Framing the Fluid
Multiple perspectives on Bharatanatyam:
I base this paper on a subjective assumption that Bharatanatyam today has become prisoner to its own attitudes, undone by its own narcissism as the chauvinistically flaunted emblem of Indian culture. The paper begins by first identifying and elaborating philosophical underpinnings that inform and inspire the poetics of dance from the inside, and then proceeds to identify some historical impositions that both restrict the parameters of the dancer’s imagination as well as given rise to attitudes and perspectives that tend to make Bharatanatyam both self-sufficient and self-conscious.
The philosophical construct around Bharatanataym is sweeping, it directly connects the dance to the Gods, Siva Nataraja being the first dancer and teacher of Bharata who further wrote the Natyashastra. But ironically, I cannot resist remarking, that by making the dance self-conscious of its divine origins and flaunting it as a spiritual product, tends to deplete the dance of its supernatural and spiritual energy or range. It is not that I contest the supernatural lineage; in fact my premise too is that dance is potentially sublime and spiritual, but it is the emphatic posturing and chauvinistic brandishing that I find problematic at the level of art making.
The Religious/Spiritual Aspect
Purusha is a primary philosophical and religious phenomenon that informs all Indian thought. Purusha is constant: it was, is and will be. It is the Masculine, Siva principle. In contrast, all that moves is Prakriti, Shakti or the Feminine principle. Thus, any movement that takes place in relation to either the spiritual core within or the material world without is the feminine principle at work. A yearning to unite with the Purusha, the inner magnetic, constant core is an integral and inherent part of human nature. Traditional dance was a medium to voice this yearning and initiate a methodical journey from the outside to the inside, from the material to the sublime. Sensuality played a very important part in this conversion from the material to the sublime, and equally important was the sacred-profane status of the devadasi; her marginality being crucial to the generation of this experience.
The reconstruction of Bharatanatyam in the 1930’s, its transformation from Sadir attam to Bharatanatyam, was a result of the Hindu revival movement which meant to cleanse Hindu practices as the elites’ defensive response to the severe admonishment of the British who were invested in rendering the natives’ inner reality inadequate and incomplete. Like any other pre-industrialized civilization our inner reality was in tandem with nature, desire, sexuality and body, and we had a whole repertoire of methods, techniques and rituals of self enhancement and spiritual upliftment through sexuality and the body. The colonizer effectively used theatrical display of power and discipline to overawe the native and impress upon them his feigned superior morality. This morality was to become part and parcel of the Indian psyche and to date informs the aesthetics of Indian dance. Moral admonishment aside, modernity along with its various accompanists was to make the survival of liminal institutions like that of the devadasis, impossible. The devadasi had to go and her art would have to quickly re-negotiate the tumultuous changes in order to retain some form.
The very concept of God, central to the temple dance, drastically changed in the post industrial times, the advent of pornography made the eroticism also an essential component of the dance highly problematic, plus the agendas and pressures of the cultural industry and the government agencies were oppressive and confining in their own right. Thus, within a very short span, dance was divorced from its living and vital inner source, repackaged, cleansed and censored to become high-art and a national asset; and the dancer compelled to craft a persona replete with attitudes and stances that complemented their new found status as cultural ambassadors of the country. This fixed status, persona and attitudes were all mutually exclusive to fluidity, sensuality and spirituality. <br
My concern and contention is that if the parameters of the dancer’s imagination are subliminally defined by fixed notions, if the dancer is made to bear the cross of culture and tradition and propitiate prefixed ideas of identity, then there is very little freedom left for creativity and imagination. The attitudes that mar imagination are that of cultural chauvinism that flaunt the art as a cultural and national asset, as an emblem of our cultural uniqueness; pertaining to the idea of universality of art; perpetuation of polarities between high and low art; about dancers becoming custodians of culture and heritage; the anxiety over eroding standards, values and taste; democratization of the art; the need to make classical arts relevant, the idea that the classical art is a monolith: pristine and pure; the eagerness to explain cultural culture-specific notions and nuances; and finally the agendas of the cultural industry which includes the national cultural agencies.
Also, as modernity gives rise to a very tense dichotomy between religion and the rational in the course of the common process of secularization, it also gives rise to the problem of fundamentalism! The self righteous, grandiose and even chauvinistic stance of the classical dancer vis-à-vis the illustrious past are essentially defiant and fundamentalist in nature.
To conclude, let us look into some creative ways out of this in order to reclaim the license to reinvent art and make it personal expression: some of the suggestions discussed are to rigorously explore technique, both its physicality and its unique and highly stylized emotive capacities; explore subversion as a means to counter the lofty, nationalistic ideas of art; explore the idea of a self-defined marginality of a dancer; exploring conventional texts and experiment with transposing and juxtaposing techniques and texts; creating spaces and forums to experiment with modern notions of performance which have been so far fixed or rigorously policed; facilitate experiments. Perhaps the real possibility for dance will arise when the cultural industry finally discards it, it is then that dance will regain the license of free art-making.