Since the heady days of the classical arts renaissance associated with India’s independence movement, hardly anyone examined the process by which Sadir, for centuries performed by hereditary dancers in temples, courts and palatial salons, was transformed into modern-day Bharatanatyam. But increasingly, awareness is rising that the popular narrative of a 20th-century revival is riddled with missing links.
Today, it is clear that what some see as the democratisation of Bharatanatyam — and other art forms once exclusively practised by hereditary artists — has been a process of disenfranchisement of the original practitioners. From the early 20th century, thanks to the anti-nautch movement, and later, acts of Parliament abolishing temple dancing, the nattuvanars — male members of the community who traditionally sang, taught, composed and played instruments — turned to teach the daughters of Chennai’s well-heeled. Many of their protégés became star dancers. But the original stars? They disappeared, as stars are wont, when morning came and India kept its tryst with destiny.
Nrithya Pillai, a Bharatanatyam dancer from the Isai Vellalar community of hereditary artists, is steadfast in her view that Brahminical forces appropriated the art of her ancestors. “Yes, I do believe that caste and class alignments were the basis of the beginnings of what is today called the world of Bharatanatyam,” says Nrithya. “The access to Bharatanatyam to today’s mostly class and caste privileged dancers was established by the denial of access to this art form to the women of my community. It is only natural that today such alignments determine the selection processes for festivals, performances, and awards.”
Only a few individuals and organisations have offered her stages and projected her voice, says Nrithya. “One has to acknowledge that academic spaces, particularly outside India have been always aware and conscious of the problematic history of Bharatanatyam, the appropriation involved and the gross injustices instigated on the hereditary practitioners. It is only our insular, Brahminic dance world that has never acknowledged the problematic history in a manner that will make anyone dancing today uncomfortable about this form they practice.”
Recently Nrithya spoke in New Delhi under the aegis of the Foundation for Developed India. Titled “Voicing the Self: Hereditary Identity, Performance, and Politics of Bharatanatyam”, the talk was organised by young Kuchipudi exponent Abhinaya Nagajothy and Deepak Yadav as part of the Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam Memorial Lecture Series. Several young dancers present found the talk an eye-opener. “I would like to reiterate that I don’t believe in the narrative of the history of ‘revival’ of Bharatanatyam that is commonly known,” contends Nrithya, granddaughter of S.K. Rajarathnam Pillai and descended from a long line of eminent dancers and musicians.
“The transition from the courts and temples to the proscenium stage had already happened before the revivalists had taken up this art form. The Kalyani daughters had already danced at the Music Academy gathering. The hereditary community was already involved in making their artform visible and it was never inaccessible to the ones who sought to learn it. I even believe that even until the ’70s and ’80s the nuances of the hereditary community were quite strong in the dance form. The earlier Kalakshetra style — the dancing of Rukmini Devi and Radha Burnier do not look anything like the linear geometry that is proposed to be the Kalakshetra style today.”
The contribution of Rukmini Devi Arundale, founder of Kalakshetra, the first institution to teach Bharatanatyam, and the first Brahmin woman to dance it publicly, is hailed for having given aesthetic direction to modern-day Bharatanatyam and established it unquestionably as a spiritually evolved art. However, the wave she began also had other, negative, effects for the hereditary practitioners.
Kuchipudi exponent Yashoda Thakore, who belongs to the kalavantulu community of the Andhra region, elaborates, “What happened during the reinvention of the art form was, when Rukmini Devi and others began to reinvent it, they took the music from the Carnatic musicians, and the complicated tala system. Now I’ll be a little blatant. The virtuosity of these women could never be replicated on the bodies of girls who were not from the hereditary families. Simply because they were not invested in it 24/7. These ladies were invested in it 24/7 and for generations. The virtuosity is totally different. Especially in the coastal Andhra region, the abhinaya is something nobody can replicate. Even she cannot replicate the abhinaya she has done once. So when this virtuosity could not be transported on the bodies of the upper-class girls, the next best way to gain visibility and acceptance was to make it complicated. [Also] the music was kind of standardised by the Music Academy and other academies that had come up at that time. And the trikaala jatis came in, which were never there. Yes, the pancha nadai were there but not the trikaala jatis to this extent, with such cross rhythmic patterns. This is something they didn’t grow up with. And once it got visibility, these women looked at it and said oh okay, maybe this is quality and to be accepted, and they just retracted, shrank and went away. In this whole process of bringing another tradition and superimposing it on this, you have actually done away with the women of the community. That is the problem. It is not about Brahmins not encouraging hereditary women. They took the repertoire from the women and they applied these techniques which are far removed.”
Yashoda, also an author and researcher, points to other factors. “If you’re asking them to dance for two hours at a stretch — first of all, these women, by the time of the nationalist period, did not have the nutrition or fitness they had when they were in the courts of the Nayak kings. And you give them leaps and jumps and lifting of the legs, and say for this stage, this is what has to be performed, and they would not wear anything but the sari — that is something they could not do. So when they could not, they relinquished their art. This is the appropriation by the upper castes.” Besides, Yashoda enumerates countless compositions and presentation styles no longer performed either due to neglect, lack of expertise or the disapproval of revivalists for their erotic content.
Many in Yashoda’s community want to disconnect from their artistic past. The caste name Suryabalija is preferred to kalavantulu so as not to “reflect anything to do with art,” says Yashoda, citing it as “another case of running away from the facts.”
The clock cannot be turned back. However, Nrithya says, “I want an acknowledgement of the actual history of Bharatanatyam and to spread awareness of continuing appropriations of ‘devadasi dance’. When the caste- and community-based stigma predominantly affects the women from the hereditary community and we cope using different strategies (most refuse to talk about their caste identities despite a hoary past with wonderful artists as their fore-mothers and forefathers; some become very aspirational in their Brahminic behaviour, trying to fit in), the privilege of upper caste-class women to claim to have recreated and reconstructed devadasi forms claiming authenticity and historicity. I would like us all to introspect if really the art form has been ‘democratised’. This art was a livelihood for my ancestors, it always remained one for even the nattuvanars who taught upper caste/class women. Is it a livelihood to today’s practitioners? Where are the dancers from varied lower caste backgrounds who have made it in the world of Bharatanatyam? Is there really meritocracy and equity in all of this?”
Today, as India churns, and the millennial generation across disciplines upturns accepted belief systems that have formed the foundations of the country for seven decades, the dance world as a whole has to search for answers to these questions.