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Bharatantyam has been embedded in the Tamil culture for centuries, transmitted from generation to generation and evolving over time to uphold its sacredness and its representation of the state’s traditional identity. Today Bharatanaytam has spread worldwide, performed and practiced across countries and accepted by both traditional and modern masses. However it was only after its rebirth in 1930, when the Devadasi Act was passed, and due to E. Krishna Iyer’s reworking of the dance’s movement vocabulary into a ‘socially accepted dance form’ (On, 2011), that Bharatanatyam gained its respectable social status and hence is why today it plays a crucial role in portraying India’s cultural and traditional identity. This portrayal may be seen as what Bourdieu would call a ‘habitus’, which is ‘created through a social, rather an individual process leading to patterns that are enduring and transferrable from one context to another’ (Powercube, 2012). More precisely, Bharatanatyam is a social measure used to maintain and promote a certain habitus, defining the culture’s values which are transferred both through time and across the nations, whilst also acting as a guide for the Tamil generations today. This essay analyses, based substantially on Bourdieu’s habitus theory, to what extent Bharatanatyam shapes Tamil cultural identity, especially abroad.
Art forms in general, especially when practiced over centuries, have proven to be ‘central to any articulation of ethnic identity’ (Hyder, cited in David, 2009) and this is even more true when a population lives outside of its ‘home’ nation. There were, and still are, a significant amount of Tamilians that immigrate from India and Sri Lanka to the United Kingdom, especially during and after the British colonialism period. For many Tamilians in London, especially the older generation, Bharatanatyam is the element that contains within it all of their cultural and religious identity: it represents an idealism that they must try to incorporate and preserve. Bharatnayam acts as what Foster would consider an ‘ideal body’, something that the ‘material body’ looks up to and tries to achieve. This ideal cultural representation in Bharatanaym has been transmitted over the years to future generations and to this day young Tamilians explain how ‘Bharatanatyam is part of [their] culture … and prevents the culture and religion [from] being forgotten, especially in the West’ (David, 2009). Two students, Maya and Mahumita, reinforce this statement by confirming that studying Bharatanatyam is their way of learning about their cultural heritage whilst living abroad. For example, most of Bharatanatyam’s bodily movements and facial expressions bear a prominent representation of Tamil womanhood. This can be seen in small gestures such as the application of the kumkum on the forehead (in representation of the third eye), the plaiting of the hair or the folding of the sari, all symbolizing ‘a feminized social body’ (David, 2009), describing how a woman should appear and behave in this cultural context. Another more specific example would be that of the heroine character, known as the nayika, and how she uses stylized gestures to prepare herself to meet the hero, the nayaka. Through these gestures the dance transmits an idea of femininity and grace which acts as an ideal for all Tamil women to try live up to and admire. This also links to Bourdieu’s concept of ‘doxa’, which is formed through a combination of unspoken norms and beliefs that are ‘taken-for-granted assumptions or “common sense” behind the distinctions we make’ (Powercube, 2012), which in this case is the portrayal of how women are expected to behave. These characteristics that Tamil women need to behold are part of an unstated conduct that is reinforced through the dance’s movements and storytelling, constantly reminding the Tamil population, and women in particular, what their role in society is. As author Ann R. David explains, ‘for the Tamil middle class, Bharatanatyam promises respectability and a traditional femininity and is, therefore, a prized carrier of tradition’ (David, 2009). As a result, purity of Tamil tradition, their rituals and religion, their language and their social behaviour (such as the importance of women’s chastity in the Tamil civilization) is upheld substantially through Bharatanatyam – it is considered an influential tool used to craft social status and conduct, uniting Tamil cultural identity across the world.
However, first-generation Tamil immigrants, and especially Tamil Hindu groups, are concerned that the external pressures of the West may overwhelm the younger generations and cause them to lose sight of their national identity as Tamilians. In order to preserve this sense of cultural identity, several schools have been built abroad to encourage and indulge the youth in their Tamil culture, ensuring that their roots are not forgotten. These classes would, according to Ann R. David, ‘allow the transmission of traditional culture and assist immigrants in maintaining Tamil identity in local diasporic settings … where the acquisition of Tamil social, cultural, and religious values does not necessarily take place’ (David, 2009). Most Sri Lankan Tamil temples and Tamil weekend classes in London are led by Tamil conservationists who try to stay true to their cultural identity by discouraging their dance pupils to attend international performances to keep them from any ‘outside’ influences. In addition, most of the syllabus is written and taught in Tamil, despite the fact that the second generations are likely to have grown up with English as their first language given their educational and social context. This obsession to ensure that Bharatanatyam is practised and incorporated in the lives of immigrated Tamilians means that, as a result, the dance now bears ‘more rituals and ceremonies attached to it today than it had during the period of its revival’ (David, 2009). For example, the offering of flowers on stage, known as pushpanjali, and the dedication of bells on the stage are common rituals now that were not required previously in Bharatanatyam. As part of their cultural essentialism, none of the teachers in the London Tamil temples have introduced any creative or slightly unconventional material to their students, ensuring that the history of the dance is untouched in order to transfer a pure concept of their Tamil cultural identity. This may be considered as what Bourdieu refers to as ‘misrecognition’, similar to Marx’s concept of ‘false consciousness’, which is the conscious manipulation of a certain group or individual. In this case, the conservationists use Bharatanatyam to encourage certain social pressures that have been accepted without questioning – such as, as previously discussed, the role of obedient women in the Tamil society.
But is this pressure of preserving Tamil traditions through Bharatanatyam having the contrary effect and pushing away the younger generations from exploring their cultural identity? Some may argue yes, as certain teachers and practitioners, mostly in other countries in Europe and in North America, support Tamil nationalism through change and development. Aided and supported by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), Tamil Sri Lankan nationalism in particular is encouraged to evolve through more creative Bharatanatyam choreographies. For example, a Bharatanatyam piece was choreographed narrating the story of a military woman who sacrifices her male relatives to be a part of the Sri Lankan war. These types of narrations are unconventional compared to any of the traditional Bharatanatyam stories which usually involve Gods and their relationship with mankind. Another example would be the Akademi centre today whose goal is to ‘enlarge received aesthetic definitions of the “traditional” and “classical” through strategic acts of cultural translation and situate Indian dance on the multicultural map of Great Britain’ (Meduri, 2004). Therefore, this ‘modernising’ of Bharatanatyam and the use of its representative symbolic movements to express contemporary concerns is going against the work of the preservationists. This contemporary development of Bharatanayam can be seen as creating a new, more current and perhaps global cultural identity.
This sense of ‘global identity’ seems to be growing, even in Britain, especially amongst the second generation as they have no strong, direct ties to their homeland. They hence tend to see themselves more as British, British Asian or British Hindu citizens who are made up of both cultures, yet belong strongly to neither. These young Tamilians are part of a ‘global youth culture’ (Saldanha, cited in David, 2009) which means they hold a global identity, unlike their elder relatives who struggle to maintain their traditional cultural identity whilst living in a different country amidst a completely different set of values. In the late 20th century all Indian dance forms were put under the label of ‘South Asian dance’, despite the fact that South Asia evidently consists of many more countries than just India, hence not only creating a rather vague category for these Indian dances, but also merging internationalism with nationalism. The specific classical dance ‘Bharatantyam’ being thrown amidst numerous other Indian dances and renamed as a part of a ‘South Asian’ dance was a huge turning point as it ‘enlarged the Indian label and made visible the diverse dance, performance, and theatre practices of the Indian/Asian diaspora’ (Meduri, 2004). But some Bharatanatyam dancers and teachers, such as Mira Kaushik, encouraged this relocation of Bharatanatyam dance within the broader category of South Asian dance. Kaushik claimed that ‘although Indian dance might look Indian, it is South Asian dance in the United Kingdom because it is performed not just by immigrant dancers from India but by “hundreds of South Asian dancers” belonging to the different nations of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, and Africa’ (Meduri, 2004). One may argue that Kaushik challenges the idea that Bharatanatyam is specially ‘reserved’ for Tamilians as their source of cultural identity; she brings a whole new concept to Bharatanatyam by suggesting that it can appeal, be understood and performed by many other nationalities. This reform therefore alters and reshapes the key tool – Bharatanatyam – that traditionally promotes the estalished Tamil habitus. By reintegrating Bharatanaytam with a more futuristic and contemporary aspect, it challenges the culture’s original habitus and its centuries of unquestioned customs.
Therefore Bharatnatyam may actually be seen as a source of creativity and as a catalyst for a new global identity, rather than a source of tradition and preservation of a purely Tamil identity. Bharatnayam has been adopted and reworked since the very beginning of the 1900s by the West, especially in the United States to begin with. For example, in 1906 Ruth St. Denis, the co-founder of the dance company ‘Denishawn’, was hugely inspired by South Asian dance and she immersed herself in Indian writings and culture. She used these resources to later on choreograph dance pieces, such as ‘Incense’, ‘The Legend of the Peacock’, ‘Radha’ and further on group productions such as ‘The Flute of Krishna’ in the 1920s. Another distinct dance pioneer, La Meri, even created a rendition of ‘Swan Lake’ through Bharatanatyam vocabulary. Especially since the 1930s, Bharatnayam has opened up, as men now feel comfortable to interpret womanly roles, whilst also many dancers from outside of the Tamil nationality have began practicing Bharatanatyam, even to a professional level.
But does this globalisation of Bharatanatyam necessarily affect the preservation and the influence it has on the Tamil population and their cultural identity? Rather on the contrary, although Bharatantyam has been increasingly globalised since the early 1900s, the dance itself to this day remains associated with tradition and symbolism. Both in local Indian communities and abroad, Bharatanatyam is an art that globally and continually promotes the habitus of the Tamil community and its values: whether a non-Tamilian dances it, whether a contemporary story is being told or whether a man dances a woman’s character – the movement vocabulary and the concepts behind the dance remains the same – for example, even the interpretation of ‘Swan Lake’ by Le Meri through Bharatanaym essentially needs to use the dance’s symbolized codes to tell the story. Bharatanatyam is based intricately on traditional meanings, and therefore whatever context it may be placed in, it will stay true to its Tamil origin. Especially in countries such as Britain and Indonesia where the Tamil population is significant, Bharatanatyam remains a key pathway to not only identify themselves with their distant Tamil customs and embody their culture’s habitus, but to spread it worldwide.
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