South Indian Performing Arts:
Whence? Where Now? Whither?
by Kollengode S Venkataraman, PA
Acknowledgments: The author thanks Bhanu Pandalai, Premlata, Nayantara Swamy, and Shankar Krish of Pittsburgh; S.Krishnan of Germantown, MD; and S. Panchanadeeswran of Buffalo, NY for critiquing the manuscript. For all the inadequacies, however, the responsibility is entirely the author's.
I have been an observer of the arts scene from a distance, and have attended countless concerts, from the unforgettable to the regrettable and everything in between. And this gives me a perspective I might not have obtained had I been an insider.
In Karnatic music concerts, whether in Chennai, Mumbai, or Delhi; or in Dubai, Singapore, London or San Francisco, I hear from different sources that the audience is almost exclusively South Indian, overwhelmingly brahmin, mostly Tamil. I state this only as a simple statement of empirical fact, without pride, prejudice, or anger. Karnatic music, compared to its Hindustani sibling, has not made any dent in attracting non-Indians, or sadly, even other Indians.
So, when Outlook India, in the wake of now-common global tours of Southern Indian artistes, published in last February an article titled "Cauvery in a Puddle" by S Anand, I was interested in its contents. My curiosity was further whipped when a blurb read "The Total Hijack of the South [India]'s Art into the Airless, Brahmins-only Monopolies is Stifling Genuine Growth."
And the tenor of the Outlook India article prompted me to articulate my take on the subject here so that readers can come to their own conclusions taking into account their own opinions on the matter. I must say that over the last several years, informally, and in bits and pieces, I have discussed with many of my friends many issues, including what follows.
Since Bharatanatyam and Karnatic music are inseparably intertwined, this article attempts to juxtapose the two and compare their evolution in the last seventy years in the midst of Tamil Nadu's unique social and political transitions.
In Tamil Nadu, in the early part of the twentieth century, Sadir as Bharatanatyam was know then, was the exclusive preserve of Devadasis ("slaves of God" in Sanskrit) coming from Isai Vellaalar community. Those days Isai Vellaalar women became temple dancers patronized by kings and landlords, and their men became nattuvanars, musicians, and nadaswaram vidwans. In Tamil, Isai means music and Vellaalar, even though means farmers, has come to mean the landed gentry.
The general perception among many people today is that brahmins have come to dominate Karnatic music and Bharatanatyam using fair and foul methods, usually with more of the latter, as we see in accusations of brahmins "hijacking" the arts.
The only way to respond is to confront the accusation squarely seeking answers, or at least explanations. When we do this, as you will see, we see the confluence of social, political, legal, and economic factors of the era in Tamil Nadu - not the brahmin "hijacking" - lead to the transfer of the chalangai (gungroo) of Bharatanatyam from the ankles of Isai Vellaalar women to those of upper crust brahmins.
East India Company, Abolition of Devadasi System, and the Resuscitation of Classical Dance
In the nascent years of Britain's East India Company (19th century), brahmins joined the Company as lowly clerks, derisively called "gumasta." As the Company grew in influence and started holding political power over the next several decades, the lowly brahmin clerks became the Indian upper crust, forming a layer between the sahebs and the serfs.
Brahmins did not cause this transformation, but became its beneficiaries on account of the flow of history. What caused the change was the already weakened central authority of the Mughals, the fractured Indian polity, and the chronic distrust among India's nawabs and maharajas. Besides, with their mercantile tradition, the British had a long-term political strategy backed by cannons and guns.
With most of Southern India coming under the Madras presidency by the middle of 19th century, the patronage system for Devadasis degenerated. Deva-dasis were seen as concubines, mistresses, even prostitutes. And with the Victorian morals the British tried to impose on India, the Devadasi system came under censure.
In the 1940s, among those prominent wanting the Devadasi system abolished was one Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, herself of Devadasi heritage. With the Devadasi system made illegal in mid 1940s, the stigma attached to Devadasis received a legal reinforcement. The Tamil society was trying to throw the baby of classical dance preserved by Devadasis along with the dirty bathwater of the Devadasi system.
In this environment, a few individuals in Madras, almost all of them brahmins, rescued the classical dance of Devadasis and gave it social respectability. One E. Krishna Iyer, a lawyer interested in performing arts, in the 1940s renamed it Bharatanatyam since the dance form drew its inspirations partly from Bharata's Natya Shastra (2nd century AD).
So, Sadir was renamed Bharatanatyam. The emphasis in Sadir on shrngara rasam (erotic mood) between the dancer and her secular hero (usually a rich patron) was transmuted into Bhakti (devotion) towards Ishta Devatas (personal deities), in which India had already an extensive repertoire of lyrics in all languages.
The Bhakti Movement, briefly
The Bhakti Movement started in Southern India, in the Tamil country as early as the fourth century AD, and blossomed further between 6th and 12th centuries, well into our times. The Bhakti movement itself, with its emphasis on non-Sanskrit languages, was a rebellion against the brahminical orthodoxy.
This "de-eroticization" of Sadir in the early days of Bharatanatyam was not only inevitable, but also necessary, given the stigma attached to Devadasis compounded by the Victorian morals of the European colonial rulers.
By replacing the secular patron with personal deities, and by giving the erotic themes a new interpretation as Nayaka-Nayikaa bhavam, the dance form was resuscitated.
The Nayaka-Nayikaa bhavam was not Bharatanatyam's original idea. Saiva and Vaishnava Tamil hymns written between 6th and 9th centuries and later are replete with lyrics in which poets, most of them men, personified themselves as women passionately in love with their deity - Siva, Vishnu, or Murugan.
Isai Vellaalar women's dilemma
In the 1950s and 1960s young women of Devadasi heritage wanting to learn dancing were under tremendous disadvantage. Marriages were arranged (and are still being arranged) within caste lines not only among brahmins, but also among all sub-sects of Vellaalars, Nadars, Chettiars and everybody else, even Muslims and Christians.
And for girls, the stigma of Devadasi heritage was perhaps the harshest. If a girl went on stage, her traditional marriage to a young educated man among Isai Vellaalars was in jeopardy.
On stage, her abhinaya, in contrast to that of a brahmin dancer, was interpreted by the audience using different yardsticks, not always complimentary.
In the meanwhile, the Isai Vellaalars, as all others in Tamil Nadu, were transforming themselves into the anglicized "middle class."
And to make matters worse, girls from traditional Devadasi families received formal education in Tamil, probably only till they reached puberty, while upper crust brahmin girls received English education in schools run by Catholic nuns. For reaching out to Bharatanatyam's increasingly cosmopolitan pan-Indian audience, the traditional upbringing of Isai Vellaalar women was no match for the sophistication of the "convent-educated" anglicized brahmin girls.
And all these changes were taking place between 1930 and 1960 in the overall social and political environment of the powerful Dravidian Movement in Tamil Nadu led by E V Ramaswamy Naicker, C N Annadurai, M Karunanidhi. Many frontline leaders of the Movement were from among the Vellaalars. The central plank of the Movement was its virulent anti-brahminism. More on this later.
In this environment, the Isai Vellaalars would have struggled between their social identity with the powerful Vellaalar leaders of the Dravidian Movement on one hand, and their cultural affinity with dance and brahmins on the other.
Under this highly charged social dynamics triggered by several inter-locking factors, Isai Vellaalars, particularly, Isai Vellaalar women, pretty much abandoned their traditional dance.
It is not that brahmins embraced Bharatanatyam en masse. In those days, many brahmins had stigma for girls learning Bharatanatyam and going on stage because of association with Devadasis. Many brahmin, and most Chettiar, Mudaliar, Pillai, Reddiar, and Nadar families in Tamil Nadu were reluctant to train their daughters in Bharatanatyam. Only in the 1950s and later, Bharatanatyam acquired prestige.
So, without considering the strong undercurrents of social and political changes taking place in Tamil Nadu, to say brahmins "hijacked" Bharatanatyam does injustice to verifiable facts, if not to truth.
Since Bharatanatyam was almost abandoned by its practitioners, it is more appropriate to say that the upper crust brahmins adopted the abandoned baby. In doing so, no doubt, the brahmins changed the emphasis in the art form from shrngaram (eroticism) to bhakti (devotion) making it palatable to the social and political environment of that era.
When we see Bharatanatyam in this backdrop, one should be happy that someone resuscitated it from its spiraling decay, if not imminent demise. In Tamil Nadu, the "someones" just happened to be upper crust brahmins in the 1940s and 50s.
A resurgent Bharatanatyam
With India (called Bharat or its variants in all Indian languages) getting freedom in 1947, the name Bharatanatyam caught on, and the art form became the premier all-India treasure in performing arts. We can say the same about "Hindustani" music too, with "Hindustan" having the same meaning as Bharat.
The inherent elasticity of Bharatanatyam coupled with the creativity and the genius of nattuvanars gave it immense strengths. Till the early part of 20th century, Bharatanatyam's repertoire was almost exclusively Tamil lyrics. However, since the middle of 20th century, nattuvanars, when presenting recitals to cosmopolitan all-India audiences, started imagi-natively weaving hymns from the Vedas, Upanishads, Kalidasa, Shankara to Jayadeva, bhajans by Meera and Kabir, Marathi Abhangs, Bengali songs, and padams in Telugu and Kannada into the program.
Thus, Bharatanatyam embraced lyrics from many Indian languages, while other Indian classical dances such as Kuchipudi, Odissi, and Kathak are still struggling to even experiment with lyrics from other non-Sanskrit languages. Bharatanatyam, thus became a truly pan-Indian art form by adapting itself to a diverse audience. In doing so, it expanded its audience base and visibility. Access to greater resources simply followed suit.
It is here that Karnatic music stands in sharp contrast to Bharatanatyam.
2. Karnatic Music
Music/Dance was always exclusive in Tamil Nadu
In Tamil Nadu, historically, music has always been confined to a few castes. During Sangam time (around Christ) and through the times of Silappadikaram (early centuries AD), we read of people of Paanar/Viraliyar castes adept in music and dance.
Only people of Oduvaar caste were (and still are) allowed to sing Tevaram hymns in Siva temples, and only Vaishnava priests recite Pasurams in Vaishnava temples as part of the liturgical worship. Others can join them. But without the Oduvaars and the Viashnava priests, temple ritual is not complete. It is as if our Gods would accept these hymns only if sung by Oduvaars and priests, even when the original lyrics were written by others, even "untouchables."
So, it should surprise none that in the 19th and 20th centuries, classical music in Tamil Nadu was confined to only a few castes: Brahmins, Vellaalars (Saiva Pillais, Isai Vellaalars, and Desikars), and the Madurai Sourashtras.
Vellaalar titans in Karnatic music
While the brahmin names of this era are familiar to most Karnatic listeners, there were other stalwarts, particularly between 1900 and 1970: Vocalist Kanchipuram Naina Pillai (1889-1934), Veena Dhanammal (1867-1938), Violinist Malaikottai Govindaswamy Pillai (1879-1931), Violinist Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai (1898-1970), Mrdangist Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai (1875-1937), Mrdangist Palani Subramania Pillai (1909-1962); Musicologist and vocalist Prof. Dandapani Desikar (Mid 20th century); and of course, M.S. Subbulakshmi (daughter of Madurai Shanmugavadivu of Devadasi heritage), and M.L.Vasantakumari (daughter of Lalitangi, also of Devadasi heritage). Others veterans, namely, Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu was from Andhra, and Chowdaiah, a Lingayat, was from Mysore.
Nadaswaram geniuses (Karukkurichi Arunachalam, Tiruvaduturai Rajaratnam Pillai and others) and all Nattuvanar legends Kittappa Pillai, Ramaiya Pillai, Meenakshisundaram Pillai were Isai Vellaalars. But Nattuvangam and Nadaswaram were exclusive domains of Isai Vellaalars. (Muslims in Coastal Andhra also were the practitioners of nadaswaram. Sangita Kalanidhi Sheikh Chinna Moulana Saheb who passed away a few years ago was the most famous Nadaswara vidwan from the Andhra region.)
The Dravidian Movement & Karnatic music
As mentioned briefly before, powerful Vellaalars were in the forefront of the Dravidian Movement in the middle of 20th century. With its virulent anti-brahmin plank, the Dravidian Movement was spearheading to break the brahmin domination in Tamil Nadu. Even though many within the Dravidian Movement did not agree with the anti-Hindu vitriolics of the Dravidian Movement, they nevertheless identified themselves with the Movement because of its strong anti-brahminism.
Given the near-monopoly of brahmins in many facets of life in Tamil Nadu at that time - in law, medicine, engineering, administration, films, teaching, newspaper editorship, classical music, writers, novelists - the anti-brahmin Dravidian Movement was politically inevitable and socially unavoidable. Expanding further on this topic here is simply a distraction. But we need to recognize this backdrop to understand why Karnatic music evolved the way it did.
Compounding the anti-brahmin plank was also the Dravidian Movement's Tamil chauvinism in public posturing even though the Dravidian leaders sent their children to English medium "convent schools." But Tamil chauvinism was good politics. Engum Tamiz Edilum Tamiz ("Tamil Everywhere, Tamil in Everything") was a popular DK-DMK slogan then.
In Karnatic music at this time, Telugu and Sanskrit lyrics overwhelmed the repertoire. In Madras, the mostly brahmin audiences whose mother tongue was Tamil treated Tamil krtis with disdain, if not with contempt. So, Karnatic music fell neatly into the hands of the Dravidian Movement as another weapon to chastise the brahmins.
The counter movement to revive Tamil Isai was supported by Raja Annamalai Chettiar, founder of the famous Annamalai University, who also founded the Madras Tamil Isai Sangam. Sir R.K Shanmugam Chettiar and Sir P T Rajan (a powerful Vellaalar), also championed the Tamil Isai movement.
Given the 2000-year-old Tamil history in literature, music, and dance, the Tamil Isai Movement to confront the aversion towards Tamil krtis in the brahmin-dominated Sabhas was natural.
In the public discourse, among the staunchest supporters of the Tamil Isai Movement were two colorful personalities - Rajaji and Kalki Krishnamurthy, both brahmins paradoxically.
So, could it be possible that Isai Vellaalar musicians were struggling between their caste and social identity with the leaders of the Dravidian Movement on one side, and their affinity to music, which publicly put them on stage where they had to often accompany brahmin vocalists? And worse still, performing to overwhelmingly brahmin audiences?
And with the stigma attached to music/dance through the Devadasi system, would it be possible that Vellaalars decided to distance themselves from being the practitioners of music, at least in public?
Also as mentioned before, they themselves were joining the ranks of anglicized Indian middle class.
The plight of young musicians of the era
And during this transition, the old patronage by kings, zamindars and landlords disappeared. In Madras, the established musicians (Ariyakkudi, Semmangudi, GNB, Palakkad and Madurai Mani Iyer, Chembai, MS, MLV, Pattammal, and a few others) ruled the roost. The repertoire was getting stale. Melody overpowered lyrics, and established vocalists didn't care for lyrics. Often they unabashedly mutilated the words in the sahityam.
For young musicians languishing behind senior vidwans as pin-paattu for decades, the system was stifling. Vocalists in their mid 40s were called "tender" artistes ("ilam vidwans" in Tamil) seeking a break in their career that seemed to offer only uncertain future, whereas their cousins in Bombay and Calcutta had far more stable lifestyles.
All that the leading artistes of this era could hope was to go to Ceylon or Malaysia, or at best to Singapore where they already had Tamil settlements.
Often, even marriage was difficult for young musicians since brides' parents wanted stable futures for their daughters, and what they saw in young musicians did not reassure them. Seeing some of their seniors languishing in penury for not getting any break, youngsters wanting to be musicians saw the writing on the wall. They looked at their art only as a second career, with many having full-time jobs for financial security, while they performed during weekends. What they found was that when they performed while holding on to their jobs, they became respectable.
The situation was identical to musicians and dancers among NRIs in the US. How many Karnatic musicians in the US can hope to have a middle class lifestyle if they exclusively depend on their art? Honestly, given our tightfistedness, none. But if you're an MD, a PhD, or an MBA, an IT Pro, and then also a Karnatic artiste (or priest), even a mediocre one, you have respect, and prestige too.
With old patronage gone, young Karnatic artistes saw their economic future bleak, the odds of becoming a star low, and only social condescension towards them where it mattered the most. In this overall social and political environment, and given the stagnation of Karnatic music and bleak future in music, could it be possible that Isai Vellaalars did not want to train their sons and daughters in music to pursue it as careers?
Migration within India & post-1960 exodus
Simultaneously, there was massive population migration from South Indian villages towards Madras, Bombay, Calcutta, and New Delhi, triggered partly by India's freedom, and partly by economic necessity. And except for bureaucrats, most of these migrant Tamils were poor, often high school graduates with their diplomas in shorthand and typewriting. Most of these early migrants were also brahmins. And as all migrants do, wherever they went, they took their faith, their food, and their fine arts.
After the 1960s when Karnatic musicians performed in Bombay, Calcutta, or New Delhi, their audience was mostly low-level Madrasi brahmin babus with very little disposable incomes struggling to find their moorings in their new places.
As we in the US host visiting artistes in our spacious 4-BR homes, those days, families in Bombay, Delhi, and Calcutta, hosted artistes from Madras, often in their crammed 1-BR flats. During this time, not many tears were shed for the demise of Karnatic music, not many heard complaints about brahmins "hijacking" music.
And then, three trends of great sociological significance in the Indian context set in:
1) In the 1960s through the 80s thousands of blue and white collar workers from India went to Persian Gulf countries during the oil boom, and began to have access to wealth.
2) The US opened its universities to South Asian students.
3) To meet the acute shortage of physicians in hospitals, US imported freshly minted medical graduates from Asia.
This opened the floodgate of college graduates to "go abroad" for higher studies, and most of those who went "abroad" never returned. They stayed in the Middle East, or settled in North America, Europe, and Australia. Within twenty years since these people started working in the Persian Gulf and settling down in the West into a life of affluence and leisure, Karnatic music and Karnatic musicians got a fresh lease of life. Musicians had access to patronage and lifestyles unimaginable to their predecessors. Young musicians started getting the breaks that they always wanted, but found elusive earlier. This had a cascading effect on everybody in the music pyramid.
Today, established Karnatic musicians' calendars are filled with months-long concert tour to the US during summer when the weather is oppressive in India, followed by concerts in India during Fall and winter. Those trying to establish themselves work hard to get a US concert tour.
But all these happened not as a consequence of some diabolical brahmin design as many attempt to portray. They happened because of a confluence of social and political changes in India; international events in the Middle East and the US that triggered Indians' out-migration. Brahmins did not cause them. They could not even influence them
Expansive Bharatanatyam & exclusive Karnatic music
During all these changes, unlike Bharatanatyam, both the audience and the artistes of Karnatic music stayed overwhelmingly brahmin and mostly Tamil. There were valid reasons for how Karnatic music arrived here. But today, is there any reason for Karnatic music to continue to stay that way? The answer is NO.
Why? Because arts, by necessity, evolve naturally. The very fact we are discussing this is an indication that something is remiss. In spite of its global reach, fact is, in some ways, Karnatic music shrank even further in recent decades compared to mid 20th century. Even during the height of the Dravidian Movement, Karnatic music extended over larger areas in Southern India: In Tamil Nadu, Southern Karnataka, Kerala, and the Krishna and Godavari deltas in Andhra.
But today, people in Chennai, that too, a tiny southern suburb stretching a few miles between Mylapore and Adayar seem to think that they are the ultimate arbiters of what is right and wrong in Karnatic music. Over 50 sabhas concentrated in Chennai organize over 2000 programs, mostly in December-January music "season." The number of music Sabhas even in Tamil Nadu drops precipitously in other urban centers. But even in Madras, often, attendance is thin, and ticket-buying patrons are few.
So, these sabhas depend on businesses to sponsor their programs. And businesses - even tobacco companies! - whose logos are prominently displayed in the backdrop on the stage have replaced the zamindars of the olden days.
Except in the case of a handful stars or glamorous artistes, box office collections do not meet even half of the cost of organizing concerts. It is not uncommon in Chennai today to see artistes performing to sparsely filled auditorium. Naturally, organizers chase their corporate sponsors, and ticket-buying patrons are marginalized.
We have to also recognize that outside India, Karnatic music, compared to its Hindustani sibling, does not attract non-Indians. Even within India, Karnatic music does not draw people from outside Southern India. And nobody seems to be doing anything to change this attitude.
This is where we are today.
Changing demography changes music
But in the last three decades, a whole new segment of the population coming from diverse caste backgrounds in South India's social context have become prosperous with education. And this class is willing to spend its disposable time and money that come with affluence to understand their own cultural and spiritual roots. What are the indicators for this assertion?
Well, just look at the diverse caste identities of today's girls having their Bharatanatyam arangetram. Or look at the number of devotional CDs set in classical ragas released today. They are minimal in raga alapanas, almost with no neraval and swara prastaram. But the CDs sell hot.
The Karnatic aficionados may look at these "light classicals" with condescension. But who cares? After all, those who pay for these "light" classical CDs are calling their tunes, literally. And today's artistes are sophisticated enough to know who their patrons are. The smarter ones play to many galleries simultaneously, whetting the appetite of listeners coming from different backgrounds.
Karnatic music has always been evolving and adapting to changes notwithstanding what traditionalists would say to the contrary. Even the current concert format is the adaptation of 20th century's Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Ayyangar's concert style.
Today, musicians are already "singing to their galleries." In Kerala, they load concerts with Swati Tirunal krtis; in Andhra, with Annamacharya songs; in Karnataka with compositions by the Dasas, and lately Vira Saiva poets; in Delhi, they sprinkle Mira and Tulasidas bhajans; in Tamil Isai Sangam one format; in Chennai Music Academy another.
The galleries are filled with one type of traditionalists in one place, another type of traditionalists in another place. Sometime with non-traditionalists. That is all.
In the US, when artistes perform in temples, they are often gently "reminded" to sing only on local deities this many songs in that many languages. When language-based groups underwrite concerts in their annual jamborees, the lyrics are in only one language. So much for Manodharma in Sangitam.
So, the traditionalists' claim that Karnatic music's classicism would be bartered away by changes is untenable because it already is.
3. Where should we be headed?
The only way to give Karnatic music a stronger foundation is to widen the social base of its listeners. We need to bring into the auditorium people who are not traditionally Karnatic music listeners but who are curious about it nonetheless.
But Karnatic music aficionados are headed in the opposite direction. They appear to make Karnatic music more exclusive and elitist. And this certainly is not the way to widen the audience base.
To widen the base, first we need to let everybody know that to enjoy good music, one does not have to know anything about the theory of music - about the melakarta system, janaka or janya ragam, bhashanga ragam, arohanam/avarohanam, or the difference between Adi talam and its 2-kaLai chavukkam, or between misra nadai and tisra nadai of talams and all other esoteric stuff. Sprinkling more and more of these arcane terms turns off those standing on the fringes trying to wet their feet in Karnatic music.
If you know these terms, that is fine. But organizers need to keep on reinforcing that if you do not know any of these, you are not losing out on anything substantially, unless you want to know them. What we need is informal but informative exposures to the history of music and on how it evolved in its scope and content to arrive at the current concert format, and how it adapted to changes over time.
This is already happening. One example is SPIC-MACAY, an organization with branches all over the globe, run mostly by college students of Indian heritage, dedicated to exposing youngsters to Indian fine arts. The office holders of SPIC-MACAY come from diverse social backgrounds (read castes), and they organize programs without any regional hang-ups. And they are quite professional in the way they go about their business.
Also, in India, cable TV has become another tool as we see programs in which artistes give the primers on Karnatic music to draw in curious listeners. These exposures should help to demystify Karnatic music in the minds of cursory listeners, and help them become familiar with the art form. Eventually, those who are more interested would quickly learn more so that one day they will confidently drop all those arcane terms and more in conversations.
With the proliferation audiovisual media and communication, accomplishing this is quite straightforward.
Maybe, Karnatic music aficionados should have, or could have, taken a page from Bharatanatyam decades ago. Bharatanatyam, inseparably related to Karnatic music, enriched itself in terms of resources, audience base, repertoire, and reach by adapting itself to changes. Granted, the visual appeal of the dance gives it an edge in popular appeal. But that is all the more reason why Karnatic music, lacking the visual appeal of Bharatanatyam, should have tried to widen its reach pro-actively.
If we start now for expanding the audience base for Karnatic music, changes will come slowly, maybe in the next fifteen to twenty years. Who knows? Maybe in the next twenty years, we will have youngsters not only from traditional Isai Vellaalar families, but also from Mudaliar, Chettiar, Thevar, Nadar, Kamma, Reddy, Lingayat and Vokkaliga families and others in large numbers in the audiences. And also among those squatting on the stage facing the audience, one hopes.
Kollengode S Venkataraman is the Editor of The Pittsburgh Patrika. The article attempts to capture the evolution of Bharatanatyam and Karnatic music in the last 60 years in the overall context of the social, political, and economic changes sweeping across Southern India, particularly, Tamil Nadu, and contrast the different ways in which the two art forms responded to these changes.