Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The tradition problematic

"Bharatanatyam is thousands of years old."

This is the statement I grew up hearing, embedding itself deep into my consciousness. Bharatanatyam, as I was told, was the most wonderful, traditional, beautiful art you could practice. It had strong ties to Indian culture (particularly important to me, an Indian growing up in the US), encompassed the deeply spiritual ideas that had come to define India, and likewise (according to those around me) had subtleties and complexities that raised it above any other art form in the world. I walked around proudly boasting of the style to others, fascinated with the long standing ritual of it all. Though I personally loved all art forms, none seemed greater to me than bharatanatyam.

And it was from this seed that confusion stemmed. One sharp look at history skewed all I knew and loved about the form.

Imagine my shock when I found out the costume I wore was no more than 50 years old, the broken lineage a result of India's war for independence. The word bharatanatyam itself was created was in the 1950's to separate and cleanse itself of its connections to sadir and prostitution. Scholars, now, put bharatanatyam under the category of invented traditions, noting it as a reconstruction from a past Indians could not know much about rather than a sacred tradition passed down from generation to generation. Worse still is that 99% of teachers will tell you that bharatanatyam has an unbroken lineage going back 3000-5000 years. The Natyashastra, the treatise to which dancers look to in order to determine traditionality, is only 1500-2000 years old...

I am aware that this is something addressed time and time again by other researchers and artists (Avanthi Meduri's "Bharatanatyam - Where are you?" article is a fantastic example) but it is still an issue entangled so fiercely into my questioning that I must restate it again. In fact, this phenomena is probably why I became so obsessed with dance research in the first place. As such, it is an appropriate first topic for me to write about, and one that I will write about several more times, if only because it results in questions that just won't go away no matter how many times and from what angles I approach them.

The more I learned about the history of our "tradition", the ideas I held so dear soon became part of a constant questioning process: if we're going back 2000 years to books about rasa theory and, more specifically, the Natyashastra, to prove that we are following tradition, why should I bother with what I've been taught? Why not work purely off the treatises written then? And then, why is it so important to retain this imagery of tradition? If Rukmini Devi, a significant revivalist of bharatanatyam, had so many codifications and restrictions to the form as to remove it from the way it was originally practiced why did no one notice and speak up about it then? Why are we so obsessed with calling it ancient and tracing it back thousands of years? Is there a way to make a decision as an artist without considering the idea of traditionality, and without imposing yourself as "for" or "against" tradition? What of the costuming, the glitzy symbolism of ages past - is it simply empty symbolism, devoid of meaning? If so, where does its importance lie? Why do we find that we value so highly a knowledge of the past in our dance? Why does it matter if I innovate? What exactly is tradition? - as it is obviously ever-changing and based on a perceived truth of the past.

Often, I have no answers to these questions. But you begin to see how all of them are rooted in what I like to call, "The Tradition Problematic". For many, it is easy to ignore and claim that it doesn't require a closer look, or that it doesn't require such intense analysis. For me, though, I must root away and poke and prod until I've satisfied my curiosity and determined the who, what, when, where, how, and, most importanly why. Blame the mathematician in me.

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