Dancing in the Family

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He is tall, slim, and strikingly long limbed. Dressed in jewel-colored silk tunics and antique ornaments that are family heirlooms, he looks more like a handsome young maharaja than a traditional South Indian dancer. Newsweek

Yes, I know, vomit, it sounds like more exoticizing pablum from a mainstream media source. But getting past the opening drivel, this article (posted in the news tab, thanks Brij01!) turned out to be about a rather fascinating family:

Aniruddha Knight is the ninth generation heir of a 200-year-old family of professional dancers and musicians from Chennai, India. He is also half American. His father, Douglas Knight, married into this artistically rich family when he studied classical drumming on a South Indian mridangam at Wesleyan University, where Aniruddha’s late grandmother–T. Balasaraswati, India’s prima danseuse–and her two musician brothers had taught since 1962.

Aniruddha followed his mother and grandmother, continuing the family’s bharatanatyam tradition:

Knight is fluent in Tamil, his mother’s language, and spends half a year in India, performing and learning from aunts and cousins who had worked with his mother. He has established a school and an archive of family history in Chennai. (The Smithsonian boasts an archive of Bala’s performances, too.) It houses all the records of his grandmother’s performances.

About his mixed parentage:

“It’s isolating to identify with two cultures, it creates a split personality. I can never be just one or the other, it’s a heartwrenching lonely process. But then, what I have, many don’t have.”

Those against mixed marriages often cite fear of waning traditions, culture, language, etc., as a reason to date within one’s own ethnic community. So it’s heartwarming to see this family’s artistic legacy continuing on, and even thriving, under the stewardship of its youngest, half-desi member. But do other half-desis feel the same sense of loneliness and isolation? Most that I’ve known feel as though they have a deeper connection to both, not an alienation from either, but it’s clearly a personal path. I’m curious to hear any stories readers might have to share on this topic.

Also, I watched a bit of his performance here, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I’m a rank ignoramus about bharatanatyam, so perhaps I’m just used to the more typical form:

However, the version that Knight dances is stylistically unique. It originated as a temple offering performed by young women who were dedicated to serving God by retelling ancient Hindu myths through music and dance in the temple courtyard.

He sings while dancing as well, which threw me off a bit. But, again, this could be entirely due to my own lack of knowledge. His hand movements are beautiful though…I encourage anyone with a bharatanatyan background to please take a look and share your thoughts.

152 thoughts on “Dancing in the Family

  1. May I join? :-) What a lengthy desi discussion! :-) Forgot the original posting?

    Let me tell you, I watched Ani’s Chennai’s performance in Chennai in winter. It was well-announced. I watched it for 15 minutes, with my 3 friends (dancers), we had a good laugh (they don’t have a regular circus in Chennai, you know), and when we were leaving, about 15 people were left (Nandini Ramani and the entourage). I feel pity towards those who have a social obligation to watch junk performances. It is the social obligation, not genuine interest, that drives crowds for the lame arangetrams.

    About Ani: don’t tell me anybody used to dance so clumsily and with such horrible expressions in such a costume 200 years ago. Or 500 years ago? The remnants of tradition was lost with the death of Balasaraswathy, who was vigorously trying to defend the Sringara, and fought with Rukmini Devi who successfully replaced Sringara with Bhakti. In order to popularize it, that is. Now we have Bharatanatyam – a popular South Indian folk dance. Enjoy, and forget that 300 years ago all the temple devadasis used to perform the 108 karanas. Be a true desi. Eat pop-corn, don’t read the Natya Shastra.

    Enough of the intro. :-) Let me address some of your interesting writings.

    Bitterlemons Exposing American audiences to shoddily danced Bharatanatyam is not doing anyone a favour in my opinion. I don’t see ballet schools putting unskilled learners on stage in public productions – why is Bharatanatyam any different? It is a classical dance form, needing years of training and dedicated practice, not a half-hearted weekend class.

    I wish more desi or Chennai parents thought so too! Unfortunately…

    Nayagan Most teachers are not anywhere near as strict and do not, in general, care to teach proper form (let alone posture!) as their gurus would have been in the Desh.

    You think it is much better in Chennai? Come and see.

    I did find that teachers were driven in large part by pressure from parents to put little Priyanka/Sarika/Radhika on stage within six months, with 18 costume changes so all their friends can come and watch an abomination born of little patience, overbearing parental desires to live vicariously through their child, and general keepin-up-with-the-Patels malarkey that produces the same kind of pick-it-up-and-drop-it mentality that accompanies so many forays into other extracurricular activities.

    What a masterful and colorful description!!!!!! :-)

    And yes, Bharatanatyam is different because ballet/soccer/etc did not start out as forms of temple worship and the songs which accompany dancers doing classical items are redolent with references to devotion–is that really packagable into a 3-month, one class per week product?

    Bharatanatyam started out as a form of temple worship? No. Read the Natya Shastra, educate yourself. At present, there is hardly anything left in Bharatanatyam of what was there 2000 years ago.

    Bridging-the-gap Looks like old school guru-sishya parampara and the chance to do the arangetram only when you ready is clashing with the needs of instant gratification that is the American milieu for the cultural arts.

    Well said!

    History would say no–innovation was the name of the game from Rukmini Devi and the revival of BN as popular art form, right on through the 70s. Innovations since have come apace as instruction became the job of not only desis but the many foreigners who traveled to desh in the 60s, 70s, 80s to learn BN and other classical dance forms. Subject matter, music and what it is appropriate to portray have all changed over the years

    Well, “revival” of… what??? Rukmini Devi, for those stupid foreigners, I guess, developed a simplified form of Tamil folk dance and called it… Bharatanatyam. Wasn’t it her Italian tailor who designed the contemporary (“traditional”) costume? :-)

    Malathi We laugh and are simultaneously outraged when we hear about an odd surgeon or two in India allowing his/her 15-year old gift-to-the-world to operate on some poor patient. We don’t practice medicine when we are only half a doctor either. So why do we expect less when it comes to an ancient dance form that has seemingly become casually accessible to all on a whim?

    Art – like spirituality – in Kali Yuga lost its primary importance. People do not ask the temple brahmins if they understand the useless mantras they mumble.

    HMF whether or not someone is “prepared to perform” is generally evaluated by the ability of an “average” audience, for someone a dancer to be “off-key” it’s not enough to miss a beat here or there, or be sub standard in their abhinaya, they need to trip and roll on the ground a few times and land in the front row for it to be really noticed. That’s just the nature of dance given the complexity and nuanced level of understanding one needs to correctly evaluate it, otherwise the evaluation is going to flow down to the lowest common denominator: face, makeup, costumes, jewelry, amount of money paid to artists, size of new jersey auditorium rented, etc…

    Yeahhhh… But even in Chennai the number of “professional rasikas”, critics or professional dancers who attend Bharatanatyam performances is dwindling.

    Some people in my family have practiced BN for 25+ years, in India, in the real traditional style. I’ve been to a few arangetrams and been bored completely out of my mind. but I know that it’s a highly refined art form, even if I can’t ‘figure it out’ so to speak.

    No, no, no! :-) Did the dancer have a waisteline? :-) Your mind is not fooled: it is boring. These “traditional styles” are hardly older than 150 years! Please don’t make me laugh. Look in Silapadikaram – what kind of dances did they performed then? What is left of THAT tradition? Nothing. Zero.

    From what I’ve seen BN seems to be one of the ‘less fun’ dance forms out there

    It lost its attractiveness and entertaining nature because it lost most of its elements. Shringara was replaced by Bhakti. How many karanas can the dancers perform today?

    It (tae kwon do) is a bit different, if you go “on stage” before being ready, you end up with a black eye or a broken nose. That’s certainly more motivation to wait rather than havinng some purist folks (like some of the contributors here) rant at you.

    In Natya Shastra, they describe that the rasikas (or rivals) used to throw cow dung and other things at (bad) dancers. Someone here wanted to seem very traditional. We need to revive the tradition. Yes?

    And, tkd tournaments are nothing like arangetrams. but maybe they should be, it would certainly make the arangetrams more interesting to watch.

    Dance competitions are like tournaments.

    portmanteau There is no harm in kids learning dance as a hobby or exploring it as a creative interest before moving on to something that fits their personality and interests better. Dance teachers could cater to two audiences — separate those students who are hobbyists and are willing only to make a limited commitment from those who are serious dancers who look at dance as a calling or a vocation. This reduces reduces hypocrisy in the parent-teacher interaction — both agree that given the child’s commitment and promise she might benefit more from a less intense and less selective environment. The teacher then is completely justified in being selective about the more ‘serious’/elite students she chooses, and impose much more rigorous curricular requirements.

    What a well-balanced suggestion! I wish more gurus adopt this approach!

    Manvantara Seems to me that 9 out of 10 desi parents (no, I have not done research on this – just what I have seen in several dance schools) in the US seem to be fixated on the notion that their child (mostly daughter) has to go on stage in the earliest possible time. Everyone wants to claim that their daughter is the best out there, or shows signs of being a prodigy – it’s just ridiculous.

    It is rajasic (American) pride that pushes them to compete, compete, compete with the Patels! :-) Clowns!

    payal Unlike ballet, indian classical dance is a form of devotion and deserves respect and dedication from students at every level. If you want your kids to learn about this particular aspect of our culture then you need to understand this. If you want your kids to dress up and shake it on stage there are plenty of bollywood dance classes around. Indian classical dance is not soccer or martial arts.

    Most people think martial arts are just boxing. Many people think Bharatanatyam is just dancing. Bharatanatyam, it seems, will follow the destiny of Kung-Fu: while most people practise it half-heartedly, thinking “What if it helps me in a street fight one day?”, few take it as a sadhana and explore its spiritual dimensions. “I studied Kung-Fu in my younger years, told me a 40-year-old Chinese businessman. My teacher’s teacher lives on a mountain hill and can even levitate. I stopped my Kung-Fu studies and went abroad to study business”. Within 5 months of saying this, this Chinese businessman was knifed to death by his Chinese “business partners” who refused to return $100000 worth of leather jackets. The Chinese businessman is dead. He did not know life can be short. If he knew it, would be have made the same choices?

    Amitabh So…is high quality bharatnatyam going to survive in the long-term or is it in trouble (like so many other Indian arts)?

    Quality was sacrificed for quantity. Bharatnatyam is in trouble, like spirituality in Kali Yuga.

    Also, has it always been called bharatnatyam or is that coinage relatively recent?

    What was called what?

    a Tamil girl born and raised in Houston is not necessarily in any better position to ‘get it’ than a Gujarati girl from Queens or even a French girl in Paris.

    No, here you show your materialistic viewpoint. From a spiritual point of view, for example, the influence of Ganesha is limited (approximately) to the physical boundaries of India. Now, the smaller, semi-gods, apsaras, also have limited areas of influence. However, you are right in one thing: we don’t know how deeply a particular dancer will be influenced by a particular emanation.

    And as the society that created the dance itself changes, the dance runs the risk of running out of suitable candidates…and perhaps becoming fossilised.

    It is possible as a short-term (1000-2000 years) effect, but, there will always be new incarnations of those who will restore it. Don’t worry: it is none of our business. Natya, unlike ballet, is not of human origin.

    melbourne desi high quality – certainly. However it will become more niche. In Madras for a few years it was an art form with widespread participation

    “Participation”? Number of rasikas? Yes, the drop in quality resulted in the drop of interest, especially among the younger generation here. Besides, Chennai has grown, and, with all the traffic jams the rasikas prefer to watch it on TV, DVD and…. YouTube! :-)

    but these days it is a lot less. I think the diaspora will keep it alive

    Diaspora has a great role.