Tomorrow, July 3, Swamimalai Rajarathnam Pillai, Bharatanatyam guru, celebrated nattuvanar, and my grandfather, would have turned 90. Many young Bharatanatyam enthusiasts may not know of him. He was the last of the few people who represented the cultural phenomenon of being a nattuvanar — a hereditary practitioner from the disenfranchised Isaivellalar community — who could sing, wield the cymbals, and choreograph simultaneously. Although nattuvanars exercised a degree of power, in that they conducted the Bharatanatyam recital, they had already been pushed to the sidelines after the reinvention of Bharatanatyam in the 1930s. The stigma of the social reform and criminalisation of their female ancestors together with the general disenfranchisement of the community that followed backed them into the weak end of the equation of caste and power when it came to relationships with their (often brahmin) disciples. There are not many hereditary practitioners today, male or female, and certainly the entanglement of the few who do exist in such power relations remains the same as in my grandfather’s time.
In the pre-pandemic world, his birth anniversary would have called for a memorial, with performances by his star disciples. I remember, 10 years ago, I played a marginal role in the 80th anniversary memorial for my grandfather, even as I initiated the conversation around a remembrance. I recently discovered that there had been discussions to plan another event for his 90th birth anniversary.
When I heard this, I felt both happiness and sorrow — happiness and pride in knowing that my grandfather was a skilled artiste, and sadness that I cannot be uncritically celebratory, given the problematic history of Bharatanatyam weighing down on the shoulders of daughters and granddaughters of celebrated nattuvanars like him.
My critical stance comes from the numerous times that it has been pointed out to me that my politics, my articulation, and quest for reflection, reparation, and reconciliation is at odds with the stance my grandfather took during his career. There is no doubt in my mind that he was certainly entangled in the patriarchal, caste-based power and cultural nationalism that shaped Bharatanatyam in his time, and was also driven by a very practical, material need to support a family in the 1950s. So, in a way, I am driven by this doubt: if my grandfather were alive today, he likely wouldn’t support my dancing and the political nature of it.
In writing these critical reflections, I want readers to realise that there is a deep degree of emotional labour that goes into articulating the nuances of my situation. This is a central yet untold part of the story of Bharatanatyam in the modern world. It is the story of how complicated the politics of access and denial of access to this art form are for women from hereditary families, like me. Somewhat ironically, the world of Bharatanatyam is reigned over by many of my grandfather’s star disciples. For these sishyas , the association with their vadhyar has given them legitimacy and authority over the art form. By contrast, my association with my thatha , especially when it comes to Bharatanatyam, can only be defined as complicated and lacking in “sanction,” both personally and professionally.
I write this knowing well the consequence that I might be reduced to a voice that is frustrated, angry, and unsuccessful. But on the contrary, I refuse to let my writing invoke pity. It reflects the reality of not having had the privilege of learning and being close to my grandfather in ways that his sishyas had. It reflects the reality of not having the privilege of being considered the legitimate carrier of my grandfather’s art, and the lack of acknowledgement of the socially engineered disenfranchisement that women like me live with. And finally, it underscores the inter-generational cultural privilege his sishyas accrued by accessing Bharatanatyam through a nattuvanar like him.
I love my grandfather and cherish the many memories of the seven years I spent around him. He often sang to me, exquisitely, a song in raga Nilambari, ‘ Kuttiyammava yar adicha ,’ to put me to sleep — ‘who was it who beat my little one?’ That would have been his sentiment, to keep me protected from the clique-ish world of dance and the kinds of suffering that he went through himself. This was suffering he couldn’t articulate or disclose in his workspace but expressed in the safety of dinner table conversations.
He would often say: ‘ Padichu velaiku poidanum’ — you must study and get a ‘respectable’ job — as opposed to a disreputable occupation in the performing arts.
His presence was an integral part of my childhood. I was his first grandchild and enjoyed a certain kind of love and attention that came with it. I might even say I was perhaps the grandchild with the greatest access to the art form, albeit circumstantially. I was born and raised at a time when he was at the peak of his career as a celebrated nattuvanar, teaching many privileged caste girls from ‘respectable’ households, fulfilling the moral mandate of the reinvented Bharatanatyam. It is no surprise that they went on to become successful dancers with careers in the very tradition that families like mine historically inherited.
Social conditioning and my own circumstances do not allow me “legitimate rights” over my grandfather or Bharatanatyam, and I too don’t feel any sense of ownership over him or the art form. I don’t think I should be the person speaking about him, teaching one of his dance compositions, dancing one of his pieces on his birth anniversary — the system doesn’t give me that space. There are others authorised to celebrate his life, his teachings, his art, his musicality, and his contributions in their lives.
But I want to mourn his loss, a loss that happened too early for me. I also, perhaps more importantly, want to mourn the lack of legitimacy and opportunity that women from our families face. If at all we are included, it is always on the margins, reduced to being “carriers of a great tradition,” called in during lecture demonstrations or workshops to demonstrate “old things” that some are curious about (even if in private these “old aesthetics” are mocked at), or other such activities on the fringes of Bharatanatyam’s economy. This phenomenon has been occurring for more than four generations now. As others celebrate my grandfather’s art and his genius, I hope we can reflect more closely on what exactly we are celebrating, and also ask ourselves the deeper (and intentionally invisibilised) questions around ‘legitimacy’, authority, authenticity and power in the world of Bharatanatyam.
The writer, a social and cultural activist, is also a performer and teacher of Bharatanatyam.