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 Narthaki.com 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.