How the Indian classical dance industry created a troubling culture of dependency on marriage

  • The unique relationship of the classical dance industry with marriage was born in mid-20th century India, when the Devadasi system was abolished and dance was appropriated into the upper caste.

  • By generating a large scale dependency on wealthy marriages for social and financial status, people have retained the classical dance industry as a disorganised sector for generations with multiple social consequences.

  • The active encouragement to marry within privilege (financial and network-wise) plays a significant role in keeping the dance community exclusive.

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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“You look like a bride,” a 13-year-old me was told on the occasion of my Bharatanatyam arangetram years ago. The remark was not out of place. Arangetrams, the first public performance that a young classical dancer puts up after years of being trained, are often referred to and treated as “mini-weddings”. Why? One cannot think of any other profession where a landmark career event is compared to a wedding; passing Board examinations, earning an MBBS or Engineering degree, finishing a PhD are all big — but nothing like a wedding.

The references in classical dance that allude to marriage are plenty. Young girls are often sent to learn classical dance so they grow up to become desirable brides. In the matrimonial market, influential families in the classical field look out for young women dancers who could be a "good catch". Classical dance is a rare profession where "excellence”, success and visibility revolves around marriageability and marriage. Where marriage, irrespective of whether it behaves as an enabler or an impediment to a woman’s career, is its axis — it controls her career.

This unique relationship of the classical dance industry with marriage was born in mid-20th century India, when the Devadasi system was abolished and dance was appropriated into the upper caste.

Historically, the classical dance traditions of India have been embedded in two contrasting social structures: the matriarchal structure of the Devadasis and courtesans, and the patriarchal structure of the upper-caste communities. With appropriation of dance into the upper caste communities, dance was brought within the fold of a patrilineal and patriarchal social structure where communities are held together through marital bonds. Women in the upper caste communities did not traditionally engage in economic labour (unlike women from many other communities like weavers, farmers, fisher people) and when dance was introduced into these communities, it was never seen as an income-generating activity. Dance was not a source of livelihood for the women, for the community, nor was it a socio-economic activity for the state.

 How the Indian classical dance industry created a troubling culture of dependency on marriage

The references in classical dance that allude to marriage are plenty. Young girls are often sent to learn classical dance so they grow up to become desirable brides. Image for representation only. REUTERS

For the Devadasis on the other hand (who largely remained outside the institution of marriage but engaged in sexual relationships with their patrons), dance was a source of livelihood, providing them with wealth, food and social identity. In South India, they were not only integral to the ritual structure of a temple, but also “had a place in the economic structure of a temple which in turn was based on land grants made by kings and land holders in a given region”*. Dance was socio-economically generative, not just for the dancers, but also for the kingdom.

Given the ideological positions of people who led classicisation, it’s not far-fetched to guess that the social stigma (and criminalisation) that came to shroud the Indian nautch girl, was rooted in their intolerance towards this matriarchal structure that gave economic as well as sexual autonomy to its women. The wealthier upper-caste women, who did not traditionally engage in economic labour or occupy public spaces, became ideal subjects for “classical” dance tradition to be re-grafted upon. Although dancing brought the upper caste women outside the confines of a domestic space, their aesthetic presence in public spaces such as the proscenium was re-calibrated so they could fit the trope of a dependent woman raised to marry, reproduce and run a domestic household. Not earning a living through dance was somehow meant to keep the engagement with the form “pure”, making it more socially acceptable and adding to the rhetoric of “art for art’s sake”.

Devadasi in 1920s. Image via WikimediaCommons

Devadasis in 1920s. Image via WikimediaCommons

Rukmini Devi Arundale, the first Brahmin woman to take up a career in classical dance, did have to fight the battle against colonial taboos around dancing even within her own community. However, greatly enabled by the connections she harboured in the Theosophical Society and by her marriage to George Arundale (who went on to head the Theosophical Society after Annie Besant), she was able to capitalise on the national desire for an elite culture and prosper as a dancer as well as an institution builder. The need for a “supportive husband” is still felt by classical dancers as they continue to ask even today “Will I be allowed to dance after marriage?”

The role of marriage in classical dance, however, needs to be probed beyond this desire for a supportive husband.

On the surface level, a marriage into a family of wealth and network does seem like a financially empowering opportunity for an aspiring dancer. But by generating a large scale dependency on wealthy marriages for social and financial status, people have retained the classical dance industry as a disorganised sector for generations with multiple social consequences. For a successful career in dance, senior teachers have gone so far as to even encourage young women dancers to marry into wealthy families, if not into a families that wield influence in the arts.  Vineetha (name changed), a Kathak dancer based out of Bengaluru, recalls being told during a workshop: “Jhole wale se shaadi mat karo.”

She also feels that within classical dance circles, there is an unsaid expectation to lead as well as perform an expensive lifestyle (which involves lavish arrangetrams, spending money on make-up, music production, costumes and even clothes that you show up in for other performances) that cannot be afforded through a career in dance alone.  This expectation of a wealthy lifestyle and an active encouragement to marry within privilege (financial and network-wise) plays a significant role in keeping the dance community exclusive, as the knowledge of dance remains insulated from members of less privileged backgrounds. At this point one might want to ironically recall that the claim for classicising was to “democratise” dance from the monopoly of the Devadasis.

Rukmini Devi Arundale. Image via WikimediaCommons

Rukmini Devi Arundale. Image via WikimediaCommons

Maneesha (name changed), a young Bengaluru-based Bharatanatyam dancer who has not married and has made a choice to earn her living as a full-time dancer, says “The one good thing about classical dance is that there is always a market to teach. If one takes teaching as a business, it is possible to provide for a decent living. However, if one wants to be visible as a performer there are only two ways to do that: to be married into a wealthy family so you can invest money in making your own productions, or to offer favours to men who are in positions of power in the cultural field to make platforms available to you. Very often these platforms also don’t pay but struggling dancers end up doing it so they can remain visible.”

There are, however, single yet successful dance icons who are able to steer clear of marriage — but are able to draw on parental network and privilege.

Many dance class environments normalise the idea of a married future for young girls, who grow up internalising it as a dream.

This systematic conditioning impinges on the freedom of women classical dancers to make decisions about their own life and keeps them from exploring different possibilities for the future. Prerana (name changed), a Bharatanatyam and Kathak dancer now in her late 20s, speaks about her experiences of the dance class she attended, which was run by an illustrious family with a legacy in the performing arts. “I used to date a boy from my dance class who came from the same family as my teacher. I would travel with them for performances and for them, I was a good catch. It was an abusive relationship from the beginning; he would tell me how to walk, how to dress and so on. I was indulged and encouraged by the people around me to be in the relationship. Growing up as a classical dancer, I too had probably romanticised my life as a dancer within such a family. However, I finally had to end the relationship after being assaulted by him. When I did so, not only was I asked to apologise in front of the entire class for ‘creating a scene’ and ruining everyone’s performance tour, but when I later moved on from it, I was also branded as a ‘loose woman’ by the people around me. After this incident I felt that I was no longer visible for my dance to these people,” she says.

Within classical dance circles, there is an unsaid expectation to lead as well as perform an expensive lifestyle. Image for representation only. REUTERS

Within classical dance circles, there is an unsaid expectation to lead as well as perform an expensive lifestyle. Image for representation only. REUTERS

Illustrating how deeply marriage is implicated in her career as a dancer, Prerana narrates yet another experience. “Some years ago, word went around in classical dance circles that a certain senior dancer, who ran a dance institution in the US, is looking for a young classical dancer to be her daughter-in-law, who could also take the work of her institution forward. The marriage proposal came to me not once, but three times. The first time I was approached directly. Upon my rejection, she tried to reach me again through my parents, who encouraged me to take up the proposal. The third time it came to me through my dance teacher. Everyone around me thought it was a good opportunity for a dancer; nobody felt that there was a problem with this. Other than having to repeatedly reject this proposal, I was also snubbed by others for doing so. What this organiser was looking for was actually a dance teacher who could teach in her institute, but why did she not hire one and pay her for the work?”

The fact that this person was looking for an “employee” in the image of a daughter-in-law speaks volumes about the way a huge part of the classical industry thrives on the institution of marriage.

By making visible the myriad connections between dance and marriage, my objective is not to state whether dancers must or must not marry. But what one needs to recognise is that the relationship of the classical dance industry with marriage has more to it than what meets the eye. Marriage (or its absence) is implicated differently in each dancer’s life depending on the context she is in. For some dancers, their marriages have provided social security, giving them an option to bail out of opportunities that are exploitative. Sometimes, being married also works as a shield against abuse. The question is, should one have to depend on their marriage for having these options? What then happens to those who don’t come from privilege or marry into it? Can the dance community empower its dancers to lead a creative life with social and emotional security without setting oppressive social standards of how they must live, who they must marry and when they must reproduce just to fit the social concept of an ideal classical dancer?

*Chakravarti, Uma. 2018. “The Devadasi as an Archaic Historical Artefact”. In The Moving Spaces: Women in Dance, edited by Urmimala Sarkar Munsi and Aishika Chakraborty

Updated Date: Sep 05, 2019 09:29:47 IST