Saturday 12 January 2019

Article - Response to Srividya Natarajan's interview on 'The Undoing Dance' - VP Dhananjayan

('This (pseudo) spirituality made dance boring': Srividya Natarajan by Vaishna Roy)

I know Srividya as an accomplished Bharatanatyam artiste from the lineage of Natyacharya Thanjavur Kittappa Pillai who carried the Thanjavur Brothers' legacy till he lived. Though I have not read her new novel 'The Undoing Dance,' I could trace a kind of frustration in her tone of narrating the incidents in the story, irrespective of whether the characters are fictitious or real. 

First of all, I want to reiterate that Srividya is talking about the specific tradition called Sadirattam or Dasiattam later rechristened as Bharatanatyam by the Madras Music Academy by a resolution passed accepting the suggestion of E. Krishna Iyer. Taking the new nomenclature Rukmini Devi popularized that name to attribute dignity and divinity to the performing art form and maybe we can say she did give a new lease of life to this ancient natya which I suppose has an antiquity of more than 3000 years. But Srividya questions the antiquity of the existence of Natya Sastra, a treatise on Bharateeya Kala attributed to a sage called Bharata. She says it is completely made up. Practitioners of Bharateeya Natya traditions, irrespective of the various regional classical forms, may not accept her theory as these verities of traditions that flourish in this century are offshoots of the mother text, the Natya Sastra. Definitely every one draws inspiration from these monumental texts available today. Natya Sastra being the original 'Panchama Veda' or the fifth Veda, the texts that came later have the umbilical cord of the mother book. I don't understand Srividya's vehement contention of casting away all these monumental scriptures as 'pseudo' spiritualism. 

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1 comment:

  1. Dear Tiru. Dhananjayan,
    Thank you for responding in this forum to Vaishna Roy’s interview with me. I’m puzzled by your interpretation of some of the things I said; to prevent further misunderstanding, let me provide a glossary:
    ANTIQUITY: We don’t have a single record that proves bharatanatyam is 3000 years old. I prefer to treat this idea as a myth--like legends about Siva dictating text to Bharata--whereas some people seem to see it as historical fact. If you find evidence that what our ancestors did was broadly the same dance we do today, I’ll gladly change my mind on this point.
    NATYASASTRA: I don’t dispute that the treatise called Natyasastra exists and inspires some dancers, playwrights, architects and artists. All I say is that there is no evidence that sadir or bharatanatyam were ‘born’ from this ‘mother book’ (which may itself have drawn on work by Silali and Krsasva). To me, this origin story has the same credibility as saying that people in India learned how to cohabit sexually by following the Kamasutra’s injunctions. Practices generally exist before their codification. So I see the insistence on the originary role of the Natyasastra as a way of denying the contribution of the isai vellala artists. Most of these artists inherited the practices they developed from their parents and teachers; they did not use Sanskrit as the language of cultural transmission. In short, my answer to the question “Where did bharatanatyam come from?” is NOT “From the Natyasastra” but “From the devadasi/nattuvanar communities.” For isai vellala teachers, as T. Balasaraswati and her student Nandini Ramani note, artistic authority comes from marabu or sampradayam, not sastram.
    SPIRITUALITY: This means different things to different people, and ‘positive thinking’ in Norman Vincent Peale style isn’t my definition of it.I find ample spiritual meaning in the form Kittappa Vathyar taught me, with its continuity between physical love and a love of the transcendent. This is why I added the prefix ‘pseudo-‘ in the interview, referring to the squeamishness, the divorcing of erotic love from spirituality, that marked the form Rukmini Devi envisioned. In a 1986 interview with Gowri Ramnarayan, for instance, Rukmini Devi says that in "the old padam tamarasaksha... [the nayika] describes not only her love but the whole process of physical contact and in gestures at that! To depict such things is unthinkable for me.” Sure, I see her problem; but it ended up being a problem for all bharatanatyam students. So now, spending creative energy on depicting acceptable (read upper-caste) eroticism, and approved (upper-caste) bhakti, many dancers end up emoting in ways that are atrociously clichéd and unimaginative. I’m delighted that the Jungle Book fusion thing was a hit in Ohio, but how does that change the average varnam on the Chennai stage?
    CASTE: The attitude embodied in your statement, ”Rukmini Devi…[cleansed] the then existing ugliness or vulgarity in the system” precisely exemplifies what I am saying about blithely unconscious casteism in the bharatanatyam world. It seems quite acceptable to you to associate the practices of non-brahmin artists with “dirt”; it would be acceptable to me too, if you’d be perfectly comfortable with my saying that a lot of upper-caste “dirt” has stuck to the dance over the past 50 years—in the form, for instance, of sexually predatory behavior—and it is definitely due for a round of “periodical sanitation.”
    CAREERS IN DANCE: There may be non-brahmin artists in the field today, but to take that as a symptom that casteism has vanished is like saying that since Black students can enroll in US universities, racism has been wiped out in that country. Even if caste and money don’t have any role to play in who gets to be one of the ‘successful’ dancers you celebrate, I see the recent #METOO revelations as raising serious questions about the price of that success.
    Best wishes,
    Srividya Natarajan;