Indian dance: secular and religious

No one shade Sonal Mansingh immersed in her art Photo: K. Ananthan  

The relationship between religion and secularism is a complex one. Attached to both terms are several connotations and implications, even within the world of dance. To my surprise, I found that the two co-exist in dance very uncomfortably in the minds of many people who feel the need to expel one or the other. To me, they are not in conflict.

Indian classical dance can be of equal value to a religious and a secular person. But first, the term ‘secular' must be explained, particularly in the Indian context. Professor Rajeev Bhargava, a political theorist, has done extensive work on Indian secularism and highlighted its difference from Western models of secularism. It is imperative to explain this because Western models of secularism are imprinted in Indian minds.

For the West, secular means non-religious. To ‘secularise something is often understood to mean removing the ‘religious' from it. Politically, Western secularism implies total non-interference of the state in the sphere of religion. Therefore, the US government does not interfere even when a man threatens to publicly burn the Quran. Western secularism could even be accused of being anti-religious. The French state banned the headscarf in the name of secularism. If we apply these Western conceptions of secularism to India and to dance, then certainly the religious and secular cannot co-exist in Indian dance.

But in India, this glaring contradiction between the religious and secular does not exist politically or culturally. The secular is not against religion as such but opposes relations of domination within it. The secular state in India is meant to practise what Bhargava calls “principled distance”. This means that the state doesn't endorse any one religion, but at the same time, it interferes with regard to religion to prevent domination and suppression between and within religious groups. For example, the Constitution (which proclaims India to be a secular state) abolished untouchability, a religiously sanctioned social evil. Equally, it may help religions by providing subsidies to educational institutions run by religious groups. This is the essence of Indian secularism. All religions are respected equally but respect means removing those aspects in every religion that permit or sanction any oppression. Nothing in this suggests hostility to religion. The two co-exist happily.

Indian dance too is religious and secular at once. An ancient Tamil padam, ‘Muhattai Kaatiye Deham', illustrates this. Here, a devotee pleads with Shiva to allow him at least a glimpse. Does Shiva not reveal himself because the devotee lacks knowledge of the Vedas, he asks (implying that he is of a lower caste). He complains that when he comes with his tattered clothes to the temple, he cannot get near enough to the idol to see Him. The devotee dares to ask if Shiva's reluctance is due to some inherent blemish in Him? This is a beautiful religious piece about devotion, but equally it questions oppression within religion, invoking restrictions on Dalit entry into temples. This religious piece embodies Indian secularism since critical respect towards religion is crucial to Indian secularity.

The legendary Balasaraswati herself, as Douglas M. Knight Jr. writes in his biography of the dancer, believed that dancing spiritual compositions of love had the same quality as dancing more secular compositions that make no reference to the divine. Indian classical dance doesn't require us to make a choice between the religious and secular. It can be both. Then, this apparent conflict must arise in the minds only of those who either fail to grasp what secularism means or fail to recognise the magnitude of what Indian classical dance is capable of.

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Printable version | Nov 20, 2021 11:20:26 AM |

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