Indian Classical

2020, a year of crises in classical dance: Amid silent stages, spotlight was on systemic inequalities in the arts

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The hope ultimately is that Indian classical dance rejects the epistemic violence which has been at the heart of its creation and propagation thus far.

Read more from our ‘2020, the year of…’ series.

A round-up of trends in Indian classical dance in any other year would have proved more difficult, owing largely to the unorganised nature of this field. It is not only government-sponsored official festivals or recognised dancers who make up the ever-growing ecosystem of classical dance, but equally and increasingly, the smaller baithaks, the shows at local temples, in community centres, the dancers who use social media to disseminate their work, the neighbourhood class run in improvised spaces, the older women (and men) who are taking up classical dance, which form a part of this expanding network of practice and performance. There is a terrible affection I have begun to feel for these liminal spaces which Indian classical dance operates in.

‘Are the smaller spaces, the lesser recognised platforms not worthy of mention?’ I would have fretted. Is there any point in covering the views of already well-established faces in the field, instead of passing the mic, and listening to storylines that move beyond the urban, cosmopolitan spaces in which Indian classical dances have found their ideal breeding ground? How many times can lamentations of classical dance ‘dying’ — when it is so obviously not — be written about?

Indian classical dance, as much as many senior artists complain otherwise, is not a dying field. It is a constantly evolving field, but its gatekeepers like to announce its impending death to continue their vicelike grip on its narratives, in order to control resources, opportunities as well as ideological ground. And so this piece is not a definitive account of significant events from the pandemic, with regard to Indian classical dance, but the stories and people that have stayed with me, as I have thought about classical dance over the past year. In a year-end piece, a year wherein hope has been in scant supply, I focus instead on what I wish for or from classical dance in 2021. And to do that I go back to the start of 2020.

As hazy as this year is, there were a glorious two-and-a-half months of 2020, where the pandemic hadn’t yet wrapped its tentacles around the working of the world, grinding it to a standstill, embracing stages in an eerie silence.

However, 2020 was off to a rocky start for India in general, with the swell of the anti-CAA and NRC protests steadily gaining momentum, the violence that took place in JNU, the Delhi riots all forcing a reckoning upon the citizenry, in their place in the shaping of this country. Two news articles from that time, centred on dance and the spaces inhabited by dance, have stayed with me: A Kathak dancer in Uttar Pradesh was allegedly stopped from performing a Sufi piece set to a qawwali for a government function; and the Kalakshetra Foundation cancelled TM Krishna’s book release citing the ‘political’ contents of the book — the fact that the mridangam was in fact, made from cow-hide.

Setting these events against the backdrop of the CAA and NRC, both of which sought to consolidate identity and citizenship on the basis of religion, does classical dance need to awaken from its pro-status quo slumber? What is the identity that we bequeath to Indian classical dance, and what is the Indian identity it propagates? Is it only to be inhabited by oppressor-caste Hindu sentiment, to be constantly threatened by minority or subaltern narratives which make their way into classical dance?

As we move into 2021, the hope is that Indian classical dance learns to utilise its epithet of “Indian” more responsibly. To reject its Brahminical refashioning, begun in the 1920s, and a century later, aim to make it a space that resists constant co-optation into a vision of an oppressor-caste, upper class Hindu India. That it not only accommodates, but absorbs and celebrates versions of classical dance histories which do not fit the easy temple art form adapted for proscenium stage arc, staying silent on the erasures of history.

This brings us to the male Mohiniattam dancer from Kerala, who attempted suicide on alleged grounds of constant discrimination based on his Dalit identity, compounded by the prevalent idea that Mohiniattam is only performed by women, leading to a lack of professional opportunities. In a note, he directly blamed the director of the Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi for his attempt.

This ‘dying’ is not something one hears spoken of; a literal dying of not the art form, but the artist involved. The thought that there may be other similar stories, which do not get even the slight attention this story received, is a terrifying prospect. How does one tackle not just mental health concerns in a field that is competitive beyond measure, where opportunities are not easy to come by, but also the systemic oppression which looms spectre-like over this field preying on those from marginalised communities and backgrounds? How do we acknowledge that the ability to pay attention to mental health in this field itself is a privilege? How do we look at the heteronormative expectations placed on classical dances?

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The hope here is that Indian classical dance begins to acknowledge and rectify its long-held biases and systemic injustices which continually harm individuals from marginalised caste, class and gendered locations. The hope is that the ownership of Indian classical dance finally disperses itself more evenly across class and caste positions.

This hope for me has been embodied in the crucial and critical work which Nrithya Pillai, a dancer from the Isai Vellalar community, has been doing. Following her work and trajectory via social media, as well as over online talks (facilitated in part by the pandemic), I have been struck time and again by how she problematises and situates Bharatanatyam vis-à-vis her own lived experience as a woman from the hereditary dance community.

The classical dance sphere has constantly relegated the lives of those from the traditional dance communities to the position of archive or resource, never allowing their perspectives to occupy centre stage, never allowing their story to emerge from their own mouths. And Nrithya is slowly but steadily changing that, bringing a voice that has been sidelined and marginalised since the ‘reformation’ process, back into the picture.

The static image of the hereditary dancer frozen in black and white pictures, explained away by the oppressor caste over the years, now finds animation in the counter-narrative which has finally been able to find a foot-hold through Nrithya’s work. The hope is that this representation does not begin to resemble tokenistic inclusion on dance panels alone and charts the way for actual on-ground shifts in shaping the practice and performance of not just Bharatanatyam, but classical dance as a whole. The hope is that more hitherto marginalised voices join hers to tear down the gates which hold dance on an abstracted and rarefied spiritual pedestal.

Also, in this year of the pandemic, there is something which binds us: most fingers will point to that familiar culprit of all our pandemic lives, the now ubiquitous Zoom screen, or the social media ‘live’, as the new friend/foe/trend which has overtaken Indian classical dance. In this year, ask any classical dancer — established, fading, upcoming, star, emerging or any of the other classificatory epithets attached to dancers — and the one unanimous answer will talk of the huge shift online. This shift, though it could have been a move to make this field a more egalitarian one, has only served to widen the divide between those at the centre and those at the periphery.

Read on Firstpost: As Indian classical dancers go online in lockdown, an initiation of critical dialogue on the insularity of their craft

The digital space has now undoubtedly impacted the practice, performance as well as pedagogy of Indian classical dance for not just the present, but the time to come. The melding of dance into the virtual space is indeed something to write home about, especially regarding the infrastructural support required by the dancer to keep up in this hastily altered and re-ordered reality. But who are the people who continue to slip between the cracks, unnoticed in this scenario?

Not only did the virtual space reach peak saturation very early on in the pandemic, but also, such is its nature is that it refused to acknowledge the immense privilege to not have one’s life completely upended by the pandemic, to continue performing. The access to quality smartphones, to uninterrupted internet connections, to large-enough spaces to conduct an online performance or class in, a certain aesthetic expectation for these online presentations — all pointed to who the expected practitioners of Indian classical dance remain.

The glaring lack of remuneration for most of these opportunities further compound the precarity of the dancer, and the idea of dance being some sort of activity carried out for leisure and aesthetic considerations alone — once again, a class-based choice very few dancers will have the ability to take up. The hope here is that in the gulf made visible in this shift online, in who can and who cannot have continued access to opportunities to engage in classical dance as a profession or even as a practice or hobby, can be addressed and remedied. The hope is that methods to bridge the digital divide become a part of cultural policy in the coming years with regard to performing arts like classical dance.

Also read: As the arts grapple with fallout of coronavirus crisis, can a more inclusive way be found through the pandemic?

The hope ultimately is that Indian classical dance rejects the epistemic violence which has been at the heart of its creation and propagation thus far, to use a term introduced by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Epistemic violence refers to the silencing of marginalised voices by the oppressor, and oppressor’s complicity in removing the marginalised group’s ability to speak for itself, and to leave no audience which is willing or able to hear those voices through a cultivation of an almost wilful ignorance of the marginalised existence. Perhaps it is too large, too broad a wish. But it has been a hard year, and a difficult hope means so much more than an easy, but unfair reality.

Ranjini Nair is a Kuchipudi practitioner and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. 

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