Response to Prathiba Natesan’s article “Bharatanatyam: Present and future at the hands of NRIs

To throw stones at tradition

- Subhalakshmi Kumar

November 28, 2011

I asked myself if it was worth rebutting a particular author in Narthaki who in her article ‘Bharatanatyam: Present and future at the hands of NRIs’ seems to be confused between criticizing Indian classical arts and its ‘stagnant’ point of view and watching several “several jaw-dropping, wonderful performances in Dallas and Houston.” Someone who thinks “Natya Shastra has provided us a wealth of information and is THE book every dancer should read” but at the same time alleges the book to be
1. outdated and irrelevant for modern women “was written between 2nd century BC and 2nd century CE and views on women are as outdated as some of our old texts” and “why are we still defining women based on the Ashtanayikas?”
2. Possessing chauvinistic ideas of portraying women as boring and repetitive actions “who long, pine, and suffer for their lords (yes, we don’t even call them men, but lords).”

The old texts refer to ancient scriptures that are alleged to
1.    “classify humans based on caste”
2.    “propagate the theory of creationism”

She alleges practitioners of these ‘stagnant’ concepts as too scared to try something new - “clinging to it for dear life?”

To put the author in perspective, she
1.    “wish(es) Bharatanatyam was truly evolving on all fronts”
2.    Thinks “artistes like Uttara Coorlawala and Anita Ratnam seem to have taken evolution to a new level”
3.    Thinks traditional dance evolution is about “incorporate(ing) interesting and different movements in their dances to add dynamism – an excellent example of evolution”
4.    Equates not asking questions to not evolving, which causes us to “label anything that does not conform to these values as ‘fusion’ or ‘modern.”
5.    She “does not believe in religion”, “neither (is she) traditional”. Yet she “cannot bear to watch kids wearing their salangais along with their sandals in auditoriums”
6.    Thinks “Living in the western society frees our barriers and opens new horizons”
7.    Thinks “dancers in the true sense (are) creators and practitioners of an art form whose boundaries they should push”
8.    Thinks “experiment(s will) help Bharatanatyam reach new heights”

She boldly asks 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?”  I am a purist. I should be offended by these remarks and should write a point to point rebuttal of her very valid questions. After all, if you stop questioning, you stop evolving. I do need to help her evolution because I live in the western society. I want to free her from barriers and open new horizons for her.

In a larger context, I want to do the same for many pseudo-intellectuals who want to ask questions not in an inquisitive sense but in a derogatory sense. They want to hold onto Bharatanatyam and Kathak for their lives but at the same time want to “explore and experiment” and “push the boundaries” and be “modern.”

I will answer in order of hierarchical importance of the entity being questioned. Let us start with the Vedas and the Upanishads or the author’s language “other texts.” You are disgusted by the fact that among other things it classifies humans based on castes! I gently remind you that it was not meant to be a discriminatory classification but a division of labor. Natya Shastra In particular was created because lower castes (Shudras) were not entitled to listen to the four Vedas (Sama, Yajur, Rig and Atharav), Brahma created the Natya Shastra as the fifth Veda which was open to all, irrespective of caste and creed. When Brahma himself wants the Shudras (like you and me who are not entitled to learn the vedas) to learn the Vedas and goes on to create a fifth one for our benefit, why do you think he was intrinsically being discriminatory? A lot has been written about the castes and their socio-economic importance in production in yesteryears, I urge you to increase your knowledge about the same.

Vedas propagate the “theory of creationism”. As someone who has dabbled with what Vedas and recent quantum physics say about creation which is nothing like the creationist argument in traditional sense from the Bible.

According to the Vedas creation is said to start from a state which was “neither non-existent nor existent…..All that existed then was void and formless.” According to one of several explanations from quantum physics in which Schrodinger’s famous cat can be in a state of existence and non-existence at the same time, vacuum fluctuations can result in materializing of objects. Please read and related answers from Astronomers from Cornell.

Let us turn to the concept of ardhanarishwara which you thought was about gender equality but realized later that was actually demeaning women. As tempting as it is to turn feminist to ascertain yourself as a modern woman, please give some credit to practitioners of arguably the oldest and the only continuous ancient civilization on this planet, your ancestors. Being a modern free woman, you probably believe Oppenheimer more readily than Adi Shankara when it comes to extolling the primal creative force in nature, Shakti.

When he was asked what he was thinking when Robert Oppenheimer first witnessed tests of atomic explosion at Los Alamos, according to Dean Brown he said, “I was thinking of the dance of Shakti.” Now, Shakti can be destructive like Shiva, can’t she? Isn’t that form also revered as Kali? But when energy dances with her legs up in the air, she cannot be used for constructive purposes. Energy has to be controlled and presentable like a demure goddess when aspired to be used for creation. Hence destructive and constructive energy, order and disorder, life and death co-exists which are a constant dynamic reality of the universe. Now can you stop thinking about gender inequality and see what ardhanarishwara might stand for in a liberal society? The literal meaning of gender equality, of course, is consistent. But metaphorically it transcends what looks like mundane realities of life, gender and sexuality.

Now to your next question about the concepts in Natya Shastra. Why do we cling to Ashtanayikas who long, pine, and suffer for their lords (yes, we don’t even call them men, but lords)? I am about to talk about the metaphors involved but you have intelligently asked “Is this the only metaphor you can think of for 2200 years of imagination?”  The answer is no. It is the only metaphor you can think of. We can think of many. Here is some for sample. The Atma (heroine) and the Brahman (hero) can be one and the same. That would be the case of your trivially put “a woman who is an intellectual equal of the man.” This philosophy is called advaitam. The heroine can be equal to the hero but still long for his union. This is called vishistadvaitam. The heroine can be imperfect and the man can be perfect and she can then want to bring that perfection in her life. This is called dvaitam. The heroine can decide to be a single mother. This is called nastika and is also given due acknowledgement in philosophy of sanatana dharma unlike Catholicism or Islam. The heroine is in many cases, ‘a courtesan.’ She definitely brings her income (albeit not bacon) home.  If you think there are no Nayaka classifications, that is untrue. If you think the Nayaka does not pine for the nayika I plead you to familiarize yourself with Geeta Govindam, Ramayanam or Shakuntalam. Choose your metaphors of lord from polytheism, from monotheism, from a-theism or advaita, of stories in form of andromorphic gods like Shiva/Vishnu/Skanda or natural forces like the universe and all parallel galaxies, the ocean, the rivers or abstract theoretical concepts like Brahman! These different philosophies are all based on the Vedas and Upanishads. It is called Isomorphic metaphysics. Above all, if you decide none of this suits your contemporary spiritual thought, you can change any of these into your own ideals according to changing times. Bharata says so in the ending chapter Natya Shastra. When everything in Sanatana Dharma and Natya Shastra is so liberal, encompassing, poetic and speaks to you at so many levels, I fail to understand what your contention is. If your contention is that Bharata did not explicitly write about feminist ideas, it’s probably because it is not an emotional state but an intellectual one. It was probably not necessary when our community was more liberal than it is today after European/Middle eastern cultural invasions.

If your argument like that of T.M. Krishna is that these concepts are outdated because they were written in 2nd century B.C, then I ask why do you practice this art form? Why not take some allied art form or even turn into a classical-contemporary artist? The Natya Shastra is very clear about why it was formed. To propagate the teachings of Vedas to those not entitled to listen to it. If you are not religious, why take up the art form? And if you choose to take it up in spite of not being religious, why question the relevance of why it was created. It is like counting the teeth of a gifted horse. You should be, if anything, grateful for borrowing what is unambiguously a Hindu religious tradition like Yoga and Bharatanatyam and using it for propagating what we graciously consider isomorphic forms of divinity. Female rights, nature, and sexuality. Whatever it is you choose to portray in your ‘innovative, modern’ themes we consider it an alternate form of divinity as long as the message is constructive. You on the other hand are blindly incapable of acknowledging that divinity might be a relevant form of something contemporary. It is not us purists but the likes of contemporary artists like you who are close minded. The ones who believe they propagate modern themes but whose thinking is as close minded as the modern cubicle you work in when it comes to spirituality.

Indian arts are like a Banyan Tree. It gives shade to everyone who comes in looking for respite, it springs new roots and strengthens itself for everyone who wants to grow but there are some who want to have the shade while ridiculing its antiquity, questioning its usefulness and deriding the origin of this tree’s seed. It is unacceptable to hear allegations of this seed, this tree being cliché in the argument that people who question it push its boundaries and lead to evolution. You want to push boundaries, why don’t you come up with a calculation like one has never imagined before for a Teermanam? Why don’t you make up compositions in the longest Simhanandana Tala? Why not make up compositions in all 35 talas like Madurai Muralidharan has instead of coming with new dynamic steps in clichéd 4 beats? Why not present the same “Sakhiye” Varnam in a never before like interpretation such that a critic who has seen it a million times finds something fresh there? Why not perform a Thillana purely with mandi adavus or with proper yettadavu instead of walking around and giving poses? Why do you go in search of new steps when you have not mastered an ounce of what our great masters had vision for? What gives you this impunity to call people who understand what they are doing with traditional compositions as being stagnant? It is not okay to silently push these ideas away. If the future of Bharatanatyam and Kathak lies in half baked propaganda of such modern thinkers, I fear for it.

For someone who is knowledgeable, every constraint is a challenge above which he rises while simultaneously not crossing the boundary. It is not because we don’t want to cross the boundary that we don’t; it is because we choose not to. If you would understand an ounce of what lies in the inexhaustible Indian literature and scriptures, you would be humbled to even try what is traditional. That is what we mean when we say do not question. We do not mean to say you are forbidden to be inquisitive. We forbid you to throw stones when you live in a glass house of inadequate knowledge.

Subhalakshmi Kumar is a student and performer of Bharatanatyam while pursuing PhD in University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

Response to Subhalakshmi Kumar’s article To throw stones at tradition
- Prathiba Natesan

December 3, 2011

The great question that Subhalakshmi’s rebuttal brought about is: Why do I dance Bharatanatyam if I have so many complaints about how it is being practiced today?

This isn’t an epiphany, but it is an explanation. I perform Bharatanatyam because I love the art form. I love the beauty of it, the adavus, the abhinayas, the inner meaning, the playing around with rhythm … I love all the elements of Bharatanatyam, even the painstaking aramandi! But that does not mean I like the way it is being practiced. It does not mean I can perform tirelessly for 5 hours. You can like a movie, but not all aspects of it. Does that mean you cannot criticize that segment? Does that mean, “This is a gift given to you. So be grateful for what you are watching”? The fact that our audiences predominantly take criticism personally and their rebuttals border on the defensive and even offensive is painful. I don’t mean just Subhalakshmi here, whose dance I happen to actually like (I googled her before I wrote this rebuttal).

This is something I had mentioned to Anita Ratnam in our first conversation surrounding an article where Anita had criticized some well-known dancers, and rightfully so. Some had rebutted along the lines of, “Do you think you are so great that you can criticize these great dancers?” But that is besides the point. Most film reviewers who so bash films are not great film-makers and they do not have to be. I don’t have to be Alarmel Valli to be critical of Bharatanatyam. I don’t have to be a female who was tonsured at Varanasi following the loss of my husband to become a feminist. I don’t have to be a person of color to talk against racism. I don’t have to be a scheduled caste person who has been denied the right to the same glass as my Brahmin neighbors in a tea shop to talk against the caste system. I digress.

Coming to the question of evolution, the key is definition. The definition of evolution is certainly different for different people. It may mean experimenting on movements or presenting old items in a new light, as Subhalakshmi suggests. It may also mean changing your entire outlook on what the dance should represent for you. There are several more. We define dance and evolution the way we want to. I consider a typical day in my life. I teach graduate students statistics. Our discussions surround various aspects of research. I argue with my colleagues about various theories. I serve on journal review boards and dissertation committees. Dance and human emotions are also part of my universe. So are relationships. But it is interesting that only the relationship aspects of my life are presented or become visible to the lay audience.  Yes, my entire day revolves around finding that truth, be it statistical, educational, or esoteric. In that way, I think we are on an entirely different level of abstractness than that presented by, say, modern dancers such as Liz Lerman who can show quantum physics through dance or Mia Michaels who can show human emotions at different levels. This is probably what Anita Ratnam is referring to in her essay this installment about contemporary dancers.

The point of my essay, whose intent has perhaps been misunderstood by Subhalakshmi is the dwindling outlook on the dance form at the hands of several NRIs (I do not mean all, but a vast majority forms this group). Knowing Bharatanatyam is seen merely as a practice where the more items you know, the better it is. People concentrate more on the costumes and jewelry to be acquired. There is a rush to give as many performances as possible without being open to criticism. In that way, Subhalakshmi and I probably will agree on several aspects, seeing how much of a stickler she seems for practicing the art form in its full rigor. In fact, I saw some of her dance videos on youtube and liked her rendition of the Thiruppugazh. Again, this is the refreshing presentation I am talking about. It was traditional, yet new. In her own way, she is also trying to push the boundaries of Bharatanatyam. The urge to create something new is the burning desire in every good artist. I realize there are several other types of heroines other than the ashtanayikas. My question is, “How often do we see them on stage?” What part of real Bharatanatyam are we concentrating on? Which part are we trying to evolve?

On that note, I remind the readers that without evolution no art can progress. The great Rukmini Devi Arundale was inspired by ballerinas who encouraged her to learn Bharatanatyam and she changed several elements of it (e.g. eroticism, lighting, production values) in her own way. Kathak took in Islamic elements such as salaami and mujras. Padma Subrahmanyam revived the karanaas but also developed her own style of Bharatanatyam presentation. We evolve every day, but only when we seek it.

I am deliberately refraining from responding to any of the unwarranted, unscientific, and personal comments such as “pseudo-intellectuals”, my “ignorance” about Adi Shankara or Oppenheimer or nayaka classifications, being “blindly incapable of”, and many other such statements. I respect you as a person and dancer and respect your right to have an opinion. Just because we differ does not create a hierarchy between us leading to any condescension.

I am also refraining from responding to caste-based, religion-based comments because I believe that my India is striving to become secular (despite the fact that it was predominantly Hindu when Bharatanatyam evolved). Therefore, its arts should too. No person of the scheduled caste or tribe would be satisfied with the socio-economic theory explanation as a response to 400 years of bullying, being trod in the mud, and abject discrimination. I am glad Gandhi did not believe it either. An instance (among many) where the caste-system so failed art is when Silappadikaram was not considered an epic in Tamizh because it ascribed to worshipping Kannagi as a goddess. Scholars did not want to worship a “chetticchi” or elevate the status of a product of a jaina monk (Reference: Mu. Va.). Several scholars such as Ma. Po. Si. and Meenatchisundaram dedicated their entire lives to make the case for the beauty of Silappadikaram, which finally got its due credit.

Finally, and most importantly, feminism is every bit intellectual. To call something as feminist if it is not intellectual is incorrect and anti-feminist, to say the least.  I am also taking the liberty of adding the words of a close friend of mine, who responded after reading both the essays. He is a retired professor of Economics from NYU.

“What infuriates me is the defense of caste system as division of labor. Those who are old enough to remember Indian society in the pre-independence years will remember the onerous treatment met out to Dalits (not what they were called then). Temple entry was least among them. They could not use the same water resources, they could not walk in some streets and in some communities their women had to be half-naked. None of this has anything to do with the division of labor I studied in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. If those who believe in the division of labor argument are true to their faith, why don’t they dissuade the caste panchayats considering honor killing of young couples from murder.
The classical tradition has achieved excellence. While many experiments are going on, it is a reasonable statement that they have not led to the development of a new format of comparable excellence. But what the European experience tells us is that the choice is not between new and old. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Picasso all coexist.”

Response to Pratibha Natesan’s response
- Subhalakshmi Kumar

April 13, 2012

First and foremost let me apologize for the late post.

This is definitely an explanation.  The comments are directed at your ideas and not you. So they are personal only as much as you identify yourselves by ideas written in the article. I can be condescending to an idea and that is how you reason the credibility of an idea, by pointing the flaws in its logic. A personal comment would be to suggest something unrelated to the subject as an argument, like the fact that the author is too beautiful and therefore she is not to be taken seriously.

I am not against
  1. Criticising Bharatanatyam: Introspection is welcome. What are not welcome are claims that tradition is something it is not. Some of the claims are just baseless and I have given explanations for why I think so.
  2. Criticising other artists: Be my guest. I have the greatest respect for someone with a keen eye and a bold heart. You don’t have to be Alarmel Valli to be critical of Bharatanaytam. But you do need to be factual and perceptive. If your argument has a rebuttal, then the argument is flawed. Pointing that to be flawed has no connection to your stature in comparison to Valli.
  3. Have a personal definition of evolution: I am all for personal and multi-dimensional approach to art. What I am not for is your implication all through the original article that the only way to evolve is to break away and create something new. No one is against you describing quantum physics in your next concert. Just don’t complain that because I choose to portray sringaram (“only the relationship part”, “How often do we see other ashtanayikas on stage”) and I can do it all my life without intellectual stagnation, I am not evolving.
In your cited instances about casteism, let’s think if the scriptures are to be blamed for caste atrocities, or the people who interpreted the scriptures the way they did and place blame responsibly. One is to follow dharma, and not scriptures in our culture. Even if something in the scriptures was absolutely wrong, no one had to follow the rules if it was against their conscience. Why blame the scriptures and not the people who couldn’t think before acting? By blaming the scriptures as a magic wand, what you accomplish is this notion that everything ancient is meaningless.  There is nothing meaningless about longing for the lord. If you think there is, then that is your personal opinion. And I will see and point it out as one lacking imagination and depth of analysis.

“The choice is not between new and old.” – Pratibha in her response article
“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?” – Pratibha in her original article ‘Bharatanatyam: Present and future at the hands of NRIs.’

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