British Bharathanatyam – ever heard of it???

Here is an article that caught my eye…

As a student of Nalanda Nritya Kala Mahavidyalaya, we learnt Bharatanatyam as a cultural, spiritual and aesthetic form, along with its desi/margi1 histories, that although Bharatanatyam is a solo classical dance originating from Tamilnadu, a state within South India, it was part of a pan-Indian history because of its links with Sanskrit language and history.

This double history, including the regional (Tamil) and the pan-Indian (Sanskrit) is communicated visually in each and every performance of Bharatanatyam, performed in India and also in the world at large. The form is easily identifiable because of its stylistic features. These include the half-sitting posture (araimandi), bent elbows with palms facing downwards, costumes (a silk dhoti for men and a kanchivaram silk sari stitched as a fan-costume for women), mnemonic syllables (sollukattu) and the accompanying poetic texts composed in several South Indian Carnatic ragas.

But why is Indian Bharatanatyam called as ‘British South Asian dance’? Perhaps enrolling in the MA South Asian Dance Studies at Roehampton University would help me understand the differences between Indian and British Bharatanatyam. The term, ‘South Asian Dance’ coming into circulation and Indian dancers performing Bharatanatyam today in the UK being described as South Asian dancers are some of the questions I wish to explore in this particular essay. …

Bharatanatyam practised in the temples and in the various community centres was associated with a strong ethnic and religious allegiance. Such a religious allegiance had no scope for providing Bharatanatyam with a professional status in the main stream venues. In the mainstream venues such as Sadler’s Wells and South Bank theatre, Bharatanatyam is called as contemporary dance. Bharatanatyam is articulated by dancers through the western notions of classicism. In order to be a part of the native British public arena, Bharatanatyam had to undergo massive changes in the music, costumes, vocabulary, stagecraft and the themes which could fulfill the interests of not only Indian audiences but also attract a wider south Asian and British audience. This pressure for Bharatanatyam practitioners in Britain to engage with hybridity and meet western standards of performance led to the creation of provocative work (Lopez, 2004).

I shall conclude this essay with an interesting narrative from my own experience as a professional dancer in the UK. For my Bharatanatyam performance slated for a Sri Lankan diasporic community, I was asked to perform only Tamil compositions such as Adum Chidambaramo,23 Manatil uruthi vendum24 and Srinivasa Thiruvenkatamudaiya25 and the very word Bharatanatyam’ is spelt with a ‘th’ (Bharathanatyam) in the invitation thus laying a trenchant emphasis on its regional identity. In the week after, for my Bharatanatyam performance for a wider south Asian diasporic audience at the Church Wilson Hall in north London, I was requested to perform to the lyrics of India’s national anthem ‘Vande mataram‘ thus laying emphasis on Bharatanatyam’s pan-Indianness. For a contemporary Bharatanatyam performance at the South Bank theatre in London, the very English theme was ‘No male egos.’ Bharatanatyam in the UK does not just have one identity but many. It does not belong to one Indian diasporic community but to many. And the professional dancer in order to survive and flourish must learn to negotiate this landscape of shifting meanings, and histories in the UK.

Read the full version of this article in Narthaki by Shrikant Subramaniam , who is currently pursuing his MA degree in South Asian dance studies at the University of Roehampton. The above article was a part of his MA module entitled ‘South Asian Dance’ in global diaspora in the UK.

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