It was laundry day at the Attic !

Hi everyone, I know I have been silent for too long. I was first silenced by the loss of my dear Guru. I then took upon myself to throw that melancholia into finishing much of my research work that was pending. That done, now I am finally back to filling these pages. I have to say. So much to share. I was wondering where to begin. I was pondering if I should continue from where I left off or have a new take off point for the narrative. Then my talk at the ABHAI- Association for BHaratanatyam Artistes of India happened. It was part of a seminar on “socio-economic issues of bharatanatyam dancers-then and now”. I was invited to speak for “now”. Just as I was preparing to address some of the issues that they had specified to me, I realized there are so many cob-webs around us. I wish to share the paper I read out there with all of you. This is a growing concern for not the dancers alone but to the entire society, I believe. I have also made some suggestions as possible steps solutions. Read on…

“1. Bharatanatyam is a very inclusive art. In a trans- national environment that it is being nurtured now, it would be almost prudish to strongly advocate classicism, allegiance, orthodoxy, or even parameters of performance for, these very terms are themselves still in a rediscovery and redefining stage.

 2. Is Bharatanatyam over inclusive? We must know one thing, a classical practice cannot be over inclusive and still remain classical.

 3. Dancers of the 20th and 21st centuries are constantly facing issues of understanding and accepting the immediate histories and identity. Therefore performing allegiance to them is always questioned. If that allegiance will ensure quality, rigor and a certain accountability to classicism then it is for the dance practitioners to engage in such a deliberation. At an alpine level it would require a clinical approach to ring in and weed out elements of a classical form using academic history but more importantly performative historicity of the 18th, 19th centuries which are essentially our immediate past. But that is a topic for serious academic discussion and I shall keep it for later.

 4. With audiences and their tastes changing, funding structures for performances changing, even their very objectives, supply being enormously higher than demand, dancers have to come to terms with the fact that BN has become a global art. We are no longer dancing to aficionados and discerning rasikas (no, not even in the sabhas). We need newer reflective, critical updating of performative rules and values, as I said earlier, in the understanding of dance techniques and also the discourse that surrounds it all.

 5. There was a time a little over half a century ago when BN might have been endangered due to the cross roads it was at, precariously positioned between the disengaged devadasis and the pre occupied non-hereditary dancers. We have certainly come a long way from there. Today the problem is not whether it will continue as an art of prominence and identity but in what direction? Until a few decades back, questions of respectability were being asked. Will a dancer continue dancing after marriage etc? But today that is not the problem at all. Everyone is dancing, all the time. We are at a time when newer problems have arisen.

 6. What is the direction of this continuum? Where is sustainence? Will merit ensure you reach far and deep into the various performance arenas of national and global repute? What is the purpose of this maddening competition?

 7. There is Darwinism at play here. Nothing wrong. That is a universal rule. BN in the past too has always operated on the survival of the fittest. Therefore, we need to quickly address the question of “fittest”. In a world where e-invites, facebooking, twittering and public relations stands paramount it is passé to stick to old world norms of “waiting in the wings for your turn”. Truth is there are no wings and certainly not a turn. BN today is a commodity. Are we to buy what is sold with amazing publicity employing tremendous marketing skills or are we to look for quality. I am not suggesting that quality is available only in thrift shops and so give up upscale mall shopping. That’s not pragmatic. Its alright let us embrace the popular, but the climb there must be fair and based on certain universal principles.

 8. It is futile to ask for cleaner scrupulous standards in offering platforms from organizers, you will be in solitude if you remain in your “shell”, not socialize, “know” the “people”, you will be damned if you do not send out a million request letters, applications, photos, phone calls, house visits and the jazz. So what do we do?

 9. I know of dancers who don’t want to do these things and then some who cannot do these things at all for genuine economic reasons. Then what?

 10. I have been asked to address some issues concerning one, my being an actor. I think India and Indians came of age a long time ago. The concept of stigma of multiple careers or roles has long vanished. There is a healthy example in Dr.Vyjayantimala Bali to show that entertainment business and classical dance will go hand in hand and stay parallel. I am a dancer from the age of five while I became an actor almost a decade later. With my comprehension of the perfomative history that is handed down to me and with my own research I work on principles that stay within the abuttal of classical BN. But that is for dancers, funding and platform agencies to see and recognize. If anyone is to have pre-conceptions about multiple career choices of dancers, especially when that choice is entertainment and media related then they are not only short sighted but also in denial. Personally, I believe that using that as a reason to debate on a dancer’s adherence to classicism (if at all that’s the concern) would be begrudging of that dancer’s vantage to media attention and other public absorptions rather than issues of adherence and classicism. Let us not forget that devadasis at the turn of the 20th century started appearing in cinema and also in stage plays like harischadra natakam, pavazakodi etc. Therefore cinema is not a bad word, actress is not a dirty word and popularity is not a cuss word!

 11. The second issue is me being a researcher. The problems of a research student, scholar trying to reconstruct older dance forms etc and the difficulties in that realm, are for another discussion. But in general BN for the longest time now has largely separated scholarship and practice. I have seen a lot of eye brows being raised when I used to say I am a researcher. I have seen scholars and dancers schuff at me when I went ahead to do my masters in Bharatanatyam seven years ago. The other issue I have noticed is that age is a huge factor. The pre-conception that younger people really can’t be scholars is also seen. Dancer/ scholars are far and few. It is too primitive to discuss the issues they face yet. But scholarship for dancers will encourage a comprehension of historicity and enable a firm identity. To that extent it is a social issue. Also isolated scholarship in dance without practice sometimes throws the art and science of BN vulnerable to angled, partisan-ed and even jaundiced views and constructions. Therefore, it will be great to have a generation of scholar/dancers who can put in perspective the art in entirety. This is of course not to take away anything from exemplary scholars who contribute to dance history.

 12. Any occupation receives the “professional” status in a society when its presence contributes constructively to the society’s growth and its absence levels a vacuum. The dancing community until the nationalist, colonial iron hand vanquished it from temples, had a very important significant role in the religious sphere of the society’s everyday life. When that very practice came under the scanner the dancing ritual was the first to be hit. We are soon moving towards a time when the diaspora and the dancing fraternity is assimilating not only non-hindu but also non-religious dancers. If questions of ownership of Bharatanatyam as a hindu art are raised in a few decades (God forbid) are we well prepared to face it? Can we rediscover a context for today’s dance and through that to dancers in order to enable a more significant place and relevance to the society it breeds in? I mean not ideal relevance like cultural and aesthetic upliftment which have themselves become matters of personal choice and global assimilation. I mean purpose and relevance like that of say doctors and lawyers perhaps? This was my response to a question that was raised by my good friend and dancer Jayachandran.

13. I wouldn’t dare give one solution to all the above problems. But here is a start, nevertheless. BN dancers are all over the world. The diaspora has an equal stake in BN as we do. Let us not remain in denial. If we consider Chennai as the “hub” of BN practice and performance, then it must create a guild. A guild that recognizes (using fair parameters of economic and resume professional artistes) giving them IDs to entail them fare and portioned opportunities on performance platforms, assess to funding agencies, medical insurance etc. Kautilya in the Arthasastra suggested that unmarried women dancers must be given governmental jobs as spinsters (to spin the yarn). Such was the socio-economic vision of our ancestors. Must not we follow suit? It is appalling to note that dancers have no retirement, let alone retirement benefits.

 14. This guild must take on issues of foul play and come as a mediation body in case of dispute. It must have a grievance redressal cell to help young dancers deal with issues of sexual harassment, exploitation by so-called patrons, organizers, scholars and others. It is all happening. We can pretend “holier than thou” but it is an open secret. It could take up issies of maximum and minimum wages for dancers and ensemble members. It must also enroll and encourage amateur dancers. Those who want to and absolutely must, can continue their marketing and purchasing of opportunities but should never be identified as a professional artiste. The audiences will be made to know the difference. In order to get a professional status they must fall within some stipulated parameters for both performative standards, experience, income and integrity. A time when fair application, audition and selection process must encourage dancers to become marketing savvy, promotion through innovative social networking can be encouraged and the “lobbying” with silk sarees, undue flattery, other “favors” and money cannot buy you platforms and awards.

 15. The guild must later bring under its fold artistic groups like the Bhagavatamela artistes, kaisiki natanam artistes”, folk artistes, contemporary and experimental artistes etc for these are our brothers and sisters and we need to fend for them as well. We are after all what we protect!

16. In short, we are a large number of dancers, scattered all over. We are not a community yet. Can we become one? The immediate history of this art was the disengagement of the artiste community and its rites of passage, assimilation and strict rules of adherence. Now, it seems that that community- ship is the need of the hour again. This is truly the hour of retrospect.



here is a  poster done by a person named Shashank on facebook. its perfect for this article, I thought. 

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