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Response to Srividya Natarajan's interview on 'The Undoing Dance'
- VP Dhananjayan

January 12, 2019

('This (pseudo) spirituality made dance boring': Srividya Natarajan by Vaishna Roy)

I know Srividya as an accomplished Bharatanatyam artiste from the lineage of Natyacharya Thanjavur Kittappa Pillai who carried the Thanjavur Brothers' legacy till he lived. Though I have not read her new novel 'The Undoing Dance,' I could trace a kind of frustration in her tone of narrating the incidents in the story, irrespective of whether the characters are fictitious or real.

First of all, I want to reiterate that Srividya is talking about the specific tradition called Sadirattam or Dasiattam later rechristened as Bharatanatyam by the Madras Music Academy by a resolution passed accepting the suggestion of E. Krishna Iyer. Taking the new nomenclature Rukmini Devi popularized that name to attribute dignity and divinity to the performing art form and maybe we can say she did give a new lease of life to this ancient natya which I suppose has an antiquity of more than 3000 years. But Srividya questions the antiquity of the existence of Natya Sastra, a treatise on Bharateeya Kala attributed to a sage called Bharata. She says it is completely made up. Practitioners of Bharateeya Natya traditions, irrespective of the various regional classical forms, may not accept her theory as these verities of traditions that flourish in this century are offshoots of the mother text, the Natya Sastra. Definitely every one draws inspiration from these monumental texts available today. Natya Sastra being the original 'Panchama Veda' or the fifth Veda, the texts that came later have the umbilical cord of the mother book. I don't understand Srividya's vehement contention of casting away all these monumental scriptures as 'pseudo' spiritualism.

Spirituality is not religion or atheism, but elevating oneself to a higher plane of thinking and believing in positivity in life. The purpose of natya itself is to promulgate the teachings that educate, elevate and entertain. Our performing arts certainly serve this purpose and inculcate physical discipline, mental discipline and spiritual discipline. I am sure Srividya must have realized this from the teachings of the great master Kittappa Pillai. How can she say it is boring? If so, thousands are indulging in this art form Bharatanatyam and derive some sort of pleasure or spiritual awakening in the practice of it or by watching it? She cannot outright endorse Mr. Sadanand Menon's contention that Bharatanatyam is 'a dead butterfly in the museum cupboards'. By looking at a few empty halls for a performance, we cannot come to a conclusion that all the performances are with empty seats. Certainly the attendance depends upon the calibre of the artistes and ambience at the artistic activities. Bharatanatyam has come a long way spreading its wing throughout the world in spite of a few pessimists' outcry calling it 'boring'. Unless one witnesses the periodical lively growth of the idiom, with astounding creativity of the younger generation, one cannot condemn the great art form derived from the Natya Sastra as pseudo spirituality or anything akin to it.

Bharateeya Natyam prescribed in the Natya Sastra has profound technique that can be applied to global traditions of performing arts and in today's scenario western and eastern performing art worlds are deriving inspiration from our techniques and liberally using it to their advantage. The most non communicative presentations of modern or contemporary dancers, unequivocally agree their inspiration is from the existing Bharatanatyam or Kathakali or Kalarippayattu. This is a naked truth which we realized when we produced Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book using Bharatanatyam and Kathakali technique collaborating with professional Ohio Ballet Company in the USA. It was performed more than 200 times with houseful halls.

Srividya talks about sanitizing Devadasi system or Sadirattam in a derogatory term. Is sanitizing a bad word? If there is dirt in something we clean it or sanitize it. So did Rukmini Devi in cleansing the then existing ugliness or vulgarity in the system. Periodical sanitation is necessary for the betterment of the system. We have moved away or rather we have to move away from caste system that made a particular community untouchable. Realistically speaking those communities who were custodians of some of our art forms do not want to cling on to their ancestral names and lineage. For historical reasons documentation of heritage and styles should be done irrespective of any specific community or caste.

There is a kernel of truth in what Srividya says about 'paying to perform,' a begotten trend created by the affluent class of new generation of business community, irrespective of high or low caste. The supply is more than demand in the performing arena, especially in Bharatanatyam field. This sad situation is prevalent in Chennai city and Chennai being the ultimate place where everyone wants to perform, money and muscle power dominate. Because of this, organizers exploit the gullibility of parents aspiring of publicity for their offspring. The Sabhas put up very mediocre performances which of course attract no connoisseur audience. I want to inform Srividya that good calibre artistes do attract crowd and there is no dearth of creativity and good innovations in Bharatanatyam. Spirituality is not attributed to only godhood or religion, but new generation of creative artistes find way to spirituality through other means of thematic exploitation of non godhood and religious themes and subjects. We must be optimistic with positivity and being pessimistic is detrimental in elevating our minds to good thinking - that is actually spirituality.

All said and done, all Bharatanatyam professionals are thriving well and having a lucrative career as a teacher or performer. If it is boring as Srividya says, how can there be a Margazhi season with three thousand and odd performances happening in the city alone?

I have to also admit that majority of performing artistes are from the Brahminical lineage except a few like myself and my wife Shanta and few more exceptionally brilliant artistes trained in Kalakshetra where there is no caste criteria. As far as I know, no Bharatanatyam or music teachers have discrimination in imparting the art and there are umpteen performing artistes in the limelight today. The only criterion attached is their quality and recognition comes automatically.

Guru V.P. Dhananjayan is the director of Bharata Kalanjali school of Bharatanatyam, Chennai.

Dear Tiru. Dhananjayan,
Thank you for responding in this forum to Vaishna Roy's interview with me. I'm puzzled by your interpretation of some of the things I said; to prevent further misunderstanding, let me provide a glossary:

ANTIQUITY: We don't have a single record that proves Bharatanatyam is 3000 years old. I prefer to treat this idea as a myth--like legends about Siva dictating text to Bharata--whereas some people seem to see it as historical fact. If you find evidence that what our ancestors did was broadly the same dance we do today, I'll gladly change my mind on this point.

NATYA SASTRA: I don't dispute that the treatise called Natya Sastra exists and inspires some dancers, playwrights, architects and artists. All I say is that there is no evidence that Sadir or Bharatanatyam were 'born' from this 'mother book' (which may itself have drawn on work by Silali and Krsasva). To me, this origin story has the same credibility as saying that people in India learned how to cohabit sexually by following the Kamasutra's injunctions. Practices generally exist before their codification. So I see the insistence on the originary role of the Natya Sastra as a way of denying the contribution of the Isai Vellala artists. Most of these artists inherited the practices they developed from their parents and teachers; they did not use Sanskrit as the language of cultural transmission. In short, my answer to the question "Where did Bharatanatyam come from?" is NOT "From the Natya Sastra" but "From the devadasi / nattuvanar communities." For Isai Vellala teachers, as T. Balasaraswati and her student Nandini Ramani note, artistic authority comes from marabu or sampradayam, not sastram.

SPIRITUALITY: This means different things to different people, and 'positive thinking' in Norman Vincent Peale style isn't my definition of it. I find ample spiritual meaning in the form Kittappa Vathyar taught me, with its continuity between physical love and a love of the transcendent. This is why I added the prefix 'pseudo-' in the interview, referring to the squeamishness, the divorcing of erotic love from spirituality, that marked the form Rukmini Devi envisioned. In a 1986 interview with Gowri Ramnarayan, for instance, Rukmini Devi says that in "the old padam tamarasaksha... [the nayika] describes not only her love but the whole process of physical contact and in gestures at that! To depict such things is unthinkable for me." Sure, I see her problem; but it ended up being a problem for all Bharatanatyam students. So now, spending creative energy on depicting acceptable (read upper-caste) eroticism, and approved (upper-caste) bhakti, many dancers end up emoting in ways that are atrociously clichéd and unimaginative. I'm delighted that the Jungle Book fusion thing was a hit in Ohio, but how does that change the average varnam on the Chennai stage?

CASTE: The attitude embodied in your statement, "Rukmini Devi…[cleansed] the then existing ugliness or vulgarity in the system" precisely exemplifies what I am saying about blithely unconscious casteism in the Bharatanatyam world. It seems quite acceptable to you to associate the practices of non-Brahmin artists with "dirt"; it would be acceptable to me too, if you'd be perfectly comfortable with my saying that a lot of upper-caste "dirt" has stuck to the dance over the past 50 years—in the form, for instance, of sexually predatory behavior—and it is definitely due for a round of "periodical sanitation."

CAREERS IN DANCE: There may be non-Brahmin artists in the field today, but to take that as a symptom that casteism has vanished is like saying that since Black students can enroll in US universities, racism has been wiped out in that country. Even if caste and money don't have any role to play in who gets to be one of the 'successful' dancers you celebrate, I see the recent #METOO revelations as raising serious questions about the price of that success.

Best wishes,
Srividya Natarajan (Jan 13, 2019)

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