ART FOR ART'S SAKE?
Ballet, bharatanatyam, and what “classical” dance the world over has to learn about representation — from its own history.
by Arpita Bajpeyi
When I was around four or five years old, my mother enrolled me in ballet classes in suburban Ottawa. I don’t think I was particularly interested in learning ballet. I just wanted to wear a tutu. So, no surprise, when the dance term was over, I was also over it.
Maybe a year later, we moved to Puducherry (then known as Pondicherry) in South India, and my mother started me in bharatnatyam classes—a classical form of Indian dance. I’m sure she asked me if I would like to learn the dance form, and I must have said yes, but truth be told I had very little idea what the form even looked like. I didn’t like it. I lasted no more than a month before my mom realized I’d had enough, and pulled me out of classes.
Looking back, my mom and I were both responding to narratives of girlhood that we were seeing around us—in her case, also what she had seen growing up in Tamil Nadu. But my story is not the only one that links these two dances together.
As I’ve grown older and reflected on why I felt so disconnected from both forms of dance, I’ve found there is much that connects the two—particularly, the ways in which European dance has appropriated and (mis)represented themes and figures from bharatanatyam’s past, and how both forms, though they’re upheld as ‘classical,’ can and should evolve to become more thoughtfully representative.
But La Bayadère, one of the ballets that makes up the core repertoire of ‘traditional’ ballet, is certainly not the only ballet that was created about (some fuzzy, imagined version of) the eastern world. The original Giselle, apparently featured the wilis (ghostly dancing women) dancing ‘Oriental’ and/or ‘Indian’ dances, The Nutcracker includes ‘Chinese’ and ‘Arabian’ pieces, and La Péri’s hero enters into an opium dream (a nineteenth century favourite) and falls in love with an Eastern fairy. All of these ballets are still performed today, though Giselle no longer feature ‘oriental dances.’ Small mercies.
And then, there’s La Bayadère. ‘The Temple Dancer.’ The term comes from the Portuguese word bailadera, a dancer, which is what the Portuguese called the devadasis, ‘servants of the god’ or temple dancers, whom they encountered in parts of India.
These women occupied a unique space in southern Indian kingdoms, in temples and in courts and salons. Though from lower caste communities, their company was highly-sought after: being able to spend time with a devadasi was a matter of prestige. Her relationship to the god, and to etiquette and the arts, meant that she held a high cultural value. And so the devadasi existed beyond the borders of what was acceptable for women in society. She moved through life in systems that were just outside of full patriarchal control, and yet tangled in deeply patriarchal and caste structures. Devadasis could never marry, for instance, but some could select the patrons for whom they might become a concubine or mistress—though only from the ranks of upper-caste married Hindu men, as Bina Agarwal has pointed out. Other devadasis had little choice, however, and were bought and sold as slaves.
The plot of La Bayadère features a devadasi bayadère, Nikiya, who is in love with a warrior, Solor. Their efforts to unite are thwarted by the jealous High Brahmin, the Rajah of Golconda, and his daughter, Gamzatti. Nikiya, who is typically costumed in something “Arabic” or more evocative of a North Indian girl, is murdered, and reunites with Solor in an opium-induced dream.
La Bayadère is a fantasy. It’s a fantasy with a time-stamp, based on titillating reports of dancing girls that had been circulating in Europe for a number of years, made possible by European ambitions of empire. Apologists of the Petipa ballet ignore the power differential in this historical ‘representation’ of Indian characters, as well as ongoing battles around problematic portrayals of minorities in the west—not to mention the lack of racial diversity on stage that continues to plague ballet. So while Petipa’s bayadère may be a fantasy, when her story is performed today, it contributes to damaging stereotypes by appropriating a complex history to tell a laughably confused and melodramatic version of it.
Devadasis were not fantasies. They were real women who faced real marginalization.
Singing and dancing have long held an important place in India’s many cultures—and continue to today. In fact, the colonial era movement that began eroding devadasis’ patronage base targeted their art. The Anti-nautch movement, nautch being the anglicized version of the Hindi word naach (to dance), worked to end ‘prostitution’—as they defined it—all over the subcontinent.
As devadasis became further marginalized in South Indian society, some members of the devadasi community pushed for legal reforms to end the dedication of young girls to temples. They were joined by other campaigners, particularly middle and upper class Indian women. Their collective efforts saw fruition in 1947, in a newly independent India, with the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act.
But not all devadasis were in favour of the push to end the dedication system. For some of these women, their art was also a matter of faith and devotion, expressed through dance. Others were frustrated by the taboo now associated with their performance of bharatanatyam, and their inability to find audiences. To compound matters, as the nationalist movement gained speed alongside the Anti-nautch movement, wealthy upper caste women took it upon themselves to ‘save’ bharatanatyam from the state of ‘decay’ it was in. Women like Rukmini Arundale (who was greatly influenced by Anna Pavlova and trained with her) reworked the dance, which was seen as tainted by the ‘overt’ sexuality of devadasis, to fit nationalist moral values. Her efforts were celebrated by elite society, and over the course of the early decades of the twentieth century, bharatanatyam became a dance for pious upper caste, well-to-do Indian women. It still is today.
Ballet and bharatanatyam face similar issues as classical dances: they are constantly presented to audiences as belonging to a certain kind of body, whether that is white, or upper caste Hindus. Neither is particularly accessible to ‘outsiders’—though arguably this is slowly changing for ballet. Seeing more diverse bodies on stage is not a full solution in and of itself, though. As John Peter Viernes has written about ballet, we need more diversity backstage, with choreographers of different backgrounds and perspectives. In bharatanatyam, religious myths with deeply entrenched patriarchal values still hold sway, with heroines defined by their relationship to their heroes, and villains characterized by their dark skin, frizzy hair, and large bodies. Ballet does not fare much better, truth be told, with its villains or its damsels.
The devadasi’s story is not over—descendant communities are still negotiating their ancestors' legacies, especially given their disenfranchisement through what became mainstream bharatanatyam.
Ballet needs to come to terms with this. Choreographers, teachers, dancers, producers, patrons of the form—they all need to reassess what they are collectively putting on the stage, and for whom. Bharatanatyam, likewise, has missed an important question. Caste, race, gender—perhaps they should have no place on the stage, but they do. What’s more, art does not exist in a bubble. As Alexandra Carter has said, dance both reflects and creates culture.
Classical forms of dance may seem outdated and irrelevant if you are not actively engaged in the field, or a committed audience member, but both ballet and bharatanatyam still hold much sway over the societies they respectively come from. Yes, they cater to elite audiences who can reaffirm their taste, class, caste and religiosity, respectively, by attending performances. But these forms have helped create images of ‘ideal women’ in each of their cultures through both the narratives they put on stage, and women they select to perform them. Ballet has helped craft standards of beauty in the west—tall, pale, elegant and thin—and provided a blueprint for young girls to aspire to, complete with tiaras and tutus. The bharatanatyam dancer became the Indian woman: fair, upper caste, middle class, modest and demure. Just as the ballerina has come to represent powdery pink innocence and girlhood, the bharatanatyam dancer appears on tourism posters and matrimonial adds, standing in for ‘tradition,’ ‘culture,’ and the ‘perfect bride.’
The stories we see in both bharatanatyam and ballet’s core repertoire are simple stories. They are not complex, and do not explore a range of perspectives, or offer audiences insights from different voices. These stories, we are told, are ‘timeless.’ ‘Classical.’ And somehow this makes them ‘universal’—or at least stories that explore ‘universal’ themes of love, loss, purity, good and evil. But these stories come from specific times and places. Giselle’s heartbreak-induced hysteria and Krishna’s harassment of the gopis are unacceptable narratives in other contexts, on non-classical stages or on our screens.
‘Classical’ repertoires did not appear to us out of nowhere. These are repertoires we have created, tailored, edited and adapted—a process that is still alive today too. Perhaps now, though, it is time for larger shifts and more daring changes to these repertoires. We need to see changes that reflect the conversations and shifts we are making off-stage. Stories can be reimagined and opened up to new voices and interpretations. Those that cannot be redeemed by new retellings can be discarded.
We, as audiences, we have a part to play in this too. Dancers, choreographers, dance companies—they all respond to audiences, in and outside of theatres. If we stop attending performances of problematic ballets, make our discomforts known, demand better representation on stage, things can change. We, as audiences, need to ask of the art that is available to us “Why this? Why now?” At the end of the day, art that is made “for art’s sake” can only claim to do so because of systems which make that possible. It is an a political veneer that is deeply embedded in power structures that makes its politics invisible. “Art for art’s sake” is privilege reasserting itself.
And we can all do better than that.