Thursday, December 23, 2010

My Secular, and My Religious, in My Dance

The relationship between Religion and Secularism is indeed a complex one, and attached to both terms are several connotations and implications in different contexts. Even within the world of dance, the ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ imply several things. To my surprise, I found that the two co-exist in dance very uncomfortably in the minds of many people who feel the need to expel one or the other. To me, they are not in conflict.

In November, I performed an excerpt from the Kamban Ramayana at the Attic. Because I had said that I have been ‘exploring the relevance of Bharatanatyam beyond the religious narrative, one that is inclusive of secular audiences’, a conflict arose. In response to the fact that I had emphasized human emotions (which implied a ‘secular’ approach), someone rightly said that the piece carries a cultural memory, and it is very difficult to completely remove the divine, spiritual and religious aspect of Bharatanatyam when performing it. I explained that I was not attempting to exclude the religious aspect, but had merely focused on another aspect of the piece – the vast variety of human emotions that the piece explores. 

The intense discussion went around in circles. I kept explaining that I was merely focusing on human emotions, and I kept hearing that it is difficult and inappropriate to have a ‘secular’ approach to such a ‘religious’ piece. The fact that I had focused on human emotions had meant that I was removing the divine aspect of the piece. As for me, I could not understand where the contradiction lay.

I later realized that the conflict may have arisen because we were using the term ‘secular’ differently. I had imbibed the conception of ‘secular’ from my parents, and had naively assumed that this was well-known and widely accepted all over India. My father, who has done extensive work on Indian Secularism has highlighted its difference from western models of secularism. But I realized the Western models had existed for longer and were probably imprinted in the minds of Indians as well. I also realized that when I speak about religion and secularism in dance, I must explain what ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ mean for me.

Hanuman, Rama's
messenger in 'Ni Urai Pai'
I am not a ritualistic and religious person. But I am certainly not anti-religious. As an agnostic practicing a ‘religious/spiritual’ dance like Bharatanatyam, I found that one way to relate to it was through human emotions. But that had never meant removing the religious, spiritual or devotional aspect of it. Even if I had ‘removed’ it, I think that firstly, it does not necessarily imply the removal of spirituality and devotion. Secondly, it also does not mean that I removed the religiosity of the dance piece from the minds and eyes of the people watching. In fact, because of the ‘cultural memory’ that is attached to a piece like ‘Ni Urai Pai’, it is far easier for people to see only the religious aspect of it. Because of that, I felt that highlighting a different and equally important aspect of the piece was exciting.

Rama's pain
The biggest controversy came about because of the use of the term ‘secular’ in my introduction. It was my mistake that I had not realized that many Indians understand secularism the way it is conceived in the west. For the West, secular means non-religious. To ‘secularize’ something is understood to mean removing the ‘religious’ from it. Politically, western secularism implies total non-interference of the state in the sphere of religion, so the US government does not interfere even when a man threatens to publicly burn the Quran. The western conceptions of Secularism could even be accused of being anti-religious (e.g. the French state banning the head scarf in the name of ‘secularism’). Moreover, ‘Secularists’ are commonly identified as hardcore atheists. If we are to apply these western conceptions of secularism to India and to dance, then sure – the religious and secular cannot co-exist.

But in India, this blatant contradiction does not exist politically or culturally. The state does interfere now and then in matters of religion to prevent one religion dominating over another, or one group dominating another group within the same religion. It interferes in order to safeguard the fundamental right to practice any religion. 

Here's an Indian's secularism
The Constitution (which proclaims India to be a secular state) abolished Untouchability, a social evil that has religious sanction. The Indian State lifted the ban on dalits to enter Hindu temples – another State intervention in the religious realm. Rather than complete non-interference, the Indian state practices what Rajeev Bhargava calls ‘principled distance’ from religion. This is the essence of secularism in India the way I understand it. I also understand secularism in India to mean a tolerance for and equal respect for all religions (Articles 25-28 in the Indian Constitution). So ultimately for me, secularism is not anti any religion, but for all religions. It also interprets ‘being for all religions’ to mean removing those aspects in every religion that permit or sanction any oppression. I am a secular person in this regard. In my understanding, religion and secular are not contradictory, but complementary. When I say I am a secular person, I do not mean I am anti-religious, but rather that I respect the freedom of people to practice any and all religions, without myself being attached to any of them.

Having said all this, when I dance, I embody this understanding of the relationship between religion and secularism. And therefore I fail to see the conflict in doing a ‘Ramayana’ piece from a human perspective, a ‘secular’ perspective if you like. Human emotions are just a powerful way of reaching out to people because they transcend race, gender, class and nationality. My aim is not to exclude the religious audience or to rob them of their cultural memory. My aim is to also include audiences that belong to other religions and to no religion. So, between my ‘religious’ and my ‘secular’, there is no conflict. They co-exist happily in my mind when I dance.


  1. i often think about this when i play the tabla. consciously or unconsciously, i've always tended to highlight the technical aspects of the music rather than the religious ones. though from what i know of bharatanatyam, it is a lot more overtly religious than hindustani music or dance, and so making it secular (in the indian sense) would be considerably harder.

  2. I don't think so, actually. I think its the precise nature of 'Indian' secularism that does not come into conflict with a 'religious' dance. At least I find no internal conflict when I dance. As I said, they co-exist quite happily.

    Also, it is a misconception that Bharatanatyam is overtly religious. Quite the contrary. If you step away from the religious aspect of it briefly, there's a lot more to it - there's geometry,physics and mathematics involved. There are beautiful descriptions of human emotions, and poetry that talks about social science. There's SO much to it other than the religious aspect, and all the time - the religiosity is not negated by all this, specially if one re-examines what 'secular' means in India.

  3. well, i mean 'overtly' religious in the sense that a lot of the compositions you dance to are derived from hindu mythology. of course, at the end of the day, there are the pure dance pieces, and the other pieces are essentially stories or descriptions, which involve more than just religion, but the fact that the stories or descriptions themselves are derived mostly from hindu mythology does make it non-secular in the sense that one religion is thrust into the limelight.

  4. which is why when you focus on human emotions rather than stories of gods, it is secular but not negating the religiosity of it, but rather expanding its reach to other audiences as well, right?

  5. yes, but you would have to choose your stories carefully, won't you? no ashtapadis or the like. or if you chose an ashtapadi you'd have to explicitly decontextualise it, no?

  6. I personally don't feel I have to choose my stories carefully. That it created controversy must mean that many people do think I do need to do that, but I don't think I SHOULD need to choose carefully. The problem with performing and watching classical dance is that we look for the literal and not the abstract.

    But personally, I see no problem wanting to focus on the human and emotive aspect of a piece from the Ramayana even if it does have a cultural memory linked to religiosity. By doing that,I don't think I de-contextualise it - the human emotions involved in the piece are not out of context, and are no less important than the fact that those human emotions belong to characters who are supposed to be 'divine'.

  7. Your post was a good food for thought early morning, the first thing at work. Its quite strange, coz I always thought that the "Indian" definition of Secularism was accepted world over and its intriguing to know its not. I had never given a thought to the same. It never occurred to me. Now, will read more about this.


  8. Hey! Thanks for reading. :) Yes, its intriguing isnt it, that the 'indian' definition of secularism is not widely known and accepted in India. Even less all over the world. Read Rajeev Bhargava's "The Distinctiveness of Indian Secularism" and other articles on Indian secularism by him to get an idea of what I was talking about in the blog post.

    Thanks again for reading, and keep coming back! :)