Last week at New York City Indian dance community meeting (http://groups.google.com/group/nycindiandance) we came back with great gusto to an age-old debate.
What can you define as bharatanatyam or Indian classical dance?
(On a side note, I wonder if musicians ever struggle with this identity crisis. I feel it is far more accepted for them to experiment with their instruments than it is for us to go outside our box of technique).
Many, many classical dancers burn with an unmistakable fury towards troupes that claim training in a classical form and do not execute basic steps with any accepted sense of technique. To understand better, imagine if you saw someone who said she was a classically trained ballet dancer but didn't really point her toes.
Multiply that fury by a zillion if they are a popular troupe. Exponentiate that by a bajillion if they are not only popular but also a Bollywood troupe.
But why? As a classical dancer, it's difficult to remain calm in the face of people we believe are misrepresenting the form, often in a way that's neither true to the style (as defined by qualified exponents) nor aesthetically pleasing to watch. It's no small fact that there are hundreds of poorly trained dancers around the world under the impression that they are professional level (and as far as I know, I might fall under this category!) and thousands that think they have some knowledge about the form and can haphazardly add it into any dance piece. Throw that into the mix with a diminishing and uneducated audience and you can understand how much of our community feel that these dancers and artists are to blame for some of our marginalization. A younger version of myself would have written 35,000 posts by now on the unacceptable nature of such antics. However, I now subscribe to the following statement
Rajika Puri made a very valid point in our meeting: it is up to us to define bharatanatyam - or any other classical dance. Really, one of the only things you can do is put your work up, espouse your beliefs, and the people will decide. Each of us puts our own definition of bharatanatyam out there and eventually a consensus is come to.
I think that's part of why dancers get so upset. For every person who has good classical technique in their claim to fame, there are ten who could generally be said to have an unacceptable level of technique. So, just by pure numbers, dancers with fabulous technique get less of an audience. With the greater bulk of people in the world believing that classical dance is best danced by those without technique, and often shunning classical dance due to this, there is a fear that the consensus - and definition of bharatanatyam - will change in a less desirable direction.
I don't believe that the frustration towards this phenomena is not justified or wasted, as it is partly what changes the definition - when educated artists get fired up and passionate about what it is or isn't and share that opinion with others. I do believe that we cannot cut ourselves off from what we do not like within the South Asian arts field or belittle it as the best way to change it is to support each other and accept that people will watch what they like, while also making sure to expose them to as many different works as possible - and then let them decide. Because frankly, troupes lacking technique are popular because people simply don't know much better.
Education, education, education! It's like when you used to like boxed macaroni and cheese or boxed potatoes until you had that truffled mac n cheese and rosemary scalloped potatoes at that French restaurant down the street that's been there forever but for some reason you just never tried. You finally realize what you've been missing! Yes, you'll still eat that boxed food - but your mouth still waters just thinking upon the memory of those perfectly sauced ingredients.