Rukmini Arundale’s project of ‘reviving’ Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra, and the Brahmin appropriation of Indian arts, was done with the awareness of the role art plays in shaping people’s opinions and forging a Hindu majoritarian national identity.

Rukmini Arundale against the backdrop of a dance-dramaImage credit: Kalakshetra Foundation
Voices Re-caste-ing Culture Tuesday, April 19, 2022 - 18:18

This is the first 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.

The auditorium lights are dimmed, people leave their shoes outside and enter barefoot as students in sarees and veshtis show them to their seats. Some students are sitting clustered on the floor dressed following the institution’s dress code, impatient for the spectacle to begin. The hall is packed to the brim. Some audience members are sitting with folded hands.

The spotlight falls on the orchestra sitting on the left of the stage, in ‘compulsory’ pristine whites. On the audience’s right is a portrait of Rukmini Arundale along with bronze Rama-Lakshmana-Sita statues, all decorated with lamps and flowers. The singer starts singing Sanskrit slokas for Ganapathy, Valmiki, Hanuman, Ramayana, Rama, and a benediction, followed by the sound of conch shells and puja bells ringing. The curtains open. As S Sarada, a protégé of Rukmini Arundale, says in her book Kalakshetra-Rukmini Devi: Reminiscences, the “sanctification of atmosphere” is complete.

Kalakshetra, an internationally known dance and music institution established by Rukmini Arundale in Chennai, recognised as an institute of national importance by an act of Parliament in 1993, was built for students from ‘respectable families’ to learn dance. When Kalakshetra was established in 1936, the demand for the criminalisation of Bahujan hereditary dancers’ livelihood was being advocated by political parties across the board. The Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Bill was introduced in 1927, nine years before the institution was established, and eventually became an Act in 1947.

Popularly celebrated for paving the way for ‘respectable’ women to dance on stage, Rukmini Arundale’s project of ‘reviving’ Bharatanatyam revolved around sanctifying/purifying what she and other Savarna cultural nationalists found ‘vulgar’ in the art. Flipping through her speeches or writings, one finds words like “vulgarity”, “crudity” and the like, an alarming number of times. She talks of art as a means of purifying our minds. One can see the now-gospel notion of Indian dance being a ‘sublime art that transcends the body’ taking shape around this time.

The Brahmin appropriators of Indian arts, in this case Bharatanatyam, were conscious of the role art plays in shaping people’s opinions, and forging a national identity. The Indian society they desired projected on stage through spectacular choreography with the aid of music, lighting, costumes, and uniform dancing bodies moving in unison, manipulates the audience’s emotions more successfully than lectures.

In one of her writings, Rukmini says, “There are a few, only a very few individuals, ... who show not merely what is going on around but indicate the ultimate goal. The responsibility of an artist is a very great one, for by his art he can help civilisation, he can change character, and he can make or mar a country... People talk of a change of heart, but this change cannot be created without the atmosphere which is necessary. Through art, we can produce that atmosphere of Beauty.”

Who are these handful of people Rukmini deemed great artists, or more importantly who are the ones she thought may “mar” the nation of her imagination? 

During the initial years, Rukmini could not do without teachers from hereditary lineages, as no one else had the knowledge of the art. E Krishna Iyer’s words come to mind: “With all these, Bharata Natya was still in the hands of exponents of the old professional class, with all its possible and lurking dangers as pointed out by reformers. My efforts were towards steadily taking it out of their hands, introducing it among cultured, family women.” (Renaissance of Indian Dance and its Architects, 1948.)

While nattuvanars like Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai, his son-in-law Chokkalingam Pillai, Kattumannar Koil Muthukumara Pillai, Karaikkal Dandayuthapani Pillai, and hereditary dancers like Karaikkal Saradambal and Mylapore Gowri Ammal were initially part of the faculty, within two decades Kalakshetra had none of the hereditary dancer-teachers on its staff. S Sarada recounts with pride the day in 1943 when she along with Rukmini and Radha Burnier wielded the nattuvangam for Sarada Hoffman’s arangetram, after Chokkalingam Pillai left Kalakshetra for monetary considerations.

The economic constraint of artists from the Isai Vellalar community was an opportunity for Brahmin women to erase them. Sarada quotes Rukmini, “One great new thing that has come as a result of these difficulties is the complete separation of our work from the traditional dance teachers… Now there are so many girls from good families who are excellent dancers. The second aspect is to train nattuvanars from good families...” The imminent erasure of hereditary contributions to the art is now complete. Other than sparse mention of Meenakshisundaram Pillai and Mylapore Gowri Amma in anecdotal accounts and the recent tokenistic naming of an avenue after the nattuvanar, the institution does not have any record of the teachings and choreographies of these artists.

The process of appropriation of the dance forms and re-branding them as ‘classical’ was an integral part of the nation-making project. The inauguration function of the Indian Republic in 1950 had Kalakshetra repertory performing Kumarasambhavam. Popularly referred to as the ‘revival’ and ‘reform’ of Indian art forms, this process spearheaded by Savarna men and women invariably aimed to construct a fabricated past of India as a Brahminic Hindu nation, and has been successful in this endeavour.

Islamophobia and casteism were deeply entrenched in the imagination of India the nationalists peddled since its inception. That is why Mohandas Gandhi chose to call his desired nation ‘Rama Rajya’ ignoring the inherently casteist patriarchy and violence in the story of Rama. That is why Ramayana came to be the most popular theme in post-‘reform’ Bharatanatyam.

Hereditary dancer-activist Nrithya Pillai says, “Songs on Rama were rarely, if ever, part of the hereditary repertory of Bharatanatyam. The exceptions are the cases of a few Sabdams (a short dance piece where literature-based expressions are introduced) on localised temple deities (like Vijayaramasvami temple in Thanjavur). But post-‘reform’, even Varnams (an intricate central piece in Bharatanatyam repertory traditionally based on erotic themes) from Carnatic music repertoire based on Ramayana began to be set to dance! To meet the demands of their new Brahmin student-patrons, hereditary teacher-nattuvanars also choreographed dance pieces in praise of Rama.”

In 1929, Gandhi wrote, “By Rama Rajya I don’t mean Hindu Raj. I mean... the Kingdom of God. For me Rama and Rahim are one and the same deity.” But he did choose one of the two to name his ideal state after. He writes, “...the ancient ideal of Rama Rajya is undoubtedly one of true democracy in which the meanest citizen could be sure of swift justice without an elaborate and costly procedure.” The “swift justice” meted out to Shambuka, Surpanakha, Bali and Sita by Rama resolves any doubt anyone may harbour about the democratic nature of India. His choice of unseeing such violence against women and the marginalised people in the Ramayana is not incidental.

In 1937, he wrote, “...They have systems suited to their genius. We must have ours suited to ours... I have described it as Rama Rajya, i.e., sovereignty of the people based on pure moral authority.” Gandhi’s morality deemed women’s rights immoral. In Hind Swaraj, he said, “Women, who should be queens of households, wander in the streets or they slave away in factories... This awful fact is one of the causes of the daily growing suffragette movement.” In Unfinished Gestures, Davesh Soneji discusses the patriarchal notions Gandhi held regarding women’s sexuality and their role in public life. Gandhi’s sense of morality made him recoil in the presence of hereditary courtesans. On the matter of ‘reform,’ he denied hereditary dancers agency saying, “The opinion of the parties concerned in the immoral traffic cannot count… if public opinion is otherwise against them.” (Soneji, 133)

Cultural nationalists like Rukmini Arundale realised Gandhi’s ideals of ‘purity’ in her pursuit of ‘sanctifying’ the art forms of India. In Kalakshetra’s six-part Ramayana dance drama, she visualised Gandhi and RSS’s fantasy of Rama Rajya. Similar to Gandhi’s Rama Rajya, Kalakshetra’s claim of inclusivity reveals xenophobia at the least inspection. From dress code to casteist pedagogy, from dietary restrictions to the frequent pujas and weekly bhajans compulsory for all, from deriding hereditary dancers to recreating temple aesthetics on the secular stage – the national institution upholds the vision of the Hindu nation in every sphere. Even the much promoted Theosophist prayer under the Kalakshetra banyan incorporating Hindu, Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh prayer is performed in front of a Ganesha idol and is immediately followed by a bhajan and occasionally by lectures on the Bhagavad Gita.

If anyone feels that recent iterations of the Ramayana are more conspicuous in their violence against the marginalised, they only need to watch Sabari Moksham, the fourth part in Rukmini’s Ramayana series choreographed in 1965. The Surpanakha episode in the first half of the dance drama depicts what swift justice for moral impurity in Rama Rajya looks like. Beginning with Surpanakha expressing her desire for Rama, followed by the janeu-flashing brothers toying with her emotions, to Surpanakha being disfigured by Lakshmana on Rama’s order after being body-shamed while Sita watches passively, and Lakshmana being blessed by Rama on executing his duty – one does not know what is more chilling, the scene or the resounding applause it evokes every time it is performed.

The visual reminder of how the Hindu Rashtra treats women who do not fit into their idea of femininity and do not conform to caste-ordained gender roles cheered on by onlookers bears too much resemblance to the caste crimes and communal violence that India has seen through the years. The drama concludes with Sabari, “a devout woman of lowly birth” as the accompanying text slide informs the audience, sitting at Rama’s feet being blessed by him – as happens in Gandhi’s Rama Rajya, where caste is the natural order of Hindu society and marginalised people who submit to that are rewarded.

While it indeed amounts to intellectual bankruptcy to stoke Hindu majoritarian politics by performing Ramayana in post-Babri Masjid India, one must become aware of the injustice that goes far back in history – the disenfranchisement of the hereditary courtesan dancers, the state-supported appropriation of the art and turning it into a tool for Hindu nationalist propaganda, cultural nationalists upholding Brahmanical patriarchy, the very notion of Rama Rajya and Savarna complicity. The violence was part and parcel of the nation’s blueprint. It was through our active applause and folded hands that Rama Rajya has come into being.

Rituparna Pal is a dancer/writer, navigating around the fault lines of gender and caste in the context of Indian culture. Her writings have been published in Smashboard, DeCenter Magazine, Firstpost, and Feminism in India.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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