Dance
Nrithya Pillai spoke out about casteism in the Bharatnatyam community at a panel discussion. A review that followed dubbed her concerns ‘caustic feelings’ and ‘corrosive bitterness’.
Courtesy: Barani Ganapathy

“People ask me, why do you write about complexion? Why do you write about caste? Why do you write about these things? But I think after years of people not talking about it, within the community in particular, I think it is important that some voices are heard from where they should be. Instead of somebody else taking up our cause,” said Bharatanatyam dancer Nrithya Pillai, at a panel discussion on 'Caste, Gender, Privilege and their roles in Bharatanatyam', at the Natya Kala Conference held in Chennai between December 26 and 30. But following the conference, a review published in dancer Anita Ratnam’s e-magazine, Narthaki.com, by well known critic Leela Venkataraman, tries to police Nrithya for expressing ‘caustic feelings’.

Drawing a parallel between Aniruddha Knight, grandson of renowned dancer Balasaraswati who herself hailed from the Devadasi community and Nrithya, Leela writes, “But in all this, one is sad to see Nrithya Pillai spewing anger and bitterness about people from the 'traditional' hierarchy being denied opportunities. Representing the Bharatanatyam tradition in all its essence was Balasaraswati whose grandson Aniruddha, despite all that the family may rightly be bitter about, shows a maturity in trying to come to terms with changing times, working at finding his own place in the scheme of things. Yes, heredity does bestow on the artist, authenticity. But quoting it as an entitlement for performance space does not always work. Expertise in how that legacy is expressed in terms of a performer today is what counts.”

“By the same token, Birju Maharaj's sons can demand a lion's share in the performance scene. But it is not so. In the meanwhile, such corrosive bitterness could stand in the way of artistic growth of the person concerned. There are others, with no clout or backing of any type political or otherwise, but who are excellent dancers, relegated for some unknown reason to the back-burner of the selection process. While one has known feelings of disappointment, such caustic feelings have never been expressed,” writes Leela, faulting Nrithya for speaking up on casteism.

She adds, "Nrithya Pillai would be well advised to develop a more healthy attitude which will not stunt her own growth as an artist."

The review was widely shared by people in the dance community, with little criticism for Leela Venkataraman’s attempt to shut down a dissenting voice from the Isai Vellalar (Devadasi) community. And when Nrithya did bring up the issue on social media, she found a large number of influential, predominantly Brahmin people in the community – including the founder of the magazine Anita Ratnam – resort to support for the Brahmin reviewer instead of standing up for her, she says.

‘Hypocrisy in the community’

Nrithya Pillai hails from the Devadasi community who were the traditional pioneers of the art form. At the panel discussion in December, she spoke of the intersectional conflicts arising out of casteism and patriarchy, even as there was a historical whitewashing of the Devadasi community’s contributions by Brahmins and men.

Speaking to TNM, Nrithya says that the entire incident reveals the hypocrisy that the dance community is riddled with.

“There are several sessions on Devadasi art done by upper caste women, in some which they dress like a Devadasi – all romanticised. The same critic showers praises on these sessions,” says Nrithya, “But when I, as somebody from the community, speak of the actual reality of how we feel and how we are treated by the fraternity, I am told I am ‘spewing anger’.”

“When we speak for ourselves, we are not heard. It is surprising that Leela Venkatraman, the accomplished writer that she is, could see through my speaking with obvious hurt and pain and decipher it as spewing anger, corrosive and immature. This clearly makes me decide that I was not heard on the panel,” Nrithya says.

When caste networks came together

“After the review was published, Srinidhi, the convener of the conference, shared it with a happy note mentioning Leela for giving her exemplary praise and applauding her effort. It was liked and shared by most of the dance fraternity who were also part of the conference,” Nrithya adds, “Not one person has felt the need to stand up for me, everyone who shared the article, right till the young dancers of the fraternity.”

Moderated by city-based historian V Sriram, the panel also had arts manager Akhila Krishnamurthy, journalist S Janaki, and dancers Tulsi Badrinath and Srinidhi Chidambaram. Apart from Nrithya, all other panelists are upper caste, and a good part of the discussion revolved around making space for male dancers.

“All the other panelists were not willing to talk about caste and it seemed like the panel was made up to deny the existence of caste, and not to discuss issues of caste,” Nrithya tells TNM, recounting that she was ‘zen-level’ calm in the face of not even one panelist paying heed to the angst put forth by her. Nrithya also alleges that comments on the website in response to the column by Leela were moderated following the outrage the report had caused.

‘Power coalitions’

“I don't want the comments in the article removed,” Nrithya tells TNM, “it is just me calling out the hypocrisy that the fraternity is ridden with.”

“There are huge coups that silently happen within the fraternity to remove parts of opinion pieces which offend the powerful. I have seen several times articles being modified,” she says, “I only know too well of the dingy lanes of the dance world. Let it be for the world to see what happens when someone dissents with dignity. You become the outsider who is shaking their boat. But sadly, the boat was once ours.”

‘Do not need upper caste saviours’

Talking about the social oppression that the Devadasi community has faced and is facing, Nrithya says, “The system that they talk about, filled with power coalitions, was only created after forceful disenfranchisement of the women of my community. It is important that I clear my stance and say this is not me being disrespectful, this is me talking about the acts of gross injustice on which today's system of classical dance have been built upon.”

Nrithya has time and again raised her voice on casteism in the dance community – and she says she has nothing to lose by doing so. “There are not many opportunities anyway and whatever I do get, it seems like my energies are disseminated in handling some sort of covered up discrimination which again I have to handle very tactfully,” she says.

“The sexual lives of my ancestors, which again is based on assumptions, is still shutting doors for me when I want to dance,” Nrithya says.

“I also believe we do not need upper caste saviours,” Nrithya says, “And if she (the writer) did care for my art whose growth will somehow be stunted by my "corrosive bitterness", she should have at least seen me dance once. In all my years of dancing, Ms Leela has never once seen me dance. And at the first juncture of seeing me talk she makes this judgement of me.”