Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Bharatanatyam Blues

(Note: If you have landed here searching for information on Arangetram expenses, please check the links in my post 'Dancing Impressions'. Those may be of more interest to you.)
I have 'em.

The last couple of days started off a mini-furore about Bharatanatyam(henceforth BN) as an extra-curricular pursuit vs. BN as a lifelong pursuit on Sepia Mutiny. While the actual subject of the post was a profile of Aniruddha Knight, dancer and grandson of one of the greatest of BN exponents T. Balasaraswathi, one of the commenters in the discussion which followed let loose the following volley in response to the words of another poster:

· Floridian said
Bharatanatyam has become the de rigueur ballet class of the Indian diaspora. All the little desi girls go through it while in elementary school, but very, very few continue on beyond that. The biggest roadblock are our bharatanatyam teachers, mostly first generation Indians who were trained by serious gurus back home in the traditional way, with an emphasis on learning and perfection rather than performing and sharing.
all due respect, but i've seen very good samples of the US teacher-taught population (50-70 girls every year at an intensive dance camp for the past 19 years) and the bit about high standards preventing poor little girls from having fun on stage is simply not true. Most teachers are not anywhere near as strict and do not, in general, care to teach proper form (let alone posture!) as their gurus would have been in the Desh. My mother has taught here for over 24 years, and I have accompanied her to both coasts, during the course of which I did find that teachers were driven in large part by pressure from parents to put little Priyanka/Sarika/Radhika on stage within six months, with 18 costume changes so all their friends can come and watch an abomination born of little patience, overbearing parental desires to live vicariously through their child, and general keepin-up-with-the-Patels malarkey that produces the same kind of pick-it-up-and-drop-it mentality that accompanies so many forays into other extracurricular activities.
Ouch! So now I am evidently demeaning the great art of BN by enrolling M in casual weekly classes and not insisting on the completion of 7 years of training before her appearing on stage for a student's day performance!

As a parent of a rank beginner, I would rather wait the 7 years to see my kid have an arangetram, if she were to sustain interest and in-depth training for that long, rather than try to push a full-fledged performance. But I see no problem with occasional (and minimalist) stage exposure in small portions choreographed to match the skill level. This is before a restricted and appreciative audience of near and dear, in any case.Also, let's consider that the gurus here, living in the midst of casual ballet recitals and such, have merely adopted 'casual BN recitals' as a way to conform with American norms.

(Hint to self: OK, relax, take a deep breath.) Evidently, I am not quite (yet) in the same category of 'money's-worth' parents who would like to see their 'prodigies' on stage before it is appropriate. While Nayagan (commenter above) seems to think that BN should be reserved as a privilege for purely dedicated students, the reality is that very few are the parents of kids who live and breathe BN 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. An initial gauging of interest, followed by years of practice will weed out the dilettantes from the dedicated. But the BN tradition will not flourish without that pool of dabblers either. Where else will the audience and new crop of students come from?

While googling for some other BN information, I chanced upon this vitriolic blog whose raison d'etre appears to be bashing or beatifying various dancers on the Chennai dance scene. A sample of the vitriol below:
There were 2 typical errors that took away from the perfection of Divyatha ’s mukha abhinaya. One was the screwing of eyes, and the other error was the smile’s sudden fluctuations (jitters) when the corners of the mouth move unexpectedly down and then suddenly up again and then down and then up. As if the dancer was unsure of whether to smile or not to smile! Divyatha was not as bad here as Urmila Sathyanarayanan and her students. When Urmila is dancing, she demonstrates, “Hey, am I not funny: now I can smile, you see? Now I don’t. You see?” Very coquettish. It is as if the dancer shows that she is not serious at all. The rasikas get the impression, “Huh! This girl is not for real: she is just pretending!”
I was hooked. It was like watching a soap opera of sorts- bad for the brain, but addictive nevertheless, with wonderfully vituperative posts, followed by point-by-point rebuttals by the offended dancing divas or their surrogates. Alas, no updates since the last couple of months, so I can't figure out whether the blog is still alive or merely dormant until the next music season.
It is clear that even a fine arts setting is not devoid of politicking, demagoguery and the like, notwithstanding that Art should be paramount in its own right. One person's ideal of excellence in dance is evidently most despicable to another critic. The dancer can expect kudos from the well-wishers and rotten tomatoes from the opposing schools. Very rarely is the performance seen through unjaundiced eyes.
Where do M's weekly classes figure in this mix, you may ask? Nowhere, if I'm guessing correctly. She will likely go through the years of weekly training. She may drop off at some point if she loses interest, but may continue because of the peer effect, maybe reaching the level of dedication for an arangetram. After which, she will hang up her anklets to continue life with her real career and other objectives, as do so many others whether in India or the U.S.
And the cycle will go on, for another generation, and another...


Gayu said...

or she might also become one of those rare people who realize Dance is their true calling and she might spend her adult life travelling around the world, showcasing her talent among elite (can one still use this word?!!) audiences or BN could also be her creative outlet that she returns to time to time whenever her real true career never know!!
As a parent you're doing the right thing by exposing her to all the art forms out there, be it ballet or BN. You don't need to devote your life to arts enjoy it.
P.S Delurked today because your thoughts totally resonated with mine. Love reading your thoughts!

Sujatha said...

Thanks for delurking, Gayu, and please feel free to comment whenever you feel like it.

A mom can always dream of bright futures for her kids-I'm no exception. While it would be nice if M did indeed decide to take it up as her life's work, it's more likely to be a creative outlet, as you say.
Dabbling is great fun, it allows you the enjoyment of an activity without the need to be the perfect (and I suspect, politically correct) professional, as dancers and musicians need to be these days. So, we let our kids dabble in different things, and dream on.

Anonymous said...

If it makes you feel better, the trend of casual BN recitals much before the arangetram has started in India too..

In some cases, it's because parents would like to see their 5 and 6 yr olds on stage, who wants to wait all the time for an arangetram?

In others, it's because the parents cannot afford a full-fledged arangetram anyway, so this is the best chance they have of seeing their kids on stage. If you have a show with 10 kids on stage, some of the costs can be split!

Sujatha said...

The cost for a proper arangetram (at least from the few I have seen here in the US) can run from a few thousand to 10's of thousand dollars. That's why it ought to be reserved for the truly dedicated dancers. I'm sure costs in India are quite similar, somewhere in the realm of wedding costs. So it would definitely be an attractive proposition to combine arangetrams to cut costs/permit younger children to have the fun of a dance performance without the rigor of years and years of training.

Purists may complain, but that won't prevent parents from having their way!

bharatanatyam2dance said...

"Alas, no updates since the last couple of months, so I can't figure out whether the blog is still alive or merely dormant until the next music season."

My dear, I have just been a bit too busy lately, and, since thousands of the passive & lazy readers - like you are!! - did not even care to leave me an ancouraging note, I thought, "Let them continue to read the Hindu and get bored!" :-)

Don't worry, I am preparing a big vitriolic bomb again! :-)

Sujatha said...


I can't wait to read your next bomb ;)

(Off to get the popcorn ready!)

Nayagan said...


if you read the rest of my comments (instead of picking the very first, and referencing it out of context),you would find that there is no reason to feign concern at "demeaning the great art of BN" as what are you doing now (which respect to letting your child progress as he/she wishes) in no way constitutes such a preposterous straw-man of a situation as you so playfully describe--there is no primal struggle between uncompromising Teachers and gauche ignorant Parents.

the argument was between one who cast the BN world in america as dominated by evil supply-choking teachers and myself, who saw the power balance in a very different way.

Sujatha said...


I have to live up to my reputation of creating strawmen to knock them down- that's one of my favorite pastimes. ;)
Seriously, your first comment that I quote was the one that stuck most prominently in my brain, and set off all these ramblings, despite your attempts in later comments on SM to set the record straight regarding what you said to Floridian and his(her?) attempts to justify ill-prepared students being allowed to take the stage.
If everyone goes into the deal, whether teachers or parents, knowing what to expect, there wouldn't be the agonies of disappointed hopes on either sides. I have no illusions about where these go, and I am sure, neither do you nor your mother.