Bharatanatyam: Present and future at the hands of cunning NRIs

While Kathak dancer Prathiba raises many valid questions and highlights very valid points, there are a few that put a smile on my face. 

What she meant to say is this:

I hardly ever bother to watch any outstanding classical dancers who never make it to the USA as I may start questioning myself where I truly belong and what the hell I have been doing in Texas, and, more importantly, why I learnt the Persian classical dance Kathak instead of the classical American dance of Salsa.  In recent times, I have witnessed several jaw-dropping, pants-wetting modern performances in Dallas and Houston by visiting Indian dancers who, being old enough, still aspire to look like some teenage American ballet dancers. Their academic presentations made me feel like the classical (shastriya) Indian dance has now been made to sound scientific enough to be taught at the Faculty of Statistics and Measurement at the University of North Texas. The problem for Kathak still remains: to call it classical, we are yet to write a shastra (or “discover” some fake antique book) based on which it would be called “shastriya”.

I have left the auditoriums giggling, jumping and throwing pieces of potato chips around like a teenager who smoked pot on a first visit to Disney Land. Today’s PR specialists, even those who promote themselves as dancing under the traditional labels, incorporate interesting, simple and entertaining MTV-style movements  in their dances to add dynamism – an excellent example of devolution, inborn inability to learn anything from Natya Shastra or to perform even a few stretches a day to accomplish what most American teenage ballet dancers or gymnasts achieve with ease and little pride. At the same time, there also seems to be something, such as use of those pretty useless and meaningless hand gestures, that is stagnant in its practice and even an evolution in the wrong direction, if I may be so bold. I feel I am entitled to be bold and question everything because I have an American passport.

While artistes like Uttara Coorlawala, Anita Ratnam and Michael Jackson seem to have taken evolution to a new level far away from the place they started from, questioning the concept of evolution  itself, why are we still defining women based on the Ashtanayikas and not on their church affiliations or sex preferences? Based on the relationship with the hero, the Natya Shastra classifies women as the one who dresses for union with her hero (my daughter always goes to a date in the same torn jeans she wears in her bedroom), the one distressed by separation (everybody knows that once you become separated you are relieved as the costly divorce litigation is near its completion), the one having her husband in subjection (only perverts put their husbands in handcuffs in Texas), the one separated by quarrel (quarrels are needed to show that we have the right to have different opinions), the one enraged with her lover, the one deceived by her lover (cheating on one’s boyfriend is absolutely the norm here), the one with a sojourning husband (who came back from Iraq), or the one going to meet her lover (on a blind date).

What about the NRI woman who thinks she is an intellectual or equal of Sigmund Freud? What about the woman who brings home the bacon, sushi, electricity bills, sanitary napkins, the Tea Party leaflets, and condoms? What about the woman who decides that she is better off as a single parent, a single woman or a lesbian in a same-sex marriage? May I remind that many women in Texas marry 4, 5 or 6 times and many don’t even remember who are the actual fathers of all their children?

May I remind that although the Natya Shastra has provided us a wealth of information and is THE book every NRI dancer should avoid reading, it is religiously believed by all Texan rednecks to be written between 2nd century BC and 2nd century CE? Its views on women and statistics are as outdated as some of our old American texts that classify humans based on their US visa status or propagate the theory of creationism that contradicts the Bible or the beliefs of the Faculty of Physics at the University of North Texas. Why are we, the modern women driving expensive cars and wearing Victoria’s Secret lingerie, clinging to it for dear life if some of us are in danger of being classified by the 14th Chapter not as Goddesses, Gandharvas, Humans but as belonging to other types, such as Pigs, Horses, Buffalos, Goats or even Dogs? How can our democratic society classify people as noble, mediocre or lowly?

I wish Bharatanatyam was truly evolving on all fronts and conformed to the MTV standards. As an atheist and a member of the Republican party who thinks that everyone, not just Spiderman, must wear one’s underwear over one’s pants, I wish we overcame the limits of beauty and religion in its practice. I wish we overcame the male chauvinistic ideas portrayed in a Bharatanatyam performance, and promoted the same-sex marriages in India. I am writing this as a woman who is tired of seeing nayikas who long, pine, and suffer for someone who resembles one of my ex-husbands. For the Muslim purists who will retort that the “lord” represents “truth” and the pining is the search for the impersonal and vague truth, my response is: Is this the only metaphor you can think of for years of imagination since the Prophet consummated his marriage with the 9-year-old Aisha?

Recently, I heard someone call the ardhanareeswara concept not as a reference to some unscientifically genderless godhead, Ida and Pingala, or to American women who are indistinguishable from the American men, but as the oldest example of gender equality and the only instance where Shiva carelessly wears unmanageable matted locks for hair while Parvati has beautiful flowing hair.

Shiva shows rage while Parvati is demure, which is absolutely unrealistic considering how much every American woman has to yell, scream and shout every day. Shiva can lift his leg over his head but Parvati (may be able to but) should not. Considering that most American women ballet dancers are excited about lifting their legs as high as possible in order to demonstrate the stylishness of their underwear, what about this really shows gender equality?

Showing that the male is all male and the female is all female is outrageous. Showing that the female does not exist without male enhances the wrong and irrational concept that the Universe that manifests in time and space comes from some unscientific Brahman that exists beyond time and space and is independent of the US Government.

Despite all the good values of Indian culture and its cuisine in particular, a major rule of our society that creates a stumbling block is “do not question your mom.” We stop evolving when we stop asking questions, and the more foolish questions come into our heads, the more we evolve in the eyes of the US Government. Perhaps that is why we label anything that does not conform to these values as ‘fusion’ or ‘modern.’

You’d think that living in a western society as NRIs would help people push the boundaries of Bharatanatyam even beyond the limits of salsa. You couldn’t be more wrong! As an NRI, I have no choice but to witness painful arangetrams performed like weddings with splendor and showmanship but lacking in content and standard that we find in the old school of the American ballet. As a dancer who dances at home every week, I am tired of NRI parents badmouthing their children’s gurus’ practices (Question: If you hate them so much, why do you continue sending your kids to their classes instead of sending them to Madras?).

As an economic migrant who came to the US to earn money, I see all NRI and the visiting gurus treat the art simply as the business of teaching (read moneymaking) and graduating more mediocre and substandard students year after year. I do not believe in religion or investing in real estate but I believe in Statistics and Citibank where I have my savings account. Neither am I traditional to the point of being able to appreciate anything other than rock-n-roll. Yet I cannot bear to watch kids wearing their salangais along with their sandals and iPods in auditoriums that are not built according to Natya Shastra. I am tired of the standing ovation given to every kid finishing his/her arangetram, irrespective of the standard as if we were at a GOP meeting. I am even tired of the almost ritualistic applause I hear at the completion of every plain jathi, theermanam, and swaram that so takes the focus away from the the glaring evidence of absence of any dance described in 4th Chapter of Natya Shastra.

Living in the western society frees our barriers and opens new horizons. Once our barriers start feeling free, we stop reading books and begin investigating the crucial issues: which of the current US party does Nataraja belong to, and why he is not depicted as the top American bodybuilders?

Sadly, most NRI parents today seem to be focused on how many quasi-traditional or semi-traditional or newly-traditional items they can get their children to believe they learn, how many costume changes one can manage in a given arangetram, how many costumes and jewelry they can acquire on their next trip to India, etc. Lata Pada, in a recent lecture said beautifully, “Do not expect me to be a cultural babysitter for your children just because I teach them Bharatanatyam. I am here to do business with you, and not to establish some Gurukula.”  It seems that this is exactly what several NRIs are hoping. Instead of encouraging their children to believe they already became dancers in the true sense by sending them to Madras, they want to create replicas of Priyadarsini Govind or Rama Vaidyanathan so they can be happy that their children are, after all, Indian who can do lecture but not demonstration.

Challenging someone intellectually is, after all, easier than doing it physically. PG and RV became expert lecturers not by following status quo or by practising stretches, but by learning Business Administration, Marketing, PR and carving their own niche in the American market. Of course, there are exceptions among NRIs such as Mythili Prakash and Bhavajan Kumar, to name a few who became proficient in their business promotion.

Why am I now taking it out on the NRIs as if they come here just to earn money and invest it in Chennai properties? Three reasons exist. I live abroad and got burnt in the US sub-prime mortgage scam. I cannot comment about the current practices in India for fear of being thrown into an open manhole in T.Nagar in the rainy season. While many of them hate to read books, NRIs have the financial resources to take the risk and push the boundaries beyond the limits of the ancient Indian aesthetics and sensibility. Living in a western society, witnessing art forms such as strip dance, ballet, jazz, hip-hop, opera, etc, and receiving constant encouragement to explore and experiment should foster these experiences (or rather experiments?) even more until we start frying our dosas on Shevron engine oil instead of ghee. Sadly, I am yet to see examples of such, although the popularity of McDonalds in Chennai seems promising. And the question, “Will the NRIs who have the money and the cunning to push the boundaries and experiment help Bharatanatyam reach new heights in the eyes of Michael Jackson fans?” remains unanswered to me still.

One thought on “Bharatanatyam: Present and future at the hands of cunning NRIs

  1. dont be harsh on ballet dancers. i had a russian ballet teacher train my 4 yr old. unfortunately, it lasted for only 3 months, by her leaving to her country. but the highlights was not just the amount of overall knowledge my daughter acquired- its absolutely the teacher’s skill- she even knows the name of the ballet adavus, not like those students who come to me whom despite giving, rather writing notes, would do tattu-mettu as one-two-three-four😦. i have no more students, and i have never been happier.i kinda shoo-ed them away, ha! if you want to lean, you will work hard and find a teacher, like i did or do🙂
    ok, back to ballet. the best part is hte the way she infused interest in my child. my child would dance, dance, and dance, without prompting, not minding how she is and where she is, in parties,at dinners, at get togethers, and i have never, i swear, never seen my daughter happier.
    and yes, its a beautiful dance too, its art and needs a lot of hardwork and properly presented it looks as beautful and (non-vulgur, with all that so called panty showing and may I mention the bharatanatyam dancers who cannot lift their legs doing the aduvus requiring so)yes, as beautiful as our own and favorite bharatanatyam

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