The slow spread of Occidentalitis in describing Indian Performing Arts
- Kollengode S Venkataraman, Pittsburgh, PA

February 11, 2010

Occidentalitis is a virus that has been slowly creeping into Indian performing arts. You may not find this word in dictionaries. But from occidental, and the suffix -itis, you will get an idea.

In late 1980s in a dance recital at the Sri Venkateswara Temple at Pittsburgh - it was Bharatanatyam, I remember - the dancer, a sophisticated dancer from New Delhi, was introducing her dance piece to an overwhelmingly Indian-immigrant audience using the word libretto, an operatic term. Obviously, none of the Indians knew what she was describing; better still, what on earth she was describing. None of the handful of young Americans in the audience too understood libretto. They were there to have a good time seeing for the first time an Indian dance with brightly colorful costumes, music with unintelligible lyrics and complicated drumbeats made with simple-looking instruments.

That was my first encounter with occidentalitis in Indian performing arts. If I had then the courage I have today, I would have raised my hand and asked the dancer to define, explain, and describe libretto.

Recently (January 2010), Sadhana Rao wrote a tongue-in-cheek column entitled "The Rest is Noise," in, whose readers would be almost 100% Indian, on the Chennai's December Music Season. In her article she has used the following words: pianissimo, fortissimo, solfeggio, cadenza; and leitmotif.

Now, how many of you - even those living in the US or England for decades - are familiar with these words? I went to my Webster to know that these are technical terms used in the opera and symphony music. And how many mainstream Americans or the British, for that matter? And how many fully anglicized Indians in India can comprehend these words?

Sadhana then uses Indian musical terms. But she helps her anglicized and culturally alienated Indian readers by giving the English meanings for the simple Indian terms within parentheses. These are exact quotes from Sadhana Rao:

"Kacheri Paddhati (concert format)," "Sampradaya (tradition)," "gamakas (the various glides and graces in embellishing musical notes)," and "tani avarttanam (the solo performance of the percussionist...)"

The implication is that the anglicized Indian readers need no explanation for the European technical terms in Western classical music, but they need explanation for terms rooted in the Indian musical tradition. That is how pathetic the general awareness of the arts scene is among the anglicized Indians. This brings the next point:

In ticketed Indian dance recitals by professionals these days, emcees introduce Indian dance pieces often reading from text prepared by someone else. The emcees are usually chosen for their diction and cadence in delivery, which is just fine. They usually credit Bharatanatyam to Sage Bharata who catalogued the nuances of Indian dance in his 2nd century work Natya Shastra. This description is precise and just perfect.

Some years ago, someone afflicted with occidentalitis came up with a new explanation for Bha-ra-ta-natyam in terms of Bhaavam, Raagam, and Taalam. He retrofitted the 20th century acronym-building disease pervasive in European languages into Bharatanatyam, claiming that Bha-ra-ta in Bharata-natyam stands for Bhaa-vam, Raa-gam, and Taa-lam.

Soon, because of the zinger effect in using an acronym for explaining Bharatanatyam to an anglicized Indian audience, most emcees uncritically embraced this. Remember, the emcees are selected only for their diction and delivery, and they simply read verbatim the text prepared by someone.

However, this exercise in unnaturally retrofitting an acronym is jarring to those who understand the nuances of Indian languages' phonetics. In all Indian languages and many Asian languages, differences between the short and long vowels - such as ka-kaa, ki-kee, ku-koo etc. are central in building vocabulary. The same consonant combinations, but with short and long vowels, have entirely different meanings: In Tamil, ma-lai means hill, maa-lai means garland or evening. Similarly, ka-lai means arts, but kaa-lai means morning or accusative case for leg ; pal means tooth, and paal means milk, or gender, and va-Dai is a snack (vada), but vaa-Dai means smell. I can also list word combinations having scatological and profane meanings.

This is the case in EVERY Indian language. In many north Indian languages, kal is both yesterday and tomorrow, but kaal means time; and ka-laa means arts, kaa-laa means black. These are simple examples.

Therefore, in building acronyms based on Roman script for Indian themes from words from Indian languages, at the minimum, one should recognize the centrality of short and long vowels in the words.

For Bharata-natyam, if we need to build an acronym, it ought to be around the long-vowels of bhaa-vam, raa-gam, and taa-lam. And the popular South Indian dance form should be then, Bhaa-raa-taa-naatyam and not the shortened Bha-ra-ta-natyam.

The shortened words - bhava and tala - have entirely different meanings in Sanskrit! Bhaava means mood, but bhava means birth or things related to birth. And taala means beat, but tala means essential nature, full, complete.

So, for the sake of esthetics of the phonetics in Indian languages, please stop forcibly retrofitting the annoying acronym for explaining Indian performing arts. Stop the further spread of the occidentalitis.

For those who care for facts: The name Bharatanatyam is only 70 years old, attributed to a lawyer, E. Krishna Iyer, who used it for the first time in the 1940s in Chennai. Earlier, Bharatanatyam went by the name Sadir-nrtyam. And Kuchipudi was known as Bhagavata Mela Natakam throughout South India, and Odissi was called Gotipua

Kollengode S Venkataraman is Editor and Publisher, The Pittsburgh Patrika, Pittsburgh, PA, USA.