The traditional Bharata Natyam faces an identity crisis?

There is a perceptible decline in the traditional art of Bharata Natyam, as we have known for long. On the one hand, there is the prim and proper stiff upper lip of the Kalakshetra style. They have thoroughly discouraged individual talents to blossom. In so many words, we needn’t go about it. It is for all practical purposes only group dance they encourage. With the result you don’t get to notice the emergence of individual talents, even the ones who have made a name for themselves did so in spite of the constraints imposed by the regime. So, no one seems to take to appreciating Bharata Natyam with its rich offerings of the rasas, more the famed sringara rasa as expounded in so many beautiful padas and varnams of the famed composers.

On the other hand, the few artists who made a name for themselves either migrated to commercial cinema and thus brought down a decline in pure art or they returned after they lost out in their film careers, old age etc.

Then, there is the ones who did shine bright enough but sooner, they also took the art form off the rails by indulging in their half-baked, I use the word deliberately, ideas of innovation. So, not long after, what remained was neither the traditional beautiful art form nor any really surviving innovative forms.

So, today what is on offer on the stages, as we saw during the last season in Chennai, is neither a good Bharata Natyam performance nor anything to be excited about as innovative offers. It is pure third rate art and it is a great pity. Music Academy which once did great service by regularly presenting Bharata Natyam talents lately had shut its doors, it seems. A really cause for worry.

Considering what a great art Bharata Natyam is and what the pioneers did the traditional artists families, devadasis, nattuvanars and their patrons helped to contribute. Today we see the commercial cinema, TV serials entering our households almost throughout the day and night and our very cultural tastes degenerating into talks about favorite stars, actors and actresses doing. Time to do some serious introspection.

There are the great many traditional arts in Tamil country that are very rare and contribute to the enrichment of the Indian arts and culture. One is of course the Bharata Natyam, the others are the Carnatic music and the third is the temples, the bronze sculptures and the unbeatable Tamil classics of the Sangam age.

Among the more visually pleasing arts is the Bharata Natyam.There is now a certain fall in the standards of Bharata Natyam teaching and performing. Those who care for traditions and the purity of the art form, it is rather disheartening to note that of late the old traditional families that were associated with this art, namely, the Devadasis and their teachers, the traditional nattuvanars  had had a  very chequered history. After seeing their glory in the past, when patronage and appreciation was in abundance, from early times to the medieval period when the Vijayanagara kingdom was in its peak and later under the Nayak and Maratha kings in Tanjore, the art faced a social crisis. Under the Tanjore kings, it can be said the art form attained its perfection. The Tanjore Quartette, the famed brothers, Ponniah, Chinnaiah, Vadivelu, Sivandandam, perfected the dance form and gave it content and the performance was an unparalleled delight and experience, it excelled in all rasas, the sringara rasa reached its height in the compositions of the Quartette.

It was a more liberal time than what we witness today in the Tamil society, the brothers, born non-brahmins but they mastered all the languages, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi and Sanskrit and also they learnt music under the Muthuswamy Dikshitar, one of the trinities, and thus they were experts in all musical genres, also they brought in new musical instruments, violin was a contribution of Vadivel, who also served in the Travancore court and thus influenced the king, Swati Tirunal.

One more spin-off of the Quartette was the long line of talented nattuvanars this community contributed. B.M.Sundaram, whom I had the pleasure to meet and listen to his authoritative expositions of the contribution of the Devadasis and the nattivanars, says how the Devadasis community evolved through the times.

Not many may know that in the olden times, the Devadasis were not just entertainers, they were dedicated, and they were highly learned and committed to their art. So too the nattuvanars. Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai was a legend in his lifetime. The prowess he brought to his teaching skills, his very complicated and yet truly enduring perfection of the various jatis are narrated by Sundaram and they are exhilerating, to say the least. If the Tamil society had been truly liberal and enlightened there would have been monuments to this great soul, he could count all the big names to his list of students, Rukmanidevi Arundale to Mrinalini Sarabhai, to Tara Choudhry, the names run long enough to make a big line. Such was his skill and reputation. Pandanallur was not just one isolated village, there were so many villages in the Tanjore cauvery delta and the villages earned enduring fame thanks to the artists living there.

There is a small booklet before me, Marainduvarum Marabugal,(Fading traditions) by Tapasya Kala Sampradaya(New No.5,8th Cross Street, Sastri Nagara,Adyar,Chennai-600020, Phone:044-42019497, where there is enough material that will engage a true rasika in this art. One surprising aspect which I didn’t know till now was the fact that some of the Devadasis were experts in learning. In Sanskrit, enough to engage the experts in Vaakyartha, poets, authors of many kavyas and even one said to have given the great poet, Kamban a laudatory verse for presenting his Ramayana in the Sreerangam temple. This page (16) was a great contribution to the lore of the Bharata Natyam performing ladies.

Another interesting piece of information was how the dance form became associated with the debased culture of the later years, when it degenerated. Yes, times were changing and yet the tradition survived. Till 1867, this art was the exclusive domain of the traditional devadasis. It was only the first brahmin lady, one from Karnataka; Kaankaanahalli Paappamma took to this art, things changed. This change is worth exploring today by more competent hands. Also, it coincided with the coming of Rukmanidevi Arundale.But for her marrying the Englishman, Arundale, she too might not have dared to take to this art.Rukmanidevi also had already met and learnt the Western ballet under more famous artist from Russia and when she came back to India after a tour with Arundale, she thought fit to take to the Indian art form that was also ready to transform, from a pure notch, a pure entertainment for the more debased feudal era to the more educated audience, the new English-studied, middle class that was ready to appreciate more Indian versions of arts and culture. Thus, historically, Rukmanidevi emerged at the cross roads of social change and social revolution.

Of course the other side is the perceptible decline of the traditional devadasis as exclusive presenters of this art. Then came the Devadasi Abolition Act of 1948, which also saw the promotion of the old art into new format. Looking back, we can only say what the old dancer caste lost, the new Anglicized caste coveted. The result? The new generation of urban-living, mostly Brahmin caste girls and ladies took to this art and also Kalakshtra helped to bring the art into a new high of unmatched elegance.

This new elegant Bharata Natya of course today is no more anybody’s monopoly, it is now learnt and competently presented by a highly talented crowd, from all parts of India, there are still great dancers who can match the best in other dance forms like Kathak, Odissi and Kuchipudi.But Bharata Natyam excels! It is so complete, it is like the dancing Shiva of the famed Tamil country, and the bronze sculpture almost captures the beauty and strength of the Dravidian art and cultures.

Indur Verma, the youngish director of the Tapasya is a determined soul, all thanks to her determination to persist with her idealism. There is a list of the highly talented and traditional persons, all unlimited source persons. There is also a younger band of dedicated teachers who make up the Tapasya team. Given the current status of the resource persons, they themselves can’t do much, of course.

Some times some good things happen. One of the living legends, Smt. P. R. Thilagam of the famous Kondi Paramaparai, was conferred the Padmasri by the Central government. In fact, many of the persons from this traditional arts community deserve such recognition and also some decent pensions must be paid for the older artists.

The small booklet of some 60 pages ends with a sad description of the abolition of the devadasi act and the consequent controversies, the agitations of by the traditional devadasis and the cases in the high courts and how some of the most poor artists who staged a protest against the abolition of the dance by the efforts of the great redoubtable Dr.Muthulakshmi Reddy led the high court to punish the artists with a fine of Rs.25 each for the ten women who got arrested! The case was dismissed (High Court Criminal Petition No.142, 23-02-1950).Yes, it is an irony! Sometimes great events, great arts die simply unnoticed and unrecognized. The posterity owes often a great debt. This debt is sometimes repaid, sometimes remain unpaid! We can touch our own conscience and judge for ourselves what we have all done.
There must be a separate provision to award scholarships to learn the traditional forms of this dance and also to revive some of the lost forms, as noted by B.M.Sundaram and others. I had had the great privilege of knowing two of the Tanjore Quartette family members, the late K.P.Kittappa and K.P.Sivanandam when I was engaged in a school promotion activity and when I introduced the dances in my school curriculum. It was a long time ago. The Santiniketan background helped me and the artists responded so spontaneously. These days private patronage is often better so as to encourage freedom and innovation in research and teaching.

What is needed is patronage of a higher caliber. Unfortunately, Tamil society and politics is also in decline, there is no strength left to recapture the old glory. Certainly, the Central Government, the Sangita Nataka Academy has to step in and do something historically worthwhile. There needs to be a Centre of Excellence in traditional Bharata Natyam dance and this institution must be funded by a special grant. Something like an one time grant of Rs.100 crore.A great theatre in Chennai of international standards can give a pride to the city of arts and culture. And a number of fellowships must see to it the traditional resource persons don’t languish in poverty and isolated, as they unfortunately do today. A great pity.

This is a great historic legacy of Tamil people and the State Government itself is duty-bound to act to resurrect an art that could put India on the world art heritage map.

Quartette’s original format still good enough

A good Bharata Natyam performance today must still consist of the old format, the old content as laid down by the Tanjore Quartette. Also the content of the programme, if it is to re-establish its glory, must invariably have a few padams and varnams and jatis from the Quartette, in addition to the son-in-law of the family, the really gifted Ponniah Pillai. Any artist aspiring for complete mastery of the art form must present some of the traditional padams and varnams as done by the greats, Bala and others of the old generation.

Tradition has sanctity of its own and in traditional arts like Bharata Natyam we have to strive to bring in the older forms in more and more refined manner. Yes, the old devadasi jargon might not go well today, education and understanding of arts is widespread but we can still impart that rare sringara and other rasas and must do justice to the sensual and secular tastes of today. Rukamindevi might have had reasons to make spirituality such a central theme. But times have changed. We have to keep the current tastes and temperaments.

I was also reminded by some of the experts and artists that today the Madras Music academy and other sabhas have completely ignored the traditional Bharata Natyam forms, the fashion today is to bring in new features in the name of innovations and introduce themes and dance gestures, often imitations from alien forms, and also gain cheap publicity, by virtue of the dancers able to command publicity, thanks to their family connections or other sources of demanding attention. The media is also a guilty party, no debates allowed in the pages of the more so-called respectable journals or no one cares.

But the cover of respectability of course doesn’t help too far. The original pure and well-tried and tested padams and expertise from the traditional dancers families will always will be valued and welcomed. But we need a wider realization, how some institutions, because of their dominant positions undermine the true art forms and also the dominant sabhas also play a role in undermining the traditional dancers. One serious critic called the present day music and dance presentation as “pure junk”! Anyway, it is certainly a time for much introspection on this invaluable Dravidian art and its contribution to make our lives more happy and enjoyable. 

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