Bharathanatyam is mired in a problematic past. Beginning in the 1930s, it was reinvented as a nationalist project at the hands of upper-caste elites, and the contours of that reinvention still have implications and resonances today. The key pillars of the “new” Bharathanatyam included the engineered exclusion of hereditary women practitioners, as well as reimagined, highly Sanskritized, and deeply gendered aesthetics and technique. Moreover, these were couched in the idea of dance as a “spiritual pursuit” for upper-caste (or aspirationally upper-caste) amateur practitioners, unlike the professional practice it was for its original performers. Reimagined Bharathanatyam continues to embody all of these problems. Can there be a progressive feminist Bharathanatyam that can be practiced across the barriers of caste, class, and gender?
Nrithya Pillai is a dancer, dance composer, singer, writer, speaker, and dance instructor who proudly claims her nattuvanar-devadasi lineage. Following the legacy of her maternal grandfather Swamimalai Rajarathnam Pillai, she consciously preserves and reanimates the rich repertoire and the teaching and choreographic practices of her celebrated ancestors, who include V. Meenakshisundaram Pillai, T.K Swaminatha Pillai and Padmashri Vazhuvoor B. Ramiah Pillai. Carving out her own space as a performer with impeccable training and vast creativity, Nrithya represents a new kind of artistic and intellectual engagement with the troubled history of Bharathanatyam. She vigorously challenges the power relationships and ideologies that made the form unavailable to women of her community, and advocates fiercely for the restoration of credit for Bharathanatyam technique, repertoire, and philosophy to the hereditary community of practitioners. Nrithya’s voice, raised against casteism in the contemporary dance world, is unique in the field today, and her message against historical misrepresentation is relevant and powerful.