Every year, in late December, caste and class elites throng to Kalakshetra in Chennai to witness the institution’s annual dance festival at which extravagant Hindu dance-dramas drawn from narratives like that of the Valmiki Ramayana are staged. These dance-dramas – choreographic spectacles that blend Brahminic myth and ritual with the ideology of South Indian cultural nationalism and revivalism of the early 20th century – were devised by Rukmini Arundale, the founder of Kalakshetra, in the 1940s.

The Kalakshetra dance-drama encapsulates nationalist ideas about women’s bodies told through dominant-caste iterations of Hindu mythology. There is an obvious vision and imagination of body politics behind the casting of figures in these productions. For example, the women who get to play Sita are invariably slim, fair, conforming and submissive girls, who to teachers and audiences alike come to represent ideal notions of womanhood within dominant-caste society. For many young dancers at Kalakshetra, it is a dream to play these sought-after characters.

As we talk of caste as being a system of graded inequality, there is also within caste society a gradation of women based on their morality and sexuality. Iterations of this kind of ideal womanhood through music and dance have been used to uphold the twin institutions of patriarchy and caste. These notions of womanhood are at the heart of artforms such as bharatanatyam, that have been classified today as “classical”.

‘Recasting’ dance

The institution now known as Kalakshetra was founded in 1936 by Rukmini Arundale. Rukmini Sastri was born to Nilakanta Sastri, an engineer who was a member of the occultist Theosophical Society. As a child, Rukmini became the protegee of Annie Besant, the leader of the Theosophical Society (and a former president of the Indian National Congress). In the imagination of Theosophy, Rukmini came to occupy the prophetic role of “World Mother” (hence her common appellation “Rukmini Devi”), a transcendental figure who would pass on lost esoteric knowledge to humanity.

In 1920, at the age of 16, Rukmini Sastri was married to the Irish Theosophist George Arundale, 42, who would go on to become President of the Theosophical Society. Kalakshetra, known initially as the International Academy of Arts, was strongly tethered to the Theosophical Society. It was given land on the huge campus owned by the Society in Madras.

Theosophical occult ideas, which also drew upon Brahminic texts, permeated Arundale’s vision for culture in modern India. The valorisation of asceticism, the idea of the arts as other-worldly “sadhana”, the regulation of food (via rules around vegetarianism) and sex (with an emphasis on gender-based segregation and celebration of women’s domesticity and chastity) were all tied to the pedagogy of “classical” music and dance in this institution.

Credit: via Pixabay.

By the early decades of the 20th century, debates around “social reform” would eventually criminalise the oppressed hereditary dance courtesan communities. The Madras Music Academy and Kalakshetra were among the earliest institutions responsible for grafting the art of these women onto the bodies of new women of “respectable” classes, mostly Brahmins. The older themes of love and eroticism and techniques of performance that were central to hereditary dance practices were branded “vulgar,” in the words of Rukmini Arundale.

The “reinvented” art, as it was articulated by her and others, mobilised themes of Hindu devotion wrapped in a “cosmopolitan”, yet deeply Brahminic aesthetic sensibility. A highly localised dance and music practice was re-shaped to speak to Arundale’s new international audience by re-casting its content, its form and perhaps most importantly by repopulating its practice by caste and class elites.

Aesthetics of caste

The intertwined questions of gender, sexuality and caste seem to have been a central problem at Kalakshetra. In the practice of bharatanatyam, for example, men were taught a certain kind of dance – hands on the waist in a “masculine” manner, a change in the repertoire, and vigorously athletic movement. Often, the sacred thread was worn as a badge of “cultural honour” by Brahmins and non-Brahmins alike.

Kathakali aasaans (male dance-masters) from Kerala were consulted in the making of Arundale’s dance-dramas. Together, they transformed the courtesan dance of bharatanatyam, originally based on themes of love and eros, into a radically masculine nationalist symbol of the Hindu past. In this new context, the representation of women’s bodies was marked by dominant-caste and nationalist ideals around women’s sexuality, propriety, Brahminic religion and ritual. A new economy, propagated by the state, emerged around these “classical” arts and Brahmin women as “star” dancers.

The pedagogy for this reinvented artform was built around an imagined sense of how dance would have supposedly been taught thousands of years ago, based on materials retrieved from Sanskrit texts. Institutions like Kalakshetra and its offshoots reimagined the idea of a Sanskritic “gurukula” atmosphere, with cottages built like hermitages and even a theatre reconstructed from the second chapter of the Natyashastra, a text that had been re-discovered by European Orientalists in the 19th century.

Allegations of sexual abuse

Over the past three months, Kalakshetra – which is funded by the Central government – has been the focus of controversy involving allegations of sexual abuse by a senior faculty member. The controversy has been swirling since December, when an ex-director of Kalakshetra wrote on Facebook about a teacher at the institution’s Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts, where dancers are trained, “who had been harassing and molesting students for over a decade”, The Print reported on March 21.

The Facebook post was later deleted but it prompted an intense discussion on social media. CAREspaces, an NGO that says it is “motivated by the potential for Indian performing arts spaces to improve their ethical practices”, issued a statement signed by just over 700 people, calling on Kalakshetra to address the allegations.

It said it had heard from students, faculty, alumni, repertory dancers, and other affiliates of Kalakshetra. “To date, the people in power have failed to take sufficient action; abusers’ actions continue to be defended and unpunished,” the statement said.

Kalakshetra vehemently denied the allegations. “During the last few months, a concerted and organised effort is being made to spread rumours and allegations mostly through social media, aimed at maligning Kalakshetra Foundation,” said a statement on its website. “These allegations were presented as a false movement to help students speak up, they actually contained numerous ragtag word-of-mouth accounts; some of which were decades old. They seemed to be mostly manufactured by vested interests who, aimed to sully Kalakshetra Foundation by falsely projecting the institution as an unsafe environment and thus confuse and distress students and staff.”

On March 21, the day The Print report was published, the National Commission for Women said on Twitter that it had taken cognisance of the matter. It said that its chairperson, Rekha Sharma, had written to the Tamil Nadu Director General of Police “to ensure that relevant provisions are invoked in the FIR against the accused teacher and also against the Director of Kalakshetra for shielding the accused”.

On March 24, several media outlets reported that Tamil Nadu Director General of Police C Sylendra Babu had directed Chennai Police Commissioner Shankar Jiwal to investigate the allegations of sexual harassment.

But the next day, the National Commission for Women said that media outlets had reported that Kalakshetra’s internal complaints committee report had not found any evidence of sexual harassment on campus. “The Commission has come to a conclusion to close the matter as the victim has denied sexual harassment while she was inquired by the IC committee,” Kalakshetra said.

The institute added: “Gossiping, spreading rumours and bad mouthing are incredibly toxic in a learning environment. Further, serious/real issues may be discredited due to a sea of frivolous allegations. Those engaged in such activities are warned that appropriate legal action will be taken against them.”

This statement foregrounded the authoritarian nature of the power structures at the institution. Indeed, a culture of silencing, threatening, intimidation is part and parcel of the world of institutionalised “classical” dance. With the kinds of histories and “ideals” that Kalakshetra upholds, it would seem to have become a place where the authorities do not want to be questioned at all.

The discussion around these allegations have highlighted how figures of authority have the power to manipulate, control, and steward all those bodies under them.

The faculty members entrusted with the responsibility of teaching these students are also the decision-making authorities for Kalakshetra’s productions; they decide who gets to play important roles in the dance dramas, for example. This takes us back to the question of power that undergirds the problematic relationship between real young women’s bodies and the “imaginary, idealised Sita’s body”.

Culture of silence and submission

In an interview with me, Rituparna Pal, a former student of Kalakshetra who completed her diploma in 2019, said that “character shaming, victim blaming, and body policing are part and parcel of the dance history and practice that is taught there”.

She explained, “In the college, inside the hostel, every single minute eyes are on students checking if they have tied their saris properly, if they have their pottu [bindi]... students get thrown out of class for asking questions, they are shamed if their pallu [chest cloth] moves even a bit. Sanskrit slokas are taught to students that talk about what kind of body a perfect dancer should have. As part of theory, jaati-hastas [gestures to denote castes] drawn from Sanskrit texts are also taught. The problem is also in what is being taught.”

This is not just an issue of idealised femininity but masculinity as well. This debate highlights the relationship between young male bodies and the “imaginary idealised hypermasculine hero body” that defines much of the practice of the reinvented, religious, “classical” Indian dance today.

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

Seeking legal counsel and perhaps filing a case is important for justice and reparations, especially for the victims of sexual abuse. In many cases, alleged perpetrators have walked free once the initial frenzy dies down. In fact, in this case, the alleged perpetrator has not been stopped from performing.

Therefore, it is imperative that we highlight the culture of silencing and submission to patriarchy and Brahminism that enable perpetrators. This episode makes it clear that redressal mechanisms for victims of sexual abuse are not by any means efficient. Far from providing adequate support and protection, they actively disable open conversations about sexual abuse. As a consequence, it is essential to question such environments that put students and artists in these situations.

Freedom from abuse requires the freedom to question the deep-rooted systemic challenges that are faced by Kalakshetra. It would be counterproductive to question these challenges without also questioning Kalakshetra’s motto “Art without Vulgarity, Beauty without Cruelty, and Education without Fear”. Such attempts of trying to achieve gender justice within the heteropatriarchal system simply cannot move us in the direction of a new paradigm of freedom and empowerment for young artists and students within institutional frameworks.

In the end, this is not about just one man or one woman: a whole system in place that enables body shaming, physical and emotional harassment is under the spotlight. Moreover, until we break from the nationalist cultural nostalgia that creates apologists for the systemic cultures of hierarchy and oppression within these art forms, we can never truly create spaces of equity. Critical and self-reflective history is clearly important here.

The recent allegations of abuse at Kalakshetra make it clear that the story of modern bharatanatyam is not just about discourse or ideology. It is a battleground over the real control of bodies, representation and power. We need to move forward while we work for systemic change. But this can only happen when we open our minds and abandon the subtle forms of nostalgia for Brahminic culture and patriarchal power that runs through the very idea that we have called “classical” dance and music.

Nrithya Pillai is a hereditary Bharathanatyam artist, writer, speaker and dance pedagogue, whose work centres upon reclaiming space and reimagining futures for marginalised artists within the realm of bharathanatyam.

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