Religious Dogma or Political Agenda? Bharatanatyam and its Re-emergence in British Tamil Temples Ann R. David



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Religious Dogma or Political Agenda? Bharatanatyam and its

Re-emergence in British Tamil Temples
Ann R. David
In British Tamil temples, the increasing religiosity and sacredness of temple ritual alongside the growth of Bharatanatyami dance performances presents a new discourse of performed Tamil Hinduism. Do these devotional spectacles provide confirmation of a diasporic Tamil identity, and are these contemporary dance practices linked in any way to the times of the original temple dancers (the devadasis)ii? How are these dances perceived by current devotees, priests, and performers? What are the political implications of these resurgent religious sensibilities and do they support a “globalized localism”, as Joanne Waghorne (2004: 171)) puts it, where local, once-rural practices are being exported throughout the Tamil diaspora? And what of the presence and influence, if any, of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in temple religious and cultural practices?
Using evidence from my ethnographic research in London Tamil temples and local London Tamil communitiesiii, in this essay I address the complex discourse of religious and political identity articulated in the London Sri Lankan Tamil community, particularly in relation to dancing and ritual performance. I seek to answer the aforementioned questions regarding the place of dances and dancing in defining such identity. I note expansions in the transmission and performance of the classical dance form of Bharatanatyam in British temple locations, and interview dance students and performers. I interrogate whether changes in temple and ritual practices and their accompanying dance forms are aspects of an expressive culture that reaffirm, or perform faith, or whether they express a growing adherence to Hindu scripture and a dominant religious nationalism.
I consider the historical relationship of Bharatanatyam to temple practice, as well as the history of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora and that community’s particular post-colonial settlement in Britain. These discussions are set within a theoretical framework that examines notions of diaspora and concepts of cultural, ethnic and religious identity. New, fluid notions of identity amongst second and third generations of British Asians are noted, and considered within the context of ethnicity and religious sentiment. Finally, I argue that a detailed understanding of community dance practices as revealed here, not only acknowledges the presence of Tamils settled in Britain and the relevance to them of their cultural practices, but also reveals the significance of the dance forms within a political agenda.

Tamil Migration to the UK
The particular patterns marking Tamil migration from Sri Lanka to Britain separate into four main waves: the first, a post-independence migration after 1948 of professionals and younger Vellalar (high caste Brahmin) Tamils arriving for university education. From 1960, as discrimination increased in Sri Lanka and ethnic relationships in Sri Lanka began to break down, more young Tamil men migrated to Britain. The escalation of Singhalese violence against Tamils in the early 1980s brought a large wave of asylum seekers and refugees, which continued into the 1990s. The advent of the new millennium brought a change in migration trajectories - a marked decline in asylum migration, but an increase in the regrouping and relocating of family clusters, particularly of Tamils from Europe (France, Switzerland and Germany) to Britain. This secondary trans-national migration has perhaps been propelled by the attraction of an English education for the younger generations, and by the obvious support of a well-established, significant British community that includes not only Tamils from Sri Lanka, but also from India, South Africa, Mauritius, Singapore, Trinidad and Malaysia. No accurate numbers are available, but they are thought to total around 150,000 – 200,000 people.iv The London Borough of Brent in the north-west of the city is home to the largest number of Sri Lankan Tamils, calculated to be in the region of 12,000. Brent is one of London’s most culturally diverse boroughs where non-white ethnic groups now form the majority of the population. Other major settlements of Tamils in Greater London are in East Ham, Merton, Surbiton, Tooting and Croydon. The community itself is not homogeneous, however, with significant differences in caste, social status, educational backgrounds and migratory histories.
The first wave of Tamil settlers, for the most part, did not get involved in politics, as their energies were focussed on obtaining good educations, professional jobs and becoming established in the community – as many studies on diaspora groups indicate (Safran 1991, Vertovec 1997, Wahlbeck 2002). However, the second and third groups, having left a highly charged, volatile homeland, have been heavily committed to the Sri Lankan political struggle, and the 1980s showed a rise in LTTEv membership and its activities in Britain and the rest of Europe. Although one or two academic studies have discussed the LTTE’s remote control of the Tamil diaspora (e.g. Taylor 1994, Van Hear & Brunvi) there is still little research that attempts to understand the current role of the LTTE in shaping diaspora dynamics.

The links between the Tamil temples and political movements such as the LTTE, although implicit, are significant. During the 1980s, British LTTE members held their annual puja (worship) at the Highgatehill Tamil temple in north London, and during this same period, the Sri Muthumari Amman Temple in Tooting, south-west London, was founded by a Jaffna-born Tamil sent to London by the Tamil Tigers. Working as a trained accountant, he was financial controller of the LTTE in Western Europe, responsible for coordinating the collection of funds from Tamils in the European diaspora and for procuring weaponry. Waghorne notes that “the constitution of this temple stipulates that any income above expenses be sent back to Sri Lanka for aid to projects” (2004: 218). Another temple in Wembley, north-west London, received a £25,000 investment from the LTTE to help get it established. Since the temples provide both ready access to the Tamil community and a potential source of income, the LTTE has sought control over temple events, management and revenue.vii At all three of these temples, Bharatanatyam performances by young Sri Lankan Tamil girls have taken place during festival occasions.


The continuing instability in Sri Lanka, the escalation of violence in Londonviii and the general residue of fear among the more recently-arrived refugees certainly creates an impact on the community here, as I found during my ethnographic work. Despite an outward appearance of openness and warmth on their part, when I first attempted to arrange interviews, visit homes or pursue questions further, I sometimes met wary, somewhat guarded or evasive responses. My questions about the LTTE went unanswered, but this is hardly surprising, considering the current political and historical factors at play.ix Chris McDowell noted the problems he encountered when asking questions related to the LTTE in his study of the Sri Lankan diaspora in Switzerland, stating, “At this time and on a number of other subsequent occasions I received less than subtle telephone calls and messages that were designed to refocus my research away from LTTE politics” (1996: 35). There is no doubt that issues of resettlement, relocation and dislocation feature powerfully in the lives of this immigrant community, directly affecting social relationships and the transmission of their culture and religion.
Notions of Identity
How identity is constructed in a post-colonial, relocated diasporic milieu, and what part dance practices play in transmitting, representing or reworking these socio-cultural and religious categories of identity are fundamental issues in my research. Recent studies of South Asian dances and music in a diasporic setting reinforce the fact that “expressive cultural forms and practices are central to any articulation of ethnic identity” (Hyder, 2004: 12; see also Nodwell 1996, Ram 2000, Katrak 2004, Mackerras 2005), thereby confirming my own research findings as to the essential nature of dance praxis in British Tamil identity formation.x In addition, research into British Bhangra music and the new trans-national Asian dance music (Sharma et al 1996, Dudrah 2002) has examined the contested locations of South Asian identity in urban Britain and noted how these layered identities are articulated through the medium of music, in a trajectory similar to that of the dance.
Identity’s double implication –– that of uniqueness and of sameness –– and the question of how people are categorised and how they form their own self-ascription, are essential factors that require unpacking in today’s “crisis of identity” (Hall 1994: 274) experienced by many diaspora groups. In Tamil Hindu groups, stake-holders in upholding tradition, that is, first generation immigrants and some of the older second generation, place a high value on traditional dances and music as a vehicle for achieving and expressing Hindu identity. Interviews with my respondents have revealed that boundary maintenance amongst Asian ethnic groups as theorised by Fredrik Barth (1969) and more recently by Rogers Brubaker (2005) remains a tool of this diasporic situation. An obvious example is through the use of language - the predominance of spoken Tamil in the Tamil temples and weekend schools asserts a distinctiveness that distances non-Tamil speakers. Brubaker notes that there has been an explosion of interest in diasporas since the 1980s, leading to an attenuation of the original meaning of the term. He argues, however, that three core elements still remain – that of dispersion, of homeland orientation and of boundary maintenance (2005: 5-6). Boundary maintenance among migrants is to be expected, states Brubaker, only becoming relevant to sociological studies when it persists into the second, third and subsequent generations. The maintenance of a distinct identity in this case by the second generation reveals that assimilation and boundary erosion are still being resisted.
For many Sri Lankan Tamils in London, particularly the older generation, the classical South Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam (in its post-colonial, revival mode) has become a marker of Tamil cultural and religious identity. Young Tamil dance students from mixed socioeconomic backgroundsxi substantiated this view when they told me (in interviews and questionnaires) that “Bharatanatyam helps me learn more about religion” (Sahaana, aged thirteen), “Bharatanatyam is part of my culture” (Geetha, same age), and that “It teaches you and the audience about the gods of Hindu religion and prevents the culture and religion being forgotten, especially in the west” (Sophie, aged sixteen). These statements reveal the traditional views the girls have been taught, and do not appear to be representative of second and third generation Asians discussed below. They are typical of a more recently settled community.
The ascriptions of religious and cultural identity maintained through the medium of dancing are common to many world-wide diasporic groups (see Cunningham 1998, David 1999, O’Shea 2003). When examined, these notions reveal a view of culture that is handed down from generation to generation and which shares customs, values and beliefs. ‘Culture’ from this diasporic perspective is reified as a fixed and bounded object, despite the current anthropological theorization of culture as non-static, dynamic and an evolving “dimension of phenomena” (Appadurai, 1996: 13). Older respondents speak of the importance of their children in Britain learning the Hindu culture. These articulations adhere to certain cultural beliefs and values, and maintain a sense of difference by stressing embodied customs as a property of individuals or groups. They allude to an embodied concept of the past in the gestures and movements that belong, in the case of Bharatanatyam, to Tamil womanhood. We can find in the folding of a sari, the applying of kumkum on the forehead, the fluent and practiced gestures that plait the hair – the everyday familiar body language of Tamil (and other Hindu) women that creates a feminised social body, and is found throughout much of the abhinaya of Bharatanatyam narrative dances. Think, for example, of the movements of the nayika (heroine) in a story or myth, as she shows herself dressing and preparing on stage to meet her nayaka (hero) described in stylized gestures of the hands and face. The social body is directly reflected in many the dance movements.
I argue too that the adherence to concepts of purity and women’s honour is a dominant aspect of the Tamils’ profound commitment to, and identification with their language and religion. Such adherence creates a type of moral superiority, manifest in their cultural as well as social practices (Thornton and Niththyananathan 1984, McGowan 1993), and one that maintains a certain traditional and conventional view. These themes of the purity of their language and culture and the importance of women’s chastity within Tamil civilisation have been held in high esteem by Tamils throughout their history and remain influential throughout the Tamil diaspora, causing Tamils to remain united across the world in their commitment to safeguard their language and culture (Pandian 1998). In dance practices this attitude is revealed in a widespread aversion to such hybrid forms of movement as Bollywood dancexii and the retention of what is thought to be a purer form of Bharatanatyam such as that taught at Rukmini Devi’s famous dance school of Kalakshetra, near Chennai, India. Several of the London Tamil dance teachers interviewed presented Rukmini Devi’s famous dance school of Kalakshetraxiii as the epitome of authenticity, using Kalakshetra style as criteria to judge standards of Bharatanatyam performance - a way of invoking the past to interpret the present.

Bharatanatyam in Temple Ritual
A group of six teenage Tamil girls nervously ascend the tiny stage in the hall of the London Sri Murugan Temple, in East Ham, east London. They are dressed in bright, matching silk costumes of Bharatanatyam dancers, with gold jewellery, braided hair, flowers and anklet bells, the epitomé of Tamil femininity. The occasion is the annual Hindu religious festival of Navratri, a nine-night celebration of the feminine power of the divine for which the girls have been preparing during the past several weeks. The taped music starts and they begin with a traditional introductory item, the Alarippu, an abstract, highly rhythmically repetitive piece (Author’s fieldnotes, 2004).
In addition to performances of Bharatanatyam at festival times, there is a growing phenomenon of providing Bharatanatyam classes for young Tamil women, both in Britain and in the world-wide Tamil diaspora (Cunningham 1998; Ram 2000; Katrak 2004; Chakravorty 2004). Many of these classes take place within Tamil temples or in adjoining halls. These classes allow the transmission of traditional culture, and assist immigrants in maintaining Tamil identity in local diasporic settings such as Britain, where the acquisition of Tamil social, cultural and religious values does not necessarily take place. By contrast, in India or Sri Lanka, these values are reinforced, often subconsciously, throughout a child’s upbringing. Anthropologist Kalpana Ram argues that the conscious move to transmit and represent heritage through cultural practices indicates that there is already a sense of loss, a breakdown of the continuity of that birthright (2000: 262). In my interviews, first-generation Tamil immigrants to Britain frequently alluded to their concerns at the compromises made in their children’s cultural upbringing because of both internal and external pressures, and many now actively direct or organize classes for the young people to learn their language and culture.xiv
The presence of Bharatanatyam dance classes at several major London Tamil temples signifies a new link between the dance and religious ritual and religious expression in the contemporary diasporic setting. It also signifies the increased importance assigned to the dissemination of dancing within religious practice. Bharatanatyam is currently being promoted as an important subject for study in three of the main London Tamil temples. Many community elders, dance teachers, temple devotees and religious leaders consider it to be relevant to religious festivals in several other Tamil temples where performances by teachers, professionals and students can be seen. It is taught at most of the Tamil Saturday and Sunday schools, some of which have significant links with the LTTE. The senior Hindu priest at the Murugan Temple in East Ham, London is adamant that Bharatanatyam belongs in the temple, believing it to be a rich and devotional vehicle for true worship, a gift to the deity. He told me that classical forms of dancing and music should be supported and nurtured by the temples (interview 13/2/2003).

This same conviction about the essential place of cultural activities within the temple was stressed by one of the music teachers at London’s Bhavan Centre.xv She is convinced that unless the temples play their part in encouraging the teaching and performance of traditional practices, these forms will die out. Her view is that art, culture, life and worship of God cannot be separated, and the temple is the most suitable location for endorsing such spiritual and cultural expression. She spoke of a tradition of sacred hymns called Panchapuranam that were always sung as part of temple worship (interview 5/4/2002). In the past it was believed that unless these were sung during the ritual (puja), the puja was not complete. Her concern is that the majority of young Hindus are not aware of these devotional songs, and so, during the Mahasivratri (Great Night of Siva) celebrations at the Highgatehill Murugan Temple in March 2002, some of her students sang two of these traditional bhajans to Siva.xvi A Bharatanatyam dance offering followed the recital, the first of its kind to be held in that temple.


Explicit attention to the transmission of dances, music and religion as signifiers of tradition, history, nationalism and ethnic identity creates a new definition of Hindu femininity in the diaspora – one that is considered to be all the more important in the face of Western influences. For the Tamil middle-class, Bharatanatyam promises respectability and a traditional femininity and is therefore a prized carrier of tradition viewed in this way. Andrée Grau, in her report on South Asian Dance in Britain (2002: 7)xvii notes that Bharatanatyam is the most privileged classical Indian dance form in Britain, and is generally recognised today as a trans-national and global form. However, in the predominant Sri Lankan Tamil temples and Tamil weekend schools in London, the teaching remains dominated by local modalities. The students are neither encouraged to attend international performances of South Asian dance nor are they made aware of the work of well-known performers in London and elsewhere in the UK. In addition, most syllabi are written in Tamil and the dance classes taught in Tamil, even though the second-generation students are more familiar and more at ease with the English language.xviii
Are these Tamil community dance practices embedded in a religious setting part of a cultural expression that unites dancing and religious practice? Are they distinct from secular performances I witnessed in professional productions of South Asian dance in Britain and elsewhere? In partial answer to these questions I present a brief discussion of the legacy of the devadasi dancers, a subject well-documented by international scholars (Srinivasan 1983, 1985, Kersenboom 1987, 1991, Gaston 1996, Meduri 1996, 2001). This analysis will contextualise the place of religious dancing in both historical and contemporary South Asian practice and assist in assessing its relevance to a consideration of a community’s ‘performances of faith’. Examining the story of the devadasis and comparing it with today’s South Asian community dance practices reveals some interesting parallels. The relationship remains an ambiguous one, as the complex, contested history of the original devadasi temple dancers indicates.

The devadasis (‘gift to god’) were professional dancers and ritual specialists, who performed at temple rituals, temple events and secular performances outside the temple complex, such as weddings. Indian literature provides sources as early as the fifth century AD, where descriptions of dancing girls in both temples and courts may be found. At certain periods in history, some of the larger south Indian temples would have employed hundreds of devadasis (Marglin 1990: 215; Fuller 1984).xix Devadasis were found in many regions in India and their practices related to their local region and to the particular religious tradition to which they were attached. They had duties and obligations as part of their professional status, and received financial rewards for their services from wealthy patrons. Some were themselves so wealthy that they could endow South Indian temples. Performances by devadasis continued into the early part of the 20th century, despite growing opposition from the “anti-nautch campaigners.”xx During the reinvention and renaming of the dance form, from sadir devadasi dance to Bharatanatyam in the 1930s, by Rukmini Devi and others, dancers would no longer perform for money.xxi This was a move to distance themselves from the so-called disreputable dancers, who, it was thought, were taking money for prostitution.


Despite the demise of the devadasi dancing in the first half of the 20th century, there is evidence that different strands of the devadasi temple dance are being transplanted and replicated in the contemporary Hindu diaspora in a creative manner, as I discuss below. This is not, of course, to suggest that girls are being sold or given to the temples, or that prostitution exists, far from it. Yet many of today’s Bharatanatyam performances and arangetramsxxii do unwittingly contain many elements of devadasi ritual, even though presented primarily on Western proscenium stages, and despite the tensions and contested history of the dance and its relationship with the temple dancers. For example, we find evidence of Bharatanatyam dancers performing at weddings and social celebrations and continuing the tradition of secular entertainment established by the devadasis. Now, however, it is viewed as performance art and seen through the frame of a middle-class, chaste respectability.
Anne-Marie Gaston (1991, 1996) analyses the extent to which the new, evolved global community practice of Bharatanatyam is based on the ritual performance of the devadasis. Aspects that had been rejected when the dance was thought to be purified and made respectable by the South Indian reformers is now an integral part of arangetrams and other performances, as I indicate below (see also Gorringe 2000, 2005 and Greenstein & Bharadvaj 1998). Gaston points out that the ritual first lesson for the young devadasi, although not currently followed in that form, has been replaced by a similar ritual offering of fruits, flowers and gifts to the dance guru at the commencement of study. The dedication of the bells on stage, the offering of flowers (pushpanjali) and the form of the arangetram all follow the devadasi pattern. Gaston notes,

Other innovations of a quasi-religious type have also appeared. As a result, Bharata Natyam has more rituals and ceremonies attached to it today than it had during the period of its revival, when strenuous efforts were made to dissociate it from sadir. (Gaston 1996: 312)


Two of the many arangetrams I attended in London dedicated the first twenty minutes of the long evening to an elaborate, on-stage puja, and the ritual blessing of the bells for the dancer and the talam.xxiii Prayers were chanted, offerings of fruit, flowers and gifts made and full obeisances performed by the dancer to her gurus, to the Hindu priest and to her parents, in front of a fully decorated shrine at the front left of the stage. In a later discussion with one of the dance teachers I learned that if the families wished, a full puja was performed at the temple the day before, or on the morning of the arangetram, rather than onstage (Author’s fieldnotes 12/3/03). During this ceremony, the priest will chant Sanskrit verses dedicated to Siva, and the bells and costumes are blessed. Some of the Tamil parents make a vow at this stage, that after their daughter’s (or son’s) arangetram, a performance will be given to the temple as an act of devotion, called Samarparnam. Other aspects of arangetrams follow the traditional devadasi or temple ritual; for example, the mallavi, a musical piece played on the nagaswaram exclusively for the temple deities when they are brought out of the temple is now choreographed for Bharatanatyam. At one arangetram this was played by the on-stage musicians as the opening dedicatory item; on another occasion, traditional temple musicians played the introductory music, using the nagaswaram, a double-reeded flute (like an oboe) and the tavil, a large, outdoor drum beaten with a curved stick on one side and the drummer’s hand with metal plectra (covers on the fingers) on the other.xxiv


Research in Malaysia on Tamil Hindus during Tai Pusamxxv by Andrew Willford (2002), and Alleyn Diesel’s (2003) examination of the Tamil community in KwaZulu-Natal, corroborate my findings that dance practices and trance-dance are a prominent part of the religious expression of diasporic Tamil communities, as I argue for the British Tamil groups. In contrast, during her work with Canadian immigrant Tamil dance groups, Janet O’Shea found that Bharatanatyam, rather than being a vehicle for religious sentiment and ethnicity, has become a medium for political and nationalist views (2001: 131-134), a topic which this essay now goes on to consider.
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