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What is "not Bharatanatyam"?
- Aniruddhan Vasudevan, Chennai

January 14, 2006

Recently, a dance-critic (B M Sundaram) pronounced his verdict on a leading dancer's (Malavika Sarukkai) performance. He acknowledged it was great dancing but not Bharatanatyam. Well, one must appreciate his magnanimity that at least made him accept the performance was enjoyable! So his problem was one of nomenclature - "do not call it Bharatanatyam" was what he was saying. The artist penned a rebuttal asserting her claim over tradition and change. Here I take on neither of them. It is just that this heated exchange gave me something to think about. Incidents like this keep occurring and they are symbolic of Bharatanatyam's identity crisis, so to speak (or is it our crisis about identifying Bharatanatyam?!). What am I? - it asks of us, probably with deep sarcasm directed at our confirmed inability to answer it in any clear terms.

The cultural scene of Bharatanatyam is metonymic of the vast generalization called Hindu culture. Neither of them is monolithic. We have, till date, done our best not to acknowledge the heterodox nature of both. There are no rulebooks around. Ones that are invoked are sadly defunct. One extra-big leap on the stage that is not prescribed by one of these texts and the dance is not Bharatanatyam! The funniest thing is what texts are we talking about? The Natyasastra? Which, by the way, does not prescribe the adavu (basic movements) system we have today. Or Abinaya Darpana, whose viniyoga slokas (list of uses of gestures and movements) we religiously memorise?

Better still, are we invoking some subjective standards forged in the collective consciousness of the critics - "We think this is Bharatanatyam. We wield the pen. So we shall say what is Bharatanatyam"? No! Unfortunately there is not even that consensus. There is no disciplined critical practice. Look at the anarchy of critical practice!

I do not call for an abandonment of all standards and parameters. I am drawing attention to that fact that if they exist at all, they are very nebulous and hazy and, most importantly, of recent origin - Bharatanatyam, whose identity you seem to assert, is largely a 20th century phenomenon. I ask of you to take cognizance of the fact that you speak from a specific location, a subject position as a critic. Even in contexts where there are well-developed critical traditions, critics and theorists are forced to take note of and announce where they speak from. For example, in literary criticism. Your pronouncements are not transcendental validities. I have a more liberal notion of what Bharatanatyam is. It is not dependent on whether s/he does four padaartha abhinaya (word-meaning delineation) before going to the sanchari bhava (roughly, improvising on the emotional states); or whether the pattern of margham (Bharatanatyam stage repertoire) is internalized. I boldly announce my subject position. I am a dancer and a rasika who has, at best, too hazy a guidance from the non-existent critical tradition for Bharatanatyam to be able to say with any certainty where it stops being Bharatanatyam. I set moveable parameters and it is when an artist pushes the limits of tradition and interpretation to make his or her own space that I find artistic greatness. I am not talking about a perfect natyarambham (the basic arm position) or arai mandi (half-squat). We all seem to have some consensus on this. What is under scrutiny is an attitude and approach to the art. Well, as Malavika Sarukkai's rebuttal says, in the absence of some coherent and disciplined critical practice and theorizing, the dancers are having to forge their own relationship with dance completely on their own.

Aniruddhan Vasudevan is a Bharatanatyam dancer and a senior disciple of Chitra Visweswaran. He is also a research scholar at the University of Madras.

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