Slender arms akimbo and feet together, Prabavathi Thamizhvanan takes the opening stance of alarippu, the picture-perfect, architectonic preamble to a Bharatanatyam performance. In that moment everything about her spells elegance and symmetry. Except on her vivacious face is the eerie, whitewashed mask of anonymity, signifying the class, caste and privilege that marks the classical dance scene in India today.
Tamizhvanan is a skilled performer of kattaikoothu, a regional theatre form, and Bharatanatyam. She is also a member of the vivacious all-women Dalit arts activism group, Katradi. The stage at a hallowed sabha hall in Chennai, where she stands, is not the usual performance space for her or her teammates. But Katradi is at the sabha for a reason – to raise some uncomfortable questions.
For 40 years, the annual Natya Kala Conference hosted at the Krishna Gana Sabha in Chennai has been the most exalted platform for classical dancers to present their tradition through words and choreography. A few days ago, however, the five-day conference – India’s first and biggest dance conclave – shed its rarified air to walk into the heat and dust of the real world. Working with the title TranscenDance, it engaged with subjects like social justice, gender violence, disability, migration, ageing, motherhood and even the Gaza crisis through choreographies, workshops and lecture demonstrations.
“Our dances have the most amazing pedagogies, but how can we also use it in our lives?” asked Bharatnatyam dancer Sangeeta Isvaran, who developed the Katradi method. “How can we use it to function from a place of love, empathy and compassion, with no judgement?”
Flag of rebellion
As December arrives in Chennai, bringing with it a respite from heat and humidity, the city’s sabhas – influential cultural organisations dedicated to classical arts – set off on a packed calendar of concerts, dance recitals and seminars. Although the art is riveting, there is a decidedly establishmentarian feel to the Margazhi season. The crowds thronging the events, as well as most performers, are still upper class. And the many turbulent debates that have rocked the Carnatic scene in recent years – from caste and corruption to #MeToo and sexism – have mostly left the establishment untouched. If there are any sparks of rebellion at all, they can be found mostly at the alternate venues with offbeat programming.
In this landscape, the Krishna Gana Sabha, established in 1953, has been among the giants, vaunted for its flagship event focused primarily on Bharatnatyam: the fabled Natya Kala Conference. Historically, this classical dancers’ conference has been a place where highbrow scholarship meets high art. Here, day-long discussions and performances revolve around esoteric questions of grammar, pedagogy, gharana, parampara, interpretation of puranic and shastric themes, interventions and ouchityam (appropriateness). This is also the stage where the most polarising debate in Bharatanatyam erupted four years ago when hereditary performer Nrithya Pillai protested the condescension of dominant caste panellists to her views on marginalisation. Its effects are roiling the community till date.
The 2023 conference was marked by what dancer scholar Ananya Chatterjea described as a “paradigm-shifting” curation. Her own choreography at the venue, Habib Bhoomi, for instance, was an anguished, raw work dedicated to the thousands of lives lost in the Gaza conflict, especially the children.
Bharatanatyam dancer Rama Vaidyanathan, the convenor of the conference for the third year running, says it is time to look at dance beyond the conventional proscenium and shed the self-absorption that marks the classical arts. In the first two years, her curation had focused on the origin story of Bharatanatyam and its current state. In the third year, she decided to look ahead.
“The form’s grammar is now strong, its practitioners run into thousands, but change is inevitable: you can no longer dictate to young dancers what is acceptable and what is not,” said Vaidyanathan, among the most popular Bharatanatyam dancers of the day with a large following and discipleship among the young. “We are privy to so much information we can no longer remain untouched by the world we inhabit. Some of the issues we raise this year, gender orientation for instance, were never raised earlier.”
The changes were palpable. It was mostly the young who swamped the venue and drove its offbeat dynamics. There was Bharatanatyam dancer Mythili Prakash raising tough questions in She is Auspicious about the forever gracious, forbearing nayika. Her unsettling choreography went from the picture-perfect goddess imagery of classical dances to the messy chaos that marks the real lives of women. Bimbavati Devi’s Manipuri work, Footprints In Blood, was a tribute to women’s resistance to repression. And Shanmugha Sundaram led a team of transgender Bharatanatyam dancers on stage, claiming a space mostly denied to the community.
It was sheer chance that birthed the Natya Kala Conference in 1981. Padma Subramaniam, whose path-breaking work with Bharatanatyam is now the stuff of dance history, had been asked to host an all-India dance conference at the Bhulabhai Institute in Mumbai. Instead, the founder of the Krishna Gana Sabha, R Yagnaraman, who was pushing for more dance events in December, suggested that the conference be held in Chennai. For three years, Subramaniam led the convention.
Subramaniam maintains the conference was always forward-looking. “When we began, the idea was to make people understand the links between all the subcontinental arts,” she recalled. “It was always inclusive – we had dancers from the north, martial arts and therakoothu [a folk form from Tamil Nadu]. But I don’t see any battles that need to be fought in dance or by dance. We are artistes, not fighters.”
But the new voices in dance differ. What is the place of this art if it cannot connect with the world around, they ask.
Ananya Chatterjea, professor of dance at the University of Minnesota, was trained in Odissi but protest movements have engaged her in equal measure. She now practices what she calls yorchha, a mix of yoga, Odissi and Chhau that she uses to frame what she calls social justice choreography.
“We always think of classical dance as ‘refined’ or Brahminical,” she said. “The class, and thus caste, divide this implies is incredibly obvious at all classical venues. If I feel intimidated by these spaces, how would a Dalit dancer feel in this world? We need art to connect. I love the halla bol force of street art but my quest is to bring together the formal energy and precision of classical dance and the ground-shaking political intent of justice movements. How do I bring the street and stage together?”
Over the years, a dozen classical dancers from across forms have taken charge as the conference’s convenors. Among them have been Lakshmi Vishwanathan, Chitra Visweswaran, Bharati Shivaji, the Dhananjayans, CP Chandrashekhar, Leela Samson, Swapnasundari, Srinidhi Chidambaram.
The sabha is currently led by Yagnaraman’s son, Y Prabhu, and his granddaughter, Saashwathi Prabhu. They say they were juggling this season with the idea of dance outside the performance arena. “There is impetus to change now,” said Saashwathi. “For one, we have a lot more younger dancers engaged with the event. There was a time when the event was led by the doyennes and the focus was on the parampara, guidelines, rights and wrongs. Now the stress is on individualism, the right to speak and express.”
Compassion was an overriding theme at the 2023 conference. The joy of dance, young artistes seemed to say, need not be the preserve of flawless, toned bodies. And it can also change the lives of those struggling with anxiety, grief and disabilities. “I interact with young dancers all the time and find that many of them are very interested in dance movement therapy,” pointed out Vaidyanthan.
By 7 am, the sabha was usually abuzz with a series of Hindu musical discourses. But on one occasion, an hour later, a compact corner of the venue came alive with bold new experiments in dance movement therapy.
There was the Katradi team giving classical dancers lessons on how to work courageously with gender polarities, and how to use the body and breath to transform characters. Pune-based Kathak dancer demonstrated the many ways movement therapy can transform the lives of those dealing with Parkinson’s Disorder.
The effervescent Mehraj Khatoon of the all-women team of dance therapists, Kolkata Sanved, managed to bring a hall-full of classical dancers to their feet. A practitioner trained in the all-women Sampoornata movement founded by Sohini Chakraborty, Khatoon usually works with margnialised and traumatised women.
To the trained dancers at the sabha, Khatoon brought lessons of a different kind – on how to let go of the regimentation of their training, to turn loose-limbed, yodel, act silly and hold hands. Slowly, the hall filled with the sounds of laughter. As yoga and Bharatanatyam stalwart Navtej Johar asked at the conference: “What is dance without samavedana (empathy)?”
Malini Nair is a culture writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.