Secularism in Indian classical dance form
- V Soumyasri Pawar, Aurangabad
e-mail: devmudra2007@gmail.com

September 8, 2007

Whenever I begin a new class with new aspirants from different religious backgrounds or choreograph for some special performance, I ponder about where to begin. I try and think of songs or themes which are adequate for the situation without any strings attached to a particular faith. It becomes very difficult but somehow I manage to do it with some instrumental music.

These days I am visiting an NGO; they are preparing a small cultural program to be put up on the United Nations Foundation Day in New Delhi. This NGO helps families below poverty line by giving them useful vocational training and teaching them the benefits of organic farming. It's a setup in a rural area, a part of not so very affluent Maharashtra.

When I visited the place for the first time as a dance teacher, all of them gathered around me. They all wanted to dance. They are in an assorted age group of 15 to 65 but the enthusiasm was at par. It was really refreshing and encouraging for me and the interaction with them is something unforgettable.

I was wondering where to begin, because these women come from various religious, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, with very little education to boot. I usually begin my dance class with a couple of body stretches, breathing and yoga exercises. They tried to repeat after me and though it was cumbersome in their sarees, they did not complain. Here I must mention that they were all slim and almost in shape though rather stiff and clumsy in posture but the age old cultural baggage made them hesitate to sit straight and erect.

It was not the shyness but an automatic reaction which is ingrained somewhere deep in the psyche. As a classical dance teacher trained in Bharatanatyam, I began with Namaskar, and demonstrated for them a few times. Everyone tried to repeat in their own way, trying to correct the leg positions, hand movements etc. They were around 25, and each one needed my assistance. I saw one woman (must say a girl because they marry so young) standing in the corner not even trying to do anything. I thought that she must be having some problem and continued performing the same Namaskar over the next twenty minutes. Once or twice, I happened to notice that she was intently looking at the other "dancers." Practice session was over; six to seven of them almost learnt how to perform Namaskar. I was quite thrilled with my achievement.

While I was leaving the hall, an elderly lady came to me. Right from the beginning, I thought she was some kind of a leader, she was polite and confident. I was wondering what she wanted to ask me. "Madam, Shabnam also wants to dance but she wants to ask her husband first." Unaware of what the elderly lady really meant, I just said "Fine."

But the lady persisted. "Madam, Shabnam is worried. It is Hindu dance, is it not? It is like Puja, is it not? Shabnam is not Hindu, so how will she be able to convince her husband?" It was a very difficult situation for me. How could we convince Shabnam's husband? Right from the first step which I was teaching them, Shabnam's husband might find it offending. And it was not only Shabnam, there may be hundreds of Shabnams.

In the world when we are talking about globalization, are we going to remain as conservative and orthodox as we are today? In the name of classicism, do we have any right to deprive Shabnam, Suzanne or anyone else whose faith does not match for certain scriptures, and what they follow as a religious sanctity will deprive them from learning this great Indian classical dance form which is deeply rooted in Hindu culture. The motifs, symbols, gestures, myths, regions, epics used in performances are predominantly borrowed from Hindu culture. All these thoughts confused me further. I am trying to find a convincing answer for Shabnam's husband and I know for sure Shabnam wants to dance and I hope the day will come soon.

The other day, I was reading The Times of India's Sunday (Aug 19, 2007) section of Q & A with Navtej Johar, one of the few accomplished male Bharatanatyam dancers. I was heartened to know he feels that somewhere the saturation point has come in some Indian classical dance forms and we need to revive it again. He himself is experimenting with unconventional and innovative ideas.

Many dancers like late Chandralekha, Dr. Kanak Rele, Anita Ratnam and many dancers / scholars have worked and are working hard on these lines to make it secular and global. I am not losing hope and I think I am getting inspired to give a serious thought to this and have some convincing answer for Shabnam's husband.

I wonder when this classical art form will truly be global where no Shabnam or Suzanne will be deprived of learning.


V Soumyasri Pawar is a Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer and Director of the institute Devmudra, a movement school in Aurangabad.