Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Ever Changing Tradition of Bharatanatyam, Part 3

So how does a tradition like bharatanatyam change?

It is no secret that bharatanatyam is perceived as an ancient tradition,generally noted by most that the roots of bharatanatyam may be traced back a few thousand years, to the temples where it is thought to originate. For the most part, people are under the impression that much of the style has remained preserved (but not unchanged) since. Most classical dances – and most definitely, bharatanatyam, refer to the Natyashastra by Bharata and Abhinavagupta’s writing on rasa theory to provide evidence of the form’s adherence to what is considered traditional. Much weight is also placed on the margam structure set up by the Thanjavur court in the 19th century, which dictates the order and the types of pieces performed during a show. These elements combined with the expected visual/music aspects are what was, in the past, crucial to being considered a traditional artist.

The present, however, is a different story. Tradition itself is ever-changing, (just as all things are) but what makes changes within tradition special is the inherent perception that it is unchanged. Thus, change within tradition must happen subtley and imperceptibly, creeping up on people without the realization of it happening. Tradition, as defined by a google search, pops up as “a specific practice of long standing”, and in Wikipedia, “tradition is presumed to be ancient, unalterable, and deeply important…”

So then, how does tradition within Indian classical dance change? Richard Schechner* proposes that this change, in Eastern theater, is based on the older performers. To summarize, a young performer spends years training under an older practitioner and repeating the pieces the way he/she has been taught them, changing absolutely nothing. Eventually, as the young artist grows, their reputation becomes associated with the form itself, their very essence deemed part of the tradition. Once they themselves have become an older practitioner, they introduce changes to structure and form that go by relatively unnoticed because of their perceived status. These incredibly new ideas are then passed down to a young student and saved into the repertoire forever altering the tradition. (Schechner) Bharatanatyam, with its guru-shishya approach to teaching and primarily solo style of performance, follows this pattern.

Because bharatanatyam is primarily a solo dancer tradition, it is the famous ones that are looked to for guidance into the future. The four major solo artists in India now, as noted by are Alarmel Valli, Priyadarshani Govind, Mallavika Sarukkai, and Rama Vaidhyanathan; and each have their way of exhibiting how global pressures have changed the solo style.

*Schechner, Richard. Between Theater and Anthropology. NYU. Print.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Ever Changing Tradition of Bharatanatyam, Part 2

Which types of audience members expect what and why?

Westerners love to watch “traditional” Indian classical dance – the kind that they assume can be traced back thousands of years. There seems to be some sort of psychological intrigue there, to watch what they perceive as another culture’s virtually unchanged identity. Whatever the case may be, the parameters of a successful performance to them are those that maintain the image of tradition. In parallel, they expect these performances to run within the parameters of certain Western standards such as time and structure of performances. With an eye on expanding into this unexposed market, artists are watchful of these desires.

The Indians within the global diaspora, however, control the economy of the artist: they are the ones who sponsor the tours that in turn bring artists the money to live comfortably in India. (O’Shea*) To these non-resident Indians, known as NRIs, the Indian classical arts speak enormously to their heritage and reaffirm and preserve their cultural processes. (Lopez y Royo***, Pillai**) As such, they, too, demand traditional performances with as little change as possible to the norm that they are aware of. A conversation with the Indo-American Council and Religious Foundation in New Jersey confirmed this. The board members stated that one of the few times they brought a dancer and her troupe from India with a recognizably contemporary style, patrons returned to them afterwards complaining of the show’s lack of traditionalism and hoped the IACRF would no longer bring such artists. With the amount of money and performance opportunities these wealthy patrons provide, performers of Indian classical dance again find a strong tug towards the traditional framework.

NRIs also make sure to train their children in the classical arts, who themselves cite that they cherish the form not because of its aesthetic beauty but for the simple means of keeping in touch with their heritage. This is not enough, however, for first generation children to continue patronage of such arts as they grow up, apparent from the aging audience at classical dance shows these days. So artists must address this issue in their performances as well.

Indians within India also run along the same thread of thought. While modern and contemporary dance is becoming more accepted, many Indians still view hybridity of forms and innovation within the field with suspicion (Lopez y Royo***). For instance, at a recent viewing of Tejas by Malini Srinivasan here and Manhattan, the troupe changed into some mohiniattam style clothng that was wound around their front and tied in the back, revealing a decent amount of skin. While still modest, it was more revealing than patrons were used to and I immediately herd some elderly ladies make some judgmental comments about the costume. So while people seem to enjoy innovation, it is a very fine line artists must tread.

As Lopez y Royo*** states, there is a great deal of contemplation as to what will happen to the form without this allowance for more modernity within the field. This polarizing duality makes for artists who struggle endlessly to place bharatanatyam firmly in a globalized context with new innovations and ideas in order to create sustainability while remaining within a static framework to continue to receive patronage.

This is the major influence shaping the way this tradition is perceived; the attempts to reach broader, larger, and more diverse audiences by remaining "classical" while still "innovating" directing the course of the changes. It is a fact that outside pressures will always create a change in tradition, and in this case, I posit that it is the struggle for sustainability and relevance in this globalizing world that are the determining factors.

* O' Shea, Janet. At Home in the World: Bharata Natyam on the Global Stage. Boston: Wesleyan, 2007. Print.

** Pillai, Shanti. "Rethinking Global Indian Dance through Local Eyes: The contemporary bharatanatyam scene in Chennai." Dance Research Journal. Print.

*** Lopez y Royo, Alessandra. "Issues in Dance Reconstruction: Karanas as Dance Texts in a Cross-Cultural Context." Dance Research Journal 36/2 (2004): 64-79. Print.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Ever Changing Tradition of Bharatanatyam, Part 1

I've spoken about this before: how fifty years ago, the Indian classical dance scene became inextricably linked with India’s fight for independence. How the ensuing nationalistic fervor blossomed into a massive cultural overhaul with Indian classical dance at the forefront. Suddenly, Bharatanatyam** found itself in the middle of a huge reconstructionist and revivalist phase. Indians who had never thought twice about the devadasi establishment were now ardent supporters of the art and it quickly came to be that every well-cultured girl trained extensively in classical dance. Attendance for performances skyrocketed and the new government supported classical dance endeavors wholeheartedly through fiscal support for classes, concerts, and festivals. This drastic rise resulted almost immediately in an overvaluation of the form (*Coorlawala), the results of which are just now rippling through the world.

This issue is this: now, as nationalistic feelings slowly fizzle and fade post the independence movement, so too is the people’s love for the form. Bharatanatyam classes are now slowly being replaced by Bollywood dance lessons, bharatanatyam performances by bhangra competitions, and so on. Yet the number of professional classical dancers are growing: as Anita Ratnam wrote once, the world is “drowning…drowning in a deluge of [Indian classical] dancers” (personal email). The sudden boom and bust bore weighty consequences: the world currently faces a glut of highly trained performers and dancers in both India and the US who look with apprehension towards the ever-decreasing market share for Indian classical dance. With no foreseeable sustainability of the art and without the same nationalistic passion associated with them, traditional artists struggle to maintain their importance and relevancy in this globalizing world.

So exactly how do they do that?

The pressures artists face are polarizing: they must keep audiences interested using fresh innovations while maintaining the image of tradition; they must expand into larger global audiences who have no knowledge of bharatanatyam while still maintaining its complexities. They must satisfy the demands of the Westerner, unknowledgeable about the Indian arts; to the Indian in India, who can no longer find the relevance in classical dance; and the Indian abroad, searching for a tie back to their home: for these are the people who rule the artists’ future and thus, the future of the form.

In order to explain this phenomena, I have broken up the theory as such:

1. Outlining what each kind of audience members expect.
2. How bharatanatyam changes as a tradition.
3. How these audience influences create a change in tradition.
4. What other changes they have created.

Some of these posts will hopefully also be useful on their own!

*Coorlawala, Uttara. "The Sanskritized Body." Dance Research Journal 36/2 (2004): 50-63. Print.
**I never know if I should capitalize bharatanatyam or not...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Nayika Reversal

Set to Aankhon Mein Tu Hai by Penn Masala.
Danced by Aishwarya Iyer, Sindhu Sundar, and myself.
Description: In this wonderful twist on the traditional padam, the dancers play men who can't seem to catch the attention of the women they adore.

The concept here was to really utilize the medium of film to explain the story line in a less stylized and more accessible manner. We'll see how that flies.

And, just to give a little credit to my dancers - we had to dance on twigs and stones in the dappled-sunlight tree scenes.  Never doing that again.