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Trisha Gupta
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Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer and critic. Read more of her work on her blog Chhotahazri (trishagupta.blogspot.in)

Bharatanatyam, ‘sleeveless’ and a threatened museum

ast month, the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum had to abandon its plans to host the grand finale of the Lakme Fashion Week, after alleged threats from a Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) leader. The tie-up with a fashion event was part of managing trustee and honorary museum director Tasneem Zakaria Mehta›s attempts to raise money (a fee of Rs. 2 lakh was to be paid for the use of the venue), while giving the museum›s visibility a fillip. Whether one thinks that the idea of a museum being given over to a fashion show for an evening is an exciting innovation or a bizarre mismatch, it is clear that those who actively opposed the event did not see it in the Mumbai Mirror's neutral terms — as "an alternative public space being used for an international event."

A museum trustee told the Mirror that the event had to be shifted elsewhere at the last minute because Byculla corporator Samita Naik's husband, Sanjay Naik (also an MNS leader) went to the museum premises and threatened to take another 300 people there to protest against the show. The fashion show episode is only the most recent in the battles between the BMC and Mehta, who have earlier crossed swords over ambitious plans for the museum›s expansion. Last week, things came to head when the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, which partially funds the museum) unanimously passed a proposal to revoke the agreement between the BMC, Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). The current management, which is responsible for creating one of India›s very few exciting museum spaces, was meant to last another five years. It has now been put on six months' notice.

Reports quoted Sandeep Deshpande, an MNS group leader who presented the proposal to oust Mehta, as saying: "What culture does she intend to show? Our culture is Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Lavni and Kathak; this is what we should be showing to the foreigners, not the culture that these people talk about."

When I posted that quote on Twitter, one response I got was "our culture is Bharatanatyam? Who›d have thunk the Hindu right would admit to sexual slavery as its culture." The tweet was referring, snarkily, to the fact that Bharatanatyam as a dance form emerged out of the centuries-old devadasi system, in which young girls were married off to a deity or a temple, effectively becoming bound to provide sexual services for upper-caste men in the community.

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Culture, in this view, is only culture if it challenges nothing. It must laugh foolishly at its master’s jokes, and roll over and die when told to. It must bark at outsiders, but it must never bite its own.    

nark aside, the ironies of Deshpande's remark are inescapable — and several. First, Bharatanatyam's origin really is tied to what can honestly be described as a Hindu way of life — just not in a way the Hindu right would like to admit. Second, what's on display here from the MNS and its ilk is an incredible historical amnesia, an erasure of the decades of struggle that went into reclaiming Bharatanatyam and sanitising it into an art form that girls "from good families" could practice. Third, that sanitising was a deeply controversial thing, with voices like that of Balasaraswati publicly criticising the way the dance form was stripped of its erotic gestures. And finally, while Bharatanatyam as practiced in the wake of Rukmini Devi Arundale and Kala Kshetra might be de-eroticised, lavani certainly is not. The erotic charge of lavani is integral, both in its lyrics and its dance steps.

At one level, I'm glad that the MNS wants to claim these dance forms, or any dance forms, as part of "our culture". But given that this "support" is so uninformed by history, and so kneejerk and hypocritical in its sense of morality, it seems possible that the tables could turn at any moment. Lavani and tamasha were once beyond the pale of Brahminical culture; now they have been appropriated as Maharashtrian culture, so much so that they were made exempt from the ban on bar dancing. Right now, the world of fashion is tagged as Western and upper class, thus immoral. Tomorrow, "our culture" could co-opt it, and label something else immoral.

Meanwhile, when pushed to the wall by the moral police, we can end up defending things in their terms. "Anamika's collection was celebrating Indian garments and was not immoral," Mehta was quoted as saying — if it had been Western wear, would it have been less morally upright?

Chaitanya Tamhane's unmissable debut feature, Court, trains its steady gaze upon a Mumbai courtroom in which similar culture wars are being played out just below the surface. The charge is one of abetment to suicide, but what is really on trial is a man's refusal to toe the hegemonic cultural line. If a man claims to be a folk singer, a lok shahir, then it is terribly suspicious that he should be a member of any social and political organisations — and oh, downright fraud that he should voice political or economic dissent "in the guise of cultural workshops".

Culture here is what a majority endorses — it seems almost its job to mock the minority, whether that be a Catholic lady publicly punished for wearing a "sleeveless" top, or the North Indian migrant who is a figure of fun because he dares propose marriage to a Marathi girl. Culture, in this view, is only culture if it challenges nothing. It must laugh foolishly at its master's jokes, and roll over and die when told to. It must bark at outsiders, but it must never bite its own.

 
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