From the Guest Author: To throw stones at Tradition

Subhalakshmi Kumar responds to Bharatanatyam: Present and future at the hands of NRIs
– Prathiba Natesan published in

This write-up, I am aware was also sent to Narthaki.. the complete article as it was sent to us is presented here.

I asked myself if it was worth rebutting particular author in Narthaki who in her article ‘Bharatanatyam: Present and future at the hands of NRIs’ seems to be confused between criticizing Indian classical arts and its ‘stagnant’ point of view and watching several “several jaw-dropping, wonderful performances in Dallas and Houston”. Someone who thinks “Natya Shastra has provided us a wealth of information and is THE book every dancer should read” but at the same time alleges the book to be

  1.  outdated and irrelevant for modern women “was written between 2nd century BC and 2nd century CE and views on women are as outdated as some of our old texts”” why are we still defining women based on the Ashtanayikas?
  2. Possessing chauvinistic ideas of portraying women as boring and repetitive actions “who long, pine, and suffer for their lords (yes, we don’t even call them men, but lords).”

The old texts refer to ancient scriptures that are alleged to

  1. “classify humans based on caste”
  2. “propagate the theory of creationism”

She alleges practitioners of these ‘stagnant’ concepts to

  1. Scared to try something new “clinging to it for dear life?”

To put the author in perspective, she

  1. “wish(es) Bharatanatyam was truly evolving on all fronts”
  2. Thinks “artistes like Uttara Coorlawala and Anita Ratnam seem to have taken evolution to a new level”
  3. Thinks traditional dance evolution is about “incorporate(ing) interesting and different movements in their dances to add dynamism – an excellent example of evolution”
  4. Equates not asking questions to not evolving, which causes us to “label anything that does not conform to these values as ‘fusion’ or ‘modern.”
  5. She “does not believe in religion”, “neither (is she) traditional”. Yet she “cannot bear to watch kids wearing their salangais along with their sandals in auditoriums”
  6. Thinks “Living in the western society frees our barriers and opens new horizons”
  7. Thinks “dancers in the true sense (are) creators and practitioners of an art form whose boundaries they should push”
  8. Thinks “experiment(s will) help Bharatanatyam reach new heights”

She boldly asks the purists “who will retort that the “lord” represents “truth” and the pining is the search for truth, my response is: Is this the only metaphor you can think of for 2200 years of imagination?”  I am a purist. I should be offended by these remarks and should write a point to point rebuttal of her very valid questions. After all, if you stop questioning, you stop evolving. I do need to help her evolution because I live in the western society. I want to free her from barriers and open new horizons for her.

In a larger context, I want to do the same for many pseudo-intellectuals who want to ask questions not in an inquisitive sense but in a derogatory sense. They want to hold onto Bharatanatyam and Kathak for their lives but at the same time want to “explore and experiment” and “push the boundaries” and be “modern”.

I will answer in order of hierarchical importance of the entity being questioned. Let us start with the Vedas and the Upanishads or the author’s language “other texts.” You are disgusted by the fact that among other things it classifies humans based on castes! I gently remind you that it was not meant to be a discriminatory classification but a division of labor. Natya Shastra In particular was created because lower castes (Shudras) were not entitled to listen to the four Vedas (Sama, Yajur, Rig and Atharav), Brahma created the Natya Shastra as the fifth Veda which was open to all, irrespective of caste and creed. When Brahma himself wants the Shudras (like you and me who are not entitled to learn the vedas) to learn the Vedas and goes on to create a fifth one for our benefit, why do you think he was intrinsically being discriminatory? A lot has been written about the castes and their socio-economic importance in production in yesteryears, I urge you to increase your knowledge about the same.

Vedas propagate the “theory of creationism”. As someone who has dabbled with what Vedas and recent quantum physics say about creation which is nothing like the creationist argument in traditional sense from the Bible.

According to the Vedas creation is said to start from a state which was ‘neither non-existent nor existent…..All that existed then was void and formless

According to one of several explanations from quantum physics in which Schrodinger’s famous cat can be in a state of existence and non-existence at the same time, vacuum fluctuations can result in materializing of objects. Please read and related answers from Astronomers from Cornell.

Let us turn to the concept of ardhanarishwara which you thought was about gender equality but realized later that was actually demeaning women. As tempting it is to turn feminist to ascertain yourself as a modern woman, please give some credit to practitioners of arguably the oldest and the only continuous ancient civilization on this planet, your ancestors. Being a modern free woman,  you probably believe Oppenheimer more readily than Adi Shankara when it comes to extolling the primal creative force in nature, Shakti.

When he was asked what he was thinking when Robert Oppenheimer first witnessed tests of atomic explosion at Los Alamos, according to Dean Brown he said “I was thinking of the dance of Shakti”. Now, Shakti can be destructive like Shiva, can’t she? Isn’t that form also revered as Kali? But when energy dances with her legs up in the air, she cannot be used for constructive purposes. Energy has to be controlled and presentable like a demure goddess when aspired to be used for creation. Hence destructive and constructive energy, order and disorder, life and death co-exists which are a constant dynamic reality of the universe. Now can you stop thinking about gender inequality and see what ardhanarishwara might stand for in a liberal society?

The literal meaning of gender equality, of course, is consistent. But metaphorically it transcends what looks like mundane realities of life, gender and sexuality.

Now to your next question about the concepts in NatyaShastra. Why do we cling to Ashtanayikas who long, pine, and suffer for their lords (yes, we don’t even call them men, but lords)? I am about to talk about the metaphors involved but you have intelligently asked “Is this only metaphor you can think of for 2200 years of imagination?”  The answer is no. It is the only metaphor you can think of. We can think of many. Here is some for sample. The Atma (heroine) and the Brahman (hero) can be one and the same. That would be the case of your trivially put “a woman who is an intellectual equal of the man”. This philosophy is called advaitam. The heroine can be equal to the hero but still long for his union. This is called vishistadvaitam. The heroine can be imperfect and the man can be perfect and she can then want to bring that perfection in her life. This is called dvaitam. The heroine can decide to be a single mother. This is called nastika and is also given due acknowledgement in philosophy of sanatana dharma unlike Catholicism or Islam. The heroine is in many cases, ‘a courtesan’. She definitely brings her income (albeit not bacon) home.  If you think there are no Nayaka classifications, that is untrue. If you think the Nayaka does not pine for the nayika I plead you to familiarize yourself with Geetagovindam, Ramayanam or Shakuntalam. Choose your metaphors of lord from polytheism, from monotheism, from a-theism or advaita, of stories in form of andromorphic gods like Shiva/Vishnu/Skanda or natural forces like the universe and all parallel galaxies, the ocean, the rivers or abstract theoretical concepts like Brahman! These different philosophies are all based on the Vedas and upanishads. It is called Isomorphic metaphysics. Above all, if you decide none of this suits your contemporary spiritual thought, you can change any of these into your own ideals according to changing times. Bharata says so in the ending chapter NatyaShastra. When everything in Sanatana Dharma and Natya Shastra is so liberal, encompassing, poetic and speaks to you at so many levels, I fail to understand what your contention is. If your contention is that Bharata did not explicitly write about Feminist ideas, its probably because it is not a emotional state but an intellectual one. It was probably not necessary when our community was more liberal than it is today after European/Middle eastern cultural invasions.

If your argument like that of T.M. Krishna is that these concepts are outdated because they were written in 2nd century B.C, then I ask why do you practice this art form? Why not take some allied art form or even turn into a classical-contemporary artist? The Natya Shastra is very clear about why it was formed. To propagate the teachings of Vedas to those not entitled to listen to it. If you are not religious, why take up the art form? And if you choose to take it up in spite of not being religious, why question the relevance of why it was created. It is like counting the teeth of a gifted horse. You should be, if anything, grateful for borrowing what is unambiguously a Hindu religious tradition like the Yoga and Bharatanatyam and using it for propagating what we graciously consider isomorphic forms of divinity. Female rights, nature, and sexuality .Whatever it is you choose to portray in your ‘innovative, modern’ themes we consider it an alternate form of divinity as long as the message is constructive. You on the other hand are blindly incapable of acknowledging that divinity might be a relevant form of something contemporary. It is not us purists but the likes of contemporary artists like you who are close minded. The ones who believe they propagate modern themes but whose thinking is as close minded as the modern cubicle you work in when it comes to spirituality.

Indian arts are like a Banyan Tree. It gives shade to everyone who comes in looking for respite, it springs new roots and strengthens itself for everyone who wants to grow but there are some who want to have the shade while ridiculing its antiquity, questioning its usefulness and deriding the origin of this tree’s seed. It is unacceptable to hear allegations of this seed, this tree being cliché in the argument that people who question it push its boundaries and lead to evolution. You want to push boundaries, why don’t you come up with a calculation like one has never imagined before for a Teermanam? Why don’t you make up compositions in the longest Simhanandana Tala? Why not make up compositions in all 35 talas like Madurai Muralidharan has instead of coming with new dynamic steps in clichéd 4 beats? Why not present the same “Sakhiye” Varnam in a never before like interpretation such that a critic who has seen it a million times finds something fresh there? Why not perform a Thillana purely with mandi adavus or with proper yettadavu instead of walking around and giving poses? Why do you go in search of new steps when you have not mastered an ounce of what our great masters had vision for? What gives you this impunity to call people who understand what they are doing with traditional compositions as being stagnant? It is not okay to silently push these ideas away. If the future of Bharatanatyam and Kathak lies in half baked propaganda of such modern thinkers, I fear for it.

For someone who is knowledgeable, every constraint is a challenge above which he rises while simultaneously not crossing the boundary. It is not because we don’t want to cross the boundary that we don’t; it is because we choose not to. If you would understand an ounce of what lies in the inexhaustible Indian literature and scriptures, you would be humbled to even try what is traditional. That is what we mean when we say do not question. We do not mean to say you are forbidden to be inquisitive. We forbid you to throw stones when you live in a glass house of inadequate knowledge.

Subhalakshmi Kumar is a student and performer Bharatanatyam while pursuing PhD in University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.


2 responses to “From the Guest Author: To throw stones at Tradition

  1. I didnt read the original piece but can very well gauge the contentions from the well written reply. Why NS all shastras are out of date! The important point is that they were documentations which were essentially descriptive and not prescriptive. They should be interpreted in the present context to accommodate present predicaments. For example is there a Karana for a lady talking on the mobile or loading clothes in to a washing machine? It can be devised and NS allows this.

    The boundaries are our own creations. They can be stretched infinitely and it is not against tradition. And there are no water tight compartments eg Ashtanayikas are just a classification of innumerable human possibilities. If you wrote a treatise you can have ashtadasha Nayikas depending on the depth of analysis and classification.

    Simhanadana is not required! If you can perform well for 4 beats, thats good enough. Rasa is the essence, Rest is all intellectual antics. But exclusivity in the name of tradition should be carefully avoided in performing arts. I appreciate the involvement and the commitment of these young writers in their arguments. They would do well to re-read and reinterpret the shastras in their present context 🙂

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