Cultural wars and history as amnesia

Isn’t it time we began to trace the origin of our arts without the baggage of hypocrisy?

Updated - December 09, 2017 06:40 pm IST

Published - December 09, 2017 04:20 pm IST

 A replica of the Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai.

A replica of the Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai.

Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna has a penchant for saying things that trigger deep anxiety within his fraternity. At a recent event in Hyderabad, a comment about the caste divide in the world of Carnatic music sent several tails up and much acrimony has been generated without people even trying to ascertain what exactly he said. The rush to counter him on social (or is it anti-social) media has resulted in some very strange chatter. The most pathetic being a set of people rushing to claim, ‘I’m proud to be Brahmin.’

Really? You want to claim credit for some accident of birth? It’s like crowing, ‘I’m proud to have two legs.’ Or ‘I’m proud my intestines are pink.’ You get what I mean? You can be proud of something you make yourself — like your music. But to be proud of the soles of your feet or other appendages like caste is being a bit disingenuous. Caste is toxic and intelligent artists should actually be asking for its annihilation.

The reason many classical artists get on this slippery slope is due to an absence of contact with history in their artistic formation. Art history, particularly in music and dance, is notoriously infantile and undeveloped, tantamount to a kind of speculative indulgence.

‘Divine’ arts

The core of the problem might be the self-congratulatory aura of a fake spirituality they like to envelop themselves in, and make claims on its behalf. This, in turn, springs from the narcissistic notion of the ‘divine origin’ of their art form. It contributes to their investing themselves with an imaginary halo, so that every time they look in the mirror, they can exclaim, ‘I’m proud to be me.’

The issue, however, is serious. Can the sociology, social practice and history of these arts be dealt with in such a cursory and cavalier manner? Is it not necessary to subject these to some basic historicisation so that we get our chronologies and hybridities and caste and communities correct without recurring slug fests over it? Isn’t it important to narrate our art history divested of hypocrisy?

Take the case of the fabrication of dance history over the past less than hundred years. This is closely connected with the discovery of the ‘Dancing Girl’ of Mohenjo-daro. The excavation conducted between 1921 and 1929 by prominent archaeologist John Marshall found many objects and artefacts. They were all neutrally named. There is no labelling of any object informed with contemporary knowledge. Except for this 4.1” statuette of a girl. She is standing in the very common ‘tribhangi’ posture and could be any woman standing at a bus stand or waiting at an ATM machine. But she alone was named ‘the dancer’.

JNU historian Naman Ahuja has proposed, based on the way the fingers of her left hand are folded, that she is perhaps a warrior. By the same token, I have proposed elsewhere that she was probably holding a pestle and grinding something. (Of course, in a recent twist which is a bigger travesty, a right-wing scholar, Prof. Thakur Prasad Varma, has, in the journal Itihas , chosen to rechristen the statuette as ‘Parvati’.)

Why did the archaeologists name her ‘the dancer’? This is where the story gets interesting. I have spoken of it often elsewhere, but it demands repetition. The period coincides with the time when a public debate was raging over women dedicated to temples, the devadasis, of the Isai Vellalar caste. It culminated in 1930 with a bill introduced in the Madras Legislative Council called the Devadasi Abolition Bill, a call for reforms within the practice as well as for its erasure.

Raging debate

Devadasis were universities of extraordinary artistic knowledge, but here was a call for the erasure of their art. There was not a day in major Indian cities when this was not a front-page story. “Today, so-and-so spoke up against the devadasi system.” (It could be Mahatma Gandhi, Motilal Nehru, Madan Mohan Malaviya or Ramaswami Naicker). It was a raging debate those years.

In 1926, excavators Ernst Mackay and D.R. Sahni found this little figurine. Their mind was crowded with news reports of dance and dancers, and that was the only association they could make.

It’s one of those moments of suggestive transference. They didn’t know if it was a dancer; they had not found the remains of a performance space in Mohenjo-daro; there are no depictions of anything akin to dance there; but they promptly named the figurine a dancer. Marshall added weight to it with a cheesy description: “A half-impudent posture, and legs slightly forward as she beats time to music with her legs and feet.”

What this naming helped do was to ‘invent’ a tradition. Suddenly, Indian dance became 5,000 years old. Until then, the evidence of Indian dance was derived from Ajanta frescos or temple sculptures. That evidence took us back maybe 2,000 years. We have a written text, the Natya Shastra , which too is dated somewhere around then. But suddenly, here is evidence that not only our civilisation, but even our dance is among the oldest in the world. It prefigured the civilisation of the colonial ruler by millennia. So that became an argument.

Delicious irony

The irony was delicious. On the one hand was a movement to abolish the devadasi and on the other was the discovery of a figurine that politically reified the dance, gave it antiquity and transported it 5,000 years back and made it ‘national heritage’. Interestingly, just around that time in Madras, E. Krishna Iyer learnt a few dance pieces from the devadasis, cross-dressed and performed them himself.

He cleaned up and sanitised the form and edited out the erotic elements from the original sadir or dasi-attam. Just one artefact, one object, which now finds pride of place in the national museum, created and invented an entire new tradition, an entire new past for us. Of course, a false past.

But even after Independence, we have not had the courage to look back at it, question it, challenge it. The Devadasi Abolition Bill became an Act in October 1947, just months after Independence. The birth of the nation state is on the censored bodies of these practising artists.

Now every Indian classical dancer loves to say ‘Our dance is 5,000 years old.’ But divested of hypocrisy, it would be interesting to use the ‘dancing girl’ figurine to probably prove that ‘our’ dance is, in fact, a modern dance, invented in 1929. We can work with it to deal with contemporary themes and contemporary society. This could also lead to critical debates around what the old information has erased from public memory.

One can, thus, recover the past, and move towards the future free of the debris and baggage of false debates and historical amnesia.

The writer is concerned that the finest research on the history of Indian dance is being generated from universities abroad.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.