Refuting the cultural hegemony and misrepresentation of Bharatanatyam

A recent video of a Sri Lankan Tamil-speaking Moulvi describing Bharatanatyam as a dance of the “Parathaiyar” and as entertainment for royalty had gone viral, creating controversy among the island’s Tamil Hindus and practitioners of the dance.
Dancers protesting the viral video
Dancers protesting the viral videoFacebook
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A recent video of a Sri Lankan Tamil-speaking Moulvi, Hameed  Sharaee, describing Bharatanatyam as a dance of the “Parathaiyar”, meaning a dance performed by women of questionable character (read sex workers), and as an entertainment for royalty, had gone viral. And as expected, it has created a controversy among the island nation’s Tamil Hindus and practitioners of Bharatanatyam. Moulvi Hameed Sharaee apologised, but he ascribed his original statement to the opinions of a Hindu religious head who used the term Parathai with a very derogatory explanation, associating it with Bharatanatyam. Whatever the explanation, the  Moulvi’s misogynist comments are condemnable and unwarranted. 

Sri Lankan Bharatanatyam practitioners have been at pains, like the woman in this video, to counter the Moulvi’s comments as it has affected their religious sentiments. But they have employed the largely Indian Tamil Brahmin-led cultural hegemonic narrative of how Bharatanatyam was ‘saved’ by the Brahmin cultural nationalists like Rukmini Arundale, by extricating it from the ‘immoral bodies’ of courtesans and how it was sanitised of its ‘erotic’ and ‘sensual’ ‘deviations’ and ‘restored’ to a ‘divine’ (read pristine) form; and thus made ‘respectable’ and ‘pure’ once again. She says in Tamil, “While it used to be danced for kings to awaken unwanted feelings (read sensual thoughts) when it was danced with “nelivu sulivu” (meaning curvy movements to signify vulgarity), it has been reformed from the time of Rukmini and it has been restored to being a divine art.”

It is unsurprising, yet disappointing that such misogynist and ahistorical assessments of Bharatanatyam remain unquestioned. Unsurprising, because cultural hegemony, by its very nature, controls the levers of thought and scholarship. And so, it is natural that the very same language used by Tamil Brahmins at the turn of the 20th Century, to legitimise the appropriation of Bharatanatyam, aided by male members of the hereditary communities, for sheer want of survival, continues to be deployed. This is not only in Tamil Nadu but across India and the global Indian Diaspora. This is disappointing because painstaking scholarship, oral histories, lived realities, and radical feminist and restorative politics of hereditary activists take years, if not decades, to make a dent in these hegemonic narratives. It rather makes a dent in their opportunities and their marginal presence both in academic and performance spaces.

Kuchipudi dancer Ranjini Nair’s Instagram page @newspaperdance is an effort to shed light on the politics of reform and reinvention of “Classical” dance by retrieving archival news reports. Here is an excerpt she shared of a Times of India report dated Dec 29, 1932, on “The Nautch Controversy” which talks of the protest by Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi against the employment of “nautch girls” to give exhibitions of the art of dancing at public entertainments and the controversy with regards to this in South India.  The report says, “There are many champions of the nautch who agree with her that Devadasis should not be engaged to sing and dance in public, because of their association with vicious entertainments. There is another school of thought which holds that the abolition of the Devadasis as a hereditary institution, would lead to the extinction of a divine art, which from ancient times has been regarded as a ritual of religious worship in Hindu temples.

It is pointed out that this divine art, “as originally practiced by Devadasis, was free from any taint of immorality”, and that “if the morals of the performers have since degenerated, the blame has to be laid at the doors of who practiced it. Some suggest that Indian women of culture and respectability should come forward to take the place of the nautch girls and thus save the art from its immoral association; but the fact cannot be disguised that since time immemorial, Hindu girls have been dedicated to temples from a particular class of the community and have received the special training necessary for the purpose.”

What this report, like many others between 1927 -1935 makes clear, is the importance that was given to saving the “divine art”, the attribution of immorality to the dancer, and the importance given to the Puranic narratives, giving a sense of ahistorical homogeneity, and universality. The criminalising of the female dancer and the performance of dance but not of the upper caste patrons who had non-conjugal relationships with these women show how the reform was driven by brahmanical patriarchy, one that was also influenced by both Victorian morality and Indian nationalism.

This is the ideology and the language that was the driving force of the reinvention of the dance form of Bharatanatyam - erasure and exclusion of the hereditary practitioners but also using stigma-inducing narratives and language against them - repeatedly to justify this.

The same narrative continues to be upheld by young students from Swami Vipulananda Institute of Aesthetic Studies (Mattakalappu), located in northern Sri Lanka, in their protest against the Maulvi. They uphold the discriminatory reinvention narrative, to legitimize their ownership of what they say is today, a “pure” and “reformed” art form - and that it is “Tamil kalacharam”, or culture.  Another young male student states how the dance was part of Shaivite worship and therefore Tamil culture.

Sociologists have studied the phenomenon of the need of communities to hold onto what they consider to be their ‘cultural heritage’, like the Tamils in Malaysia, Singapore, or Sri Lanka. This could explain the need to seek validation for their cultural practices from histories and narratives from their “motherland,” but a striking feature is how the history is one that celebrates the brahminical reinvention, the Brahmin “saviors” but continues to vilify the original hereditary practitioners.

In more recent histories of Sri Lanka, caste played a role in migration and in the possibility of seeking refuge away from the genocidal state. The bulk of Sri Lanka’s Tamil-speaking Hindu population is identified as dominant caste Velalar and oppressed-caste Panchamar (Dalits). The ones who were less privileged, like those with a history of indentured labour have been less successful in their efforts to emigrate from the country. 

Women of the emigrated privileged classes could learn Bharatanatyam and set up dance and music schools in the diaspora. 

Canadian-Eelam Tamil Bharatanatyam dancer Tharmeega Manimaran says of the video, “This is sadly the perspective of many Eelam Tamil dance teachers in the diaspora. They refuse to recognize hereditary dancing communities and their histories even though they have the power to make a change and teach their students differently. But instead, they teach their students the Brahminized (sic) history because that’s the history they were likely taught and that’s what is in the dance exam syllabi all over the diaspora and back home. It’s a system that only supports the Brahminized narrative and following it is “respectable” for them, while straying brings the risk of slurs and misogynistic comments like this (Maulvi’s)…it’s toxic.”

A Sri Lankan-Indian-Tamil dancer, Uma Palam Pulendran who lives in the US, and who was a student of the Dhananjayans says of the video, “The reason why the girl is saying this is because since the 1960s, the vast majority of dancers in Sri Lanka studied at Kalakshetra or with gurus who are from Kalakshetra. Even other styles are decried. She is reflecting what her teachers have taught her.”

From this, it is clear that the same narratives of “revival”, condescension toward hereditary performers, and celebration of revivalists are upheld by Srilankan Tamil dance “gurus” who have established schools in the US, Canada, and the UK. 

Ironically though, in the case of Sri Lanka, there are many hereditary dancers like Anjugam who have danced, written literature like the Tamil text entitled Rudhraganikkaiyar Kathaasara Thirattu (1911), "A Compilation of Stories about Siva's Courtesans." These dancers and musicians had regular performances and enjoyed a public presence until the “reform” that criminalised the dance and music of these Sudra caste hereditary dancing women referred to by the stigma-inducing term “devadasi”.  Interestingly, the hints of “reform” reached Srilanka before it did India. Arumuga Navalar was involved in producing a reformist Shaivite practice by referencing agama traditions. A key intervention he made was the exclusion and removal of performance by dancers by citing their immoral sexual lives that did not sit well with the agamic virginal purity required of dancers.

Many nattuvanars and hereditary women dancers like T Balasaraswati and Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai visited Tamil parts of Sri Lanka as early as the 1940s. So, we would think there could have been an inclusive history for Bharatanatyam that could have been propagated, one that acknowledges hereditary contributions and histories but that is not the case.

Even while this ahistorical narrative is being propagated in the global diaspora, there are young practitioners who have joined hands with me and there is a growing collective angst at these misrepresentations and an active desire to employ restorative, reparative politics in their engagement with Bharatanatyam. Gayatri is a Masters student in Environmental Justice in the US. Their work focuses on purity politics embodied in Bharatanatyam that are foundational to an analysis of environmental casteism.

When asked about their engagement with Bharatanatyam, they said that the histories that critical dancers like me and scholars like Rituparna Pal and Sammitha Sreevathsa share, resonate with them. They explained, “I feel the resonance of those histories in my body and in my movement. To me, there is no other way to be an artist today other than to burn these pure versus impure binaries, to listen when others speak, and to respond not only with my words but with my entire body. By excavating my body’s knowledge of purity politics, I take active steps to reorient myself as a collaborator in speaking truth to power. I honour the truth of Bharatanatyam’s history and make space for a generative story of dancers and our comrades coming together to completely reorganise this society of hierarchical casteist violence. Dance is how I know myself, so dance is how I plant seeds for flowers to bloom in the fields of resistance against oppression.” 

Nrithya Pillai is a hereditary Bharatanatyam dancer, activist, and writer.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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