Last month, more than 450 artists, scholars, and writers from around the world added their voices to a debate that has raged about the review of a dance festival held in Chennai in December.

The statement denounced a portion of the review by critic Leela Venkataram relating to the performance of Nrithya Pillai, a dancer from a hereditary caste of performers, for what they alleged was its “implicit and explicit casteism”.

The review on a website called Narthaki “was not just about a difference in aesthetic taste; it appeared to be an attempt to delegitimize, denigrate, dismiss, undermine, and vilify Nrithya”, said the group, which called itself Scholars for Social Justice.

This controversy is only the latest episode to throw light on the maladies of the Indian classical dance and music world. The problems are multilayered – from a history of appropriating forms traditionally practised by members of lower castes and hereditary performers to an ideological underpinning in brahmanical and nationalist ideology.

Though some classical dance forms are more exclusionary than others, the common thread of brahminism and middle-class appropriation undergirds the label of the “classical”. Over the years, the relationship has become more explicit. The “classical” category in Indian dance and music marks processes and discourses that disable and dispossess those on the margins.

Re-casting the narrative

In her review (which has since been revised), Venkataram spoke of Pillai’s “open voiced resentment against upper caste ‘appropriation’ and what she believes is ‘historical misrepresentation’ in not giving the hereditary temple dancers their due”. The review had taken Pillai to task for failing to adhere to the aesthetic model of bharatnatyam by showing “scant respect for accenting geometry of the form”. It also advised Pillai to stop “spewing anger and bitterness and develop a healthier attitude”.

For the last few years, Pillai has been active in reclaiming the hereditary form of dance aesthetics and practice through her writing, lecturing and dance practices and discussing pervasive casteism within Indian classical dance. Though Pillai’s concern has been largely around bharatanatyam, caste hegemony exists across classical dance and music in India including kathak, odissi and Carnatic music. Even Hindustani music, with the historical presence of hereditary Muslim performers, has long faced vigorous efforts to “reclaim” the music from Muslims.

Pillai’s position was reiterated in an article titled “Re-Casting the narrative of bharatanatyam” in the Economic and Political Weekly last year. “Bharatanatyam is permeated by a deeply affective and somatic form of Brahminism,” she contended. “Its aesthetics – that today include the chanting of Vedic and Puranic mantras and stotras, spectacular displays of Hindu myths through so-called ‘dance dramas’, combined with a largely upper-caste sociology of its practice – also make it deeply appealing to non-elite masses.”

The Scholars for Social Justice statement expressed support for Pillai’s positions. “Like many from marginalized communities, Nrithya is rightly calling for justice and accountability,” it said. “But brahminic power structures continue to try to silence her voice because she poses a threat to the existing social order.”

Courtesy Nrithya Pillai.

A symbolic death

Though this essay focuses on the debates in the world of bharatanatyam, the problems I have highlighted apply to all classical forms of Indian dance and music. As a consequence, for a real democratisation of Indian art and culture, there seems to me to be only one solution: the idea of the “classical” in India must be declared dead – even though the death will be symbolic.

Progressive and anti-caste artists, scholars and activists must campaign for the removal of these traditional categories of dance and music from official state lists. For the purpose of justice, all these forms must be defunded from their position of accumulated cultural capital and dethroned from their place at the apex of the cultural hierarchy.

The “classical” or “shastriya” forms have a variety of meanings. In the context of architecture and painting, this label refers to artistic style. Sometimes, it is merely used as a point of reference and performative claims in which the shastras refer to the authority of the texts, their order timeless, changeless and fixed.

These shastras are treated as canonical texts and are supposed to offer a codified grammar of performance. To acquire legitimacy, several artists and communities have been trying to codify their dance and music in the language of the “classical”. For Indian classical dance, for instance, the Natyashastra is usually invoked as such a text.

Representative image. Credit: Sumita Roy Dutta, CC BY-SA 4.0 via, Wikimedia Commons

Classical dance and music are grounded in two larger claims: that these arts are eternal and that they require specific rigour and skill. Both are a myth. If it was about refined style, skill and rigour, then many folk and community performances also have the elements of the “classical”.

The “classical” here is more a rhetorical claim than a reflection of thoroughness or technical prowess. The “classical” belongs to the upper classes and upper castes. While classical dancers, for instance, claim that they embody the dance, the very sense of the term implies rationalisation and scientific control over impulse and emotion.

The erasure of the erotic and the aestheticisation of the body in classical dance has not come out of the blue – it is part of the intertwining of Indian nationalism and culture and the recasting of middle class women as its emblems. In the process of constructing an ideal of womanhood and national identity, upper-caste Indian nationalists appropriated the dance of courtesans and purified it. As Pillai notes, the form was “grafted” onto the bodies of upper caste women.

Scholars have noted that during the nationalist period, various regional forms were brought under the umbrella of classical Indian dance by revivalists. Much of what we say about classical dance and music today has been constructed on the erasure of aesthetic and cultural practices of local communities.

When classical dance and music is claimed as India’s quintessential art and culture on national and global platforms, it is pertinent to question the history and genealogy of forms that are based on legacies appropriated from diverse sections of society.

Over the years, savarnas have increasingly consolidated their presence in almost all spheres of classical dance and music, from bharatnatyam, Odissi and kuchipudi to Carnatic and Hindustani music. As many performers from lower caste and minority communities have pointed out, they are systematically denied access to the classical dance spaces.

The end of the idea of the “classical” would be an emancipatory moment for Indian dance and music.

A painting from the 18th century. Credit: British Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Am I advocating a ban on these forms? Not exactly. What I am suggesting is the end of the labels based on hierarchies so that other forms of dance and music can also flourish. As long as the stature of the “classical” is maintained, so-called folk dance and other forms will remain marginalised. These hierarchical categories based on upper-caste ideals should be dismantled and treated on the same level with other forms.

Social theorist Antonio Gramsci wrote in his Prison Notebooks, “If in a family, a priest becomes a canon, immediately, for the entire clan ‘manual labour’ becomes a disgrace.” Artists from marginalised backgrounds have been the worst sufferers of such labelling. By declaring the death of the “classical”, what we want to end is art and culture based on the sense of an elite priesthood.

In comparison to other art practices such as theatre, literature, cinema and painting, Indian classical dance and music have maintained the most conservative attitudes. Instead of classical Indian dance, for instance, being a vehicle for the free expression of the body, it creates multiple hindrances for the manifestation of body and emotion. Instead of facilitating the spirit of the dance, it aims to produce a virtuosic body, negating the weight of the body.

Dance is becoming flat in emotion and dancers appear like the flying horses of great Indra, with the increasing use of brazen light. But the dance is presented as eternal as the flying horses directly emanating from the churning of the sea.

While “classical” bharatanatyam’s legacies still carry the strong craft of the repertoire of dance form that existed with different names including sadir attam, dasi attam, kachcheri, melam and bharatanatyam, the hereditary dance form appropriated and reinvented by revivalists around 1930s, the extreme classicisation of the form has stifled the genuine emotion and capability of the dancing body. It is not surprising that whatever new works we are seeing come from the violation of classicisation, even when the body is trained in bharatnatyam.

For a new emancipatory dance to emerge, bharatnatyam in classical form has to die. A generation of contemporary dancers has to emerge from the training of bharatnatyam. Ruptures with the hereditary dance forms past marked the birth of bharatnatyam and ruptures will have to mark the departure from bharatnatyam. These new dancers and scholars will have to effect umbilical cuts.

Adivasi women during a dance. Credit: Simon Williams / Ekta Parishad, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

At this point one can ask, are we supposed to give up bharatnatyam? “Should we throw the baby out with the bathwater?” It is worth recalling the mothers who were left behind because the revivalists before Independence were not interested in mothers – only in the child. Bharatnatyam pronounced the symbolic death of hereditary dance forms by appropriating its craft and by giving it a new name. It represented a slashing into a genealogy that belonged to the other castes.

But how to reclaim dance to embody a new politics and culture? While the question of hereditary dance could be a good point to start with, one is not sure how much it can be claimed as it carries its own problematic legacies. Hereditary dance forms too were part of the caste service economy and feudal patronage system. Though some hereditary performers were undoubtedly powerful, many were not. Therefore, the claim on tradition has to also come with the rupture from tradition.

To change the dance discourse in India, we need to decentre the very notion of dance itself: what is dance and what is not a dance? Despite the fact that entire Adivasi communities dance on all significant occasions, they are not considered dancers. Unless one is trained in Indian classical and semi-classical dance, one will not be considered as a dancer.

The problem is that Indian classical dance has become the model for dance at large in India. So before we shatter this notion of dance, we need to reconsider the idea of beauty, gesture, posture and movement. The aesthetic standards of dance revolve around line and geometry and claims that dance is about gravity, centring the body to create a perfect balance.

Decentring dance would involve a democratisation of movement itself so that a new practice can be conceived – to bring it to the simplest form, as it is articulated in the Oraon belief that “ekna dim tokna, baa’na dim parna”, that walking is dancing and talking is singing.

Beyond the narrow conception of dance, we need to situate it as an idea of freedom, a metaphor of thought, an expression through which the body is situated in space for new arrangement of both body and politics. Indian dance must reclaim its lost ground and move in step with broader socio-political as well as aesthetic movements.

Brahma Prakash is a cultural theorist and an Assistant Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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