Deafening silence is louder than jingling salangais
- Uma Palam Pulendran
May 30, 2023
In the Bharatanatyam establishment multitude of issues that plague the community get discussed in private whispers year after year. There is a general lack of appetite for open and public discourse. Everything is wrapped up under the carpet and pretended that "all is well". Here the phrase "Bharatanatyam establishment" I refer to, consists of active Bharatanatyam artists (non-performing teachers, senior and young performing artists), institutions, Bharatanatyam dance critics, sabhas (assembly or organization for the arts), and other South Indian arts organizations in Chennai, and South Indian arts organizations in other metropolitan cities in India, and globally particularly in the USA that promote Bharatanatyam.
While numerous problematic issues permeate the art form ranging from lack of diversity equity, and inclusion (DEI), systemic nepotism, to non-inclusion of the larger international Bharatanatyam community in the December festival I chose to focus on three issues namely, cultural appropriation of Bharatanatyam, corruptive practices of arts organizations and sexual abuse cases within the Indian dance institutions although each of these issues deserve a separate article to be able to discuss in depth. The chosen issues hold significance due to recent events and discussions surrounding them. While one issue gained attention on social media, another garnered coverage in both social and news media. The third issue, although never publicly addressed, has permeated the entire dance field worldwide. Despite their seemingly disparate nature, these issues are intrinsically linked, with implications that resonate across the Bharatanatyam community. It is crucial to shine a spotlight on these issues, initiate open dialogue, and foster meaningful change.
A few months ago, a review of Bharatanatyam performances by dancers of the hereditary dance community in a major dance festival at Karthik Fine Arts in Chennai appeared on Narthaki (this online portal), considered the largest one for Indian dance. The convenor of this festival Roja Kannan must be congratulated for her effort as this is a long due first step in the right direction. The review in question was written by a senior and highly respected dance critic Leela Venkataraman within the Bharatanatyam establishment. While the critic's observation about the lack of geometrical lines in Nrithya Pillai's performance caught my attention, I will set it aside as a matter of personal taste and a minor concern. Instead, I would like to focus on two other aspects addressed in the broader context of the review.
One striking aspect was the critic's inclusion of the hereditary dancers' professions. It is uncommon for a dance review to delve into the various professions of the dancers, as many Bharatanatyam practitioners, both within and outside the hereditary community, pursue alternative careers. Furthermore, it is worth noting that several prominent dancers hail from affluent backgrounds, either through inheritance or spousal support. Typically, such personal details are not part of a dance review. It is conceivable that the critic aimed to subtly convey that despite the hereditary dancers being deprived of their traditional profession, due to India's reservation system or affirmative action, they have achieved economic and educational success. This may serve as a subtle suggestion that they should not be perceived as marginalized. In this context it may be noted that the hereditary dancers were economically independent women who made substantial income and supported their families from their performing profession while many of the present day dancers and their families within the Bharatanatyam establishment don't or can't rely on the income derived from their performances - that's why art that was considered a profession became a passion for most artists except for a few. In fact, dancers often have to bear the costs associated with their performances, and some are even willing to perform for free or pay for the opportunity. This evolving landscape in the Bharatanatyam community raises important questions about the changing dynamics and motivations within the art form. It is crucial to examine the impact of these shifts and consider the implications they have on the sustainability and livelihood of artists.
The most significant issue that emerged was the distortion of historical facts in an attempt to discredit Nrithya Pillai. Ms. Pillai, a writer, activist, and advocate for the rights of hereditary dancers and the hereditary dance form, has shed light on the truth behind what was commonly referred to as "the revival of Bharatanatyam." Through her writings, I have come to realize that this so-called revival was, in fact, a case of cultural appropriation. This realization has sparked a process of learning, unlearning, and relearning for me—a journey of acquiring knowledge while grappling with the uncomfortable truth that the art I love has reached me through a history of oppression, deprivation, and marginalization. I must acknowledge my own complicity in not discerning this fact sooner and the lack of my own understanding of the marginalization and generational trauma of the hereditary dance community. It is incumbent upon all of us to confront this truth and educate ourselves on these matters. However, the critic asserts that the hereditary dancers had the agency and power to fight against the Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act of 1947 (Passed by the British and supported by the elite community) simply because it was supported by Muthulakshmi Reddy, a renowned woman physician and a social reformist - just one person from the part hereditary dance community. For me, this is akin to an employer claiming that the employee did not fight to keep their job when the former fired the latter. She also claims that it was the men in their own community who did not allow their women to dance but they were perfectly amenable to teaching women from the elite community. The critic also overlooks the stigma associated with the community, which prevented the women from performing, leaving the men with no choice but to reluctantly teach women from the elite community to make a living. Their actions were not driven by choice but by necessity. How can one forget the marginalization in various ways including widely known verbal abuse that was used against the whole community of hereditary dancers? A painful part of their history that should not be overlooked, especially given the critic's age and likely awareness of these events.
There has been very little or no acknowledgment of cultural appropriation of Bharatanatyam from the elite Bharatanatyam establishment community. One doesn't have to agree with everything that Ms. Pillai says but one can acknowledge cultural appropriation and her work in re-educating us. Let me draw an analogy to the cultural appropriation of Bharatanatyam. Imagine if the hijab was banned in India now but after 50 years, a Hindu fashion designer modifies its design and gave it a modern/Sanskrit twist to it (ex: Shiro-griva wrap). Consequently, elite Hindu women started wearing it as a fashionable clothing accessory. What are Muslim women in India expected to say or do?
It is critical not to single out Leela Venkataraman because I cannot determine (scientifically/statistically speaking) whether she is a symptom or an aberration of the larger culture of the Bharatanatyam establishment. I think the truth lies somewhere in between. I was shocked by her review but more dismayed by the lack of response from the Bharatanatyam establishment. Many dancers often lament publicly about the cultural appropriation of yoga and ayurveda by Westerners yet remain silent on the cultural appropriation of Bharatanatyam. The responses were so few that the number of direct responses could be counted just on one hand. I was quite disappointed with the way Narthaki portal handled the situation. The article was edited without proper acknowledgment and there was no discussion in the newsletter about it. They are not at fault or responsible for publishing the article. Since caste is a sensitive issue and most importantly caste discrimination runs through the fabric of Hindu/South Asian cultures and the Bharatanatyam community is no exception it is crucial to discuss it openly. The more sensitive an issue is, the more crucial it is to discuss it rather than avoid it.
Such discussions must be taken by prominent dancers from the most dominant privileged caste community to do it rather than brushing it aside. One may not be able to understand the generational trauma of marginalization and oppression unless one is from such a community. There are many scholarly articles on how intergenerational trauma causes epigenetic changes. Speaking for a disenfranchised community is not victimhood, it's seeking justice and telling their side of the story. While we cannot change the past, we can commit to addressing the wrongs committed and provide redress in the present. To do so, we must listen to diverse voices with empathy, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.
Corruption permeates every transaction within the Indian/South Asian systems which may have its origins in the customary vow to God to return a favor termed "venduthal" (in Tamil). Corruptive practices concerning performing opportunities for dancers who are new to the Chennai Festival have been ongoing for more than three decades to the best of my knowledge. To date, there has been hardly any serious open discussion or attempt to dissuade the practice of sabhas from taking money in the form of cash or sponsorship for providing performing opportunities. Dancers are happy to pay and keep it an open secret. With elite status, cash and/or familial connection, and minimal skill one can secure a performance at a prestigious sabha in Chennai during the December Festival. With many mushroomed sabhas all over Chennai and dance tours during Sivarathri across Tamil Nadu these programs have become a lucrative business where fortunes are made by offering opportunities. Regrettably, this practice has spread like wildfire in the USA too where temples and South Indian arts organizations collect varied amounts as "participant fees" (while free for audiences). During the writing of this article, touted as the biggest and most esteemed yearly Indian music and dance festival in North America, the Cleveland Aradhana came to a close. North American-based dance students and their teachers pay hundreds of dollars as participant fees (excluding travel, board, and lodging) to perform in dance productions staged during the festival. Perusing their pictures on social media it appears that they are happy to pay and perform.
Instances of sexual abuse have been happening for a long time and several renowned gurus and/or their family members have been rumored to have abused their students in various Indian dance forms. When sexual assault/abuse cases became public and the MeToo movement gained momentum in the US, many elite establishment dancers spoke publicly in vague terms. However, when specific names were revealed within the music and dance fraternity, they fell silent. No concrete actions were taken against these perpetrators of sexual abuse nor were any measures implemented to safeguard against future incidents while ensuring the privacy of victims. Disturbingly, some of these dance gurus who have been accused of sexual abuse are still worshipped like gods, hailed as legends, and glorified even after they have passed away. While Ghislaine Maxwell was sentenced to 20 years in prison as an enabler for Jeffrey Epstein, enablers in the Indian dance field don't face any consequences. In 2018, reports of the sexual abuse issue involving some Carnatic musicians came to light for the first time, it was the young Carnatic musicians from the US who wrote a co-signed letter to the head of Cleveland Aradhana, started a Change.org campaign, and tipped the local press which paved the way for disinviting the artists to the festival. Even at that time and again recently the elite establishment of Bharatanatyam artists was conspicuously silent concerning this issue. Despite objections, the Cleveland Aradhana invited the alleged sexual abusers for this year's festival. Notably, arts organizations are inclusive of sexual abusers yet exclude artists with dissenting political, cultural, or religious views.
I started to write this article around late January this year prompted by the aftermath of the Narthaki review. During that time the Kalakshetra sexual abuse case was emerging on social media. CAREspaces (a US-based non-profit organization founded by young Indian American artists formed post-MeToo movement) took the lead to address the issue. They confidentially collected nearly 100 complaints, ensuring the privacy of the students, and condemned the institution while demanding appropriate measures from its leadership. While the local press and the renowned national newspaper based in Chennai failed to cover the issue initially a young reporter named Shubhangi Misra from Print India cracked the story first, flying down from New Delhi after first seeing an Insta-story related to the case from the Narthaki handle. Other independent media and even the BBC followed suit. Considering the extensive coverage in the news regarding sexual abuse, delving into the specifics is unnecessary. However, reflecting on how the entire issue unfolded, including its initial leak on social media (which exposed some victims) and subsequent deletion, the inadequate response from the Board of Directors (BOD) and management, as well as the disappointing silence from the senior dance establishment and Kalakshetra alumni, stood in stark contrast to the courageous voices and actions demonstrated by the students of Kalakshetra.
When the sexual abuse case was reported by CARESpaces, the BOD and the management could have taken appropriate measures. Thousands of Kalakshetra alumni all over the world who take immense pride in their alma mater could have collectively written to the BOD and the management expressing concerns. While T.M. Krishna, a musician, author, and activist, wrote a public letter to the BOD, though laudable, it was regrettably too late. The young students left with no other recourse felt compelled to organize a rally and protest. It is important to acknowledge the challenges faced by young women in Indian or South Asian cultures when engaging in protests, as it is often perceived in a negative light and dismissed as bourgeois. These young women and men tried to seek redressal within the system, yet the management and BOD decided to ignore and more importantly cover up the whole issue. In the end, the students had nothing left to lose prompting them to take up a protest rally where they were thrown into the spotlight. I was not only thinking about the well-being of the students but also how their parents must have felt about their children being thrown into the national spotlight. How would the Bharatanatyam establishment dancers feel or respond if it happened to their children?
It was deeply patronizing when the director of Kalakshetra appeared before the media to speak at the end of the day and referred to the young women and men as "Kolandhaikal" (kids) as if they were little kids throwing a mere tantrum. However, witnessing these brave and confident young individuals rise to the occasion, speaking firmly and clearly to the media and asserting their demands, including the resignation of the director and head of the dance department, was truly empowering. Their display of courage will undoubtedly be etched in the history books of Indian dance. Unfortunately, the issue soon devolved into an ugly battle between Left and Right ideologies, exacerbated by YouTubers and other media personalities. Various problematic aspects encompassing social, political, and cultural issues that not only plagued the realm of Indian dance but the entire nation was thrown into the discussion, turning it into a chaotic and contentious situation almost like a dumpster fire. Despite the institution's affiliation with the central government, the state government of Tamil Nadu intervened, taking reasonable measures such as the arrest of the alleged sexual abuser, suspension of other implicated faculty members, ensuring student protection in the hostel, and the establishment of an independent investigation committee. Some accused the students of tainting the institution's reputation. One can taint something only when it's considered pure. But the idea of purity itself is a myth. Therefore no one can taint anything. If anything, it was the management that tried to taint the institution by covering up the issue. The greatness of an educational establishment lies not in concealing problems and pretending all is well, but in being transparent and effectively safeguarding its most vulnerable members. Once some closure was achieved a few dancers from the establishment came out to express "solidarity" as a face-saving measure, while others chose to defend the alleged perpetrators. It is crucial to comprehend the nature of predatory behavior, as predators possess an acute understanding of whom to target, when, how, and where to exhibit their harmful behaviors. Although individuals are presumed innocent until proven guilty, it is challenging to provide tangible proof in cases of sexual abuse. Therefore, it is insensitive for people to defend alleged perpetrators, as doing so does not empower survivors to come forward. Additionally, bringing the accused individuals' spouses as character witnesses in this matter was highly inappropriate and irrelevant.
As the events unfolded and with continued reporting came later other abuses as reported by Kunal Shankar and others of The News Minute, shed light on additional instances of abuse at Kalakshetra including body shaming, verbal abuse, pedophilic behavior, unsavory comments on food habits, and caste-related remarks by faculty. It is crucial to recognize that multiple truths coexist. While Kalakshetra played a significant role in spreading Bharatanatyam as the most popular dance form in India and globally, it was also established upon cultural appropriation and caste hegemony. With its old-fashioned rigidity, restrictions, still intact caste/class hierarchical structures, lack of appreciation for student aspirations, and extreme discipline limiting the freedom to independently think, imagine, speak, question, and create, seems the institution has not evolved with the times. Terms like "pure" are used by the institution and several of its alumni to assign some sort of puritanical concept to its appropriated dance form and style as either "pure Kalakshetra" or "not pure/not Kalakshetra," otherizing and marginalizing dancers or dance styles originated from the hereditary dance community/not direct Kalakshetra or Kalakshetra alumni who reinvented their own styles. It could be said that this approach rooted in a white-washed puritanical perspective contributed to making it the dominant Bharatanatyam institution for international students. This terminology resembles the way some privileged caste people say pure vegetarian/pure ghee which is both otherizing and factually false since there is no such thing as "pure".
The incident at Kalakshetra exposed the fault lines not only within the institution but also within the larger Bharatanatyam establishment. The Kalakshetra issue is a wake-up call for all institutions of performing arts, regardless of their size or whether they are public or private. What transpired at Kalakshetra is not an isolated incident. Many institutions lack a formal system for addressing grievances or providing redressal. It is imperative for the dance community to unite and establish a robust system that at best prevents such incidents and allows victims to confidentially report abuses and seek justice.
Why do discussions of such events fail to take place openly among Bharatanatyam dancers? One reason is every aspect of the art form is sanctified or considered "pure"; therefore, silence is preferred over transparency discussion, and introspection. It is also because the whole elite Bharatanatyam establishment ecosystem tends to protect the perpetrators and ignores such incidents. In addition, more often, those most affected by these incidents are often individuals on the margins—economically or socially disadvantaged, lacking belonging to the elite dance community. Furthermore, in the guru-sishya style of the educational system, the guru and senior artists hold ultimate authority, creating a power imbalance that fosters fear and conformity. Another interesting phenomenon one can observe among the students or sishya is the "jalra" or overt praise of one to secure favors along with literal use of the guru's name to promote oneself (also can be termed as marketing material). All this is done in the name of guru bhakti/respect conflating fear, overt praise, personal promotion, and conformity.
Beneath the surface of the beautiful Bharatanatyam performances with the glittering arakku jewelry, finest silk costume, jingling salangai (ankle bells) and a huge sabha banner in the background of the stage lies the murky eco-system. Power centers of the art form lie within this establishment. Most dancers within the Bharatanatyam establishment hail from the same elite privileged social, educational, economic, and caste backgrounds and remain as gatekeepers and power brokers of the artform since its cultural appropriation in the late 20th century.
It appears that when adverse events happen, a handful of artists (mostly non-establishment) and non-artists share their responses via social media. Others may offer support by liking, sharing, or engaging in private conversations via DM or WhatsApp. However, the status quo is often quickly reinstated. In the two recent events, it was only a handful of Bharatanatyam artists and the ever consistent and outspoken T.M. Krishna who spoke up. There were so few that one couldn't even finish counting in one hand.
I would like to emphasize that my criticism is not directed toward specific people or entities. I greatly respect critic Leela Venkataraman, who has provided excellent reviews in the past, and the portal admin Lalitha Venkat and founder Anita Ratnam, who facilitate diverse discussions on various issues within the Indian dance community. Additionally, my admiration for the renowned institution Kalakshetra remains intact. Issues encompassing religion, caste, gender, sexual abuse, systemic nepotism, institutional mismanagement, etc. are highly sensitive, and therefore essential to discuss them openly. It is precisely because of their significance that we must engage in public dialogue. There is a culture among the Indian dance community that criticizing a person, or an entity is misconstrued as personal opposition or insult. However, it is crucial to recognize that valid criticisms are professional in nature and should not be taken personally. Instead, they should be acknowledged with seriousness and serve as a catalyst for self-reflection, self-correction, and self-improvement for individuals and entities alike. It is through this approach that we can collectively progress and move forward.
India and the world are witnessing enormous social, cultural, political, and gender changes affecting every community. The Bharatanatyam community is no exception to these changes. But it appears that the community at large seems to be entrenched in outdated traditions without showing a willingness to address systemic issues. Progressivism and liberalism are not static concepts; they require continual learning and unlearning. Being a true advocate for progressivism/liberalism involves more than just making generic statements, writing poetic words on popular progressive topics, celebrating historical figures, or using hashtags such as #metoo, #anti-caste, and #secularism. It requires taking public stands and implementing measures to address current, specific issues and forming allyships that can influence one's own communities.
We often become outraged when copyright infringements occur in music or photography, treating it as a violation of major human rights (although I do not condone copyright infringements). When we are personally affected, we have no reservations about speaking up. However, we are often hesitant to speak up for others, and that is an illustration of privilege. If these issues mentioned above affected another community, such as marginalized or oppressed groups, blue-collar workers, etc., they would not only engage in public discussions but also organize boycotts and protest rallies demanding change. Yet, for the Bharatanatyam establishment, speaking up for rights and liberties may appear too bourgeois. I believe individuals who speak up or protest a system fall into two categories: 1. Those who are unaffected or unbenefited by the system, and 2. Those who are negatively impacted by the system have no choice but to fight. The Kalakshetra students who protested the management belong to the second category. The Bharatanatyam establishment community, including the young dancers, benefit from the system and the status quo, and therefore, they do not fit into either of the aforementioned categories and therefore don't speak up or protest.
Today, change doesn't happen solely through a single leader but through collective activism. However, the dance community lacks any collective voice as evident during the Kalakshetra incident. Chennai is known for distinctive features such as the sabha-centric Music and Dance festivals and performances, the Kalakshetra, (and of course the Cooum river!), both need clean-up, transformation, re-imagination, and re-creation of Bharatanatyam performance as a financially sustainable career path for all, irrespective of their social, economic caste backgrounds structuring within the framework of social justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). But, with enough social, economic, educational, caste, and familial capital to expend will the Bharatanatyam establishment ignite change within it- after all "Winners take all"?
PS: Disclaimer: The words/opinions expressed in this article are my own. Narthaki is not responsible for the words/opinions expressed in this article. But they are free to discuss this article in their newsletter at their discretion - Uma Palam Pulendran
Uma Palam Pulendran is a Bharatanatyam dancer, Public Health researcher, and democratic grassroots activist based in the United States of America.
There is both a camaraderie and a studied silence surrounding the field of Bharatanatyam (as well as India’s other dance forms that were appropriated and repackaged in the 20th century and labeled as classical). It is a camaraderie of smugness, and the silence is held up as good behaviour, better always than disrupting the status quo, no matter what the issue. This metaphoric linking of arms and this obdurate silence in the face of uncomfortable questioning tend to obscure all search for truth of any kind — personal, historical, or spiritual. The author of this article has made a valiant effort to penetrate this situation and invite discussion. But, a month after its publication, it seems not many comments have been shaken loose!
- Anjana Rajan (July 1, 2023).
This is too long an article to digest . Have to guess the sum and substance of it. Negative or positive remark? Will discuss in person. Anyway appreciate my student's ability to write such a long article on the present day Bharatanaatyam scenario.
- VP Dhananjayan (June 13, 2023)
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