The relationship between tradition and modernity in the context of Indian dance is an intricate and interesting one. On one hand, I believe that modern dance in India has borrowed a great deal from India’s traditions. On the other hand, the example of Bharatanatyam also seems to suggest that the ‘revival’ of Bharatanatyam was perhaps an ‘invention of tradition’, or indeed the creation of a modern dance. Could Bharatanatyam then be modern?
According to historian Eric Hobsbawm, traditions which appear or claim to be old are, upon historical analysis, discovered to be inventions of recent origin. In short, tradition is fashioned by interpreting the past to suit current needs. It is re-appropriated to mould the present. Another scholar, Terada suggests that “in order to account for the present, justify it, understand it and criticise it, the past is selectively appropriated, remembered, forgotten or investigated”. It is possible that this is what happened to Bharatanatyam. The traditional past was selectively appropriated by post-colonial nationalists by reinventing the history of the Devadasis in order to justify a ‘revival’ of the dance form.
The noted anthropologist, Chris Fuller adds another dimension to this discourse in defining traditionalism as ‘forcefully and articulately expressing an ideological commitment to the authority and legitimacy of tradition’. Yet it accompanies the adoption of increasingly modernist values and attitudes, he notes. Thus, traditionalism constitutes and promotes modernity while simultaneously emphasising the divine authority of tradition. By emphasising tradition, changes introduced do not seem alien and unfamiliar. Thus, they are more easily accepted by society. The boundaries between tradition and modernity become seamless. Other scholars have echoed these thoughts. According to Milton Singer, the flexibility of Indian conceptions of tradition enables Indians to accept many innovations and changes by ‘traditionalising’ them.
The ‘revival’ movement in Bharatanatyam did just this. While a part of the ‘revival’ meant the invention
of a tradition, the simultaneous adherence to tradition in terms of learning from the traditional masters,
keeping the traditional repertoire, while simultaneously reinterpreting it, and making monumental modernist changes is consistent with the concept of traditionalism, and therefore with modernity.
In addition to the removal of traditional nattuvanars, and the focal shift from Krishna’s sensuality to Nataraja’s purity, other major changes include the spatial shift from temple to proscenium stage, and a change in pedagogy. Indeed, dance underwent a profound metamorphosis from Sadir to Bharatanatyam, from “untouchable to national art form and finishing school for young women of marriageable age”, says Matthew Harp Allen.
The revival of South Indian dance “involved a revivification or bringing back to life, it was equally a re-population, a re-construction, a renaming, a re-situation, a re-storation”, according to Allen. Given all the ‘re’s that Allen attributes to this revival, it could be argued that the art form was essentially stripped of most of what was traditionally ancient. According to Avanti Meduri, it was “re-interpreted in a respectable manner for the modern masses”. What emerged after the churning was a modern dance form called Bharatanatyam. In that sense, Amrit Srinivasan’s claim that “in a real and practical sense, it is the Devadasi dance that contemporary Bharatanatyam dancers perpetuate” can be questioned. It can be argued that what contemporary Bharatanatyam dancers perform is a modern Indian dance.
In fact, Bharatanatyam was modernized in several ways. Rajeev Bhargava states that “the generation of new types of collective identities such as the nation” is an important feature of modernity. By linking the ‘revived’ dance with the nation, a modern collectivity, ‘revivalists’ modernised Bharatanatyam. Educational institutions of dance modernized the guru-shishya relationship as well. The incorporation of Ballet into the reconstruction of Bharatanatyam (as suggested by Janet O’Shea) is yet another chraracteristic of modernity. Finally the presentation of Bharatanatyam was also modernized – the costumes were changed, and the musicians were placed on the side of the stage, rather than behind the dancer as was traditionally done.
Despite all this, the self-perception of post colonial nationalists is that of being revivalists, not as creators of something modern. But could it be that perhaps without even realising it, they did indeed create something much more modern than merely reinvigorating or purifying a dying tradition?