Classical dance and appropriation: How to think about a field whose foundations rest on cultural violence

  • Consider the following thought experiment: what if the law to abolish the Devadasi system was never passed?

  • Or what if the hereditary tradition of Sadir had never been seemingly reformed into Bharatanatyam and taken up by the upper caste?

  • Mulling on this historical counterfactual opens up a remarkable social possibility.

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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Consider the following thought experiment — what if the law to abolish the Devadasi system was never passed? Or what if the hereditary tradition of Sadir* had never been “reformed” into Bharatanatyam and taken up by the upper caste? Mulling on this historical counterfactual opens up a remarkable social possibility: If the above were true, perhaps not only would the Devadasis still be dancing in large numbers but also I, an upper caste student of classical dance, would most likely not be practicing dance.

As a student of classical dance, to know that my access to learning and practicing dance is a direct consequence of the hereditary artists (the art form was passed matrilineally) losing their right over the same is crucial — it shapes how I respond to this past. Given that classical dance entered the upper caste communities through the process of appropriation (first by denying the hereditary dancers their right to perform, then adopting the same dance tradition while continuing to deny them the right to perform) it might seem rather obvious that the present day classical dancers should be aware and respond to this past that they continue to benefit from. The reality however couldn’t be further away from this.

A typical education in classical dance passes down a whitewashed fictionalised genealogy as “dance history” which invariably hails the 2nd century text Natyashastra as a singular source of all classical dance forms in India. Far from acknowledging the hereditary dancers as significant intellectual sources on which the system of classical dance is built, this version of the past frames their lives as a period of degradation of the otherwise glorified artistic tradition. Although this narrative gathered momentum in early 20th century, it did not take long for contesting narratives to emerge.

 Classical dance and appropriation: How to think about a field whose foundations rest on cultural violence

As a student of classical dance, to know that my access to learning and practicing dance is a direct consequence of the hereditary artists losing their right over the same is crucial — it shapes how I respond to this past. Photo for representation only, courtesy Getty Images

One early critique of this dominant narrative came from Saskia Kersenboom, an anthropologist and a Bharatanatyam dancer, who studied the ritualistic aspect of the Devadasi tradition and foregrounded Devadasis as an important source of embodied systems of knowledge. Many scholars such as Avanti Meduri and Urmimala Sarkar Munshi critiqued the nationalistic motivations behind “classicising” the tradition while also questioning the “charity” claims of the social reform movement and the abolition. The reformation movement has also come under criticism for de-eroticising the art form. More recent work, developed in this decade by scholars such as Davesh Soneji and Uma Chakravarthy, critically articulates the politics of systematic expulsion of hereditary dancers from public sphere.

Even as the discourse on classical dance has been maturing over the decades (especially from the late 20th to early 21st century) in academia, a critical engagement with this history remains largely unrealised in the community of classical dancers.

According to Nrithya Pillai, a hereditary dancer who comes from the Isai Vellalar community of artists, the classical dance community is becoming increasingly resistant to recognising the presence of appropriation in dance history and in the field of classical dance today. “There is an increasing tendency to project the Indian past as a Hindu past, and since Bharatanatyam gets subsumed as a ‘Hindu tradition’, the dance history seems continuous, and thus appropriation is not even perceived.”

This lack of recognition of the social injustice that was at the heart of reformation of the tradition is aptly illustrated in the description of a recent dance entry for the Krishna Gana Sabha conference. Describing the Devadasis after the law of abolition was passed, it said “The broken dancers could do nothing but hope and await a new dawn, with a quiet dream of seeing their art form soar sky-high. Today with the freedom of expression being guaranteed, their dreams are finally being realised.” Apart from casting the Devadasis as people who should be grateful for the reformation (read it as appropriation), this narrative also denies their social, political and cultural marginalization in the present context.

Priyanka Chandrashekhar, a Bharatanatyam dancer and a lawyer who recently created a performance on the Madras Devadasi Act passed in 1947, says in the prelude to her performance: “Neither in the five years of my law training, nor in my training as a classical dancer was I told about the Madras Devadasi Act.” Her performance draws on her identity as a female Brahmin dancer. While she portrays how the cultural policing entrenched in classical dance field takes away her agency as a woman, her caste privilege still allows her an identity as a dancer which was snatched away from the Devadasis.

“In fact if we were to study the Madras Devadasi Act closely, although the act is targeted at the community of hereditary artists, it does not preclude women from any caste i.e. it is deemed unlawful for any woman to dance in the presence of or in praise of any deity, in social gatherings or festivals. But then how did it become okay eventually for Rukmini Devi to dance? One can’t help but think that it was her privilege as a married Brahmin woman,” Chandrashekhar points out.

Danseuse Nrithya Pillai. Photo courtesy Facebook/@lwsmoments

According to Nrithya Pillai, a hereditary dancer who comes from the Isai Vellalar community of artists, the classical dance community is becoming increasingly resistant to recognising the presence of appropriation in dance history and in the field of classical dance today. Photo courtesy Facebook/@lwsmoments

However, appropriation of their tradition is not a onetime act or an unfortunate event that happened in the past when the law criminalised their profession. Appropriation, which is understood as adopting elements of a marginalised culture by a dominant one, continues to be rampant in the field even today among the conservative as well as the liberal members of the classical dance community. Other than whitewashing dance history, appropriation occurs in many shades such as denying opportunities to the hereditary dancers in the field, belittling them for their skills not being “classical” enough, dressing up as a Devadasi to perform on stage or to pose for a photograph, playing a devadasi role to narrate their story without consulting them or including their voices or involving them in the process, conducting research or making a production on the community to further one’s own cause without giving sufficient credit to the community. Nrithya asks a thought provoking question in one of her social media posts: “If a white person doing blackface is appropriative, how is it okay for an upper-caste dancer to ‘dress-up’ like a Devadasi?”

The Russian ballet La Bayadere, was one of the first productions that exoticised the temple dancers. Today a similar trend has caught on in the classical dance circles. In the last month alone, at least three productions were made on the Devadasis.

To think through whether one’s work is being appropriative or not, some of the questions below might be useful to consider:

1. Instead of speaking on behalf of the hereditary community, can I make it possible for the hereditary dancers to be heard?
2. Have I listened to their concerns, struggles, their version of this history before foregrounding what I know of their past? Is my narrative framing them as victims or romanticising them as heroes? Who are my sources?
3. Has my community/caste participated in their marginalisation? If so, then by taking up this opportunity to speak for them am I marginalising them further?
4. Is their history earning me credit?
5. Is my work specifying the names of the people from the hereditary community and giving them sufficient credit for their support?
6. As a classical dancer, have I acknowledged my own social position/privileges in relation to that of the hereditary community?

Reparations to this violence cannot come from a place of desiring to be a hero for the marginalised community (the abolition and reformation also was initiated with a similar intention!) but can begin with understanding where one stands in the complex power structure, so that we can make a choice to step down. In Nrithya’s words: “If some of us are speaking up, listen to us, if some of us choose not to speak, then think why, if some of us are dancing, let us dance and if some of us have decided not to dance, understand us.”

*Sadir is the pre-classical predecessor of Bharatanatyam, which was practiced by the Devadasis.

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Updated Date: Dec 04, 2019 09:57:32 IST