The Relevance of Bharathanatyam – a classical tradition meets modern times

Originally Published April, 2012

Rukmini Devi Arundale, arguably the leader of the renaissance movement of Bharathanatyam in the 1930s, would have disagreed with the title I have chosen to speak on. In her words, Bharathanatyam is eternal and therefore it’s relevance lies beyond time. In a purely logical fashion, if I was to agree to the eternity of the dance form, by default what I say is- its relevance in modern times is the same as its relevance in the time of the devadasis, the time of Rukmini Devi Arundale, and will be the same for the next million years. However, as a practitioner of this dance form, I can speak from my personal experience and that of others that the relevance in these times is entirely different from the relevance in the time of the devadasis or any other time in the past. Am I challenging the eternity of the dance form?

I am at the moment reading a book by Stephen Batchelor, a Scottish gentleman who became ordained as a monk in Tibet at the age of 20 years, titled ‘Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist’. While the book has no direct relevance to my seminar topic, there is a quote in it that struck me as intriguing and pertinent. He says with relevance to Buddhism, and I quote, ” Whenever there is a religion that is embodied in a culturally and historically alien form attempts to find its footing in a new culture and time, it is necessary that its concepts and symbols undergo a restructuring in order to attune with the prevailing spirit of the times”. As I was reading over these lines, it struck me that I could have replaced the word ‘religion’ with ‘dance style’ and this sentiment would ring just as true to Bharathanatyam as it does to Buddhism. I am challenging neither the eternity of Bharathanatyam nor Buddhism.
For those of you in the audience not very familiar with this dance form, Bharathanatyam is alluded to have about two thousand years of traceable history and was practiced by a sect of women called ‘devadasis’ – literally translated reads as – ‘servants of the Gods’. The devadasis belonged to a matrilineal community and while they flourished from the patronage of King’s and wealthy upper class, they did not have to abide by marriage or social conventions expected of other women that might have distracted their practicing and preserving this art form. The current solo dance repertoire that you see the students and artists of this tradition perform world over draws from the organizing, detailing, and refining that this dance style underwent in the hands of four brothers – Ponniah, Chinniah, Sivanandam, and Vadivelu in the Thanjavur courts in the 1800s. The devadasis practiced this style of rendition and while their history has been marred from the contextual social changes that India as a country went through, the art form itself has surprisingly undergone little change in the spirit of its practice.
There has always been a very high premium placed on associating all aspects of the Bharathanatyam practice with religion and devotion to God. Even if the lines of music draw from highly erotic and sensual poetry, the emphasis, as it has been taught to me and thousands before me, is to find my human frailties drawn not to the physical realm, but to God, in spirit and in surrender. And I am sure I am not the first person to have questioned this deeply and unable to reconcile as a teenager learning these pieces, and understanding how I would portray on stage these highly erotic dances, without feeling violated and exposed. Rukmini Devi Arundale who is reputed for reviving this art form in the 1930s when it passed through the darkest hours of shame and abandonment, emphasized that if the spirit of devotion reigns supreme, then the dancer and audience should experience communion with the divine, even if the subject of the pieces remained highly erotic. I am the student of Rukmini Devi’s direct disciples – Adyar K. Laxman and Dhanajayans who hail from her institution – Kalakshetra in Chennai. Yes, I practice a more refined technique than my devadasi predecessor and yes, some of the words, meaning, and emphasis in what I dance in my solo repertoire have been shifted to become more dignified. And yet, something rankled in me. Perhaps I was not a good student. My ruminations on this continued.
Now, as long as we accept Bharathanatyam to be a dance form, we are on safe grounds. A dance form is a medium that we use to portray ideas and stories to an audience. The ideas and stories may change, but the dance form itself is a matter of style. A dance form is essentially a set of moves defined by a code of ‘what can be’ and identifies a graceful set of gestures and kinetics. What is eternal is divine. A code of how to move is hardly divine. The idea of what can be done with it is probably far more thought provoking. When I speak about the relevance, what I mean is whether ideas and stories relevant to today’s times can be expressed through Bharathanatyam or is this way of telling stories defunct? What most critics and performers tend to do is take the safe path. They tell a story that has been said since the time of the devadasis and give it the name of culture. A dwindling interest in the art form is blamed on the audience. Since there is hardly anything novel about the stories, the challenge is in who performs it the best. Critics tend to appreciate how well a certain person moved, how gracefully they enacted the story, and how Bharathanatyam lived on. Hardly, I would think! A very small audience attends, a good percentage of them leave in between, and many of those who stay behind are on their iPhones and blackberries. Who does one blame? The audience. They just aren’t the same anymore. I performed the Padams, the Varnams, the keertanas, and the thillanas. Nothing more I could do! This is the attitude that is ensuring that Bharathanatyam, as it is widely practiced in the solo tradition has little chance of having any relevance in the modern world. The hubris of the performer and the inability and/or disinclination to adapt or change is the issue that needs to be addressed. In this Rukmini Devi Arundale would have whole heatedly supported us.
Let me elaborate on why I say that the themes presented in these typical, traditional margams are not relevant. In the days of the devadasis, they had dance in front of prospective investors or clients who assured them of some degree of financial support in return for exclusive favors. In very thinly disguised allusions, stories of a highly erotic nature would be played using Bharathanatyam in a bid to entice a prospective patron. When Rukmini Devi tried to revive the art form, she substituted the allusion to the patron with an allusion to a God. What do we have as a result? We have Radha telling Krishna in ‘Kuruyadu Nandana’, a Jayadeva’s ashtapathi – “Come and apply Sandal paste to the bruises on my body that I bear from the night of love-making” or in Pattanam’s ‘Samayamide ra ra’ – the heroine exclaims “Oh Krishna, my darling, come to me now, why do you delay when this is the opportune time. My husband is not in town and my in laws do not interfere. Come and be with me now – let not this opportune time pass away wasted!”


At least the devadasis were frank about what they were asking for. What we have here is the impression that the Gods we revere are all about physicality, with some vague attempt made to tell us that we will find divinity through these pranks of Krishna. We have succeeded in reducing Krishna to the human susceptibilities and frailties. We haven’t given him much to be esteemed for. And oh the number of repetitions! In hundred performers, 75% would involve a tale of a Krishna and a Nayika, and the rest have some connection to a mythological tale that has been told and retold through the centuries. When this is performed on stage in today’s times, the audience either does not understand, or thinks of it as some relic from the past, or has been brainwashed into believing this is spirituality and hence Radha’s sufferings because Krishna is with a neighbor’s wife is viewed as difficulties in the path to God. It is rationalization and a very poor one at that. It is not the fault of the dance form. It is the fault of the clique that refuses to change. And that which does not change cannot be eternal. For eternity, change is a device. It is evident in evolution and everything you see or don’t see around you. The change that we ask for is not in the kinetics of the form. It is what you use the form to speak. If that is relevant, then the art form is relevant. If that is archaic, the art form is dead.‪‪


  • September 25, 2013

    Most of the classical dance forms in India were initially made for the devadasis. They are continued in that form itself and no new developmental efforts are being taken on these. This condition has to change. Even though the base and originality of the dance form has to be preserved you will also has to put in efforts to bring in new moves and patterns in it.


Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *