Can an ancient dance form like Bharatanatyam be copyrighted?
by Rajyashree Ramesh, Berlin
e-mail: natyam@aol.com

August 7, 2004
An article in Times of India on copyrights made interesting reading, especially the various views in fields like fashion designing, cuisine, arts. etc. Where the art of dance is concerned there are very subtle differences, which will make the question of copyright a theme worth discussing. Can an ancient dance form like say Bharatanatyam be copyrighted? Can anyone making small changes to an ‘adavau' (basic unit of dance) or a ‘hasta' (hand gesture) patent the name of the adavu or hasta itself? Today there are intellectual property rights an individual or organisation can claim. Should the rest of the dance fraternity lose free accessibility to something, which has been a living tradition since time immemorial?

The accessibility to dance itself can never be restricted and dance as it is cannot be copyrighted. In its very basics the classical dance of India is universal in nature - as universal as a human body or emotion can be. Descriptions like: “Brahma created dance or Siva is the cosmic dancer” give us an idea of the origin in creation itself. At that basic level as Indian dance is practised and performed even today, there is no question of copyright. It has a universal movement repertoire that exists at the bottom line of all dance forms. Life is its source. This is what Bharata's 'Natyasastra' tries to describe, mentioning at the same time that people of various regions would interpret and perform these differently. These differences in rendering are evident in anthropology itself and seen in the variety we have today. Therefore even Bharatamuni did not claim copyright for what he described as ‘natya' in his treatise.

By following the codex set up in such treatises the Indian dancer always calls upon these as the source of his/her dance, just like the dancer calls upon the Tanjore Quartette or other source as the origin of the particular way of rendering a dance style or a particular choreography of the classical repertoire. Nevertheless in the course of time the rendering changes (it is normal that aesthetics, lifestyles and even moving habits change and Indian dance has always been adjusted to suit these, while practitioners constantly made sure that essence and continuity never really got lost). At the same time rendering a movement or the understanding and rendering of a particular emotion are subjective, where each dancer brings her individuality / personality / body into it, which again changes with time. But the time frame for Indian dance is not just a few decades as is evident from examples of copyright cases in the West, but spans centuries. It then becomes difficult to trace the source back to a particular name or period. This is the reason why the idea of claiming copyright is so alien to the Indian dancer or even a true artist.

But nevertheless there is concern for sourcing in Classical Indian dance where the lineage of Masters is concerned. The classical repertoire normally consists of dance items or dance dramas, created by Masters and handed down their lineage, but also created anew in each generation. (But I don't think such Masters called or considered themselves choreographers - a modern day term really, because their creations were based on existing ancient knowledge and dance vocabulary, acknowledging the nuances and differences that time and each dancer would bring.) These sources have nevertheless been respected in various ways:
  • By the mention of names of masters / lineage when performing (this is important for the very career of a dancer even today).
  • By keeping up the essence of what made their dance / dance style so exceptional, i.e. by making sure that these were / are not remoulded to an extent that this essence is lost.
  • By passing on these items with utmost care, and so on. 'Intellectual property' of older generation masters used to be protected because dancers would not perform these without their 'blessings'. Nor would they be taught to anybody without their consent. This goes together only with a particular way of thinking that once again goes only with ethics. This was seldom questioned due to the close bondage and relationship that existed and still exists in most of the cases between teacher and disciple in India. Most of the dancers would therefore not even think of calling a classical item or dance drama her / his choreography if s/he was taught this by her master.
Another way of protecting this 'property' has been that the music compositions were not freely available for all to make use of. Until a few years ago it was unthinkable to purchase commercial cassettes of classical dance music. Making music available is even today a mark of trust and respect, between teacher and dancer or between collaborating dancers. A traditional form of copyright has thus existed, not as individual right but collective (belonging to mankind / posterity) ‘intellectual property' protection. If this tradition gets discontinued, there is definitely cause for concern.

With today's dancers creating their own classical items as well as thematic productions, things have changed. The terms choreography and choreographer are used even in the Indian dance scene, often very randomly. When does a Jathiswaram, Varnam or Tillana become the intellectual property of the person creating a new version of it? And if it does, because some country's regulation, not understanding the history behind it, allows it, can these names, which describe particular items of the classical Bharatanatyam repertoire be patented? Whose composition rights should be considered for music? And if a particular musician has composed the music and has the right to claim copyright for it, should not someone make sure that the name of the raga itself cannot be patented? The same applies to themes, which are nothing new, but are being revived or reinterpreted. And if the question of copyright should come up in such cases, it should be closely scrutinised as to what is being copyrighted and under what name. That part, which an individual can claim as innovative creation belonging to or becoming his / her intellectual property, cannot be more than a tiny bit, because classical items are set choreographic patterns set by masters, mostly generations ago and called accordingly, but allowing renewal of both musical and thematic content.

Comparison to examples of copyright issues as known in the West can therefore only be applicable to the modern concept of choreography / choreographer, where a completely new movement repertoire/style or format of presentation is created today. But even where contemporary choreographers are concerned, is there one who has not tapped from the movement repertoire that has existed in some discipline somewhere in the world? The idea/notion of using it in a specific fashion is perhaps new and individual. But isn't it often so that many work simultaneously on similar ideas not knowing about the others - as is also known with scientific inventions, the difference being that creativity in art is subjective. As an artist I can change my idea for the next presentation of the same creation by bringing new nuances. Isn't this very basic concept the dynamic ever-changing living tradition of art? The difference in dance again is that seeing it ‘live' is believing that ‘rasa' exists, not when framed / formatted and saved. The option to copyright can again be only minimal.

When I choreograph a stage production for an official theatre, since these copyright rules exist in the West, I have to sign agreements. Do I keep or forego my 'intellectual protection rights' should I leave the production, especially after it is premiered? My source for inspiration and new ideas is dance in its most basic form as known in India and elsewhere and life itself. Due to these reasons if I opt to forego these, someone coming in later could claim these were his/hers. Pragmatically thinking, yes we do live in such a world. Therefore it would be worthwhile to consider signing the agreement under the condition that anyone else staging it with a similar movement repertoire later cannot claim these rights either, thus making sure that Indian dance is protected from restriction alien to it. But ‘copying' for the sake of it is an age-old phenomena, isn't it? If someone claims a copy as hers/his, he/she will find ways and means to do it, immaterial of copyrights already existing, because one can always claim that there is a subtle change. Similarly anyone can claim that a particular idea was originally hers/his and therefore cannot be used by others. Even here someone taking over the ideas can argue that there are subtle changes. Therefore neither claimer can really win if they are wanting to patent something as universal as dance itself. Any intellectual property right can apply only to a very particular aspect, really very difficult to define.

Copyright, yes or no, will remain a very sensitive area requiring close monitoring and public awareness of where lines have to drawn, remembering that dance as a whole cannot belong to any individual, but each individual can bring in refreshing changes and a personal touch. Having written my ideas, it is interesting to read another news item, that some Berlin baker wants to patent the name ‘Currywurst' (a speciality sausage) for 10 years. A spokeswoman of the Patent Office explains that according to German regulations the name to be patented should not describe the product. She quotes the name Apple as example. Thus the name ‘Currywurst' cannot be patented for the traditional sausage in curry ketchup itself and no sausage vendor selling this product need worry. SO THERE IS HOPE. If someone has created a new ‘Jathiswaram' and wants to patent it, fine, give it another name, because the traditional name describes the choreographic pattern itself - the swara or musical notes set to a jathi (a short choreography of dance units). Similarly, if the name happens to get patented for the new creation, it can't be the traditional item anyway. Texmati? Why not? I can still call my rice basmati, as long as I am not eating that particular version.


Bharatanatyam dancer Rajyashree Ramesh is artistic director of Academy for Performing Art, Mörchinger Strasse 43g, 14169 Berlin, Germany.