Last month, more than 450 artists, scholars and writers from around the world added their voices to a debate raging over the review of a dance festival held in Chennai in December.
The statement condemned a section of critic Leela Venkataram’s review relating to the performance of Nritya Pillai, a dancer from the hereditary performer caste, for what they claimed was its “implicit and overt casteism”.
The review on a website called Nartaki “it’s not just a difference in aesthetic taste; appeared to be an attempt to delegitimize, denigrate, dismiss, undermine and defame Nrithya,” said the group, which called itself Scholars for Social Justice.
This controversy is just the latest episode to shed light on the ills of the Indian classical dance and music world. The issues are multi-layered, from a history of appropriation of forms traditionally practiced by members of lower castes and hereditary performers, to an ideological basis in Brahminical and nationalist ideology.
Although some classical dance forms are more exclusionary than others, the common thread of Brahminism and middle-class appropriation carries the label of ‘classical’. Over the years, the connection becomes more and more apparent. The ‘classical’ category in Indian dance and music marks processes and discourses that render meaningless and disenfranchise those from the marginal.
Reworking the narrative
In her review (which has since been revised), Venkataram spoke of Pillay’s “openly expressed resentment of the ‘appropriation’ of upper caste and what she felt was a ‘historical misrepresentation’ in not giving due credit to the hereditary temple dancers “. The review had excoriated Pillay for not adhering to the aesthetic model of bharatnatyam, showing “little respect for the accentuating geometry of the form”. He also advised Pillai to stop “spewing anger and bitterness and develop a healthier attitude”.
Over the past few years, Pillai has been active in reclaiming the heritage form of dance aesthetics and practice through her writing, lectures and dance practices and discussion of the pervasive casteism in Indian classical dance. Although Pillai’s concern is largely with Bharatanatyam, caste hegemony exists in classical dance and music in India, including Kathak, Odissi and Carnatic music. Even Hindustani music, with its historical presence of hereditary Muslim performers, has long faced vigorous efforts to “reclaim” music from Muslims.
Pillai’s position was reiterated in an article titled “Reordering the bharatanatyam narrative” in Economic and Political Weekly last year. “Bharatanatyam is imbued with a deeply emotional and somatic form of Brahminism,” she asserts. “Its aesthetics – which today include the chanting of Vedic and Puranic mantras and stotras, spectacular performances of Hindu myths through so-called ‘dance dramas’, coupled with the largely upper-caste sociology of its practice – also make it deeply attractive to non- elite masses.”
The Scholars for Social Justice statement expressed support for Pillai’s positions. “Like many from marginalized communities, Nrithya is rightly calling for justice and accountability,” it said. “But the Brahmin power structures continue to try to silence her voice because she poses a threat to the existing social order.”
Although this essay focuses on debates in the world of bharatanatyam, the issues I have highlighted apply to all classical forms of Indian dance and music. Consequently, for a true democratization of Indian art and culture, it seems to me that there is only one solution: the idea of the ‘classical’ in India must be declared dead – though the death will be symbolic.
Progressive and anti-caste artists, scholars and activists should campaign for the removal of these traditional categories of dance and music from official state lists. For the purposes of justice, all these forms must be stripped of their position as accumulated cultural capital and dethroned from their place at the top of the cultural hierarchy.
The ‘classical’ or ‘shastriya’ forms have different meanings. In the context of architecture and painting, this label refers to an artistic style. It is sometimes used simply as a point of reference and performative claims in which the shastras refer to the authority of the texts, their order timeless, immutable and fixed.
These shastras are treated as canonical texts and are supposed to offer a codified grammar of performance. In order to gain legitimacy, several artists and communities attempted to codify their dance and music in the language of the ‘classics’. For Indian classical dance, for example, Natyashastra it is usually invoked as such text.
Classical dance and music are based on two larger claims: that these arts are timeless and that they require specific rigor and skill. Both are myth. If it is about refined style, skill and rigor, then many folk and public performances also have the elements of the “classic”.
“Classic” here is more of a rhetorical statement than a reflection of thoroughness or technical prowess. “Classical” belongs to the upper classes and upper castes. While classical dancers, for example, claim to embody dance, the very meaning of the term implies rationalization and scientific control over impulse and emotion.
The erasure of the erotic and the aestheticization of the body in classical dance is not unexpected – it is part of the interweaving of Indian nationalism and culture and the transformation of middle-class women as their emblems. In the process of constructing an ideal of femininity and national identity, upper-caste Indian nationalists appropriated the courtesan dance and purified it. As Pillai notes, the form was “grafted” onto the bodies of upper-caste women.
Scholars note that during the nationalist period, various regional forms were introduced under the umbrella of classical Indian dance by revivalists. Much of what we say about classical dance and music today is built on erasing the aesthetic and cultural practices of indigenous communities.
When classical dance and music are considered the quintessential art and culture of India on national and global platforms, it is pertinent to question the history and genealogy of the forms, which are based on a heritage appropriated by various sections of society.
Over the years, savarnas have increasingly consolidated their presence in almost all spheres of classical dance and music, from bharatnatyam, Odissi and kuchipudi to Carnatic and Hindustani music. As many performers from lower castes and minority communities point out, they are systematically denied access to classical dance spaces.
The end of the idea of ’classical’ would be an emancipatory moment for Indian dance and music.
Am I proposing a ban on these forms? Not exactly. What I propose is the end of labels based on hierarchies so that other forms of dance and music can also flourish. As long as the status of “classical” is maintained, so-called folk dances and other forms will remain marginalized. These hierarchical categories based on the ideals of upper caste must be dismantled and treated on the same level as other forms.
The social theorist Antonio Gramsci wrote in his Prison notebooks, “If a priest becomes a canon in a family, ‘manual work’ immediately becomes a disgrace to the whole clan.” Artists from marginalized backgrounds have suffered the most from such labeling. In declaring the death of the “classical,” what we want to end is art and culture based on a sense of an elite priesthood.
Compared to other artistic practices such as theatre, literature, cinema and painting, Indian classical dance and music uphold the most conservative attitudes. Instead of classical Indian dance, for example, being a vehicle for free expression of the body, it creates many obstacles to the expression of the body and emotions. Instead of facilitating the spirit of dance, it aims to create a virtuoso body, negating the weight of the body.
The dance becomes flat in emotion and the dancers look like the flying steeds of the great Indra, with the increasing use of copper light. But the dance is represented as eternal as the flying horses, springing directly from the agitation of the sea.
While the ‘classical’ heritage of bharatanatyam still carries the strong craft of a repertoire of dance forms that exist under various names including sadir attam, dasi attam, kachcheri, melam and bharatanatyam, the heritage dance form appropriated and rediscovered by revivalists around the 1930s years of the last century, the extreme classicization of the form has stifled the real emotion and abilities of the dancing body. Unsurprisingly, whatever new works we see come from breaking classification, even when the body is trained in bharatnatyam.
For a new emancipatory dance to emerge, bharatnatyam in classical form must die. A generation of contemporary dancers should emerge from bharatnatyam training. Breaks with heritage dance forms in the past marked the birth of bharatnatyam and breaks will have to mark bharatnatyam’s departure. These new dancers and scientists will have to do navel cutting.
At this point one may ask, should we give up Bharatnatyam? “Should we throw the baby out with the bathwater?” It is worth remembering the abandoned mothers because pre-Independence revivalists were not interested in mothers, only in the child. Bharatnatyam heralded the symbolic death of heritage dance forms by appropriating its craft and giving it a new name. This amounts to cutting a genealogy that belongs to the other castes.
But how do we bring dance back to embody a new politics and culture? While the question of heritage dance may be a good starting point, one is not sure how much can be claimed for it as it carries its problematic legacies. Hereditary dance forms were also part of the caste service economy and the feudal patronage system. Although some legacy performers were undoubtedly powerful, they were not. Therefore, the claim to tradition must also come with the rupture of tradition.
To change the dance discourse in India, we need to de-centre the very notion of dance: what is dance and what is not dance? Despite the fact that entire Adivasi communities dance on all significant occasions, they are not considered dancers. Unless one is trained in Indian classical and semi-classical dances, one will not be considered a dancer.
The problem is that Indian classical dance has become the model for dance in general in India. So before we break down this notion of dance, we need to revisit the idea of beauty, gesture, posture and movement. The aesthetic standards of dance revolve around line and geometry and assert that dance is gravity, centering the body to create perfect balance.
De-centering the dance would involve democratizing the movement itself so that a new practice could be created – reduced to its simplest form, as articulated in Oraon’s belief that “ekna dim tokna, baa’na dim parna,” that walking is dancing and talking is singing.
Beyond a narrow conception of dance, we must position it as an idea of freedom, a metaphor for thought, an expression through which the body is situated in the space for a new ordering of both body and politics. Indian dance needs to regain its lost ground and keep pace with wider socio-political as well as aesthetic movements.
Brahma Prakash is a cultural theorist and Assistant Professor of Theater and Performance at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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