Davesh Soneji on Indian classical dance, working with hereditary artists: 'We need a new, radical epistemology and political grammar'

Withstanding the test of time, Davesh Soneji's book Unfinished Gestures has emerged as a potential litmus test, for academicians and classical dancers alike, to reflect on their response, towards the hereditary community of artists.

Sammitha Sreevathsa February 09, 2020 09:57:53 IST
Davesh Soneji on Indian classical dance, working with hereditary artists: 'We need a new, radical epistemology and political grammar'

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.


Unlike many romantic historians of classical dance, Davesh Soneji has his finger on the political pulse of the classical field and in the following interview, he holds a critical mirror at it. Withstanding the test of time, his book Unfinished Gestures has emerged as a potential litmus test, for academicians and classical dancers alike, to reflect on their response, towards the hereditary community of artists.

“We need a new, radical epistemology for Indian dance and a new political grammar”, he says. Soneji on his work with the hereditary artists, his observations and experiences in the field of classical dance.

Davesh Soneji on Indian classical dance working with hereditary artists We need a new radical epistemology and political grammar

Davesh Soneji

Can you share how you became so invested and interested in the history of hereditary artists of South India?

My interest in this history began as a student of Karnatak music in my teens. In my late teens, I met Prof Hari Krishnan (of Wesleyan University), who utterly transformed my perspectives on music and kindled an interest in the relationship between music and dance, and this resulted in a life-long friendship and intellectual camaraderie. We have attempted to re-narrativise this history together with other scholars and artists from devadasi communities in South India over the span of more than two and a half decades, and I owe much of what appears in my work to Hari’s deeply sensitive historical and aesthetic understandings. Moreover, my own life-long interlocutors, teachers, and friends in the community – individuals like Kotipalli Hymavathi, for instance – have taught me about the complexities of issues related to the lives of hereditary women artists. These issues are flattened in mainstream discourse about “dance history” that paints women from devadasi communities either as pious goddesses or as victims, as archaic signs of the past, or “unmanageable” annoyances in the present. None of these views enable an understanding of women’s realities in these communities, and all of them present untenable visions of what it means to bear the burden of this kind of heredity in today’s world.

I would also say, rather unabashedly, that my “investment” in the subject results from sustained social and political clashes with the arts mainstream in India. About twenty years ago, we were heckled off of Madras’ stages, and even had things thrown at us for talking about the occluded social histories of performance; that wouldn’t happen today I suppose, since the idea of “the devadasi” is trending in new and perhaps even more dangerous ways. My encounters with women from this community have forced me to consider dimensions of women’s reality that remain “out of view” for most middle-class urban folks who tend to control the discursive representation of devadasi pasts today. Extreme forms of stigma and suspicion, for example, or the looming threats of sex-work, abusive caste-endogamous marriages, these are things that dancers sitting in Chennai’s sabhas, for example, will refuse to talk about, unless of course, it has to do with a misguided and stilted first-wave feminist notion of why “devadasi reform” was necessary. It was this constant refusal in the early 1990s by non-devadasi performers to understand the fundamental failures of “reform” and the constant and malicious harassment of hereditary performers that led me to write about what I think is important in all of this, namely the ethics and humanity of artistic practice in postcolonial South India.

You stand apart as a scholar, not just for your body of work but also for your investment in shifting the public perception of dance history. What kind of public interventions do you think are necessary today in classical dance?

I think that first we must come to terms with the fact that truly critical deliberations on culture in India – ones that deploy deeply intersectional social and aesthetic critique – are virtually non-existent. If there is a gender-based critique, the author will fail to address caste. If caste is addressed, the author will fail to think critically about Orientalism and the category of religion. If nationalism is addressed, the author will fail to address class. What is even worse is that in nearly all of these situations, every critique will fall to the wayside when one sees a “beautiful Bharatanatyam performance” or hears “a beautiful rendition of a raga.” Even those academics who produce critiques of caste and class in other contexts love consuming these modern forms “for their beauty.” Such is the cultural nostalgia of the intellectual class in India and the Indian diaspora; it cannot read the political into the aesthetic, especially when it comes to the so-called “classical” arts. We therefore need a new pedagogy for Indian dance that is not articulated and voiced by the Bengali bhadralok or by South Indian Brahmin “intellectual elites,” or by Hindus alone. The discourse on “culture” in India cannot seem to free itself from the tropes, signposts, and biases of twentieth-century Indian cultural nationalism; it rarely speaks beyond this inherited framework. My research has attempted to show that critical readings of history can move us in this direction, and hopefully shift the public discourse on the arts in India. But the really key issue is that we need not only a shift in understandings of the past, but a repopulation of the arts by those who continue to remain on its fringes. Put more concretely in terms of the practice of dance, we don’t need any more Brahmin women dressing up as devadasis and performing “devadasi dance” or “sadir,” we need the world of Bharatanatyam to be repopulated at its core by non-Brahmin women and individuals from devadasi families: we need it to become a space of social equity. This is a responsibility that quite frankly no one from the outside has cared to take up. But this alone, in my view, can change the scene when it comes to representing Bharatanatyam and its politically suspect modern history; everything else rests upon histories and practices of appropriation and mimesis.

A lot of people know of your work today. Personally, I feel your book Unfinished Gestures has made its way into the world of classical dancers unlike a lot of other scholarship that came before yours. Do you think there is a shift in the way dancers respond to scholarship?

I’m not sure about the impact of Unfinished Gestures among dancers, to be honest. I know of dancers who have used my book as a roadmap to “track down” persons they insist on calling “the last devadasis” or mining it for “lost compositions.” As I’ve mentioned already, “item hungry” dancers are good at this kind of pillaging. But I’m at a loss to see how many performers actually understand the politics of this project. The book is a call to action; it’s very core is about connecting the past with the present. It is about thinking through social inequity, stigma, and the burdens of history. How can a person claim, for example, to appreciate my book, and not support the work of individuals like Nrithya Pillai or Yashoda Thakore? This seems wholly illogical to me. The arguments I make about the “unfinished” nature of women’s lives in the community and the problematics of representation are changing before our very eyes today through the efforts for these young women artists. How can we not support them? I certainly hope that more dancers will read the book carefully for its politics – for what it is actually saying – and not simply as a treasure-trove of “data” about “the last devadasis” that they can deploy in their own dance performances or research. As for dancers’ responses to scholarship, I can only hope that dancers will finally read about things outside the field of dance itself, and try to connect with theories of the state, caste, gender, race, Orientalism, religious majoritarianism and the politics of Hindu nationalism. When your dance teacher tells you to read the Natyashastra, read Ambedkar, Periyar, Marx, or Edward Said instead – this is what will change the stagnated and socially sullied world of the arts, and move us forward.

When the privilege of caste or appropriation in classical dance is called out, many dancers seem to mistake it as a forceful way of telling them to stop dancing. What do you think should be the response of a classical dancer towards the hereditary past as well as the hereditary present?

I think this is a reaction that is to be expected from upper-caste individuals, as anyone involved in anti-caste work in India can tell you. Indeed, such knee-jerk reactions are themselves symptomatic of the problem: fundamentally, dancers who think that the end-goal of critical thinking is telling them they shouldn’t dance are also the people who actually believe that artmaking is hermetically sealed off from the social world and the political world! I suppose one cannot change their rather infantile beliefs, so I think perhaps it’s better if we focus on helping a younger generation of performers understand why critical thinking, political conviction, and social awareness are key to artmaking the modern world. I think dancers who share these ethical sensibilities should listen to what hereditary performers and their histories actually say. They should pause when they tie bells on their feet, wear the thalai-saman, put on that redesigned Bharatanatyam costume, and ask themselves: “What am I doing here, what am I representing when I do this, and why?” I’m always curious to ask young dancers questions like “What propels you to do this? What is in this for you? Whose “heritage” are you representing and why? What is the purpose of staging religion in this public and spectacular way in a secular democracy, and what does that mean to you as an individual?” Think about the larger questions and their implications first, and then dance. But when (and if) you dance, make it known that you have thought through these issues in your dancing. Produce new ways of coming to terms with this problematic past ethically, without rehearsing the tired tropes of a nationalist idea of heritage.

The “Devadasi” continues to exist in a mythic realm of imagination among the classical dancers, or are relegated to the past. What are some of the misconceptions about the hereditary artists which are just false?

There are so many misconceptions – circulated both through academic and pseudo-academic writing as well as channels of local gossip – one could easily fill a book with these! From the very idea that “devadasi” is a stable historical and social category, to the supposed “name change” from “Sadir” to “Bharatanatyam” by the so-called “revivalists,” to the idea that pottukkattuthal is a “marriage to the deity,” to the idea that “the British” enacted laws against devadasis – the list of “fake news” about this community can go on and on. I’ve spent much of my life unpacking these misconceptions and trying to provide alternatives that can stand up to critical historical scrutiny.

But crucially, I think, the most politically efficacious misconception is that the story of this community has ended with the “passing of the Act” in the middle of the twentieth century.

Today, Indian upper-caste, middle-class artists encounter women from devadasi communities largely as historical ghosts or traces of a phantasmatic civilisational past. Thus, we either see old colonial photographs of nameless “dancing girls” or “nautch women” which are as much objects of curiosity for today’s Indian middle-class as they were for Europeans in the colonial period, or twentieth-century photos and archival video footage compiled by agencies like the state-run Sangeet Natak Akademi, in which older, frail, sometimes hunched over women perform abhinaya that evokes a superficial and performative pathos, nostalgia, and judgement from the middle-class, even as they hungrily devour these women’s repertoire and technique through acts of mimetic appropriation. These are frozen, stilted representations that make us believe that “this is a reality of the past.” Indeed, the opposite is true: women from devadasi communities are vital and resilient, they are all around us, in all walks of civic life, and even in the Indian diaspora. I am therefore fundamentally not interested in historical representations unless they can be activated and mobilised by women from these communities in the present.

Davesh Soneji on Indian classical dance working with hereditary artists We need a new radical epistemology and political grammar

Soneji's book Unfinished Gestures

This perpetuates a myth of invisibility that intentionally does not leave space open for young women from the community to participate in mainstream deliberations about their own identities, let alone their hereditary artistic practices. Combatting this “myth of invisibility” today is challenging task; it’s one of the reasons why, once a year, Yashoda Thakore and I stage a public event in Hyderabad in which women from an older generation within the kalavantula community are invited from rural coastal Andhra to present their abhinaya traditions, and more importantly, to talk to the public about their experiences. This is a mode of bringing women’s articulatory practices front-and-centre. It is not about swallowing up the “rare pieces” they dance, nor is it about pitying them and creating a shallow neoliberal empathy that will only last for a fleeting hour or two. It is about understanding the deep and visceral effects of “reform” discourse and the politics of the “reinvention” on the present lives and potential futures of hereditary women performers. We need to listen carefully, patiently, and critically, to what is being said by hereditary performer. We also can’t just turn around and dance Kalakshetra Bharatanatyam the next day, as if we were deaf to what we have just heard, because the “beauty of this art” supposedly trumps everything else. We need to understand that our taste habits – what we consider “beautiful” and why – this is the space where casteism lives. Understanding this fundamental truth, to me, is what it means to take the practice of artmaking seriously.

We’re witnessing an extraordinary time in terms of our national political scene. What are some ways in which you think a classical dancer is implicated in this politics?

The central crisis, I think, has always been the ways in which the politics of the reinvention of dance in the 1930s continue to bear upon contemporary practitioners. In other words, these artforms were at their very core constructed for and through the project of Indian nationalism in the 1930s, and this is the problematic legacy that is enacted and revivified every single time a performer ties bells on her feet and performs on stage. When Bharatanatyam, for example, was recast under Theosophical patronage, it was already brought into the fold of both radical Orientalism and Hindu reform (remember that “Theosophical” ideas were conditioned by Blavatsky’s interface with neo-Hindu reformers such as Dayananda Sarasvati, founder of the Arya Samaj, and its Protestant-Textualist foregrounding of Sanskrit shastra as “knowledge for the modern world”). These ideas cannot be separated from the very formation of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh], the Hindu Right’s perception of what they call “Hinduism,” and certainly the performative politics of today’s Hindutva. Bharatanatyam’s constant and unrelenting enactment of Hindu gods and goddesses, epic narratives, Brahminic rituals, and Sanskrit stotras thrives at the very heart of a distinctly public staging of Hinduism for the masses. In my view, these are narrative and political strategies that, since the 1930s, have worked to distance dance from its actual social history. A textualised, shastric, hyper-intellectualised historiography has been grafted over a distinctly vernacular practice that was the near-exclusive purview of non-Brahmin women (and sometimes their non-Brahmin male dance-masters). Dance practitioners and academics simply cannot seem to detach themselves from this nationalist mode of scripting dance history that began in the late 1920s.

So the question “how is a classical dancer implicated in nationalist politics?” is thus an existential one: the performance of what we call “Indian classical dance” is itself, by virtue of its very existence, an enactment of somatic nationalism. The question should be, how can we reject these seemingly “foundational” aspects of Indian dance? Few dancers, in my mind, such as Prof Hari Krishnan, who has been doing this for decades at great personal odds, Srividya Natarajan, Yashoda Thakore, and Nrithya Pillai, who has recently fought for a public voice in this regard, have been able to articulate “a way out.” Their refusal to perform Bharatanatyam’s history in a nationalist mode, their critiques of its links to neo-Vedantic Hinduism and neoliberal Brahminism, and their fundamental foregrounding of its social history stand out in sharp distinction to nearly everything else I see in the world of Indian dance. Moreover, they talk about the heavily mediated nature of what we have received as today’s “Bharatanatyam;” they do not want to go back to reconstruct some glorious “golden age” for devadasi dance that never existed. They speak about the layers upon layers of history and mediation we embody when we perform this dance today. Following their lead, we need to let go of the inherited nostalgia for the so-called “reformers” and “saviours” of these forms who were valorised by the nation-state’s project of cultural engineering, as well as the aesthetic and pseudo-historical canons they established for understanding the arts. This also means letting go of twentieth-century neo-Orientalist and fundamentalist notions that stone dance sculptures on temples or Sanskrit texts from the medieval period “work truths” in modern India, or ideas that forms like yoga, Kalarippayattu, and Bharatanatyam somehow inhabit “shared somatic worlds.” This is the slippery slope of claims to aesthetic universalism that ultimately glosses over the idea of difference and renders social hierarchies in art invisible. Such ideas can never lead to equity precisely because they are still rooted in the telos of art as “civilisational heritage.” We need a new, radical epistemology for Indian dance and a new political grammar, one that rises beyond the messy residue of twentieth-century cultural nationalism.

Can you tell us about your current book project on music? How do you see this as an intervention in the ways we think about Karnatak music’s history and historiography?

My forthcoming book actually intentionally stays away from the use of the term “Karnatak music.” It attempts to foreground aspects of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century history of South Indian raga-based music that did not become part of “canonical Karnatak music” as it was conceived and mobilised in first three decades of the twentieth-century in Madras. Drawing on a range of textual and material histories, the book demonstrates how the music of the modern Tamil theatre (known today as isai nadagam), Islamic, Catholic, and even Jain music in raga, courtesan music, and the music of the wider para-Tamil Indian Ocean world all constituted the soundscape of what I call “popular raga-based music.” Each chapter focuses on one of these occluded histories, to shift readers away from the idea that monolithic music moved unidirectionally “from Tanjore to Madras” in order to be reinvented by the city’s elites at the turn of the century. It maps the complex social and sonic terrain in South India in the decades immediately before the consolidation and institutionalisation of the idea “the classical” through elitist institutions in Madras. It also complicates the well-established narrative of the musical reinvention by forcing us to confront the fundamentally intermedial histories that lie at the core of raga-based music before it became confined to the dry and insular category of “the classical” by the state and the new self-proclaimed stewards of “tradition.”

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