Bharatanatyam: Present and future at the hands of NRIs
- Prathiba Natesan
e-mail: prathibachaj@gmail.com

November 14, 2011

In recent times, I have witnessed several jaw-dropping, wonderful performances in Dallas and Houston (Shijith Nambiar, Rama Vaidyanathan, Spanda) that I have left the auditoriums giggling like a teenager, almost drunk with the beauty of these performances. Today’s dancers, even the traditional ones, incorporate interesting and different movements in their dances to add dynamism – an excellent example of evolution.  At the same time, there also seems to be something that is stagnant in its practice and even an evolution in the wrong direction, if I may be so bold.

While artistes like Uttara Coorlawala and Anita Ratnam seem to have taken evolution to a new level, why are we still defining women based on the Ashtanayikas? Based on the relationship with the hero, the Natya Shastra classifies women as the one who dresses for union with her hero, the one distressed by separation, the one having her husband in subjection, the one separated by quarrel, the one enraged with her lover, the one deceived by her lover, the one with a sojourning husband, or the one going to meet her lover. What about the woman who is an intellectual equal of the man? What about the woman who brings home the bacon? What about the woman who decides that she is better off as a single parent or even as a single woman? May I remind that although the Natya Shastra has provided us a wealth of information and is THE book every dancer should read, it was written between 2nd century BC and 2nd century CE? Its views on women are as outdated as some of our old texts that classify humans based on caste or propagate the theory of creationism. Why are we, the modern women, clinging to it for dear life?

I wish Bharatanatyam was truly evolving on all fronts. I wish we overcame the barriers of caste and religion in its practice. I wish we overcame the male chauvinistic ideas portrayed in a Bharatanatyam performance. I am writing this as a woman who is tired of seeing nayikas who long, pine, and suffer for their lords (yes, we don’t even call them men, but lords). For the purists who will retort that the “lord” represents “truth” and the pining is the search for truth, my response is: Is this the only metaphor you can think of for 2200 years of imagination?

Recently, I heard someone call the ardhanareeswara concept as the oldest example of gender equality where Shiva carelessly wears unmanageable matted locks for hair while Parvati has beautiful flowing hair. Shiva shows rage while Parvati is demure. Shiva can lift his leg over his head but Parvati (may be able to but) should not. What about this really shows gender equality? Showing that the male is all male and masculine while the female enhances his masculine features seems to be a stronger manifestation of the status quo of the expected role of women. Despite all the good values of Indian culture, a major rule of our society that creates a stumbling block is “do not question tradition.” We stop evolving when we stop asking questions. Perhaps that is why we label anything that does not conform to these values as ‘fusion’ or ‘modern.’

You’d think that living in a western society as NRIs would help people push the boundaries of Bharatanatyam better. You couldn’t be more wrong! As an NRI, I regularly witness painful arangetrams performed like weddings with splendor and showmanship but lacking in content and standard. As a dancer, I am tired of NRI parents badmouthing their children’s gurus’ practices (Question: If you hate them so much, why do you continue sending your kids to their classes?). As a fellow dancer, I see some gurus treat the art simply as the business of teaching (read moneymaking) and graduating more mediocre and substandard students year after year. I do not believe in religion, neither am I traditional. Yet I cannot bear to watch kids wearing their salangais along with their sandals in auditoriums. I am tired of the standing ovation given to every kid finishing his/her arangetram, irrespective of the standard. I am even tired of the almost ritualistic applause I hear at the completion of every jathi, theermanam, and swaram that so takes the focus away from the dance.

Living in the western society frees our barriers and opens new horizons. Sadly, most NRI parents today seem to be focused on how many traditional items they can get their children to learn, how many costume changes one can manage in a given arangetram, how many costumes and jewelry they can acquire on their next trip to India, etc. Lata Pada, in a recent lecture said beautifully, “Do not expect me to be a cultural babysitter for your children just because I teach them Bharatanatyam.”  It seems that this is exactly what several NRIs are hoping. Instead of encouraging their children to become dancers in the true sense (creators and practitioners of an art form whose boundaries they should push), they want to create replicas of Priyadarsini Govind or Rama Vaidyanathan so they can be happy that their children are, after all, Indian. PG and RV became experts not by following status quo but by carving their own niche. Of course, there are exceptions among NRIs such as Mythili Prakash and Bhavajan Kumar, to name a few.

Why am I now taking it out on the NRIs? Three reasons exist. I live abroad. I cannot comment about the current practices in India. NRIs have the resources to take the risk and push the boundaries. Living in a western society, witnessing art forms such as modern dance, ballet, jazz, hip-hop, opera, etc, and receiving constant encouragement to explore and experiment should foster these experiences even more. Sadly, I am yet to see examples of such. And the question, “Will the NRIs who have the resources to push the boundaries and experiment help Bharatanatyam reach new heights?” remains unanswered to me still.


Prathiba Natesan is a Bharatanatyam and Kathak dancer. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Statistics and Measurement at the University of North Texas.


Responses

To throw stones at tradition

- Subhalakshmi Kumar


If we put Bharata's vision and Bharatheeya samskara together, 'woman' is a concept par excellence. Gender difference is the law of nature even amidst other beings including plants. Each has several purpose other than procreation. By genetic constitution the variety in behaviour and ability to express them with minute details are more on the female side than on the male. This is why, probably, Bharata has referred to women while he discusses heroines, alankaras and sheels. Males need to put in more effort to bring forth such parameters of acting. Experimenting is a must but not with an attitude of challenge by one gender to the other.
- Dr. C.P. Unnikrishnan
(Dec 3, 2011)



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