A question of style
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Thoughts on the rootedness of Bharata Natyam outside India
The current globalization and multimedia networking of art and artists challenges all the participants greatly, though it is at the same time very exciting. If I look into the internet I find at least a dozen of schools in my area, which offer courses in classical Indian dance. Practically every Switzerland-based girl from Sri Lanka or India, whom I meet, has already learned or is still learning Bharata Natyam, Kathak or Odissi. When I go to Facebook, I sometimes feel like I cannot connect with the dancers in my region fast enough as already new dancers pop up. Obviously Bharata Natyam and the profession of the Indian dancer experiences a huge boom, which I find remarkable and great. I still remember a time when Indian dance schools in the German-speaking part of Switzerland were not more than a handful. And I know from my own experience how difficult the life of an artist can be in a country like Switzerland. It is therefore all the more astonishing that there are currently dozens of Indian dance-artists in the area of Zurich who are pursuing this as a part-time or full-time job.
But what are the consequences of such a development for the way we practice classical Indian dance? Before the era of Anna Pavlova (1881 – 1931), Ruth St. Denis (1879 – 1968) and Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904-1986), the Bharata Natyam tradition, or whatever name we use for the old form of Bharata Natyam, developed itself only within the Indian subcontinent. One could assign it to different regional styles. There was the Mysore style, the Tanjavur style or the Pandanallur style. Later on, with the advent of the large private dance schools and dancer personalities, there was the Kalakshetra style, the Padma Subrahmanyam style or the Darpana style. These styles have been maintained for a while even after schools got established abroad. Especially prominent styles such as the Kalakshetra style can still be recognized easily today. This was mainly due to the fact that dance schools outside India were small, timeless oases which were unaffected by external influences. So, they followed the same dance style for years. In addition, there was a strong polarized-kind of thinking going on, guided by the idea that everything can be divided into “good” and “bad” Bharata Natyam. Hence everybody stuck strictly to what they were doing.
These conditions have fundamentally changed over the past ten years. There are Western Indian dancers opening dance schools, there’s the Bollywood boom, there’s the growing Indian diaspora, there are Bharata Natyam styles from Sri Lanka, to mention just a few. All these new influences completely redesign the global world of Bharata Natyam. Cultural boundaries disappear, new traditions are formed, new styles emerge. Bharata Natyam outside India is no longer an exported Indian cultural property. It is more and more growing together with the local structures, because it is mainly supported by bi-culturally raised dancers who were socialized outside India.
I am aware that I am somewhat simplifying the socio-cultural conditions under which Bharata Natyam spreads outside India. But as a matter of fact, most of the articles I have read about the Indian diaspora and the global spread of Indian dance are mainly concerned with how it spreads, but not how it ingrains itself and strikes new roots. The ever-growing mass of female artists in the field of Bharata Natyam creates an ever-increasing variety and we need to deal with it somehow. On the one hand these new dynamics result in an intensified individualism of artist-personalities, fostered by the ideal platform for self-portrayal – the social media. On the other hand, artists, despite their diverse origins and different dance backgrounds, get together, more than ever before. My girlfriend recently discovered such an association in our area and called it a Bharata Natyam “underground” movement. Dancers exchange suggestions for choreographies in WhatsApp groups, post their latest creations on YouTube and collect mutual likes for their ideas.
In the very past ten years, this has been a huge development for our genre. While it was formerly feared that viewers could steal original choreographies through video footage, films are nowadays the signboard for every Indian dancer. Style and traditional repertoire specifications no longer correspond to the current dynamics in the local dance scene. Given the high density of active dancers, sticking out of the mass is what counts the most. I am not talking about the “anything goes” culture, the fusion phenomenon or commercialization, which affects all art genres equally. I am talking about new norms that replace old structures and thus shape a new mentality of our dance culture. If this vital process gets enough scope, we will certainly speak in a few years of a Toronto style, a Californian school or the characteristics of the Singapore Bharata Natyam. One thing is certain, the umbilical cord to the motherland of India has been capped. Bharata Natyam is at home where it’s lived.
As far as I’m concerned, I’m rooted in my home country, Switzerland. This is where I learned to dance, where I present my art to the local audience and where I teach Bharata Natyam to girls and young women who also live here. Even though I know my dance has its roots in India, though I’m aware I’ve learned a certain style and I see obvious differences when I look at other local Bharata Natyam dancers, still, I’d like to share my ideas with them, train with them, and try their choreographies. I would like to follow both, the guidelines of the old gurus, as well as integrating my know-how from my practical experience into my dance. And I want to try to get to the bottom of things that disturb me, without questioning over and over again my entire loyalty to the tradition. What and who I am will influence my style. So, in the long term it is less relevant whether I dance Cheyyur, Mysore or Kalakshetra style or whether the dance choreography I follow is 50, 200 or 900 years old. The question which is much more important is, what kind of root can I build for my Bharata Natyam through my work and how much can I do for its sustainability?