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

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