Monday, 9 January 2023

Dvi-Nethram - A two eyed vision of tradition in Natya Darshan - Taalam: column by Leela Venkataraman

It was a two- eyed vision of tradition, in more ways than one, in Dvi-Nethram - The Vision of Parampara - that the onlooker was treated to, in Natya Darshan 2022, by Kartik Fine Arts, held at its customary venue of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan auditorium, Chennai. The subject conceived by advisor Prof. Sudharani Raghupathy aimed at highlighting India's dance culture, comprising what is referred to as 'the classical and the folk' - inclusive of art with a stylised vocabulary attained through generations of teacher-to-student transmission on the one hand, alongside the country's, less formal, myriad folk expressions among different sections of people- spontaneous and participatory - with degrees of stylisation too in some cases. Curated and conducted with involvement and panache by convenor Roja Kannan, senior Bharatanatyam exponent running Bharata Natyalaya, musician, teacher and choreographer, presently also General Secretary of ABHAI, the festival also brought out tensions within a tradition, as it travels through the corridor of time.

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13 comments:


  1. Thank you, Leela Venkatramanji, for a detailed depiction of the events that took place at Natya Darshan. Few of us in the diasporic space, definitely learn about these events through write ups like this. Appreciate the time taken to do this.

    I am the founder and artistic director of Tiruchitrambalam School of dance. I completed my PhD in Performance Studies from the University of California, Davis. My research traces the aesthetic history of Bharatanatyam from the 1930s till 2020 analyzing it along the vectors of caste, class, gender, sexuality and religion. My research looks at these vectors alongside macro drivers like nationalism, globalization and neoliberalism while tracing this history.

    These are few of my comments on the review of the Dvi-Netram, the Natya Darshan festival of 2022, by Leela Venkatraman. I was intrigued by the choice of the title for the event - Dvi-Nethram. As explained by Venkatraman it was “aimed at highlighting India's dance culture, comprising what is referred to as 'the classical and the folk' - inclusive of art with a stylised vocabulary attained through generations of teacher-to-student transmission on the one hand, alongside the country's, less formal, myriad folk expressions among different sections of people- spontaneous and participatory - with degrees of stylisation too in some cases.” I was wondering if there was any talk or critical discussion in the festival itself about these complicated and loaded terms, ‘Folk’ and ‘Classical’?
    Indira Peterson in her introduction to the book, ‘Performing Pasts, Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India’ draws our attention to the constructed categories of ‘Folk’ and ‘Classical’ that were created during the process of colonialism, nationalism and Orientalism where certain forms were homogenized to be called ‘classical’ and others were marginalized to be called ‘folk.’ Many scholars like Lakshmi Subramaniam, Avanti Meduri, Janet O’Shea, Amanda Weidman, to name a few have written extensively about how art was reinvented with imagined traditions for nationalistic purposes. The ‘stylized vocabulary’ vs the ‘less formal’ dyad as framed by Venkatraman exposes an assumption of an implicit heirarchy in the ways in which we have been trained to view the ‘classical’ and ‘folk’ nomenclatures.
    Female hereditary practitioners danced in the courts, in the temples, in ritual and non-ritual contexts, in the homes of people. However when dance moved predominantly to a concert hall, a new ‘classical’ repertoire and therefore pedagogy was formalized. This, as we all know by now, left out many practices, specific pieces from the repertoire that came in the way of its classicaliration. A syncretic dance scene that could be 'less formal' at times was rearranged selectively into the Bharatanatyam that we know today and is termed as 'classical.' I hope Lakshmi Viswanathan spoke to this and offered clarity in the naming and framing of this conference, which could be viewed as problematic if not nuanced with commensurate critical discourse.

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  2. The next point that stood out to me in the review was a point that someone else had already commented upon before me, though anonymously. Venkatraman asked if it is “a crime if the ‘upper classes’  started learning from the Nattuvanars who had no problems in teaching whoever had the ability to learn their art.” It was a long battle with colonial modernity, missionary reform, anti-colonial nationalism led by English educated elites and the patriarchy of the newly forming nation that criminalized the life style of female hereditary practitioners and erased them from the public performing scene. The men in the community were left to teach women from upper caste families. They did not want the females from their families to dance because of the stigma created on them in popular culture between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They did not have a choice in the matter. Leela Samson mentions in her biography on Rukmini Arundale that Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai showed hesitation to teach Rukmini Arundale. He expressed his unwillingness by saying, “I do not feel inclined to teach. You are a rich lady, a society woman and from the brahmin community. Dance for you is only a pastime.” My dance teacher, Usha Srinivasan, a senior disciple of Nattuvanar, Padmashri K N Dandayudapani Pillai, used to share with me that her teacher used to scoff at how the field was getting flooded with “Paapathis”, a casual slur for Brahmin women. There was clearly a resignation to the state of affairs. To gloss it as “no problem teaching whoever had the ability to learn their art” is lacking in nuance and critical perspective.
    Indian researchers like Amrit Srinivasan, and Lakshmi Subramanian were one of the foremost to talk about this discourse of caste and gender inequity in Indian performing arts. It is not a prerogative of diasporic researchers. But researchers like Davesh Soneji, Hari Krishnan, Indira Peterson, and Ananya Chatterjea continue to keep the topic present and active. It is uncomfortable. I am a second generation upper caste, Brahmin dancer myself. I have been practicing this dance as a teacher, and performer for over 3 decades now. I haven’t really stepped aside to give space for dancers from hereditary communities but I believe it is important to listen to Nrithya, allow myself to get uncomfortable, and see if that engenders some generative measures to reinforce equity in the dance filed.

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  3. I could go on but the last point that I wanted to address was about the aesthetics of the dance itself. In my research I trace the aesthetic history of Bharatanatyam from the 1930s till 2020. When Bharatanatyam moved from the domain of female hereditary practitioners to upper caste female students the ideal dancing body also became less of the dark skinned, portly built and became more of the fair and slender built. The aesthetics of Bharatanatyam has been steadily moving towards athleticism for many decades now. While caste was the starting point of this shift in Bharatanatyam aesthetics today’s Bharatanatyam aesthetics is largely driven by the forces of globalization and neoliberal capitalism. The body of the Bharatanatyam dancer is a coveted currency in social media. Social media, an acute manifestation of neoliberalism, has catapulted this spectacularization of the Bharatanatyam body and the angularity of its aesthetics in public consciousness. Nrithya wants to push back on this move towards athleticism that she calls, “lines” and the commonly perceived ideal body of the Bharatanatyam dancer. Nrithya is taking a political stand on aesthetics and I applaud her for that stand. I have changed many of my pedagogical tools and ways of dancing and teaching to cater to the changing aesthetic orientation in Bharatanatyam but Nrithya is standing her ground to make a point. What we need today is aesthetic diversity- an appreciation, acceptance of different styles and presentation.

    These are topics that need longer, friendly and an open-minded discussion where we could clarify our positions, explain our word choices, accept feedback and educate each other. I would love to have a discussion with anyone who wants to take me up on any of the above points that I have discussed. Please ping me at artistscholardeepa@gmail.com or leave a note on my website at www.deepamahadevan.com

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  4. I really didn't want to keep writing but just also wanted to point out that the word choice, 'rehabilitation' is again very problematic. Venkatraman might have said that in an attempt to argue for the devadasi dancers but it once again exposes an implicit bias that says these hereditary practitioners were erring individuals who needed rehabilitation. I would beg to understand what Venkatraman imagines that rehabilitation process might entail. History happened. We cannot undo it from the present. It is unfair to keep pointing fingers at the people in the past with our current sensibilities. We have the advantage of looking back at history but I believe it is important to do it with some charity. If If at all the powerful could have done something in the early to mid-nineties, it would have been best to bring back hereditary practitioners and work actively to undo the stigma that was created on them. But they were too close to that discourse of stigma to undo it then. Scholar dancer Yashoda Thakore's fight is to bring back that respectability to hereditary dancers so that more from that tradition will take to dancing. Thus, I appeal to Venkatraman to use caution when using words like 'rehabilitation' with respect to hereditary practitioners which triggers years of trauma and violence that has been endured by that community. Listen to Girija Pakkirisamy -https://www.facebook.com/groups/984921098233759/permalink/3262118117180701/ You can see the pain in her face and voice. Nrithya Pillai is rubbing that trauma in our face and we are struggling to face it. We have work to do. Let's take the essence of her plea and not get turned off by her candid remarks. Then we end up once again throw the baby with the bath water.

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  7. 1/3 I write this as a response to Ms. Leela Venkataraman’s review of Dvi-Netram, a conference as part of the Natya Darpan dance conference series, particularly a “critique” of the Bharatanatyam performance by hereditary dancer Ms. Nrithya Pillai in the Taalam section, hosted by narthaki.com. I will be posting my thoughts as well as those of some of my dancer friends, who have kindly consented to me posting their views about this as well. While I may have disagreed with Nrithya on her views on several issues in online forums in the past, in this case, these remarks by an experienced dance critic, where she brings in her heredity and questions her authenticity are very distasteful and objectionable. We should look at the background of such thoughts by Ms. Venkataraman.

    Several dance writers amateur or famed, use the narthaki portal to write about dance events they have attended. Among them, a few writers, on account of their experience and expertise in writing about Indian dance, have been given separate columns – Mr. Ashish Mohan Khokar, Ms. Arshiya Sethi and Ms. Leela Venkataraman. It is safe for the audience reading Narthaki portals to assume that these senior critics would have extensively researched the dancers or events they are writing about.
    In her past review of the Natya Kala Conference of 2018, written on the same portal, held in December 2018 hosted by the Krishna Gana Sabha [https://narthaki.com/info/taalam/taalam82.html], curated by Ms. Srinidhi Chidambaram, Ms. Venkataraman criticized Ms. Nrithya Pillai’s views as spewing anger and bitterness and advised her to develop a healthier attitude. This was her response when Ms. Pillai spoke about her intergenerational trauma, which of course, would have been very difficult to express in a Brahmin-dominated Sabha. Angered by Ms. Venkataraman’s remarks, Ms. Pillai had in one of her social media posts mentioned that critics with such a perspective as Ms. Venkataraman cannot evaluate her performance.

    Keeping this in mind, one would first like to question this latest review in the same column [ https://narthaki.com/info/taalam/taalam158.html ] in the context of her past opinions about Ms. Pillai. Isn’t it unethical for a critic, with biases fostered by growing hostility towards a dancer, to write a review of her performance? We cannot expect Ms. Pillai to police every event and ensure such critics do not show up at her performances, given that they are open to public. However, the onus is on the critic to exclude Ms. Pillai in her write up. Ms. Rupa Srikanth, another senior critic of the Friday Review column in The Hindu newspaper, reviewed Nrithya’s performance by highlighting her scholarship in introducing every piece with its historical perspective: https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/dance/dvi-nethram-creating-a-link-between-two-dance-worlds/article66345834.ece. One would definitely see a stark difference in the two reviews, one focusing purely on the dance execution, while the other, by Ms. Venkataraman, displaying caste-based bias and personal vendetta.

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  8. 2/3 Ms. Venkataraman writes –
    “From the hereditary Isai Vellalar community, dancer Nrithya Pillai's open voiced resentment against upper caste 'appropriation' and what she believes is 'historical misrepresentation' in not giving the hereditary temple dancers their due, comes from one whose maternal grandfather, Rajaratnam Pillai, started as the singer for Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai……… While nritta punctuations adhered to laya, what one found lacking was finished movement profile. The dancer, in any case, would seem to have scant respect for accenting the geometry of form - as pointedly mentioned in her scathing reference to 'lines' in her introduction.”

    Nrithya’s political stance in calling out the Brahmin dancers and curators particularly has clearly made the author and many of us uncomfortable. However, that cannot be a point to disregard her aesthetics as it does not accord with what dominant caste and class-privileged artistes are performing. In Ms. Venkataraman’s high praise for the other two younger hereditary dancers, one can clearly see her expectation for all these dancers to perform in accordance with Rukmini Devi Arundale’s sense of aesthetics, which is what Nrithya terms as caste appropriation. While it is an uncomfortable truth all of us are coming to terms with, one cannot disregard her view or her movement aesthetics. These ideologies portray Ms. Venkataraman as a dominant caste apologist!

    Deepa Mahadevan, Bharatanatyam Dancer, scholar, , New Jersey, USA, explains this with nuance and critical thinking –
    “Bharatanatyam has been steadily moving towards athleticism for many decades now. While caste was the starting point of this shift in Bharatanatyam aesthetics today’s Bharatanatyam aesthetics is largely driven by the forces of globalization and neoliberal capitalism. The body of the Bharatanatyam dancer is a coveted currency in social media. Social media, an acute manifestation of neoliberalism, has catapulted this spectacularization of the Bharatanatyam body and the angularity of its aesthetics in public consciousness. Nrithya wants to push back on this move towards athleticism that she calls, “lines” and the commonly perceived ideal body of the Bharatanatyam dancer. Nrithya is taking a political stand on aesthetics and I applaud her for that stand. I have changed many of my pedagogical tools and ways of dancing and teaching to cater to the changing aesthetic orientation in Bharatanatyam but Nrithya is standing her ground to make a point. What we need today is aesthetic diversity- an appreciation, acceptance of different styles and presentation.”

    Shyla Ganesan, Bharatanatyam practitioner, Singapore, Arizona, USA notices a clear bias in Ms. Venkataraman’s review -
    “Nrithya is known to clearly articulate her stance on bias, caste appropriation, history and politics of dance. That is a battle that she is garnering support and explaining in her own terms. These views should not be used as critique of her dance execution. The review of her performance read very biased and like a personal bash session by the author on the artist. As someone who does not visit India often, especially during the season, I was hoping for more insight into the execution of the dance by the dancer. And not personal agendas to put down and pull up artists”

    Kaavya Venkataramanan, Bharatanatyam practitioner, California, USA
    “The article clearly differentiates the criticism rendered for other dancers and Nrithya, almost like the writer has some personal bone to pick and she chose to do it here.”

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  9. 3/4 Nrithya’s performance critique is not the only problematic issue with Venkataraman’s review. On the point about shifting of the monopoly of the Bharatanatyam praxis, performance and pedagogy towards the hands of the dominant castes, in one of the segments in the Dvi-Nethram conference, Ms. Venkataraman writes -
    “If Chandramma's daughter Muthulakshmi Reddy, a reformer in the true sense of the term, could not see that the tradition she wanted to abolish (the Abolition Act was actually passed by the British government) had art which needed nurturing and protection, and Krishna Iyer could see that the baby should not be thrown out with the bath water, did it become a crime if the 'upper classes' started learning from the Nattuvanars who had no problems in teaching whoever had the ability to learn their art? “

    To say that hereditary nattuvanars had ‘no problems’ teaching the art form to anyone is a sweeping statement not backed by any resource of justification or historical documentation. Besides, Ms. Venkataraman has constantly mentioned that heredity cannot entitle one a performance space, she must acknowledge that it has taken this long after the abolition act for dancers from Hereditary nattuvanar families to get opportunities to perform.

    Bharatanatyam Dancer, scholar, Deepa Mahadevan, New Jersey, USA, writes –
    “Venkatraman asked if it is “a crime if the ‘upper classes’ started learning from the Nattuvanars who had no problems in teaching whoever had the ability to learn their art.” It was a long battle with colonial modernity, missionary reform, anti-colonial nationalism led by English educated elites and the patriarchy of the newly forming nation that criminalized the life style of female hereditary practitioners and erased them from the public performing scene. The men in the community were left to teach women from upper caste families. They did not want the females from their families to dance because of the stigma created on them in popular culture between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They did not have a choice in the matter. Leela Samson mentions in her biography on Rukmini Arundale that Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai showed hesitation to teach Rukmini Arundale. He expressed his unwillingness by saying, “I do not feel inclined to teach. You are a rich lady, a society woman and from the brahmin community. Dance for you is only a pastime.” My dance teacher, Usha Srinivasan, a senior disciple of Nattuvanar, Padmashri K N Dandayudapani Pillai, used to share with me that her teacher used to scoff at how the field was getting flooded with “Paapathis”, a casual slur for Brahmin women. There was clearly a resignation to the state of affairs. To gloss it as ‘no problem teaching whoever had the ability to learn their art’ is lacking in nuance and critical perspective”

    Sneha Venkataramani, Lawyer and Bharatanatyam teacher, Bangalore, India adds -
    “When referring to Nithya Pillai's presentation, a point was made to bring out how the men in her community did the women wrong and if they did not see any harm in teaching women from other communities, no one now can speak up against it. By this logic, we can never get rid of social evils like the caste oppression, dowry, sati etc etc because our ancestors saw it fit to propagate such practices. In fact, we should still be ruled by the British as there were some of our people who chose to side with them!! Why must women of the Isai vellalar community be deprived of opportunities simply because the men in their community decided to take a path of monetary gain? It is classic oppressor behavior, a type of victim blaming which we are fighting so hard to get rid of”

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  10. 4/4 Another point that I particularly found problematic is quoted below from Venkataraman’s review –
    “Imputing diabolical motives now to every act which transpired then, has built a narrative for which Diasporic studies of Indian researchers, and certain universities chiming in with the political penchant for upper caste bashing, provide succour - keeping animosities alive and fuelling stances protesting the 'appropriation of Bharatanayam by the upper caste' as it has been called.”

    Making such sweeping statements belittles some important scholarly contributions of many researchers and professors and puts them under one bracket as “infuriating hereditary artistes for political and personal gain”. I wonder if Ms. Venkataraman has even researched and read their works.

    Kaavya Venkataramanan, Bharatanatyam practitioner, California, USA, says to this -
    “The writer keeps mentioning "upper caste". The literature today that engages in critical studies and carry voices of experts and experienced in this topic, uses a different term and is becoming widely accepted to not use terminology that the writer used here. But still she chose to mention it more than once. Does she not read or educate herself on these?”

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  11. While I do laud the convenor, Ms. Roja Kannan and the Kartik Fine Arts secretary and board of Natya Darshan committee, for inviting hereditary artistes to stage their recitals and express their views, instead of making them speakers / panelists, I would like to raise some important questions:
    1. Isn’t there an onus on these very convenors, to evade critics like Ms. Venkataraman, known in the past to have animosity towards artistes like Ms. Pillai?
    2. While the writers in the Narthaki portal are not on their payroll, and anyone and everyone is free to write, isn’t it the duty of the editor to fact check the author’s claims? There should be stringent guidelines on what can be posted on their forum. Even Social Media goes through fact checks with actual data and authors have to delete “fake news” or “false claims”.
    3. It is truly unbecoming of a critic like Ms. Leela Venkataraman to use her power and position to attempt to undo the struggles of dancers from disenfranchised communities. False claims and sweeping generalizations not backed by research and critical understanding of the complex history of caste and Bharatanatyam cannot be accepted as a piece of writing in 2023 anymore. Not even by dancers of the dominant caste.

    I quote Sneha Venkataramani and conclude my writing
    “I would be remiss in my duty as a responsible artist struggling to bring about a change in the archaic ways of working of the 'Sabha culture' if I don't speak up against this kind of almost bullying! I urge the conveners of the conference Karthik Fine Arts and the curator Ms. Roja Kannan, as well as the founder and editor of Narthaki, the platform which carried this piece to rethink their invitee list and issue strong statements condemning such bullying of artistes from marginalized communities.”

    Thank you for taking the time to read this.







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  12. This has been an eye opening review personally. As I read the review again, the line "..from what one knows (Nrithya) never learnt under her grandfather." stood out. I was very curious about this statement and I searched for NKC 2018 youtube videos available on youtube. I was listening to the 38th NKC panel Discussion on Caste, Gender, Privilege & their roles in the Bharatanatyam landscape -https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoXATttprCE, where Nrithya and other dancers, dance reviewers were part of the panel.

    In that discussion, Nrithya states ( time stamp 15.58-16.37) "...I was told it was okay to learn, ...be at the back of the class...and my grandfather taught me a panchanadai sequence...and he was very proud of my ability to learn and present them...and my grandmother always tells me about those times.."

    To me, this clearly shows that Nrithya, indeed learnt from her grandfather. There has been a passdown of knowledge. In the panel, she explains how she was a keen observer of his classes and the way that he taught his students. So the line in the review that Nrithya never learnt under her grandfather, is not an accurate statement.


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