Controversy erupts in Kerala over Kalamandalam Sathyabhama’s ‘casteist’ remarks on classical dance artistes

Mohiniyattam artiste R.L.V. Ramakrishnan claims he is the latest victim of ‘institutionalised upper-class privilege’ in the world of classical dance after Kalamandalam Sathyabhama recently remarked that Mohiniyattam was traditionally best performed by artistes with ‘fanciable looks and pale skin tones’

Updated - March 22, 2024 10:05 am IST

Published - March 21, 2024 02:57 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

Kalamandalam Sathyabhama (file)

Kalamandalam Sathyabhama (file) | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A controversy over whether casteism corrodes the world of classical arts in Kerala erupted on March 21 (Thursday) with Mohiniyattam artiste R.L.V. Ramakrishnan claiming that he was the latest victim of allegedly institutionalised upper-class privilege in the haloed halls of traditional dance.

Mr. Ramakrishnan said Mohiniyattam exponent Kalamandalam Sathyabhama’s attempt to set “fair complexion and agreeable looks” as pre-requisites for performing arts was “brazenly racist and insulting” to artistes from marginalised and poor sections of society.

Without naming any artiste in particular, Ms. Sathyabhama recently told a social media channel that Mohiniyattam was traditionally best performed by artistes with “fanciable looks and pale skin tones.”

She also purportedly opined that persons who “resemble crows and are resented by their mothers for their looks” had no place in the classical dance and were, at best, also-rans.

Stance defended

Ms. Sathyabhama defended her stance somewhat combatively when television reporters confronted her at her residence in Thiruvananthapuram.

The artiste said she had quoted the principles of Natyashastra, an ancient Indian text on performance arts, and did not mean to insult any person, caste, or colour. She also said she feared no prosecution for speaking out the truth.

The Purogamana Kala Sahitya Sangham, an organisation of progressive writers, artists, and literature enthusiasts, has condemned Ms. Sathyabhama’s statement and demanded that the police investigate her for disparaging artistes from Dalit communities.

The controversy also highlighted the difficulties artistes from marginalised sections of society faced in negotiating the allegedly stratified world of classical arts.

Heated public debate

It also prompted a heated public debate on whether such intrinsic prejudices pervaded the world of fine arts in progressive Kerala.

Kalamandalam Sathyabhama

Kalamandalam Sathyabhama

The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) Opposition and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supported Mr. Ramakrishnan and condemned the allegedly casteist remarks.

Kerala’s Higher Education Minister R. Bindu said in a social media post that some individuals still harboured “a decayed feudal mindset.”

Society would reject their casteist and colour prejudice with the derision such revanchist attitudes deserved, she said.

Ms. Bindu said artistes such as Mr. Ramakrishnan, through their nuanced and interpretative performances, had “liberated Mohinyattam from the ignominy of being an art form that objectified the feminine form for the amusement of erstwhile feudal lords.”

She said Mr. Ramakrishnan had unshackled Mohiniyattam from the “chains of licentious mudras and elevated it into a more sublime classical art form.”

Ms. Bindu said caste transcended colour, race, religion, and gender differences. “Mr. Ramakrishnan stands tall in the world of classical arts,” she said.

Minister for Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes K. Radhakrishnan said the police would initiate a case if Mr. Ramakrishnan preferred a complaint.

Leader of the Opposition V.D. Satheesan posted a photograph of Mr. Ramakrishnan with the latter’s late brother and actor Kalabhavan Mani on his Facebook page. Mr. Satheesan wrote that “caste and colour prejudices had no place in art.”

BJP Kerala State president K. Surendran echoed a similar sentiment on social media and posted a snap of Mr. Ramakrishnan’s Mohiniyattam performance on the former’s Facebook page.

Meanwhile, Minister for Culture Saji Cherian has demanded that Ms. Sathyabhama should apologise for the remarks.

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