(this post was contributed by a feminist i know - an ex-blogger, M.)

There are many of us women who have been cajoled and coerced into joining Carnatic music classes, or Bharatanatyam at some stage in our lives. We usually look back at it as a folly of youth – something you got pushed into by an adult, who firmly declared “It’s our culture and you must learn at least a little bit of it when you’re young.”

Groaning and reluctant, many of us may have endured the phase with a leaden face. Then during adolescence, it’d be the first casuality of the power to choose – it’d have been dropped like a brick, because it was traditional, stick-in-the-mud stuff: uncool and boringly conventional, like thair sadam.

Here’s the crunch: that’s a standard view of dance and music, from a conventionally
rebellious angle. Yep, it takes more than unthinking rejection to make a genuine rebel. And some rebels traced a flaming path based on what they chose to embrace rather than reject – like music and dance.

Much has been said about Rukmini Devi Arundale in he last year or so because Kalakshetra just celebrated her birth centenary. Given her background and the society she lived in, she was a rebel alright – the strange thing is that the most horrifying thing she did was to want to learn bharatanatyam.

At that point of time, society had forgotten that the original pursuit of art was to enable the commoner to experience the divine. Dance was simply entertainment provided to the male viewer, and the dancer (devadasi) occupied a vulnerable, marginal position in society. This state of affairs, combined with a virulent strain of Victorian prudery acquired from our colonial past, ensured that the art form itself fell into disrepute. Both devadasis and their dance were banned.
Fortunately, there were some who were so entrenched in their ways, that they refused to give up their identity. They continued to practice secretly and teach the next generation if they could. But dance (‘sadir’ as it was then called) was a dirty word.

Then came a remarkable man called E. Krishna Iyer. He felt that the art form as such was beautiful, and worth saving. So he persuaded a lady of devadasi descent to perform at the prestigious Madras Music Academy – she was the legendary Balasaraswati.

Rukmini Devi was so impressed by what she saw, that she too decided to revive the dying art. So she gathered the remaining exponents of the art form and founded the Kalakshetra to revive and propogate sadir. It soon became an art form that could hold its own in any perfoming space in the world. But first, in order to delink it from its ‘unacceptable’ past, particularly in order to win Indian societal approval, sadir was re-christened as Bharatanatyam in a historic meeting held at the Music Academy.

Contrary to what you might expect, this lead to an irreconcilable difference between Balasaraswati and Rukmini Devi. They held diametrically opposite views on the essence of dance: to the former, the sexual led to the spiritual whereas to the latter, dance had to be ‘sanitised’ in order to be acceptable and elevated - the sexual had no place.

Fortunately, the former was a brilliant dancer and held her own, so dancers today still have access to varied compositions and can move from the sexual to the spiritual : a complete psychic bridge exists.

It is this spectrum of attitudes that makes the medium of bharatanatyam impressive. It also bridges the chasm that divides the conventional, patriarchally acceptable narrative of relationships and the unconventional, feminist ones – there are compositions about wives and husbands, prostitutes and patrons, about faithful partners, and promiscuous ones where the lover may be faithful and the husband, a philanderer. All of them speak realistically of what it means to be a woman. It is this richness of content and space for the female narrative that makes bharatanatyam resonate for women - from the docilely conventional to the fiercely rebellious.

So learning those old-fashioned adavus may be just the first step in a culturally conscious act of feminist rebellion.