Beneath our dancing feet

Justin McCarthy | Updated on March 12, 2018

To argue that something is not right with Bharatanatyam today is to step dangerously out of the fold.

To argue that something is not right with Bharatanatyam today is to step dangerously out of the fold.

Practicing Bharatanatyam in India today means negotiating a dance form with a sensitive past and a problematic present. It means addressing history and navigating identities of class and sexuality.

Devadasis were hereditary female performers who for centuries practiced an earlier form of what we now call Bharatanatyam. They lived in South India in regions of modern-day Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, and danced in performance situations ranging from temple worship and religious festivals to royal courts and salons of wealthy patrons. That the devadasi's dance was appropriated, refashioned and rechristened Bharatanatyam in the early twentieth century is, by now, a well-established fact. Yet the usual explanation that the dancers had fallen into disrepute (that is, prostitution), and that the dance needed to be rescued and restored to its former exalted spirituality is a glib glossing over of a much more complex history of social and artistic practices.

The marginalisation of the devadasi happened at different concurrent levels. On the legal front, there was a sustained battle to outlaw dance in temples as well as the dedication of dancers to temples. This culminated in the Anti-Devadasi Act of 1947. About the same time, in the world of the arts, an elite social group with “modern” educational skills spearheaded a dance “revival.” During this process, the male members of the devadasi community, traditionally dance teachers and musicians, were sought after for their knowledge, while the morally stigmatised female dancers became less and less visible. The old, almost taboo, dance was taught mostly by its male custodians to women from “respectable society.” These women, in turn, transformed the visual aspect and the textual content of the dance to suit new perceived cultural needs. While the devadasi all but disappeared, her male counterpart survived as “guru” to generations of dancers well into the second half of the 20th century.

It is imperative for today's practitioners of Bharatanatyam to recognise the disenfranchisement of the dancing girl. In fact, the neglect meted out to this phase in dance history prevents Bharatanatyam from having a healthy, self-renewing dialogue with itself.

The kalakshetra style

But what about dance as a kinetic entity? Before and during the gradual impoverishment of royal powers under colonial rule, the dance of the devadasis would certainly have been less standardised than the Bharatanatyam of today. Though ostensibly more uniform, there did exist within Bharatanatyam itself a number of distinct stylistic schools well into the turn of the 20th century.

Among them, the Kalakshetra style was the most strikingly different Pioneered by Rukmini Devi Arundale, this style takes its name from the school she founded in Chennai (then Madras) in 1936.

The Kalakshetra style is testimony to the wide range of influences to which Arundale was open. In addition to the many traditions of South Indian arts, there were other cultural and philosophical streams that arguably contributed to her dance vision: the struggles for a national as well as a female identity in pre-Independence India, theosophy, vegetarianism, a host of Back-to-Nature movements from Thoreau onwards, and European ballet.

Contrary to most sculpted, painted or photographed evidence , where Indian dancers are depicted in less taut poses, the Kalakshetra dancer is relentlessly Cartesian. In the dance-dramas, the court scenes, nature scenes, and corps de ballet are difficult to disassociate from their counterparts in many well-known nineteenth century European ballets.

The expressive aspect is a stylised sign language that could only have evolved in a culture where people naturally employ a variety of gestures in everyday conversation. Expressive gesture in Kalakshetra is directly linked to Arundale's search for songs, lyrics and texts (both South as well as pan-Indian) which eschewed what she perceived as decadent and espoused what she felt was spiritually uplifting. This was a selective process mirrored in gestures often modified to prevent any erotic connotation.

The Kalakshetra style, often contested well up to until the 1980s, was criticised by its detractors as being stiff in execution and bereft of the amorous element previously so strongly associated with the dance. In the past 20 years, with the passing of the old guard, boundaries have blurred. Many dancers from other stylistic lineages now work with Kalakshetra alumni to improve their grasp over movement. That leaves us today with an undeniably sound and more uniform technique. Yet, regrettably, as a result, many beautiful features of other styles which, with their less formal approach, were probably closer approximations of the devadasi's dance, are seriously on the decline.

In expressional dance, Kalakshetra has not held as much sway. In other styles, even though the morals of the dancing girl were denounced and the depravity of her art decried, the sensual aspect of the dance was partially preserved in stage performances, albeit somewhat out of context. A stylistic school represented by Kalanidhi Narayanan (also in Chennai) started influencing Bharatanatyam dancers in the 1980s and has been gaining ground ever since. Narayanan and her disciples are undeniably the most visible face of Bharatanatyam expression today. And, paradoxically enough, this style, emphatically emphasising the titillating aspect of sensual love, is now being taught in Kalakshetra.

And, where does one begin with audiences who are rarely interested in confronting this history and are content to equate dance with nebulous concepts of spiritualism, “goodness,” and tradition? The very image of a Bharatanatyam dancer is synonymous with high culture, our ticket to respectability on the world stage. It also evokes “values,” that misty realm where “achievement,” “eligibility” and “propriety” – all presumably magic keys to social acceptance – stand alluringly. To argue that something is not right with Bharatanatyam today is to step dangerously out of the fold. And once out, there quite simply are no takers. Spectators, performers and dance students have too much at stake. They have invested in a system which works well for all concerned. Those who see through the sham, even intuitively, are, quite frankly, not interested. We have an important story of art and community lying beneath our very dancing feet.

The author is a musician, dancer, and choreographer. He has headed the department of Bharatanatyam at the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, New Delhi, for the past two decades. He can be reached at >justin.mccarthy13@gmail.com.

This article is by special arrangement with the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.

Published on April 24, 2012

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