Cycles of cultural violence within performance and scholarship of Bharatanatyam

Bharatanatyam was deliberately separated from Sudra bodies in the 1930s by upper caste cultural nationalists. But since the 1990s, upper caste dancer-scholars have begun impersonating the Sudra dancer as part of their work addressing the ‘30s reinvention.
Dancers Ruth St Denis and Rukmini Arundale
Dancers Ruth St Denis and Rukmini Arundale
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This is the third piece in TNM’s Re-caste-ing Culture series. While the term “re-caste-ing” is being used in anti-caste contexts by those who seek social justice and reparations – in education, employment, and other walks of life, re-evaluating historical narratives on culture in modern India through the prism of caste is still in a very nascent stage. This series by three independent writers hopes to re‘caste’ mainstream celebratory narratives within Indian art and culture by centering the contexts, intellect and bodies of different historically marginalised sections and practitioners from these spheres.

Forms of cultural violence live at the heart of the reimagined form of Bharatanatyam as is practised today. On the one hand, the original custodians of the form – Sudra women from former courtesan communities – are systemically denied access to the elite socio-cultural spaces now occupied by the dance. On the other hand, the dance has been culturally appropriated from them: every time one ‘dresses up’, wears the dance costume, jewellery and ties the bells around one’s feet, the figure of the historical hereditary dancing woman of the past is being invoked, consciously or unconsciously. Confronting this uncomfortable truth of ‘caste mimesis’ becomes the responsibility of every practitioner of this dance, if they see themselves as believers in social justice at large. The fact that this is not an issue that is acknowledged within the Bharatanatyam community illustrates just how removed the Indian dance fraternity is from conversations around social justice and reparations.

A deeper engagement with history shows that mimicry of the lower caste stigmatised dancing identity is a central aspect of the artistic works of celebrated and applauded artists in the contemporary history of both Indian and white American dance. My use of the term ‘mimicry’ here refers to more than just imitation, or wearing a certain kind of clothing: it is a reimagined performance of an entire identity – an impersonation – through a prism of embodied representation of the oppressed by the powerful. The cycles of these appropriative acts have happened over and over again, and continue well into our present.

Today, we often look back at the comically Orientalist performances by dancers like Ruth St Denis, widely celebrated as one of the founders of American modern dance, with wry amusement (for example, pieces like her ‘Nautch’ or ‘Radha’). St Denis, an American white woman, performed as the stigmatised dancing ‘nautch’ girl at a time when Indian texts, persons, and ‘culture’ at large circulated in new ways through the routes of imperialism. These performances hovered between celebration or homage on the one hand and inadvertently, especially for us as modern viewers, parody. There is also the question of the voyeuristic and hyper-sexualised nature of such representations. In the case of Orientalist performers like St Denis, the questions of ownership and appropriation are quite clear. For most upper caste performers of Bharatanatyam today, what she did would be considered ‘offensive’ by these self-proclaimed guardians of Indian culture in India and the diaspora.

But while we can think of Ruth St Denis’s performance as cultural or racial parody, we do not look at the Brahmin and other upper caste performers of Bharatanatyam as performing caste-mimicry. Across the span of the Indian subcontinent, public representations of women’s music and dance that we now refer to as ‘classical’ were historically restricted to women from certain social locations, most of whom belonged to Sudra and Islamic (tawaif) courtesan identities until the mid 19th century. Around this time, the nationalist movement led by mostly caste-class elite Indians embarked on projects to reimagine ‘Indian culture’. Art was uprooted from disenfranchised courtesan bodies – who had been branded immoral – and then drafted on to the bodies of caste elites who were then credited as ‘revivalists’. All of these courtesan communities were subject to intense stigma and oppression. It is important to note that most terms that were used to refer to them, both historically and in the present, are stigma-laden and inherently possess an ‘othering’ quality. There are instances where dancers from privileged backgrounds with access to many progressive spaces speak of the sexual freedom and agency possessed by ‘devadasis’ and their ‘glorious pasts’ in a reductionist manner that lacks contextual nuance. These claims are problematic as they do not acknowledge the oppressive realities of concubinage that was part of the lives of these women.

Quite contrary to what some upper caste scholars and practitioners of dance claim about the caste location of these dancers and musicians being ‘obscure’ or socially ‘ambiguous’,  it has always been clear that these artists entertained elite castes and often had non-conjugal relationships with men from these same groups. In recent times there has also been a critique against the usage of the term hereditary dancer by some who talk about the complexity of “blood” – of having multiple castes within one’s bloodline. I want to clarify that caste cannot be reduced to just tracing bloodlines; it is fundamentally about the discriminatory lived experiences one is subjected to on account of their birth. Women from these courtesan backgrounds, then and now, are subject to unique kinds of oppressive and discriminatory experiences. There are many slur words in Tamil that members of my family and I have been subject to all our lives, ‘Sudra’ (soodhran in Tamil) being the mildest of them all. As historian Davesh Soneji has shown recently, in the south Indian context, by 1902 colonial census data talks unequivocally of women from my community – who are now known by the name Isai Vellalars – as “Sudras whose touch pollutes to a degree”. The Sudra location of the original performers of Bharatanatyam, and its public recognition and display, is thus an undeniable truth.

In this context, it is hard to look back on the work done by Brahmin figures like Rukmini Arundale and E Krishna Iyer to create a ‘new’ aesthetic for the art originally practised by this Sudra caste with anything but rightful questions of cultural appropriation and violence. While retaining all the essential features of the dance (i.e., technique and repertoire) appropriated from the hereditary practitioners, Arundale overlaid it with new production practices, new costuming, new narratives and origin stories, and new compositions that emphasised bhakti and a rhetoric about spiritual transcendence. While the hereditary practitioners had been criminalised for their lifestyles and their performance, suddenly Arundale and other elite women from Brahmin and upper caste backgrounds became respectable dancers, and their dance practices became an exercise in building social, political, economic and cultural capital.

Mylapore Gowri Ammal (hereditary artiste) teaching Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra, 1945
The key goal was the separation of the dance from Sudra bodies, intellect, identities, practices and culture. The upper caste women danced while proclaiming loudly and clearly that they were not immoral Sudra dancers from courtesan backgrounds, all while learning from hereditary male teachers of Bharatanatyam from the very same castes. The irony is that the question of ‘ownership’ was answered through claims of ‘democratisation’ and ‘secularisation’ of the dance, although what really happened was Sanskritisation and, perhaps more importantly, Brahminisation.

New spaces of cultural consumption and new forms of mimesis

After decades of submerging (actually erasing) the multiple identities, aesthetic values and performance traditions of the Sudra courtesan in the new re-invented nationalist form of Bharatanatyam, there was a public hunger and nostalgia for ‘the old’ and ‘the authentic’ in the 1970s. One of the early signs of this in the Chennai dance world was the prominence acquired by Kalanidhi Narayanan as a teacher of abhinaya (expressive aspect of dance).

In the late 70s and 80s, after avoidance of the performance of erotic song-genres like padam and javali (erotic poems set to music and danced exclusively by women from hereditary courtesan Sudra castes in the past) by the new caste-class privileged, largely Brahmin dancers, Kalanidhi satisfied a resurgence of interest in ‘classical’ erotic poetry and its rendition on stage, mobilising her position as a perfect intermediary between repertoire from the original practitioners that was steeped in the erotic and a palatable interpretation of it that met with Brahmin approval. In households like mine, my Nattuvanar grandfather sent his upper caste, upper class students to learn abhinaya from Kalanidhi Narayanan, but this in turn led to furthering the intentional forgetting and eventual erasure of both repertoire and aesthetic technique related to the performance of erotic genres in families like ours, that began during the late 19th century, thanks to the effects of moral and social ‘reform’.

Since the 1990s, this continued nostalgic quest for ‘the old’ led to a new phenomenon. Different Brahmin and upper caste performers began embodying a ‘devadasi identity’ or ‘devadasi dance’ in a ‘more-authentic-than-thou’ way. (I use the stigma-laden, problematic term ‘devadasi’ here only to re-emphasise its persistent usage by Brahmin and upper caste dance practitioners. Throughout this piece, when I use the term, I speak only about the former courtesan Sudra castes from whom Bharatanatyam and aspects of Kuchipudi have been appropriated.)

When asked about this phenomenon of ‘devadasi dress up’, something I think of as akin to blackface, Bharatanatyam dancer and scholar Dr Srividya Natarajan says, “They (we) are re-essentialising and re-exoticising the figure of the ‘devadasi’, which has been contested, problematised, complicated by the work and writing of contemporary scholars who are members of Isai Vellalar families. Mimicry always preserves psychological distance from the actual persons or cultural forms mimicked. As presented by Brahmin and upper caste performers, the hereditary dancer of the past becomes both the exotic other and, reassuringly, the familiar mami-next-door. But most audiences construe what they see not as performance or misrepresentation of an identity, but as ‘factual’ representation of it, especially when the performance of the upper caste dancer is bolstered by elite institutional scholarship.”

Why is there a sudden move back to what upper caste artists were initially so insistent on denouncing? To understand this shift, we have to recognise that beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, women from Brahmin and upper castes who were trained in Bharatanatyam and other ‘classical’ Indian dance forms entered academic spaces at a time when disciplines like ‘Performance Studies’ and later ‘Critical Dance Studies’ were just taking shape in the global north, particularly in the US. These spaces were, and even today continue to be, fully populated by Brahmin and upper caste women dancer-scholars, with virtually no exceptions. This phenomenon then presents an apparent conflict of interest, where the academician is not removed from the form they are critiquing. In fact, they form the very fraternity that they wish to study, reflect upon and interpret.

In this earlier period, many of these dancer-scholars produced a critique of the process by which dance forms like Bharatanatyam were reinvented, focusing on forces like nationalism, social reform and of course, centrally, colonialism. The question of caste and caste-based exclusion within artforms like Bharatanatyam remained largely invisible in their analyses.

One such caste-class privileged dancer-academician with considerable influence on the intellectual discourse on Bharatanatyam history shines a light on the Orientalist gaze of the artform’s historiography, while not acknowledging the caste-privileged gaze that this historiography replaced in the post-colonial years by women like her. Her 1996 dissertation at New York University finds copious mention of the term ‘appropriation’ to refer to the process by which the dance was transformed. “Devadasi history is written in white ink”, these words are mentioned by her in one of her performance-as-research presentations in the insular world of Chennai’s sabhas (performance venues). She blames colonialism for the disenfranchisement of hereditary women, while ignoring a key vector that upheld colonial power: caste oppression, predominantly led by Brahmins who controlled social mores. Her work – in which caste remains wholly and intentionally invisible – continues to be recognised as one of the authoritative interpretations of Bharatanatyam’s modern history. Again, this scholarship itself is ultimately about claiming intellectual and academic power over the subject of the Sudra woman’s pasts.

The figure of the Brahmin and upper caste scholar-performer has taken on several manifestations. The ‘critical dance studies’ world is full of such figures, especially those who implicate colonisation and the coloniser for what happened to the figure of the courtesan, but seldom talk about caste, their own caste privilege and their own role in the enabling of cycles of cultural appropriation that they are a part of, while they claim expertise on these subjects. Any collaboration of a person from hereditary backgrounds with these performer-scholars is still very much determined by the inequality of caste power, and the intellectual superiority granted to the Brahmin or upper caste scholar-performer through the power of academia. But perhaps more importantly, through their ability to claim the status of a ‘legitimate dancer-scholar’ who can conveniently maintain one foot in global academia and another in the insular, casteist world of India’s sabhas and other elite ‘cultural spaces’ in the Indian diaspora.

The bigger question is, what effect did the scholarship produced in this early period really have? Unfortunately, this did not translate into any actual change, or shift in consciousness, back home in India. On the contrary, it might have enabled a new interest in the figure of the courtesan and by extension, affected renewed cycles of caste mimesis and dress up performance. For example, just as this new scholarship on ‘the devadasi’ was emerging, in the 1990s there was a project to ‘revive’ the dance of the courtesan castes of the Godavari river delta of coastal Andhra – a project built equally upon the appropriative histories of modern Bharatanatyam and modern Kuchipudi.

In the 1970s, coastal Andhra region’s dance traditions had already been ‘reinvented’ under the name ‘Andhra Natyam’, but this 1990s project was different. As an attempt to take the dance ‘back into the temples’, there were fetishised recreations of temple rituals and initiation ceremonies on the part of upper caste women, rituals that had been legally criminalised decades ago for the stigmatised dancers of the Kalavantulu community. It resulted in the creation of what was named as ‘Vilasini Natyam’ – a total aesthetic refashioning, Brahminisation and Sanskritisation of the repertoire and technique that remained with the women of the formerly courtesan community who remembered what was historically their performance tradition.

How did this new ‘reinvention’ happen in the 1990s before our very eyes? Where were the upper caste feminist voices of ‘critical dance studies’? If the claim made by these scholars was that the 1930s reinvention was problematic, why did they not produce a critique of these 21st century reinventions that were happening in the same circles in which they moved? Indeed, why do they not produce a critique of this even today, while they style themselves as socially conscious researchers? On the contrary, this dance form was given the stamp of ‘classical’ approval by the state, its founder hailed as the saviour of ‘devadasi dance’ in a manner similar to how Rukmini Arundale is celebrated, as these scholar-practitioners watched and refused to participate in the production of a critique. In fact, at the University of California, Irvine, a thesis was written celebrating this new ‘reinvention’ by a self-proclaimed supporter of Hindutva. The intertwining of caste-based power, political alliance with the public politics of the Hindu right, and the whole idea of an ‘ancient Hindu temple dance’ cannot be ignored.

The next time you hear that so-and-so is dancing ‘Sadir’ or ‘Vilasini Natyam’, remember that these practices are all mired in deep problems of representation and caste-based power and control. Whether it is performance of Bharatanatyam or scholarship on Bharatanatyam or any kind of ‘South Asian Dance’, for us Sudra women from courtesan castes there is only a possibility of a marginal existence, that too only when approved by Brahmin and upper caste so-called ‘experts’ of history and performance, whose powerful claws hold both worlds hostage.

Nrithya Pillai is a hereditary Bharatanatyam dancer and a writer.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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