I was following a rather interesting discussion yesterday on television. It concerned two groups of people, one contending that the traditional arts were vulgar and the other contending that vulgarity, or the lack of it depended on one’s perspective.
The one thing I noticed about people who protested vehemently against vulgarity in art, was that there is too much of skin show, too much eroticism and too much sensuality in the traditional art forms. Fair enough, I would say. Except that one of the special guests on the programme was an office-bearer of the BJP. She started by saying that music and dance in temple festivals were ok, as long as the organizers invited classical musicians and Bharatanatyam dancers to it. She went on to state that only these art forms were the truly representative of Indian culture. According to her, the folk arts and other traditional forms were lesser art forms, and did not reflect true Indian culture.
This statement is not only infuriating, but also blatantly and completely false. These self-appointed custodians of Indian culture have no real idea of what Indian culture implies. Some facts need to be clarified at this point.
Myth: The classical arts are the purest form of Indian performing arts.
Reality: The classical arts are heavily influenced by other cultures, and are by no means the purest form of art expression. In fact, both Carnatic Music and Bharatanatyam evolved and crystallized in the late 18th Century, with the musical trinity, Muthuswamy Dikshithar, Shyama Shastri and Thyagaraja. Hindustani classical music draws heavily from Mughal influences, from the 12th Century onwards. (Source)
Myth: Indian culture condemns sex and sensuality. It must stay within the confines of the bedroom, and has no place in art.
Reality: Check out the statues at Khajuraho. Or even in the Kapaleeswarar Temple in Mylapore, Chennai. Many of them portray sexual positions. They celebrate sex as sacred and essential. Much of our reluctance to accept the portrayal of sexuality in public stems from Victorian, and essentially non-Indian influences. In fact the Shiva Linga in itself is a symbol of fertility, along with the feminine Yoni. A refusal to recognize it is simply a refusal to see our religion for what it really is.
Myth: Theru-koothu, karagam, mayilaattam etc. are lower art forms.
Reality: Nothing could be farther from the truth. These folk art forms are the most basic dance forms and are no less than the classical arts. In fact, they form the basis of our performing arts.
Myth: Bharatanatyam is the highest dance form.
Reality: Bharatanatyam was condemned and shunned by the Hindu mainstream until the time of Rukmini Devi Arundale, founder of Kalakshetra. Until her time, the dance form was confined to the Devadasis (courtesans) and no upper caste, Brahmin woman was allowed to dance. Same goes for Carnatic Music. M S Subbalakshmi and D K Pattammal were among the first to venture out of their homes and perform in public.
On the whole, Indian culture is a much-misunderstood thing. Nobody knows what it really stands for, but everyone does their bit to try and preserve the little bit they consider representative of culture. Why can’t we understand the simple truth that Indian culture was way more progressive and tolerant than most other cultures? Why can’t we learn to respect art for what it is? I wonder if we will ever get answers to these questions.
Edit: On a related note, read this article by Sriram. He has a different perspective on the issue.