An Odissi performance at JNU raises questions about upper-caste cultural appropriation

When Krittika Mondal began her Odissi rendition on 21 September, she consciously skipped one element conventionally considered integral to the performance. Although Mondal paid obeisance to the earth, the audience and her teacher, she did not pay obeisance to any Hindu deity. Conventionally, dancers bow to the elephant god Ganesh or the deity Jagannath at the beginning of a performance. This deliberate omission set the tone for an expression of art that questioned upper-caste cultural appropriation.

Mondal’s performance was held at an auditorium at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi. Through the medium of Odissi, she narrated the attagathas — a collection of eight verses that chronicle the Buddha’s victories over various vices, such as deceit, pompousness and arrogance. These verses seek to depict the causes of suffering in people’s lives and ways in which people can overcome this suffering — a key tenet of Buddhism. The performance was a part of the Dhammachakka Anupavattan Day celebration at JNU, which commemorates the day when both Dr BR Ambedkar and king Ashoka accepted Buddhism.

“I have not essentially tried to change the language of the dance form in any way. For example, I depicted concepts like an ‘elephant’ or ‘truth’ in the same way as they are supposed to be. However, I steered clear of references to Hindu mythology,” Mondal said.

 An Odissi performance at JNU raises questions about upper-caste cultural appropriation

Krittika Mondal's Odissi performance at JNU

While Mondal seeks to explore the roots of Odissi outside Hindu culture, her viewpoint is sharply at variance with the prevailing narrative. For instance, an article by the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training (CCRT) — an autonomous organisation under the aegis of the Culture Ministry — points to the Odhra Magadha. This dance form finds a mention in the Natya Shastra, and is said to be the precursor to modern-day Odissi. According to the article, the dance form was for centuries practiced by the maharis, who were originally temple dancers. Later, the maharis were said to have been employed in the royal courts, resulting in the degeneration of the art form. At that time, a group of boys called gotipuas were trained in the art form, and the gotipuas danced in temples. Later, this dance form is said to have developed into what is now known as Odissi.

However, Mondal, who is pursuing her M Phil and PhD research on this topic at JNU, asserts that Odissi does not trace its origin to the maharis, but to the gotipuas. “The maharis were essentially singers and not dancers. At times, they used minimal hand gestures to depict the themes they sang about. For instance, they would strike a pose similar to holding a flute to depict Krishna. There are written records which prove that the maharis and gotipuas existed together. However, mainstream culture was not ready to accept that poor pre-pubescent boys trans-dressing as women were at the origin of Odissi, as the dance form is associated with romanticism and sensuality.”

Odissi is widely recognised to have its roots in the Jagannath tradition of eastern India. The Jagannath cult, as Mondal points out, is not a homogenous Hindu tradition, but has influences of Buddhism, Jainism and even East Asian countries. The Jagannath idol is widely believed to have been influenced by tribal culture, because of the use of wood and because of the carving of stumps instead of hands. Mondal cites this as further evidence pointing to Odissi’s roots outside of Hinduism.

Debi Basu, Mondal’s teacher, differs in her view about the origins of the dance form. “Odissi definitely traces its origin to the maharis or the temple. This can be borne out by the fact that there are numerous temple carvings of women dancers, indicating the presence of such a tradition. While the gotipua boys continued the tradition of dancing in temples, the practice did not originate with them. At the same time, one must remember that Odissi is an art form and cannot, as such, be said to be a part of any one religion.”

However, several research studies have pointed to the caste politics surrounding classical arts. For instance, a paper published by the University of Chicago points out that the Natya Veda, considered the fifth Veda, had no caste or gender barriers. Kathak traces its origin to this text. However, according to the paper, the Brahmin community later claimed that as dance is a form of worshipping God, they had the supreme say in these matters. Further, the community introduced the concept of the devdasi, a woman who would dedicate her entire life to the temple. These women were not allowed to marry, or have any sort of physical relationship. The paper termed these restrictions a ‘power game’ put in place to maintain caste hierarchies.

Shailesh Darokar, the chairperson of the Centre for Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, said, “In earlier times, there was a great amount of intermixing of cultures, due to which it is not possible to specifically say whether a particular art form had its roots in Hinduism or not. However, one can say that to a large extent, the history of India is the history of the struggle between Hindu and Buddhist cultures. In recent history, there has been a trend of co-opting diverse traditions within the Hindu fold.”

Mondal’s performance on 21 September sought to challenge precisely this co-option. However, she admits, there is a long way to go before such concepts are accepted in the mainstream.

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Updated Date: Oct 07, 2017 12:14:20 IST