Example of Inculturation: Christian Bharatanatyam

This post summarizes two threads in October 2011 that had a lively discussion on Leela Samson's attempts to de-Hinduize Kalakshetra and Bharatanatyam, the origins of Bharatanatyam, as well as a followup on Carnatic Music.
Response to Indian dancer upset at my critique of Christian Bharatna
After the recent highly successful book event in Houston, the organizers received an email from a dancer in Houston about an upcoming performance by Leela Samson's students. When someone sent the Breaking India excerpt about Leela Samson to this dancer, she replied that Breaking India had "resurrected the scandal" against Leela Sampson 4 years after Sampson's supporters had declared it "a dead issue or a non issue". Since it was a private letter forwarded to me for a response, I will not name the person. The letter claimed that the "attacks against Leela Sampson" in 2007 were the work of one man based on "some internal 'politics' and innuendos" within the dance academy. It went on to say that "the dance community of India strongly supported Leela Samson and discredited Nadar's accusations as scurrilous religion-based comments." The protestor proudly asserts: "I am a dancer, from Chennai, and to me, the Kalakshetra is a 'shrine' to art built by Rukmini Devi..." 

I agree with her on the prestigious dance academy being a shrine. I disagree with her on what that entails. To understand the syndrome we are dealing with, it is important to first understand the strategy known as inculturation and its colonizing influences upon a growing number of Indian dancers, such as this protestor. What this dancer feels is precisely the result of inculturation - namely, to de-Hinduize the tradition in such a manner that it is welcomed by the practitioners who begin to see this shift as a kind of modernization and globalization program. The first stage is to diminish the dharmic metaphysical context by emptying the symbols of their deeper meanings, and this gets gradually secularized and eventually Christianized.
The students learn to perform across a wide range of improvisations  and stories depending on the given audience. From the most traditional to the most distant from tradition, there is a spectrum with the following stages:
1) very traditional Hindu
2) modern but still Hindu
3) use of Hindu symbols but without explaining their traditional meaning
4) symbols turned into decorations and generic spirituality, to be sprinkled  in for exotic/ethnic beauty
5) total secularization
6) Christian stories, but still using the traditional dance grammar, dress, gestures
7) dancing stories of protest against the tradition's "oppression" against women, Dalits, etc.
Ever since Christian institutions across India and the West started taking over Indian dance academies, they have been increasingly producing such students in the name of modernity. The performer will do different things before different audiences. This is sort of equivalent to what is called "al taqiyah" in Islam, namely, to be respectful to the majority culture and traditions for the time being.
Inculturation is at a highly advanced stage of perfection in India. It was started by the church first in Latin America and Africa to gradually convert tribes by infiltrating them gently with appropriation of their culture. The western trend of Christian Yoga is a part of the same syndrome. There are many such appropriations that confuse Indians into thinking it is a complement to them. I deal with this partly in my forthcoming book "Being Different", and in greater detail in my subsequent "U-Turn Theory".
What I would greatly appreciate from Leela Sampson's academy is a clear statement of policy on inculturation and secularization of Bharatnatyam: Does she claim that this dance can be performed either as Hindu form or as non Hindu form? Does she believe that our postmodern era makes it easier (and hence desirable) to teach and learn dance that is "liberated" from Hinduism? Does she feel that Bharatnatyam is separable from its underlying metaphysics - a metaphysics that my book "Being Different" shows to be incompatible with the fundamental metaphysics of Abrahamic religions?
In other words, let us get Sampson's clear position on what is the relationship between (i) Hinduism and Natya Shastra and (ii) Natya Shastra and Bharatnatyam.....

But she is unlikely to do any such deep introspection. Her final sentence in the letter clarifies her escapist mindset: "It is a heavy book with disturbing writings. I'd rather spend time studying Vedanta..." This interpretation of Vedanta as an escape from whatever one finds "disturbing" and "heavy" is one of the symptoms of what I have called the Moron Smriti. But that is the topic of yet another book and I won't go further into it here."

 FL shares:
Bharatnatyam dance Anita Rathnam says "nothing is interesting in the Ramayana for me"

Phd degree in Women's Studies from Mother Teresa University! That explains it all.


Manas responds
">>This interpretation of Vedanta as an escape from whatever one finds "disturbing" and "heavy" is one of the symptoms of what I have called the Moron Smriti. <<

Couldn't agree more. While dharma allows one the freedom of interpretation within what the tradition grants, many Hindus have come to associate dharma with pusillanimity, inaction and escapism. In other words, we should make all compromises while others should be granted all exceptions at whatever cost. Then they justify this using all sorts of outrageous non-arguments as we just saw."
Rajiv adds a clarification. This  provides an important distinction between how Bharatanatyam should be practiced, and emphasizing Hinduism's pluralistic tradition.
"This topic has entered other lists and there are some misunderstandings I wish to clear. Someone is distorting my position to claim that I am upset when Judeo-Christian persons perform bharatnatyam. THIS IS NOT MY POSITION.

If a Judeo-Christian person does the dance AUTHENTICALLY as per Hindu Natya Shastra that would be fine.
But many Christians have difficulty doing it this way, because it conflicts with their Christian indoctrination - worship of "false gods" and "idols" and so forth. When a dancer performs a gesture, mantra or ritual to a Hindu deity, say Shiva or Ganesha, is that dancer feeling the deity as GOD? Or it is felt
internally as a "secular" or "cultural" symbol of "out of respect for our ancestors"? If the Christian dancer is clear and not self-deceptive that indeed the deity IS GOD then there is no issue - but then the padre in his/her church wont be happy.

There is NO problem with a person doing bharatnatyam regardless of his/her own faith. Thats not the issue. Lets not misrepresent the issue. Pls read what i wrote in my response yesterday. its about inculturation as a public program to
infiltrate hindus by deception
Senthil has an important question:
"The bharata natyam was originally practiced by devadasis, who performed this art in the temple, in devotion to the god. Since devadasis had a share of income of the temple, she is independant, and hence only her devotion to god, was the
prime motivation for excelling in this art. Today, the bharatanatyam had been made audience centric, and the dancers had no permanent funding (i suppose). Which means, they are in an economic compulsion to attract audience, and this is diluting the art itself.

I would like to know the Rajiv's opinion on this.. Does he support commercialising of bharatanatya? Should we allow bharatanatyam dancers appeasing the audience, than devotion to the god?

We can see many instances, where people eulogise mixing bharatanatyam with western dance, and project that as a mark of liberalism..

While we should be aware of inculteration, we also should be aware of the fundamental root cause. the root cause, that bharat natya dancers have no survival funding, and left to fend for themselves.."

Rajiv's response:
"1) When the dance is not performed as spiritual sadhana, it is being secularized, which I find troubling. To understand why I am troubled: In my next book "Being Different", I explain secularism as seen from dharmic perspective, and I contrast it with dharma sapekshata - two different approaches to equal

In the same manner, the spiritual meaning invested in the Eucharist ritual should not be secularized.

2) Secularizing is not the same thing as commercializing. They can and often do go together. But one can exist without the other, in which case commercializing by itself is not necessarily bad - if its a means to fund the tradition but each performer feels the inner process as sadhana."

George adds:
"Mr. Senthil has brought up a point that somehow seems to evade the Hindu collective memory for good. In any discussion of Indian classical arts, whether dance or music, the role of the devadasis, the holy women who evolved and carried these traditions through centuries, are promptly and conveniently forgotten. According to the Agamas, the temple ritual was incomplete without the involvement of the devadasi, something most Hindus seems to have forgotten, or deems beyond merit.
The classical dance of the devadasi and the ganika went out of the temple and the royal palace for the first time for the privilege of the British, creating the English phrase "nautch girls", and simultaneously also bringing the devadasi institution into disrepute, especially among the English-educated, prudery-infected Indians. The role of the Christian missionaries in the campaign against devadasis is a subject that merits a separate research. With the devadasi system banned by the Madras Presidency and the temple privileges withdrawn (as Senthil has noted), the devadasis were literally on the street and forced into prostitution. The Indian classical arts, which until then, was the privilege of the dasis, were facing a real danger of extinction. If it were not for a few individuals who loved the arts, like E. Krishna Iyer of Madras, who supported the dance and music of the dasis, these arts would have disappeared. It was under these circumstances that Rukmini Devi started the Kalakshetra and redeemed a certain respectability for the arts and slowly girls from other communities began to trickle in. Even then, any dancer of repute took pains to trace or establish their lineage to one or the other of the famous devadasis.

What an irony that having failed to destroy the Hindu arts almost 100 years ago, the Christians are now taking over the very same institution that they campaigned against. There is nothing secular about this attempt by Christians - this is outright appropriation, another demo for Mr. Rajiv Malhotra's U-turn thesis of the scavenging Christians. 

Indian classical dance without its traditional Hindu theme is outright fraud, a violation of propriety and a blatant usurpation of intellectual and religious property."
Venkat adds:
"Arangettram, under the original devadasi system, was a sacred rite where the initiate danced in the temple. It was a dedication to the deity and not merely a performance for the visual pleasure of semi-literate audience. Virtually every modern Bharatanatyam dancer (rare exceptions apart) has no love for arts and is just a comercial performer or teacher. The late Tamil writer Sujata (Rangarajan) once wrote that many TamBrams learn Bharatanatyam just to marry an IAS or IIT-US settled groom. Later they become teachers to augment the income. It is just a commercial investment. They internalize every western bias. Recently, I was photographing a Bharatanatyam performance and thought that the use of talcum/rose powder by the dancer actually makes them look less than beautiful in photographs and blocks the natural shine resulting from the bounced flash light. When I asked the dance teacher about this, she replied that it is customary in Bharatanatyam to wear rose/talcum powder.
Talcum powder is customary?!!! Unlike the devadasis who were proud of their art and their darker skin shade, modern Bharatanatyam dancers hope that they look like whites or at least resemble them." 
 Senthil follows up:
"1) When someone funds the bharatanatyam, then doesnt it mean, they are in one or way, subjected to the individual fund givers?

2) And while we are discussing this issue, can we bring up its original purpose? ie, this dance is to be performed in temples rather than before audience, so that we can make it temple centric..

In future, if hindu temples are to be freed from government control, i would like to see such bharatanatyam and carnatic songs performed in every hindu temples...

Rajiv's response:
On 1: It depends on the donor's motive which could range from pure seva to the tradition all the way to selfish motive, and various stages in between.
On 2: Agreed. But easier said than done, for too many hindus today are a decadent lot." 

Ganesh shares:
"... ... those who were called Devadasis who became the pioneers of various dance forms, not just Bharatanatyam, but Kuchipodi, Kathakalli et al.

Sadly, thanks to Christian inculturation prostitutes are termed Devadasis for breaking up the harmony of a country.


Here's a very hollow article written by a member, National Commission for Women.

Senthil adds:
"1. The devadasi community is still present in interior districts of Northern karnataka, and it seems the old system of devoting eldest girl child to temples is still in practice.. but the western media is projecting them as an oppression on women, and had been projecting them as institutionalised prostitution.. This is purely a mis-information...

2. The devadasis in tamilnadu may not want to display their identity, but those in karnataka are proud of their heritage. Please see the website  www.devadiga.com where they have grouped together as a community. We can use this website for any future debate on devadasi system..." 

Venk. shares:
"And now we have a carnatic singer glorifying Christian carnatic music.

The lady convent educated) needs to be educated on the devastating effects of inculturation.

Love Thy Neighbor

Plenty of fawning comments. Do add yours to bring some sanity in there.

The only comment made sense by a "Christian" (appended below). (Kamini responds but pathetica so.

Posted by: Dr Antony | October 09, 2010 at 10:24 PM

I understand you are an expert in Karnatic music and so I don't venture up on an argument with you. I am not an expert,and music is not my profession.But I seriously enjoy music, and I can never forgive self acclaimed singers,who cannot keep their pitch.It is very easy to recognize who has music in them.It wont take you more than few minutes.Do I have to tell you?

I think I have heard this priest in our local television
channel,where he made a devastating attempt to do a kacheri. He cannot say ten swaroms at a row. The only evidence I could see that he was a student of Yesudas was his beard. That is often a good disguise for ignorance.

I am a Christian. In the history of the Church in Kerala,I don't find any Karnatic music experts. Yesudas never tried that mistake,because he knows the traditions of Karnatic music.The Keerthanas are all praises of Hindu Gods,and it needs tremendous devotion for it to come out.It was not meant for Christian church recitals.Christians in India imitate many traditional styles,and incorporate them in to their practices. I have heard some of these poor attempts of praises to Mother Mary in Karnatic ragas,to my utter despair.  I always wanted to tell this priest to stick on to his job,and not to try to dirty the only pure tradition we keep in India.
By the way,did it really come from your heart?"

Subramanian disagrees:
"I do not agree with you Music is devotional. You should be happy that the christians are turning to be Indians rather than Christians Prayer is for one man's satisfaction. If I follow a different methods , it is up to me because GOD will not punish. If you do a mistake, it is elder's responsibility to correct and not to condemn Karnatic music is a tradition. Bharathiar wrote a lot of songs. The beauty in his songs are one can sing the same sond in different ragas. And the subject he chose is even political I wish you do not restrict music to one religion. please be happy that they are following us
In the name of music let them not kill the music. This is my prayer" 

Rakesh agrees wih Subramanian:
" By insisting everything is linked to Hindu religion, we are becoming an Apple in the fight versus google and microsoft
Better to have some elements of Hinduism that are seen as secular that will allow dialog with others. It is better that these traditions are 'appropriated' since they also are a bridge. As long as we hold our end of the bridge well, they will serve us
Which means, get to economic prosperity and patronize the arts" 

George responds to Subramanian & Rakesh:
"Long after Hindus and Bharatanatyam are gone and buried, with the earth and dharma destroyed and burnt, naive Hindus can find relief in the thought that there will be Christunatyam and Christians left to do the last tandava on the prophesied doomsday. I am not saying this because of any irrational hatred I nurse for Christians or Christianity - most of my relatives are still Christian, out of convenience or ignorance or arrogance. There is much evidence on my side if one cares to stick out his neck and look around.

Christmas and Easter were once pagan festivals in Europe around 1500 years ago, but none of the pagans remain to talk about them. How many people living on earth know that these were pagan festivals that had nothing to do with Christians or Jesus. The birthday of Jesus (Christmas) was celebrated by all early Christians on January 7th and is still celebrated by many Eastern Christians on that day. The date changed when the "faith" came to Europe....Now both festivals are patented and celebrated all over the earth by the Christians.

...Church liberalism is only a show for people living in the West, because otherwise they cannot wield the influence they still have, like having a seat at the UN and in all countries as diplomats. It was the fascist Mussolini who made Vatican a state. Inside the Indian churches, the Christians systematically tarnish the Hindu religion and on the outside, are taking over one Hindu institution after the other (like Kalakshetra). Many Christian orders have shed their white cassocks and wear saffron robes. Earlier they had shed their customary black for white cassocks when they found that Hindus ran away seeing the black outfit. The white cassock was adopted only for India."

Venkat adds:
"I was curious to test how some of the Carnatic music practitioners perceive this misappropriation, or as George correctly called, Christian scavenging of Carnatic music. So, I called three practitioners (none a celebrity) who are also traditional Hindus who have brought up their children teaching them their mother tongue (Tamil). They all agreed with G's observations, and even though they had not heard about Rajiv Malhotra, were glad that he had taken this initiative. One of them was very sharp and is very familiar with the typical west-aping Hindus...He wanted Hindus to be prepared for the following counter:
"How is the Christian adaptation of Carnatic music different from Muthuswamy Dikshitar's adaptation of "English Notes" given that Western Classical music is Christian?"
He gave the response himself. There is nothing Christian about western classical music and by the time the historically verifiable religious scores were composed in the 15th century onwards, this system of music had been around for nearly a 1000 years. Its roots go back to the Klezmer (Jewish) and other diverse forms of European music, all pagan in nature. If any, there is no evidence that western classical music had any notations until the last six centuries or so. Dikshitar's father used to take him to concerts since India was colonized then. It was just a chance exposure, and all he did was adapt a few notes. He never attempted to appropriate a European tradition and claim it as ours.
In contrast, Indian classical music is very Hindu in nature as Pt. Ravishankar mentions in his work. One can go back 2000 years and find that it is not only codified but also the very same themes that are rendered now were rendered then too. A side note: he and I discussed an example - the great song Vatavaraiyai mattaakki which M S Subbulakshmi rendered in the 1940s but which had been written (with notations) by Ilango Adigal in the Silappadikaram in 170 CE. The theme centers around the Samudra manthan episode. So, our classical music has always been inseparable from the Hindu cultural and religious ethos. In contrast, Christian church posthumously canonized western classical music which itself is an act of Christian scavenging. He also mentioned that there is not even a question of Dikshitar absorbing any structural elements from western classical because Indian classical is far more advanced with microtones (ghamaka), whereas, as Menuhin remarked, western classical is far less nuanced as seen by the loss of the perfect fifth as a result of the faulty, and likely scavenged, staff notation that western classical uses.
Hope this input helps our speakers so that you are not caught off guard. I am not knowledgeable in music, and did not even fully understand everything this gentleman told, but others can surely put together better arguments based on these inputs...."
Mukund comments:
"Actually in all the religions of Abrahmic series you will find that they have NO MUSIC. No where in Christian or Jewish history any reference to singing or misic will be found."
Koenraad Elst responds:
"Singing and playing flute or harp is mentioned passim in the Bible many times. Most importantly, King David sang and danced in front of his people, part of the ritual role a Kind used to fulfil. Christianity has developed its own music early on combining Hebrew and Greek traditions and probably others besides. Like painting and sculpture, music was deemed enormously important in winning over the illiterate masses. ... Contrary to Islam where music had no legitimacy (in spite of secular peddler of "Sufi music"), Judaism and Christianity had a rich musical tradition of their own. Church musicians also pioneered musical literacy with Guido of Arezzo's note

Whatever else is wrong with Christianity, a lack of music is not it....."
Venkat_h adds:
"Here is an instance of Hindus giving up Kathakali and Christians bringing it to life...

A Xtian touch to Kathakali

Thiruvananthapuram | Posted on Sep 19, 2011

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: One day, a few months ago, in a burst of inspiration, Fr Joy Chencheril wrote a long poem on the Christian Mass. While he was pondering over it, an idea struck him. ‘Why not make this poem into a kathakali drama?’ he thought.

“We Christians should promote kathakali, which is a dying art,” says Fr Joy, who belongs to the Missionary Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament. “Very few people care for it. Only foreigners come to see it. Not many temples organise kathakali performances during their annual fests.”

When he was a child growing up in Mannar, in Kottayam district, Fr Joy had attended many kathakali performances at nearby temples and had grown to love it. Hence, he decided he would do something about it.

He approached Radha Madhavan, who is a well-known attakatha writer. (An attakatha is a story running alongside a kathakali drama). “I was very enthusiastic,” says Radha. “I have a lot of respect for other religions.”

One of the reasons for the lack of popularity of kathakali is because the shlokas are in Sanskrit. But Radha and Fr Joy worked closely, over six months, to render the shlokas in Malayalam...." 
Michel Danino responds to Mukund:
"Let us not oversimplify, please. I don't know about Islam but prayers are chanted in Judaism, apart from other music
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_music). Christianity has a long tradition of music (see Gregorian chant as one example:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregorian_chant). Much of Bach's music was sacred; Mozart and Beethoven composed masses and other sacred music. ... I am not aware of any injunction in Judaism or Christianity against music." 

George responds:
"Originally, music was looked down upon among Christians though there are some references to songs and hymns among early Christians. Musical instruments were anathema until the 7th century when pope Vitalian allowed the organ into the church (this is also a belief among Christians like everything
else). The reason for this prejudice was because the bible attributed the musical instruments to Cain's bloodline. Genesis 4:21* - *"And his brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who handle the harp and organ."
The puritans of England under Cromwell banished music from the church and this continued in the USA as well wherever the puritans were in power.

However, for Christians, music like everything else is a means to an end, which is capturing the world for Christ. They will contaminate every natural thing under the sun with their poison to achieve this end"

Raj shares:
"Michelji, many church historians and scholars have written about this. Instrumental music is forbidden in worship services, but vocals are allowed. Instrumental music may be allowed when not used for worship. I do totally agree with Georgeji that they will do and allow "anything" as long as they can get a few more people to convert. I do disagree with Mukundji's assertion.

Here are some references:

Instrumental Music in the New Testament Worship Service: link
Origin of Instrumental Music IN Christian Worship - M. C. Kurfees: link
Amazing History Of Instrumental Music: link

I had posted about this earlier as well: link

N S Rajaram comments:
"Choral and instrumental are both part of Catholic service. It is the Protestants who were not as strong patrons of music as the Catholic church. Even a Lutheran like Bach wrote Catholic mass like the B Minor. Monteverdi, frescobalsi and many other Catholics wrote church music as did Mozart and Beethoven later-- both Catholics
     Bach was also the greatest composer for the organ. I am very familiar with the musical practice and history of the period having taken master classes in music history and performance. I also was assistant to a well-known music critic in London. Catholics have been lavish supporters of the arts. Luther and the Puritans objected to it.

... Some of the greatest music in the Western tradition was inspired by religion-- like Bach's St Matthew's Passion and the Mass in B Minor.
 It is not correct to say that in Hinduism the music is almost entirely sacred. There are many works like 'tillanas', 'javalis' and others that are secular. Even in the so-called 'sacred' music, greater part of the performance is taken up by secular activity"
Vishal has the last word in this fascinating thread:
" ... when India was shifting from Vedic music to classical music in the early centuries of the common era, there was opposition from both ends. In Kavya literature, we see protogonists of classical music ridiculing the chanters of Samaveda ...
So music does have a secular (non Dharma associated) content as stated by Dr Rajaram below. Yes, it cannot be denied that perhaps of all religious traditions, it is Hindu Dharma in which music is so well integrated with the practical as well as theoretical aspects of Dharma. I am not sure if any other major religious tradition can boast of a 'Music Theology' as Hindu Dharma does"

1 comment:

  1. Well as we all know why Jesus was crucified because of Civil/cultural clash between two different beliefs and jesus was trying to spreading his own man made doctrines which was not accepted by others and result he was hanged.

    But Christians start doing business on jesus's death by saying as human sacrifice !!!!!