- At Home in the World: Bharata Natyam on the Global Stage
In At Home in the World: Bharata Natyam on the Global Stage, Janet O’Shea provides a detailed analysis of the codification of this relatively modern dance form. Bharata natyam was developed from dance traditions, previously known as sadir or nautch dance, which served temples and courts throughout India’s rich history. It was one of seven dance forms to be deemed “classical” in the middle of the last century (Odissi and Kathikali are two other examples). Private patronage and allegations of prostitution caused the original forms and the dancers’ nontraditional lifestyles to be closely scrutinized at the turn of the century. The selective process necessary to assuage critics and promote bharata natyam (which was renamed as part of the reclamation) as a national symbol is investigated in depth here. The complexity of the political ramifications surrounding this dance form helps to explain why it has been surprisingly difficult for Western scholars to bring bharata natyam into their discourse and classrooms, a task still left almost exclusively to life-long practitioners. This may also account for the prevalence of essays titled “What Is Bharata Natyam?,” even in very recent scholarship by practitioners. In the preface, O’Shea references one such “What is . . .?” article, published in the South Indian dance and music periodical Sruti in August 2001, which called for fixed standards and impaneled judges for the field. This article (by dance critic and historian N. Pattabhi Raman) serves as her starting point. Such ongoing queries by experts in the field emerge from politically charged decisions regarding which visual and thematic elements should comprise the new form. These negotiated boundaries remain pivotal to the practicing dancer, but are not sufficiently discussed in most of the existing texts on India’s classical [End Page 144] dance. O’Shea provides a detailed and authoritative discussion of the need for further analysis of a variety of issues, including regionalism, nationalism, feminism, traditionalism versus innovation, and idealism versus historicism.
O’Shea’s book is structured not by linear historical events, but around controversial issues, the circumstances of their inception, and their manifestations in performance. This is very helpful in shifting the focus away from the biographies of celebrated practitioners and onto the issues they were negotiating. In the first chapter, “Tradition and the Individual Dancer,” O’Shea investigates the tension between continuity and individuality in twentieth-century bharata natyam. This is a natural starting point for tracing the rapid transformation of this dance form from national stigma into international symbol. Throughout her text, O’Shea discusses the works of early pioneers who served as “reformers” (or, perhaps, “revivalists”). These dancers, including Krishna Iyer, Rukmini Devi, Balasaraswati, and Ram Gopal, have been widely celebrated, but the positioning of their choreography and discourse along volatile political and social fissures (e.g., piety versus sexuality, regionalism versus nationalism, spectacle versus message), which today’s dancers either echo or eschew, has never before been so clearly delineated and contextualized. O’Shea examines the work of several leading contemporary choreographers, such as Mallika Sarabhai, Mythili Kumar, Lata Pada, and Roger Sinha, in order to gauge their participation in these oppositions. O’Shea’s commentary is strongest and most accessible when it addresses specific dancers and dance pieces. At times her examination of historical movements and contexts tends toward a more dense scholarly style of writing that will discourage nonspecialists, whom she claims are her target audience.
In chapter 2, “Nation and Region,” O’Shea investigates interpretations of history proposed in the revival of bharata natyam and the production of imagined communities; for example, the privileging of Tamil or Telugu (regional) over Sanskrit (national) lyrics, or allegedly authentic, regional dance sites over the new colonial centers of commerce and art such as Chennai (formerly Madras). With India’s independence being negotiated on a variety of stages—social, political, and theatrical— the “creation” of bharata natyam constantly intersected with nationalism. This discussion, which is one of the...