Re-Casteing the Narrative of Bharatanatyam

Nrithya Pillai (nrithyapillai@gmail.com) is a hereditary dancer, singer, writer and composer.
1 March 2022

In this article, the author highlights the ways in which her subjectivity and selfhood as a hereditary Bahujan woman practitioner of Bharatanatyam are entangled with the past and with an enduring and dark politics of exclusion in the industry of so-called “classical” music and dance. Bharatanatyam—India’s quintessential “classical” art—has today, understandably become a vehicle for theatrical representations of Hindu mythology, Brahminic ethics and supremacy, and thus for majoritarian cultural politics. The author reflects on the practice and connotations of Bharatanatyam that are accepted today and historically embedded with the ugly truth of caste mimesis, the inheritance of appropriation, the danger of religious majoritarian culture, and the silencing of voices of dissent.

 

In December 2019, perhaps in the wake of the #MeToo debates in India, I was invited to participate on a panel entitled “Caste, Gender, Privilege, and their Roles in the Bharatanatyam Landscape” as part of the Natyakala Conference, a generally conservative annual event held at Chennai’s Sri Krishna Gana Sabha. As someone who has participated in Chennai’s Bharatanatyam scene from the margins for more than two decades, I must admit that I was truly dumbfounded when the word “caste” was even mentioned in a space like this. But, sure enough, the event generated one shock after another for me. First, I quickly realised that on a panel about caste, every presenter—except me—was a Brahmin woman, and there was a male Brahmin moderator. The discussion took the usual turns: arguments were made that caste is not an issue in modern India, that “only hard work counts” and caste identity does not define opportunity, only skills do, etc. These are, of course, comments that those of us who have encountered caste politics and other contexts are all too familiar with. I, for my part, talked about how important I felt it was to be given a chance to speak and not be spoken for by others. Indeed, very little airtime was given to me, and the presentation itself ended without much of anything being discussed about Bahujan women’s realities, and the discussion went on to the topic of male dancers and the economic capital that is required to start a semi-professional career in Indian dance today.

 

In the days that followed, social media was abuzz with literally hundreds of comments in support of the view that caste politics is non-existent in the world of Indian dance. But perhaps what makes this incident even more incredulous is another point altogether, that has to do with mimesis and appropriation. There were articles in praise of two Brahmin women dancers who claim to be performing, not the reinvented Bharatanatyam of the 1930s, but a newly unearthed “dance of the devadasis.” One of these women calls her dance “sadir,” uses hashtags like #IamADevadasi on social media, and makes apolitical arguments about dance history that sit very well with the Brahminic middle class. Indeed, this speaks to a wider network of intra-Brahminic patronage and stewardship of the arts that is the core symptom of inequalities in the art world today. Brahmin women dancers regularly “dress-up” and actually take up any niche, precious space that was left for young women from the community to represent themselves through performance in the 21st century. To be sure, each of these women has interacted with an older generation of hereditary women“devadasis”who become “treasure troves” of repertoire and technique, respected “gurus” who give over their art to these Brahmin women through problematic patron/client relationships. And so, yet again, decades after the initial appropriation of Bharatanatyam by Brahmin cultural nationalists in the 1930s, hereditary women performers’ identities are ventriloquised through bodies and modes that simply replicate earlier modes of oppression. We have now come full circle. This is a totalising appropriation in which young hereditary women’s self-representation and articulatory practices have become an ontological impossibility.

I want to use this personal anecdote to highlight the ways in which my own subjectivity and selfhood as a hereditary Bahujan woman practitioner of Bharatanatyam are entangled with the past and with an enduring and dark politics of exclusion in the industry of so-called “classical” music and dance. Bharatanatyam, India’s quintessential “classical” art has, today, understandably become a vehicle for theatrical representations of Hindu mythology, Brahminic ethics and supremacy, and thus for majoritarian cultural politics. I say “understandably” because since the 1930s, Bharatanatyam was reinvented and repopulated by Brahmin nationalist elites, and in this transformation, it was relocated into the realm of dominant-caste heritage politics, and made into a modern artifact of “Indian culture.” In other words, we should not be surprised that Bharatanatyam is a modality for the propagation of Hindutva politics today precisely because since the 1930s, it has been mired in caste-based politics, deep forms of cultural nationalism, and Brahminic stewardship. It is imperative that I speak for Bharatanatyam today, because I come from the community of Bharatanatyam’s pre-reinvention performers and its hereditary courtesan custodians, the large majority of whom were disenfranchised as a result of a hundred years of “social reform” and the politics of the subsequent repopulation of the practice of dance and music by dominant-caste elites.

             

A Critical History that Remains Ever-challenged

 

Unlike in many other domains of culture in modern India, such as those of literature and literary criticism or visual art, where critical and self-reflective perspectives are taken seriously and internalised by both the producers and consumers of art, such is not the case with Bharatanatyam and many of the other so-called “classical” arts. Here, for the most part, critical perspectives are seen as threatening because they point to questions of inequity and power that disturb the status quo within these insular worlds. The critical scholarly work and public interventions that for decades has been pointing to caste-based power in Bharatanatyam, such as that of Davesh Soneji (2010a, 2010b, 2012, for example), is often vilified in these same Brahminic circles, for it questions these very regimes of power over the longue durée. Brahmin women performers and scholars of Bharatanatyam are still upheld as stewards, mentors and patrons to Bahujan artists, and ultimately gatekeepers of both the discourse and practice.

Building from the deeply enabling work of Soneji (2012) and others, I would like, therefore, to narrate a brief history of what happened in families like mine over the past 150 years or so.[1] I would urge readers to take the time to such scholarly works carefully and in their entirety for the subtle and complex understandings of our histories they illuminate. Through a series of complex social and political events, the lives of women performers from courtesan castes across South India was dramatically changed beginning in the mid19th century. Over the period of a century, several strategic, state-endorsed political and legal interventions culminated in the Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act of 1947 that outlawed dancing in temples by women who were universally glossed over by the term “devadasi”—a Sanskrit term itself made popular through the very process of 19th-century reform, and inaccurately represented as a pan-Indian and trans-historical category.[2] Despite their own protests to the Madras Government (Kannabiran and Kannabiran 2003; Soneji 2012), these women’s lifestyles were first criminalised in 1927, and later in 1947, independent India reified this initial legal intervention by making it into law. I would like to make it clear that I believe that traditions of tying the bottu pendant and institutionalised concubinage (to dominant caste, usually Brahmin men) that were severely oppressive aspects of these women’s lives undeniably needed to change as we were confronted with a new modernity. However, the problematic way in which this reform proceeded under nationalist leadership, and the impact it had on women in the community is something I want to draw attention to. The women in the community were dispossessed by the state of the tax-free land called inam or maniyam that they owned on account of performing music and dance at royal courts or some Hindu temples; they were encouraged to “purify” themselves by entering into conjugal relationships by figures such as Gandhi; and their children came to bear an irrevocable and deeply somatic stigma, the effects of which are still felt by young women in this community in both rural and urban contexts today, even after the establishment of endogamy as the community’s norm. Meanwhile, men in this community re-grouped themselves into a new caste identity called “Isai vellalar” that identified them with the dominant, land-owning vellalar caste, and this helped them, to some degree, escape the stigma that women in the community simply could not.

At roughly the same time that this major transformation was taking place within the community, anti-colonial nationalism was at its high-point, and some cultural nationalists made a “baby-and-bathwater” argument around the dance and music traditions of hereditary women performers. While they agreed that these women’s lifestyles had to be criminalised, nationalist figures such as E Krishna Iyer (1897–1968) felt the music and dance traditions could be taken away from courtesan performers and be grafted onto the bodies of “respectable,” upper-caste family women, who would become the bearers of the nation’s heritage through dance. Over the course of close to two decades, this process of transference took place, largely through the intercession of men from the hereditary community, such as my own male relatives, who became dance-masters to Brahmin women performers. By the mid-20th century, this re-casteing of dance was complete. Its reinvented avatar was nearly indistinguishable from its courtesan predecessor: its technique, the social identities of its practitioners, and its aesthetic parameters had all been radically and irrevocably transformed. As I mentioned earlier, this process of appropriation has been replicated several times even into the 21st century, as older women in the community are continually mined for “rare repertoire” by Brahmin women performers, and this always occurs in a power-bound relationship of fiscal patronage of Bahujan rural women by urban Brahmin women.

Recently, the phrase “decolonising Indian dance” has become popular on social media and even in some academic and pseudo-academic discourse. Much of the aim of such work is to actually shift attention away from the power of caste elites in shaping both the social reform movement against hereditary performers and in the engineering of modern Bharatanatyam. The concept of “decolonisation,” as many of us know, has been appropriated by even the radical right in places like India; a kind of rhetorical strategy that Bhakti Shringarpure calls “fake decolonisation.” (Shringarpure 2020). To be clear, devadasi reform was a project of elite Indian nationalists, and the reinvention of Indian dance was also a Brahminic nationalist project from its very beginning. Neither of these historical processes were projects of the colonial state. When statements are made like “the British banned devadasis” or “the British suppressed the Nautch and so it had to be rescued,” the burden of blame is transferred from Brahmin nationalist elites who actualised these projects to the strawman of colonialism. The Brahmin dancers who use terms like “decolonising Indian dance” work to “other” everyone except themselves, for they must remain—even in our “woke” times—the stewards and legitimate inheritors of the practice and history of Bharatanatyam.

 

Intra-community Politics and the Problem of Dissent

I want to make it clear that a handful of individuals from the hereditary community have beyond doubt benefited from aligning themselves with the politics of reinvention since the 1930s. Indeed, my own family figures in this count. Figures in my family like Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, T Swaminatha Pillai, and my own grandfather Swamimalai Rajarathnam Pillai, “made it big” in the world of the reinvented Brahminic Bharatanatyam, but at a cost, of course. Women in these very families bore the brunt of this cost, much as they did during the time of social reform, becoming the invisible, house-bound, non-dancing wives and daughters of the male dance-masters who were commercially successful teachers of Bharatanatyam.[3]

Within the community, therefore, the reinvention is also generally spoken of publicly as “a good thing.” It brought fame and fortune to some men in the community, while protecting the “respectability” of women by neutralising their public presence and re-casting them as householding women, while Brahmin women now became the performers of Bharatanatyam. There are definitely small numbers of hereditary performers today who are active in the dance and music scene. They usually refuse to publicly call out the systemic forms of discrimination that they most definitely see, but often only talk about only in private with their families. Many of these individuals come from families like mine, which were ensconced in the scene at the time of the reinvention, and today their descendants reap the low-hanging fruits of such a legacy. They are occasionally called for “special rare item workshops” or called “resource persons” or given special awards in the names of their foremothers and forefathers. The sad truth, of course, is that these “conforming” individuals will always remain at the margins of the dance and music world, because the patronage they receive is actually engineered to block systemic change in the caste-based power dynamic. Individuals from the community who speak out and challenge power structures are “dealt with” by the Brahminic establishment in a way that is to be expected. They are shut out, maligned in public, and simply rendered “useless” in the arts world. The event at the 2019 Natyakala Conference I have discussed at the beginning of this essay provides a concrete example.

 

Tokenism and Aspirational Brahminism

 

Bharatanatyam is permeated by a deeply affective and somatic form of Brahminism. Its aesthetics—that today include the chanting of Vedic and Puranic mantras and stotras, spectacular displays of Hindu myths through so-called “dance dramas,” combined with a largely upper-caste sociology of its practice—also make it deeply appealing to non-elite masses. It would of course be ridiculous to assert that Brahminic stewardship implies that only the upper-castes participate in these arts today. The landscape of Bharatanatyam is tokenistically diverse, to be sure. But to have one Dalit performer, two Muslim performers, three Christian performers, four non-Indian or multiracial performers, five hereditary performers, etc, become the mouthpieces of aspirational Brahminism and ventriloquise the same old script of cultural nationalism will not affect real change. This kind of tokenism has been in effect since the 1940s, through the rhetoric of the so-called “democratisation of the arts” that was supposed to have been the end goal of the “unity in diversity” model of cultural nationalism of the mid-20th century. These tokenistic representations of diversity do not challenge the basic structures of power—the cultural spaces, critics, pedagogy, scholarly representation, institutions—that are still undoubtedly Brahminic and work to keep Brahmins at their centre. 

On the one hand, it has become “trendy” to talk about caste and Bharatanatyam, and in my view, all of these are tokenistic gestures and a kind of posturing that ultimately uphold Brahminic power in the world of the arts. Since the advent of the pandemic, online events that feature one token non-Brahmin speaker have also spread like wildfire, almost as if to publicly atone for the caste injustices that have plagued Bharatanatyam for decades. As we have already noted, projects that deploy terms like “decolonising Bharatanatyam” or “recognising dance” generate “palatable” discourses that only enforce the very ideas of cultural nationalism that shaped the politics of the reinvention and serve to uphold Brahminic leadership in the sphere of dance. Indeed, there has never been a session entitled “De-Brahminising Bharatanatyam” or “Bharatanatyam as Hindu Nationalism,” and this is extremely telling, for this would question the legitimacy of all those who undertake these seemingly “progressive” projects.

 

All Bharatanatyam Is a Mimesis of the Dancing Bahujan Woman

 

Perhaps the most distressing conundrum of modern Bharatanatyam is that it is a form of mimesis. In other words, whenever anyone puts on that costume, those bells, dances compositions in genres such as padam or varnam, it is at its core a mimesis of the female Bahujan courtesan performer of the past. Such a representation is of course mediated by the forces of nationalism, by Orientalism, and today even by globalisation, but the fact remains that the modern Bharatanatyam dancer will always be signalling a past occupied by the Bahujan woman’s dancing body. I think the recent trend of “dressing up” as a “devadasi” on the part of Brahmin Bharatanatyam dancers needs to be brought into conversation with forms of mimesis such as blackface. In her new work on hemispheric blackface, performance studies scholar Danielle Roper (2019) examines how the ubiquity of blackface transcends monolithic understandings of racial mimesis. She proposes that blackface was not simply “innocent amusement in America,” as it is often understood, but rather embodied multivalent meanings and forms of power, ranging from cruel parody to seemingly celebratory or even affectionate praise of Black figures. Roper demonstrates how these are all modes of ultimately producing anti-Blackness, regardless of how “sympathetic” or “benevolent” they may seem. I believe it is important that we consider the “dressed up” Brahmin woman performing mimesis of the Bahujan dancing woman with all of these complexities in mind. In the Bharatanatyam context, this mimesis is often performed “in praise of the devadasis of yore,” sometimes it involves the performance of dance items that Brahmin women have learnt from their “devadasi gurus,” but none of these reasons makes the fact of mimesis less problematic. Taking my cue from Roper’s work, I also think of “everyday Bharatanatyam”—performed across the world from Mylapore, Chennai to the basement dance studios of affluent privileged-caste Indo-Americans—as part of this continuum of mimesis. So the question really is, how do we deal ethically with this problem that lies at the very heart of Bharatanatyam as a modern cultural practice? For some, including some hereditary performers, the answer seems to lie in more and more iterations of “dress up” and “storytelling” about devadasis of the past. For others, it is academic-style discussions or “atonement exercises” led by Brahmin dancers and dance scholars in which a token hereditary performer will be invited to speak. To my mind, none of these approaches does anything to change the status quo, or to address the power imbalances that are endemic to the problem of mimesis. These are temporary “feel-good” solutions that do not affect systemic change. In a recent interview, Soneji has called for a “new, radical epistemology” for Bharatanatyam and a “political grammar” (Sreevathsa 2020),neither of which can be seen in these recent projects of trying to come to terms with the dance’s casteist and exclusionary past. A big part of the problem, of course, is the refusal to just “pause dancing” and to think about how today’s Bharatanatyam is at its technical and conceptual core is a vehicle for a corporeal Hindutva, for neo-conservative, Brahminic values and casteism, for anti-feminism, and for exclusionary politics at large. Unfortunately, none of these issues are confronted through the dance productions or seminars that claim to be making change.

For me, shifting the parameters of Bharatanatyam dance is now crucial. I think it is high time for the emergence of an “alternate” to Brahminic Bharatanatyam. In my own performances, I deploy my Bharatanatyam to imagine new regimes of mobility and equity for women like me. A large part of this has to do with the retrieval—through largely oral sources—of dance repertoire of historical import that was created by and for my direct ancestors. I perform such pieces not only as a counterpoint to the acts of upper-caste appropriation and stewardship, but also to acknowledge the deep levels of mediation through which I myself have received the very practice of Bharatanatyam, across the deep vectors of reform discourse, aesthetic refashioning, and moral and cultural nationalisms. Built upon the thematic of courtly love, as opposed to nationalist neo-Hindu devotional modes, my reclaiming of my community’s repertoire, asserts old familial genealogies into the dystopic spaces of capitalism where today’s corporate-funded “classical” dance thrives for the upper castes. I perform dance compositions that were created or revivified for the new elites by hereditary dance masters (nattuvanars) in my family,except that now, I perform these through my Bahujan body. Moreover, my performance is also rooted in my contemporary anti-caste stance through the inherited, distinctly modern vocabulary of the reinvented Bharatanatyam, shifting our focus away from the nationalist, religious content that dominates public representations of the art today. Through these interventions—through speech and performance—I hope to challenge basic understandings of the history and social constitution of Bharatanatyam as a corporeal and cultural practice. 

Why is the production of such a counter-discourse necessary and what is at stake in the continued iteration of Bharatanatyam as it stands in the Indian and global cultural mainstream? In a recent essay, sociologist Jyoti Puri describes what she calls “the sculpted saffron body,” making the argument that in the world of Hindu majoritarian politics, yoga—which itself was reinvented through interface with the West, much like Bharatanatyam— “becomes a means for branding the nation in Hindutva’s idioms and ideologies” (Puri 2019: 320). Puri explains that yoga “functions both symbolically and materially, as the nation’s metaphor and its literal embodiment.” (Puri 2019:323) Certainly, this argument could be extended to the now normalised, disciplined, upper-caste Hindu body that represents India’s civilisational heritage in the globalised contemporary world. It is through Bharatanatyam that troubling politicised religious narratives sit alongside an even more troubling casteist legacy of the reinvention that we have discussed earlier. Mainstream Bharatanatyam today lives at the heart of complex, transnational Hindu engagements with the logic of global capital, which the Bharatiya Janata Party has foregrounded in India through initiatives such as the “Incredible India” tourism campaign, in which “classical dance,” like yoga, occupies a central place. Like yoga, Bharatanatyam is thus also undeniably “mobilised to trademark India as Hindu, stable, strong, and spiritual” (Puri 2019: 331). In thinking about the futures of Bharatanatyam, and indeed all the reinvented “classical” arts that bear Dalit-Bahujan legacies, it is important that we think of how cultural nationalism and caste supremacy are braided to produce ideologies of “heritage” in today’s world. In the dark heart of such practices that so many of us celebrate every day, is embedded the ugly truth of caste mimesis, the inheritance of appropriation, the danger of religious majoritarian culture, and the silencing of voices of dissent. Confronting and undoing these aspects of Bharatanatyam and other forms of culture-making must be the starting point for any sincerely progressive conversations about the arts in today’s world.

 

 

 

 

I want to credit Prof. Davesh Soneji for his allyship that he offers me in all my endeavours and particularly with this piece. His help with citations and using language to enhance my articulation of the subject has helped immensely in making the piece what it is.

Nrithya Pillai (nrithyapillai@gmail.com) is a hereditary dancer, singer, writer and composer.
1 March 2022