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How Equal Are Our Classical Arts Really?

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Do you remember when that uncle/auntie casually remarked in the middle of a family function how out of touch India was with its culture and classical art forms? They were right, just not in the way they think.

India is out of touch, deeply, with its musical and dance heritage whether it is classical or folk. Along with a claustrophobic definition of classical practice, there is also widespread ignorance of folk traditions. Adding to the claustrophobia and ignorance, a unilateral representation of these forms in the mainstream acts as the final nail in the coffin.

Take Bengal for example. An average non-Bengali person may tell you that Rabindra Sangeet is synonymous with the Bengali people, which is true. But in my humble part-Bengali opinion, the community itself created such a persona out of the music (which is heavily influenced by existing classical formats) that its domination almost suppressed folk music like Baul, Bhatiyali, or the more religious Shyama Sangeet.

A Baul performance at Birbhum, West Bengal. (Photo: Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons)

Needless to say, Bengali folk traditions pre-date Tagore. It’s taken a full-fledged cultural revival across the transnational border of the Bengali region to include it in the mainstream. And there’s still a long way to go.

Over the past few days, there has been rightful debate surrounding this particular TED Talk by Aranyani Bhargav, a Bharatnatyam practitioner. A bio accompanies the video in its description of who Bhargav is and where her expertise lies. Yet, the video itself is highly offensive, to say the least.

At this point, I’d like to clarify that I am not a Bharatnatyam dancer, I have never stepped close to it. I am, however, trained in Hindustani classical music. Now, Hindustani classical split from the cohesive chunk of Indian classical as it was considered ‘influenced by Islamisation.’ If you’re wondering what happened to the other chunk, it became (some would say ‘remained’) Carnatic music.

Through the course of my study, I have come across various implications by Carnatic scholars and practitioners which suggest Hindustani classical is ‘lesser’ simply because it chose inclusivity of what was the cultural exchange of the time. This is despite the fact that both these schools often sing about the same things!

A favourite tool to keep this notion in place is caste purity. Important to note, however, that Hindustani classical music and dance itself was not and is not exempt from this. In fact, TM Krishna argues that classical worlds across the world are fundamentally discriminatory.

A Bharatanatyam performance underway at the Brihadishwara Temple in Thanjavur. (Photo: Arian Zwegers/Flickr)

So when Bhargav was called out thanks to the wonder that is the internet, it did not surprise me. It was deeply disappointing though, given that research should be the crux of any presentation an arts practitioner makes. But it also exposes a carefully kept together conspiracy that a huge chunk of India’s classical world holds and wittingly or unwittingly propagates – that the only bad thing to happen to the subcontinent’s classical heritage were the British.

Yes, the Anglophile attitude viewed Indian classical traditions as a binary – it could either be religious or promiscuous. And yes, it was British administration or rather, the lack of it, that caused an entire community of nautch ‘girls’ and ‘parties’ to turn to exploitative conditions of sex work.

But what the British were not responsible for was the existing corruption within these systems of art. These remained unaffected, whether the British were patrons or not. Even today, Indian classical art suffers greatly due to the chains caste puts on it.

It is true that a singular kind of thought and practice dominates every sphere of the classical arts, and it is foolish to think that what you hear is representative of India as a whole. If anything, the problematic conflation of devadasis and the Isai Vellalar speaks more of popular thought than it does about either community.

Indian classical art has been dominated by caste (and other kinds of) privilege since its inception. Whether you are a listener/viewer or a student, if your mind is open, you will notice the oppression as easily as you catch a rhythm. Given that a sizable amount of academic disbursement has to do with devotion, this is only natural.

Let’s take another example from Bengal – everyone knows they love Durga Puja. The period for this festival is marked every year on Mahalaya, fourteen days before Dussehra, through a radio programme.

Chiranjib Sengupta describes the AIR’s Mahishasuramardini as part-ballad, part-oratorio, and at its simplest, an invocation to Durga.

Back in 1931, Birendra Krishna Bhadra was tasked with the narration. Keep in mind that this was a live recitation of the Chandipath and associated hymns. Despite full backing of the studio and production, Bhadra was pulled up by conservative Bengali Brahmins. Why? Because his caste identity was a notch lower than what it “should have been for him to recite prayers to Durga.”

Birendra Krishna Bhadra, seated with colleagues Renukadevi, Saryubaladevi and Savitri Chatterjee.

The AIR went ahead anyway and soon, the day of Mahalaya became more of a socio-cultural landmark for the community, in spite of its religious roots that teetered close to being defined by dogma.

Yet, Bengal did not manage to escape the fabricated superiority of Rabindra Sangeet over its folk traditions. I can’t help but think that these are double standards. It tells me that yes, caste within the arts ought to be abolished, but only when those in control are comfortable with it.

Another exponent is the position of women. Both song and dance often occur from the point of view of Radha – who either pines for Krishna to stop harassing and allow her to fetch water or the eventual fire her mother-in-law will bring down on her. Both situations place Radha (or the singer) in disadvantage, and at the mercy of divine intervention.

In real life, it feels familiar. Further from the above but close enough, this article by Nrithya Pillai articulates the hypocrisy that has characterised the devadasi lineage. Over the course of time, women are let down by the classical arts repeatedly. Yet, it takes us seconds to appropriate and exoticise entire experiences (that may inherently have been exploitative) for the purpose of appearing other-worldly.

Caste oppression has a social sanction, and art is nothing but a mirror to society. To blame the British for everything that is wrong with India today and its classical arts reeks of the archaic, is highly dismissive of the exploitation that occurred at the hands of our own to our own, and is downright historically inaccurate.

As a listener or a consumer, it is not very difficult to do better in 2020. I’m grateful to Nrithya Pillai for speaking out and taking on the explanation that she has provided. I understand that it is not her burden to do so.


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So while on one side we have upper caste upper class Bharathanatyam exponents not wishing to even engage with the problematic past of Bharathanatyam , denying appropriation while indulging in mindless PERFORMANCE on the other side we have upper caste upper class girls- privileged outsiders with no lived experience appropriating the hereditary caste struggle, the narratives to make a PERFORMANCE out of our lived experiences. And amidst this, there is the politics of keeping the marginalised voices and bodies in check. There will be NO SELF REPRESENTATION – neither voice nor body! There will be no agency for the oppressed unless there is approval from the elitists – whichever side they are from. This is again perpetration of the same violence that denied my ancestors their livelihood, their voice , their dignity and purged them out of their hereditary art. So on one side the violence is denied so they can perform and on the other side the violence is used as the theme so the other side can perform. But the ones who undergo the violence and carry the intergenerational trauma will never be on stage! People sharing videos on Bharathanatyam’s past where class caste privileged are speaking and dancing the lived realities of marginalised courtesan castes must remember how problematic it is that they will NEVER listen to self representing voices like mine . Your performative wokeness sucks.I am disappointed in all of you! .

A post shared by Nrithya Pillai (@nrithyapillai) on

I also understand that most people today don’t want to confront the reality of classical traditions. Post-colonial thought itself has created a sort of distant idea as far as the origins and praxis of Indian classical art is considered. This to me is a huge fallacy – for example, when you’re listening to Kun Faaya Kun, you’re hearing the amalgamation of 3-4 traditions, all of which have combined over time. It is in no way linear.

The scary part is, the Natya Shastra is the only acceptable treatise in the study of aesthetics as far as the Indian subcontinent is concerned. Just one book for the arts in the land of ‘unity in diversity.’ Make of that what you will.

Featured image for representation purpose only.
Source: Suyash Dwivedi/Wikimedia Commons.
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