The furore over imported Indian Premier League (IPL) cheerleaders and that they are ‘indecent’ is incredibly funny, especially because some American foreheads wrinkle exactly the same way when confronted with Indian classical dance. Where’s the comparison between “Rah-rah-rass! Kick’em in the ass!” and “O Appalamswamy Pappadam Perumal, I pine for you, come to me!” you ask? For one, Kansas City Catholics take a dim view of a man dancing Bharata Natyam as a ‘liturgical dance’ to God, especially if the dancer happens to be Father Saju George, an Indian Jesuit. “Ignatius Loyola, founder of the order, would be rolling in his grave,” fumed an offended American on a Catholic blog just a few months ago.
Just as funny are the NRIs at the biggest Carnatic diaspora festival, the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana. Says a Bharata Natyam dancer, back home after a dozen years in the US, “Some parents in Cleveland object to the more ‘sensual’ padams (devadasi love songs) being taught to their daughters. They seem to have retained the mindset of the last century.”
And there’s the catch: which ‘mindset’? There were several contradictory ones. Let’s flashback first to the 1930s, to the sunny deck of a ship sailing to Sydney from Madras. A beautiful Indian girl called Rukmini honeymooning with her much older gora husband, Dr George Arundale, is watching the world’s greatest ballerina, Anna Pavlova, rehearsing en route to her Australian tour. The Arundales have unleashed a tsunami already back in Madras — a Tamil Brahmin girl married to a mleccha (‘foreigner’ in Sanskrit, implying ‘barbarian’). Now Rukmini Devi is set to unleash another: she takes ballet classes from Pavlova’s principal dancer, Cleo Nordi. Nordi advises the beautiful Indian to learn her own arts. Back from Australia, Rukmini Devi goes to watch two acclaimed devadasis, Pandanallur Jivaratnam and Jayalakshmi, dance their temple art, the sadir. That is the birth of what we now call ‘Bharata Natyam’, and the founding of the historical dance school, Kalakshetra, in Madras.
Ironically, that’s also when the ‘anti-nautch’ campaign led by Miss Helen Tennant finds its fiercest champion in Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, herself of devadasi origin. The Devadasi Abolition Act slams down on this fragile sub-culture. While devadasis can no longer dance in temples, everyone else can at other public venues.
Thanks to counter-campaigners like Rukmini Devi and E Krishna Iyer — who actually dances in drag at the All-India Music Conference in Benares to show what treasures the public is letting slip through its careless fingers — a social revolution happens. Conservative Tamil Brahmins followed by other communities begin sending their daughters to learn the devadasi art as an act of national pride.
At this point, sniff latter-day writers — especially some American academics wrote that Tamil Brahmins ‘appropriated’ the art of the devadasis and bowdlerised their lyrics. What really happened — and do remember this was prudish Madras back then — is that Rukmini Devi subtly shifted the accent away from sringara (eroticism) to bhakti (devotion).
But equally, you had Odissi dancer Sonal Mansingh’s scholarly father-in-law insisting that Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra choreograph the sensual medieval lyrics of Jayadeva’s Gita Govind. You had a flamboyant Yamini Krishnamurti pioneering the blatantly sexy lyrics of Kuchipudi along with lofty hymns from the Rig Veda. You had both ‘sensuality’ and ‘spirituality’ without any artificial divisions. In fact there’s some hugger-mugger always going on. I, for one, yawn pointedly at endless Sanskrit slobberings over kucha kumkuma, peena payodhara and vakshoja kumbha dvayanam, just three little (oft-heard) ways to describe ‘female pectorals’ in dance lyrics.
The bottom line is that some dancers go ahead any way with gloriously sensual dancing, while others feel more comfortable keeping it allegorical (‘man-woman love symbolises the soul’s longing for God’, etc etc). It is essentially a soloist’s art, despite those exquisite Kalakshetra dance-dramas. Therefore, one must assume that the monographs and PhD theses by American and Canadian scholars on our dance must be written with any accusatory premise. What’s their story otherwise?
The facts, as opposed to the sinister conclusions drawn in Milwaukee, Ontario or Tübingen, simply say that we had different things going on: Rukmini Devi saving dance her way vs Muthulakshmi Reddy wanting it destroyed; somebody else keeping it ‘clean’ vs others oomphing away.
We can watch ganda Bollywood jhatkas en famille. We can watch the daughter of the house enact a lovesick gopika pining for her Kanha. But goris doing hip-flips at the altar of the national religion, cricket, and Hastinapur, we have a problem. Technically, the cheerleaders are conducting the liturgical dance of spectator sport, right? Shiv-Shiv-Shiv! Yeh hamari sanskriti ko bhang kar degi! Just like the Kansas City Catholics who presumably watch cheerleaders without feeling sacrileged but can’t handle a foreign devotional dance. It seems some Indians want their naach only in desi garb. Even there, the house divides into sringara and bhakti factions while yet others say, “Look, we have both.” Ah well. Some would call that pluralism in action.