Nrithya Pillai on renaming Bharatanatyam pieces

Changes will only distance the art form from hereditary practitioners, says the dancer

February 14, 2019 03:27 pm | Updated 03:27 pm IST

Bhaaratanatyam dancer Nrithya Pillai

Bhaaratanatyam dancer Nrithya Pillai

This is in response to V.P. Dhananjayan’s article, “Names do Matter” (February 8). I would also like to mention in all truthfulness, before I put forth my views, that my late grandfather Swamimalai Rajarathnam Pillai named me ‘Nrithya’ in chaste Sanskrit, — despite having ancestors with names such as Doraikannamal, Kamalam, Gnanambal and Parvadavardini — most probably influenced by the first wave of renaming and Sanskritisation process of our hereditary art form. Like I have told Shri Dhananjayan in good humour before, perhaps it was he, who suggested the idea to my grandfather.

In his brief article, Shri Dhananjayan proposes the re-naming of extant Bharatanatyam repertoire pieces such as Jatiswaram, Varnam, etc.

To be fair, many of the extant names — jatiswaram, varnam, padam, etc., — are also Sanskrit in etymology, even though they actually have deeply local histories of production and use. But Shri. Dhananjayan’s proposal to re-name these for the sake of “accuracy” belies a fundamental mistrust and suspicion of “tradition.” For Shri. Dhananjayan, of course, “tradition” would refer to a reconstituted, Sanskritised, and historically untenable idea that he refers to elsewhere as “ bharatiya-natyam,” an idea that exceeds the actual social history of this Devadasi dance form of South India. For me, as an Isai Vellalar performer, ‘tradition’ means something totally different — something that is socially and politically grounded in a community-based history that can be verified and cross-checked even by outsiders. In other words, it is anything but an insular discourse around “purity” and “authenticity.”

Also I feel it is necessary that I have to speak as someone from the community of hereditary dancers. Could one change the name of ‘Parai isai’ and its component etymology with the same disregard for its original practitioners and history?

Let me also clarify some technical details that are simply historically inaccurate which in turn will explain why names do matter.

First, the association of the word ‘colour’ to Varnam. The term varnam actually is derived from the Tamil word ‘Varnanai’ or ‘description.’ The lyrical poetry of Devadasi dance describes both the love of the nayika and is also simultaneously a varnana of the hero. I do agree that pieces, which are created to replace a traditional Varnam can be called whatever that the composer finds appropriate, but that definitely does not concern the hereditary community.

Secondly, the article refers to only “one real Thodi Jateeswaram, a composition of the Thanjavur Quartet.” For the record, there are four jatiswarams in Thodi that are attributed to the Quartet, one version of which is called sorkattu, and these are all performed by the descendants and students of the Quartet’s families. And these jatiswarams have several patterns, some of them have many jathis, some just one — designed by nattuvanars for different students depending on their calibre. In fact, we have a jatiswaram in our family in Atana, where we have four jathis alternatively with korvais. So there is no one format for a jatiswaram and the extant name does due justice to the piece in all completeness.

As for the Tillana, the etymology of the word can be traced as far back as the time of the Cholas. We find the word ‘Tillana’ in an inscription of Rajendra Chola (1052-1064). Well, if that is not ‘classical,’ what is?

Now, one is left wondering why the article does not suggest re-naming Padams and Javalis? Perhaps because the ideological turn being made here does not value this aspect of the dance repertoire, often seeing it as “degenerate” or “vulgar” unless of course it is performed in a particularly “morally upright” way. Or perhaps there is no suitable Sanskrit alternative to the terms. And this precisely points to the flaws in such an ideology. It simply cannot accommodate the diversity and richness of the living, native Devadasi and nattuvanar repertoire, which can never be boiled down into something “divine.”

Finally, Shri.Dhananjayan concludes his essay with a so-called “fact” that he feels would legitimate his proposed renaming: that “The name Bharatanatyam itself came into vogue after replacing the old names such as Chinnamelam, Sadirattam, and Dasiaattam.” This is simply not true. As a number of critical historians have observed, Devadasis and nattuvanars were referring to their art form as Bharatanatyam at least from the 15th century (in Tamil and Telugu materials) and as early as 1802 (even before the birth of the Quartet) in English print material of the British. The truth of the matter is that the so-called “revivalists” chose the most Sanskritised name among that pool to suit their 20th century vision, and that is how this one term, Bharatanatyam became hegemonic in Madras.

And so yes, from my perspective, names do matter, they remind us of those who lost much trying to uphold their art and tradition and their rich heritage.

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