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Art can’t ignore caste any more

Dance criticism in India suffers from the same malaise that ails the dance world—a refusal to engage wholly with caste

Those who write on the arts should reflect on what purpose their writing serves.
Those who write on the arts should reflect on what purpose their writing serves. (Getty Images)

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Over the past few months, various incidents within the classical dance sphere have shown that there is a need to investigate spaces, organisations and individuals that continue to uphold patriarchal, casteist and exclusionary systems. Whether it is the still-developing story on sexual harassment allegations at Kalakshetra in Chennai or the publishing of a blatantly casteist dance review on a popular dance portal, these long-held pedestals for the classical arts need to fall.

With a part of my PhD research examining how the art review constructed the classical dancing body today, I have been reflecting on the role of the dance critic and dance writing in India during the 20th and 21st centuries. On reading the casteist review, which has been edited following a raging debate and loud protests from artists and scholars, by Leela Venkataraman on the Chennai-based dance portal Narthaki in January, one recognises how the dance review continues to perform that function. Venkataraman’s review, which the artists and scholars in their statement alleged showed “implicit and explicit casteism”, critiqued the performance of dancer Nrithya Pillai, who is from a hereditary caste of performers, in a piece that was part of an evening, Dvi-nethram: The Vision Of Parampara. A few weeks ago, writing for Scroll, cultural theorist Brahma Prakash referred to the same incident to highlight the erasure and appropriation of aesthetic and cultural practices of hereditary castes.

The now-edited review appeared soon after the Union government-funded Sangeet Natak Akademi hosted a series of workshops, titled “Art Critique”, as part of its youth dance festival, Amrit Yuva Kalotsav, to mark India’s 75th year of independence. The workshop was held in various cities, including Lucknow, Udaipur, Jammu, Mumbai and Chennai. I watched a YouTube recording of the Chennai edition and was struck by the indifference to, and even ignoring of, caste, hierarchy and exclusion. There was no mention of caste, no mention of the critic’s positionality vis-à-vis the artist and the form. It was a wordless and telling comment on the state of the classical arts and arts criticism.

The hybrid workshop, which had writers with significant experience on the panel, touched upon the ethics of arts journalism, reporting skills and practices. However, the sessions went little beyond advising writers to familiarise themselves with the form’s history and not get personal in their reviews.

While reflecting on the ethical implications of art criticism or its history, it is vital to discuss caste and the critic’s positionality. There was no reflection on the social composition of people who occupied these positions of art criticism. Even though most of the writers on the panel acknowledged that they got into dance, music or art writing by accident, not one pressed deeper to reflect on what networks of social and cultural capital allowed them to access the hallowed pages of print or online media. In short, there was zero consideration of how social hierarchies impact who writes and who is written about.


Nrithya Pillai.
Nrithya Pillai. (Instagram/nrithya pillai)

The media isn’t the most diverse of places, even if one looks at a general newsroom: An Oxfam India and Newslaundry report from 2019 states that around 72% of byline articles on news websites were written by people from dominant castes, even though they form only 20% of the population. No more than 5% of all articles in English newspapers are written by Dalits and Adivasis.

In the world of the arts, this shows up starkly. Each member of each panel occupied a dominant caste position. These workshops on “art critique”, ostensibly meant to inspire a new generation of art writers, fell very short in being self-aware, staying away from difficult questions.

Dance criticism in India suffers from the same malaise which ails the dance world—a refusal to engage wholly with caste. And this wilful ignorance, apparent in this workshop, is what played out when Venkataraman, a dominant caste critic (who was a part of this panel), questioned Nrithya, a Bharatanatyam dancer from the hereditary dance community, on the veracity of her lived experience.

This exposes how systemic injustice is invisible to those who occupy a higher rung within a power hierarchy. It is for those who write on the arts to reflect on what purpose their writing serves. How do we ensure that hereditary dancers speak their truth? What is the role of the dance critic within a space where there is no level playing field?

While there is a global body of academic work that has long addressed caste, it is only now that caste has found a precarious foothold among classical dancers in India. Until about a decade ago, the role of caste in the creation of Indian classical dance as well as the disenfranchisement of the hereditary dance communities was barely acknowledged. During the pandemic, with everyone locked in at home in 2020, social media became the new stage for the Indian classical performer. During this time, Nrithya became a vociferous anti-caste voice in dance.

In 2023, there have been panels on caste at conferences, time slots given to hereditary dancers, and conversations being hosted between older generations of dancers from the hereditary community. Mythili Prakash, a Bharatanatyam dancer based in the US, credits Nrithya for shaking up her understanding of the role of caste in the making of dance and “being a major catalyst in the introspection and re-examination of the form” for her.

The history of Bharatanatyam involves the criminalisation, vilification and disenfranchisement of female dancers from the hereditary community. At the same time, the “reform” and “revival” of the dance tradition led by dominant caste nationalists meant it was appropriated and turned into a form that made it acceptable for dominant caste women to begin to dance in public. This dance became a sort of high culture; it became “classical”.

Only the dominant caste dancer could dance without the shame and stigma associated with hereditary performers, whose lives had come under legal and public scrutiny over a 100-year period that culminated in the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act of 1947. This history, voiced time and again by Nrithya, is being obfuscated by dance critics intent on being defensive about caste.

Ranjana Dave, an independent artist and writer, explains: “The critic builds a bridge between the performance of a work and its reception. Their role is to contextualise the work within the histories of performance practice and in relation to contemporary reality.” But what happens when the histories remembered by critics tend to be upper-caste “revival” narratives?

Musician and writer T.M. Krishna says unequivocally, “When a reviewer (from immense caste and class privilege) uses a series of reviews of dancers from hereditary families as a platform to try and erase/cushion the sociocultural oppression they underwent and claim in inference that they (members of the hereditary families) had agency, it is cultural violence.”

Dance writing that refuses to treat caste with the care and responsibility it requires ignores the personal cost borne by dancers from the hereditary community and fails to understand that the aesthetics have been defined by caste. Art forms, their aesthetics and their reception, are a product of existing social hierarchies.

Dance reviews in India focus almost exclusively on “classical” dance and their function remains to fix the body into a way of moving which avoids “disrepute”. And so, the clean lines, neat movements, the angashuddhi, or the perfect geometry of Bharatanatyam, are not pre-given mandates. Instead, these words only seek to approve body movements for adhering to a dominant caste lens of what classical dance should look like.

Nrithya’s refusal to engage with “geometry”, as the review suggested, is not a signal of poor form; instead, as she informs me via email, it is “tied to my politics of piecing together a dance form that has been appropriated from my ancestors”. When reviewing dance, especially artists from hereditary dance communities, it is important to do so on their terms, with the acknowledgement of the injustice done to these families.

Also read: Where Kalakshetra fell out of step in dealing with sexual harassment allegations

Sammitha Sreevathsa, a dance writer from Bengaluru who is pursuing a PhD in dance studies, says that even as a dominant caste writer, she found it difficult to bring sociopolitical themes into her reviews. “I spent two years as a reviewer for a newspaper. I found it challenging to write honest reviews of classical dance performances. Most classical dancers expected a review to be a means of publicity and would not take even mild, well-intended critique, especially if it was sociopolitical, without making it personal.”

“Biases, active suppression and censorship increasingly impact what can be written and who can write it,” says Dave. She calls out how writers and dancers operate within a very small community in India. “When members of your dance community are the target of epistemic violence, does neutrality outweigh the responsibility of care and repair we all hold as members of a community?” Dave asks.

What is at stake is the silence of other marginalised voices from hereditary dance communities if we fail to offer support and space to those who are speaking up now. In one of her Instagram Stories after the incident, Nrithya said that articles such as these rob her of the many empowering moments of being appreciated for her dance and politics. Dance criticism in India needs to step up and re-evaluate its concerns in the light of how caste has shaped dance in order to truly empower artists.

Ranjini Nair is a Kuchipudi practitioner and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge.

Also read: Travel: At Bali's Uluwatu temple, dancers bring stories from epics to life


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