Talibanisation of the performing arts
THERE HAS been so much writing in the press in recent weeks on the Talibanisation of history and education. What this means in laymen terms is that a few people vested with power claim to have the absolutely correct and authoritative facts and understanding of the Indian history and also know how it ought to be taught in schools and colleges. This mode of rewriting history has been described as the Talibanisation of Indian history and education because it is being implemented without consensus and by denying critical debate, freethinking and dialogue. By Talibanisation then we mean the resurgence of fundamentalism, which ensures that only one point of view, the viewpoint of the ruling majority, prevails.
I was alerted to the presence of the Taliban programme of censorship and silencing operating within the domain of the performing arts when I found critical and historical thinking being systematically excluded, over the last five years, in major national newspapers, magazines and conferences on the performing arts. Academic critics and scholars were deliberately left out of these fora as they began to be controlled by practitioners, cultural administrators, and a small group of dance and music critics, who had launched dance and music magazines in the 1980s. In the rest of this essay, I shall describe how this programme of censorship and silencing evolved by focussing on new ideological agendas which got compacted into the one single Magazine/Journal for Dance and Music that evolved out of Chennai, in the mid 1980s.
The music and dance magazine announced its new agenda for the arts by re-examining the history of the transformation of sadir into bharatanatyam in the 1930s. We welcomed this new point of view in the performing arts and the magazine because it raised new historical questions about the renaming of the sadir dance as bharatanatyam, something that had not been addressed in dance scholarship till the 1980s. Little did we know that this magazine would actually polarise dance and music criticism into mainstream (middle-class) versus marginal (hereditary) camps of criticism, factionalise and create new caste and class group solidarities within the heterogeneous domain of the cultural production of the arts.
The factionalisation of the field of cultural production began when the magazine took on the task of bringing down pioneering figures such as Rukmini Devi, quite like the Bamian Buddha that the Taliban brought down. Rukmini Devi was dethroned to provide what was described as the right history for Indian classical dance. E. Krishna Iyer, another important figure in the revival of the performing arts, was proffered as the new hero, the "knight in shining armour," and upheld as the first pioneering figure of the revival. The magazine also reclaimed and affirmed the pioneering work of the Madras Music Academy and the creative contributions of hereditary devadasi practitioners, like the great Balasaraswati, who enabled the revival of the performing arts in the 1930s.
We did not critique the new points of view being evolved in the magazine because we did not realise that it would gather a national and international community to itself and create group identities and camps known as the Krishna Iyer versus the Rukmini Devi camp, Balasaraswati versus the Rukmini Devi camp. Yet the mainstream versus margin terminologies not only obscured the real, historical relationships that were forged between mainstream and hereditary gurus in the 1930s and 1940s, but have also created a false domain of identity politics: us versus them, Brahmins versus non-Brahmins, middle-class versus hereditary practitioners, and Krishna Iyer versus Rukmini Devi and so on.
The new polarities were completely flawed because they simplified the revival story and glossed over the important fact that the four founding figures Krishna Iyer, the Madras Music Academy, Balasaraswati and Rukmini Devi were in conversation with each other in the heyday of the cultural revival of the 1930s and 1940s. The great Balasaraswati, for instance, could refuse Rukmini Devi's trans-national vision of culture and the arts and affirm her own traditional vision. But Rukmini Devi could continue to evolve her own traditional and cosmopolitan vision of dance and music in her own domain of the Kalakshetra institution. Rukmini Devi's (traditional/cosmopolitan) and Balasaraswati's (traditional) vision of culture and the arts coexisted in the public domain. Both visions were affirmed for different reasons by the sabha and cultural cognoscenti of Chennai.
There was, in other words, a dialogical but uneven relationship among the four founding figures as all four members had different access to power and what is today being described as the `politics of patronage.' If all four founding figures were in conversation with each other, and were working in different pockets of the cultural domain, how would one go about declaring who came first, second, third, and fourth in the revival of the performing arts? The 1980s journalism did just that by providing a selective, chronological, and positivist history of the performing arts.
As if writing selective histories of the revival were not enough, the Editor of the magazine pushed forth another agenda for the arts by proposing a `Blue Book' on Bharatanatyam and has made it available on the web. Entitled "What is Bharatanatyam?'' the Blue Book claims to provide a correct rulebook of what bharatanatyam is and traces bharatanatyam's links to religion and to temple architecture without addressing the changed urban context, and proscenium frame in which bharatanatyam performances were presented in the 1930s continuing into the present. While the Blue Book admits that bharatanatyam is an art form today and has been since the 1930s, it simply does not discuss how bharatanatyam became an art form. Sadir surely did not become an art form simply because it was renamed and presented by devadasis on the platform of the Madras Music Academy! The form had to be spatialised, re-costumed, re-narrativised, and re-contextualised on the proscenium stage so that it would be continuous with temple.
The Taliban produced a code of conduct for the Afghans by writing a selective history of Islam. The Bharatanatyam Blue Book similarly draws on Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan's model of history for the arts without recognising that Dr. Vatsyayan revised and provided a new introduction to her Indian Classical Dance in the 1990s. Enough to say here that Dr. Vatsyayan's revised introduction is more in keeping with the changed post-Nehruvian climate of the 1990s. What is wrong with the Millennium Blue Book then is that it returns bharatanatyam to the 1960s paradigms of historiography but is different from the pan-Indian model provided by Dr. Vatsyayan, in that the former is provincial, ahistorical, uncritical, and monocultural. While we might have needed a general, pan-Indian history of the arts such as what Dr. Vatsyayan provided the arts in the 1960s, we do not need a new Natyashastra for the millennium, nor do we need to provide origin theories for a world form like bharatanatyam today.
In the name of producing the `correct' discourse on the performing arts, the Dance and Music magazine has thus been advancing its own ideological agendas for performing arts, and also repressing alternative viewpoints. Most recently, a scholar/critic of the performing arts was invited informally to participate in a panel discussion on dance in Chennai but was dis-invited because the magazine Editor, also the chairperson of the panel, objected to the scholar's strain of scholarship in the arts and refused to chair the session if she was included. Such are the overt and covert means by which our cultural Taliban carry out their blatant censorship! The Taliban totalitarian programme is thus being implemented through intimidation, silencing, censorship, ghettoisation, and creation of groups in the different domains of the cultural production of the arts.
Who shall we blame for this Taliban situation and lack of tolerance for the coexistence of multiple and different viewpoints in the cultural domain of the performing arts? Dance criticism, our patronage system, the lack of a higher educational initiative in the arts, the mafia groups operating inside cultural production, or the rewriters of dance history? While we cry for the arts today, no one seems to worry about the lack of values in the cultural production of the arts. There is also no spontaneous audience for the arts. The audiences are artificially created by festivals, routinised calendrical events and magazines that create false solidarities and affiliations. This then is the most important issue that must figure on the cultural and educational agenda of our times.
Dr. AVANTHI MEDURI
Academic and Artistic Director, Centre for Contemporary Culture, New Delhi
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