In 1976, as one of New York State Education Department’s cultural Ambassadors, I visited elementary to college level institutions to give lecture demonstrations on our art and culture. This was part of an “International Art in Education Conference” in collaboration with UNESCO. At that time I was shocked to be asked why I was dressed like a primitive (I was in a dhoti, kurta and tilak). With composure and consummate understanding I educated those inquisitive minds and demonstrated the power of our art form and its importance in education. Here, in this article, I present some of my personal musings on the business and nomenclature of naatya.
Dance vs. Naatya
The performing arts scenario in the United States is very vibrant. However, I wonder why the term naatya is not yet prevalent when referring to bharatanatyam, kathak, manipuri or any other classical arts. The word “ballet” is understood all over the world as a classical western performing art form. But naatya hasn’t reached that status in the international community. I believe we should start using the correct nomenclature to identify our art forms and stop calling them “dance,” a term which does not specify our kind of performing arts, which bears physical, mental and spiritual attributes. Another note on nomenclature: Often I come across advertisements in India Currents that say bharatanatyam dance classes. Actually natya or naatya or natyam mean dance and there’s no need to say “dance” again! “Ballet” is yet another incorrect word Indian artistes use to denote a thematic presentation.
This confuses the audience as to whether the presentation is a western ballet or a mock ballet of Indian origin. A drama–or thematic presentation is naatya. So I think it is the responsibility of our artistes to popularize the name natya, naatya, nritta and nritya.
Yes, the summer months seem to be a festival of Bharatanatyam Arangetrams all over the United States and Canada. It has lost its original significance, that of announcing the arrival of a professional with a body of knowledge and accomplishments in the art form.
Arangetrams have become social affairs involving a casual display of affluence and ceremony, with multiple costume changes, projected video clips of the dancer from birth through the years leading up to the Arangetram, encomiums showered on the dancer in between dance items, snacks served in between the performance, and people sitting through 6 to 7 hours awaiting the big dinner and social gathering after the program. By the end of the evening, it is likely that the attendees have forgotten the performance and remember only the dinner and the fashion display of the invitees.
Then there are the long announcements of items with quotes and demonstrations for the sake of the uninitiated. I wonder if we really need to explain what bharatanatyam is, (rather like carrying coal to Newcastle!) and explain each and every item. Is it not enough to give a gist of the lyrics with gestural language and facial expression?
Where and how did we fail to educate the public after all these years of “Indian cultural extravaganza” in the name of Arangetrams? Do we experience such situations in western ballet performances, be it professional or school shows?
Once Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer the doyen of karnatik music in his usual casual manner remarked, “a time will come for us to go to the United States to know our traditions and values …” His prediction is almost coming true. Kudos and appreciation to several of our old and young artistes and teachers passing on their legacy in the best manner.
In my early days performing and traveling around the country with live musicians, we used to share our musicians with the local artistes, which enabled them to find new pastures for lucrative earnings. These days, during the summer months it is difficult to find accompanists in India. Most of them come to the United States looking to add to their kitty. It’s a drain for India and a draw for the United States.
Due to the influx of Indian Americans who crave a chance to display their foreign ground nurtured talents in India, accompanying musicians demand dollar rate remunerations, which is 5 to 10 times the local rates in India. There is no justification for this exploitation and malpractice. However so long as parents pay these rates there is going to be no change in the situation.
Guru vs. Teacher
The prefix of Guru for Bharatanatyam teacher was not prevalent until 1990s. These days teachers—junior or senior—irrespective of their status, assume the title of Guru. This is a very profound word which literally signifies a person of high scholarship in the scriptures and other subjects for the liberation of the human mind and who can clear ignorance and give ultimate wisdom.
Yes, several yoga practitioners in the United States misused this term, elevating themselves as great Swamijis and many bearded persons thus became Gurus. Somehow this practice also crept into bharatanatyam. Now a mere teacher of “dance” (not even naatya in its comprehensive sense) calls himself or herself Guru. If I may make an appeal to all the teachers in the United States to restrain from prefixing this title, we at home also may follow your way. The Samskritam connotation Adhyaapaka (for man) and Adhyaapika (for women) may be a better term to be used. In English “teacher or instructor” is sufficient.
V.P. Dhananjayan is a legend in the field of bharatanatyam, fusing choreographic innovations with tradition. He and his wife, Shanta Dhananjayan, conduct the Yogaville Dance Camp in Virginia, which recently celebrated its Silver Jubilee.