Inside the LookOut! Art Gallery’s ‘Figure of the Indian Dancer’ Exhibit, Running Through Oct. 19  

October 12, 2018 - Inside the LookOut! Art Gallery’s ‘Figure of the Indian Dancer’ Exhibit, Running Through Oct. 19  

  • RCAH Professor Sitara Thobani curates the exhibit exploring the Indian dancer’s image throughout history.
  • “The overall purpose of the exhibition is to encourage viewers to situate the various representations they see in their wider social, political and historical context,” Thobani said.
  • Exhibit runs through October 19, with special film screening on October 18.

By Kara Dempsey ’19

The moment you enter the “Figure of the Indian Dancer” exhibition at the LookOut! Art Gallery in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, you feel like you’ve left East Lansing and entered a time machine. The upbeat music and warm lighting immerses you in the atmosphere of Indian dance right on campus.

Walking through the intimate space, you travel to colonial India and continue the journey to the present day. The exhibit explores the representation of various kinds of dancers in India, dating from the colonial period to the twentieth century.  The presentation makes connections between the differing figures, the cultures, and the people that craft them, as well.

RCAH Professor Sitara Thobani, the curator of the exhibit, based the show on her extensive research on the history of dance in India. Thobani explained that that purpose of the exhibition is to draw attention to the ways the Indian dancer is portrayed and represented in Indian and Western cultures.

Photo by Aileen Dwyer '20

“Over the course of my research, I have been struck by the extent to which this figure is repeatedly mentioned in a variety of sources to represent particular ideas of Indian culture and tradition,” Thobani said. “For some, the figure of the Indian dancer is an object of desire, for others she is vilified as profane. In addition to exploring the many contradictions that result from these different depictions, this exhibition highlights the very real consequences that these representations have had.”

Although Thobani was researching the figure of the Indian dancer long before her curation of the RCAH LookOut! Art Gallery exhibit, displaying her research in such a way has always been an interest of hers. She noted that exhibiting her work in a gallery setting helps us understand the relationship between Indian and Western forms of representations, as well as the very real the effects of these representations on both cultures.

“One can trace the influence of these representations on the development of Indian classical dance on the one hand, or on different examples of cultural production in Europe and America on the other,” Thobani noted. “I am interested in how both developments are two sides of the same coin; representations in Europe affected what happened in India and vice versa.”

Thobani notes that the most exciting aspect of curating the gallery with her research is seeing students and staff make a variety of connections between the representations as they engage with the research to which she has devoted so much time. She credits the flow of new insights from gallery viewers to new insights and directions she would like to further delve into with the figure of an Indian dancer.

As part of the exhibit, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, October 18, in the LookOut! Gallery there will be a special screening of the 1981 film “Umrao Jaan,” based on the 1899 book “Umrao Jaan Ada,”one of the first novels written in Urdu. The classic Hindi/Urdu film depicts the life of an Indian “tawa’if,” or courtesan, in mid-19th century Lucknow, India.

The “Figure of the Indian Dancer” runs until October 19. The LookOut! Art Gallery is located in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, on the second floor of Snyder Phillips Hall. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from noon to 3 p.m. and by special arrangement. Admission is always free and the public is encouraged to attend. For more information, contact Director of Exhibition Spaces Tessa Paneth-Pollak at