Have the youth lost their ability to perceive dance imaginatively?

As a ‘modern’ woman practicing a ‘traditional’ and ‘classical’ dance form, I have often come across people who ask me about the relevance of Bharatanatyam in contemporary society. In response to my article titled ‘The Real Cost of a Free seat’ a few months ago, I received some thought-provoking feedback that the possible reason why spectators are not willing to pay for classical dance is partially because its themes (largely bhakti and sringara) are repetitive and disconnected from the youth of today.

I immediately thought it erroneous to view bhakti and sringara as repetitive and fraudulent to perceive them to be disconnected with the youth. The themes of bhakti and sringara are so vast that there is undoubtedly an abundant variety within those themes that simply cannot be called repetitive. After all, a padam where a mugdha nayika, inexperienced in the art of love, adorns herself and awaits for her beloved nervously; and a javali in which the experienced nayika whispers stories in her friend’s ears about her lover disrobing her after locking the door – both come under the theme of sringara. But how vastly different they are!

The argument then given is that the youth cannot relate to a ‘traditional’ notion like waiting by the moonlight for a lover’s arrival. The youth of today, it is argued, connects to waiting by the phone. Neither can the youth relate to a nayika adorning herself with jewels, self-made flower garlands, sandalwood or rosewater and wearing a sari in preparation for the man’s arrival. It was here that I wondered – have we, the youth lost our power of interpretation and the use of our imagination? Have the youth lost their ability to perceive dance imaginatively?

I agree that the youth of today do not wait for their beloveds in a moonlit forest, but rather next to their mobile phones. But the anxiety, excitement and nervousness that embodies both these activities is the same isn’t it? Those feelings have not changed over time. The phone and the moonlit night are secondary, it’s the anxiety of that wait that is central. As long as that has not lost its relevance, how can we say classical dance has?

Similarly, a young girl today may not apply a bindi, wear traditional jewels, sprinkle rose water on herself and wear a sari to look beautiful in time for her beloved, but the modern-day ‘nayika’ does certainly adorn herself before going out ‘on a date’. The raw materials maybe different – perhaps today it means getting a manicure, spraying designer perfume to smell good, wearing lipstick and spending hours in front of the wardrobe deciding what to wear. But again, the sentiment is the same – beautifying oneself in preparation for the lover’s arrival – and that is what is central, not the sari or the manicure.

For many years now, I have also stressed in my writing as well as in performance about the relevance and power of emotion in dance – to be able to break boundaries between religious-secular, across regions and languages, and between the modern and traditional dialectic. A non-religious person may not relate to the characters as divine (as they often are), but can certainly relate to them in terms of the centrally human emotions they embody in dance. A person who does not understand the language of the ancient poetry that classical dance is performed to, can still connect to the emotions that the poet and dancer together ignite!

In addition to the above arguments about today’s youth, research during the writing of my dissertation at Oxford on the multiple-modernities of Bharatanatyam traced the modernity of Bharatanatyam to several generations ago. I therefore cannot help but reject the notion that Bharatanatyam is not modern and therefore inexplicable for the modern urban youth. It is the perception of it (either by dancer or spectator) that is rigid and fossilizing, not the form itself.