During my time living abroad in Madurai, India, in 2006, I interviewed eleven Bharata Natyam teachers (or gurus) on the topic of religious and sociopolitical influences on the dance form. The end result being a first attempt at writing ethnography, what I took home with me are these artists' unique perspectives of the origins, styles, rituals and practices of this ever-evolving dance form. I would like to share highlights and insights from these interviews over the course of the next few months. Sometimes I will show multiple gurus' responses to the same question, while other times focus in on a discussion with just one. Some of the interviews were conducted with the help of a translator, and I have abbreviated the names of the gurus to preserve their anonymity.
Interviews from India, Part One:
Guide-- K=Guru K (Male), in third person because through a translator; A=Me!
A: What is your dance history?
K: In 1982 he was studying 8th standard. At one point of time they had a celebration in the school, and he was so enthusiastic, and he also started to dance, and one person in the audience said, why don’t you learn Bharata Natyam? If you learn Bharata Natyam your future will be good. So by these words he went to a teacher named Shantani Amangiri. After finishing 10th standard, he couldn’t study anymore because his family had no more money to spend on education. So he had many programs coming to him and his whole life was based on Bharata Natyam, he used to go to many programs. So his second teacher was his mother. So she took training on Kathakali which is mainly based on facial expressions. From his mother he learned how to do expressions. So he joined a government music college for Bharata Natyam. In 1994 he finished college. After finishing college he began teaching at the Mahatma School.
A: So his mother taught him Bharata Natyam?
K: She is the one who inspired him a lot and was a source of guidance.
A: Did she study Bharata Natyam?
K: She studied only Kathakali.
A: How is the dance form passed down from generation to generation?
K: Sixty years back Bharata Natyam was only danced in the temples. These girls who danced in the temples were known as Devadasigirl. So this dance was called Chadir (Sadir). So nobody used to marry these Devadasigirls. If there is any function these girls used to perform a Bharata Natyam program.
A: Do you choreograph your own dances?
K: His guru told him there must be creativity in the dances. He must creatively dance with his own ideas and thoughts. So it must be different and unique from the way that his guru has taught him.
A: Do you feel Bharata Natyam is religious?
K: Only in Bharata Natyam we can explain anything, communication reaches quicker than all other communications. It doesn’t talk about religion so much as it talks about day to day life. Nowadays Bharata Natyam has been more clarified and it’s not danced in the usual ways. Before they used to dance only religious stories, like the stories of Paravati and other gods and goddesses, but nowadays Bharata Natyam has been taken over and they are dancing for day to day life. The dance form is like a story telling to other people. So at first, in the past, expressing themselves through words could not communicate feelings as well as dance could. So it is an easy communication between people. It was for enjoyment and for conveying a message. Like Anita Ratanam and Shovana are two dancers who dance for social purposes and to educate the people. So, there was a TV show in which Shovana communicated topics such as poverty, pollution, unemployment. So Bharata Natyam is the easiest way to communicate.
A: So dance was religious, but do you feel it has now become separated from it?
K: Before, 60 years ago, when many Kings were there, they used to give money to the dancers and employ them. At that point they used to have more opportunities than in nowadays, nowadays it’s been exploited. Nowadays artists are not getting the correct opportunity to express themselves. In the past, they used to get a separate house and salary, but now the government is not cooperating with the artist. If the government was aiding them, they could improve a lot. In the past, there were only a limited number of people who used to dance, but now it has become a hobby and people who love to do it can dance. Not just taught in temples but also in many schools and many programs are being conducted. So they (artists) have more freedom than in the past. He is really sad that people are wanting money and bribes to admit students into colleges. And artists are really suffering a lot. People with a lot of money pay bribes and get a job but people with no money are suffering a lot.
A: Do you think that the parents want children to learn Bharata Natyam because it represents Tamil culture?
K: Bharata Natyam is taught in school and in many different places and parents are really encouraging the students to learn Bharata Natyam. All kind of people should learn it, not just Brahmans or Hindus – Christians, etc, can learn too if they want to. Even Indians in foreign countries, parents are encouraging children to learn. Many foreigners go to the Kalakshestra school, in Chennai, to study Bharata Natyam.
A: Is there a different way of teaching boys versus girls?
K: There must not be any difference in the way you teach a boy or a girl. He is a guru, and every boy and girl is treated equally – he must impart all his knowledge upon them regardless of their gender – teaches them the same steps. A girl may have to play the role of a male god – he won’t just teach girls in a soft manner therefore. He teaches all the same steps to boys and girls because each may have to play both god and goddess in an expressive piece.
Interview conducted by Alissa Horowitz in October 30, 2006 with translator, Shakti, in Madurai, India.
[Note: the picture shown is not of the aforementioned guru]