Indian Classical

No Dirty Dancing: India’s Classical Dancers Break Caste Taboos – OZY

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For generations, classical dance has been dominated by upper-caste, male narratives. A growing band of dancers is fighting to change that.

  • Colonialism and then casteism turned India’s classical dances into elitist art forms. Now a band of dancers is fighting to reverse that.
  • They’re using their performances to highlight long-banished communities that once drove Indian dance.
  • They’re also calling attention to casteism, religious bias, misogyny, homophobia and climate change.

It was an ordinary evening at Chennai’s famous arts festival, the Brahma Gana Sabha, in January this year — until dancer Nrithya Pillai shook the audience by ending her performance with a reading of the preamble of the Indian constitution. Dancers of Bharatanatyam, India’s oldest classical dance tradition, which Pillai practices, typically end performances with a sequence known as the mangalam. Instead, the 32-year-old used the occasion to cite India’s constitutional commitment to fighting discrimination.

Her very presence on a sabha stage — an elite space historically dominated by upper-caste Brahmins — is a “political act,” Pillai tells me. That’s because she proudly asserts her lineage from the nattuvanar-devadasi community, a musical tradition that has existed in the southern state of Tamil Nadu for centuries but was banished, starting in the 1920s, under attack by a morality-driven campaign that equated its members with prostitutes.

Pillai is among a growing set of Indian dancers who are using their craft to ask tough sociopolitical questions about India’s classical dance repertoire and its accepted histories. They’re breaking with the traditionally apolitical nature of classical dance in India and forcing their audiences to confront past and modern challenges facing society.

I want to change people’s perspectives through dance.

Manjari Chaturvedi, Sufi Kathak dancer

Revanta Sarabhai, son of acclaimed dancer Mallika Sarabhai and a dancer himself, showcases caste-based discrimination, gender stereotypes, homophobia and climate change in his work. Pillai marries dance with activism to fight back against the Brahminical appropriation of Bharatanatyam. And Sufi Kathak dancer Manjari Chaturvedi uses her dance to shine a light on the problematic historical depiction of tawaifs — courtesans who were central to the advance of music, dance, theater and literature in medieval India but have been defamed as prostitutes since the 19th century.

“I want to change people’s perspectives through dance,” says Chaturvedi.

That’s easier said than done. These dancers are up against a power structure that has solidified over decades and has deeply penetrated popular notions and stereotypes of courtesans, including the devadasis. That’s partly a consequence of the two-pronged attack these traditions faced — first from the British and then from a nationalist movement dominated by upper-caste leaders who sought a creation of “purer” art forms. As a result, traditional dance forms like Bharatanatyam and Kathak were appropriated and turned into fiefdoms of upper-caste entitlement.

“The culture of today’s classical dance has remained stubbornly
unchanged because its structures of power remain unchecked,” says historian and
University of Pennsylvania professor Davesh Soneji, whose book Unfinished Gestures digs into the social
and cultural history of South Indian courtesans. “Any voice of dissent is
immediately censured by displays of caste-based power.”  

Those displays play out for dancers like Chaturvedi and Pillai. In January, a recital by Chaturvedi in the North Indian city of Lucknow was stopped midway by organizers who refused to allow Qawwali — a Sufi Islamic form of devotional signing — as part of the performance. That disruption was in keeping with the growing anti-Muslim cultural atmosphere that has gripped India over the past few years. And hereditary artists of devadasi lineage for the most part rarely find space on prominent stages like the Brahma Gana Sabha. “The dance fraternity ignores me,” says Pillai, “because they couldn’t shut me up.”

Many of the problematic signs of “casteism, misogyny, homophobia, deep nationalism and religious fundamentalism” that remain embedded in Indian classical dance go “unnoticed in the mainstream dance community,” says Hari Krishnan, Bharatanatyam dancer, chair of the dance department at Wesleyan University and director of Toronto-based inDance. Some of that has to do with a “lack of critical consciousness about the histories of these forms,” he says. But many mainstream performers, he adds, also view “critical historical discourse as threatening.”

Chaturvedi, 45, had to fight to shed the “contemporary dancer” label when she started Sufi Kathak. Others like Sarabhai, who studied in London and worked as a dancer in Europe before returning to India, are more restrained. “I stick to the original structure [of dance] but generate modern content,” he says. It was during his stay in the U.K. that Sarabhai decided to break with the portrayal of Bharatanatyam as “Oriental exotic stuff the West doesn’t get.” His choreography has depicted, among other things, a man pining for his lover, who works in another country and is too busy to video-call him. This stands in sharp contrast to “stereotypical tropes” where the female dancer pines for the man or a male God, Sarabhai says.

For dancers like Krishnan — who has lived in North America for the past 30 years — it’s still frustrating when he’s “boxed into annoying” clichés that ask him to act out his heritage. And in India, the supposedly liberal “gatekeepers of Bharatnatyam” who “masquerade as progressives” refuse to recognize the Brahminical stranglehold over the dance form, while failing to address present-day women’s issues and “softly” embracing the idea of a Hindu nation, says Soneji. In some ways, Sarabhai — despite the content of his work — himself represents the elite background that has dominated Indian dance over several decades. And Pillai has faced criticism from her own hereditary community for seeking to disrupt the status quo, which provides token patronage to these artists as opposed to acknowledging their historical contributions.

But these dancers are ready for the fight. Krishnan says the “regressive opposition” to his work “only strengthens my resolve.” Pillai says her will to go on despite “tone policing, gaslighting” and threats to her livelihood is fueled by her dedication to the women of the past five to six generations whose contributions to Bharatanatyam have been erased. It’ll take a “radical awakening” for Indian classical dance to change, says Soneji.

as an educator, Krishnan sees it as his responsibility to use critical thinking
and performances to shape the future. “I am painfully aware that what I do is
beyond risky,” says Krishnan. That’s also what makes it revolutionary.

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