Whose art is it anyway?

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on January 11, 2009

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.

-Mao Tse-tung

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.

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  1. amrita lahiri said, on January 11, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    i came upon your article through my google search alerts- i keep up to date with what’s going on in kalakshetra because i spent one memorable year there. it is wonderful that you enjoyed the kalakshetra programs during their festival! and you might be right, that given the ticket prices, and lack of accessibility, the audience at a Bh program is usually from privileged backgrounds.

    But to refer to devadasis as ‘temple prostitutes’ is extreme, and inaccurate. The temple dancers were neither nuns, nor prostitutes. Saskia Kersenboom’s book Nityasumangali will give you a good idea of the function of the devadasi in the life of the temple and the village, and there are many works following that as well.

    One cannot deny that the devadasi role fell into disrepute and abuse. It also became misinterpreted by attempts to categorise it in Victorian categories of ‘nun’ or prostitute’, Hindu ideas of ‘married’ or ‘unmarried’. But there was a rich repertoire of dance and music that the temple dancers had. Legislation in 1930’s banned dancing in the temples and these women lost their role, and consequently, their art form was also at risk of being lost.

    Rukmini Devi was revolutionary in that she took up the art of these temple dancers, who were otherwise shunned. She was a high class Brahmin, in conservative castist Chennai society, learning this dance, interpreting it, and propogating it. Doesn’t this address the ’cause of the oppressed’?? It also provides a sophisticated and versatile dance vocabulary. This was one woman’s humble attempt that had enormous impact. Did anyone else take up the cause with such effort?? That is not a rhetorical question- i would like to know any other person whose efforts in Indian dance in the south was comparable to Rukmini Devi’s in that time, in that context, during India’s independence.

    Why dismiss complex art forms with such simplified terms? Vehement pursuit of imagined traditions is definitely a problem with SOME unthinking classical artists. But if we are careful and read into the pieces by some of the great dancers, we find some radical thoughts, without breaking continuity with the history of the art form- ‘radical’ in their interpretation of the aesthetic of the dance, and the philosophy that it represents.

    I am a classical dancer myself and often wonder how we can address pressing contemporary issues, eg communal violence that your friend interpreted, in this art form.

    if interested, read http://www.amritalahiri.blogspot.com

  2. Karthik RM said, on January 14, 2009 at 12:17 am

    Thank you for taking the time to read my article and replying. I have not read Nityasumangali yet (I think the title of the book literally translates to “The one who is eternally auspicious” right?), but I will as soon as I find a copy.

    You may be right that I was bit too harsh in defining Devadasis as “temple prostitutes.” Technically speaking, a “prostitute” is defined as a person who grants sexual favours for money or goods. Can groups who have been coerced by socio-religious norms to grant sexual favors to members of dominant sections be called prostitutes? The kind of economic relationship that exists between the prostitute and the customer does not exist in the case of the Devadasis. But to say that the women were not compelled by social norms to grant sexual favours to priests and the landlords would be blind defence of this system. While the term “temple prostitutes” is indeed a bit extreme, I think it is the closest explanation of the status of the Devadasis. Having said that, would “courtesan” be a better word to describe the Dasis?

    I am sure you would have read about this, the Devadasis in Tamil Nadu do come from a particular backward community. And despite them having a rich tradition of dance and music, it cannot be denied that they were looked down by society as whole – especially with the advent of modernization and the change of economic relationships in society. It was verily for this reason that Ramamirtha Ammal, once a Devadasi herself, who took over the cause of these people and campaigned for the abolition of the Devadasi tradition in the 20’s.

    It was in such a scenario that Rukmini Devi Arundale arrived. Now, when Ms Arundale propogated this dance, it was not without considerable alterations. The artform had been desexualized, puritanized and well-packaged for the upper-caste/class moralities and sensibilities. While the social stigma of the former Devadasi castes still persisted, the stigma attached to their artform vanished – it had now been converted to an icon of national culture! And after the “Brahminization”, if I may use the term, of the Dasiattam to Bharatanatyam, the former-Devadasi castes began to move away from the art form mainly owing to their inability to compete with the organized competition of the upper castes and also due to the fact that most preferred not being associated with the art form which once a symbol of their low-status in society. While Ms Arundale’s attempt to revive the dance and her eventual success was phenomenal in itself, it had nothing whatsoever to do with the cause of the oppressed. If you ask me, I would call Ramamirtha Ammal revolutionary.

    I am not sure what you refer to by ‘radical thoughts’ but yes, there were some brilliant artists like Chandralekha, who gave classical art form a radical twist. I do not dismiss classical art forms per se, but I find it rather disappointing that these forms are seeking to uphold traditions – real or imagined – while paying scant attention to grave social issues. I recognize the tremendous effort that is put into reconstructing a mythical story as a dance. But shouldnt the artists also show Shoka about the condition of the poor in this country, revel with Jugupsa against the poor status of underprivileged groups and express Krodh against human rights violations? I am sure that Bharatanatyam dancers can actually succeed in transforming the artform into one of the masses if only the right effort is taken in this direction.

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