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.

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Pseudo Bharatanatyam “dancer” Prasanna Kasthuri moving from St.Louis to Afganistan to teach Bharatnatyam classes there.

Prasanna Kasthuri,

Prasanna Kasthuri
promoting classical Indian music

an Americanised Kathak dancer, was stupid enough to write a lot of nonsense in his article on Narthaki. I sent a response to him and to Lalitha Venkat who – to my immense surprise – eventually published it, along with Prasanna’s reply.

Below is the improved and richly illustrated version, and more of our conversations! Enjoy! 🙂

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Prasanna Kasthuri’s article raises some important questions.

1. If indeed his “main goal (of moving to the USA) was to spread the traditional art” why didn’t he open a Bharatanatyam school in Lahore or in Kinshasa – instead of in St.Louis where “most of the dance teachers still continue living on meager income” funded by grants from Regional Arts Commission of Greater St. Louis and Missouri Arts Council? Were most medieval devadasis looking to become millionaires?

2. Considering that 15.8 million Americans spend $5.7 billion a year on yoga-related activities,  how successful economically was his “workshop dealing with hatha yoga, breathing and meditation combined with dance movements“?


His Holiness guru Prasanna teaching a rich American vanara how to offer a puja to Lord Nataraja

3. If the NRI doctors, business analysts and engineers are required to have a proof of their professional qualifications before they move to the USA, are the Hindu priests and Bharatanatyam dancers too? Are the Bharatanatyam dancers required to be qualified for dancing just as the former devadasis were required a pass in 64 subjects? Does getting a rank in Vidwath exam imply one can handle the 22 sruti system?

4. Has Prasanna Kasthuri tried to convince any Iranian person that the traditional dance of Kathak is traditional Indian dance?  If Japanese could be proud of Kabuki and Chinese can be proud of their classical music, why are the Indians not having the same enthusiasm exploring the ashtottara sata talam system?

5. How exactly are the traditional saxophone and the Italian violin concerts related to a goal to spread the traditional (Persian?) art? Why should the Indians be so enthusiastic promoting the Iranian or Italian culture?
6. How essential was “a meeting of Kathak and Tap”  for “upholding the spiritual values of great Indian traditions“?

7. Is any art sacred, and any artiste a saint? What is the difference between religious values and spiritual values?

8. If “our” (whose??) “dance forms” failed to “get more limelight than what it had previously“, why do some Bharatanatyam videos on YouTube get 1000 views a day, while others only 1 view a day? Are the times of Swarnamukhi’s popularity over as the classical dancers can’t sit in aramandi, control their eye-lashes or perform  Gangaavatarana?

9. As for the “onslaught of heavy media works such as television and movies“, don’t you think the film directors would be bankrupt if their actors were as unprofessional (e.g. in satvika and vachika abhinaya) and had as captivating figures and as fascinating faces as the majority of “professional” Bharatanatyam dancers most of whom can’t even apply make-up properly?

10. What is the purpose of dancing Bharatanatyam 24 or even 60 hours non-stop? Would you trade one good banana for 50 rotten apples?

Prasanna Kasthuri
Padre Prasanna at a mess asking for State funding

11. Are “the classical dances fading slowly” because currently 2 out of 5 NRI girls in the USA undergo some training in classical Indian dance? How can we stop them from attempting to learn Bharatanatyam?

12. Are some NRI dancers’ careers “fading slowly” because their “traditional” dance themes focus on praising the maharajas and merchants of the 18th century?

13. If Prasanna Kasthuri has less knowledge of philosophical and spiritual interpretations of the dance themes, is he planning to expand his knowledge by studying the Vedas in the original and achieving some spiritual qualification and siddhis?

14. If “most working class youngsters are seen spending time in front of television channels, rather than going out and enjoying a live classical performance“, is it partly for the reasons outlined by Mukundagiri Sadagopan ? Or is it because – according to the Kollywood film directors as well as Bharata Muni – the youngsters are attracted to Sringara which was eliminated in Bharatanatyam by Rukmini Devi? Or do Lakshmi Vishwanathan’s reasons apply?

15. If there is “less exposure of classical dance forms in these mass media in India and USA“, isn’t it a sign that now it is high time the dancers should stop promoting themselves (or their associates) and start promoting the dance?

16. If they “avoid any classical performances” because “it is not a crowd puller“, isn’t a proof that Bharatanatyam is meant for small audiences when the rasikas can see the dancers mukhaja abhinaya?
17. How do the “local dance teachers work very hard to bring in the professionalism in the community” ? What kind of “professionalism“? Why don’t they learn a bit of Bharatanatyam themselves first?

18. If “most teachers struggle to create awareness of their relationship with a performing art such Bharatanatyam“, doesn’t it mean that people find it hard to understand which “traditional” Bharatanatyam style these teachers teach after learning the Mysore style from Dr. K. Venkatalakshamma and Smt. Lalita Srinivasan,  the Pandanallur style from guru Narmada, and after the Gurukula workshops of Chitra Vishweswaran, T. Mahalingam Pillai, Adyar K. Lakshmanan and Pandanallur Gopala Krishna?

19. Is “teaching dance to an NRI kid is very hard” partly because the classes are an hour a week?

20. If “the coverage for performing arts either in an American newspaper or on any television or in a National dance festival such as American Dance Festival is too less”, does it mean it is time to bring to the USA some really talented dancers from India?

Hindu temples must fund garba and salsa festivals

21. If “the barrier of culture and race still hogs these areas“, doesn’t it mean that the desi forms are limited, and the dancers should finally think of exploring the margi?

22. If “there are no international art critics in major newspapers across American cities“, isn’t it a proof that Bharatanatyam is not an international dance form but an Indian art?

23. If “the entertainment section of newspapers such as Times of India filled with American icons“, is it because there are too few professional photographers in India?

24. Is it indeed Gurukula when you just visit your teacher’s house for a class twice a week?

25. Do “most of the dance teachers still continue living on meager income, just because of the “bhakti”” or because they are unwilling or incapable to go and get a proper full time job at a factory or on a farm?

26. If there are “so many artists in our area, who can do marvelous productions“, who else – apart from these artists – thinks so too?

27. If “our music and dance, whether it is north or south, are driven by bhakti “, why has Lord Almighty been so unwilling to notice the marvelous productions in the USA and support the dancers financially?

28. If “one cannot see a… Kathak performance without a Hindu deity being prayed to“, is it the proof that the Hindu deities came to like the Persian folk dances and Arab music, as well as Michael Jackson’s performances?

29. Why would the Hindu temples in the USA arrange for Kathak dance festivals and works of famous poets such as William Shakespeare, W B Yeats, Maya Angelou, William Wordsworth and John Keats” if it contradicts the Hindu tradition, according to which only margi dance should be performed in the temple premises?

Finally…

Performing Bharathanatyam with Cymbols … the new trend which Guru Prasanna used in this Kuchipudi-Bharathanatyam fusion dancing“.

with CDs and beautiful pre-recorded music, we can perform really well with very low cost. So, if we can setup a network of performances… If you are coming to St. Louis, MO , please send me your details. Meanwhile, remember, I will be seeking the same help from you. This way we can build a network” With the value of Prasanna’s currency dropping to a near-zero level, nobody wants to arrange for his performances by joining his network. Such a pity: his group has only 10 messages, the last one posted half a year ago has an intriguing heading: “I want to meet you. Give me a chance!” What desperate people are there in the USA!

The Tanjore Quartet, the “hereditary” folks…. And back to karanas!

A born dancer – non-hereditary???

One would assume that there would be a hall packed with rasikas to watch a programme by a grandson of Balasawaswathy. When hardly 30 people were initially watching Aniruddha Knight‘s performance, this number was quickly further reduced as many rasikas were unable to digest it at all, and probably were in a bit hurry running to the toilet. Aniruddha came onto the stage in a Kathak costume (thankfully, not in jeans), and was trying to dance a new style that combined new, advanced (genetically engineered) American abhinaya with a hybrid of jazz and flamenco natyam.

Not everybody living in a human body is a real human being. Indeed, where in India can you find anyone with these expressions:

American abhinaya

My daughter commented on Ani, “Poor man, they forced him to learn the dance. Not everybody is a born dancer.”

Arul confirms (with Ani in mind?):

Lots of Indians who live here are full of nostalgia and longing. In their memories, the India they knew lives on, time stamped with their year of departure. And they take it out on their children, forcing them into this life of hypocrisy.

Aniruddha kept biting the left side of his lip while doing jathi’s, trying to dance like a eunuck, with Very miserable expressions. “Is he drunk?”, my daughter asked! Will Shobana’s new film be titled as “Dance like a eunuck” or “Dance like a drunkard”?, I wondered.

“Hereditary” was the most frequent word in S.Niveda’s programme’s flier. Chitti convinced me to go and to watch her a few months ago. “Tapasya Kala Sapradaya is happy to present Niveda from the family of the Tanjore Quartet”, ran the proud intro. Tapasya was lauding its efforts “against commercial exploitation of the arts and meaningless distortion in the name of innovation”. It appears that Tapasya’s only achievement in that effort was the heavily funded documentary Marayunduvarum Marabugal that was made out of 50 hours of tape. It is wonderful that all the knowledge of the hereditary folks fit into one short documentary that not many people had the privilege to watch (why didn’t they release those 50 hours on DVDs?) . While the frontpage of the flier was displaying the Thanjore Quartet, next to them was Niveda with her hands in a lame Anjali: her palms did not touch each other. Oversight? The poor 10-year-old started dancing but could not move at all. Hardly any movement was completed fully, even though the tempo was superslow. Any eye control? Forget about it! The poor thing was too stressed, and kept forgetting the simple, hereditary steps. After watching this bharatanatyam performance we decided to limit our visits to the “hereditary” dancers’ programmes to a minimum.

TQ or nothing is the extreme radical heading of another post of Arul’s.

Sounds like Arul’s Christian sect. The spirit of confinement.

Imagine meeting somebody whose motto is “Mangos or nothing”. Or “Pringles or nothing”. Hey! Weren’t the Thanjore Quartet guys anything more than royal court musicians???? (not dancers!) If Muthuswami Dikshitar, their music teacher, somehow managed to get the recognition as a little saint (or at least a prominent religious scholar), there is no mention of TQ’s spiritual achievements. Because there were none.

One of the TQ’s (Vadivelu’s) “achievement” was the introduction of violin in the Natya recitals. As a result, the ancient veena is on the brink of extinction. The instrument that has the largest range of harmonics (no other instrument can compare with veena!) is giving way just like the natural seeds cannot compete with the aggressive GM crops that are quietly destroying our planet.

Arul writes:

These seven glittering kohinoor diamonds – master gave them to me: sakiye, yemaguva, mogamana, adimogam, yemanthayanara, danike, sami ninne.

Real diamonds are millions of years old. Perhaps, Arul calls the 200-year-old creations of the Tanjore Quartet so in regards to the tuition fees he charges for teaching them. 🙂

… Other gurus reserve the best for family.

The non-hereditary….

Arul continues:

I think also that the fact that Master comes from an ancestral family of teachers has a lot to do with it. They are the ones who know the art of teaching as it existed historically. They know how to give of themselves and when and to whom and under what circumstances.

Now you understand why Alarmel Valli, who left the Master, wrote about her vocal guru:

To find a good guru is a result of one’s past karma. Smt. Mukta never held back. She was generous to the core.

The hereditary gurus were never generous: holding back as much as possible was a matter of economic survival in the tough business competition with few opportunities.

Cursing Chennai’s traffic jams, our driver managed to get us to RK Swamy’s Hall just in time for Surya Ravi’s programme that was recommended by Anusha K. Surya Ravi’s nattuvangam turned out to be Sujatha Mohan. After we started watching Surya, we again realized that there are still wonderful dancers and talented, non-hereditary gurus. Surya was fantastic in her crisp adavus, beautiful and expressive abhinaya (well, there were a few gaps when she froze for a couple of seconds like an ice-man, but it was not her fault: the choreography has to be improved). Sujatha, admitted that she substantially modified “Bharathnrithyam”. The karanas, which Padma Subrahmaniam, who lost the remnants of her sense of beauty as soon as she got a “Dr.” title, never succeeded to combine in a graceful and organic manner. How well did her seniormost disciple Sundari Santhanam do it you can see from her recent DVD on Karanas.

Non-hereditary Sujatha, learning all the best from the non-hereditary, theoretician Padma, managed to produce a superior choreography, which can be illustrated by the passages from the varnam where Surya Ravi portrayed Kalinga Krishna (really beautiful, and such a superb balance when she was jumping thrice and turning 360* on one leg – hardly any professional dancers can do it!), and the snake itself! Such grace! And how subtle was the portrayal of Kuchella’s story, how refined, how charming was the mukha abhinaya, how perfect the angashudhi!!!

When I watched the Varsha Shankar at her brilliant arangetram (it was the first time when I was convinced that karanas CAN be performed gracefully!), I did not even expect that Sujatha Mohan would show us more of the outstanding dancers like Surya Ravi! Even Sujatha’s little kids, like Shreya Balakrishna, are so amazing! Their guru really inspires them. They are so lucky!

It is Surya Ravi whose recital should follow (if not included within it) after the recitals of the IFAS talent promotion (where Nandini Ramani was one of the judges), not the clumsy Balasaraswathy’s grandson. Well, if it were not for Nandini’s insistance (oh, these stupid political obligations!), who would ever have invited him to Chennai???

Everyone who considers being trained by a hereditary guru should watch Pandanallur Subarraya Pillai VCD and hear how he explains that the hereditary gurus teach properly only their own children. The hereditary ones are unable to explain to a genetic engineer where are those Bharatanatyam genes that can transmit true natya skills. He is unable to explain why the hell the hereditary gurus teach the non-hereditary students like Indu Varma! I think this is the reason that the “hereditary dancers” are no longer taken seriously by anyone, except by the hereditary toilet cleaners and hereditary garbage collectors.