by Anuradha Kishore Ganpati

Sep 2001
A group of young dancers wait their turn to perform
Niyeti Kamdar prepares backstage before she ascends the stage to perform her Arangetram in LA
Selecting the padam in Los Angeles is fraught with implications, some old and others new. The stigma attached to the erotic padam of the devadasi has traveled to Los Angeles, bringing with it the social, sexual, and political intrigues that besieged the dance half a century ago. Only now, the padam is burdened by the added implications of immigrant syndrome. The Indian immigrant's need for respectability, acceptance, and “good” living is valued above all else. Today, even while the padams of Jayadeva and Kshetraya are being revived in India, and while sensuous sentiments are being explored unabashedly, the Bharatanatyam community in Los Angeles seems to be frozen in time: in the moment when Muddupalani was ostracized, when the dasi was banished from the temples, when “sanitization” of the dance and dancer was the only option to preserve the craft from disappearing altogether. That India of some fifty years ago somehow seems to have found its way onto the freeways of Los Angeles; only here, it protects Indians against American culture. The end gain is always the same: the salvation of the Indian as a model ethnic minority in Los Angeles, for the sake of survival in the host country as well as survival in the home country. And so the dance culture and the culture of India operate through the body of the Indian-American daughter, the kumari,1 as a national and religious identity in Los Angeles. The consequences of reaffirming in Los Angeles the upper caste Brahminical image of the dance is the marginalization and omission of items, lyrics, composers, and literature that once accompanied the dance in the days of the devadasi and even revived today in India.

On the other hand, Indian-American woman writers are making tremendous strides exploring and expressing eroticism through their work. Having been suppressed for years—Muddupalini, for instance is today being celebrated and more recently, there is a sudden explosion of interest in the writings of Chitra Divakaruni, Geetha Mehta, Ginu Kamini, Minal Hajratwala and others for their subjective and sensual perspectives on being an Indian woman in America. Today, Indian-American women writers both the first and second-generation are vying with each other to publish their introspective and controversial writings. While the written word has explored new frontiers2 and moved into new realms accepted and sanctioned by Indians in America, and even encouraged as part of college syllabi, the dance performance genre continues to trail behind, engaged in selective concealment.

Ratisringara Padam in Los Angeles: Cool or not so cool?
1The virgin Goddess.
2Vachani, Neema, the author of this poem is a second-generation Indian-American writer living in California.

To Sadma
I see you naked
My breast to your hip
We whisper laugh hold on to the energy

There are other angles to the story of the missing sringara padam in Los Angeles. Many students are still young; very few of the skilled students are old enough to understand the deeply layered, subtle suggestive elements and the multifaceted purpose of the ratisringara in the padam.

Lakshmi Iyengar is a fifteen-year-old who studies Bharatanatyam with her mother Malathi Iyengar from Guru Narmada. Lakshmi is learning her first padam. In this narrative, the nayika has adorned herself and implores her sakhi to convey a love letter to her beloved. She even bribes the sakhi with jewelry. “What a cheesy soap opera,” comments Lakshmi. “I would rather watch ‘Days of our Lives.' I would ask the guy directly.” 3 Malathi her mother, tries to explain:
My daughter at fifteen will not reconcile to the fact that this woman is pining for her man. She finds it too ‘cheesy' because she has been raised in America. The culture is different here, girls are much more verbal and direct here.4
Malathi's assessment of the situation may be correct, but does not the young woman in America wait for that special phone call? Does she not put on that extra touch of perfume? And even shave her legs for that special date? I am delightfully excited at having stumbled upon the possibilities of this argument. Can the ratisringara themes in Bharatanatyam actually apply to contemporary Los Angeles? Does not longing, disappointment, anticipation of passionate union, and various aspects of love apply to contemporary teenage life in America?

I consider answers. First, the young Indian-American dancer does not consider this “cool.” As Lakshmi says, it's too “cheesy” to do on-stage. It is meant for television and film, where fantasy and make-believe are accepted and there is a willing suspension of disbelief. “It's acting,” says Lakshmi.5 But is that not an important aspect in Bharatanatyam? The drama? Malathi explains:
Drama is fine. They will accept drama. The exaggerated expressions of fear and anger are fine. But the same is not possible with the subtleties and nuances of fear, anger, and especially love. That is why large dance drama productions are more popular in Los Angeles. It is more accessible. This may be due to the fact that most of the student dancers in Los Angeles are in their mid-teens. They have led lives unlike their American teenage counterparts, which means no dating or falling in love with a boy. So these girls have not experienced love, or disappointed in love, so these emotions are difficult for them to grasp and illustrate, and when they have to learn about it in the dance class, they are embarrassed and shy. They may do the piece from imitation; a lot of them will not be completely involved.6
3 Conversation with Lakshmi Iyengar, February 1998.
4 Conversations with Malathi Iyengar, February 1998. Malathi is the Artistic Director of the Rangoli Foundation for Art and Culture in Los Angeles.
5 Conversation with Lakshmi Iyengar, February 1998.
6 Malathi. February 1998

In India on the other hand, it is comparatively easier for the teenager to play the role of a nayika. The themes are slightly more relevant to the Indian in India, surrounded by the sacred and erotic myth. Legendary heroes and multiheaded snakes are depicted in the temples down the street, lyrics in the film songs resound from tea shop loudspeakers, the Indian politicians heavily emotive rhetoric. But it is a challenge for the Indian-American student removed from all of these everyday nuances to relate to these emotions.

Also, there is no opportunity for the students in L.A. to see padams with ratisringara rasa on-stage. Padams describing the love between man and woman are hardly ever performed. So the young student is unable to relate to them even when she does on occasion encounter them. “Audiences in L.A. are not ready for such padams,” says Malathi. She believes that while Indians in India may be familiar with all the layers of complexity and imagery, of an exquisite padam, this is lost on audiences in America. It is difficult to keep audiences engaged in a narrative where the mudras and abhinayas are deep with meaning and context unfamiliar to them. “If the audiences in America were offered padams some fifteen years ago, then today they would have developed an appreciation and understanding,” says Malathi. Ramya Harishankar, founder of the Arpana School of Dance in Irvine, is one of the few dancers who explores this realm. But this has been difficult even for Ramya, who has had to resort to innovative methods to convey her padam to her local audiences. In one production, Ramya entered the stage complete with traditional costume, make-up and an attached microphone with the battery strapped to her back. She gently ushered her audience into a world thick with imagery and meaning by translating each line of the lyrics into English. The audience at the end of the performance was grateful, for otherwise they would have not have understood any of the richness of the text and dance.

According to Malathi, the style of dance taught by the various teachers is significant to this debate. For instance, her own Pandanallur school lays more emphasis on nritta: lines, teermanums,7 alignment, and mandalas or postures. Some schools may stress on the abhinaya, or narrative aspect of the dance. But padams are taught in all schools, and remain an integral part of learning Bharatanatyam. I spoke to Rangashree, a visiting dancer from India,8 hoping that her perspective might help me understand.

7Technical flourishes.
8My interview with Rangashree: “An Afternoon with Rangashree and her Dance”. India Post Newspaper (1998).
What do you think of Bharatanatyam in Los Angeles?
It's good in spite of being in the Western world. I find the standard of Bharatanatyam in America quite impressive. But I do find a lack of exploration in the scope of abhinaya in the West.

Why is abhinaya [ratisringara padam] in the repertoire and why do you think it is diminished in America?
The sringara padam is crucial in a performance. It is the life-sustaining element of the dance. I am not sure why it is lacking in America. You must realize that to hone this particular craft requires intense patience and skill from the guru and the student. Maybe that is the problem; there is no interest in investing that kind of time in America. I also think it should be easier to accomplish the sringara rasa in America.

Don't you think Indian-American teenagers studying the dance may be a little uncomfortable expressing such emotions on a stage in America?
In my conversations with students in America, they tell me that they cannot do abhinaya because of all the Western influence. I do not agree, for in the Western world the emotion of love is exemplified everywhere, from advertisements to couples holding hands in public to teenagers having boyfriends. So it only seems natural that students would be more comfortable here to express the sringara rasa.
Rangashree has a unique way of looking at life and the dance. For her, life and dance should not contradict each other; there must be fluidity and crossovers between the boundaries. She feels that somehow the Indian student in America has been unable to resolve the contradiction. One mother of a dance student in Viji's school explains:
We are undoubtedly more traditional and conservative in our ways than our counterparts in India. We are afraid to lose our Indian values, so we hold them closer to our chest than we would if we were back in India. Their values have to be carefully introduced, nurtured, and maintained with utmost protection. It is very easy to focus on the wrong things out here, more chances to go astray. So we have to keep a closer watch on the children.9
9Conversations with mothers of dance students in Viji's school, February 1998.

When this mother speaks of tradition and Indian values, she is referring to the “carefully introduced, nurtured and maintained” reforms that transformed the Indian classical dance from the state of “prostitution” to the state of the “Purified Dance of India.” She has clearly erased the entire existence of Sadir and the devadasi prior to the anti-nautch campaign. Her objective is to achieve the ideal of the transformed dance that was associated with the “Self -Respect” movement that had begun to shape the Indian woman in India, and now in Los Angeles.

The self-imposed “Self-Respect” movement in India (1879-1973) seems to exist as a foregrounding force for the Indians in Los Angeles. Many of them are neither concerned nor aware of this movement, but a revival of it on Western shores forms the backbone of this immigrant community. The desire to be a “respectable” or “virtuous” woman surged through the Indian masses in the twenties and thirties, driving out and leaving destitute the poets, musicians, and particularly the devadasi. This yearning for respectability lives on in Los Angeles and shapes Bharatanatyam in L.A.

According to one student's mother, contemporary L.A. culture is too harsh and sexually explicit for immigrant parents, who want their children to learn something quite different when they send them to Bharatanatyam class. The concept of coming from a “respectable background” is a recognizable dogma in India, and history supports it. But what happens when it crosses several oceans some fifty years after the dance's banishment from the temples? The sculpting continues like an unfinished piece, the dance and dancer wait to be fashioned into the next mold, the next vision, to feed the new need. To understand this restructuring and institutionalization of the bhakti, or devotion principle, in Los Angeles, one must first get to know the parents of the Bharatanatyam dancer—and more specifically, the mother.

Anu is a Journalist and Dance Ethnologist researching Indian immigrant experience in Performance in Los Angeles. This essay is an excerpt from her Master Degree Thesis from UCLA, on the journey and migration of Bharatanatyam dance and dancer titled “Imagining Inheritance.” She looks forward to engaging in a dialogue on the state of Bharatanatyam in the diaspora.