Monday, February 28, 2011

The historical importance of Bharatanatyam and its name

When Bharatanatyam is learnt, many dancers eventually see themselves as carriers of an ancient tradition that has been preserved by dancers for generations and believe it to be their duty to pass it on in its pristine form to the future generation of dancers. In the realm of dance education, there is merely a mention of 'devadasis', and this mention often leads to a restricted knowledge that devadasis were temple dancers who performed many years ago. It is also widely known (its even mentioned on Wikipedia) that scholars like E. Krishna Iyer and dancers like Rukmini Devi Arundale saved the dance by teaching it to the upper classes after its reputation had fallen along with the falling reputation of the devadasis. 

In a dance class, theory is not given as much importance as practice. Moreover, theory to do with dance usually comprises of discussions on the sanskritic texts on dance and drama, regarding the philosophies behind the several sanskritic traditions surrounding dance, or attributes of an ideal dancer - the geometry and symmetry of a dancer's face and body. Some dancers are privileged to have been taught in detail about the ashtanayikas and the navarasas. The knowledge passed on, therefore, is theoretical in the sense that it is a study of some of the ancient texts that refer to dance and drama. Of course, these are important for enriching any dancer's knowledge about Bharatanatyam. But the knowledge about Bharatanatyam cannot be nearly close to wholesome if its history is not taught, if dancers are not made aware of the socio-political surroundings in which the dance has survived over the centuries.

As I entered my twenties, I found words like 'devadasi', 'sadir', 'dasi attam', 'revival', 'colonialism', 'elite', 'nationalism' and 'middle class' splattered across the pages that I religiously read. Through academic papers written by Janet O'Shea, Avanti Meduri, Chandralekha, Matthew Harp Allen, Anne-Marie Gaston and so on, I understood better, the turbulent side to the history of Bharatanatyam that hadn't been taught to me as an integral part of my dance education. I understood more deeply, the changes that the dance form underwent in content and style, and the implications of caste and class on Bharatanatyam. Moreover, I read that the name itself was a revivalist ploy to re-invent the dance to suit a post-colonial, nationalist middle-class.

My master's thesis was a result of all that reading and research. In many ways, my thesis became a starting point to publicly and academically articulate my questions and concerns about dance and the systems in place within it. And in a wider sense, it helped to deepen my understanding about classical forms of all kinds in India.

Recently, I was reading an article by P. Ragaviah Charry (Bharatanatyam: A Reader, Oxford University Press, 2010). His article about the devadasis was written in 1806. Curiously, I found the term 'Bharata Nateya' in it. This shook my recently consolidated belief that 'Sadir' was renamed Bharatanatyam during the early 1900s in order to transform the devadasi dance form into a nationalist dance for the middle classes to be able to take pride in. While most of my research did not contradict his article - the other issues I'd highlighted regarding caste, class, the guru-shishya parampara, and the conflict that I believed arose from the spatial shift from temple to theatre - were still valid. But this one error in my thesis regarding the name was bothersome.

I have not yet been able to resolve this.

There are arguably plausible stories about the name 'Bharatanatyam' originating from bhava (Bha), raga (ra), and talam (ta), but as far as I know, only speculation backs this theory. Other scholars have argued that the dance form was named after 'Bharatamuni', the author of the Natyashashtra, although Richard Schrechner has implied that Bharatamuni himself was myth, 'most likely a pseudonym for a collective oral tradition' (Schrechner, Richard. Rasaaesthetics. The Drama Review, 1988, Vol. 45, No.3) while others have questioned why, despite the existence of several other dance forms of equal richness and value, only this form was bestowed the honour of being named after the author of the Natyashashtra. These are pertinent enough points to question the foundations of these speculations and even fuels the theory about the creation of a 'national dance' in post-colonial India. Yet, Charry's article seems to prove that Bharatanatyam was not a name invented in the post-colonial nationalist era.

So, when did the name change? Arguably this is not a very important query, but I think it is an important question to ask precisely because of the proven monumental role that the socio-political atmosphere has played in changing the style, form and content of the dance form. Given that, it might be worth exploring this question. There must be a distinctive and illuminating reason for why the name was changed when it was. Under what circumstances it was changed, and by whom, will certainly shed light on the reasons for the change in name, and its implications on the dance form itself. I hope to find the answer(s) to this question, because I really believe that it will help in the understanding of Bharatanatyam's past, and therefore its present and future.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

More or Less

Amongst the many dilemmas an artist faces today, is yet another one - regarding how many performances to accept in a month. My personal predicament came when I was suddenly bombarded with performances, and found myself hesitating. Was I mad to even consider turning down a performance within a week? Just because I had another one coming up that I had committed to a few months ago? But then again, I was thinking about this next performance, and how the rehearsals for the performance I eventually turned down would eat into rehearsal time for the next one. Luckily that performance didn't work out for the organisers as well. So I didn't have to worry. 

Worry? I know some would say that is being arrogant. Worry about too many performances? Who did I think I was? How could I even dare to enter the league where I had too many performances to handle?

But I don't think I really care about all that. I want to perform, as often as I can. Often enough to stay afloat. BUT not so often that I'm doing a lot of performances badly. I'd rather do fewer performances well.

It is a complex issue, really. Because less performances means less income, less livelihood, less exposure. But is income all there is to performing? Is a lot of bad exposure better than a little good exposure?

I've had my experiences with that, to be honest. Performing prematurely, without enough training - I did that once with Kalaripayattu, and regret it. I will only perform it ever again once I've trained further, and deeper, in it. That's really ok for me. I perform it less, but I'll understand it better. So that when I do perform it again, I won't be injured, I won't feel like I did it in a rush, or that I did it merely for exposure, experience and to sustain a livelihood. Don't get me wrong. These things are important in today's world. Enough of my writing has testified to this fact. But I don't think I ever want to do it at the cost of quality and hard work.

I think the point I'm trying to highlight here, the conclusion that I have come to, is that sometimes less is more, because you gain more from less performances if you spend that non-performance time working hard towards the fewer times you do get to perform.

Essentially..perhaps less is more, because sometimes you gain more from less than you do from more.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Interdependent Artists of India

'Pratyayin' is a community that I'm quite excited about. I thought up this little community in 2010 after attending a conference on global interdependence in Berlin that talked about social, political, economic and cultural interdependence between the nations of the world. I began to think about how wonderful it would be to have an interdependent community of dancers. But it soon became clear to me that the community couldn't and shouldn't exclude other disciplines within art. The whole idea of this community, in my mind, was about inclusion. The intention was to build a strong collaborative community of artists who are excited by the idea of creating new and different works of art through the exchange of ideas and through collaborations, and who are keen on breaking boundaries, demolishing dichotomies and standing up to those who resist change and progress in the arts. With some enthusiasm and encouragement from fellow artists and friends, my interdependent community is becoming a reality. 

The community started out very small but it is growing. So far on board are - 

Abantee Dutta, Dancer/Researcher, Gati, New Delhi
Abhik B, Founder, 'Dear Imagination', Bombay
Abhishek Singh, Musician, Ranchi
Ananth Menon, Musician (Galeej Gurus/Parachute XVI), Bangalore
Anirudh Voleti, Artist Manager/Booking Agent/Tour Manager, New Delhi
Anupam Roy, Music Production (Grey Studios), New Delhi
Anusha Lall, Dancer/Founder, Gati Forum Trust, New Delhi
Aranyani Bhargav, Dancer (Bharatanatyam/Contemporary), New Delhi/Bangalore
Archana Kathpalia, Dhindora (PR Agency), Bangalore
Ashwini Bhat, Potter/Sculptor, Pondicherry
Avinash Subramaniam, Writer, Madras
Bina Shah, Architect, Bombay
Bertha Bermudez, Dancer (Contemporary), Amsterdam
Binoy Joseph, Creative Director, Radio City, Bangalore
Dhritiman Deb Pillai, Designer (Ek Saat Studio), New Delhi
Diya Sen, Dancer (Odissi), New Delhi
Ganesh Krishnaswamy, Musician (Parachute XVI/ Bevar Sea), Bangalore
Gurudarshan Somayaji, Drummer, Live Music Consultant, Bangalore
Hari Adivarekar, Photographer, Bangalore
Himani Khurana, Dancer/Choreographer, New Delhi
Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, Writer/ Musician (Bevar Sea), Bangalore
Jayashree Singh, Musician (Skinny Alley/PINKNOISE), Calcutta
Karthik Basker, Musician (The Bicycle Days), Bangalore
Mandakini Menon, Filmmaker/Illustrator, New Delhi/Bombay
Manish Pole, Director, Total Yoga, Pune
Manola Gayatri Kumaraswamy, Dancer (Contemporary/Odissi), Bangalore
Matthew Harris, Musician (Galeej Gurus), Bangalore
Mehneer Sudan, Dancer (Contemporary), Bombay/New Delhi
Mili Nair, Singer, Madras
Namrta Dhar, Theatre Actor/Playwright/Director, Bangalore
Nidhi Mariam Jacob, Artist/Painter/Graphic designer, Bangalore
Parikshit Rao, Photographer, Bombay
Pratik Prabhakar, Artist (Contemporary Mithila Art), Madhubani
Radha Pandey, Designer and Book Binder, New Delhi
Ranjana Dave, Dancer (Odissi), Bombay
Samira Gupta, Desginer Ek Saat Studio), New Delhi
Sandeep Rajan, Writer/Film maker, Madras
Sandeep Srivastav, Indus Live Arts/Musician (Green Ragas), New Delhi
Soraya Franco, Artistic Dancer/ Dance Therapist, New Delhi
Srikanth Panaman, Musician (Bevar Sea), Bangalore
Sujith Shanker, Theatre Actor, National School of Drama, New Delhi
Sunil Baindur, Graphic Designer/Painter, Bangalore
Tarit Pal, Musician, New Delhi
Thermal and a Quarter (Band), Bangalore
Viven Batavia, Performing Arts Photographer, Bangalore
Yashaswini Raghunathan, Film maker, Bangalore
Yasmin Sethi, Product Designer, New Delhi

I just wanted to splash out this bit of information onto my blog in case anyone wants to be involved in 'Pratyayin' either as a participant in collaborations, or by supporting our projects through funding. I can say more and more safely each day, that it'll be an exciting venture! :)

Get Involved!