Museum  June 14, 2023  Caterina Bellinetti

'Beyond Bollywood' Brings Together 2000 Years of Dance in Art

courtesy of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco

Still image from Indrajaala/Seduction, 2012, by Pushpamala N. (Indian, b. 1956). Video, 4:30 min. Lent by the artist.

With over 120 artworks from 25 museums and private collections from around the world, visitors of Beyond Bollywood: 2000 Years of Dance in Art at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco experience the encompassing role of dance in South and Southeast Asian cultures. 

Paintings, sculptures, textiles, jewelry, and photographs reveal the religious, cultural, and political significance of dance. Secular and sacred dances have been present in Southeast and South Asian cultures for centuries and artists never stopped portraying them. This exhibition celebrates all aspects of dance: from the choreographed scenes in Bollywood movies, to intricate Sri Lankan ivory statues, to Pakistani watercolors. “The world loves Bollywood films for their famously elaborate choreography, and we wanted our community to be able to appreciate the deep historical, spiritual—and even economic and political—roots of dance across South and Southeast Asia, as well as parts of the Himalayas,” says Jay Xu, the Barbara Bass Bakar Director and CEO of the Asian Art Museum. 

courtesy of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco

Installation image of Beyond Bollywood: 2000 Years of Dance in Art


Dance is an art form that consists of rhythmic body movements, usually accompanied by music, in a defined space. Whether done impulsively or choreographically, the purpose is to express emotions, narrate a story, or show devotion. In South and Southeast Asia, dance stems from the Indian tradition. The basic principles, aesthetics, and gestures can be traced back to the Natya-shastra, a 2,000-year-old Sanskrit treatise on performing arts. The text consists of thirty-six chapters explaining the history of dramaturgy, the role of deities in the arts, and the theory of Tandava, the divine dance made by the Hindu god Shiva. 

The exhibition is organized around five themes that answer the question “What is dance accomplishing here?” The first section, Destruction and Creation (Awe), looks at the power of dance as the bringer of cosmic transformation. Upon entry to the exhibit, one is met by a statue of a dancing Shiva from almost 900 years ago surrounded by a projected video of NASA footage of solar eruptions. Frequently represented dancing inside a flaming halo, Shiva’s rhythmic movements can create, preserve, or destroy the universe. His upper right hand holds the damaru, the drum that made the first sound of creation, while his upper left holds agni, the fire that destroys the universe.

courtesy of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco

Installation image of Beyond Bollywood: 2000 Years of Dance in Art

The second part, Devotion (Longing) explores the connection that dance creates between deities and worshippers. This is followed by the third theme, Subjugation (Fear and Release), which concentrates on the function of dance as the vanquisher of negativity. Images of Balinese exorcist dances and photographs taken by the American socialist realist Ben Shahn are in this section. Glorification (Reverence) presents objects and artifacts created to honor gods and rulers. Here, a colorful watercolor, created approximately in 1850 in Pakistan, showcases the joyful dances performed for the Maharaja Sher Singh and his companions. Lastly, Celebration (Joyful Exuberance) explores the joyful nature of dance. Among the deities, we find statues of the Hindu god Krishna dancing on the head of the defeated serpent Kaliya, the joyful Ganesha, remover of obstacles, and the Tibetan Buddhist Vajravarahi, the fierce female embodiment of Buddha, wisdom, and compassion.

San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection, 1990.1348.

Maharaja Sher Singh and companions watching a dance performance, approx. 1850. Pakistan; Lahore. Opaque watercolors and gold on paper. H. 36.1 cm x W. 45.9 cm.

The exhibition is a journey through time: from a 2,000 year-old plaque from North India of a woman dancing to the sound of a harp to Art of The Rehearsal, to a 2016 video of Singaporeans practicing their dance moves in the streets. Among the experiences offered by the museum for this exhibition, live dance performances are scheduled to take place at the Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Pavillion, along with pop-up events in the exhibition galleries. Thursday evenings are dedicated to Bollywood classics such as Guide (1958), Amrapali (1966), and Umrao Jaan (1981). 

It becomes clear through Beyond Bollywood that dance has been accompanying the sacred and secular lives of South and Southeast Asian people for centuries. Its cultural, social, and political importance has not diminished: people still dance, together or alone, for joy, hope, anger, and love. Dance is a powerful expression of human and divine emotions. Just like we perform impromptu celebratory dances in the comfort of our houses, Shiva will keep dancing in his burning halo to create, preserve, and destroy the universe.

Beyond Bollywood: 2000 Years of Dance in Art is on view at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco until July 10, 2023.

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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