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Response to T. M. Krishna's Opinion article
- Jeetendra Hirschfeld

March 2, 2024

In his latest opinion piece (11 February 2024), singer T. M. Krishna again reminds us of the historical and ongoing injustices within Bharatanatyam art, focusing on its appropriation by the Brahmin community in the 20th century. In his article, T. M. Krishna adeptly blends academic discourse, employing terms like "rupture" and scholarly vocabulary ending in "-ness", with accessible English. Unlike many dance scholars who employ intricate terminology and convoluted sentence structures, the singer opts for clarity, potentially ensuring his message resonates with many. He also appears to acknowledge his caste privilege by using the inclusive "we" in his piece.

T. M. Krishna raises valid concerns regarding the homogenisation of Bharatanatyam aesthetics on the 21st-century stage and the distinct "Carnatic-ness" of nattuvanar singers compared to the mechanised approach of contemporary singers, including his own (and I guess his disciples). While some of his points are well-founded, it is significant to note that historians universally recognise the fallacy of single-cause explanations for historical events. Countless causes converge to shape an event, leading to multitudes of consequences branching out from it. But as is often the case, the repeated mention of certain historical truths becomes ingrained through incessant repetition, leading to unquestioning belief.

What caught my attention is when T. M. Krishna says: "When I hear the great nattuvanars or dancers belonging to the same community singing even a flash of a raga or line, I hear this Carnatic-ness. It is in the way they pronounce the syllable, move the raga, articulate the svara."

When and where did T.M. Krishna hear the great nattuvanars and hereditary dancers sing? Was it through online platforms? I have not witnessed the singer at dance performances throughout my 40 years of attending such events featuring renowned nattuvanars. Has he ever interacted or collaborated with these nattuvanars? His later hypothesis regarding the inherent understanding of the abstract in the music rendered by nattuvanars may only be an opinion or idea formed based on information provided by others. It prompts inquiries regarding whether he has directly interacted with nattuvanars to develop these hypotheses.

The writer also asserts a growing awareness among younger privileged practitioners who are attempting to find their means of navigating the contradictions between historical injustices and present realities. While this increased awareness might be positive, recent observations during the dance season suggest that much of this awareness may be performative. Practitioners seem to merely recite statements and incorporate academic keywords such as appropriation and disenfranchisement without genuinely addressing their own caste and class privilege. This superficial approach becomes particularly evident when, despite making these pre-performance statements, they continue to dance in a manner that perpetuates the aesthetic loss described by T. M. Krishna in his article.

Scholars and privileged practitioners must not only allude to historical wrongs and who is to blame but also actively engage in finding and implementing solutions. Merely acknowledging the contributions of hereditary artists and the advantages of one's caste privilege before a performance is not enough. It requires more substantial action. It is essential to actively, intentionally, and consistently incorporate diverse aesthetics. I recently observed a positive step in this direction at a festival where out of five performance slots, one featured a group of transgender dancers, and two slots showcased the Tanjore Kandappa and Thanjavur Kittappa aesthetics of Bharatanatyam.

Given the competitiveness of Bharatanatyam and the limited performance opportunities despite the emergence of new venues, there are more performers than available slots. To ensure continued and meaningful inclusion of the sidelined hereditary community, I propose that younger privileged practitioners, who possess greater awareness, graciously step aside to make room for hereditary dancers. Therefore, when presented with performance opportunities (such as the Music Academy), consider declining and strongly advocating for the sabha to offer the slot to a hereditary dancer instead. This proactive gesture can significantly foster genuine inclusion and equity in the field.

By the way, I am not Brahmin, so I have that going for me! I do acknowledge my class privilege. I am, however, not as privileged as some scholars and practitioners who fly in from the USA, Canada or the UK once a year, or even less frequently, to India to highlight the struggles of the less privileged.

Jeetendra Hirschfeld
Jeetendra Hirschfeld, Bharatanatyam artiste, writer, and researcher in dance history with special interests in Tanjore Natyam Art, Courtesans, and Royals.

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