of the Ancient Tamils
Is Bharathanatyam Perpetuating a Patriarchal Paradigm?
At The Hyderabad Dance Colloquium, 20 April, 1999
at Rabindra Bharati, organized by Ananda Shankar Jayant
[see also Arangham
- Anita Ratnam]
The body of the dancer is a potent canvas on which centuries of social, cultural and feudal codes have been encoded. There is meaning present in every step, every flutter of an eyelid, every leap and every turn. The body and face of the dancer is like an instrument preparing to transmit Truth. But the dancer’s body is not merely a written upon page: it is more accurately described as an artifact, of blood, flesh, organs, bone and skin, arduously and meticulously constructed. Social and political values are not simply placed or grafted onto a neutral body-object like so many old or new clothes.
The Indian concept of ‘rasa’ or shared experience is echoed in the French expression “assister” - to assist. There the audience do not ‘attend’ or watch a performance but aid or assist in the experience with the performer. This is similar to the India rasa theory.
Radical American critic Jill Johnston wrote of the mutual exchange in a theatrical performance, “When the actor/dancer and spectator embrace in the ritual copulation of theatre, nobody is satisfied unless there is mutual ecstasy.”
Each time the dancer steps onto the stage, she is sacrificing herself to the greedy outstretched arms of the audience which desperately wants to experience what it cannot or has denied itself.
The classical Bharathanatyam
dancer invites the spectator to gaze upon a distanced, ideal world where the female dancer is traced as sylph and cipher, a necessary absence. The performer herself is negated to give way to a larger and more ideal plane of viewing and receiving ideas and images - of a world and a reality far removed from the mundane.
The refrain of anti-essentialism has moved feminism and the feminist movement to attack all the decorative arts as ‘irrelevant’, ‘insulting’ and ‘anachronistic’ to the present times. It seems as if Bharathanatyam itself is doing a slow dance with history.
If we scan history then we discover the role and image of women in each place and time. All through history, Women and Truth have appeared synonymous. From the Alwars of 6th, 7th and 8th century Tamil country who imagined themselves as women to utter some sublime truths, to French thinker Jacques Derrida who often wrote in the hand and voice of a woman, there was a strong belief that unless one surrendered ‘in the guise of the feminine’ the path to Godhead and Truth would not be possible.
Why should Bharathanatyam be needlessly up-to-date? If the concept of feminism itself has changed from a monolithic entity to multiple truths, then why should Bharathanatyam be carried on some metaphoric time-zone highway to always be ‘relevant’ to changing times and tastes? Why should Bharathanatyam values of ‘bhakti’ and ‘sringara’ be dealt like a pack of cards every now and then to rapidly shifting social and moral codes.
If we examine the history of present day Bharathanatyam, we discover that it is less than 200 years old and it is in this century that the form itself acquired a new name and renaissance. Already scholars are arguing for the case of Bharathanatyam being ‘India’s modern dance.’
The image and character of women in the Bharathanatyam performance structure is usually portrayed as a figure who wants to be taken and accepted as possession. All her various moods work within the larger system of a male dominated society of kings, gods and patrons. Images of male dominance is the general cultural pattern. The best example of the submissive image of a Bharathanatyam ‘nayika’ is the tamil pada-varnam composed by the Tanjore quartet, “Sami Naan Undan Adimai.” This is a perfect example of how writers who are labelled ‘progressive’ look with scorn at the Bharathanatyam ‘nayika’ as weak and self-effacing.
Traditional thinking has always placed on the woman the care of the body and blood, the domain of family and ritual. On man was placed the public domain - action, science, politics. Even language, the universalizing medium was historically denied to women. Today we do not adhere to the Platonian concept of woman as equal in society and children being reared by either gender. Rather Aristotle’s later ideas have influenced generations of thinkers - that the woman is the vessel who nurtures and nourishes. To the woman is assigned images of flirting, seduction and treachery. History has assigned formative roles to women which Bharathanatyam seems to reinforce - all this in order to maintain a ‘normal, healthy’ society.
Dance is general and Bharathanatyam in particular seems to have a set of value systems encoded onto the body and the minds of the performer and the audience. On stage, dance conveys a host of gender motifs. A Bharathanatyam nayika is usually a delicate figure, a ‘Dresden doll’ preoccupied with decorating herself for the sake of her man. Her body becomes a flexible zone - interleaved, crossed and composed, encrusted with multiple discourses and constructed in different languages, tempos and places and linked to the present with portrayed and received images.
Personally, I have come to a juncture in my life where my own political convictions about feminism and society will need to be realigned with my convictions about dance. As such do I use dance as a vehicle for personal transformation or do I broaden my own defnition to represent more than a Bharathanatyam dancer so that my often radical political and social beliefs do not encroach on my dance space? In this struggle, I have started writing and speaking at seminars and other forums to ‘balance’ this inner dichotomy.
History has always represented dancers and actresses as ‘artificial women’ - those who live on the fringes of society and at best are suspect. In the larger political debate of women in India, the gender is largely invisible and silent in asserting their rights. If dance is a mirror of a culture then how can that culture be far removed from the reality of the present? Do we want to broaden the
definition of an art form to include a diverse women’s culture created by a fast changing climate that includes strident voices? Or do we want to maintain the now ‘museum-like quality’ of harmony, beauty, symmetry and order that Bharathanatyam seems to
propagate so effectively?
Do we as artistes trust and care about ourselves and our art enough to separate our public concern about rape, female infanticide and suicide from the personal goals of artistic ambition? Should the movement and ‘mudra’ language of Bharathanatyam be broadened to include contemporary concerns? That is a question for another topic and another debate.