The hope is ultimately that Indian classical dance rejects the epistemic violence that has so far been central to its creation and spread.
Read more of our series ‘2020, the year of …’.
A roundup of Indian classical dance trends in another year would have been more difficult, in large part due to the unorganized nature of this field. It is not only the official government sponsored festivals or recognized dancers that make up the ever growing classical dance ecosystem, but also and increasingly, the smaller ones. baithaks, performances in local temples, in community centers, dancers who use social networks to disseminate their work, neighborhood classes organized in improvised spaces, older women (and men) who are learning to dance classic, which are part of this practice and performance network expansion. There is a terrible affection that I began to feel for these introductory spaces in which classical Indian dance operates.
“Don’t the smaller spaces, the less recognized platforms deserve to be mentioned? I would have pissed off. Is there any point in covering the sights of faces already well established on the pitch, instead of passing the mic, and listening to intrigues that transcend the urban and cosmopolitan spaces in which Indian classical dances have found their ideal soil? How many times can the lamentations of “dying” classical dance – when it clearly is not – be written down?
Classical Indian dance, as much as many senior artists complain otherwise, is not a dying field. It is a constantly evolving field, but its guardians love to announce his imminent death to continue their grip on its narratives, in order to control resources, opportunities as well as the ideological terrain. And so this piece is not a definitive account of the important events of the pandemic, as it relates to Indian classical dance, but the stories and people who have stayed with me, as I thought of classical dance in the over the past year. In a piece at the end of the year, a year when hope was scarce, I focus more on what I want or on classical dance in 2021. And for that I go back to the beginning of the year 2020.
As hazy as this year is, there have been two and a half glorious months of 2020, where the pandemic had yet to wrap its tentacles around the workings of the world, crushing it to a standstill, embracing steps in eerie silence. .
However, 2020 has had a rough start for India in general, with the wave of anti-CAA and NRC protests gathering momentum, violence taking place at JNU, riots in Delhi forcing all citizens to count, in their place in shaping this country. Two topical articles from the time, focusing on dance and the spaces inhabited by dance, have remained with me: A Kathak dancer in Uttar Pradesh was would have stopped performing a Sufi play to a qawwali for a government function; and the Kalakshetra Foundation canceled the release of TM Krishna’s book citing the “political” content of the book – the fact that the mridangam was actually made of cowhide.
By placing these events in the context of CAA and NRC, both of which sought to consolidate identity and citizenship on the basis of religion, does classical dance need to wake up from its pro- slumber? status quo ? What is the identity that we bequeath to Indian classical dance, and what is the Indian identity that it conveys? Is it only to be inhabited by the Hindu sentiment of oppressive caste, to be constantly threatened by minority or subordinate narratives that are making their way into classical dance?
As 2021 approaches, the hope is that classical Indian dance will learn to use its epithet of “Indian” more responsibly. Reject its Brahminical remodeling, begun in the 1920s, and a century later, aim to make it a space that resists constant co-optation in a vision of an oppressive caste, the upper class of Hindu India. That he not only welcomes, but absorbs and celebrates versions of classical dance stories that do not fit the easy temple art form suited to the proscenium stage arch, keeping silence on the erasures of the story.
This brings us to dancer Mohiniattam from Kerala, who attempted suicide on alleged grounds of constant discrimination based on his Dalit identity, compounded by the widespread belief that Mohiniattam is performed only by women, resulting in a lack of professional opportunities. In a note, he directly blamed Kerala director Sangeet Natak Akademi for his attempt.
This “death” is not something you hear about; a literal death not of the art form, but of the artist involved. The idea that there could be other similar stories that don’t even get the slight attention this story has received is a terrifying prospect. How to tackle not only mental health issues in a competitive field beyond measure, where opportunities are not easy to seize, but also the systemic oppression that hangs like a specter over this field attacking people from of marginalized communities and backgrounds? How do you recognize that the ability to pay attention to mental health in this area is itself a privilege? How do we look at the heteronormative expectations placed on classical dances?
The hope here is that classical Indian dance begins to recognize and rectify its long-standing prejudices and systemic injustices that continually harm individuals from marginalized castes, classes and gender places. The hope is that the ownership of classical Indian dance will finally disperse more evenly between class and caste positions.
This hope for me was embodied in the crucial and critical work that Nrithya Pillai, a dancer from the Isai Vellalar community, did. As a result of her work and trajectory via social media, as well as during online discussions (facilitated in part by the pandemic), I have been struck time and time again by the way she problematizes and situates Bharatanatyam vis-à-vis with respect to her own experience as a woman. of the hereditary community of dance.
The ballet sphere has consistently relegated the lives of members of traditional dance communities to the rank of archive or resource, never allowing their perspectives to take center stage, never allowing their story to come out. with their own mouths. And Nrithya is slowly but surely changing that, bringing a voice that has been sidelined and marginalized since the “reform” process into the picture.
The static image of the hereditary dancer frozen in black and white images, explained by the oppressor caste over the years, now finds its animation in the counter-narrative which has finally been able to gain a foothold through Nrithya’s work. . The hope is that this performance does not start to look like a symbolic inclusion on dance panels only and sets the stage for real changes on the ground in the formation of the practice and performance of not only Bharatanatyam, but of Bharatanatyam. classical dance as a whole. The hope is that previously marginalized voices will join his in breaking down the doors that keep the dance on an abstract and rarefied spiritual pedestal.
Plus, in this year of the pandemic, there is something that binds us together: Most fingers will point to this familiar culprit from all of our pandemic lives, the now ubiquitous Zoom screen, or ‘live’ social media, as that new friend / foe / trend that has overtaken classical Indian dance. This year, ask any classical dancer – established, endangered, upcoming, featured, emerging, or any of the other classifying epithets attached to dancers – and the only unanimous response will be about the huge change online. . This change, even if it could have been a step towards making this area more egalitarian, only served to widen the gap between those in the center and those in the periphery.
To read on Firstpost: As Indian classical dancers log in on lockout, an initiation into critical dialogue on the insularity of their profession
The digital space has undoubtedly had an impact on the practice, performance as well as pedagogy of Indian classical dance not only for the present, but for the time to come. The fusion of dance in virtual space is indeed something to write about, especially when it comes to the infrastructural support required by the dancer to follow this hastily altered and reorganized reality. But who are the people who continue to slip through the cracks, unnoticed in this scenario?
Not only did the virtual space peak at saturation very early in the pandemic, but also, such is its nature, it refused to recognize the immense privilege of not having your life completely turned upside down by the pandemic, of continuing to to play. Access to quality smartphones, uninterrupted internet connections, spaces large enough to organize a performance or an online course, a certain aesthetic expectation for these online presentations – everything indicates who remains the expected practitioners of dance Indian classic.
The blatant lack of remuneration for most of these opportunities further exacerbates the precariousness of the dancer, and the idea that dancing is some kind of activity performed purely for leisure and aesthetic considerations – again, a choice based. on the class that very few dancers will be able to take. The hope here is that in the chasm made visible by this online change, who can and who cannot have continued access to opportunities to engage in classical dance as a profession or even as a practice or pass. -time, can be addressed and corrected. The hope is that methods of bridging the digital divide will become part of cultural policy in the years to come when it comes to performing arts like classical dance.
Read also : As the arts grapple with the fallout from coronavirus crisis, can we find a more inclusive path through the pandemic?
The hope is ultimately that Indian classical dance rejects the epistemic violence that has so far been central to its creation and spread, to use a term introduced by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Epistemic violence refers to the silence of voices marginalized by the oppressor and the complicity of the oppressor in suppressing the ability of the marginalized group to speak for itself and not leave any audience willing or able to hear these voices. voice by cultivating an almost willful ignorance of marginalized existence. Perhaps it is too broad a wish, too broad. But it’s been a tough year, and tough hope means more than easy, but unfair reality.
Ranjini Nair is a Kuchipudi practitioner and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge.