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Colonialism’s impact on Bharatanatyam

Written by Maya Ivancic and Saana Dharia

Imperialism and colonialism are to blame for the conditions of so many countries in our world that we have deemed ‘third world countries’. However, when we look deeper, these facets have also seeped into the culture and everyday lives of the victims of colonization. Bharatanatyam is an Indian classical dance form, which originated in Tamil Nadu. Though Bharatanatyam is an art form, it was no exception to being stigmatized and belittled by colonialism. During the Victorian era, the British were successful in pitting the already divided castes against each other. In a way, akin to how white supremacy is one of the biggest systems in the United States, in India, the caste system is used as a reason to discriminate each caste against one another. The United Kingdom’s imperialistic rule over India (which was previously Bharat) solidified this detrimental system, which sadly is no closer to deteriorating than when it was first created, as it is so ingrained into Indian culture. While the British exterminated Indians and depleted all of Bharat’s natural resources, colonialism has also impacted Bharatanatyam.

For some more context, Bharatanatyam has been sculpted by many kings and rulers, and flourished during the Chola dynasty. The Indian caste system, which the British redefined, is made up of the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras, and Untouchables, with Brahmins being the closest to god and Untouchables being of the lowest status. Devdasis were beautiful Bharatanatyam dancers who were sponsored by kings, and were generally from non-brahmin castes. When the British came into India, kings and their kingdoms lost power, Devdasi’s lost their source of income, and Bharatnatyam lost its prestige and identity with religion. Bharatnatyam became a symbol of hope for little girls, to ‘bring good fortune back home with them’. During the Chola era, upper-class girls would assume the role of Devdasi, however, during the Colonial British era, even lower caste girls, such as untouchables, could become Devdasis. While this seems positive now, that Bharatanatyam can connect girls no matter the caste, at the time, it signaled that Bharatanatyam was inferior, which almost led to its fall. During the Chola dynasty, Bharatnatyam was for the upper castes, and during British colonial rule, Bharatnatyam was for the lower castes.

Overall, during colonial rule, the temple-dancing Devadasis were looked down upon as women of ill fame. This was because the British falsely labeled Devadasis and they had no genuine interest to understand the Devadasi system of classical court dancing. Therefore, like every other institution colonialism negatively impacted, the imperialistic rule of the British brought down the value of many Indian classical dances, like Bharatnatyam. Somewhere along the way, people started to see the Devadasi system as outdated, and believed that a girl could dance Bharatnatyam without tying her life to the temple. People realized that Bharatnatyam was a dance that could unite people regardless of caste. It is due to the modern day acceptance of others that Bharatanatyam is no longer a status symbol, an idea which should be applied to the actual caste system in everyday institutions in India as well. Clearly, the purpose of Bharatanatyam has varied over time - Bharatanatyam is taught all over the world and is now known as an esteemed, classical art form.


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