An excerpt from ‘Indian Dancers’ by Sarojini Naidu
In 1905, against the backdrop of a renewed nationalist fervour, political and civil rights activist Sarojini Naidu published her first book of poetry: The Golden Threshold. Among the several poems in this collection was the one titled ‘Indian Dancers’, extolling the ornamented dancing women and their tender movements. The early 20th century was a time when the cultural identity of India as a ‘nation’ was being actively constructed in the public sphere. While the attempt was stated as one to ‘revive’ the lost glory of ‘Indian civilisation’ in the wake of imperial erasure, what was ultimately revived was not ‘Indian culture and civilisation’ but the culture of the upper-caste, affluent Indians, who represented and still represent a minority in the country. The dancers Naidu talks about are mere ornamental figures of speech, geared towards this so-called revivalist project. Naidu doesn’t tell us what they have to say. She doesn’t tell us who they are and where they belong. She doesn’t tell us if they dreamt of the same India as her.
The Indian Ministry of Culture recognises, prominently eight classical dance forms – Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Sattriya, Manipuri and Mohiniyattam, which are considered a prominent cultural asset of the country. Most other dance forms in the country fall under the banner of ‘folk dances’. Classical dances are mostly identified through their regional associations. Bharatnatyam is associated with the state of Tamil Nadu, Kathak with Uttar Pradesh, Kathakali and Mohiniattam with Kerala, Kuchipudi with Andhra Pradesh, Odissi with Odisha, Sattriya with Assam, Manipuri with Manipur, and so on. While most classical dances bear regional associations, their history of caste-based appropriation and continuing tradition of caste-exclusiveness is nationwide.
Prior to the consolidation of a regional-identity of classical dances, the Indian dance scene was dominated by ‘nautch girls’ or devadasis and courtesans or tawaifs. Devadasis were mostly trained by men and were temple dancers who occasionally received royal patronage. Tawaifs, at the same time, performed in predominantly North Indian courts, while the Devadasi culture was more dominant in South Indian temple networks. These women mostly belonged to the lower-caste communities1. However, with the commencement of the anti-nautch movement in the 1890s, jointly led by the British and the Indian upper-caste, affluent social reformers, devadasis and tawaifs came to be labelled as ‘prostitutes’ and the expression of their art-form severely curtailed. By the 1920s, the anti-nautch movement had taken up a communal character, with a strong bid to expunge temple-dancing as a way of reforming brahmanical hinduism. The movement was endorsed by eminent Indian reformers like Keshaub Chandra Sen and R. Venkataratnam Naidu, who was the first elected Indian vice chancellor of the Madras University, and claimed: “Her [meaning the dancing girl's] blandishments are India's ruin. Alas her smile is India's death.” The construction of devadasis as prostitutes mostly happened in the courts, specifically in the Madras High Court, where devadasis were painted as a separate ‘dancing girl caste’ of ‘professional prostitutes’. The Indian Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864 and 1868 further painted these women deemed as prostitutes as carriers of venereal diseases, further marginalising them from the public sphere.
Expunged of dancing girls and courtesans, the dominant Indian dance scene now came to be dominated by the proponents of ‘Classical Indian Dance’. But how was this dance form different from the one of temple-dancers and courtesans? It was different in the sense that it looked back at ancient upper-caste brahmanical texts like Natyashastra, for legitimacy. The regional dance styles were traced back to the 'Natyashastra tradition', thus establishing a historical continuity. Pallabi Chakravorty, in her article, ‘Hegemony, Dance and Nation: The Construction of Classical Dance in India’ argues that, “The revival of classical dance in India marked the historic moment when it was appropriated by the bourgeois elite from its original practitioners, was textualised and canonised in the guise of authoritative knowledge, and elevated to the classical status.” She calls this a deliberate act of erasure, led by the likes of Rukmini Devi Arundale, who founded Kalakshetra (a prestigious national institution of dance in south India). Arundale played a key role in constructing Bharatnatyam as a male Brahmanical tradition, by selectively employing male upper-caste dance teachers in Kalakshetra. In the north, institutions like Bhartiya Kala Kendra popped up, aimed at establishing the male brahmanical legacy of Kathak. These male teachers were upper-caste, western-educated Brahmans, some of whom, like Krishna Iyer, were also nationalist leaders in the Congress.
This appropriation was not merely in terms of ‘appropriation of space’ but also of costumes, movements and customs. A number of composition genres within Bharatnatyam, for example, padam or varnam as well as costumes, bells, etc., allude to those worn by Dalit courtesans and devadasis. A number of skits also involve Brahmin dancers dressing up as devadasis, while the actual Dalit dancers are marginalised.
These dance forms were further textualised and canonised by nationalist art historians like Coomaraswamy and Raghavan as well as by poets like Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore’s Shantiniketan soon became a hub of classical dancers and those who wished to promote them as worthy professions among the upper-middle class circles in Bengal. This canonisation movement finally culminated in the establishment of national ‘Akademies’ from 1953. The Sangeet Natak Akademi for music, theatre, and dance; Lalit Kala Akademi for art; and Sahitya Akademi for literature are few such initiatives, which are presently under the aegis of the central government – their official patron.
With the establishment of the brahmanical legacy of dance, the ‘gharana’ or the ‘gurukul’ system or the system of hereditary lineage strengthened, and patriarchal families claiming to be true practitioners of ‘classical Indian dance’ emerged.
But all the while, what happened to the dances that didn’t receive the title of ‘classical’? This can be well explained through the example of Lavani, which underwent a similar process of repression.
Lavani can be understood as a folk performative art involving theatre, dance, and music – each strand having its own social implications and historical trajectory. Overtime, Lavani became associated with catchy beats, energetic dance moves, and erotic undertones. The erotic form of lavani, called the shringarik lavani, particularly gained prominence during the Peshwa rule in the 18th century Maharashtra, and was mainly performed by women slaves employed in natakshalas or dance houses.
With the Peshwa’s surrender to the British, lavani came to be relegated to mostly rural areas; coupled with the rise of a middle class and more sanitised form of marathi theatre; the tamasha theatre or the folk theatre involving lavani was thus marginalised. There also occurred a rift in the tamasha tradition and the form of tamasha associated with lavani developed into the sangeet baree tradition over time. Sangeet baree tradition was mostly dominated by women from the Kolahati caste who embodied a distinct matriarchal culture. With the growth in Marathi talkies around the 1930s, the performance of lavani in theatre was further marginalised, with many lavani performers opting to perform in films instead.
In the 1940s, with the Bombay state’s imposition of a ban on the performance of tamasha, citing the ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ nature of lavani, a number of sangeet baree performers sanskritised and sanitised their tradition and renamed themselves as ‘soubhagyavati sangeet barees’ or sangeet barees meant for pious wives. In the 1960s, with the further expansion in the Marathi cinema, lavani performers were often left with no option other than performing in films, where the directors encouraged them to perform in an overtly sexual manner. Many double entendres of sexual nature also came to objectify lavani performers. Over time, with the growth in Bollywood, elements of lavani tradition were adopted into Hindi cinema, particularly in item numbers. However, most of these item numbers were now performed by upper caste and at times even white women, while lavani performers were relegated to local performance spaces.
Presently, around 15,000 artists including singers, dancers, composers, and technicians presently depend on lavani for their livelihood. According to a recent report, the pandemic and the subsequent restrictions on public performances have severely threatened their modes of income. Many of them have been forced to borrow money from private moneylenders at exorbitant interest rates in order to stay afloat. Eyewitness accounts suggest that banks and government officials show a persistent hesitancy in granting them interest-free loans and grants. While classical dance performers have been able to generate income from online dance tutorials and classes, a similar concept does not exist in the field of folk dance like lavani which is mostly performance-based and lacks an audience willing to learn, given the stigma and stereotypes attached to it.
At the same time, existing casteist biases, make it difficult for dancers from the Dalit community to train in classical dances. In 2020, a Dalit practitioner of Mohiniattam committed suicide, for the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi did not allow them to perform for belonging to the Dalit community. In another instance, a Bharatnatyam dancer belonging to the Dalit community was labelled a ‘bad dancer’, solely because they belonged to a lower caste.
In today’s globalised world, the mention of an Indian form of dance only brings up images of item songs, bhangra and at most – Kathak. These are the images of a culture embodied by upper-caste, middle and upper class Indian immigrants, particularly in the West. The exploitative history of this culture, however, struggles to be even acknowledged in the discourse within the country itself, let alone in the west. The overt glorification of Indian culture overlooks the many ways in which it represents a particular category of India, while marginalising the others. Thus, I believe that instead of seeing Asian cultures as sacrosanct monoliths, it is essential to look for hierarchies of oppression within them.
1 Caste-system is a system of social division based on hereditary-occupation, it stems from the traditional varna order, where Brahmans or the priestly class occupy the highest rank in the social order, followed by Kshatriyas or the warrior class and further the trading or merchant class of Vaishyas. Shudras occupy the lowest rungs of the social hierarchy. Each Varna subsumes multiple castes and sub-castes with their internal hierarchies. The lower-castes or the Shudras/Untouchables (referred to as Dalits in the modern discourse) have been subject to discrimination and ostracisation for centuries coupled with restrictions on their access to certain public spaces.