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.

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