I am writing to you as connoisseurs, lovers, and practitioners of this ancient form of arts we get to call ours: whether it be kathak, bharatanatyam, odissi or any other dance, Hindustani or Carnatic vocals or instrumental.
Today is your day to open up and learn something new that I think we are all ready to hear, one I think is time to delve into as we launch into Navatman's largest endeavor to date.
All of you have been individually invited to Navatman’s Mahabharata. I know many are excited. But some are still on the fence, and others are probably thinking about things like time and price or are consumed by the business of the world around us.
Navatman’s Mahabharata, hopefully, as you all know, is a fairly historic moment for our organisation.
It is, as far as we know, the first feature film told from the unique style of storytelling Navatman has been working within for the past few years: one of Indian arts and spoken English verses, and one of a handful of feature films out there about the full Mahabharata epic.
The Mahabharata is one of the longest and oldest stories in humanity. If you only know of it marginally, and/or are a student of Indian arts, there is really no reason to miss this event.
But I think it’s time to dig into this - as someone who has been watching this back and forth for over 30 years, I have seen students pan back and forth over things like time, energy, space, and money. I and various teachers have wondered: what does this really mean? If those who claim to love the form the most - our own students - do not have time to witness and be part of these moments, who will?
Honestly, if this was not embedded into a larger power struggle, one where you may not even realize you are a part of, I would never bother to send this email. But I think it’s time we as students, practitioners, artists, realize the larger picture at hand:
What we love and don’t love in this world is colored through the effects of colonialism, and how we watch Indian classical arts is deeply embedded within this.
Now, before you run out the door, saying “Sahi’s lost her marbles,” I have spent many years researching this and almost all the reasons a student gives me as to why they cannot watch a show (or sometimes even look at me uncomfortably as I ask if they are going to a show) are related back to the statement above.
“I’m not sure I/my friends/my family will like this [classical] show.”
This is a direct correlation of the many years of British rule over India and inherent effects of different cultural perceptions about our space. One where Indian culture is considered “uncool” or “backwards”. If you’ve ever had someone make fun of your lunch growing up, your outfit, your language, or more, this is a much larger, deeper extension of that.
What we enjoy listening to is mostly informed by how our brain processes memories and information, and a large chunk of that is how you experienced Indian classical dance/music growing up. If it was an environment where people resisted it, because it was “boring”, “they didn’t understand it”, or “I prefer modern and ballet”, this was because for 100-200 years, cultures with more power told us we were not beautiful, our food was too spicy, our traditions too backwards.
Do not forget: our art forms were almost eliminated - especially dance - in the mid 1900s. The British pushed to eliminate the roots of practices like bharatanatyam and so India’s independence movement began to be tied with the Idea of nationalism to revitalize it (which is why bharatanatyam in particular is so popular globally today).
In fact, the British were so good at pushing this concept on us: that Indian classical dance forms were “uncouth” - that dance was considered more unsavory to learn than music for the generation who grew up in the 1960s - after independence.
If British rule had continued, we may not even have some of our classical art forms today.
I'm sure some of you are saying: “But I do love Indian dance and music! I love Bollywood!”
We at Navatman love Bollywood too - but Bollywood is an art form born of assimilation: one that mixes sounds we are familiar with - “Western” sounds, beats, etc with traditional sounds which is why we often prefer it to art forms like kathak, bharatnatyam, and carnatic and hindustani music. It plays right into the idea that our cultural sounds and spaces need tamping down to be easier to understand and enjoy.
Others counter with: “The price is too high”: if you’re willing to pay higher ticket prices for the ballet, modern dance, the symphony etc, consider if you would pay the equivalent amount to an Indian arts show. You probably pay more for a night out at dinner and sometimes your takeout order: so why, suddenly, is a $50 ticket “too expensive”?
“I don’t have time” - We know this gets pushed to the bottom of the list, but we are hoping that as practitioners we are now beginning to understand the importance of peeling back some of our biases and being part of changes that need to be made for this work to continue.
As you grow as a student, you are also part of the artists and families who will bring these art forms to the next generation. Whether a beginner or professional, it is up to us to learn more. These ideas and traditions are not really spoken about in schools in India, where the British syllabus continues to dictate what we learn and how we learn even on home turf. For instance, the Mahabharata, the largest epic in the world, 2000 years of age, a living tradition that weaves its way significantly through South Asia is not considered literature to be studied. So then, who else is left to do the work?
It is us. It is the students, the practitioners, the families. To take it forward, it is on us to see our arts differently, to share it, to understand it more deeply and to cherish it beyond the stage.
So, hopefully, this starts to peel some layers. There will be many more conversations in the weeks to come, I’m sure, and if you have any questions, feel free to ask. I will happily continue talking or writing about this series and answer any and all thoughts you may have.