Teaching tradition or traditional teaching? – The area of conflict of the modern Bharata Natyam dancer


This blog is a revised excerpt from:

Bansal-Tönz, Scharmila: Examinations of the songs of Purandaradāsa (1484 – 1564) and their modern reception in Indian dance Bharata Natyam. Zurich: University, 2018.

Dissertation at the University of Zurich, 2017

© Copyright by Sharmila Bansal-Tönz. All rights reserved.


The author as a young dancer, 8.10.1993 (picture: A. Tönz)

Modern Bharata Natyam is part of a South Indian performance culture that has developed a peculiar way of self-perception and self-representation in the past. This is due to the way in which this performance tradition reflects itself: it is an art with a partially reconstructed, partially ideologized history. It claims to be regarded as an elitist art form and builds on a historical idea of “Indianness”. Therefore, in the art of Bharata Natyam there’s a coexistence of emphasizing an idealized self-image and simultaneously referring to an authentic tradition of antique origin. It’s a complex interplay of authenticity, ideology, classicism and history.1 The following remarks describe this artistic-historical conflict with the example of my own dance and music education.

In memory of B.K. Chandramouli

B. K. Chandramouli

On 20 July 2018, one of the great Mridangam artists of classical South Indian music died. B. K. Chandramouli was a member of a great family of artists and a master of his craft.

In the mid-1980s, B.K. Chandramouli came to Switzerland for the first time as part of an invitation from my mother Vijaya Rao and her Indian dance school Nateschwara. Over the years their acquaintance grew into a good friendship. He therefore became a father figure to me and a loving teacher, whom I incredibly admire.

Dancing for the brain

“Good for body and mind” is a common slogan that you read on flyers or posters advertising dance classes. But there is more to this statement than just being a bold phrase. I surely don’t have to explain the fact that dance training is good for your body. Dance challenges our body in both stamina and strength maximization. It is therefore as effective and healthy as a good interval training or well-composed fitness programs. Read more about this in my blog about the ideal dance training.

However, how much influence dance has on our brain has been studied scientifically at the University of Maryland and the University of Houston. The results of this three-year study came out last year and confirms what I have experienced as a dancer since long. The fact that dance has a positive effect on our cognitive performance is obvious when looking at elderly dancers who still show incredible creative power even in old age. I am thinking in particular of Anna Halprin, the great American dance pioneer. I saw videos of her when she was over 80 years old, but mentally she appeared like a middle-aged woman of maybe half her age.

Dancing and learning to dance is a lot of work for the brain.

The aforementioned American study of dancers and their brain thus confirmed this experience of mine. Dancers’ brains are not only working in the area of ​​movement and motor skills,  dancing is an all-encompassing brain activity. A dancemagazine.com report cited Karen Kohn Bradley, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland Dance Department, who points out that in dance, aspects such as space, time, process, expression, etc., must be considered simultaneously. So, dancing is multi-tasking, or it at least trains us to do so.