For generations, classical dance has been dominated by male narratives from the upper castes. A growing group of dancers are fighting to change this.
- Colonialism and then Castism transformed Indian classical dances into elitist art forms. Now a group of dancers are fighting to turn the tide.
- They use their performances to showcase the long-banned communities that once led Indian dance.
- They also draw attention to caste, religious prejudice, misogyny, homophobia and climate change.
It was an ordinary evening at Chennai’s famous arts festival, Brahma Gana Sabha, in January this year – until dancer Nrithya Pillai rocked the audience as she ended her performance with a preamble reading of the Indian constitution. . Dancers Bharatanatyam, India’s oldest classical dance tradition, practiced by Pillai, usually ends performances with a sequence known as mangalam. Instead, the 32-year-old took the opportunity to quote India’s constitutional commitment to fight discrimination.
Its very presence on a sabha the scene – an elite space historically dominated by upper caste Brahmins – is a “political act,” Pillai tells me. This is because she proudly affirms her lineage from the nattuvanar-devadasi community, a musical tradition that has existed in the southern state of Tamil Nadu for centuries but was banned, starting in the 1920s, under attack from a morality-driven campaign that equated its members with prostitutes.
Pillai is one of a growing group of Indian dancers who use their craft to ask tough socio-political questions about India’s classical dance repertoire and its accepted stories. They break with the traditionally apolitical nature of classical dance in India and force their audiences to confront the past and modern challenges facing society.
I want to change people’s perspectives through dance.
Manjari Chaturvedi, Sufi dancer from Kathak
Revanta Sarabhai, son of acclaimed dancer Mallika Sarabhai and himself a dancer, presents in his work caste discrimination, gender stereotypes, homophobia and climate change. Pillai marries dance with activism to fight against the Brahmanic appropriation of Bharatanatyam. and sufi Kathak dancer Manjari Chaturvedi uses her dance to highlight the problematic historical portrayal of tawaif – courtesans who played a central role in the advancement of music, dance, theater and literature in medieval India, but who have been vilified as prostitutes since the 19th century.
âI want to change people’s perspectives through dance,â Chaturvedi says.
It’s easier said than done. These dancers face a power structure that has solidified over decades and has deeply penetrated popular notions and stereotypes of courtesans, including the devadasis. This is in part a consequence of the two-pronged attack these traditions faced – first from the British, then from a nationalist movement dominated by upper caste rulers who sought the creation of art forms. “Purer”. As a result, traditional dance forms like Bharatanatyam and Kathak were appropriated and made into upper caste strongholds.
“The culture of classical dance today has remained stubbornly unchanged because its power structures remain unchecked,” says historian and University of Pennsylvania professor Davesh Soneji, whose book Unfinished gestures explores the social and cultural history of southern Indian courtesans. âAny dissenting voice is immediately censored by displays of caste-based power. ”
These exhibitions are held for dancers like Chaturvedi and Pillai. In January, a Chaturvedi recital in the northern Indian town of Lucknow was cut short halfway by organizers who refused to allow Qawwali – a Sufi Islamic form of devotional signature – as part of the performance. This disruption was in line with the growing anti-Muslim cultural atmosphere that has gripped India in recent years. And the hereditary artists of the devadasi lineage rarely find their place on important stages like the Brahma Gana Sabha. âThe dance fraternity ignores me,â Pillai said, âbecause they couldn’t silence me.â
Many problematic signs of “casteism, misogyny, homophobia, deep nationalism and religious fundamentalism” that remain entrenched in Indian classical dance go “unnoticed in the traditional dance community,” said Hari Krishnan, dancer of Bharatanatyam, chairman of the department of Wesleyan dance. University and director of inDance in Toronto. This is in part due to a “lack of critical awareness of the history of these forms,” ââhe says. But many mainstream artists, he adds, also see “critical historical discourse as a threat.”
Chaturvedi, 45, had to fight to get rid of the label of “contemporary dancer” when she launched Sufi Kathak. Others like Sarabhai, who studied in London and worked as a dancer in Europe before returning to India, are more successful. “I stick to the original structure [of dance] but generate modern content, âhe says. It was during his stay in the United Kingdom that Sarabhai decided to break with the portrayal of Bharatanatyam as âan exotic oriental thing that the West does not understandâ. His choreography has featured, among other things, a man who longs for his lover, who works in another country and is too busy to call him by video. This contrasts sharply with âstereotypical tropesâ where the dancer longs for a man or a male god, says Sarabhai.
For dancers like Krishnan – who has lived in North America for 30 years – it is always frustrating when he is “locked in annoying clichÃ©s” that ask him to stage his heritage. And in India, the so-called liberal “guardians of Bharatnatyam” who “disguise themselves as progressives” refuse to recognize the Brahmanic hold on dance form, while failing to address the issues of women today and by “gently” embracing the idea of ââa Hindu nation, says Soneji. In some ways, Sarabhai – despite the content of his work – himself represents the elite that dominated Indian dance for several decades. And Pillai has been criticized by her own hereditary community for seeking to disrupt the status quo, which provides symbolic sponsorship to these artists instead of acknowledging their historical contributions.
But these dancers are ready for the fight. Krishnan says that “regressive opposition” to his work “only strengthens my resolve.” Pillai says her willingness to continue despite “law enforcement, gas lighting” and threats to her livelihood is fueled by her dedication to women of the past five to six generations whose contributions to Bharatanatyam have been erased. It will take a “radical awakening” for classical Indian dance to change, says Soneji.
Yet, as an educator, Krishnan sees it as his responsibility to use critical thinking and performance to shape the future. âI am painfully aware that what I am doing is beyond risk,â says Krishnan. This is also what makes it revolutionary.