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Issue 18

Of Dance and Crumbling Havelis…

Justin McCarthy

The renowned kathak dancer Birju Maharaj was a consummate master of rhythm, line and movement, and could improvise endlessly in expressional dance while himself singing a melodic line. In the light of his demise, Justin McCarthy writes on Indian dance today while simultaneously critiquing his own public writings on dance.

A morning of little horrors – re-reading my own writing from the 1980’s, writing that in retrospect seems to enable and justify all the lies of Indian dance. 

…unbroken traditiontrue art…  divine timelessness… These are some of the clichés ornamenting my writing of that period. They harmonise well with many wilfully misleading narratives. But let us move on from this haze of non-specifics and peer a bit closer through the rose-tinted lens of poetic deception I deluded myself with in those days. 

…The origins of kathak are ahistorical and rustic. The cowherdesses of Brindavan were the first kathak dancers… Back then it seemed fine to study the mythological origins of dance and leave it at that. But the set of forms usually known as Indian classical dance are largely 20th century inventions, and while ancient roots are obvious, direct links to such a past are certainly not. Despite their beauty, originality and vitality, they can be complicated by falsified histories often involving the misrepresentation or blatant erasure of communities of hereditary female singers and dancers, performers who were at the heart of those styles’ historical and aesthetic impulses. 

Along with divine allusions, vague phrases were fed to us about the dance having slowly fallen into disrepute. Since Independence, hereditary singers and dancers were penalised for unorthodox partnerships and child bearing arrangements outside the realm of marriage. It has only been with the past 20 years of new research that from this shadowy ignominy real women have emerged, largely hereditary singers and dancers whose performances were declared illegal in many parts of the country around the time of Independence. Through these legislative initiatives, the women were essentially penalised for their unorthodox partnership and child-bearing arrangements outside of legal marriage. 

…Tradition is a live force accessible to all and yet belonging to no one… How were we so, so naïve? Around Independence, communities of male teacher-accompanists formerly associated with the singing and dancing women were invited to teach by a new breed of would-be performers, women from “good” backgrounds, upper caste and of high social status. Meanwhile, the hereditary women, largely ignored, became almost invisible, their traditional art now available to almost everyone but themselves! 

whereas in the past villagers would covet the blessings of wandering kathakars, their art akin to divine oration… As strands of the old performance practices were forged into new styles, substantive pedigrees were introduced based on passages culled  from ancient and medieval Sanskrit epics as well as music and dance treatises. In the case of kathak, a concerted effort was made to invest the male teacher-accompanists with the aura of Vedic origins, thus disassociating them simultaneously from feudal court milieus and the culture of tawaifs or courtesans. But in the heady decades following Independence, as these dance styles grew and evolved in front of amazed dancers and spectators alike, who was worried about details, historical accuracy?  

a shy girl in love, skies heavy with rain, young lovers roaming… hmm, I might have been closer than I thought. Where is the tangible proof of the existence and importance of the singing and dancing women in the dance styles of today like kathak and even bharatanatyam? That proof lies in their music and their dance, ironically preserved by men who played such an active role in their disenfranchisement. Songs like thumris are highly aestheticised erotic poems that were usually sung and expressed through gesture before elite male audiences in courtly or private performances with an undercurrent of real or imagined sexual relationships colouring the bond between performer and viewer. 

When we ask ourselves if the continued existence of a socially sanctioned group of female entertainers maintained by married male patrons would be acceptable today, the answer is no. But the question of the legacy of their artistic repertoire is a more complicated one. The songs, the gestures and the movements were obviously too beautiful to be abandoned all together. So, as dance became a respected practice of middle-class, upper caste women (and sometimes men) in many parts of the country, the songs and their gestures while retained, were subjected to obfuscation and censure, while the movements were regimented and de-sexualised. Here I quote myself again …so often today its meaning and beauty elude us… Yes. Precisely. Obviously. Because recognising the sources of that beauty would be to challenge the moral ground upon which a modern society is often built. 

As dance students we studied the hero-heroine paradigm as an isolated phenomenon of artistic expression, though we were rather baffled, as it was never presented within the context of the professional singing and dancing women. To my mind this glaring denial of history is largely responsible for the state of Indian dance today. Thousands and thousands of young people all over the world learn, yet audiences are diminishing at an alarming rate, perhaps bewildered by or vaguely apprehensive about the ambiguous nature of what they are watching. 

….the students are visibly inspired when Maharaji speaks of dance in spiritual termsdescribing the rhythmic cycle (tal) as Mother Earth and the mnemonic syllables (bol) as sacred mantras, his is a genuine spiritual elation… Yes, Indian dance has spiritual and religious connotations. However, the dances we perform today are rarely from the canons of temple ritual, and are more likely to be from the courtly repertoire or pieces choreographed to imaginatively approximate temple dance.

in the evening the students gather round their mentorthis is the time when that perceptible intimacy between guru and shishya is reconfirmed, a  rapport of unquestioning acceptance which allows a semi-conscious transferral of knowledge from preceptor to learner… Much is made of the concept of guru-shishya parampara in the context of Indian dance today. In its essence a close bond between teacher and pupil is promoted, though the implication can be of blind servitude, and human deviance can twist the best of intentions. 

The reactions to the demise of Birju Maharaj have been mainly of unadulterated and unanimous praise, usually accompanied by snapshots taken with the maestro (the preferred term of reference for him). But a small community of dancers recounts many tales of coercion and abuse at the hands of the very same man. 

 The dance world is small and fragile. Complicity is rampant. Revenge can be swift. How easy it is to dismiss a young girl’s testimony by labelling her a bad dancer who just couldn’t cut the mark?  But no, their brave voices merit listening to. 

divinely naughty love-pranks, innocent eroticism… As dance students in Delhi’s Mandi House of the 1980’s, we were all privy to private tales and long lists of his (and many others as well) alleged predations, but in those days public renouncement didn’t seem even remotely imaginable. Instead, my female friends would heave sighs of relief that ‘nothing had happened to them’.

Yet even today people are hesitant to speak up. I contend that, again, the falsification of dance history is often the culprit. We are dancing an appropriated dance in blithe yet deliberate ignorance. We choose to see only the transcendental aspect of the dance. This pretext of spirituality can be used by gurus with predator tendencies to sexually exploit their students. So, yes, celebrate the art of a great dancer-teacher. Revel in your personal connections to him. But don’t flinch at publicly acknowledging a dark side of someone with enormous influence in the world of dance. 

 … Maharaji recalls past kathak masters, heavily moustached and bearded, who were worshipped for their near-perfect embodiments of feminine beauty… Students, connoisseurs, audiences- all have granted licence to male dancers of stature who, apart from sometimes suspect hereditary claims and serious suspicions of sexual misconduct, also manage to exploit the whole spectrum of expressions of gender and sexuality in their stage persona. We are told that in the erstwhile courts  a male dancer would sit demurely in front of a king and explore emotive dance in the feminine mode. That may be true. On the other hand,  what about the legions of young boys dressed as girls and the actual courtesans performing these dances up until not so long ago? Such memories are distasteful to most. But an avowedly heterosexual male with advertised hereditary performing origins is able to perform in this mode to enraptured acquiescence on the part of the spectators. But then why do we squirm when a queer person does the same thing or why do we whisper about antecedents when a hereditary female performer dares to go on stage today?

Disenfranchised hereditary dancers or sexually exploited young dancers are not expecting restitution or retribution. They know deep down that this would be too unreasonable a demand from such a deeply skewered system. But they do expect and deserve the recognition of historical wrongs committed, however well-meaning the protagonists may have been, and the recognition of unspeakable acts of sexual predation perpetrated by performers in positions of power. 

Now the difficult question for me is whether we can appreciate and be moved by a dancer’s art while simultaneously acknowledging the sometimes monstrous acts they have committed. I have no answer, but maybe I can fall back once again on my own writings of 35 years ago as I search for one…

Justin McCarthy is a musician, dancer, choreographer and writer. His media are piano, harpsichord and bharatnatyam. Apart from numerous choreographies in the bharatnatyam style, he has collaborated on a number of dance films. Justin has been with Ashoka since the university opened its doors in 2014 and he heads the performing arts department.

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