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Bharatnatyam TransformedPhoto credit: Ganesh Ramachandran. Surialanga Dance Company, Durban.

Bharatnatyam Transformed

Back from a trip to South Africa, performing with the Surialanga dance company, Smitha Radhakrishnan finds that sometimes the greatest custodians of traditional Indian culture might not be who you'd expect.

By Smitha Radhakrishnan

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Duration: 8:48


Desi Dilemmas
Connecting Personal Issues to the Big Picture

Smitha Radhakrishnan has been publishing her podcast Desi Dilemmas from Podbazaar since November of 2005. On August 2007, she joined Asia Pacific Arts. Desi Dilemmas weaves together narratives, opinion, and research with Indians on three continents, to place common issues facing desis in a larger social and economic context.

Questions? Comments? Write to her at


Many of us define our belonging to India through a love for the classical arts. Good girls from middle-class families in America study classical Indian dance so often that it's become cliché. Some of us love it and take it on as a lifelong passion, but for most, it's something tied up in that oh-so-complicated arena of life called "culture." You can't blame us for sticking it in that box, along with the discarded religious rituals, the friends from all those Indian dinner parties of our childhood, and the dreams of that perfect, preppy Indian guy that occupied our teenage fantasies. Most of us tend to group all those things together because we sense that it embodies the reasons we were put in that dance class in the first place. 

Parents put their girls in Bharatnatyam (and sometimes Kathak) classes for two primary reasons, both of which get pretty shaky when we look at it closely: one, to give us a connection to our "roots," and two, to provide a chance to hopefully get up on stage bedecked in jewels and makeup. The "roots" connection feels good to an extent, right? Because I took dance, I know all the mythical stories, and I have a connection to the "real" India -- an ancient India. But then after a certain point, the roots connection gets associated with something "old" and passé. The performance aspect is also fun at first, but as we grow up, many of us realize we're not really performers and don't enjoy being bedecked on stage. So, that's it. Classical dance equals old stuff, traditional stuff, stuff I don't relate to, but "I guess it's good I know about it."

I got back from South Africa just over a month ago. I've been there before. I've lived there, for a year during my first visit, and for shorter periods every few years since then. Last year on APA, in an episode about fusion dance, I had mentioned an intercultural dance company called Surialanga that I worked with. Surialanga fuses Bharatnatyam with contemporary and Zulu African styles and was initially formed to portray interculturalism in the new South Africa. 

Since I first met the company in 2001, I've returned to dance with them, hang out with them, and train them every few years. This past trip was fascinating, and it exploded any assumptions or predictions I could have ever made when I encountered the group seven years ago. Perhaps most instructive for art lovers in the US, traditional or not, is this: in some part of the world, the custodians of our supposedly ancient Indian culture is not just the bejeweled Indian girls (although there are quite a few of those too), but two young Zulu men -- S'busiso and Sandile -- who just happen to be full-time Bharatnatyam dancers and teachers.



Directed by veteran dancer and choreographer Suria Govender, Surialanga debuted at a moment of national euphoria: Nelson Mandela's presidential inauguration. Asked to present a gift of art to the president, Govender assembled 17 young Indian women and choreographed a Bharatnatyam dance to Johnny Clegg's classic anti-apartheid song, with English and Zulu lyrics, Asimbonanga. The dance was a landmark. It seemed to imagine intercultural futures that South Africans were not even sure they were capable of dreaming. Some said Govender was ahead of her time, others disapproved of what she'd done, feeling that her choreography lacked "purity." Little did anyone know that that was just the beginning.

Within a few years of that 1994 inauguration, Govender had expanded the project to include Zulu children from the township of Claremont. These were children who had been learning Zulu traditional dancing on Saturdays with a local teacher. A handful were recognized as especially talented, S'bu and Sandile among them, and were invited to come learn more dancing with Professor Govender. One thing led to another, and soon, Surialanga was producing items that symbolized interculturalism even more dramatically than the inaugural performance: Zulu men and Indian women holding hands, dancing together, exchanging the movements of Bharatnatyam, Zulu, and gumboot. 


When I arrived in 2001, I couldn't help but notice a number of asymmetries in the group, much as I loved their politics and ideals. The young Zulu men in the company, around 20 years of age at the time, were having to learn Bharatnatyam much more than the Indian girls had to learn Zulu traditional dance. And while the guys changed from Zulu skins to Bharatnatyam silks in a blink of an eye, the girls just hung out in their jewelry and silks, bejeweled and made up as always. 

Skipping over the many social and economic layers of what was going on in all these interactions for now, let's just say that it seemed to me that the guys, at least, were not always so enthusiastic about the Indian stuff. That for them, it was something they had to do to get some income that they otherwise wouldn't have, that they sort of tolerated it. There were, of course, times when they were really into it, but it certainly wasn't all the time. As a part of the company for a year, I got to know all the ups, downs, ins and outs of all these interactions.

Fast forward to now. There are still six active members of the Surialanga Dance Company, plus Professor Govender. But the women all have good middle-class jobs. They work from 9-5, some have gotten married, have children. Dance is no longer, if it ever was, their number one priority. Not all the guys I knew in 2001 are with the company anymore, but S'bu and Sandile are. These days, in more ways than one, they are the company. They teach Indian and Zulu dance at primary and secondary schools all over Durban, and are employed at a primary school as staff. The kids adore them and just want to do Asimbonanga, choreographed as a simple Bharatnatyam piece, again and again. When they are called to perform, many times, it's just S'bu and Sandile who go. They set the standards, they decide what they need as performers, they give the organizers the music to play.

In rehearsal this past August, as I was reviewing warm-up exercises with the Surialanga guys, I asked them what sorts of contemporary exercises they had learned, since they have also been working with contemporary artists lately. "I don't know contemporary, " said Sandile defiantly. "I only do Bharatnatyam." 


I was struck by not the disavowal of contemporary dance, but by the ownership of Bharatnatyam that Sandile claimed. Something happened in these past years.  Somewhere in between all of the layers of competing power dynamics, these two men had decided to own this art form. To work harder at it, criticize those they thought weren't good enough, to accept constructive criticism themselves, to set themselves to a higher standard. They wanted to be excellent at their professions. And their chosen profession was dance—something that they never could have chosen as strictly Zulu dancers in a province where such dancing is common. It's the combination, the package deal, if you will, that makes what they do amazing. 

In these moments of political turmoil in South Africa, when interculturalism seems a quixotic fantasy of the past, the re-assertion of an "ancient" art from another continent by African men continues to teach young children to love cultural practices other than their own and move audiences to tears. 

To me, the very fact that so many of us in the US relegate forms like Bharatnatyam to the slightly irrelevant "culture" box means that we haven't seen its full potential: its potential for transformation and empowerment, its ability to be made new and relevant in the most unexpected places and under the most ironic of circumstances. This is, of course, a potential that Professor Govender and other artists like her see, and seek to unleash. But perhaps if more of us took seriously that potential in our artistic traditions, old and new, being bi-cultural or tri-cultural wouldn't just present a set of dilemmas for navigating between the static constructs of old and new, but rather a set of opportunities, the limits for which have not yet been set.



Asia Pacific Arts