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.