Portraying Monkeys Is Paramount in Preserving Our Culture?

Greetings Mutineers! I am Nayagan and I am guest-blogging here to fight the good fight for pittu, sodhi and the thosai which embraces us all in it’s fermented glory.

hanuman.jpg

Listen up desi parents: Bina Menon, a classical dance teacher from West Orange NY, has the magical cure to all your ‘heritage preserving’ needs. Indeed, according to the New York Times, a turn in one of her stage productions (portraying an animal of the forest) will do wonders for lifting the Vestern pop-culture cloud which descended over your child’s eyes as soon as he/she exited the womb.

Yes, I know, the reporter attributed the sentiment to Menon’s students, but what exactly could these young ‘uns have known about a heritage which was supposedly out of their grasp? Could this deep knowledge be imparted by scratching one’s arm-pit repeatedly? Or perhaps by miming the grooming ritual so fancied by wild-life photographers? Whatever the standard, this reporter unwittingly added fuel to the “All Things Come From India” fire by attributing an honorific desis know all too well

dancing with Bina-Auntie

to the Hindi crowd:

employing a Hindi term of endearment all her fellow dancers used for Ms. Menon

Okay, to be charitable to the reporter, and without sounding the Lemurian call to arms, perhaps this was really all about the dance. The one student who went on record, seems to confirm this:

“My parents brought me into dance when I was 5, and at first I wasn’t that into it,” said Teena Ammakuzhiyil, a lithe 20-year-old from Union who will play the wise monkey in “Ramayanam,” a production that 25 senior-level dancers from Ms. Menon’s Kalashri School will present on Jan. 27 at the Mayo Center for the Performing Arts in Morristown. “But it brought me back to my roots, dancing with Bina-Auntie,”

But the ‘roots’ return and the question bears asking, now that she has ‘found’ her roots, what’s left? Branching out into choreography? Founding her very own dance school? Perhaps she had better think twice:

The Kalashri School employs no other teachers because, as Ms. Menon says: “I haven’t seen anyone who can teach as well as I can. And I really want my students to be good at what they’re doing.

A display of bravado (apparently all the other teachers toiling away at instructing recalcitrant students better hang ‘em up) tempered by weak equivocation–sounds like the ‘heritage’ is being taught by example. Turning aside from the arrogance, I wondered:

  1. What exactly constitutes ‘respect’ for your heritage?

  2. Can a clumsy portrayal of a monkey mean that you’re disrespectful of said heritage (given that your chosen medium of ‘respecting’ is dance)?

  3. Why do we entrust such an apparently important task, this cultural education, to strangers?

  4. Bharatanatyam is suffused with Hindu mythology and the pieces are often set to Hindu songs and bhajans–what is it like for non-Hindu desis to be told that Muruga and Hanuman constitute your ‘heritage’ and that the creatures portrayed in the Ramayana will show your child all that you wish to impart about this ‘heritage’ that any honest teacher could not easily define?

The article continues with a few references to platitudes we’re familiar with, “fosters community,” “it’s so much more than dance,” and “Indian Dance feels more comfortable than…” These are the buzz-words, the talking points that classical dance instructors often use to describe and justify what is usually just another extracurricular activity for application-filling, college-going, high-school students. What does it mean to you?

176 thoughts on “Portraying Monkeys Is Paramount in Preserving Our Culture?

  1. *sigh* Yes, because what we need is more hasty, lifeless performances.

    Nala, on the contrary. I’ve seen Teena Ammakuzhiyil dance, and to put it in terms you may relish… She’s Catholic but girlfriend dances like a Hindu!

  2. what were your experiences as a male BN dancer like?

    I’m sure the descriptions of agarbatti-fueled orgies, out of control swaras into the wee hours of the night, and the gymnastic give and take are really not suitable for narration in mixed company.

  3. Yeah? Really? Aasha Parekh, Hema Malini, Minakshi Seshadri, Aishwarya Rai forgot that I guess. Indian film dances are substantially based on the Indian ‘classical’ and ‘folk’ dances – and in the movies the lines between these supposedly different traditions is all but non-existent. Terukootu a catch-all term for a wide varirty of traditions involves almost the same sort of physical training as does BN. Dr. Padma Subrahmmanyam who probably knows more than anyone alive about the entire corpus of Tamizh dance has conducted entire recitals around these interconnections. BN, Kathak, Kuchipudi are the three most common bases for Indian film dance, and most dance masters are tasrained in one of these, in addition to the basics of ballroom dancing. This is not to say that it is all one undifferentiated mass. Just that these are traditions that are lived out in numerous little ways everyday in a 1000 different homes.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve performed BN & kuchipudi myself. It’s just that filmi dancing seems to use kathak-style moves a lot more (even if the actresses are trained in other/many styles of classical dance), namely the spins.

  4. Nala, on the contrary. I’ve seen Teena Ammakuzhiyil dance, and to put it in terms you may relish… She’s Catholic but girlfriend dances like a Hindu!

    Uh – my comment wasn’t about any one person in particular, it was just a response to your contradiction of Nayagan’s statement that someone would need to ‘feel’ the meaning of the dance to perform it well. I’m glad to hear she dances well, but I’m not so sure I appreciate the insinuation of my ‘relishing’ her dancing ‘like a Hindu’ instead of ‘like a Catholic’ (whatever that means… is it anything like this?) Though that phrase ‘like a Hindu’ actually reminds me of Tyra & Miss J on America’s Next Top Model doing the ‘Indian neck-moving thing’ back when they did a Bollywood-themed shoot I think. Bad memories!

  5. I’m sure the descriptions of agarbatti-fueled orgies, out of control swaras into the wee hours of the night, and the gymnastic give and take are really not suitable for narration in mixed company.

    Oh man Rahul, now you’ve simply gone too far… prepare for a dance fight! :D

  6. what were your experiences as a male BN dancer like?

    It is my advice for males not to take BN classes or become a BN dancer. I have seen a male BN teacher from Kalakshetra, Adyar. He used to come to my uncle’s house for teaching his daughter. He is more feminine. And after seeing him and observing the ridicule he gets, my aunt stopped her son from taking BN classes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izv_5g-Y5qc Not everyone can fight with BN movements

  7. I’m sure the descriptions of agarbatti-fueled orgies, out of control swaras into the wee hours of the night, and the gymnastic give and take are really not suitable for narration in mixed company.

    Aramandi marathons, atami till you need a chiropractor and unending adavus till puberty don’t sound quite so exciting.

    Nayagan – what were your experiences as a male BN dancer like?

    Looking back, it was probably a great deal easier than it seemed at the time. (It helped (and hurt) that my mother was the teacher) I started dancing only because my 6-year old buddies decided to do so and I was a great follower at that age. By the time they had all given up, I was sullenly stamping out what seemed to be the end of my potential for greatness. It was only after I turned 12 or so that it became somewhat fun (which went along with the whole ‘feeling it’ process). That party lasted until I went to college and became enamored with acquiring a belly (by Milwaukee’s Best/Papa Johns) and being a lazy bum (by the boredom engendered by first-year curriculum–”A River Sutra” made me more incurious than a year of watching 90210 re-runs on the couch). After incurring several injuries by forcing my bloated carcass through some fast-paced items, I gave up and began a long career as a cheeto dust addict.)

  8. 157 · Ponniyin Selvan said

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    blockquote>

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    blockquote>what were your experiences as a male BN dancer like?

    It is my advice for males not to take BN classes or become a BN dancer. I have seen a male BN teacher from Kalakshetra, Adyar. He used to come to my uncle’s house for teaching his daughter. He is more feminine. And after seeing him and observing the ridicule he gets, my aunt stopped her son from taking BN classes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izv_5g-Y5qc Not everyone can fight with BN movements

    Are you serial?

  9. Are you serial?

    Did you mean serious??. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. It’s not “cool” for a boy to learn BN in India. I have seen only girls getting enrolled in BN classes.

  10. It is my advice for males not to take BN classes or become a BN dancer. I have seen a male BN teacher from Kalakshetra, Adyar. He used to come to my uncle’s house for teaching his daughter. He is more feminine. And after seeing him and observing the ridicule he gets, my aunt stopped her son from taking BN classes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izv_5g-Y5qc Not everyone can fight with BN movements

    I think it’s sad that people keep boys from pursuing things they’re interested in because they’re worried about them being too ‘feminine.’ I have a male cousin who wanted to learn BN, but his parents kept it from it, and their concerns about him being too ‘feminine’ were actually compounded by the fact that he’s gay (even though he’s actually very ‘butch’ I guess you could say). But in general all the male BN dancers I’ve met have actually been incredibly sexy (in addition to being incredibly talented). Plus male dancers would pretty much be surrounded by women/girls in dance environments… it doesn’t seem like a terrible way to meet girls.

    Looking back, it was probably a great deal easier than it seemed at the time. (It helped (and hurt) that my mother was the teacher) I started dancing only because my 6-year old buddies decided to do so and I was a great follower at that age. By the time they had all given up, I was sullenly stamping out what seemed to be the end of my potential for greatness. It was only after I turned 12 or so that it became somewhat fun (which went along with the whole ‘feeling it’ process). That party lasted until I went to college and became enamored with acquiring a belly (by Milwaukee’s Best/Papa Johns) and being a lazy bum (by the boredom engendered by first-year curriculum–”A River Sutra” made me more incurious than a year of watching 90210 re-runs on the couch). After incurring several injuries by forcing my bloated carcass through some fast-paced items, I gave up and began a long career as a cheeto dust addict.)

    I probably would’ve had that problem after going to college too, but I dealt with my weight problem in high school and learned how to keep in shape then. My teacher appreciates us who don’t live at home anymore going for lessons during our vacations and occasionally performing during the summers… I want to branch out and learn different styles once I’ve graduated college and am living (hopefully) in an area with available teachers though.

  11. I am amazed. Not one questionable Symonds joke in this thread. Where is all that synergy of SM topics?

  12. I am amazed. Not one questionable Symonds joke in this thread. Where is all that synergy of SM topics?

    Not very questionable and not really funny, but I tried.

  13. flygirl, is that some bowling, or is that some bowling? Wish I could be watching the game right now. I hope Symonds doesn’t profit too much from the Tendulkar drop.

  14. Rahul, mate…I am kicking myself, I can’t watch it cos I’m still at work. I am watching the score changes via cricinfo. I have three hours of cell counts ahead of me too. get yourself to a pub and watch it!

  15. India just got the edge over Australia in the betting markets, even before Gilchrist walked past the boundary ropes! Hilarious!

  16. I have three hours of cell counts ahead of me too

    So I assume it’s not you holding up the huge “R P Singh I heart you” sign and hooting into the camera?

  17. Rahul, bytewords:

    Now you’re just being mean. HAH! Three in hand!!!!!!

    I propose we move any further commentary to the Pointing thread..

  18. I’m not really adding to the discussion as well as being nitpicky, but there is no West Orange, NY. I’m pretty sure Ms. Menon is located in West Orange, NJ.

  19. Vannakam, Nayagan avargale. As usual, being “a New Orleans girl,” I’m days late to the party. (I loved that Jindal statement given that New Orleans has little to do with the rest of America.)

    Bharathanatyam lessons – very conflicting for me. I hated them and considered the whole thing some innate, culture-inculcating duty on my parents’ part rather than emanating any respect for the art form on their part. It all seemed so perfunctory. You know, “all good girls from Indian families learn BN.” Not to fret, ballet, piano lessons, swimming, etc. were thrown into the Well Rounded Mix. If anything, these childhood activities have given me an appreciation for western and eastern classical music, so I guess Mom and Dad are off the hook.

    The interesting thing is that a cousin started BN lessons around the same time I did, hated it at first and is now a very accomplished BN dancer and teacher herself. Sometimes it sticks, sometimes it don’t.

  20. yeah, I would imagine it would be pretty difficult to teach Hindu mythology to American born desi kids.