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Ahhh... Mi Amor!!!
- Ramaa Bharadvaj, CA

October 13, 2006
On stage was this girl..."I am 13 years old," she said, "and all I want to do is to hang out with my friends. But they dressed me up and told me that I must go meet that man again. And I didn't want to go. The last time they sent me to him, he forced me to chew betel leaves so many times (Note: In Ayurvedic medicine, betel leaves are used as a stimulant, a breath freshener and an aphrodisiac). He then held my hand and invited me to bed. When I said 'No', he got very angry. I was so frightened."

dancing devadasi

Before you get all agitated and pick-up whatever it is you pick up to run out and fight social injustice against children, let me quickly state that what you read above is not a quote from a child molestation story, but the expressive content of a Padam (a solo Bharatanatyam dance song) presented as part of a recent program in Los Angeles, California. The evening - termed "Abhinaya" - was to completely focus on "the emotive aspect, mime and narrative" elements of Indian classical dance through the rendition of Padams (love themed songs) and Javalis (also love themed but more sensual and racy).

young devadasis

I had come prepared to be enthralled by an evening-long presentation of abhinaya by a renowned visiting dancer from Chennai, and had taken some young students of mine to the event. However as the evening progressed, with each representation of illicit affairs, infidelities, betrayals and the above-mentioned song, which in this day and age can only be labeled as pedophilia, I found myself experiencing a despairing sense of alienation as if I were watching an underwater theater from the other side of the glass wall. This brings me to the point of this commentary, which is to raise the question "is the traditionally accepted Bharatanatyam repertoire highly unfriendly for family viewing and for uninformed international audiences when presented without the appropriate historical, social, cultural and mystical context?" Without such references do these dances become misplaced and even insensitive to the time and place of their presentation?

In re-addressing the Padam about the 13-year-old Devadasi girl who is being sent to the bedchamber of Krishna, one wonders about the appropriateness of the theme for our times. The lyrics written by Kshetragna who lived in the 17th century might have been relevant for his days when childhood melted into womanhood at a chronologically earlier stage in life. It was obviously acceptable to place the character of a Mugdha Nayika (a young inexperienced heroine) in the age category of 13. Even as late as the early 1900s girls were married off at 9 and 10 years of age as were my grandmother and aunt. However, we live in a different society now. Today's childhood extends from birth to age 18. Sexual overture by an adult towards anyone younger is legally termed as rape at least in this country. So all that this particular song did was to conjure up in my mind images of monstrous men preying on children. This country is still steaming from the recent Foley scandal (Mark Foley is a U.S. Republican Congressman who sent sexually explicit messages to young boys under the age of 18); is still puzzled and shocked by the sexual assault and unsolved murder of Jonbenet Ramsey, a six-year-old beauty pageant winner, who was always seen dressed in glamorous costumes; is still chuckling at Michael Jackson and his "affections" towards young boys. So how sympathetic is an audience going to be towards this grown up hero who gets "angry" and scares poor little children simply because they refuse to jump into bed with him? Moreover, how does one evoke appreciation for such a theme in the non-Indian members in the audience to who even an arranged marriage seems to be a brutally backward custom?

And then there is the portrayal of women (and men) in these Javalis and Padams! How do they negotiate their dysfunctional relationships? Let's see now. While the unmarried single heroine unabashedly declares her forbidden love for her married man without an iota of care for the gossiping neighborhood ("Yarukkagilum bhayamaa - Why should I fear anyone?"), the married heroine on the other hand still sneaks around in the dead of the night while her husband is away on a business trip ("Samayamide Ra Ra - It's appropriate time, come come"); and let's not forget the heroine who catches her helpless man who out of no fault of his (say what???) is being lured by a seductress even as she stood right there watching them ("Netrandhi nerathile - Last evening by the bank of the river"); how about the one who bad-mouths the other woman as being a cheating bitch who hides many men in her bedroom ("Vagaladi - Are you swayed by her cunning words"); or the one who angrily confronts her unfaithful man who comes to her still smelling of the mistress for obviously this last fool didn't know that he must shower and get the lipstick off the collar first! ("Idai vida veyru - Do I need more proof than this"). In the meantime our hero (married or unmarried) is taking it all in stride as he rides along boldly and openly on his mythical white horse from song to song to song, going where no man has gone before, rescuing frustrated unfulfilled married women and initiating pubescent girls into the pleasures of the flesh! His name changes and face changes but "he" never does. Of course not! Why should he? After all boys will be boys! And girls? Well, girls will be grateful!

At this point I feel compelled to recall the tremendous furor that was created back in 2001 at the Bharatanatyam conference in Chicago, USA, when choreographer Chandralekha presented her highly evocative work 'Sharira - Fire/Desire.' It was a stunning portrayal of the primal feminine energy and peripheral masculine energy - Prakriti and Purusa, Shakti and Siva, Yin and Yang - coming together in exploration and creation. Chandralekha had envisioned and created the body itself as a Mandala and as a "tense center of an expanding cosmos." This sizzling presentation danced as a duet by a male and a female who never physically touch each other throughout the entire forty minutes, exuded a sense of timelessness - as if time stood still as it usually does when two people deeply in love come together. However it shocked the Indian parents out of their comfy seats. As dance critic Leela Venkatraman later noted in her Sruti magazine article, "Many parents had strong reservations about the untamed sensuality and desire expressed in the work ... it caught them off guard in the presence of their children." The panel discussion the following day turned out to be a free for all with parents complaining about being "embarrassed" to have brought their children. How much more embarrassing could it have been to explain Sharira's exquisitely evocative journey through movement and energy than to explain the multiple dalliances of virile heroes who are always caught with nail marks on their chest and teeth marks on their lips, all of which are of course clearly written down in the program book as well as thoughtfully read out (for the benefit of those littlest ones who haven't learnt to read yet!). It amusingly brings to light the fact that in order for a presentation to be accepted, it must be offered in comfortably familiar cultural packages that soothes middle class Indian mentalities. As a dance scholar recently commented, "the habitual becomes acceptable because of its form, not its content."

Yes, we were all taught of the mystical interpretation of the Padams - that these amorous themes were metaphorical references to the soul longing for God. As stated by Nitin Kumar in his lovely essay 'Shiva, The Sensuous Yogi,' "Loving a wife, or someone who belongs to us, is part of what binds us to the world of forms and not of what can free us from it. This is why the mystical poets sing of illicit love, the love of what does not belong to you (parakiya) and not of what you already possess (svakiya)." Alain Danielou, the French historian and Indologist, asserts that only adulterous love free from all ties and bonds, gives us some idea of the mystic experience. From this perspective one may argue that the purpose of these padams is to delineate a mystic experience. However, in order for such delineations to work they must evoke a sympathetic and understanding response from the audience who it is presented to. In the words of a dance professor from University of California, Irvine, "Without context, and even WITH context, it's tough to communicate the sexual/spiritual material. One of the stories I saw danced at an Indian dance conference about adultery that someone was gleefully committing, rubbed us non-Indians a strange way. It's hard to get the metaphors all the time when you don't think much of the soap opera type situations." In discussing the presentations of these themes as standard fare in Bharatanatyam recitals, a young male dance student from New York had this to say: "As a person brought up here in the US, certain pieces have puzzled my American mind in terms of their content and characterization. I remember vividly my parents' flabbergasted face during an 'adult-oriented' dance pieces at a concert by a well-known visiting dancer from India." It is my opinion that when dances with mature themes do not sit appropriately with young or uninformed audiences you do not "serve" it to them anymore than you would serve champagne to minors no matter how expensive or of exquisite vintage it is.

This draws to attention the main objective of Indian dance/theater as laid down by the texts, which is to create appropriate aesthetic flavor or "Rasa" in the appropriate audience. It is not how well you express yourself but whom you express yourself to (lest you create havoc expressing yourself too well to the wrong audience!). The task therefore is not so much in selecting dances for the program, but dances for the specific audience. Even more significantly, the gestural and expressive choices made by the dancer in portraying the characters that appear through these dances become highly crucial. In going back to the padam about the Mugdha Nayika, one wonders, if the thirteen-year-old heroine of Kshetragna's days, who was obviously well initiated into the ways of the "birds and bees," would act or react with the same childlike innocence of today's eighth-grader. Besides, if the depiction of a "young inexperienced heroine" at the threshold of her first sexual encounter was the focal point in this dance, why not announce her age to be something that the audience can relate to? Is the age of thirteen really relevant to the dance except to create some kind of a charming sensationalism?

"I was there as a dance student, simply to watch and learn about abhinaya. So it was okay for me. But I wouldn't have liked for my American friends to watch these kinds of stories," said 13-year-old Medha Raj. With hundreds of immigrant parents trying to have their children imbibe Indian culture through dance classes, the audience support for these events comes largely from dance students (mostly girls) and their families. It would be worthwhile to create themes that address issues of relationships, of human interactions, of strength and endurance, and of love, life and death from perspectives other than infidelities and bed hopping.

In conclusion I wish to reiterate that the intention of this commentary is not to dismiss the Javalis and Padams as being irrelevant. They do possess an alluring quality in that they are witty and candid representations of Real happenings in the Real world, and of men and women and their emotional (and even volatile) relationships. However, there is a time to teach them, an age to learn them and a place to perform them. If performed by an adult dancer who understands the nuances, and presented for an entirely adult audience (providing appropriate historical, social context of course) these same themes would no doubt turn out to be a marvelously satirical, hilariously funny, starkly honest, intimately realistic and poetic portrayal of life as it REALLY is behind those closet doors. And every house does have a closet of some sort. Doesn't it? Ahhh! Mi Amor!

Ramaa Bharadvaj, the director of Angahara Dance Ensemble, is a choreographer, performer and writer. She has won multiple Lester Horton Dance Awards in Los Angeles for her choreography and performance. She has served on dance panels for National Endowment for the Arts, California Arts Council, and LA Cultural Affairs. In July 2000, Ramaa became the first Indian dancer in over 45 years to be featured on the cover of the prestigious Dance Magazine. Ramaa is a special dance correspondent for international dance publications and her writings have also been published by the Congress on Research in Dance and New York Foundation for the Arts. She is a recent recipient of grants from Durfee Foundation and California Traditional Music Society for creation of new works. She is selected as one of 21 exceptional South Asian women living in the US, whose lives and stories are presented in the book "Spices in the Melting Pot" released in 2005. Ramaa is on the Dance Faculty at Orange Coast College and Pomona College.

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