Having spent almost two decades in Kalakshetra, the dance and music academy founded by Smt. Rukmini Devi Arundale, my wife and partner, Shanta Dhananjayan, and I formed liberal views regarding the international performing arts scene. Rukmini Devi brought several innovations to the flowing traditions of ancient theatre and dance, yet she did not claim to be an innovator or modern choreographer, nor did she take credit for the changes taking place in the performing arts arena. Now Kalakshetra is a phenomenon, and its style of bharatanatyam has become the measuring rod for the best technique.
Rukmini Devi never assigned the name “Kalakshetra style” or even liked the way that people attach a tag to their style (Tanjore style, Vazhuvoor style, Pandanallur style). For Rukmini Devi, there were only two distinct styles of performing arts: namely “good” and “bad.” She used to implore us, her direct disciples: whatever you do; do it well. Simply by attaching the Kalakshetra name, one does not become the best traditionalist or an especially orthodox dancer. The so-called Kalakshetra style was established and popularized by our batch of students, myself and Shanta being the first couple of dancers to come out of Rukmini Devi’s temple of art. We all are largely responsible for establishing the beauty and strength of the method that Rukmini Devi used. Most credit should go to Smt. Sarada Hoffman, who meticulously made us practice “good” dance, which has evolved into the supposedly distinct “Kalakshetra” style. Needless to say, we have contributed much to embellish the technique that we learned in Kalakshetra. Several innovative techniques and formations have been added to existing ones, within set aesthetic parameters.
But although these nametags for styles are not in and of themselves important, other names carry weighty significance. As it is well known now, it was Rukmini Devi who started using the word “bharatanatyam” in place of “sadiraattam” or “daasiaattam,” terms which were in vogue during past centuries. All initial resentment to the new term met a natural death, and bharatanatyam continues to be meaningful nomenclature that adorns a technique that involves physical, mental, and spiritual levels of dedication.
During our studentship in Kalakshetra (1952-1968), we were taught to pronounce each word as it should be written and pronounced in its respective language. Based on that training, our generation of students continues to practice and try to pass linguistic heritage on to our disciples. Some of the mistakes in naming and terminology that first crept into the English printed media remain unchanged, and because of the urban education and English medium schools, our vernacular is being diluted with anglicized spellings and pronunciations. There are many such wrong usages in all languages. Since I am a performing artist with almost six decades of performing, teaching, and choreographing experience, my concern is about some of the wrong usages relating to my profession. I think it is my duty to point out these important aspects and expel any ignorance.
I want to focus on two words in particular: “Samskrutam” and “naatya.” “Samskrutam” or Samskrut is the most complete language. The meaning is as follows: samyak (well) + krutam (done) = samskrutam (well done). Scholars all over the world accept this term without prejudice. However, somehow even the land of its origin (Bharat) does not pronounce the word correctly. We write and pronounce the name of the language in an anglicized way—”San+skrit”—which may have a different meaning altogether. I have been appealing to people, print media, and scholars to stop this wrong practice and use the original, correct term: Samskrutam. Some western scholars have changed and adopted the correct pronunciation of “Samskrutam,” whereas we Bharatiya are still clinging to a spelling and pronunciation left behind by our invaders.
To that same end, our performing arts tradition has a beautiful term, “naatya,” but we are always referring to naatya as “dance.” This has nothing to do with tradition or modernity.
“Dance” is a term commonly used for all kinds of movements. Considered carefully, however, the term “dance” cannot be a true translation of our “naatya.” “Nritta” may be more closely passed off as “dance.” Our performing arts encompass physical, mental, and spiritual aspects, aspects that all inhere in the term “naatya.” Naatya means a combination of nritta, nritya, and nataka (dance, expression, and drama). This term cannot be substituted with the word dance, which is limited to the physical realm of any movement.
It will be of interest to our critics that the western classical tradition of ballet was never denoted by the word “dance.” Over the centuries, the term “ballet” became synonymous with the classical technique of the West. Practitioners of naatya and the media have been erroneously using the word “ballet” to denote our dance dramas and techniques as well. Westerners are often confused when we advertise our dance dramas as ballet. This wrong usage should also be thwarted.
I exhort India Currents, as one of the leading magazines which gives considerable space for the promotion of our art and culture, to seriously take up the cause of changing this trend and start using the term naatya for all our classical performing arts, especially bharatanatyam. It is my earnest appeal that all printed media give specific instructions to their advertisers, art critics, and article contributors on performing arts to use the term naatya. Failing which, media editors should themselves change the word “dance” to “naatya” wherever it is relevant. Since people are well aware of the term bharatanatyam, it need not be called or advertised as a “dance” performance.
Suffice to say, we have a meaningful word that should be used to replace all usages of “dance” and “ballet.” Wherever it is possible, let us work together to establish a new tradition of naatya.
V.P. Dhananjayan is a bharatanaatyam exponent and teacher, as well as co-founder, along with his wife Shanta Dhanajayan, of Bharata Kalanjali academy.