Whose art is it anyway?
In the world today all culture, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines. There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.
An interesting component of the course at Asian College of Journalism is the ‘Arts and Culture’ elective, taken by Sadanand Menon, veteran journalist and arts critic. Though I had not opted for the elective, I made it a point to attend as many classes as possible. For a novice in the arts like myself, the classes were an eye-opener. Towards the end of the semester, on December 19th, we were taken on a ‘culture tour’ to Kalakshetra, an institution that imparts training in and promotes classical dance and music. Recognized by the Indian government as an institution of national importance, Kalakshetra is considered a ‘cultural landmark’ in Chennai.
Founded by renowned Bharatanatyam dancer and theosophist Rukmini Devi Arundale in the year 1936, Kalakshetra is a new-age replica of the ancient gurukul system of learning. Spread over a vast 100 acres in Thiruvanmiyur, a rather tranquil suburb of Chennai, it claims to provide a “holistic education” for serious students of the arts, “amidst a serene and inspiring natural environment.” The institution resembles an island, cut-off from the intricacies of the busy city, a world onto its own.
We had the privilege of watching some of the students rehearse, at the famed Bharatha Kalakshetra auditorium, for their performance on the 56th Annual Arts festival of Kalakshetra, held between 21st December and 2nd January. It was spellbinding, a visual treat. I was lucky enough to see their performance on December 25th. Brilliant though it was, I found the rehearsal more appealing, for it showed the sweat and toil that went into the process of producing the magnificent output on the 25th. And besides, they didn’t have the cover of lighting and costumes. I remember Dashrath Patel telling us in one of the Arts and Culture classes that “The most important thing is not the destination. It is the journey.” We also met Leela Samson, Director of Kalakshetra, who briefed us about life there.
Though I have seen quite some Natyam recitals at high school and on television, I have never paid to see a performance. The tour of Kalakshetra provided me the incentive. I persuaded two other colleagues to join me for a dance-drama by the Kalakshetra Repertory, on 21st December. Enthralled by the show, I went alone for the performance of Bharatanatyam recitals by the “best of Kalakshetra staff and students” on December 25th. I do not have the technical expertise to comment on finer aspects of the performance, but as a whole, I thought it was splendid. In fact, during certain recitals, I wondered if the performers had elastic bones.
While watching the performance, I took time to observe the audience as well. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that they were mostly upper-middle class or upper class – natural, considering the price of the tickets (Rs 50, 60, 100, 200, 300, 500). I have no doubts that the art form itself is bourgeois and elitist. A person living a hand-to-mouth existence, lets say a construction laborer, would neither have the money nor the “cultural education” for him to appreciate such shows. The person next to me said that it was great that Kalakshetra was promoting “our Indian culture.” In fact, this very same sentiment echoes among the staff of Kalakshetra who claim that the institution seeks to develop “India’s ancient culture.” The guide who took us around Kalakshetra during our tour on the 19th said that Rukmini Devi’s initiative to revive the “traditional arts and crafts of India” was “revolutionary.”
Bharatanatyam, before it was revived by Rukmini Devi, was considered a vulgar dance form in Tamil Nadu. Practiced by the Devadasis, it was popularly known as Dasiattam or Sadhirattam. These Devadasis, or servants of God, catered to the sexual appetites of priests and the wealthy landlords. It is ironical that these very same brahmin castes and the more Sanskritized sections of the landlord castes now promote Bharatanatyam as a product of a great culture. It was E. Krishna Iyer, a freedom fighter, who coined the term Bharatanatyam for this dance form in the early 20th century. Rukmini Devi, another brahmin, took over from there, and what was once a dance of temple prostitutes was packaged as a puritan and aesthetic art form – a sacred icon of Indian culture. Post-independence, with the abolition of the Devadasi system, Bharatanatyam became a monopoly of the brahmins and a few from other upper castes. While it is true that Kalakshetra provides opportunities for students cutting across caste, class and nationality barriers, it cant be denied that the art form in itself has gained a brahminical tinge over the years, and thus, explaining its acceptance among the elite sections.
In my opinion, and I may be wrong, art may be called revolutionary if and only if it addresses the cause of the oppressed. I should say that Bharatanatyam today is anything but revolutionary. Ever since its revival, it has been an urban and bourgeois art form, and as far as I know, showing little concern to social causes (I may be wrong again here. I haven’t heard of any performance sending a revolutionary social message. Google didn’t help either). Most of the performances focus on representations of religiosity, say, the Gopis love for Krishna, Shiva Thandava, Parvati’s penance etc. Even the “revolutionary” Kalakshetra didn’t have anything radical to offer. And it is not that the art is not capable of it. I still remember, not without strong emotions, a brilliant Natyam performance by a friend of mine condemning communal violence, for a school function in 2003.
This is the fundamental problem with contemporary practitioners of the “classical arts.” In their vehement pursuance of imagined traditions, they constrain themselves within artificial limits and fail to see the larger picture. While myths like Sita Swayamwaram or Kumara Sambhavam are reconstructed through dance, grave contemporary issues, like farmer suicides or the violation of human rights of Dalits, which are in desperate need of attention, do not even fall in the artistic boundaries of these classical artists. Then again, should the artists believe in “art for art’s sake”, something Mao didn’t believe in, something I don’t either, they shouldn’t promote these arts as icons of “national culture” – they cater to limited sections only.