Sunday, September 13, 2020

Doing Justice to Bharatanatyam’s Past and Future

Author’s note : I would like to thank Dr Yashoda Thakore, Dr Saskia Kersenboom and Dr Avanthi Meduri for stimulating conversations on issues raised in this article. I would also like to state that this essay is a brief overview of some aspects of the history of Bharatanatyam, and to cover all of the many layers of this history would require an entire book. This essay provides just a glimpse of my current understanding of some of the failures in the dance world. 

This article was written in March 2020, and incorporated insights and further reading in July-August 2020, for Aroop: Journal of Arts, Poetry and Ideas. Volume 4, 2020. Published by Raza Foundation., New Delhi. The theme of this edition was ‘Failure’ and I was asked to write about what I consider as failures in the dance world as a practitioner. A shorter version of this article appeared in Aroop’s September edition.

The 'Indian classical dance' world is revered and respected the world over for its 'ancient' origins, its diverse and rich cultural history, its ability to survive through the centuries in some form or another, not to mention its stunning beauty, architectural grace and all its technical complexities.

On the surface, it seems impossible to find “failures” within something that appears to be so seemingly flawless. But then nothing in this world exists without its flaws. Bharatanatyam is no different.

Throughout my training as a Bharatanatyam dancer, from the time I began to learn it as a child, it was difficult for me to find anything wrong with it. I unconditionally adored every aspect of it - my teacher, the dance classroom, the adavus (steps), mudras (hand gestures), the pieces we learnt, the stories they told and so on. But as I entered university and started digging its archive on my own, I started to discover elements of Bharatanatyam’s history that disturbed me.

In fact, these discoveries rattled me so much that they entirely changed the way I viewed the dance form and its practitioners. They deepened my own research on it, and radically transformed my understanding and performance of Bharatanatyam. From then on, I questioned everything about Bharatanatyam - its history, its current practice and its performance.

Today, I believe this questioning and investigation of Bharatanatyam has made me a better dancer (and person) – more critical and reflective, and also sensitive towards the history of my art form and all of its practitioners through the centuries. Further, it has led me to more deeply explore Bharatanatyam. Both as a solo performer and through my dance company ‘Vyuti’, I have discovered Bharatanatyam anew, through deconstruction, questioning of space and time, exploring alternative narratives, and challenging the socio-political conditions under which Bharatanatyam exists today. I can safely say that all that happened to me because of my discovery, at the time I was leaving school and entering university, of the “failures” I am about to expound below.

I had known something about “devadasis” (or as these artist communities now prefer to be called ‘hereditary dance communities’) as a teenager, but admittedly, not much. I first began to question the brief, intermittent mention of them shortly after my Arangetram (loosely translated as ‘solo dance debut’ - the first time a dancer performs a full length solo performance in public, symbolising her entry into the world of professional dance) at the age of sixteen. Having completed it, I considered myself (rather naively, although technically I was right) to now be a serious professional dancer. Therefore, I believed it to be my responsibility to know more about my dance form. That’s when I scratched under the surface of the largely rose-tinted story I had known of Bharatanatyam so far.

Through my own reading and research, I learnt more and more about the hereditary artist communities - their erstwhile “glorious” history, their silent, deliberate and deadly erasure and their ultimate disappearance from the dance world. Today, these communities still exist, but sadly very few of them are dancing.

Very briefly put, they were once considered highly respected bearers of a cultural tradition - strong, independent and free from the traditional and domestic roles that bound other girls or women of their time. Dr Yashoda Thakore, acclaimed exponent of Kuchipudi and “devadasi nrityam”, as she calls it, and a dance scholar who herself belongs to one of the hereditary dance communities, explains - “They were very, very respected”. According to her, they were given a place to stay by the temple, “land and many riches”, and were provided food. So "all they had to do was dance, and look after God”. In fact, she goes on to say that they were so important, that they were seen as the "protectors of god". Dr Saskia Kersenboom, in her book 'Nityasumangali', goes into extensive details about how they protected, not just society, but even the gods from the 'evil eye'. Not only did the ‘devadasi’ have artistic mastery, and responsibilities towards the temples, they were also endowed with the title of ‘Nityasumangali’, the forever auspicious woman. One of her primary “jobs’ was to dispel the evil eye through the process of waving of a 'pot-lamp' or kumbhādīpa (Kersenboom:1987). In fact, this was possibly her most important role in the temple and for society at. large. By her symbolic “marriage” to god, she could never be widowed and rendered inauspicious . Therefore, she was forever auspicious. 

Further, not only were they the only women to be given full access to the deities, they were also looked after by the kings of the Nayaka and Maratha periods. Although it was not a regular feature, some hereditary dancers even sat in courts and gave opinions on important matters (Thakore:2020, Ganesh: 2020).

Historically, hereditary dancers were indeed “bestowed with social respect” and had many rights, which were revoked as the anti-nautch campaign gained momentum (Srividya Natarajan in Sahasrabudhe:2018). The anti-nauch campaign which began in the late 19th century, demonstrates that by this time, the hereditary dance communities were being viewed as undesirable reminders of an India that didn’t fit the then current ideas of Indian national heritage. Through the period of colonialism and the nationalist movement for India’s independence, the perception about the hereditary dance communities underwent a dramatic change. Dr Yashoda explains that this is because the British, during their long colonial rule over India, “had worked on the minds of the Indian pysche” (Thakore:2020). 

I have stated in earlier articles, public talks and in my dissertation on dance, that Victorian ideas of sexuality and femininity had slowly invaded the Indian mind during colonialism. However, it is important to note that it was not these Victorian ideas or the colonisation of India by the British itself that disenfranchised the hereditary dance communities. It is that these ideas were imbibed and deeply internalised by upper caste and middle class Indian nationalists, and did not support unmarried women dancing freely, having non conjugal relationships or being liberated of domestic roles. Dr Thakore further states that “the print media of the time had already started reporting the hereditary dancers as fallen women”, because anyone who was not married was considered as fallen. In other words, the nationalist movement was compelled to project Indian culture in a way that affirmed colonial notions of femininity and fit in with that imbibed mindset of the Indian nationalists. In their desperate search for national pride, Indian nationalists turned their attention to their biggest strength - their artistic culture (Thakore: 2020). In Bharatanatyam, they found a perfect match. The history of Bharatanatyam was re-imagined, and it was transformed into a the ‘national dance’ of India.

Finally and crucially, the ritualistic 'powers' that the women from the hereditary dance communities were said to have - powers that led to their fundamental involvement in rituals to avert the evil eye as well as pacify the dangerous aspects of the divine (such as divine anger, spread of misfortune and disease) - were perceived as 'primitive' and did not fit with the modernist, secular ideas of India that Indian nationalists aligned themselves with (Kersenboom, personal communication). 

A combination of these factors - the ‘superstitious’ powers of the ever-auspicious devadasi, her un-domesticated lifestyle, the Indian nationalist movement’s commitment to ‘modern’ and restrained notions of sexuality and the need for a national dance form in the hands of so-called “respectable” citizens of society is what I believe collectively led to the enormous displacement and disenfranchisement of the hereditary dancers.

Despite this unfortunate and unjust turn of events, what is irrefutable is that until the anti-nautch and anti-devadasi sentiments arose in India, what is now known as Bharatanatyam thrived in the hereditary dance communities. They were the carriers of this intricate and technically complex dance form passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition. They safeguarded this dance form for many, many years before other members of Indian society began to show an interest in learning and performing the dance form.

One big failure, then, of the Indian classical dance world in the post-colonial era is to properly acknowledge the monumental role that hereditary dance communities played in nurturing and keeping alive what we now know as ‘Bharatanatyam’ through the centuries, and to deny the dancers of that time the respect that they richly deserved.

Very soon after “Sadir”/“Bharatanatyam” fell into “non-devadasi" hands, a “sanitisation” process took place. The accepted narratives of dance shifted from sringara (sensuality/erotica) to bhakti (devotion), and the social class of dancers shifted from members of the hereditary dance communities to girls and women from other castes and classes.

Members of these hereditary dance communities like the renowned dancer, T. Balasaraswati fiercely defended their dance form as being perfect the way it was, while the non-hereditary practitioners  like Rukmini Devi expressed an urgent need to “sanitise” it. While the former felt that bhakti and sringara were not mutually exclusive, the latter felt that the sringara aspect of Bharatanatyam’s repertoire needed scrutiny and focus needed to be on bhakti. According to Allen, during Rukmini Devi's time, Nataraja became ‘the patron deity for dance’. Pieces about Nataraja’s tandava dance were created, and “the new class of women entering the profession of dance must have embraced ‘Natanam’ as an anthem (Allen:1997).

While this new class of women entered the profession of dance in post-colonial India, the tragic insinuation was made and successfully established that the hereditary dancers, their culture, way of life and the way they danced was unworthy of post-colonial India. As Dr Thakore said, “the art form was needed, but not the dancers”. She adds - “Very quickly, the art was weaned from the devadasis. The women were side-lined and completely forgotten about".

A concomitant failure was to have not properly rehabilitated the hereditary dance communities after ousting them from their respected positions and roles in Indian polity, culture and society. The only alternative that was given to these women was to become good wives (Natarajan in Sahasrabudhe : 2018). Indeed, Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy is said to have written a letter to Mahatma Gandhi expressing her desire to turn the hereditary courtesan dancers into “chaste wives, loving mothers and useful citizens” (Ram: 2015). In my view, while Dr Reddy had good intentions, the assumption that they needed to be chaste wives, and weren’t already loving mothers and useful citizens seems to contradict historical accounts. 

It has to be said, however, that the “devadasi system” was not without problems. The act of dedicating young girls to temples and as a matter of tradition and heredity is also troublesome. Of course it is a worrying possibility that these young girls were possibly not given a choice about being dedicated, and could not pursue any other vocation even if they wanted to. However, those “devadasis” that danced were not forced into this profession. They chose it. My limited knowledge on this is somewhat clarified by Dr Yashoda’s explanation that at least these “devadasis”(Isai Vellalar and Kalavanthalu dancer communities) chose to be dancers. They were a group of mostly educated girls who came together to dance and sing, and perform important temple duties.

Having said that, the fact that despite their independence and freedom, they remained in some ways, under the control of a triad of men - the male guru, priest and patron also betrays that they perhaps didn’t enjoy as much freedom as some would have us believe. Dancers could be vulnerable to exploitation by male teachers or priests (Natarajan in Sahasrabudhe :2018)

In short, the “devadasi system" was definitely not faultless. The reasons for its abolition do include humanitarian grounds. This is because when the British categorised its colonised population, it put all unmarried, working women (the dancers, the joginis, matankis, and sex workers) under one category - that of the “devadasis” (Thakore, personal communication). Some of these women were indeed subjected to sexual oppression and exploitation. This in itself is a very complex and sensitive issue and requires more attention. However, it is not the focus of this essay.

So, I am not arguing that the “devadasi system” should not have been scrutinised or was flawless. I’m arguing that any system should not be forcibly shut down, without the consent or consultation of the people that inhabit it, survive and thrive within it. And if such a decision is indeed taken, then the least that can be done for those who had so much to lose, is proper rehabilitation.

In all my years of studying the history of this dance form, I have not come across much information about rehabilitation efforts made for these original masters of dance. One reads about how their temple duties were suddenly taken away and given to people from other communities, and that temple dancing was banned. One also reads that dancing in the proscenium theatres came about soon after. But one doesn’t read much about any efforts that were made to facilitate the entry of hereditary courtesan dance communities into this new system - an initiative where the traditional dancers themselves were encouraged to take their hereditary art form to the proscenium stage. Yes, T. Balasaraswati did perform on the proscenium stage, and there is evidence of a few feeble attempts made to exhibit “devadasi dancing” on stage immediately after independence. But there is no significant evidence to suggest that this was done in a comprehensive manner, and it is nowhere close to rehabilitation, considering the magnitude of what these dance communities were robbed of. I have also not come across any literature that suggests that there were offered an alternative source of livelihood.

Instead one reads extensively about how prominent members of other socio-economic classes learnt the art of “Sadir" and then distanced themselves from the hereditary dance communities. For instance, members of the Brahmin communities learnt from the original masters, and also learnt from them how to teach - then started passing down the knowledge themselves instead of retaining the nattuvanars of the hereditary dance communities as teachers in dance schools and institutions that popped up. This essentially left the already ostracised hereditary gurus and practitioners of the form even more alienated. 

This happened even in Rukmini Devi's 'Kalakshetra'. Whether the young ‘devadasi girls’ who would have otherwise been 'dedicated’ to temples, could have been given a place to learn Sadir/Bharatanatyam in Rukmini Devi’s upper-middle class oriented Kalakshetra remains a question worthy of investigation. Although admittedly, this is a complex issue. It is argued by some that hereditary dance communities "jealously guarded their art", and did not welcome Rukmini Devi’s ‘intrusion into a field they considered their prerogative’ (Samson:2010). They were also hesitant to mix with the upper castes. In my dissertation (2010), I wondered - Isn’t this understandable? Sadir was, as Gaston claims, “a hereditary profession with rights, obligations and a means of obtaining livelihood” (Gaston: 1996). It is understandable that they would guard this jealously. Given that they were at the bottom rung of a rigid caste system, they were understandably suspicious of mixing with the upper castes. As a Brahmin, with powerful influences in the Theosophical Society in India and abroad, it can be argued that Rukmini Devi could have attempted to bridge this gap. Her strong focus, however, remained on educating newer generations, and ‘reviving’ the form (Bhargav: 2010).

For all the efforts made to sustain and revive the dance form - comparatively little evidence, if any, can be seen in efforts made to sustain the hereditary dancers of that time. The dance was separated from the dancer - the former was elevated to a divine level while the latter was condemned to stigma, neglect and taboo.

Finally, several (but not all) practitioners, performers, teachers and therefore their students continue to mention “devadasis” (in the context of dance) in passing as existing in a brief “corrupt” period of “decline” in Bharatanatyam’s history. This is not only deeply offensive towards the hereditary dance communities of the past and their living members today, but is also disrespectful to the history of Bharatanatyam as a whole. Alasdair MacIntyre is of the view that lack of justice, courage and relevant intellectual virtues are what corrupt traditions (MacIntyre: 1981). By his definition, it was the revivalists who corrupted the tradition, because they denied justice to the hereditary dancers, lacked intellectual virtues to acknowledge aesthetic debt to them, and lacked the courage to integrate or rehabilitate them (Bhargav: 2010). 

Despite scholarship on Bharatanatyam’s history having existed in oceanic proportions for decades, many current booklets and readings for Bharatanatyam students diminish or simply ignore the contributions made by the women of the Isai Vellalar dance community, in subscribing to this warped narrative of a glorious mythical past, a brief period of decline under the “fallen devadasi” and its “revival” by upper caste nationalists who elevated the dance form to the position of respectability that it holds today. A counter-narrative found in a lot of serious scholarship on this history fails to reach a wider public. In a recent conversation with me, Dr Avanthi Meduri shared my worry about this scholarship not reaching many dance students. It is indeed disappointing that conversations about this dance history do not take place in many dance classrooms, and is unavailable in chapters relating to culture in mainstream history textbooks.

Dance theory or history must not be limited to an explanation of hand gestures, selected readings from the Natyashastra (a text that was rediscovered in the late 1800s and is not even primarily a text on dance) and mythical explanations. While there is nothing wrong with mythical narratives, the same cannot be said for teaching myth as history. Or indeed, replacing historical narratives with mythical ones.

Dialogue and discussion around these multiple narratives, especially among the current generation of dancers is imperative. Given the scale at which Bharatanatyam is taught in India (and indeed, the world) - this incomplete, even distorted historical narrative is widely prevalent. In comparison, only a small number of practitioners acknowledge the real history of this dance form. The growth of a small but strong minority in the dance world insists on a reflexive, dialogic approach to this history is welcome and should make a difference. More and more people should join this conversation.

However, correcting this distorted history does not mean that we now commit the opposite mistake of demonising artists from the early years of post-Independence India. A balanced perspective on this issue is incredibly necessary for the entire dance community to move forward. It is grossly unjust to ignore or disregard the history of the hereditary dance communities, but it would also be unjust to diminish or disregard the contributions of dancers like Rukmini Devi Arundale, Indrani Rahman and many, many others made to making what Bharatanatyam is today. It is problematic to view what Rukmini Devi did without context. Some scholars portray Rukmini Devi as a woman who deliberately and maliciously snatched a dance form from the masters to whom it rightfully belonged. It is an oversimplification, in my view, to portray Rukmini Devi as a shrewd and scheming Brahmin who knowingly committed a grave injustice to the traditional masters. Rather, it might be more useful to view her actions from the perspective of her socio-economic background as well as the politics of her time. These presented her opportunities but limited her scope in evolving the dance form. Her ‘limited scope’ can be understood, but must not be seen uncritically. Undoubtedly it was influenced by her socio-political positionality, sanskritisation, post-colonial nationalism, and the notions of respectability tied to it, much like many who blindly shunned the 'Devadasi system'. 

For instance, Dr Avanthi Meduri argues that the “secularisation” of Bharatanatyam led it into a new era of intellectual awareness. Without this, we may have lost a meaningful cultural experience of it today. But she also adds that because of it, we have lost the “inner spiritual exuberance or fullness” that hereditary dancers, indeed dancers like T. Balasaraswati embodied (Meduri: 1988).

Dance forms - or indeed any cultural art forms – are not static, they change according to constantly changing socio-political and cultural surroundings, as they should. Boundaries of dance have been drawn and redrawn through the centuries all over the world. Isn’t movement and dynamism the very foundation of dance? So, why should Bharatanatyam be any different? It too has been redefined through the ages by historical and political processes. 

In fact, I would argue that the Bharatanatyam we see today is not the same dance form that was practiced and performed by the Isai Vellalar dance community - it is different in form, structure, content, and presentation. In a sense, they are two very different dance forms. I disagree with Amrit Srinivasan’s claim that “in a real and practical sense, it is the Devadasi dance that contemporary Bharatanatyam dancers perpetuate” (Srinivasan: 1985). What contemporary Bharatanatyam dancers perform, I argue, is a modern Indian dance.

In fact, in my graduate thesis (Bhargav: 2010), I have argued that the Bharatanatyam we see today is a multiply-modern dance form, far removed from the dance that the hereditary dancers practiced and performed. It is severed in many unfortunate ways from the traditional dance form of the Isai Vellalar community, but also therefore quite distinct from it. 

However, my grouse is not with modern Bharatanatyam or its many variants, nor do I reject this Bharatanatyam. In fact, I’m quite devoted to it. After all, I’ve been practicing it for 30 years, and have taught and performed it for over 15 years. What has continuously made me deeply uncomfortable about modern Bharatanatyam is the largely unacknowledged debt to the dance practices of hereditary dance communities. As I've argued earlier, that makes those practitioners guilty of corrupting the tradition because they lack the intellectual virtues to acknowledge this debt. In doing so, they continue to collectively fail to assess and repair damage done to the hereditary dancers in doing so.

To conclude, in my view, despite all its achievements, three failures stand out when examining Bharatanatyam and its complex history. One, a momentous failure on the part of the nationalist movement to acknowledge the role of the hereditary dance communities and to subsequently offer them the same degree of respect as the dance form that was taken from them. Two, another tragic failure of the ‘revivalists’ during the post-colonial nationalist era is not to have properly rehabilitated members of this community, instead separating the dancer from the dance, neglecting the former while nurturing the latter – thereby rewriting a false history of this dance form and a distorted image of its origins in public imagination. And three, a failure on the part of many contemporary practitioners, teachers and students who have bought into this imaginary or distorted narrative, and further perpetuated it, despite a wealth of scholarship challenging it.

In sum, the erasure, selective amnesia and distortion of Bharatanatyam's history over generations is a singular collective failing in the dance world, because while we claim to be the important bearers of a great tradition, we also disrespect  it by not honestly and respectfully acknowledging its complete story, and that of all its protagonists. 

By acknowledging this failing, the world of Bharatanatyam can only get enriched further as this acknowledgement is the first step towards an honest understanding of its complex history, a sensitive engagement with living members of these original dance communities, and an open, constructive, and democratic space for Bharatanatyam and all its diverse dancers.


Allen, Mathew Harp. Rewriting the Script for South Indian Dance, The Drama Review, Vol. 41, No.3 (1997), pp. 63 – 100

Bhargav, Aranyani. The Multiple Modernities of an Indian Dance Form: A Critical Analysis of Bharatanatyam, (Unpublished) 2010

Gaston, Anne Marie. Bharatanatyam: From Temple to Theatre, Manohar Publishers, New Delhi, 1996

Ganesh, Swarnamalya. Kshetrayya and the legacy of erasing women’s voices from erotic poetry, The News Minute, February 14, 2020

Kersenboom, Saskia. Nityasumangali. Motilal Banarasidass, New Delhi, 1987. 

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, University of Notre Dame Press, 1981

Meduri, Avanthi. Bharatanatyam – What are you?, Asian Theatre Journal, 1988, Vol 5, No.1

Ram, Kalpana. Phantom Limbs: South Indian Dance and Immigrant Reifications of the female body”, Taylor and Francis Online, Journal of Intercultural Studies, Volume 26, 2005

Samson, Leela. Rukmini Devi: A Life, Penguin Group, India, 2010

Sahasrabudhe, Aishwarya. Srividya Natarajan on researching the traditions of the Isai Vellalar community, and the appropriation of their art. Firstpost, 6th December 2018.

Srinivasan, Amrit. Reform and Revival: The Devadasi and her dance. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 20, No. 44 (1985), pp. 1869 – 1876

Thakore, Yashoda. Samyoga - Coming Together, Facebook Live Talk, June 10, 2020

Friday, July 31, 2020

A response to the social media frenzy regarding my 2017 TEDx talk

Unknown to me, my TEDx talk from 3 years ago suddenly went viral a few weeks ago due to an Instagram post containing a 4.54 minute compilation of edited clips from my 25 minute presentation at TEDxDTU in 2017.

While it did an incredibly useful thing in reopening a dialogue amongst the upper middle class about the issue of caste in Bharatanatyam, it also received a furious backlash, on social media and even in an article or two in the papers and online. 

From being called ' savarna white washing' to 'replacing voices of the marginalised' to 'appropriation' to 'casteist' to 'denigrating to devadasis' to 'conflating identities by the usage of the term devadasi to 'putting all the blame on the British like a "typical Bamman woman"' to 'glorifying sex slavery' to 'highly offensive'.

As a member of the dance community who has consistently engaged with the history of Bharatanatyam for the past 15 years or so, I have asked each of the people making these allegations to dialogue with me about why they felt the talk was casteist, insulting, denigrating or offensive. Unfortunately, this has been met with deafening silence.

It appears that for the most part, people are only interested in "calling out" something in an effort to appear to be champions for a cause, but do not wish to engage further on the issues to really get to the bottom of things. I am pretty sure that most of the commentators who made these sweeping accusations have not even listened to the entire TEDx talk, because if they had really listened, I don't think the response I am about to share would've even been necessary.

But such is the nature of social media, I suppose. A source you trust shares something, and you immediately click the "share" button in the hope that you, too, have displayed your solidarity for a cause, without even watching the clip, leave alone see the entire talk or verify that your source has actually got his or her facts right (in this case, she didn't and it was pointed out by numerous people, but the slanderous post remained on her wall, and still does, and continues to be shared widely).

So, I found myself digging into my past research, questioning my own understanding, if only to affirm that I have not done or said anything gravely wrong that justifies the slander and harassment that became the central feature of the controversy, rather than the actual issue of caste in Bharatanatyam. 

This was my response -


DISCLAIMER : I do not personally know any of the people involved in and commenting upon the controversy surrounding 4.54 minute clip of my talk at TEDxDTU (delivered 3 years ago) that went viral a week ago. Though I believe that the slander that went on for 3-4 days was more a product of the nature of social media than anything personal against me, certain allegations made against my talk and me personally regarding my identity, knowledge and understanding of the issue, along with my intent and motive are what have prompted this response. I am merely addressing these. 

I cannot stress enough that this is in no way an attack on any individual or group, but merely a response to the allegations.

I request everyone to view this statement in my continued effort to be reflexive and dialogic and in the spirit of mutual understanding and critical thinking on a very important issue in the world of Bharatanatyam.


Those of you who know me even some what, even just through social media, know that I’m anything but brahminical, and anything but casteist. That I am privileged, you also know and know that I acknowledge it wholeheartedly. What I have never done is intentionally take advantage of that privilege at the cost of marginalised people or communities. Those of you who know me even somewhat, know this. Perhaps that’s why so many of you have asked me to respond to these allegations. 

As I understand it, the following were seen by some as problematic in my talk.

1. The usage of the term ‘Devadasi’
It was brought to my attention as soon as the 4.54 minute clip of this talk went viral that the term ‘devadasi’ is a conflation of various castes and therefore, its usage to describe the Isai Vellalar community is problematic and brings about trauma to the community. 
While I understood that this caused confusion as demonstrated by the reaction of a prominent member of the Dalit activist community who assumed I was talking about Dalit women in my talk, the clip clearly states that I am referring to the Isai Vellalar community and not to any other ‘Devadasi’ community or their practices. However, I immediately wrote to TedXdtu asking them to put up a disclaimer clarifying this and stating that the group I’m referring to as ‘devadasis’ in the video wishes to be referred to as ‘hereditary courtesan dance community’. This disclaimer is now up on youtube.

I am in the process of finding out more about the term, because the problematisation of this term for the Isai Vellalar community is relatively recent, and what I have read so far in the last few days does not clear the confusion. 

One, all of the academic material I have read on the subject over the past 15 years uses this term freely in the context of Bharatanatyam’s history. While newer discourses have shed light on the problematisation of this term, I’m sure you can appreciate that newer academic resources build upon older ones, they do not demolish and replace them. 

Moreover, there are public documents available online where members from the hereditary courtesan dance community have used this term (indeed, even defended the usage of this term) to describe their foremothers and even themselves as late as 2018 (a year after my talk was delivered). Even the scholars cited in the controversy use this term, even today.

It is also worth mentioning that all terms like ‘hindu’, ‘muslim’, ‘dalit’, ‘sikh’, ‘community’, ‘religion’ etc are are recognised as problematic in academic research because they represent what are in fact internally differentiated entities, and yet they are still used in academic discourses to get a larger point across.

In any case, I have absolutely no intention of dishonouring the wishes of the community or causing anyone trauma. In any future private and public engagement on this, I will refer to these communities as ‘hereditary courtesan dance community’.

Trauma is a strong word, a word that  in itself is “triggering”, so it would be unfair of me not to address this issue of trauma. 

I am truly sorry to hear that the public discourses about this history cause trauma to some living hereditary dancers. I cannot imagine that trauma, having no lived experience of it. I also don’t wish to assume that I understand it.

I thought perhaps digging into my own memories of one of my most traumatic experiences might help me understand better. I found that watching visuals of it on tv all the time and reading about it in books had always indeed been triggering. I unequivocally concede to that.

I then thought about how it felt specially knowing that the many of the actors on tv and authors who write about it have no lived experience of it. I didn’t have particularly strong feelings about this. 

If you ask me “what was that trauma”, sure, I’ll probably say “I don’t want to talk about it”. But whether I feel that this traumatic occurrence should not be written about or filmed by others in order to help - precisely the people who haven’t lived through it - somewhat understand what I went through - I’m not so sure. I think the people who made those films, acted in them and authors who wrote about it were doing so in the spirit of humanity and to add to a collective understanding of an evil in society that is widely prevalent.

But that’s just my opinion of my specific experience. It would be an honour and a learning experience to engage further with members of the hereditary courtesan dance communities to help me understand their trauma better. And I will certainly focus on that aspect more in the future.

2. I am ‘Savarna’ and therefore my talk is guilty of ‘savarna white washing’ of the history of the hereditary courtesan dance community, and is ‘deeply casteist’. There was also an allegation that like a “typical bamman woman”, I was blaming the British and absolving the upper castes of all blame.

Actually, I do not identify as Savarna at all. I have mixed roots and there is nothing Savarna about my upbringing, my values or my thinking. Whatever 'savarna' elements that may be perceived here are due to my being a member of a broader culture over which I have little control. As and when a negative “savarna” trait in me comes to my notice and on critical scrutiny is found to be so, and in my judgement and in the judgment of the self-reflexive people I respect (and this includes non-savarna scholars) is best jetisoned, I will certainly try to get rid of it.

As for ‘savarna white washing’ and absolving the upper castes by blaming the British, here is my clarification - I accused the British colonisers of imposing victorian notions of femininity and sexuality on India when they colonised it (The Kamasutra, Khajuraho were all under scrutiny for India’s unabashed embracing of sexuality during the period of colonialism). But nowhere have I absolved the upper castes of blame. In fact, without using the phrase itself, my talk itself calls out the “Savarna white washing” of Bharatanatyam’s history. The clip begins with the sentence - “The history of Bharatanatyam has been remagined to make it seem like it was always an upper caste dance form”. In the complete video of the talk on youtube, I have said - “We’ve made some imaginary upper caste links to the dance form.” I have also mentioned that as a dance teacher, I have come across texts handed out to students where this whole history has been outlined and painted this way (savarna white washing) and how inaccurate this (savarna whitewashed) history is. In fact, I accuse this inaccurate history of being “casteist” in the complete talk. I vehemently oppose the accusation that I am part of a conspiracy by upper castes to shield themselves by blaming the British for all that is wrong with the classical Indian arts.

Professor Gopal Guru, a widely influential Dalit scholar in India who has written extensively on Dalits, women, politics and philosophy heard my talk and his interpretation was that my presentation “radically eliminates grounds of objection” and its “text and dance in totality is anti-caste.” (The full text of his interpretation is with me, if anyone wants to read it).
I am grateful for his interpretation, and hope that this, along with my clarifications above clear the air somewhat on this matter.

3. I am replacing the voices of the marginalised

I am resolutely anti-caste. I’m not patting myself on the back for being so, just stating a fact. I do not identify with whatever caste I was born into, and I have always condemned casteist practices of all kinds. Moreover, I’m an intrinsically egalitarian and democratic person, and have never intended to “replace” anyone else’s voice. 

I completely understand the anger and frustration that comes with someone from my privileged background getting a platform to talk about this issue when most of the living people in the world that I spoke about do not get such an opportunity. It is deeply problematic indeed. In fact, that this happens all the time is testament to the issue of brahminical domination I have attempted to highlight. But that doesn’t mean that voices like mine should be silenced.

To say that someone not from the hereditary courtesan dance community should not speak about this community because they have no lived experience of their reality is like saying that white people should not talk about racism or men should never talk about sexism because they’ve never had a lived experience of it. 

Preventing anyone from talking about important issues that plague our societies only discourages space for a genuine exchange of ideas, mutual learning and a constructive dialogic approach to them, in my opinion. 

To say that by speaking about it, I have “replaced” the voice of a marginalised community and I should “step aside” and “pass on the mic”, “give up the stage” and so on implies that only one of the voices can be/needs to be/should be heard. Voices can and in my opinion, should exist side by side. They can only learn from and educate each other. Isn’t that how understanding about the complex world is always arrived at in a civil, democratic way? I am completely committed to contributing towards creating a democratic space for the arts, one that gives a voice and stage to everyone, where in that sense a stage is not given up or the mic passed on, but rather shared. 

But this discourse about one voice replacing another, one community replacing another, “shut up, and listen”, “pass the mic”, “step aside and give up the stage” sounds a bit like an unjust history repeating itself, only the other way around. I could be misunderstanding these words. But that’s precisely why an open dialogue is necessary. 

I must also clarify that I have not attempted to speak on behalf of a marginalised hereditary courtesan dance community either. I have merely attempted to make a group of young people at the TedX talk be more aware of and sensitive to the history of Bharatanatyam. In a sense, I merely attempted to bridge the gap between the two contradictory histories of this dance form and it’s practitioners.

I believe I’ve earned the right to do that, at least. I don’t come with the very real struggles that living women from the hereditary courtesan dance community do, but I have lived and breathed Bharatanatyam for the past 30 years too. I am a part of its story too, as it is a fundamental part of mine. The trouble with pitting voices against one another is that by saying this, I run the risk of being perceived as diminishing the crucial and fundamental relationship between the story of Bharatanatyam and stories of the hereditary courtesan dance community, which I am absolutely not doing. I request you all not to read it this way and further perpetuate this “us vs them” binary.

Further, to say that I have made money and art off of someone’s misery and trauma is deeply insulting and I won’t dignify that with a response. That my request to be heard fully or to be engaged with in a respectful manner is “tone policing” is also a bizarre conversation blocker that seems to indicate that a respectful dialogue is too much to ask for. 

4. The talk was factually inaccurate and I should educate myself more before talking about such an issue. And I misrepresented sexual oppression as sexual freedom.

There is always scope for more of learning and educating oneself. But with all due respect to the commentators saying I need to get my facts right and the well intentioned advisers who told me I should be adequately well read on the matter before speaking on this as an outsider, while I don’t know everything, I am not ill-informed on this issue. The talk was based on several years of research that involved over 50 books and articles spanning over at least 25 years by various political theorists, anthropologists and dance scholars including Amrit Srinivasan, Janet O’Shea, Janaki Nair, Anne Marie Gaston, Avanthi Meduri, Matthew Allen (and through some scholars, Saskia Kersenboom, though her book was unavailable to me at the time of my research) to name just to name a few - many of whom have informed Davesh Soneji’s work too (see his acknowledgements) - and none of whom come from the hereditary courtesan dance community, by the way.

As for misrepresenting sexual oppression as sexual freedom, I think that point is somewhat clarified when the term “devadasi” is understood to refer to the Isai Vellalar community of courtesan dancers in my talk. The talk suggests that the courtesan dance community had a “certain” (not absolute or unconditional) amount of sexual freedom specifically in the sense that they did not have to be “married to mortal beings” and could have “sexual alliances with their patrons”, as opposed to other women of the time who could not have sexual alliances out of wedlock and were home bound and “domesticated”. 

Moreover, I am not personally responsible for the ambiguity that surrounds this specific issue. To elucidate this point, I will quote a paragraph from Davesh Soneji’s “Unfinished Gestures”, a book that everyone is rightfully citing during this controversy - “From the late sixteenth century Nayaka period onwards, devadasis have functioned as courtesans, secular dance artists organised in guilds called melams, and temple workers, some of whom performed in public spaces of certain Hindu temples. However, these communities have always occupied an ambiguous status in South Indian Society. On the one hand, devadasis possessed a degree of social agency in that they were not restricted to the norms of patrifocal kinship. They lived in quasi-matrilineal communities, had non conjugal sexual relationships with upper caste men, and were literate when most south Indian women were not.” This is pretty much in line with what I’ve said in the talk, and the 4 minute snippet that’s doing the rounds on social media. His next sentence is - “On the other hand, records from centers of political power such as the court of Tanjore in Tamil Nadu document the fact that courtesans were commodities regularly bought and sold through intercession of the court”. Of course, Davesh Soneji goes on to deeply elaborate on this in his entire book with a great degree of sensitivity, but these were his introductory comments.

5. I have been irresponsible, particularly because I was speaking with a lack of sensitivity about this issue to young uninformed people and am circulating misinformation, adding to the burden of the hereditary courtesan dancers to tell the truth. 

Respectfully, a lot of the evidence contradicts this. There have been countless positive responses that the TedX talk has received (I am happy to share them publicly without revealing names). They included numerous ‘privileged’ young people in social media circles who spoke of the talk opening their eyes to the issue of caste in Bharatanatyam. I have been flooded on Instagram and Facebook and email with messages of gratitude from dancers and non-dancers alike saying they never knew anything about this history and were never conscious of or sensitive to the story of the hereditary dancers at all. They were surprised and glad that they were introduced to a shockingly different version of history than the one they’d been taught, ie “Bharatanatyam was ‘found’ by Lord Shiva and ‘given’ by him to the Rishis” and asked how to go about finding out about the “real history”.

To assume that every member of society/the audience already has a basic understanding of Bharatanatyam’s “real history” is itself a problem. Many, many don’t. They learnt something about Bharatanatyam and caste that day that they never knew. The talk did precisely what it set out to do: To attempt to gently (because in my experience, violently doing so defeats the purpose) show upper caste privileged people the mirror, to make some privileged sections of young people aware that hereditary dancers exist and were the original masters of this dance form, and to demonstrate that this history of an unbroken pure brahminical dance tradition is an imagined one.

In short, I am not circulating misinformation, but rather attempting to dispel it. 

Yes, I admit that the brief talk lacked “nuance” strictly in the sense that it was too brief to cover all the nuances all this complex history. It was also not meant to be a scholarly talk for informed audiences who would appreciate these nuances, but rather an introductory talk for people who knew little or nothing about this. Had I been giving a similar talk on the subject at a dance or academic conference, I would have undoubtedly gone into much more detail and nuance about the issue, as I had in my dissertation. 

TO CONCLUDE, I am not making the claim that the talk was perfect. Not at all. No conversation about such a complex issue is ever without flaws. And I’m not saying no one should point out my flaws or critique me. I have always welcomed constructive criticism. I’m also not saying I shouldn’t be reminded of my privilege and how in a system like ours, that affects larger society, and marginalised communities.

All I am requesting here is that the talk be seen in the context and with the intent and spirit in which it was given.

With that, I urge you all to not fall prey to the social media frenzy that has surrounded this video going viral, and sincerely hope that in the spirit of a reflexive, dialogic approach - you will indeed listen to all the voices involved in bringing the sensitive, complex, and tumultuous history of Bharatanatyam to light, and we can together keep building on our understanding of the various and complicated aspects of Bharatanatyam.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Choreography of Group work - My talk at RASA Seminar, Narada Gana Sabha, 14 May 2017

The call for papers for this seminar asked either gurus or young dancers to share their experiences of choreographing or participating in group work. In a manner of speaking, I am neither. Now in my early thirties and having performed professionally for over fifteen years, I probably do not classify as a ‘young’ dancer. I am not a ‘guru’ or tremendously experienced choreographer either, having seriously ventured into the world of teaching and choreography only half a decade ago. Instead, I present to you a perspective of a young choreographer of group work. My dance company, Vyuti, has been in existence since 2013-14, and started performing only a little over a year ago.

While contemplating the content of this essay, I came to realise that in my short but illuminating experience with choreographing group work, both challenges and strengths have been of two kinds - creative and practical.

When I was faced with the task of conceiving a group in 2013, the challenges emerged almost instantly - choreographing group work in a way that hadn’t already been explored was one such creative challenge. Although Bharatanatyam has largely been a solo dance form, the last two decades have seen a lot of group work emerging. That is a lot of years of work by many well known and experienced dancers and gurus! So my first challenge became to gain clarity on what I wanted to achieve through my group work and how it differs from the already existing body of group choreography in classical dance.

It became clear that I wanted to examine traditional pieces from the margam, through multiple interweaving bodies. Investigating the idea of interaction between multiple dancing bodies, through eye contact and physical touch, I wanted to explore how solo traditional pieces transform when conceived as an interactive group form. How an alarippu, for instance, done by three interconnected dancers instead of one, would transform the piece. And indeed, what it would do to the dancers! I knew this was a different exploration than the kind done in at least some of the other group work that had emerged in classical dance - whether traditional dance-dramas or thematic group choreographies. I conducted similar investigations into the formats of a jatiswaram and tillana, and am now working on a varnam.

Another creative challenge surfaced when I realised that while I have always recognised the modernity within Bharatanatyam, many people see ‘modern’ and ‘classical’ as mutually exclusive. In my group work, I wanted to display the modernity that I believe inherently exists in this tradition. For this, turning towards other dance or movement vocabularies to fuse them with Bharatanatyam was neither possible, nor desirable. My challenge was to demonstrate modernity within the Bharatanatyam tradition, and not outside of it. This required a deep investigation into the Bharatanatyam technique and grammar.

One of the dangers of investigating newer ways to engage with classical dance techniques is that it sometimes requires ‘manipulations’. Its important to know that changing something that is so inherently logical and sensible like an adavu runs the risk of disrupting that logic and sensibility. The ‘manipulations’ one introduces then, must compensate for this loss by introducing something new but more importantly - organic to the form. As a group choreographer, an important challenge was to create these new innovations without compromising the existing form.

Practical challenges were equally overwhelming. I did not have a strong group of adult students whom I had had the opportunity to train over several years. I’ve only been teaching for a few years, and most of my students are children. I had to seek out dancers I had not personally trained, but had the potential to adapt well to Vyuti’s vocabulary. Not being their “guru” and sometimes working with dancers my own age or even older, some of my dancers have, on occasion, faced challenges with regard to my authority as Artistic Director, but these were quickly overcome. Keeping a steady group of permanent dancers has been a struggle because I cannot pay them enough to demand their full time commitment. This lack of permanence of dancers is partially linked to another challenge - that of funding. Without financial support from governments or cultural bodies, Vyuti has been entirely self-funded and self-built. This is not an easy task for anyone who’s primary income comes from teaching dance and performing! Juggling between teaching and managing my own solo work, along with trying to do managerial work (that included negotiating with organisers of festivals, juggling all the dancers’ schedules for rehearsals, finding rehearsal spaces and funds etc...thankfully I have an efficient and positive manager now) choreographing and dancing for Vyuti has been one of my biggest practical challenges as a young group choreographer.

But I cannot deny that choreographing group work has its creative and practical strengths too. And I came to recognise this as quickly as I did the challenges. Creatively, one of the biggest strengths I drew from group choreography was consciously building a collaborative atmosphere that allowed for some creative input from my dancers. To be able to openly and without judgement, discuss and physically engage with my ideas in a safe environment led to various unexpected moments in Vyuti that even I didn’t anticipate would enter Vyuti’s repertoire. Engaging with group work also gave me an opportunity to discover that multiple bodies offer multiple possibilities, not more than but differently from the way working with a solo body does.

Finally, leading a group made me realise that working together consistently instills a sense of family. At least that’s what happened with the dancers who haven’t come and gone, but have stayed with Vyuti - we are fiercely loyal to each other and the work, creating a sense of solidarity and togetherness that is, for obvious reasons, missing in solo work. The dancers have been invested in Vyuti, not just in terms of dancing, but in other ways - they’ve felt strongly about the concepts and ideas I’ve engaged with, the music I have used and even the way the costumes are tied. The dancers, protectively looking out for the future of Vyuti, continue to provide information, whenever they get wind of it, regarding platforms where Vyuti can get performance opportunities and visibility. It was two of my Vyuti dancers who brought my attention to this seminar and urged me to write this essay. Vyuti, in many ways, is now a collective vision - with multiple brains working on how to take it forward, instead of just one! That is an enormous strength, in my view. And one I am deeply thankful for.

To conclude, as a young choreographer, conceptualising and creating a group has had its fair share of challenges - both creatively and on a practical level. The challenges have tested me, and sometimes my patience and peace of mind. They have also strengthened me. In my view, if the group functions open-mindedly, the leader of the group and dancers have mutual respect for one another and everyone is deeply invested in the work collectively, the strengths of choreographing group work can eventually overcome the challenges.