Talk on the dynamics of Bharatanatyam

A heated social media exchange some weeks ago offered the opportunity not only for a long overdue discussion on the real and complex history of Bharatanatyam, something most dancers, teachers and students rarely engage with, but also brought to the fore more recent contestations.

Despite several scholarly works, the history of Bharatanatyam continues to be sanctimoniously traced back to origin stories associated with Siva or draws an imaginary linear history from Bharatamuni’s Natya Sastra. Only occasionally are there politically correct nods to the ‘devadasis’ as earlier custodians of the form, but this has not permeated the everyday “told” history of the dance. This continued obfuscation possibly explains why a 2017 TED talk that engaged with Bharatanatyam’s history became recently viral on social media.

The need to engage

That this talk was an eye-opener for many shows how fuzzy the understanding of India’s most popular cultural export continues to be. That it generated angry responses from others shows how much more closely one needs to engage with the inheritors of the dance form. As they pointed out, the community referred to as ‘devadasi’ prefers to be known now as the ‘hereditary courtesan dance community’.

The TED talk debate flagged two things — first, that the term ‘devadasi’ conflates multiple identities and second, that their sexual exploitation and oppression is being misread as sexual agency (which too is a misreading).

The term ‘devadasi’ has been used loosely to refer to hereditary dancers from various communities in Tamil Nadu such as the Melakkarar, the Nayanakkarar, the Dasi, the Sengundars and the Isai Vellalars and, in the Andhra region, the Kalavantulas. Further, women and trans women from the Jogati, Jogappa, Matamma and other communities, who identify as Dalits and are dedicated to temples in parts of Karnataka and Telengana, are often inaccurately referred to as ‘degenerate’ remnants of the devadasi practice. Creating a unified identity for so many distinct groups and practices is thus not only too broad-brushed but fails to recognise the different axes of their oppression.

In his book Unfinished Gestures, Davesh Soneji emphasised that the ‘devadasis’ were courtesans and referred to them as “hereditary dancers”. He refuted suggestions that their profession was ‘degenerate’. Importantly, he called for a shift in focus that doesn’t stress only the temple origin or the politics of reform and revival. It is this shift that is called for even today.

When late 19th-early 20th century movements stereotyped ‘devadasis’ and cast them in an essentialist mould, it was the result of several complex socio-historical factors of the time. An omnibus term that encompassed knowledge of dance, music and arts as well as the giving and receiving of sexual pleasure began, under colonialism, to be judged by an increasingly prurient and puritanical morality. What was once considered a professional ethic came to be viewed as criminal by leaving out the artistic, intellectual and ritual aspects of the practice. And the ‘devadasi’ came to be portrayed as a sexually exploited and oppressed figure.

The ‘reformist’ anti-nautch campaign linked to Dravidian politics and the Self-Respect Movement presented the temple dancer as a ‘prostitute’ and wanted to get rid of her altogether. The ‘revivalist’ movement, allied with the Theosophists and the Indian National Congress, presented her as a ‘nun’ so that she might be incarnated and embodied afresh. The questions, therefore, of sexual agency and oppression that have come up again now must necessarily be nuanced. It is within these fissures of scholarship, analyses, and commentary that stories of hereditary dancers exist.

Debate, update

To circle back to the recent social media fracas, the outcome is somewhat heartening. The TED talk site now has a fairly detailed update correcting terminology and providing references for further reading. A conversation about the preferred term ‘hereditary (courtesan) dancer’ took place and some quick tips were made available. However, debate around the issue will continue and this is perhaps not the end of it.

The retelling of history to correct earlier problematic tellings cannot become another saga of inadvertent elisions and must constantly be revised to reflect new contestation.

Feminism has taught us that there isn’t a monolithic oppressed woman who represents all women. So attending to nuance can help work through this jointly. If we do not ‘know’ how to tell another woman’s truth, we might invite them to tell their story, share the stage, pass the mic.

As for audiences, our consumption of any art form passively, without awareness and alertness to its history and politics, is also a form of cultural appropriation. With the kind of access at our fingertips today, it’s not difficult to educate ourselves. But remember to look beyond social media for an education. As allies, the best one can hope for is that we are called-in, rather than called-out. But that can only be a grace that is given, not a right that can be demanded.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 12:33:55 PM |

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