The future of Bharatanatyam: A rasika's view
- Aneal Krishnamurthy, VA
e-mail: anealk@yahoo.com

May 15, 2008

A writer contemplating the future of Bharatanatyam less than a century ago would never have anticipated the revolution about to take place over the coming decades. In the same way, it is quite certain that Bharatanatyam a century from now is going to look different from what we know today.

The following article is a compilation of some of my observations as a rasika, and not a dancer, of several trends that I see in the Bharatanatyam world. My hope is that the comments and questions in the article will engender discussion and debate by those more knowledgeable than me in these matters. In my view, Bharatanatyam does indeed have a strong future but is currently undergoing certain changes that could have a profound impact on the art form. This article aims to discuss certain trends that I have observed over the past few years and attempts to raise some important questions for dancers and scholars in this field.

Trends in Bharatanatyam technique:
Bharatanatyam is slowly but surely moving towards more athleticism. Although no one can doubt the strength and endurance required for dancers to competently perform a whole margam, there seems to be a marked emphasis on athleticism by some dancers on stage. The athleticism almost borders on acrobatics and gymnastics. This type of dancing seems to have a certain appeal to audiences and I wonder if more dancers will follow in this path.

Another related point is the growing emphasis by some dancers on nrtta to the detriment of abhinaya. It is commonplace for jathis to last for several minutes tiring both the dancer and the audience. The pace is often fast and furious. Sometimes this pace sacrifices the crisp completion of each adavu. Is this desire for speed being driven by the audience? Are dancers worried that without some spectacular footwork fireworks, the audience will not stay interested? With regard to padams and other abhinaya-oriented pieces, are dancers worried that they will not be able to sustain the audience's attention with a slow-paced piece solely focused on mime?

Another issue is the apparent loss of importance of the Araimandi stance. It is very rare to see dancers with proper Araimandi. If it is acceptable today for a dancer to have just a slight outward turning of the knees and sitting a few inches lower than his or her height, why even call it a half-sitting position? Review after review will note in a sentence (usually towards the end of the review) that the dancer's Araimandi stance is missing or not consistent. What is surprising to me is the minimal impact that the lack of Araimandi has on the overall critique of the dancer. I have observed that dancers are routinely praised for their technique even though there is no Araimandi. Perhaps lack of Araimandi is a result of dancers increasing the speed of their nrtta. Is this only one isolated component of Bharatanatyam that is slowly being lost or are there other components that are suffering a similar fate?

Trends in Bharatanatyam performance content:
A highly visible development over the past few years is the move towards more thematic programs. Within thematic shows, particularly abroad, there is a movement to make Bharatanatyam relevant to non-Indian audiences. Modern social issues are often the themes chosen. Is the traditional margam no longer enough to sustain the attention of the modern audience? Are dancers making efforts to educate rasikas on the complexities of a margam?

What do dancers think about the future of the margam format? Although this has been the traditional performance structure for several centuries, do dancers find the traditional items limiting in scope? Do dancers feel that, through a margam, they cannot fully express their thoughts? Already, the Shabdham has more or less made its exit from the margam. What is next? Javalis? As many Bharatanatyam performers are young (especially at the amateur level), how can they be expected to exhibit the maturity required for performing these more intense items? It is interesting to see the relatively recent incorporation of the Pushpanjali into many margams. It is quite possible that other items from a margam will be added or deleted as the years go by.

Another trend is the broadening of the music used for Bharatanatyam. Traditional Carnatic music is being supplemented with compositions in other Indian languages. Just as the language of Bharatanatyam music shifted from being predominantly Telugu to encompass Tamil and Kannada compositions over time, it is not beyond the realm of imagination to think of a day where compositions in a non-Indian language like English could become acceptable. Western classical and contemporary music is also being experimented with by some dancers. Obviously, over time and with enough dancers moving in this direction, the music of Bharatanatyam will not stay static.

Fusion of dance styles and music is all the rage in some circles. Can a Bharatanatyam dancer performing choreography interwoven with different dance styles remain uninfluenced by the other styles?

Although group performances are not a new concept, there seems to be a feeling among some that the more Bharatanatyam dancers there are on stage, the better the show. Perhaps it is an economic issue as well. The more dancers you have on stage, the more friends and family that may attend which will result in increased ticket sales. As there are more and more group performances, will there be any negative impact on the scope for a solo artist?

Trends in Bharatanatyam teaching and learning:
Bharatanatyam seems to be developing in two parallel tracks - the professional and the amateur. The vast majority of dancers treat the art form as one of their extra curricular activities, not as a profession. The dancer's arangetram is seen by many as the culmination of training rather than the traditional ascension of the stage and the start of the dance career.

Particularly among Indians settled abroad, Bharatanatyam is viewed as an important tool in teaching Indian culture and values to children being raised away from the cultural influences that shaped their parents.

There appears to be a noticeable trend away from the mastery of the fundamentals. Children who are often not ready for the stage are decked out in beautiful costumes and jewelry for the visual consumption of their families and friends. Praise is lavished a little too freely and the epidemic of standing ovations for mediocrity is spreading. Is it any wonder that audience sizes are dwindling?

It is also very interesting to observe the generational shift among Bharatanatyam dance teachers. The great gurus of the 20th century were themselves taught by great nattuvanars who were keepers of the Devadasi tradition. The gurus of the 21st century will be composed of dancers a generation or two removed from the great gurus. In the modern age, the strict gurukula pattern of learning dance is almost extinct. As the decades pass by, it is not unreasonable to expect that what is being taught is going to change. As an extreme anecdotal example, a teacher, herself trained rigorously by a great guru, teaches only a set of Thattadavus and Nattadavus as the foundation before moving on to teaching items. I fear that this type of teaching is not just an isolated event but is something that is spreading. It is alarming to think that a student receiving this kind of training may someday go on to become a Bharatanatyam teacher.

Trends in societal acceptance:
It seems to me that some of the primary obstacles for choosing Bharatanatyam (or any art form generally) as a profession are societal and the monetary costs associated with being a performer. It is quite rare to see Bharatanatyam dancers who do not have another profession to rely on it for their livelihood. It is even more rare to see dancers with parents who encourage their children to pursue Bharatanatyam over academics. Bharatanatyam is encouraged by many families so long as it does not ultimately interfere with other more “professional” ambitions. Even if a dancer is encouraged by her parents, when she gets married, she has to hope that her husband and in-laws are supportive of her choice.

Perhaps, her new family will only be accepting of her teaching dance and discourage a professional dance career. The path becomes even more difficult if a dancer becomes a mother. As with any profession, juggling motherhood and professional aspirations is no easy task. A serious pursuit of Bharatanatyam requires a lot of time practicing, rehearsing, choreographing, performing and traveling. For a young mother, time away from her child can be very difficult emotionally and cause feelings of guilt. As she gets older, can she maintain her beauty and graceful figure? If she succumbs to the aging process, can she develop a thick skin to not get affected by comments that she is too old or too fat?

Young men equally have difficult challenges ahead of them if they choose to pursue Bharatanatyam as a profession. Men are generally not encouraged to follow careers in dance and face many uphill battles with society to gain the recognition that they seek. The very small number of men pursuing Bharatanatyam either as amateurs or professionals is testament to the difficulty of getting more male involvement in the art form.

Trend in expenses:
Even if societal obstacles can be overcome, another development is the exponential increase in the cost of performing. Factoring in the cost of a live orchestra, costumes, jewelry, traveling etc., Bharatanatyam is a pricy profession. It is also very likely a self-financed profession. With so many dancers vying for attention, most sabhas feel no pressure to compensate the artists. It really is a business and those dancers that can draw ticket-paying audiences can reap some reward. The lucky few who perform abroad on tours on a regular basis have the chance to supplement their income. The rest have to rely on income earned from other professions or their families to fund their Bharatanatyam careers.

Another trend is a vast increase in the number of performances and a corresponding dwindling of the audiences. With the exception of certain of the established veterans, do most Bharatanatyam dancers have an established fan base? Not just family and friends who attend a program but rasikas who are excited to see the dancer perform? Are most dancers prepared for the years of toil that it may take to gain the support of rasikas?

With so many competing societal influences, I wonder if enough is being done to educate the young of today to grow into the rasikas of tomorrow. After all, it is the young who will financially sustain the art in the future.

Parting thoughts:
I hope that by laying out some of my own personal observations of trends that I see in Bharatanatyam and raising many questions, this article will get people talking about the future of Bharatanatyam. At this point in time, Bharatanatyam at the amateur level is exploding in popularity. Bharatanatyam at the professional level, however, is a big question mark. With so many obstacles to overcome, will talented dancers have the perseverance and resources to achieve their goals? Finally, upon achieving these goals, will they be greeted by an auditorium full of adoring fans or by a vast sea of empty seats?

As a rasika, I believe that if Bharatanatyam (either at the amateur or professional level) is to continue to flourish, dancers must present the best. There are far too many mediocre programs these days, and when we in the audience see performers whose technique hasn't been perfected and whose expressions are lifeless, our desire to support this beautiful art form will surely fade.


This article was written for the "article writing challenge" organized by the Ranga Mandira Trust and won the first prize after being chosen by a panel of judges. The article was published in the Sruti magazine - Issue 280- January 2008.