Avanthi Meduri spoke about the necessity of looking at Indian dance forms from a global perspective
The highlight of Avanthi Meduri’s recent talk at the National Institute of Advanced Studies can be summarized into one sentence —the trans-nationalism of Indian performing arts. The talk revolved around two art forms: Bharatanatya and Kudiyattam. She looks at these two art forms, which can also be considered as heritage arts, from a “post-colonial and transnational framework to historicize this cultural production and develop this perspective by re-thinking Indian arts production within a global framework”.
Avanthi is a scholar, dancer and reader in dance and performance Studies,. She is also the convener of the first post graduate programme in South Asian Dance Studies launched at Roehampton University in London in 2005.
She essentially talked about how performance art forms were integrated into the global, mainly British and American, societies.
She began her talk by defining cultural globalization and transnationalisation, quoting I. Grewal. She then went on to establish the eight classical dance forms of India and how these forms were displaced, how colonial role had “devastating effects” on performing arts.
But since the 19th century, the dance forms had begun to be safeguarded, though they were also, at that time, considered ancient and associated with rituals and worship. Avanthi explained how the history of Bharatanatya was captured within its name, as it contains a reference to Bharata’s Natyashastra and also the teacher who taught Bharatam to the nation of Bharat.
It was only in the 1930s that the art form was revived as a national art form. In the 1950s, it gained legitimacy. She also showed how much of the discourse around Bharatanatya revolves around two women: Rukmini Devi Arundale and T.Balasaraswati, who took their performances abroad.
This also brought in a dynamism between travel and English commentary in the performance. Bharatnatya travelled to Tanjore in 1799 to Chennai in 1920, to Kalakshetra in 1930, New Delhi in 1950 and to New York and California in the 1970s.
Avanthi then drew attention to the simultaneous rise and fall of the Devadasis (temple performers) in the 18-19 centuries when their performances were translated for the benefit of the Europeans or Englishmen.She also talked of how Kudiyattam, the tradition of performing plays in Sanskrit in Kerala, was brought into the mainstream under the tradition of oral and intangible heritage by the UNESCO, aided by Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s film, which was shot in the 16 century temple theatre complex.
Now, she said, dancers who had travelled abroad set-up their own “Little India” schools which have and continue to forge links with cultural centres, like Kalakshetra, in India. Avanthi said there were about 250 Bharatanatya schools in America and over 60 schools in London and spoke of how they are now classified as South Asian art forms, after being considered ethnic forms.