which their own heritage existed as a kind of compass, quietly influencing direction of travel rather than acting as a rigid anchor. Artist Lisa Cheung’s engagements with communities are flavoured by her Chinese background in the kind of imagery and devices to which she is drawn and the kind of sprit that infuses her work. But that is very far from seeing it as ‘Chinese’. It was very clear that the division between past and present was artificial. There was constant interplay, back and forth, between the two states.

Heritage, in short, is alive. It grows out of a tap root, and it creates flowers that might be surprising even to the tree. It exists within a number of time zones, and time itself is not linear but layered.

We can train this principle back onto the so-called ‘European trauma’, and the anxiety over Britishness, integration and cohesion. For if heritage is an evolving fact, then Britishness also has to be open and accessible – not a club whose rules and membership were made and set in stone years ago, but a state that is being reshaped in a cooperative way all the time.

Recognising transience does not mean embracing destabilisation . Stepping out of your comfort zone does mean that you lose your step. Maybe there are other steps - new steps, routes and ways of looking at the world to be found. Change is a fact and not a threat. Heritage is alive and not dead. Culture moves and changes, for, as another speaker in the London conference said, ‘culture is a space where all our identities meet.’

They met in force the other night in London at the Purcell Room where the annual showing of young dancers, the Daredevas programme, took place. All you needed to do was to look at the line-up at the end that went from a young funky woman in leggings at one end and another in traditional Kathak gear at the other and almost everything else in between. In that one little snapshot you had it – a positive, unafraid and unneurotic attitude to heritage. Not clinging to it ferociously as a protection but using it instead, as a reference point, and a springboard.

Our heritage – we are making it every minute.

© Naseem Khan


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