When it comes to explaining what dance is, several definitions are available. It refers to the movement of the body. It is a form of expression. It is also a mode of social interaction. But definitions of what constitutes dance are dependent on social, cultural, political, aesthetic and moral constraints. Dance can be defined in terms of technique, but also as ceremonial, competitive, combative and narrative.
It is my argument that the definition of dance, like dancing itself, is not static. If one is to be inclusive and not divisive in one’s approach to dance, then the definition of dance has to be fluid. It must evolve along with its cultural, political and social surroundings. It must also be open-ended in order to include new creative minds and choreographies.
Why do I say that dance cannot have one static definition? It is because dance itself changes – its history has shown that. In order to demonstate this, I take the example of Bharatanatyam, arguing that this one dance form itself does not have one fixed definition. Thus, ‘dance’ cannot be defined as a fixed, rigid entity.
Just as the west made an evolution from Ballet to Contemporary, from Isadora Duncan to Martha Graham to Merce Cunningham, Bharatanatyam too, evolved greatly over the ages. The earliest accounts of Bharatanatyam (in texts dating around the 11th century) point towards the fact that it was performed in temples by Devadasis, or servants of the gods. Devadasis performed what was called ‘Sadir’ in the temples. At this time, perhaps dance was defined by its space in the temple, and by the relationship of the dancers to the temple, and to larger society.
Devadasis are commonly labeled as courtesans or prostitutes. While this is not entirely wrong, it was not always the case. According to Janet O’Shea, a dance scholar, during their prime, Devadasis were highly respected in Indian society. They enjoyed high status and were associated with ‘auspiciousness’ due to their ‘wedding’ to the temple deity. Devadasis offered their dance, Sadir to the temples and performed temple duties. They enjoyed patronage from the temple, as well as some wealthy patrons with whom they occasionally had sexual alliances. Dance was defined by the temple, and by the sensuality of the dancers.
During colonial rule, the Devadasis came to be stigmatized. This stigma attached to them, I argue, came about due to Victorian notions of sexuality. The same notions that pronounced Khajuraho temples to be vulgar and obscene, and the Indian native to be barbaric and overtly sexual, tainted the Devadasi as the prostitute. It is important to acknowledge the role of the Indian Nationalists in the incarceration of Devadasis, who could not respond to these colonial allegations towards the natives by exemplifying the Devadasis as a source of national pride. Here, we find that dance came to be redefined due to imperialism and Victorian ideals.
During this time, the content of Bharatanatyam also changed. Devadasi performances largely comprised of sensual stories about love from Jayadeva’s Gitagovindam. Pioneers of dance such as Rukmini Devi Arundale introduced Nataraja to the Bharatanatyam repertoire. Nataraja, a more severe and less sensual deity, contributed to the redefinition of Bharatanatyam from being a sensual dance to being a more ceremonial dance about the vanquishing of impurities, and celebrating the awe and devotion to Nataraja. ‘Sringara’ or sensuality was thus replaced by ‘Bhakti’ or devotion. While the acclaimed ‘devadasi’ dancer Balasaraswati found the purification unnecessary and even perhaps insulting, Rukmini Devi thought it imperative to the evolution of dance in India. And thus Bharatanatyam’s definition changed once again.
Today, Bharatanatyam finds itself redefined again and again. Bharatanatyam is not defined by national boundaries anymore. It is practiced and performed all over the world. Moreover, formerly a dance form practiced only by lower caste women, today it is performed primarily by the Brahmin elite. In this sense, class also played a role in defining this dance. Further, gender made its contribution to the redefining of Bharatanatyam – earlier where men were either the Gurus or the patrons or spectators, today they practice and perform Bharatanatyam.
In contemporary India, the content of Bharatanatyam has also become broader. Chandralekha has expressed femininity, sexuality, mathematics and physics through the idioms of Bharatanatyam, Kalaripayattu and Yoga. Some argue that what she performed is not Bharatanatyam, but others argue that if the definition of Bharatanatyam is defined more broadly and fluidly, then what Chandralekha did was a part of what constitutes Bharatanatyam.
Other dancers like Shobana Jeyasingh have connected movements originating from Bharatanatyam with other western styles. Again, if one is to define Bharatanatyam in its rigid sense, Jeyasingh’s work falls out of the spectrum of what defines Bharatanatyam. But otherwise, it may be seen as another branch of Bharatanatyam.
Several young dancers in India are exploring new and different ways of expressing themselves through Bharatanatyam, while others have explored the vocabulary of Bharatanatyam to develop movement in contemporary dance in India. As a young Bharatanatyam dancer myself, I constantly try to delve into its definition to find ways to highlight its relevance and contemporaneity. Loosening the ropes around the guarded definition of what Bharatanatyam is has been very rewarding for me. By broadening its definition, I have been able to reach out to audiences that do not understand the language or culture, or the religious aspect of it, but have understood the dance – as a form, as a mode of story-telling, and as a mechanism for social change. As a dancer, what more can you ask for.
To conclude, I believe that the beauty of defining dance lies in recognizing its dynamism. Dance is not static, and neither can its definition ever be. Dance will redefine itself constantly – in order to remain relevant and important to contemporary society. I would even say that it will redefine itself in order to survive. Some believe that Bharatanatyam had to shed its sensuality in the Victorian era, otherwise it may have been forced into extinction. Along similar lines, Bharatanatyam begs to be redefined today, in sync with contemporary society.
Ultimately, dance today is what we make it today. It is different from what it was fifty years ago, and it will be different in the fifty years to come. I don’t think this is alarming. In fact, it is a natural progression from one period to another. I don’t think that dance can or should be ‘museumised’. It must not stay the same as ‘it always was’. Definitions of what dance is must change. Dance was never meant to have a single definition. If it did, such beautiful varieties of dance would not exist in the world. Dance was also never meant to be rigid or static. Fluidity and dynamism are after all, the raison d’etre of dance. As for its definition – it is imperative to creativity and improvisation, that its definition remain open-ended, broad and fluid.