October 30, 2011

Preserving traditions

India has an incredibly rich cultural heritage. There are hundreds of performing art forms, including theatre and drama, dance, martial arts and musical traditions, both classical and folk. Some of these traditions are better known than others, and as a result, are given more opportunities to be showcased. While there is a proliferation of performances of dance forms like Bharata Natyam, Kathak and Odissi, there are few opportunities for audiences to see other, lesser known performing arts traditions like Sattriya, Kutiyattam, Chhau and Vilasini Natyam. Chances are that many people may have not even heard of these art forms, let alone had the opportunity to experience them.

Why is it that some performing arts are better known and more popular than others? Are those which have been given the classical ‘tag’ somehow entitled to more recognition and seen to have a higher value? This brings up some pertinent questions: What makes a dance ‘classical’? Does a dance form need to be a granted a ‘status’ to be recognised and valued?

Despite their different names (and classifications), many of India’s performing arts traditions actually have a lot in common. They have their origins in the Natya Shastra, the ancient text on dramaturgy written in the 2nd century by Bharata Muni and thus share many of the same principles. For example, they feature aspects of nritta (pure dance), nritya (expressive dance) and natya (drama). They have a sacred and ritualistic aspect and were often performed in holy places like temples or monasteries. Today these performing arts traditions have been adapted for presentation on the stages of metropolitan cities and each has developed a distinctive performance repertoire.

Many of these traditional performing arts also went through a period of precariousness and faced many challenges to their continued existence. When support structures and patronage to these arts performed in temples and courts were disrupted, the development and continuation of these forms was interrupted. Following Independence when there was an increased interest in India’s artistic heritage, some dance traditions experienced a renaissance and rebirth. They were adapted for the modern stage and entered a new period in their development. Because of this historical interruption followed by revival and reconstruction, most performing arts traditions we see today can really only be considered to be ‘neo-classical’ as they are reinvented versions of their former selves.

Today a performing art form tends to be classified as ‘classical’ if it has its origins in the Natya Shastra and features, as mentioned previously, elements of nritta, nritya and natya. Despite the fact that many of India’s performing arts traditions trace their origins to the Natya Shastra, it is generally claimed that there are only eight classical dance traditions.

In 2000, Sattriya became India’s ‘eighth classical dance’. Recognition of its classical status was granted much later than other dance forms. Anwesa Mahanta, Sattriya dancer and research scholar, explains that Sattriya’s important ritual aspect perhaps kept it out of public view. “The art form is practiced as a ritual, as a ceremonial offering in the namghar,” she says. “Although the local people of Assam accepted and embraced the art form, the vision of the status of classical developed later. What was more important was the celebration of sacredness of the art form, and even today in villages, namghars and Sattras, Sattriya music, dance and theatre are offered as a ceremonial ritual. This ritual association might have kept away the tradition from the outside onlookers. The geographic insularity of the region might also be another reason.” (Left: Anwesa Mahanta)

Originating in the 15th century, Sattriya is traditionally performed as a ritual form of worship by male monks in the Sattras or monasteries of Assam. Today the form has moved to the stage and is also performed by women. In contrast to the history of other Indian performing arts forms, Sattriya has remained a continued living tradition, explains Mahanta: “Sattriya was never a dying tradition. The tradition has continued as a living art form which has been pursued since the 15th century. The lamp which was lit by the Assamese saint-poet Srimanta Sankardeva was carried out by his disciples with utmost devotion. Even when the soil erosions of Majuli island threatened the precincts of the Sattras, the monks pursued the art form. Hence even today, Sattriya dance is highly regarded as a living art and more than that, a sacred art which has continued, and been practiced and preserved since the 15th century.”

An example of a dance tradition which was at risk of vanishing and has more recently gone through a revival is Vilasini Natyam. This was the dance tradition once performed in the temples and courts of Andhra Pradesh and other Telugu-speaking regions of South India by hereditary dancers. While other dance forms of South India went through a period of revival following Independence, Vilasini Natyam remained in their shadow. By the 1950s there were very few performers left and it was in danger of disappearing altogether. Through the hard work and perseverance of the renowned Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi dancer Swapnasundari, this dance form has been resurrected and revived. She has made many efforts to preserve this dance tradition: by researching and documenting its oral tradition, publishing a book on its origins, development and revival, and performing to audiences and teaching dedicated students. She has also taken the dance back to the temple where the ritual and ceremonial dances of Vilasini Natyam are performed every year as part of worship at the Sri Ranganatha Swamy temple in Rang Bagh, Hyderabad. (See image right)

These preservation efforts will ensure Vilasini Natyam’s continuation and promote an increased interest in this dance tradition. But attaining official recognition is a bigger challenge. Despite its classical structure, Vilasini Natyam is not considered by some to be a classical tradition. But according to Swapnasundari, this question of status is irrelevant. “Though I was already an established and successful exponent of two such ‘classical’ dance-forms, I started focussing on Vilasini Natyam. I did not require to know of its ‘status’ then, nor does it bother me now. After I started to perform this style all over the country, it received critical acclaim at the national level. No one has been bothered about its ‘status’ when they enjoyed the dance-form. Vilasini Natyam has already covered a lot of ground and has made its place in people’s hearts. This style continues to be featured in the best platforms before real connoisseurs. This question therefore bears relevance for the coming generations of Vilasini Natyam dancers. People who have seen Vilasini Natyam over the years tell us that they are shocked and surprised that national and international bodies still choose to remain aloof. This is an abdication of responsibility by these organisations towards the future generation of Vilasini Natyam dancers, some of whom are making good stride as performers.”

The concerted efforts of practitioners and teachers towards the propagation and preservation of a classical art form does much to advance its cause. There are also efforts at the national and international levels to recognise the classical traditions and in this way offer more visibility and recognition. Through its goal to protect and preserve cultural heritage and improve awareness of its significance worldwide, UNESCO established the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Currently there are eight Indian performing arts forms included on this list, including Chhau and Kutiyattam.

Chhau is often described as a martial art form though it also uses folk and tribal traditions and yet also has classical elements of nritta, nritya and natya. “Chhau is classified as semi-classical,” explains Bhubaneswar-based Odissi and Chhau performer and teacher, Ileana Citaristi. “This is because the martial art and folk elements from which it has derived are still more predominant than the classical ones.” There are three different forms of Chhau: Seraikhella and Mayurbhanji which originated in the state of Orissa and Purulia from West Bengal. Today Seraikhella is located in Jharkand and Mayurbhanji in Orissa. Seraikhella and Purulia are performed with masks, while Mayurbhaji is the maskless form of Chhau. Chhau was traditionally performed exclusively by men and flourished under royal patronage. “Soon after Independence, the Oustads (masters) had a tough time to survive since the patronage by the Royal family was withdrawn,” says Citaristi. “It took quite some time before government intervened.” Has UNESCO status furthered its cause? Seeing that recognition for Chhau was granted only in 2010, Citaristi, thinks only time can tell: “It is too recent to say and in any case it is not very clear if recognition has been granted for the three forms of Chhau or only for Seraikhella. It may help in achieving the status of classical or in being recognized but it is not enough. Exponents of the particular art form should also stand out for their own merits.” (Image above: Mayurbanji Chhau courtesy of Ileana Citaristi)

Kutiyattam, the Sanskrit theatre form from Kerala was recognised as ‘intangible cultural heritage’ by UNESCO in 2001. Dating back over 2000 years, this is one of the oldest living theatre traditions. Traditionally performed in Kuttampalams, theatres located in Hindu temples, it was reserved for a particular Brahmin caste, the Chakyars. Performed in Sanskrit, performances would last for hours, and often went on all-night or for several days. Today it has been adapted for the modern stage: plays have become shorter, the pace has been quickened. Kutiyattam has also faced its own challenges: rapid and social changes have compromised its continuation in an unadulterated form. “Social changes happening everywhere affected Kutiyattam too,” explains K. K. Gopalakrishnan, director of the Centre for Kutiyattam in Trivandrum. “British rule was disastrous to cultural heritage, temples became poor and peoples’ priorities changed. Few have the time to watch performances which last a full night and even whole days. Other factors which put the tradition at risk were the fading of the joint family system, changes to the class system, population movement and opportunities for high-income employment. On the other side, temples became poor due to social changes and income from the performances declined. As a result, fewer people are committed to take up the art. But even then, a few gurus of each generation preserved the art and never allowed that fire to die. For example, in 1956 late guru Painkulam Ramachakyar took Kutiyattam outside the temple precincts amid strong opposition from his own clan and the orthodox and in 1965 the Kerala Kalamandalam institutionalised the training of Kutiyattam by starting a course for the first time outside the home of a Chakyar. In this way Painkulam was the first guru to train members of other communities to take up the art.” (Image above by KK Gopalakrishnan)

And has UNESCO status helped to preserve this ancient theatre form? Gopalakrishnan remains optimistic: “In the changing social scenario such recognition helps, for example, to get more outreach and funding and it also gives more global publicity to the form. But one should not forget that the system is sustained only through committed gurus and devoted disciples who are prepared to preserve the form at any cost and not only through any such mere recognition.”

An abridged version of the article was published in On Stage magazine in September 2011.

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