This article is an adapted version of the talk presented by Arjun Bharadwaj at the Swadeshi Indology Conference in December 2017
The current paper attempts to explore the contributions of Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, an artist and scholar, in the context of the Dravidian movement and her artistic rebuttal of the same.
Arts are reflections of man’s emotions, values, ethics and aspirations and serve as impersonal media to communicate the same creatively. India is a land rich in different forms of performing arts that have evolved over the centuries. Tamil Nadu, an indispensable part of the Indian sub-continent, has been the seat of many performing arts that are inseparable parts of the sanātana-dharma. We have an unbroken history of these arts, from as far back as the Sangham literature, including the later creative works of literature such as the Śilappadikāram and works of śāstra like Tolkkāppiyam and Daṇḍyalaṅkāram. The numerous inscriptions and glorious temple traditions stand as irrefutable evidence to this. Above all, the glorious living tradition of performing arts like dance, music and theatre that includes both the mārga and the deśi (roughly translated as ‘classical’ and its ‘regional application’ respectively) is an unquestionable testimony to the said heritage.
In spite of this wonderful and flawless fabric of sanātana-dharmic art-forms that have been practiced, performed, perpetuated and enjoyed by the lay and the learned alike, groups opposed to sanātana-dharma, in the form of disparate political parties, academic bodies, various ‘minority’ groups, self-proclaimed intellectuals and art-promoters, have been trying for over a century to subjugate sanātana-dharma by ridiculing our indigenous arts that are so remarkably well rooted in our eternal tradition. This separatist attitude, which took roots in Tamil Nadu, in many cases with evangelical and missionary motives, was later adopted by fanatics in other states of India. It did not need much effort for the separatists to see that inducing these fictious socio-political differences in art, that is held dear by the masses, would help boost their motive.
Through her multifaceted talent and deep erudition as a dancer, imaginative choreographer, sensitive musician, profound scholar with a thorough grounding in multidisciplinary studies - and above all, as a practitioner of sanātana-dharma and as a great patriot, Padma Subrahmanyam has been serving the cause of our indigenous arts and culture for over six decades. Padma Subrahmanyam successfully reconstructed the mārga-karaṇas described by Bharata in his Nātyaśāstra with her aesthetically satisfying and theoretically sound work in the later part of the 20th century. Her study helped not only pan-Indian art forms but also pan-Asian art forms find their origin and fulfillment. She did not limit her study to mere reconstruction of techniques, but has also applied the techniques artistically in her solo and group productions for decades, and has trained students world-wide in their usage. Her scholarship is arguably the only one of its kind in India. Apart from silencing her critics, Padma Subrahmanyam has greatly enhanced the aesthetic possibilities of our art-forms.
The current paper describes the problem caused by the Dravidian movement and shows how Padma Subrahmanyam through her research papers, books, lectures, dance performances, television serials, and institutional work, and above all, her focus on Rasa, the life-breath of Indian art, has constantly worked towards establishing national integrity and harmony.
The Dravidian movement and its implications for Indian art forms
1.The Aryan-Dravidian divide
To divide and rule has been among the primary strategies of the colonial administrators and evangelists to establish their superiority in different parts of the world and for introducing Semitic religions into the main stream society. In India too, fictitious theories of ‘Race science’ have been applied to concoct the existence of a race called the ‘Dravidians’ that is supposedly indigenous. Among the proponents of this theory, Bishop Caldwell played an important role in introducing a linguistic divide with a strong racial narrative. In their thoroughly researched work, ‘Breaking India’ Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Neelakandan discuss the problem at hand-
“Bishop Cadwell proposed that the Dravidians were in India before the Aryans, but got cheated by the Brahmins, who were the cunning agents of the Aryans. He argued that the simple-minded Dravidians were kept in shackles by Aryans through the exploitation of religion. Thus, the Dravidians needed to be liberated by Europeans like him. He proposed the complete removal of Sanskrit words from Tamil.” Malhotra, Neelakandan (2011: 62)
Caldwell coined the term ‘Dravidian’ from the Sanskrit ‘dravida’, which was used in a seventh-century text to refer to the languages of South India. (Caldwell 2009:3-6). He thus divided Indians linguistically and religiously, and mapped many traditional practices on to Biblical frameworks. This established the theological foundation for Dravidian separatism from the pan-Indian sanātana-dharma. It also bestowed a certain exclusive status to the art forms, mythology, rituals and traditions of Tamil Nadu, and also successfully created a divide between classical and folk art forms. This was also accompanied by Christian usurpation of many classical art forms of South India. Caldwell not only managed to erect a racial, linguistic, and religio-cultural divide between the minority Brahmin and majority non-Brahmin (‘Dravidian’) population of South India, but also provided a systematic project for reclaiming and recovering an ancient and ‘pure’ Dravidian language. Malhotra and Neelakandan add -
“The missionaries’ strategy was two-pronged: First, they intensely studied the devotional Tamil literature and praised it in glowing terms to Tamil scholars. Second, they projected the Tamil culture as being very different and totally independent from the rest of India. Their work provided the ideological underpinnings of later Tamil racist politics…. Missionary scholarship stimulated a new local ethnic identity, which was instructed to reject its Hindu nature. It became strategic to show that Tamil religion had strong underpinnings, on par with ‘civilized’ religions, and that ‘civilized’ meant monotheistic. These positive features were isolated and claimed to be indigenous to the Tamils, and shown to be in opposition to the ‘foreign’ traits that were attributed to the Aryans”
Malhotra, Neelakandan (2011: 65)
The Kural was given a new identity as universal, non-sectarian humanism, to strengthen the divide between the ‘dominating’ Brahmins and the ‘exploited’ non-Brahmins, i.e., the Dravidians. Śaiva-siddhānta was seen as a civilized monotheistic text, thus linking it to Christianity. Furthermore, the origin of the pan- Indian Tamil devotional literature was fabricated by the Dravidianists and interpreted to suit their separatist and evangelic motives. Thus, the decoupling of the Kural from the main stream sanātana-dharma helped in conversions on the one hand and helped seed Tamil fanaticism, on the other. Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Neelakandan observe:
“Through this manipulation, the Brahmins were made into the colonizers, while the actual colonizers like Caldwell were projected as saviors of the Tamil people!”
Malhotra, Neelakandan (2011: 65)
2.Attack on the sanātanic deities, literature and classical art
The myth of the Lemurian origins of the Tamils boosted the claim of the great antiquity of the Dravidianists. Madam Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-91), the co-founder of the Theosophical Society popularized the Lemurian theory and held that Hindu image worship was a gross superstition, suggesting that Hindus were a race which had degenerated from the pristine Aryan religion. In summary, Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Neelakandan note:
“… the Vedas belonged to the foreign Aryans, who were pure, while the modern Hindus were degenerate bastard off-springs of these White Aryans mating with the inferior Dravidian natives. However, the Dravidians were now being given their own glorious past with their origins in Lemuria. Once brought into prominence by the Theosophists, this ‘history’ made its entry into the official manuals of the British colonial administrators in India.” Malhotra, Neelakandan (2011: 82)
The Dravidianists also proposed that Brahmins, Sanskrit and Vedānta were evil forces that needed to be eradicated to re-purify Tamil Society. (Mahotra, Neelakandan, 2011:97). Kamil V. Zvelebil, a noted Czech Dravidianist declared emphatically that the concept of Śiva as the divine dancer, and in particular, as performing the ānanda-tāṇḍava, was no doubt an Indo-Dravidian invention. He emphasized that we must distinguish between the North and the South of India. He even dismissed all evidence of Śiva in North India as being insignificant and propounds solely southern origin of the Śiva-Naṭarāja theme (Zvelebil, 1985 2-15). The separatists also attribute a non-Indian origin to Murugan, the deity Subrahmaṇya, as popularly worshipped in Tamil Nadu. Patrick Harrigan and John Samuel claim that the deity is a corrupt form of the Christian deity or a misidentified Christian saint.(Harrigan, 2001; Hinduism Today, May-1999)
Many Western feminists view Indian classical dance as a valorization of feminine sexuality. Dr Francis Barbaroza, a prominent Roman Catholic priest and dancer of Hindu art forms added Christian mudras to the Bharatanatyam vocabulary to help Christianize the dance form. (Barbaroza, 2003). Appropriation of sanātanic art forms, deities and traditions into the Christian framework helped the separationists boost their missionary activities and conversions.
Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Neelakandan observe:
“Missionary scholarship tirelessly continues to establish a mutually exclusive divide between folk-art and Hinduism. The conceptual framework for this is derived from the works of Risley, Hodgson and Caldwell from a century ago. ‘High’ art is shown as oppression by Brahmins, and folk-art as a revolt from the Dravidians.”
Malhotra, Neelakandan (2011: 123)
Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam and her contribution to National Integration
In such an unfavourable socio-religious climate in Tamil Nadu, scholars and artistes of high caliber and great talent have come to the defense of Indian arts, aesthetics, and sanātana-dharma. They addressed the urgent need for a nationalistic approach, which in turn was directed towards universalism. The Paramācārya of Kanchi (Śrī Śrī Candraśekarendra Sarasvatī), Dr. M. S. Subbulakshmi, Dr. V. Raghavan, Dr. Rukmini Devi Arundale, Sri E. Krishna Iyer and many others have had seminal positive impact. The situation deteriorated after the passing of this generation, which was a product of the freedom struggle and had been a part of the Indian renaissance. Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, a native of Tamil Nadu, is one of the tallest peaks in the list of stalwarts who have worked for the purpose of national integration.
Padma Bhushan Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam (b.1943) is a dancer par excellence and a scholar of international repute. She is not only trained in Indian classical dance and music, but also is also well versed in the literature, rituals and traditions of India. She has constantly worked for over six decades on Indian themes through classical media with an unwavering focus on Rasa, the essence of all art forms. She has remained true to the aesthetic vision of Bharata, the sage-composer of the Nāṭyaśāstra, who laid the foundation for the classical mārga tradition. The sole purpose of art is to entertain, as is documented in several places in the Nāṭyaśāstra (1.11, 36.28, for instance) and Padma Subrahmanyam has never deviated from this principle. Nevertheless, throughout her career as a performing artist and scholar, she has emphasized on National Integration, India’s monolithic culture, the universality of the sanātana-dharma and has denied the exclusivity of Dravidian culture. The following sections (in the upcoming articles in the series) describe how Padma Subrahmanyam’s art presentations and research suggest the inclusive nature of sanātana-dharma and all regional variations as an integral part of the classical mārga tradition.
Thanks to Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh for his guidance, inputs and feedback.