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The grace of gratefulness and the activism behind Thanksgiving

August 26, 2018

At the recently concluded seven day dance festival and seminar, evocatively titled "Looking Back to Move Forward," organised by Odissi, Chhau and Manipuri dancer and guru, Sharon Lowen, under the aegis of her organisation Manasa-Art Without Frontiers, something happened that impressed me very much, set my mind buzzing and compelled me to write this piece, the second in the series 'Soch'- a thought.

Purva Dhanashree
Photo: Inni Singh
Young, Vilasini and Bharatanatyam dancer Purva Dhanashree, recipient of the Bismillah Khan Yuva Puruskar (2008), spoke in a session on 'Transitions and Traditions'. She opened her address by offering her gratitude and thanksgiving to generations of Devadasis that had practiced dance before her and nurtured and enriched it since centuries. The moment could have gone unnoticed, or gone deliberately ignored, for we are masters in permitting and encouraging erasures of facts we are not entirely comfortable with, except that in the nano moment after the utterance, two sets of claps could be heard.

One of the clappers was Prof. Amrit Srinivasan, whose path breaking doctoral work on the marginalisation of Devadasis in the wake of politics of nationalism, first published in 1984, and which has since then become the mandatory reference work cited in all subsequent scholarly writings, not just on Bharatanatyam, but in the case of all critical studies of Indian classical dance. The second clapper was I, and not surprising, because Amritji was my doctoral supervisor and has trained me well in acknowledging the contributions of "giants," that was the precise word she used, on whose work and shoulders, my own writings stood. I am further sensitised on issues of cultural ownership, appropriations and representations, as for my doctoral research, I too wrote on the marginalisation of traditional artistes. In my case the traditional artistes were the celibate monks of the Assamese Vaishnav monasteries called Sattras, whose dance had, since 15th November 2000, become a marker of the Nation, when it was accorded recognition as the eighth "classical dance style of India." Consequently however, the role and presence of the monk in the pantheon of Sattriya, has been a shrinking one!

That analysis is subject for another occasion, but what I want to write about today in this column is our lack of gratitude to our ancestors. There are two types of ancestors, ancestors of blood and ancestors of spirit. That day Purva paid homage to those ancestors of spirit, who were neither part of her DNA family nor her direct gurus. In review upon review, Purva has been described as a mature dancer, and at that moment at the seminar she was reflecting the same maturity, as she recognised that our pasts are expressed in our present, and offered thanksgiving to the generations of Devadasis past!

With one sentence she attempted to correct the enormous injustice of history that stigmatised in one stroke, all the traditional women performers of the past, erased their labour of generations and devalued their painstakingly created cultural wealth, without scant thought towards their trials and tribulations. It was they who built up a cultural cachet and removed pebbles and stones, smoothening the pathway that has allowed the modern Indian dancer to access a position of privilege, as stakeholders of the cultural wealth of the nation today.

When so many systems and domains were being destroyed under the colonial regime, like our indigenous systems of education, medicine and industry, at the level of rural economies and political empires, performative culture, probably the most fragile of all human ecosystems, stayed afloat in their hands. Stop to think of their many struggles and sacrifices that ensured this. Appreciate the tenacity they showed for their art in the face of unimaginable adversities and humiliation. Having got a readymade inheritance, who are we to judge how they did it? Maybe we walk tall today because they agreed to bend!

Even in modern meritocratic societies success does not depend only on individual effort or talent. Often the security created by ancestors, acts as a buffer. But when the Devadasi encountered modernity, like a tsunami, it took her down, and the accrued wealth of many, mostly matrilineal, ancestors. Worse was the case of the tawaif, who unlike the Devadasi, was ever a victim of market forces, and did not even enjoy the protection of being a consecrated or "dedicated" ritual specialist, bride of God! The rise and fall of fortunes and status is inevitable. Organically the process takes several generations. But in both cases, of the Devadasi and the tawaif, the impoverishment and marginalisation was telescoped within a few years. This reverse in social mobility, was caused not by lack of talent, knowledge, intent or cultural wealth, but by the sudden, colonially generated slap of patriarchal norms.
And as is the norm, the patriarchs, both, those who abused the system and those within the family who lived off the Devadasis, escaped punishment, while the women became the victims. In 1947, the very year that modern and independent India was born, the Devadasi was legally and finally rejected with the 1947 Madras Devadasi Act (Prevention of Dedication Act), which was passed, without care or consideration of her many cultural contributions, and even her economic wealth, out of which many had supported the nationalist struggle. It is truly an irony that the same nation stigmatised and impoverished her, while the males of her family in contrast, the nattuvanars climbed the social ladder and appropriated the wealth of the Devadasis.

Today as modern Indian women fight up for favourable laws and feminist interpretations, it is time for women dancers at least, to correct this injustice to their female ancestors of spirit, acknowledge their contribution and recognise that they are building on their work. There are enough inequities we women live with. Let us do our bit towards removing them, from the past and present, so that they do not reappear in the times to come. Let us not look at this erasure as aligning the past with a comfortable and familiar narrative, but as the foundation for building a future. Tomorrow when we will be the yesterday, is this how we would like to be forgotten? Or remembered? As those who had a chance to do justice, but let the opportunity go waste because we were not feminist enough or bold enough. As artistes we hold up a mirror to society. That is our artistic dharma. Our human dharma is in doing the right thing towards our female ancestors of spirit.

...If you google the net, you will find Purva Dhanashree being described in a write up as a "rare dancer in today's world, committed to the universal Divine... A devadasi for our time!" That is no coincidence. It is only an acknowledgement of our artistic DNA! What is a coincidence is that the author of the article being referred to is Sharon Lowen!

Dr. Arshiya Sethi, trained in Kathak, has served as dance critic, commentator, institution builder for the arts, having created both tangible and intangible institutions and equities. She has been a Fulbright Arts Fellow (2003-2004) and a post doctoral Fulbright (2016-2017). Her doctoral work has been on the link between politics and dance in the case of Sattriya. She is presently working on the intersection of dance and activism / social justice as well as Indian dance in the diaspora.

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