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From the Editor

Back to Issue | December 2020

The Multiple Modernities of Bharatanatyam

Hidden away in a footnote in Saskia Kersenboom’s ‘Nityasumangali’ (1987) were the words – “Now, in 1984, the two styles are mutually unrecognizable and irreconcilable. Perhaps the time is ripe to distinguish between a Classical Bharata Natyam (or Catir or Dāsi Āttam) and a ‘Modern’ or ‘Free’ Bharata Natyam.”

My dissertation titled “The Multiple Modernities of an Indian dance form: A critical analysis of Bharatanatyam” (2010) attempted to do just that. In it, I have argued that the Bharatanatyam seen, practiced, performed and taught today is not ancient, timeless and ‘traditional’. It is affected by the complex socio-historical and indeed political processes that India underwent prior to and after Independence. These processes have already been under much discussion and debate recently, so I will abstain from talking about them here. Instead, I present the view that Bharatanatyam cannot be viewed as a singular dance form with different styles, but should rather be seen having multiple forms. From the time of the so-called ‘revival’ to now, each of these multiple forms is modern not just in the sense that they are ‘contemporary’ but in the more significant sense that they are deeply entangled in the normative project of modernity. My distinctive claim is that Bharatanatyam today is a dance form that embodies multiple modernities.

What is meant by ‘multiple modernities’? According to the sociologist S.N. Eisenstadt, ‘The idea of multiple-modernities presumes that the best way to understand the contemporary world – indeed to explain the history of modernity – is to see it as a story of continual constitution and reconstitution of a multiplicity of cultural programs. These ongoing reconstructions are carried forward by specific social factors in close connection with social, political and intellectual activists, and also by social movements pursuing different programs of modernity, holding very different views on what makes societies modern’.

Right from the time Rukmini Devi began to alter the form, I argue that forms of modernity began developing in Bharatanatyam. Rukmini Devi saw herself as a revivalist, but I believe perhaps without even knowing it, she did something more than ‘revive’ a dance form. Her adoption of modernist values demonstrates this. Linking the revival with the nation, separating it from ritual by bringing it to the proscenium, transforming the guru-shishya dynamic by founding an institution for dance, incorporating sensibilities of ballet into Bharatanatyam and even changes in the costume –  link Rukmini Devi’s alleged ‘revival’ to modernity.

Alternative modernities appeared in tandem with Rukmini Devi’s. Political Theorist Professor Rajeev Bhargava, in his book “What is Political Theory and Why do we need it?”, writes that ‘a change in its traditional structure and an equally significant difference from western modern institutions is critical for an alternative modernity to exist’. Chandralekha, a pioneer in new directions in Indian dance, appears to best embody this. Her writings and work indicate a clear intention to find an alternative modernity to Bharatanatyam by going back to the Sadir tradition but viewing it through the contemporary prism.

The ‘Chandralekha Archives’ on which I worked for several months, suggest that she addressed sexuality, femininity, and contemporary social issues while acknowledging the mastery of Devadasis. Chandralekha considered herself rooted in but not bound by tradition. She believed in its continuous reconstitution. 

Chandralekha’s and Rukmini Devi’s respect for each other seems evident from Chandralekha’s almost exclusive use of Kalakshetra dancers in her work, and Rukmini Devi’s praise of Chandralekha’s work. Both were modern. Yet, Chandralekha’s vision was an alternative to that of Rukmini Devi’s.

To begin with, Rukmini Devi’s legacy still follows the religious narrative largely drawn from her theosophical/spiritual background, while Chandralekha unequivocally rejects the religious narrative. They differed in several other ways too. Just one example is their contrasting perceptions about the body. Rukmini Devi asserted that ‘…In the dance, the body has to become so non-physical, that they who behold it forget the body as a physical entity’. Chandralekha, on the other hand claimed that the body, with “its sexuality, sensuality and spirituality” was her main concern. This returned the sexuality and sensuality to dance that Rukmini Devi had been so careful to “sanitise”. 

Beyond Rukmini Devi and Chandralekha, several other modernities emerged within Bharatanatyam and these continue to proliferate. Dancers such as Mallika Sarabhai, Daksha Sheth, Jayachandran Palazhy, Anita Ratnam, Navtej Singh Johar and countless others have approached Bharatanatyam through their own visions of modernity. 

All of these make Bharatanatyam, from the time it was severed from its traditional predecessor ‘Sadir’ right up to contemporary times, a form that embodies multiple modernities

I have personally been involved in some ‘modernist’ projects within the Bharatanatyam idiom – Leela Samson’s Spanda conceived in 1995, of which I was a part for several years, was pathbreaking in its exploration of choreographic techniques and group dynamics. With a focus on the movement-based ‘grammar’ of Bharatanatyam, minimised ornamentation, and use of Hindustani Classical Music for some of its work, Spanda embodies another modernity. 

Anusha Lall’s ‘Tilt’. Photograph: Avinash Pasricha

Anusha Lall’s work is another example. Her choreographic work Tilt is a deeply challenging, internal and abstract exploration of Bharatanatyam. When I learnt, rehearsed and performed it in 2011, I was acutely aware of being a part of a distinctively modern exploration of Bharatanatyam.

Finally, my own conception of ‘Vyuti’ Dance Company in 2014 explores the inherent modernity I believe exists within Bharatanatyam, contributing to the increasing multiplicity of approaches to Bharatanatyam today.

Vyuti Dance Company’s ‘Sakhi’. Photograph: Avinash Pasricha

Understanding Bharatanatyam as multiply-modern has critically important implications for the future of Bharatanatyam. The multiple-modern approach urges dancers and scholars to revisit the origins of dance to examine them critically. It is impossible to conceive of modernities within a tradition without first understanding the tradition. In that sense, it urges practitioners to critically revisit the history of Bharatanatyam. 

Another important implication of this approach is that it helps to circumvent the tired binary between ‘Indian tradition’ and ‘western modernity.’ It compels us to see the many forms of the Indian modern. Western modern and contemporary dance entered India a short while ago, and was pitted against Indian classical dance for quite some time. Modern programmes of Bharatanatyam have the potential to acquire legitimacy for being distinctively Indian modernist creations.

To summarise, the ‘Multiple-Modern’ approach encourages dance pedagogy to assume responsibility of teaching dance honestly, by urging dancers to embrace the turbulent history of their art-form. Further, it allows for multiple conceptions of Bharatanatyam co-exist, sometimes argument with one another, but harmoniously. By broadening its definition of Bharatanatyam, it relaxes the brutally competitive space that dance occupies today. There is enough space for everyone to dance, provided that the general standards of excellence for any art form are met. Understanding Bharatanatyam as multiply-modern promotes a broad- and open-mindedness that is needed in the Indian dance world. And finally, it opens windows, where doors were previously shut, for creativity towards new, multiple directions previously unseen in Bharatanatyam.

Aranyani Bhargav

Aranyani Bhargav is a Bharatanatyam dancer, choreographer and writer. She is founder and Artistic Director of exploratory Bharatanatyam group ‘Vyuti’, based out of Bangalore. Aranyani practices, performs and teaches the technique, history and theory of both traditional as well as modern Bharatanatyam. Instagram: @_aranyani_

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