Thursday, October 4, 2012

108 letters to the editor

The launch of my Bharathanatyam Guru Shri Dhananjayan's latest book "108 letters to the editor" was very grand. But he  has a naivety that believes in fantastic things that is both charming and forbidding!   When he claims he built Kalakshetra brick by brick, he means the physical. He was among the students who lent a hand to the laborers who were creating infra structure at Kalakshetra when it moved from Theosophical society to its current space. Kalakshetra was solely "built" by RukminiDevi Arundale. Shri Dhananjayan left Kalakshetra in 1968 after a disagreement with her to build Bharathakalanjali brick by brick metaphorically. I decided to learn Bharathanatyam only to become a better school teacher and not to do arrangetram or perform on the stage. When he says he encouraged me to write and guided me to write reviews and reports in an impersonal style and do critical analysis of the performances without regard to the personal relationship of the artiste he means metaphorically. We agreed to disagree in discussions after my articles were published and still remained affectionate to each other. He  says my first review published in the Indian Express was written by him which got me into trouble with the artist's parents. My first review was that of the arrangetram of Priya Mahadevan (now Murle) which was written when The Dhananjayans were away touring Russia. After I had written some 300 reviews and articles, I said I would not like to review Tulsi Badrinath's arrangetram since I was the compere. Shri Dhanajayan wrote a review and sent it to express. The sealed cover without a name was delivered by a student of his. Indian Express gave my byline thinking it was me who had written it. I had written to them that it was not written by me. I am just clearing a confusion.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

again the Devadasi

It was lovely watching Shyamala, Balasaraswathy's disciple dancing Mohamana Varnam in Tiruvarur temple. Hats off to Ranvir for organising such a great event. There was also Saskia Karsenboom doing Abhinaya for nadaswaram and of course dear dear friend David Shulman's book on Tiruvarur Devasriya mantapam paintings released. Devesh Soneji and Saskia and Rajeswari Ghosh spoke about their own relationship to the temple of Tiruvarur. It is destiny that brought Gujarathi speaking Devesh and the Dutch Saskia to Tiruvarur temple.

Saskia writes that modern India did not allow Devadasis to continue their ritual duties. She is confusing between the culture of the Devadasi and the human rights issue that Dr,Muthulakshmi Reddy fought for. If archakas in a temple could lead normal family life and be employed in the temple why could the Devadasis not marry and become the other woman in another woman's life? It was the culture of dedicating the girls that Dr.Muthulakshmi Reddy fought against and Rukmini Devi had nothing to do with that. She of course went along with the upper caste idea of the bhoga dasis spoiling a married woman's life by claiming the affection of her husband. Rukmini devi saw the dance and wanted to learn it. She later added her own repertoire to the dance.
The other side should understand that the orientalists would have left the devadasi culture alone if there was no issue of bonded labour and extra marital relationships and no rights for inheritance and name of the father.
Every dancer gives to dance whatever she can and Rukmini devi gave her own samskara as did several Devadasis before her.

Friday, January 7, 2011


"A brief note is necessary to situate myself as a student of one of the hereditary families of non Brahmin musicians and dancers" writes Methew H.Allen in the book "Bharathanatyam - A Reader" edited by Devesh Soneji. "That Rukmini devi was an intimate participant in the disenfranchisement of a community of artists to which my teacher's family belongs must not blind me as a scholar to the fact that she was simultaneously a dedicated artist and organiser who inspired many thousands of young people to study and respect the artistic traditions of India". Actually, this should have been on the jacket of the book as the entire north American academic scholarship is blinded by this one fact. The book makes no critical enquiry into the fact that Bala and her brothers fame and glory was mainly because of the Madras Music Academy the most nationalistic institution, a direct result of the meeting of Indian National Congress populated by Brahmins and other upper caste men and largely due to the efforts of people like E.Krishna Iyer, V.Raghavan, Narayana Menon etc. These men played a great role in the coming out of Balasaraswathi on to the national and international stage and were instrumental in her getting the Sangeeta kalanidhi. This privilege was denied to lesser members of the community. There is no looking into who wrote Bala's essay, when did Bala start performing Krishna nee begane baro, what and how did she teach non Indians etc and how the proximity to the family coloured two generations of academic pursuit in North America. Rukmini Devi had her faults like every one else. Her disciples even more... But they decided to call their dance Bharathanatyam and not Sadir (OK the word was already there but they preferred using that as their dance was different from Sadir). The academia condemns Rukmini Devi for using the word Bharathanatyam and for dancing devotional pieces. Harikrishnan has advised Anita Ratnam to call her dance Neo Bharatham as it is not Bharathanatyam. The same logic can apply for Rukmini devi too. The academia in north America damned Rukmini Devi for calling her dance something else and for introducing new pieces. Why then did Bala not insist in calling her dance Sadir and not Bharathanatyam? Why did she not give her daughter the initial T? These and many more are questions that need looking into........ The academia in NA forgets we are many layered people and that we have something called Dashavataram and accept change and different view points and practices as part of our way of life.. The book does not look into the fact that Muthulakshmi Reddi was the product of a marriage between a Brahmin man and a woman from the Devadasi community. That she was closer to her maternal cousins than her paternal cousins. She had seen both the worlds and hence most qualified to speak on behalf of the Devadasis. She had no intention in taking away the dance and making it her own. She was only looking at the health issues involved in the fact that girls married to the God were having children and had no human right to choose. Girls from poor families adopted by devadasis were up for the highest bidder and became a cash cow for the older Devadasis. None of this is touched by the fundamentalist academia that wants to punch the Bharathanatyam practitioners from outside the community in the face just like the goons who went into a bar in Mangalore and punched girls drinking in a bar saying girls had no right to drink.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Guru Kittappa Pillai teaches a Bharathanatyam adavu korvai in the frontal position. Sishya Harikrishnan decides to turn it sideways and back. Wow! material for a future researcher of Bharathanatyam to look for a conspiracy theory. Doing away with Kittappa Pillai's dance?
Harikrishnan's decision to change the direction of the adavu has come from the changed ambience for his dance.You would not believe Srividya Natarajan, Harikrishnan and Narthaki Nataraj were the disciples of the same Guru. Srividya bounces with joy in her dance, stretching her fingers out into the beyond, Harikrishnan dances with his tummy forward, making every movement of his in the face, aggressive stress on a point of view. As aggressive as his oratory. Does this not disprove the theory that every Devadasi danced the same?

Conspiracy theories abound in the Bharathanatyam academia these days. The Tanjore quartet conspired to do away with Devadasi dance by creating the Margam, Rukmini Devi of course the ultimate villain who conspired to take away conjugal bliss from the dance, Ananda Coomaraswamy who took away the different forms of Siva by focusing on Nararaja. etc etc etc etc...... Why cont the academia also look at the original conspiracy theory where the upper caste men conspired to have their cake and eat it too in getting the temple to accept the Devadasi system? They could have a family approved family and also have a learned woman they could enjoy the company of, give her children but have no responsibility whatsoever! it is this that Dr.Muthulakshmi Reddy wanted to change. It is made out that it was the influence of orientalists and Brahmins that made Reddy work on this. But EVR Periyar supported her completely. The dravidian movement was with her. How come no one has studied this?

There is a romantic notion that the Devadasi was powerful and she was given lands etc but the upper caste men knew better. They made the God co owner of everything the Dasi owned that meant she could never sell anything. She just could live there with her many children and their children etc Always at the mercy of the temple trustees and priests.

Balasaraswathi was never a devadasi. her great grand mother had made the wise decision to move to Madras and so her family was not serving in any temple when Bala was born. So why is the North American academia so obsessed with proving Rukmini Devi the villain?

Change is the only constant thing but Wesleyan university's Ethnic musicology department still carries on with one point of view. That of just one family of dancers who were bitter that others were learning the dance they so guarded as their own. (It is the NRI mindset. Every Brahmin you meet in the US laments the reservation system and that non Brahmins are everywhere in India) Every family thinks they are the greatest. Sure they were great but their foreign trip and presentations outside the chamber concert of Veena Dhanammal was surely the result of the "revival" that was happening.

Monday, December 27, 2010

More on Devadasi vs Rukmini Devi...

Saskia Karsenboom gave two statements in her talk of deseating Nataraja from his wrongly exalted pedestal. She recalled a private joke of T.Shankaran (Balasaraswathi's cousin) "When Bala danced there is Bhakthi and when Rukmini danced there is Agarbatti". She also questioned the identity of the urban Indian Bharathanatyam dancer who has been wrongly told the varnam swamiye is talking about spirituality. "The identity should be Meenakshi. She is addressing Siva, seaking conjugal bliss". Ok granted. But then there is something called Swadharma in Indian tradition. Since that Meenakashi is expressing herself through the dancer's body which is in current time and is fed by current sensibilities and if this Meenakshi decides conjugal bliss is spiritual too. Who are we to question her?

Though she insisted it was a joke, her first statement brought focus to the Bala camp that North American academia wants everyone to belong to. They are some how against Rukmini Devi and Kalakshetra. Harikrishnan has the advantage of indulging in fanciful modern avant garte productions and invite people to the Bhoga mela dances and claim to be traditional. The north Americans get ears by their sheer orality and bombastic academic jargan.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Saskia Karsenboom, Devesh Soneji, Harikrishnan

Saskia Karsenboom, Devesh Soneji, Harikrishnan are the new policemen for the classical dance world. They tell you what we should like and dislike and they want to glorify the crime of dedicating young girls to temples and also the bhoga mela members. It is fine, guys if only it was out of choice of the girl. Did she have any say in what she was doing? What about her human rights? The upper caste men of the medieval ages made a cosy arrangement for themselves. They married their cousins when they were very young, had several kids by the time the girl was 16 and then they needed entertainment and sex. So they got the temple to supply to them girls who had been married to God and trained in the fine arts. They could be entertained with the finest music and dance and bodily pleasure and since the girls were wedded to the God, had no responsibility towards the children produced by this association. The children went in their mother's name and made do with whatever the father had gifted their mother. Dr.Muthulakshmi Reddy fought this system and got the Devadasi system outlawed. Then the dance was available to the wide world to interpret it and dance it without having to surrender rights of wifehood, motherhood etc.
Balasaraswathi, the crowning glory of the Devadasi line which claimed descent from the Rajarajeswaram of Tanjavur, had the advantage of belonging to a lineage, the revival scene and the Madras Music Academy to back her up. She never was a Devadasi. She was not married to a God and work in a temple. Bob Brown, a great lover of her dance, took her and her brothers to the US where she impacted hugely, the academia while Rukmini Devi Arundale, coming into the dance through the International route, impacted hugely, the practitioners here. The academia in North America finds fault with the nationalist movement, the dance revival, the use of Nataraja on the stage and they question the urban Indian dancer's right to dance and her identity. All of them are not native born to the Balasaraswathi tradition but claim to be the keepers of the tradition. I have not heard and seen such a paradox ever in my life. They dont like the Nataraja figure, they dont like English education, urban girls learning dance (they themselves are very urban and international). The British should not have ruled us, the education system should not have been there, Muthulakshmi Reddy's father should have just kept her mother (like many of his generation had done very respectably and not married her making her give the same rights her paternal cousins had to her maternal cousins) Then the North American academia would have been happy perhaps.

So Sir Devesh, Hari, Saskia madam, shall we revive the system of dedicating young girls to temples, create bhoga melas, bar women of upper caste view these and limit the dance to them? Why then not revive the sati system, child marriage, multiple marriages, untouchability etc also?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

International Visitor Leadership programme of US State department

The US Consulate in Chennai organised for me to have a voluntary visitor leadership programme on the last week of my tour. They really did a great job of putting together a most magnificent programme for me to visit institutions working on peace education, conflict resolution, peace building etc in Washington DC and New York city and gave me a guide Mrs.Mary Wilburn, a retired lawyer who took me around. It was great company as she gave me historical stories as we went around, pointed out unusual things and insisted I go into the Indian embassy and say Hello after I took pictures at the Gandhi Statue in the nation's capital. As expected, Indian embassy was least interested in their citizen. In fact, the lady receptionist told me that she was surprised to see an Indian taking pictures at the Gandhi statue. "Normally it is Americans and others who take pictures there" she said and brushed us off. My meetings with institutions working on non violence, conflict resolution and peace building was most productive. The most interesting thing was when I was having a meeting at the Meridian International House, a gorgeous woman peeped in and said "I heard there is an Indian visiting and I could not resist the temptation to say Namasthe. I lived in India for three years." I said I am from Chennai and it was Chennai she had lived in as the wife of a US embassy official. The beautiful woman Joan Huskey took me out to lunch after our respective meetings and told me the story of her co founding Global Adjustments, a business that helps expatriates to settle in India and the American International School. We had a most marvelous conversation. Every name she mentioned, I knew very well. My itinerary was fulfilling. Here is the list.
May 3rd - International Visitor Leadership programme visit Meeting with Ms.P.Kowall, Programme Officer, Office of International visitors, US Department of State, Mr.Lau Gieszel, President elect of Association for conflict resolution at Meridan International House,Surprise meeting with Joanne Huskey, Mr. Charles F.Dambach,President and CEO Alliance for Peace building, Ms.Patricia Maulden, Institute for Conflict Resolution, George Mason University, Washington DC.May 4th - International Visitor Leadership programme Meeting with Mr.Lakshitha Saji Prelis, Associate Director, Peace building and Development Institute, American University, Mr.Jefferey W.Helsing, Deputy Director, Education and Training Center of U.S.Institute for Peace, center for Mediation and Conflict Resolution, Washington DCMay 6th - International Visitor Leadership programme - meeting with Ms.Elizabeth Enlow, Regional Director, American Friends Service, Ms.Karen Bernstein and Ms.Nivedita Gutta, of Safe Horizon Mediation Programme, Ms.Jane Brody of Peace first New York City.May 7th - International Visitor Leadership programme - Meeting with R.J.DeSena Founder President Council for Peace, Creative Arts Team, the City University of New York and witnessing performance of "Face It" - presented by City at Peace - New York.