For a performer, one of the most important elements, besides costume, lighting, makeup and props, is the performance space. A performance space says a lot about the conditions and society’s perception of performers. The history of performance spaces in Indian classical dance is deeply sociological in nature and today’s youth have shattered the traditional norms of this art form, bringing this niche art from the upper caste to the masses by seizing producing in public spaces.
The mid-19th to mid-20th centuries saw a series of changes in venues and performance spaces for classical dancers. There has been a shift from temples to royal courts to aristocratic bungalows to proscenium stages and today to public spaces. In the pre-independence period, there were drastic changes in the cultural industry and most of these changes worked against the interests of the traditional dance community. South Indian temples followed the tradition of ‘devdasis’, sex slaves who worked their bodies and dedicated their lives to a particular deity or temple. They made temples their own space for performances which also led to the origin of the classical dance form ‘Bharatanatyam’. However, this tradition was criticized and soon ended, which made temples a space of male domination from the 20th century. After the ‘Devdasis’ period, public spaces for dancers moved to courtyards and palaces. Professional dancers danced for the nobles and the wealthy. Usually, performances in court were associated with “Kathak”, which originated from Mughal courts. The southern parts of India did not have many mentions of classical dance in the courts. Court performances were criticized, once again, by reformists for having a sexual allusion that catered to the satisfaction of male desires. With the advent of colonial powers in India, the princely practices of court performances came to an end and most professional dancers had to migrate to newly developed cities like Calcutta and Madras. This ended performances in spaces like courtyards and palaces and led to a shift from performance spaces to private dancing in “Bungalows” to entertain aristocrats. This period did not last long as several social reform movements of the time criticized the practice of private dancing for entertainment purposes.
The reform movement attempted to bring about a change in the way these dancers were perceived by society. They wanted to bring about a change in the cultural world of shows that had existed for all those centuries. They hoped to end the practices of slavery and devotion to dance for a single deity. Thus, this led to a shift from private spaces to the proscenium stage. Rukmani Devi Arundale’s first performance was the first time the new ‘Bharatanatyam’ was experienced head-on by the audience and there was good use of the stage. Moreover, it was the first time that a Brahmin woman practiced this art form. Rukmani made a change to the art form to make it more respectable among the public. Since then, classical dance has acquired a respectable position in society.
The art form has taken centuries to evolve with changes in society but has still stuck to certain traditional norms that have been practiced since its birth. However, young people in the 21st century have attempted to alter some of these old practices of the art form which have been criticized and supported by some. The concept of “everyday” in a performance space is foreign to a classical performance. Classical dancers are generally expected to dance on a stage with the cultural environment as it is the “respectable setting” for a performance. However, with the rise of new media platforms, young people have embraced this art form to the masses by dancing in personal and public spaces like their homes, kitchens, patios, basketball courts, subway stations, bus stops without professional lighting, make-up, hairstyle. , costumes or sounds. The pandemic has given several performers the opportunity to perform online using their personal spaces, which has turned out to be magnificent. Several dancers emphasized that spaces or technical aspects should not be the parameters to decide the value of a performance. Several dancers have spoken out and are posting videos of themselves dancing in their personal spaces to show their resistance to performance space norms. They do not wish to be confined to traditional customs that prevent them from performing and sharing their love for the art form. They believe that judgments made on spatial and technical aspects are limited solely to aesthetics. You have to learn to appreciate how dancers with limited elements and resources have been able to express and convey what they want to convey to the public. There is indeed a need for a change of perspective with changing times.
However, it is interesting to see how dancers belonging to the older generation do not recognize this movement and believe in preserving the respect and dignity of the art form by limiting it to a studio or a platform. . Several artists have made it their business to address issues they face when using online/digital platforms during the pandemic – besides performance space, how other elements such as expressions, Jathis, Adavus, group performances and recitals have lost their relevance and beauty due to confinement. For example, Kathakali, a dance form originating in Kerala, is known for its beautiful aesthetics, open stage and seating for the audience. The performance usually takes place on a dirt floor in front of a temple. The performance space for a dance form like kathakali enhances the piece being performed by the performer to a very large extent and losing such elements causes the art form to lose some of its authenticity and uniqueness. .
The concept of “everyday” in an art form like classical dance sometimes makes the dance too mundane and monotonous, which would eventually cause it to lose its specialty. The easy availability of music and the dance piece that took years and years to choreograph on new media platforms adds to the banality and everydayness. The pieces are meant to be performed for the public in a specific setting (some of them paid performances) which loses its individuality and uniqueness. Videos uploaded to YouTube or Instagram have, over time, made this niche dance a source of entertainment for the masses. New media as a performance space transforms this dance form into nothing less than a mass production of culture or popular culture.
Charvee Wadhwa is a student at Lady Sri Ram College, Delhi and this article was voted best in the opinion writing competition held at Slant 2021, the National Journalism Festival of NSoJ.