Bharatha Natyam-What Are You?

Author(s): Avanthi Meduri Reviewed work(s): Source: Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring, 1988), pp. 1-22 Published by: University of Hawai'i Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 13/11/2012 18:28
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Bharatha Natyam What Are You?
Avanthi Meduri

Let me tell you a story. I grew up in the cultural city of Madras, where I learned bharathanatyam, a form of South Indian classical dance, from a very young age. My dance teachers told me a story, a story they were never tired of repeating. They told me that bharathanatyamtraces its origins to the Natyashastra,a detailed, ancient text on dramaturgy authored by the sage Bharatha (Bharatha-Muni), ca. 300 B.C. Sitting at their feet, I listened in wide-eyed awe. They told me that this dance was once called sadir and that it was performed in the sacred precincts of the temple. They said that the devadasi (temple dancers) who practiced this art form lived and danced happily in the temple environments. I nodded my head in agreement. But then the devadasi turned "corrupt" and profaned the art form, they said suddenly, and rather angrily. Frightened by their anger, I asked rather hesitantly about how they had profaned the art. They looked around them to see if anybody was eavesdropping, and whispered into my ear: they said that dancing became associated with nautch girls because of the corrupt ways of the devadasi. Their personal life, reflected in the art form, expressed itself in the crude and literal language of the nautch girl. I did not understand anything they said. I was too young and frightened. A highly complex system rooted in religion had become "corrupted" till the "respectable" people of the south initiated a campaign in the late 1920s to abolish the ill-reputed devadasisystem. What about the dance then, I interjected? They smiled benevolently at my anxiety and said that important cultural institutions, such as the Music Academy in
Avanthi Meduri is an exponent of bharatha and kuchipudi classical dance. She earned an M.A. natyam in English literature from the University of Texas at Austin in 1986 and is currently working towards a Ph.D. in performance studies at the Tisch School of Arts, New York University, supported by a grant from the Asian Cultural Council. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the conference on Dance in a Changing Cultural Context at the University of California at Los Angeles in February 1987. The author is grateful to the Pan Orient Arts Foundation for making copies of the journal Sruti available to her.

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whose artistry depended to a large extent on her ancestral connection to the devadasitradition.In time. it is a comprehensive treatise on Indian dramaturgy that includes dance. Krishna Iyer. I was too young to know the difference. instead of asking them why it happened. for it undercuts plurality and forces one to consciously efface or transcend Self. just as color is perceived as being intimately This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. Is this why I was taught dancing.. Bharatha natyam in theory and practice refers to Bharatha's Jatyashastra (Rules of drama). by force of these three circumstances. this story became my own. Prakasam. until it was no longer a "story" to me. T.52. I remember.67 on Tue. learned the dance form. and eminent individuals. I was perplexed. They said that sadir.168. for someone's idea of respectability? I remember feeling disappointed. My teachers reiterated proudly and with stern faces the three propitious happenings that revolutionized the history of bharathanatyam: 1) the name of the dance form was changed from sadir to bharathanatyam in 1932. (Bharatha-Muni 1961 and 1967). and established a dance school called Kalakshetra (Academy for Fine Arts) for the transmission of traditional knowledge. 2) Rukmini Devi. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . exhorted me even as a child to quiet the restless agitation of my questioning mind. spread the fame of bharathanatyamto the far corners of the globe. which is characterized by intellectual detachment.. Today I wish to look at this integral narrative of my life in subjective reflexiveness.D. I shall begin by describing briefly some of the salient features of Indian dance. Rather. They extolled the virtues of transcendental knowledge (alaukikagnana). to take to dancing and thus lend something of the purity of their own lives to the art form. was firmly launched on its transformational journey under the new name bharathanatyam. So. This view of reality terrified me then as it does today. My Indian teachers. had as chief minister of the composite Madras and Andhra Pradesh states of India publicly urged the people. But the Natyashastrais not exclusively a text on dance technique. These unasked questions were the dark shadows of my adolescent years. an upper-class Brahmin.2 Meduri Madras. probably compiled in the second to third centuries A. I asked them how it happened. saved the dance from extinction. and 3) the great dancer Balasaraswati. When I repeated this story to my grandmother-for this had now become my own story-she told me that my great-grandfather. thereby investing it with dignity. if only to create a context in which to frame my questions. especially the respectable women. like E. and they still possess the power to rock the adult foundation of my rationalized peace. But to go on with the other story. Dance is conceived as being a part of drama in Bharatha's theatre. I shall articulate my questions about Indian dance today self-consciously and without the desire to be neutral.

It gathers all these strands and sets them in motion before the eye. Jatya corresponds to drama. significant coherence. and literature. angika (body). Endowed with superior artistic and intellectual capabilities. can be analyzed and described separately. aharya (costume). This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. a part of drama. Dance. Bharatha's sympathetic spectator harmonizes differences into unities by the power of his own mind. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . aesthetics. music. the theatre loses its characteristic. is divided into three distinct categories: natya. like the performer. because it weaves together so many artistic streams and evokes a compelling vision of aesthetic immensity and philosophic magnitude. one is entering a philosophical discourse on ethics.67 on Tue. or aesthetic delight-a emotional plenitude. This process resembles the sinuous dance of the elusive snake which dances always with its tail in its mouth. cosmic vision of unity. nrithya.52. stories which are usually extracts from legend and Vedic scriptures. Bharatha's vision. The ideal spectator (sahrydaya). the divine in the human. Yet. When one begins to speak about Indian dance. absorbed in the religious stories evoked in the conventionalized mode of representation. and social reality. enunciates a total theatre that links all the minutest units of dramatic representation. which evokes emotion in an artistic natyadharmi and subtle manner. or abhinaya (expression): vacika (speech).168. the necessary difference between realism and representation. nrithya to mime performed to song and music (PLATE5). sculpture. Each unit. and sattvika (psychological states). He. it resists clear description as an artifact having its own unique temporality. If a minute aspect of the whole is disturbed or exaggerated. Bharatha. state of joy characterized by experiences rasa. then. and yet assumes theatrical significance only in the context of the whole dramatic representation. such as dance.BHARATHA NATYAM 3 connected to music. and nrtta. perceives the sublime in the erotic. It appears as a sublime synthesis of philosophy. The latter technique is valued because it helps maintain the illusion of art. which in turn influences emotional representation. Indian dance thus encapsulates both in structure and in content the philosophic aspirations of the Indian mind. Bharatha's attention to theatrical unity and aesthetic wholeness evokes in the meditative mind a philosophic. all at once. The performer has four means of communication. The rules that govern Indian dramaturgy are also the principles that define classical dance. This might explain the theatre's abiding popularity in Indian aesthetics and its compelling centrality in religious discourse. as Ghosh points out in his English translation of the Natyashastra (1961 and 1967) does not espouse the lokadharmi mode of explicit or realistic representation of emotion. He values the mode of communication. The illusion of art is further reinforced by the religious themes of dance and drama. and nrtta to pure dance that employs sculpturesque poses and body movements that do not refer back to narrative.

13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Even in her marginalized social position. The temple was the natural home for Bharatha's ancient theatre. Well-versed in the arts. And the devadasisymbolized this fusion till she and the dance were ousted from the temple in the first half of the twentieth century by civil laws that prohibited temple dancing. India today is psychologically restless and far removed from Bharatha's religious state of mind characterized by visrati(expansive quiet).literally "servant of God. First.168.67 on Tue. Some time thereafter. linked temple to court and balanced patronage with personal independence. hurried reality of the twentieth century-it represents at its best the aesthetic and philosophic ideal of Indian art. although she could have discreet sexual relations with priest or king. its immediate theatre.. Both these institutions mutually cared for her rather lavish economic needs. I hasten to add that this peculiar analogy is true only of contemporary Indian dance. the height of her glory under the rulership of the Chola kings in the ninth through twelfth centuries A. one very different from the plural reality of contemporary India. Bharatha's theatre. itself articulated in religious inspirations. The devadasi.D. however. she was dedicated to the temple even before she attained puberty. unfolds in a slow process of cumulative classical elaboration that is the opposite of the fractured. The devadasi tradition continued into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. this theatre is an expression of one religious world view. fused ritual-form and religious fervor into one nondualistic whole. functions in a secular the gap between philosophic vision and everyday reality. she was formally married to the temple deity in a sacred thread-ceremony (tali kettu). regionalism. Let us now dwell briefly on the devadasistory. and political strife. but very difficult to evaluate in terms of art appreciation. reality-in bharathanatyam. form with content. For this reason. in accordance with its world view. practiced by devadasiand housed in the physical context of the temple.4 Meduri Mesmerizing no doubt. She also performed the ritual oblations in the temple. Indian dance today. So it fused physical context with ideology. The sacred thread tied around her neck solemnized her marriage to the deity and precluded her from marrying a mortal man. she was unique in that she epitomized the freedom of the plural woman outside of caste and not defined in the biological role of a madonna. it presents some immediate problems in translations to the contemporary world. but without the robust This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. Rent asunder by colonialism.with its danced stories of God evoked in a secular Today's world. is analogous to a human being walking forward with his face turned backwards. Moved as I am by Bharatha's aesthetic theatre of complex unity.52. she was considered a jewel of both court and temple alike." danced and sang the stories of God before temple deities to propitiate and entertain them. The devadasi.

168.) This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. The dancer in a raudra (angry) mood.BHARATHA NATYAM 5 FIGURE 1.67 on Tue. (Photo: Danna Byrom. The hand gestures (mudra) represent the plow.52. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Raudrais one of the eight major sentiments or emotions (rasa) in bharathanatyam.

on whom. the devadasihad been forced to choose between economic necessity and man-made rules of decorum. Muthulakshmi Reddi.52. Kapila Vatsyayan sums this up rather neatly: the generation that went to colleges founded by the British in the early nineteenth century was isolated from the art traditions of the country. whatever the original meaning may have been. which on page 2601 described the devadasisystem thus: "In South India. and based on what ethical values? But we did just that. child marriage. The "respectable" women of the south had entered the arena. and mastered it. however. the devadasi's availability to all who visited the temple. She chose the former. She may marry an idol which generally implies she has become a prostitute" (Gaston 1982. The devadasiwere thus rudely dismissed. uneasy political atmosphere.6 Meduri commitment of the preceding generations. Apparently the art had died by the twentieth century and what could be seen of it was only a diluted. while the dance itself. a girl may marry an arrow. Benevolent monarchy was being replaced by Muslim and foreign invasions. It was like a shadow of a bygone reality (1974. Public disapproval. that enraged the South Indian sense of decorum. This anti-devadasi feeling was reinforced again in the Madras Census Report of 1911. could actually indulge in the mortal delights of humans at night. rose from the ashes. who danced the stories of God by day. like the mythical phoenix. 7). a tree. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . If the devadasihad turned "corrupt. speaking at the Madras legislature in 1901. as we can see in the above statement. patrons and commoners alike. 4)." as the traditionalists argue (though I would prefer the word "indiscriminate"). Can I cast the proverbial stone at her who wished to live on her own moral terms? How does one begin to apportion blame. perhaps to escape the reproach of attaining puberty unmarried. it was not from moral depravity. Having polluted the sacred precincts of the This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. with her former generous patronage vanishing. was directed at both the devadasi and the tradition she represented.168. It was. culminating finally in the twentieth-century independence movement. The issue was complex because exploitation. We pronounced her alone guilty.67 on Tue. I believe the anti-devadasi sentiment failed to distinguish between cause and effect. It was inconceivable to them that she. They believed that "inner purity" (whatever that term means) had to synchronize with outer action. sharply pointed to this degeneracy when she said: "Now the appellation of the devadasias every one of us here knows. almost degenerated form of what was known as Sadirin the South. and child traffic had become incorporated into the system. stands for prostitute" (Gaston 1982. 8). Thus. they promulgated the laws that abolished temple dancing once and for all. wrested the dance from these traditional custodians. Caught in this changing.

reverting to khadhi.52." but not in its autonomy. was the disjunction deemed acceptable and even worthwhile? How could this be? Dance in the early twentieth century. and the academy continued this tradition despite strong public opposition. The questions that haunt me are these: why was the nineteenth-century devadasi in the temple condemned for not fusing her inner life with the outer? And why. The devadasi. that focused on her sharply and penetratingly. In this we see the first signs of the split that society initiated and then seemed to sanction. Balasaraswati. which is also the special schizophrenia of the contemporary dancer. expelled from the temple. valued only as the repository of the ancient tradition she had mastered-as its symbol. self and culture. fell into this noisy rhetoric. How did Balasaraswati. not knowing where to go or what to do next.168. Raghavan. The bright cunning stage lights. set fire to his Western clothes. and other liberal-minded scholars eulogized the transcendental glories of the two-thousand-year-old tradition in their lectures. both in the temple and outside it. Did the devadasiwant this new home? Would the dance survive on this platform.67 on Tue. on the twentieth-century secular stage. Indian dance. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . alone among devadasi. But the history of contemporary bharathanatyamactually begins earlier. herself belonging to the devadasitradition. and they strutted about the earth in proud dignity. In this political atmosphere the devadasiwas transformed almost completely into an object. it seems to me.BHARATHA NATYAM 7 temple. The laws that had no heart had clever solutions. in the shabby clothes of "respectability. In 1931 the South Indian devadasidancers were featured on the Music Academy platform in Madras. in India's recent political history. Almost as an afterthought they offered the devadasi a secular stage as a new home. India was rediscovering its beaten-down authenticity. was being defined. almost as reparation she was forbidden to dance there. V. arrived helplessly on the secular stage. the division between inner and outer. because respectable people sanctioned it. Ordinary men were transformed into little gods. imaged in the silence of the temple. who later became the legendary figure of bharatha natyam. I believe. Krishna Iyer. as did millions in every hamlet of India. when barely in her teens. My grandfather. and definitely not for its own sake. India in the nineteenth century was beginning to cast off the foreign yoke. achieve status and prestige under the new system? I wish for sanity's sake that I could answer This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. cut off from the ritual roots of the temple? I will attempt to answer this by posing other questions. What about the psychological reality of her ceremonial marriage to the idol? Hundreds of devadasi were forced from the temple in ignominy and shame. mercilessly exposed the dying flame of her life. the cotton cloth spun in the seed and toil of the Indian earth. was featured on this platform in 1934. even as the dancers danced out their social shame in public.

it was a living tradition that fused belief with practice." elevated dance to a new high. who elevated dance and drama to the status of a high religion (vedantal).and early twentieth-century aestheticians and scholars involved in formulating the history of Indian dance. They did two things: they extolled the technical virtues of Bharatha's and they incorporated Abhinavagupta's eleventh-century JNatyashastra. I believe. however. cosmic oneness. Class had certainly become an issue. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . The issue. in attempting to compensate for its progressive "degradation. did not address the metaphysical nature of his aesthetic theatre. Theory. is far more complex and unassuring.and early-twentieth century scholars. and religious concentration. and the historical differences between the two were considered inconsequential by nineteenth. it is clear that middle-class notions of respectability had now become tied up with dance. 5). as hers was an inherited oral tradition open to change and sensitive to difference. being and awareness.8 Meduri this question unreflexively. It was the later scholars who inquired into the psychology and ontology of the art experience. had raised its ugly head in a purportedly autonomous medium such as art. however. The aesthetic experience after Abhinavagupta.probably written in the second to third century A. 25). The devadasipracticing her art form in the temple might have been better able to harmonize these shifting world views than the scholars. Aestheticians and scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. And it was accessible to the nineteenth-century rational consciousness.52." says Gowri Ramnarayan. "Some aver. How we are going to untangle all these interwoven issues is a challenge for posterity. Add to these complicating issues yet another theoretical issue. His language. Nineteenth. a talent that could offer almost effortlessly a momentary experience of rasa.D.. reinterpretation of the Natyashastra (Abhinavagupta 1926) into their new propaganda. to art as a state of mind. "that Rukmini Devi [the respected upper-middle-class Brahmin dancer and scholar] was indirectly responsible for Bala's shining as an unchallenged star" (1984c. was given to abstraction and phenomenology. Whatever Balasaraswati was or was not. However unreflexive her tradition might have been.67 on Tue.168. Bharatha himself. perceiving it as an experience that embodied transcendental knowledge.of rationality). separated from the dualisms and superstitions of uncivilized man (if civilization means growth . was reinterpreted in the eleventh-century language of Abhinavagupta. language springing from a certain specific world view. "was considered second only to the supreme experience and was thus termed its twin brother (brahmanandasahodara)" (1968. by admitting simply to her extraordinary talent. while continuing to speak of dance in terms of the Natyashastra itself. So Bharatha's Natyashastra. begins to operate in a vacuum unconnected with reality when it misses these differences. Abhinavagupta commented on the JVatyashastra the sophisticated in of psychology and ontology. says Vatsyayan.

168. She said: The shringara experience in bharatha we is natyam never carnal-never. The memory holding me back. she repeats the theory. the idea and the manifestation of it in form. low shringara" (Ramnarayan 1984b. Love was not sensuality for her. If I could thus freeze bharathanatyam. inner and outer-in short. but rather devotion (bhakti).But in the process they invested the new creation with their own notions of respectability. as if it were a separate phenomenon existing outside of time. I believe. 23). the dance now needs to be described on its own terms. living in a secular reality. I would then ask it a hypothetical question: Bharatha natyam-Are you The vision urging me on.52. They felt it would not satisfy the aesthetic taste of sophisticated society in which it must of necessity now function. struggles to embrace. the figure eight. which they renamed bharathanatyam. the theoretical ideal that has been set up.BHARATHA NATYAM 9 centuries unwittingly opened up a new kind of void for the contemporary performing artist when they cogently verbalized and made explicit the implicit philosophic rules that underlie and govern Indian art. in which both are held mutually captive. never. For those who have yielded themselves to this discipline with total This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. and the one cannot be separated from the other" (1968. of articulating a theory that can account for the practice of bharathanatyam. In this first step would be total freedom. life itself. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . The twentieth-century performing artist. In contrast to this. "Matter and style. Balasaraswati. As a first step. Rukmini Devi believed that the love (shringara) portrayed by devadasiwas "very ordinary. Aestheticians and scholars tried to reclaim sadir. a direct descendant of the devadasicommunity. but seldom achieves. In the words of Kapila Vatsyayan. felt that love was preeminent in the dance tradition because it emphasized both the self and the other. the autonomy that all art aspires towards. This figure eight excludes the secular practice of bharathanatyamand the important contemporary reality of the performing artist. and she therefore began to exalt devotion in her presentations. So theoretician and artist trace the same circle. Or are you the dance at the heart That does not move? Asking this reflexive question might imply the latent possibility of rediscovering the past in the constantly changing present. chokes the vital breath of bharathanatyamby not accounting for its secularization. emotionally and intellectually. go on merging into one another. If she cannot personally achieve the ideal. Rukmini Devi and others of her high social class saw the existing dance form as being too crude and literal.67 on Tue. This merging. 167).

52.10 Meduri 2.168.67 on Tue. Shringarais one of the eight major sentiments or emotions (rasa) expressed in bharathanatyam.) FIGURE This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . (Photo: Danna Byrom. A dancer in a shringara (seductive) mood.

52. Perfectly modern sophisticates who know nothing about Indian dance begin to use such words as epiphany. she actually began the secularization she so strongly abhorred.67 on Tue. sublime as they leave the theatre" (Raman and Ramachandran 1984a. dance like music is the practice of presence. It is common knowledge that Balasaraswati lashed out at this cleaned-up. The academy's aim. they were radically altering an ancient art form of the temple and shaping its future destiny. actually launched dance into a new era of intellectual awareness. By anticipating it. And by merely anticipating it. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Without the intellectual awareness. 22). The notes and the extensive explanations that accompany a dance recital today are a direct offshoot of the academy's intellectual inheritance. When Balasaraswati performed." So we see the beginning of a dialectic in the styles propagated by these two women. Rukmini Devi approached the same goal through body control. style. By surrounding it with social ritual and philosophical dogma. 27). and saw form as revealing content. on surrender to the medium that led effortlessly to the concentration of the Yogic mind. one felt blessed and revitalized. they invested the new dance with awe and respect. the only means by which they could assure its continuance in a social environment. and form. 28). Anna Kisselgoff said in the New York Times: "In one flash.BHARATHA NATYAM 11 dedication. exhibitions and publications"' (Ramnarayan 1984c. demonstrations. And Rukmini Devi had a reason for focusing on form-she was anticipating the secularization that is the most singular feature of Indian dance today. to "educate public opinion and develop good taste through concerts. spiritual. If Balasaraswati focused on inner feeling. the sacred origins of classical dance became clear. mind and awareness. In a typical Brahminical manner. "Brahminized" dance. 27). we might have lost forever a meaningful cultural experience. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. she focused on ritual. Whose gaze was it then that differentiated the vulgar from the sublime? And on what criteria? Who is to say what love is or what it is not? It seems as if the Brahmins were bringing their own philosophical and ideological biases to bear upon bharathanatyam.168. she was able to conceive of her academy (Kalakshetra) as an institution for the preservation and transmission of dance traditions that would become the boon and buffer for all of us who have learned dance after her. calling it in her turn "vulgar. Balasaraswati herself never tired of saying: "There is nothing in Bharatha Natyam which can be purified afresh. Yet Rukmini Devi and many educated Brahmins thought differently. it is divine and is innately so" (Raman and Ramachandran 1984a. Yet because of it we have lost something of the spirit of Balasaraswati. it cannot merely be the body's rapture (Raman and Ramachandran 1984a.By doing this. that inner spiritual exuberance or fullness. public lectures.

or the connoisseurs? What happened to Bharatha's ideal spectator.12 Meduri It may be useful to point out that Rukmini Devi and the other scholars who helped mobilize support for bharathanatyamdid not "rediscover" India as many claimed. and by doing so did not. Neither did the Madras Music Academy. She admires and remembers them both in deep reverence. but she knows that she cannot emulate them. in other words. dance became the exclusive entertainment of the "respectable"-the elite and middle class. The 1937 resolution of the academy said that "in order to make dancing respectable. while offstage in a ruthlessly competitive secular world she must be both intelligent and ambitious. Nor has the "open system" of public performances lent any new dignity or status to the contemporary performer.67 on Tue. to rectify the closed system of exploitation which had victimized the devadasiby opening up the dance to the public. and today the dancer is forced to play fully the dual roles of traditional and modern woman: onstage she dances the stories of the gods. The contemporary traditional dancer knows that her social reality is different from the social context in which Balasaraswati and Rukmini Devi danced. diversity of languages.168. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . A number of factors-urbanization. These two opposing world views are her historical inheritance. To whom did the resolution's phrase "respectable people" refer? The politicians and the educated elite class. This is a harsher reality than the devadasi ever faced. The resolution proposed. It excluded some segments of society. even more so in fact than in the days of sadir. they reinterpreted it in a respectable language for the modern masses. the academy was reversing a process it intended to push forward. rather. But the question that bothered me even as an adolescent was: What makes dancing really "respectable"? Did dance performed on platforms before the educated and respected classes of society-and thus in an "open system"acquire respectability by virtue of being presented before this public? That would mean that the dance itself was not any more respectable than before. the contemporary dancer is completely at the mercy of a new urban system represented not by one male but by many. She is still dependent on a male system. If the devadasiwas protected at least marginally by the temple or the patron. actually help make the dance more respectable. Ironically. On the contrary. and only she knows what this inner tension does to her. Yamini Krishnamurthi. it is necessary to encourage public performances thereof before respectable people" (Arudra 1986/1987. and a political history which has interrupted the continuity of Indian art-prevent any authentic rediscovery. 20).52. who is not clothed in society's garments of respectability but is tuned into the art experience for its own sake? Why was this person conspicuously left out? It seems to me that this "open system" was not so open after all. an institution involved in the political reformulation of bharatha natyam. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. let art permeate the social infrastructure. as purported.

If they have the economic means.BHARATHA NATYAM 13 an exponent of bharatha natyam in the city of New Delhi. Heraclitus said that you can never put your hand in the same water twice. When the devadasidance became "corrupted. the young dancers of India are ambitious. I am rather pointing out that when the arts and material power interweave and make a mutual pact to nurture each other. It used to be the other way around. canvass for them.g. Rukmini Devi perceived this dynamic and called it the secularization of the devadasidance. Intellectually tough. and a hierarchical power structure is created in which a certain kind of transaction occurs.. often educated. influential industrialists have risen to the occasion. two things happen: a certain kind of political propaganda is generated (e. and articulate. thus ensuring its continuance. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192.168. In this poignant statement I perceive a robust honesty. Her talent depressed me because I realized it would be impossible to be like her" (Samson 1984. says "Bala [Balasaraswati] was like a fabulous flower." as the story goes. Well-meaning. who set up the Kala Mandir (Temple for Fine Arts) Trust in Madras to offer financial assistance to the talented needy. Mothers more often than not enter the battlefield along with their daughters. I am amazed at the repetitive nature of this pattern. dance does not need this intellectual reinforcement-it is now considered "respectable" to be a dancer. Today. which trusts and various arts associations are providing to ensure its continuity. Dancers today more than at any other point in time are aware of this agonizing yet joyful truth. It seems to me that Rukmini Devi was pointing not just to a power transaction but also to an unhealthy relationship between money and the arts-a relationship which exists today. as in the instance of S. The students with economic power shop around for the best teachers and test them out. 28). independent. sadir is renamed bharathanatyam). The path to fame is not easy. then they struggle. but have the talent. At all times money is needed. one which forces a parasitical relationship of mutual interdependence. I am not suggesting that there was a "blessed time" in history when material power was not connected with the arts.67 on Tue. 22). they buy the best instruction available. belonging to respectable uppermiddle-class society. she saw secularization as synonymous with decay: The deterioration set in when dances began to be organized in the houses of the rich as entertainment during weddings and other family festivities (Ramnarayan 1984b. In her idealistic manner. If they do not. an awareness that the dancer's life can never be the way it once was. Dance now needs money. educated. and undertake the promotional work. Viswanathan.52. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . powerful people invested it with respectability. however.

in a press forum held at the Krishna Gana Sabha. Balasaraswati and Rukmini resisted.168. and sensuously on stage I invited this gaze upon myself. Let us now look at the contemporary performance phenomenon. strong.67 on Tue. "I feel demeaned seeking the patronage of critics. Is there a way out of this for me?" The press and dancers chose to ignore my indignant plea. Thus the dancer. both in spirit and in the outer manifestation of the performance itself. restraint. "conventionalized" mode of communication." By continuing to dress prettily. yet she is still in a servile position. is actually returning to man. The natyadharmi mode is expressive of the philosophical values of aucityam (proportion). They valued the natyadharmi. What is she making herself into? Not only does she look to him for nurture. which I must do if I want to survive in this system. Who was I dressing for. It was traumatic. Although there are some female dance teachers today.14 Meduri The question I am now leading up to is very simple: Who has the money in the present system? In a traditional patriarchal society such as India. in which subtle and refined nuances of expression take precedence. most contemporary women dancers are taught by men. especially in relation to the combined dance styles of Balasaraswati and Rukmini Devi. I understand why most contemporary dancers do not wish to deal with issues of gender in performance. I have had critics review me as a dancer with a "graceful figure" and "a lot of glamour. in the most impressionable period of her life. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. She has no other recourse. a cultural association for the promotion of dance/music. "realistic" mode of expression. She has to court and pander to the often-egotistical wishes of male critics. a condition she has accepted since birth. and it distracts one from the actual process of learning a skill. and manner. I said. Asking these questions paralyzed me into inaction and forced me to annul a comfortable arranged marriage and to leave the security of my father's home in search of my identity. and why? These questions became insistent and could not be ignored. to gesticulate. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . educated. men have always been invested with power and they have always made the rules. The contemporary dancer must be intelligent.52. I remember articulating this dilemma in Madras. is taught to interpret herself and her art through the male filter. elaborately. by returning to this system. I disdained this reduced position intellectually but I actually reinforced it in my own action. By latching tenaciously onto the natyadharmi style. They thought I was simply foolish and young. and even to feel by male dance teachers. I was taught to dance. which emphasizes exagor or gerated theatricality. and articulate to succeed today. and inner quiet. The female dancer then. attitude. These two dancers were unanimous in their condemnation of the lokadharmi. In fact. I venture to suggest that she might be in this position because she views herself as an object. she is also judged and evaluated by him. The matter is both complex and time-consuming.

how can one speak confidently of separateness. a society in the throes of a new birth-restless energy seeking variety. she protected herself in the ivory tower of her institution.52. Rukmini Devi never had to deal with the realities of the contemporary dancer. styles are used for communication. "Communication. modes of expression: "I use both says this about the lokadharmi/natyadharmi the lokadharmi and natyadharmi because I feel that using any one style will be monotonous. In art. has said. On the other hand. reaching out to maintain her distant memory of a spirit of India. and social institutions and their morality.67 on Tue. They were of another age. Balasaraswati's tradition (parampara)is captured and held today only by a few individuals like her daughter Lakshmi." and "originality" are terms that reveal the society we live in today." "personality. Some say she is pandering to their aesthetic desires by mode of expression. the dancer is reaching out to her audience today." "charisma. the dancer today is in an enervating dialectic of spiritual tension between the secular and the religious. But as Balasaraswati's disciple. doubly reinforced in dance as in life. 36). a charisma" (Samson 1984. and of being uninfluenced? The dancer. Subtle nuances get submerged in imaginary response This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. Look around at the number of Indian dance institutions we have here in the West (New York. Yamini Krishnamurthi. 39). Abhinaya means communication" (Ramnarayan 1983. sometimes across the vast geographical distance between East and West. a senior contemporary dancer and scholar. She performed rarely and only because she loved to dance. "I wonder sometimes if Bala's style is too restrained and subtle for contemporary taste that goes in for fast tempo and flashiness" (Ramnarayan 1984a. Padma Subramaniyam. believes that dance must "bring a certain excitement. Nandini Raghavan. a society influenced by Western education. Dancing was not her profession. 28). Surely all this activity is affecting the mainstream of performance in New Delhi and Madras." "individuality. and individualism. Yes. which demands little or no emphasizing the lokadharmi from the spectator. also experiences this restlessness.BHARATHA NATYAM 15 the secularization that was as much a part of their times as it is of ours. a spirit she knows is fast dying in the complex plurality of urban life. Born with a silver spoon. When the world shrinks in size and mythologies and cultures collide. Heir to the philosophic goal of self-transcendence. and contact with others. Los Angeles. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Why is she always reaching out? Reaching out to her audience. They could do it. patrons. a prominent bharathanatyamdancer in Northern India. who is a product of her society.168. while wearing for a brief time the exotic mask of an entertainer." "monotonous. excitement. and other centers) as well as at the triumphant Festival of India held in the United States over the past two years. reaching out within her own culture for financial and psychological independence from the male-dominated press. and of another time. aesthetics.

almost as if dance were a natural given. His imbibed notions of Western aesthetics are satisfied.168. a vitality that threatens to invert the traditional dynamics between man and woman. Is dance simply entertainment. Dancer and spectator are pitted as if this were a male-female confrontationagainst one another-almost in a situation in which a new energy is being played out. the myths and legends. This new dynamic forces an unbalanced interrelationship upon This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. the myths and legends which he has heard or read in his own cultural specificity. overawed by this unprecedented experience and confused by the new power and energy he perceives in the dancer. But the manner in which this content is presented on the social stage places it in the realm of entertainment.67 on Tue. let alone to understand it. it is this tolerance bordering on apathy that most bothers me. He sees and responds to the dramatic. the woman who reveals herself as capable of being so many things at once. because the religious roots of Indian dance. He observes the competent contemporary dancer's mastery of technique. Today the male spectator in India views the female dancer of bharathanatyam through his own preconceptions and needs. who sublimated herself in philosophical energy to the medium. or is it something more? Dancer and spectator are equally confused by this question. a confusion that views the new phenomena as continuous and synonymous with the past. and is fraught with tension.52. are still the bedrock content of the dance. the uniqueness. has to muster up more energy than ever before simply to respond to the dance. The more important question. I see in it the seeds of self-mystification. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . like the female dancer. he misses the ragged edges. is still a part of his experience. which he believes emphasizes Western notions of self and performance. the modern male spectator's response to a performance is mixed. And at other times he simply ignores the changes he sees on the stage. He also responds emotionally to the stories. and smooths the dance into a manageable wholeness which does not do justice to the new phenomena in their vivid presentness. the confidence she possesses both in her medium and in her knowledge of her past. He is momentarily confused and even overawed. He lashes out sometimes at this new dance. attributing all this to the changing sociological patterns of life. admitting no difference between the past and present. which they are and yet are not.16 Meduri the broad outlines of dramatic expression. and so the religious aspect of dance. is really about the function of dance in contemporary society. visual display of costume and jewelry. He knows her power and recognizes that she is unlike her ancestor. however. Of all these male reactions. He. By harmonizing the new phenomena. The confusion lies in the dialectical tension between the secular and the religious. To sum up. and is intellectually stimulated by the sophistication evident in the performance. though somewhat minimized in the new context. Sometimes in silent resignation he calms his threatened manhood.

objectifiable criterion for evaluation. this theory presupposes a superior plenitude of mind. Rasa. This state was a transcendental one (alaukika) the experience of pure bliss like (ananda)(Vatsyayan 1968. difficult to achieve in a secular reality. which have in turn altered their approaches to life and art. Yet performers and present-day scholars continue to eulogize the rasa experience as set out in the ancient past. and the time is ripe.52. Rasa thus is no longer an intersubjective experience between spectator and artist. Traditional historians. Yet it poses some problems in its translation to a secular world. and that they remain constant. it was experienced when the duality of subjectand object disappeared through intense introversion. The dancer today wants the power of manipulation to rest with her. 8).168. The prominent practitioners of the dance are beginning to redefine the art. According to him. on the contrary. what is the value of an aesthetic that is so completely subjective? Dance has entered a secular reality. An audience cannot dictate terms to a dancer. and for this reason it needs a robust. Her own inner strength must control the process. Is Abhinavagupta's theory of rasa even applicable in today's context? By insisting on its applicability. Second. in terms of both psychology and ontology. I believe. At the same time the dancer cannot presupposethat her inspiration will come from the audience. 27). for theory to embrace practice and reevaluate itself. believe that spectators are co-creators supplying through the power of their own minds a vital energy without which rasa cannot be created. Yamini Krishnamurthi.BHARATHA NATYAM 17 artist and spectator. one that is not simply normative. an interaction that subverts Abhinavagupta's traditional interpretations of the rasa theory. rebelling against the subjective autonomy of spectators who consume everything into their own minds. What are the long-term consequences of ignoring these circumstantial differences This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. Spectators today are mentally tired and too out of tune with their culture to energize the rasa experience in this manner. It rests more on the performer's own subjectivity and mental concentration. We have seen that both the dancer and the spectator have different values today. This description of the art experience is profoundly true. says: Dance has to vibrate. was a state of union with the universal spirit which both artist and spectator achieved by transcending the pain and pleasure of everyday life. for Abhinavagupta. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . and ultimately.67 on Tue. First. one is assuming that values are universal. She must lead them on her journey (Samson 1984. a state was evoked unlike any empirical experience. and she is willing to take this responsibility.

Shh. however. yah? Do look at the ring on her finger. My favorite moment had arrived. One said. When I witnessed the performance for the first time. and literature harmoniously. what a moment it was! Time froze into mythical timelessness.. creating an almost perfect aesthetic illusion.. to listen selectively to her music.Avalum nookinal.67 on Tue.written by the poet Kamba. "Avanumnookinan." The second girl you understand-hey. gathered and defined in the ambiance of India and her mesmerizing gods. An unconscious memory generated in the seed and silence of the womb suffused my entire physical body." Oh. I wished to understand the nature of my aesthetic experience by making myself over into an object for analysis." Even as the musical cadence fell to its basic tone. Look. In fact. the moment encompassing the lyric "Avanumnookinan. let me tell you another story. then Sita's shy fluttering gaze in response. "Being" and "becoming" were thus personified in this "gaze. I saw the performance four times. I went back a third time and overheard two "upper-class" Brahmin ladies exchanging cooking recipes for the fast-approaching religious festival. the melody was so captivating that it rises to fill in the spaces between these words even as I write them-perhaps primal sound is more powerful than for this melody has haunted my imagination ever since. Undaunted. however. To be quite honest. I remember being distracted even in that moment.) I was quite literally shattered." (Amitabh and Rekha are the romantic pair of the Indian silver screen.18 Meduri by simply juxtaposing the past and the present as if they were one continuous movement? To illustrate this point.avalum nookinal" (he sees. I recollect poetry. color. What possible future can there be for an art form that a new generation cannot relate to except in the literal terms of the movies? Little wonder that the bharathanatyamdancer today This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. The presentation was intensely evocative. So I went back a second time.168. that is how Amitabh looks at Rekha in the film Silsila. tells the mythological story of the divine couple Rama and Sita. I remember quite vividly one particular moment in the play. a specialist in her own right.52. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . the marked person. blending music. the initiated spectator (sahrydaya) who had neither value nor connection with the changing world. she sees). I looked at them quizzically and wondered about their presence in the theatre and the meaning of art. I heard two teenage girls sitting next to me whispering. "What is it. by the excellent musical performance of Shyamala Balakrishnan. I looked around me and realized that I was the outcast.. watching Padma mime Rama's motionless gaze. said. I was simply transfixed. Four years ago I witnessed Padma Subramanyam's performance of the dance drama Kamba Ramanayamin the august premises of the Madras Music Academy. into the root of my childhood life. wailed constantly and frustrated my experience. KambaRamanayam. A child in the next seat. I went back a fourth time. "Shh..

BHARATHA NATYAM 19 is motivated by both a sense of power and an anxiety. But the wheel spins on and dancers spin on it. fifteen years later. 29) (PLATE4). in the silence of her soul. out of touch with her audiences. It is not the dancer who is out of tune with her inherited culture. So the sensitive dancer today. Alone in her dressing room. I ask? Can those seeds even sprout in the earth today? What about the external circumstances. two sides of the same coin. the discrepancy in the levels of awareness of the audience. and jewelry. without mourning.52. Swapna Sundari. finds her existence quite isolating." this exaggerated display of empty rhythm and unproductive energy. rich costumes. her Kalakshetra. in quiet contemplation. The cosmopolitan nature of the audience that attends a dance performance. Balasaraswati lashed out. that if nobody does anything about it. without hope for a future. It is time for the next performance. 38).168. with vengeance. and said in self-justification: You can take a horse to the water but you can't make it drink.67 on Tue. of joyless negation. What seeds. I have given the students of Kalakshetra all the opportunities. the next younger lot will not even know the symbols of Rama and Krishna" (Raman 1984b. her history. But supposing it doesn't work. becoming essentially expendable. Rukmini Devi quietly turned her face away: she went to her illusory tower. Some seek traditional answers to the present-day dilemma. the weeds that stifle this energy? All that one can really do is to understand. the pale imitation that she has become. bemoaned this "vulgarity. forced to leave the precincts of the temple? Has history repeated itself? Has the pattern come full circle? Am I now like my devadasimother. don't you think that. and asks her reflection: Am I any different from my devadasi mother. this moment in time. and the general heterogeneity of these audiences put dance itself into question. in the nakedness of her face. She cannot forget her ideal. a South Indian who is practicing bharathanatyam in the north. she peels off layer after layer of thick makeup. the inner pain of this dancer. Isn't that all that tradition is anyway. but the audience. Padma Subramanyam says. "I completely agree that my dancing is different from the prevalent style of bharathanatyam. valueless? She pauses. you have sown the seeds? (Ramnarayan 1984d. Her dance seems militant and aggressive. a birth and a death? Why not pause on this death. if at all possible. She swings back into action from that center of nullity. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . but briefly. says "so much of our own culture has diminished so fast. if you have worked all your life. which makes even more urgent the question of dance and its meaning in a changing cultural context.I would like to clarify that this deviation from the norm is This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. and recognizes briefly but unforgettably. and her leaps and bounds across the stage often seem pointless.

in the belief that serious questioning must have some meaning. like Sonal Mansingh. and action. a performer. which they like to call tradition. who could be independent only on the basis of these criteria. This is understandable. a dancer is as much a product of her past as she is a reflection of her times. In form. a theory that can describe and evaluate the secular reality of dance in all its marvelous multiplicity." Chandralekha.20 Meduri only a return to the roots of tradition" (Ramnarayan 1983. at least theoretically. I wished to give birth to my tradition in body. In practice. My own response was to flee the country at twenty-two. But as long as Shiva's theoretical dancing snake continues to frame Indian dance. Reflexive awareness for today's educated dancers has come at a great price. thought.3 I articulate today. Yeats in his poem "Choice" sums up my own predicament: "The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life or of the work. In exile. will. which resides in the Indian heart. They see life as separate from art. like myself. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . I fled to America in an effort to free myself from the shackles of being an attractive talented woman. It has disillusioned some. Most traditional dancers don't experience this choice. without whose protection I could not have honorably survived in India. Each is trying to discover a tradition. to a unity. she believes. It is not a tranquil situation. some of the questions of my childhood. and finally there was my father. forced others into a tighter illusory embrace with tradition. many thousands of miles away from home. Some other dancers. then it was my teacher. Men had defined so much of my life and thought: Bharatha's historical presence loomed large in my earlier life.52. they wish to create "little pools of delight. but I had no other choice. say quite simply. I think we need a post-colonial aesthetic. So I left India.168. I believe. in human activity. gave up the life of a traditional performer. This search for a single theoretical unity is the characteristic mythical search of the Indian mind.2 its mesmerizing power. an authentic expression. they see tradition as a dynamic process. and propelled still others. I wished to assert the power of my mind over my sex." Perfection of the work was not possible for me without the discovery of my self. a stability. of nostalgic return to traditional narrative. an object. Which tradition? Indian dancers wish to connect.67 on Tue. a search which reiterates circularity and sameness. is embedded the unity of Indian life. who came to occupy a position next to God. overpower and negate the contemporary performance phenomena. however. a radical idealist. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. however small. The practice of bharathanatyamhas for a variety of secular reasons broken the bounds of ancient theory. I knew even then that I was exchanging one prison for another. art being a representation of ideal time as opposed to temporal time. I wished to discover my separateness from them. Having lived all my life under the protection of men in a patriarchal society. She urges dancers to stop this repetitive practice of spectacle performances. out of the country. 37). and to focus on form.

1967) and Asiatic Society (vol. The snake adorns his neck. Balasaraswati. 1984." Sruti (March): 16-31. 3." Sruti (March): 35-39. My Guru. Anne-Marie. 1984d. Calcutta: Granthalaya (vol. my dance drama does not seek to produce a sense of oneness. "The Transfiguration of a Traditional Dance. "A Quest for Beauty. "Rukmini Devi: Restoration and Creation. 1986/1987." Sruti (October): 26-32. "Bala on Bharata Natyam. 1984c. "Yamini Krishnamurthi: A Capital Dancer in Twilight. 1982. 1984b.52. "Interview: Swapna Sundari: A Thoughtful Terpsichorean. Baroda: Gaekward Oriental Press. REFERENCES Abhinavagupta. 1961)." Sruti (November): 20-31. Raman. But the resemblance ends there." Sruti (March): 11-15. 1984a.67 on Tue. and Ramachandran Anandhi. 1984b. Ramnarayan. "Bala. 2. In content. 1. 1926. a tension I have experienced both in life and in art. The Natyasastra. Siva in Dance. 1984." Sruti (December/January): 17-21." Sruti(June): 17-29.edited by Ramakrishna Kavi. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Bombay. "Dancer and Reformer. Vedantais a complex branch of Indian philosophy that articulates the of the atman (soul). As a practitioner of the art. Bharata-Muni. Leela." Sruti (December): 36-37. aharya (costume). Shiva is the Preceptor God of Indian dance. Arudra.BHARATHA NATYAM 21 NOTES 1. translated by Manomohan Ghosh. I have choreographed a dance drama that includes Bharatha's four modes of expression: vacika (speech). and sattvika (psychological states)." Sruti (August): 26-38. 1984a." Sruti (July): 17-26.168. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192. theory 2. and Madras: Delhi University Press. Pattabhi. Calcutta. Gaston. 1961 and 1967. angika (movement). but rather consciously juxtaposes the platonic and the existential world views. AbhinavaBhdratz. Samson. Myth and Iconography. "The Whole World in Her Hands. "Interview: Padma Subramanyam. Gowri. 1983.

. New Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. 1968. Indian Classical Dance in Literature and the Arts.168. Kapila. Indian Classical Dance. 13 Nov 2012 18:28:59 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .22 Meduri Vatsyayan. 1974. This content downloaded by the authorized user from 192.52.67 on Tue. New Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

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