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Reviewed by:
  • At Home in the World: Bharata Natyam on the Global Stage
  • Avanthi Meduri
At Home in the World: Bharata Natyam On The Global Stage. By Janet O'Shea, Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 2007. 240 pp. 21 illus. Paper $26.95; Cloth $70.00.

Janet O'Shea's celebratory book on bharatanatyam, (bharata natyam in this book), the quintessential national and classical dance of India, describes the transition of the dance from its beginnings in the temples and courts of South India to a highly respected international dance practice, presented on global stages today. The book is important reading for dance scholars because it culls dance scholarship articulated in dance anthropology, area studies, subaltern studies, postcolonial studies, cultural, religious and performance studies since the 1980s. In addition, O'Shea provides a new conceptual perspective by situating the history and choreographic practice of bharatanatyam, within both an areas studies and transnational framework. She then proceeds to tell the story of the transnationalization of twentieth-century bharatanatyam within a local/global framework.

To develop this transnational framework, O'Shea focuses on three dance pioneers of bharatanatyam: T. Balasaraswati, belonging herself to traditional devadasi temple traditions; Rukmini Devi, the first upper class Brahmin woman of international stature to learn the dance in the 1930s; and E. Krishna Iyer, an activist nationalist, who urged women like Rukmini Devi to learn the dance in the 1930s. Although O'Shea invokes the model of two women and a man, her main focus, is on the two women and how they shaped their influential visions for twentieth-century bharatanatyam in the 1930s and 1940s. O'Shea explains that the representative regional and national visions, constituted by the two women in the formative stages of these decades, were reconfigured by bharatanatyam dancers in the diaspora of the late 1980s.

O'Shea's local/global paradigm is ahistorical and problematic because it essentializes the changing, international visions of the two women dance pioneers by dichotomizing their visions within area studies framework of Indian regionalism and nationalism. Not only did the two women pioneers negotiate regional and national politics during their long and distinguished careers ending in the 1980s, but their individual visions, articulated within different caste and class backgrounds, were dialogised, and transformed into representative "national" visions, after the declaration of Indian Independence in 1947, and the formation of the Indian nation-state in the 1950s. (Meduri 2008: 229–234). O'Shea neglects to mark this definitive moment of rupture and transformation in the social production of Indian performing arts, and dichotomizes the vision of the two dance-pioneers within the never-changing region/nation time warp of the 1930s and 1940s.

This focus on the first two decades of the bharatanatyam dance revival is itself problematic because the revival, in a nascent and formative stage, caught fire, and assumed a life of its own after the Indian nation-state established national Akademies to foster the development of the arts on a national and international scale in the 1950s. At the first national dance conference held in New Delhi in 1958, V. Raghavan declared bharatanatyam as the national dance par excellence and the dance was exported as the "national" and "classical" dance [End Page 378] in the cultural exchange programmes that India negotiated with the West in the 1960s (Meduri 2008). Kapila Vatsyayan, India's' most revered scholar of Indian performing arts, collaborated with Raghavan, Rukmini Devi, and Bala-saraswati and constituted a state sponsored historiography for bharatanatyam, which the two dancers visualized, albeit differently, on national and international stages, in the 1950s (Meduri 2008: 229–234).

The 1950s were transformative years in the twentieth century dance revival. Both T. Balasraswati and Rukmini Devi were feted with numerous national awards and staged as two national icons or bhushans (jewels) of the Indian nation in the 1950s. Balasaraswati, who in fact, almost gave up dancing in the war years, which she described as "dog years", was returned to center stage through the timely intervention of V. Raghavan and Vatsyayan. She began teaching her Balaswarwati style bharatanatyam from within the institutional context of the Madras Music Academy, a premier, national institution for Indian performing arts in the 1950s. Rukmini...