Aesthetic value in Bharatanatyam and Carnatic practices – Ethical or intimidating?- asking from The ATTIC

Aesthetic value in Classical Arts- ethical or intimidating ?





The dance and music season is a time to soak in culture. But often one has to ask whose culture or what culture it is. To me as a practitioner, and hence an insider, this season has been about reflection on identifications of culture. The December 1stheadlines for a piece on singer Vijayasiva in The Hindu, was “Traditionalist to the core”(accent added). One felt the title revealed a great sense of angst and trepidation about change, along with a sense of relief amidst the coreconnoisseurs and performing fraternity, that someone is sticking to the norm. The title almost announced to the rasika, that the artiste’s creativity is within the confines of what we are familiar with, the accepted and that he is one who respect that.

At a lecture- demonstration on the influence of Trinity on their disciples, the scholar presented ragas as were rendered in the times of the trinity and pre-trinity. A rasika squirmed in his seat upon hearing the unfamilar phrases within the familiar and appreciated ragas, and voiced his deep concern about traditions being dismissed. Nevermind that what was being sung pre-dated the current, it non the less “shook the core of the aesthetics of art”, he felt. To appreciate art, one must grasp the aesthetic sensibilities it is mounted upon. These are tastes which subscribe to certain patterns, norms and structures that were developed consciously. Between Bharata, Bhamaha, Dandin, Vamana, Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta they defined aesthetic value of art as appreciation of beauty (Soundarya), experience of appreciation (Rasa) and suggestion as centrality of art (dhvani).

But how do we define what is beautiful ? Is it not a subjective and constantly changing value? The current aesthetic mindset within the classical music and dance is based on its late colonial and early post colonial moral and social corpus. Hence beauty too, went under this scanner of acceptability. From a time when multiple paradigms coexisted, the advent of procenium performance culled from all of it, only what it wanted, could absorb under strictly regimented compartments of refinment, sophistication, adherence to textual correctness and respectablity. This process eschewed many of the more popular, current trends as well as some of the older practices and put a distance between art and the rasika in a way that has pedestalled art from the mainstream. This distillation over the last seventy years has been an on-going process that has allowed for a formatted modern aesthetic tradition to emerge. Whenever an artiste attempts to push the boundaries the rasika and other co-performers act as gatekeepers. If the work attempted, is too radical it gets pushed into the “contemporary” category, immediately warning the traditionalist that she can expect to be discomforted. If the experiment is done by a well established artiste, then based on their social capital, the norm either shifts to accommodate the newness or regroups them as “extraordinary” within the larger milieu.

At the Natya Darshan conference this year, one senior dancer while analysing her own teaching trajectory, announced that her first Guru who hails from the Nattuvanar parampara would ask her to slap her feet firmly on the floor with the sounds “paleer paleer”. She then quipped, “but I was inspired later by the refinement I found in executing this movement by another Guru” who belongs to a front ranking insitutitonalised parampara. Prof Lakshmi Subramanian observed in her keynote at the same conference, that archives of dance is embodied. That being the fact, what we once learnt from multiple aesthetic value from various legacies, have now been shrunk within the newly created “singular aesthetic”. This has whitewashed plurality and also left practically no room for parallel ideas of aesthetic to survive. This is particularly dangerous, as this monochromatic aesthetic production can marginalise several art forms, traditional practices and artistes.

At the annual Natya Kala Conference, one of the sessions was on caste, gender and previlege in performing arts. The general view that emanated from the panel was that casteism does not exist in its gory form in performing arts. Dance in particular has been made quite egalitarian, many quipped. Is that true? The modern notions of tradition and asethetics in the urban practice of the arts expects classical dance to be performed in a certain costume, speak a certain language, dancers to behave a certain way; for example, the standardization of the stitched costumes in pure silk and kemp jewellery. The sad truth is that a good dancer may not be taken as seriously until he/ she dresses in these accepted costumes. If they wear a china silk costume or wear louder makeup for instance, their art would be dubbed “unrefined”. This is emblematic of a larger problem of inherent inequality. This cannot be set right without conscious effort. Just because we concede that inequality existed at an earlier point in history and the post colonial narrative of dance boasts of a creation of level playing field, it doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to reflect and reform. The fact that we deliberately create a singular aesthetic value and measure all artistes and their work by that standard, the fact that we do not open our minds to the possibility that parallel aesthetic contexts can and must thrive, makes the world of classical arts, intimidating to many, both practitioners and rasikas. To think of someone or some  other form as equal and for them to actually be equal are two different things.

Can the world of classical arts consciously reevaluate its notions of aesthetic? Can we be less intimidating and make arts a place of better access? Because there is a predicament at the moment. It is that, we refuse to address the social value of integrating ethics with traditional practice. Can aesthetic value be ethical, empathetic and free from its social conditioning?

The writer is a well known Practitioner of Sadir, Dance Historian and Professor of Practise, Krea University. Write your feedback to her at







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *