You can't stop me from dancing!

May 6, 2010

I had a friend who is a Carnatic vocalist (note the tense). As all other Carnatic musicians do, one day he was going on and on about great musicians of his liking. After listing a number of people with wide eyes and their signature compositions/ragas, he asked me if there were great dancers whom I worshipped. I stared at him for a long time. His response was, “Come on, no one has that much ego!” I smiled and muttered a few names in defense, which I refuse to disclose here for the fear of not being taken seriously by some faction and being a reason for smugness of another faction.

The more I read about ongoing confusion in defining Bharatanatyam, controversial blogs, war of the baanis, confrontation of conservationalists and liberals, struggles over superiority, claims of authenticity, blames of corrupting tradition and witness the politics of being seen, being heard, propaganda of opinion (there are so many of those!), the more I stay up nights like these, high on caffeine, trying to come to terms with the mess.

Since Ms. Anita Ratnam asked young bloggers like us to consider serious writing, I decided to give it a try. This is what I think.

a. I have not seen many "respectable and revolutionary" dancers dance. Not their video. From what little pictures and videos I have seen, I am not very impressed. They have poor angasudhi. It is not my style to cite names but you can compare videos of young dancers from Chennai and Kerala these days and these elderly dancers. Even when they were young, their natyarambham was embarrassing, their style sloppy, their limbs lifeless and aramandi nonexistent. This observation is more or less across all styles. They are always praised for their abhinaya. But frankly, good abhinaya is not an excuse for sloppy dancing. They are also praised for their choreographies. That is another thing. Their choreographies (nritta choreographies) were done by nattuvanars. There is no comparison between crisp meaningful nritta sequences of yesteryear nattuvanars and the meaningless over-chewed gum like jathis set today by dance 'teachers' and mridangists. This is more of a composition debate and not a performance debate.

b. Make no mistake. I am not disrespecting any of them. Also, I am not questioning / ignoring their dedication, their humility, their vision, their innovations, their stands on issues, and their greatness in terms of preserving and passing on the art against all odds. I am grateful for what they did and however they did it. I wouldn't be dancing if the baton had not been passed on from the dwindling Devadasi clan to the Brahmin clan. I wouldn't be dancing if there was not 200 years of structuring and passing on of the knowledge. I am grateful for the contributions and I am sure these dancers must have impressed the audience of their times. I am merely pointing out that I am not impressed by what I see. If a young Carnatic vocalist hears an audio tape of MDR or GNB sing, they revere them because they know that it would take years of sadhana to be able to sing that way. When I watch a video of senior artists, truthfully I can not only point out mistakes but realize that I can do better than them and there are scores of others now doing so much better than them. My personal criterion has always been, "If it looks like I could have done it, it's not art."

c. The standard of dancing has risen so much with rising scrutiny. Information is now available to everyone, again thanks to the efforts of scores of people dedicated to seeing to it, which does include these senior dancers. Thus, scrutiny is not necessarily bad. It's a process of evolution. If a particular senior artist was touted as the biggest thing ever of their times, there must have been a good reason. I trust the intelligence of critiques of all times in history keeping in mind the circumstances and their judgement criteria. What is undeniable is that there were relatively less people dancing back then, or even less people with enough knowledge to criticize them citing references or comparing videos or writing bold reviews/criticism/blogs about them. The people with a voice were people who were witnessing the growth of the art. They had no idea how it should have been and they opened with welcome hearts and had only words of praises about what they saw since it was ‘ancient and traditional.'

d. I think the taking over of the baton of Bharatanatyam from the exclusive Devadasi clan by Brahmin women and later Indian women of all castes has a lot to do with the kind of craziness that is attached to Bharatanatyam as compared to other dance forms. Think about it. Thousands of years of disposition to attaining knowledge and skill in running a household, but inability to put it into action in public to be recognised and acknowledged. I think it finally manifested in the politically hot, happening and formative years of this ethereally appealing art form where you not only get to dress yourself up in silks and jewellery (Think of the rise of fashion trends in Bharatnatyam costume, jewellery and make up!) but also get to unite the inherent hunger for music, spiritualism, tradition and feminism! We all want to be the one that preserves history and tradition at the same time want to be looking as riveting as all yesteryear dancers did in that bridal costume of theirs and mark our independence from our old minded in-laws!

e. Establishing and propagating an identity for the average women herself has become the debate of establishing the identity of the art she so fervently adores and sees as an extension of herself. We have all read about clashes of personality in the history of this art. Personality which extends into the kind of vision they have for the art. Art which extends into the kind of personality they will be remembered as. Ultimately evolution will see that the fittest one survives. Am I undermining the unfortunate incidences where a particular branch in the evolution is lost because of politics/policies rather than quality of the art? Yes. But that is not going to change anything. If an artist with a political clout can (‘can' being the operative word) change the due course of next century of the art, by the principles of free market, she will. If the principles she propagated is bad (traditional or not), it will be weeded out in infinite amount of time. If it has any selling point, it will stick around. Be patient and perform as you see fit and write about causes you feel strongly about. Time will tell what survives! Tradition or not, nothing ugly ever survives.

f. It is always easier to judge than do. Even I judged senior dancers. Some of those senior dancers have excellent students. Have you noticed how the students are sometime so much better than the gurus? The excellent students do show their gurus immense respect even if a third person is too blinded by judgement to realise the greatness of the Guru. And these brilliant students go on to produce better students than themselves. And thus this allegiance to greatness of a guru is carried forward. I myself will probably speak greatly of my guru when asked in person because I share a bond with her no one realises. But if you are given enough exposure, you do realise the shortcomings of anything you are used to, including your Guru. You will also realise the greatness unique to your Guru. Everyone is human and everyone has shortcomings and strong points. Let's all be sensible adults and realise that it is not blasphemy on my part to suggest that your Guru is not perfect. It has nothing to do with loyalty or ego. It is just a fact that you can always look for shortcomings and find them if you know how to get out of the deep dark well of ignorance and restricted world you live in.

g. Oh! finally all that noise over how much aramandi, how much sringara, how much bhakti, how much weight, how much contemporary, how much jewelry, what kind of saree, what colors, what style, what baani, what karanas, how much publicity, how much politics, how much blah is not going to change what I learn from my Guru. Only because some blogger somewhere says, my style is nonsense is not going to make my heart change allegiance to the respect and bond I share with my guru and my style. Even if Lord Shiva comes down on earth and says, "Your baani is not right, change it for these reasons," I will probably be on the defensive of my Guru and my style. Isn't that inherent Guru bhakti instilled in all of us by years of tradition? Why should I care about what one judge or what one set of audience wants me to perform like? Aren't I the bride of God? Am I not dancing but for him/her? Does it matter that I am fat? Does it matter that I am not as skilled as the next dancer? Does it matter that I am not that pretty or that skinny? That my nose is not perfect and that I am not wearing a skirt type costume? Isn't it God that I am pleasing and not you bitter mortals? If you don't like my dance, leave. It is a free market. If my dance is bad, it will die eventually (at least in public). That's the rule of nature.

Please do realise that like I can't stop anyone else from dancing (no matter how badly I want to, how strongly I know I am right and how much I think it is for the good of the art that he/she stops dancing), you can correct me, you can criticize me, you can even deride my whole dance lineage, but you cant stop me from dancing!

KSL is a young Bharatanatyam dancer, victim of lost identity, and tired of bitterness, sycophancy and irrational discussions in the dance community. She is not a dance writer and definitely doesn't claim to be right. She only claims to be logical in arguments. She can be reached at