Beyond Bollywood: 2000 Years of Dance in Art. Cincinnati Art Museum from November 11, 2022–February 5, 2023.

Cynthia M. Kukla

Exhibition view of Shiva Nataraja. Shiva Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, approx. 1125–1175, India (Thanjavur district, Tamil Nadu), copper alloy, 
H. 98.1 cm × W. 71.1 cm, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund, 69.46

Dancing into 2023!

How exciting is it that in the same period as the acclaimed artistic director of the Cincinnati Ballet, Victoria Morgan, has retired and Jodie Gates has taken the helm that we can simultaneously experience the transformative power of dance at the Cincinnati Art Museum’s extravagant Bollywood exhibit? Curator Ainslie Cameron spent four years in research and planning for this exhibit which explores the intersection of visual art and dance in India’s culture; exploring the representation of dance in the arts from South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Himalayan region from the first to the 21st century. 

The exhibition takes up both Galleries 232 and 233 in the museum’s second floor rotating galleries and it is a rare opportunity to see so much art work representing a specific theme, in this case dance, over such an enormous span of time. The museum notes that, “For the first time in an American museum, visitors are encouraged to consider the compelling visual language of dance through dynamic artworks from India alongside works from Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. Jointly organized by the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the exhibition features more than one-hundred artworks drawn from U.S. museums and private collections. Large-scale sculptures, vibrant paintings, jewelry, textiles and compelling video works by contemporary artists each embody aspects of dance and performance.” 

Dance is universal. Who hasn’t, as a child, danced with abandon at a family wedding, ignoring the dancing adults and experiencing pure physical and emotional joy? Throughout history, all cultures cherish their dance traditions and wear relevant costumes to signify the village, region or specific dance function. Since dance occupies a vital role in the religious and cultural practices of South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Himalayan Region, the dancers in the lush paintings in this exhibition are shown wearing the specific garments that help signify the spiritual, social and cultural messages the dancers wish to convey. Walking through this themed exhibition, you can explore the multiple meanings of dance through these exquisite works of art.  

There are one-hundred twenty-one art works in this exhibit with the majority of them coming from the San Fransisco Asian Art Museum and six works from the Cincinnati art Museum’s collection.  Other contributors are the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museums of Fine Arts, Boston and Houston and from private collections.

The exhibition is smartly laid out via themes that are color coded: green for destruction/creation, violet for devotion, orange for subjugation (to higher powers), blue for glorification and finally red for celebration. Consider entering Gallery 232 on the left which is the beginning of the exhibition, as you will be greeted by the elegant Shiva Nataraja bronze sculpture which starts the exhibition with the Hindi creation story. This section has a curved wall painted deep green and signifies that the art works here reveal aspects of destruction and creation. In his form as Nataraja, meaning King, Shiva is represented as Lord of Dance in his power of creation and destruction. The oldest work in the exhibition is also in Gallery 232, the stone relief carving Gandharan Relief with Dancers. Try to find it simply to appreciate how something so old has survived natural and political upheavals.

A086 Krishna Dances with the Cowherd women, approx. 1850–1900, India (Nathadwara, Rajasthan), opaque watercolors, gold, and silver on cotton, H. 300 cm × W. 300 cm, Cincinnati Art Museum, Alice Bimel Endowment for Asian Art, 2018.115

In the violet-coded devotion section is one of the largest and most exuberant works in the exhibition, Krishna Dances with the Cowherd Women, which was created between 1850–1900 in Nathadwara, Rajasthan. The lush imagery of the countryside is rendered with an arc for the rolling hill anchored with shrubbery and is painted with vivid opaque watercolors, gold, and silver pigments on cotton and is nearly ten feet square. Lord Krishna is in the center and while this section features devotional themes there is a sense of joy and amorous play. Krishna has also made multiples of himself so to avail himself to each of the women individually. Their dance, the rasamandala, often depicting multiple visions of Krishna, is one of longing and connection, and it resonates in earthly and divine realms. 

Some are of the opinion that the bluish tinge in Lord Krishna’s skin is not the colour of the material body but the eternal spiritual body of the Lord that emits blue aura. According to Bhagavad Gita, the blissful form of Lord Krishna is visible only to pure devotees. The women are in brightly-patterned clothing, the playfully-dotted white cotton background adds a visual lightness to represent the moonlit forest.  It is delightful to see dots of yellow and blue representing moonbeams.  The onlookers gathered in the bottom right and left corners are reminiscent of devotional imagery in Christianity and suggests the commonality among spiritual artistic tropes.

Museum view of Celebration section a601

From a contemporary lived perspective, how do we Americans experience dance so to enter into the mind-space of such intense dance devotion that this exhibition celebrates? Certainly Lin-Manuel Miranda celebrated the dance culture in his neighborhood in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City in “In the Heights”. Before Miranda, we have the iconic “West Side Story” dance sequences that are a prominent feature of the play and the movie, both represent the continuing dance cultures of immigrants. We have the powerful dance ceremonies of Native Americans bravely keeping alive their traditions against all odds. After World War II and the expansion of Americans into suburban tracts, I feel we lost our ethnic roots. Before suburban expansion, people lived closely together in city neighborhoods and could easily gather to dance, celebrating the important feasts and festivals of the homeland. Once in the suburbs, it was game over, the automobile and the mall ruled. Sadly.

Dancing Villagers a791

Of course anyone who saw Slumdog Millionaire may recall the exuberant dance sequence at the end of the movie! And the Cincinnati Art Museum has included contemporary art works in its red celebration section. There are contemporary works that have been sought out and commissioned as well as a very lively wall of Bollywood movie posters. 

To close, Beyond Bollywood: 2000 Years of Dance in Art taps numerous emotional states – from reflection, as in the devotional, destruction/creation and glorification sections to the celebration section and contemporary expressions of dance by living artists. The wall text are superb and offer up explanations of various spiritual and cultural practices with which many of us are not familiar. You should leave this exhibit both exhilarated and informed.                                        

The exhibition is accompanied by an interdisciplinary, multi-author publication available soon from the museum shop in person and online. The book tells the story of dance in the arts through more than 250 lavish color illustrations and essays from scholars of art, dance and cinema.