At a time of nationwide protests, India's classical artists are missing a culture of dissent, and this needs fixing

  • With the exception of a countable number of dancers, the classical dance field has been resoundingly silent about the events unfolding across the country.

  • This absent culture of dissent is not a new feature in the field, given that the relationship of classical dancers with the society is heavily mediated by the state’s cultural machinery.

  • This relationship of classical dance with the state has for long ensured production of a pro-state discourse around dance, and when the same state begins to lean into extremism, its cultural machinery immediately embodies it.

With an interest in generating accessible writings that makes the connection between the larger social and political landscape of the country and its performing arts more evident, this monthly column is an attempt to un-bracket the dance discourse from its contained category of “Arts for Art's sake”. Read more from the series here.

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As the country quaked with the footfalls of citizen protests over the last few weeks, a great number of classical dancers and dance enthusiasts gathered everyday in Chennai for a totally different reason — to celebrate the dance season of the year, the Margazhi. With the exception of countable (on fingers) number of dancers, the classical dance field has been resoundingly silent about the events unfolding across the country. This absent culture of dissent is not a new feature in the field, given that the relationship of classical dancers with the society is heavily mediated by the state’s cultural machinery. Most prominent public engagements of classical dancers are state-organised platforms, such as state-sponsored cultural festivals and programs on Doordarshan. The trope of a classical dancer is monetised maximally by state tourism, with images of a classical dancer having become a common trope on tourist brochures. A classical dancer’s career too is known to peak when she receives a state award, or is validated as a Doordarshan-graded dancer. This relationship of classical dance with the state has for long ensured production of a pro-state discourse around dance, and when the same state begins to lean into extremism, its cultural machinery immediately embodies it. Therefore, while modern history of theatre in India can boast of a thriving culture of dissent, one can’t say the same about the modern history of classical dance.

Anuradha Venkatraman, a Bengaluru-based Bharatanatyam dancer who has come out with a series of dance videos to register her protest against NRC, NPR and CAA, says: “As classical dancers, we think the state serves as our patron, and hence, there is always this fear of losing out on patronage, because of which we probably tend to be very non-confrontational.” However, though classical dancers appear to serve the nation as cultural ambassadors, it is crucial to recognise that the state also vests power in a classical dancer.

 At a time of nationwide protests, Indias classical artists are missing a culture of dissent, and this needs fixing

Illustration by Veena Basavarajaiah

Masoom Parmar, a Bharatanatyam dancer and an art curator based in Bengaluru, identifies “classical dance as a part of the state’s soft power,” and therefore, he believes that as classical dancers, they must "have a stake in state politics”. As cultural ambassadors, classical dancers enjoy the privilege of cultural capital, and "have a chance to be supporters or critics — an opportunity that needs to be used wisely”, he says.

Dwelling on why classical dancers must be involved in state politics and register their protest against policies like the NRC, NPR, and CAA, Ranjana Dave — an Odissi dancer and dance-writer based in Delhi —says, “Odissi prides itself on Salabega [a 17th century Odia devotional poet]. It makes much of the great devotion Salabega has for Jagannatha, despite him being Muslim and being a leper. Classical dance is partial to narratives of disenfranchised devotees, be it Salabega or Nandanar, who fight all odds to worship their beloved deities. They are the ultimate devotees. Remember that in a post-NRC-and-CAA world, Salabega, — a poor, sick and Muslim (man), is likely to be declared a foreigner, and locked away in a detention camp, and won't have the opportunity to sing at the doors of the Puri temple. Then, we will not have an 'Ahe nila saila'. Siva will not appear to Nandanar, with Nandi disappearing from the path, because Nandanar would have lost his trial at the Foreigners Tribunal, ending up in a detention camp. We would not have the work of most Bhakti poets, like Chokhamela, Kabir, Janabai or Lalded, because a post CAA-NRC world would not recognise their right to participate in particular cultures.”

The weak culture of dissent, however, might not be limited to how dancers perceive their relationship with the state alone, but is also associated with any figure of authority. As Venkatraman says, “The entire ecosystem (of classical dance) is based on this idea of tradition and the guru-shishya parampara, where dissent is considered disrespectful. We need to break this.”

Veena Basavarajaiah — a dancer who runs an Instagram page called 'cartoon_natyam' to draw attention to critical issues in classical dance — observes that “most artists' questions or explorations remain in the realm of aesthetics, spirituality or philosophy, and seldom venture into the areas of politics, economics or history." She adds: "I feel critical thinking is neither part of the training, teaching, nor the performance, and that could be a reason for not realising that artists have agency and a voice.” Elaborating on this, Masoom says, “I have been told time and again by a lot of co-artists and seniors that the only purpose of classical dance is to transcend the physical and unite with the divine/spiritual. But given the history of appropriation, I think we can definitely make space for using classical dance for dissent.”

"Lado padhai karne ko, padho samaaj badalne ko," a Jamia student recently quoted their college slogan on an NDTV interview with Ravish Kumar. The people of the country were woken up to a revolution by students of public universities, because they identify with an education that trains them to recognise their rights, and build their own politics. Like in classical dance, the social structure of academics is also hierarchical, but training in classical dance actively normalises, and even celebrates hierarchy. One finds no organised student bodies that discuss and stand up for the issues plaguing the field today. As societies from across the world are leaning on their young students for leading the fight for a better tomorrow, there might be no better moment than now for the classical dances to reflect on what an education in classical dance is truly meant to serve.

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Updated Date: Jan 17, 2020 11:18:34 IST