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

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Issues of Nationalism and War
In Britain, the dance practices in the Tamil community have tended to maintain a traditional, bounded, somewhat monolithic view of Bharatanatyam where innovation is not encouraged. In other areas of Europe and North America, however, there is evidence of Tamil Sri Lankan nationalism (and support of the LTTE) through change and creative choreography in the dance form. For example, O’Shea’s research (2001) in Toronto illustrates the work of two Tamil dance teachers who promote the establishment of a separate state of Tamil Eelam (Tamil homeland) through their Bharatanatyam choreographies. One produced a danced story about a military woman who sacrifices her male kin to the ongoing Sri Lankan war. The other, Vasu, teaching “under the auspices of the Tamil Eelam Society, a Toronto-based organisation which exists primarily to provide social services for Tamil refugees, but which also, as its name implies, embraces a ‘counter-state nationalist’ …view of the Sri Lankan political situation” (ibid: 131), created a dance work which articulated a Tamil separatist nationalism and clearly associated Bharatanatyam with a solely Tamil history. This choreography was created especially for the commemoration of Black Tigers’ Dayxxvi and Bharatanatyam gestures were used to depict both agricultural work and fighting scenes of the war.
The growing significance too of the celebration of Mahavira (‘Great Heroes Day’),xxvii when the fallen Tamil heroes of the Sri Lankan conflict are honoured, is evident, not only in Sri Lanka but also in the world-wide Tamil diaspora, where Bharatanatyam dancing has become an essential ingredient of the day’s celebration. These events are marked by elaborate ritual reminiscent of that in a temple or a traditional dance performance. Garlands are laid and lamps are lit, but the garlands are offered to effigies of the deceased rather than to the gods, and the lamps are lit by the families of the dead instead of a priest. A particular occasion of this festival in Bologna, Italy, in November 2000xxviii included a performance of Bharatanatyam by young girls and women that enacted in story form the violent struggles taking place in Sri Lanka, using gestures choreographed by their teacher to show warlike actions, automatic weapons, bombs, helicopters and prisons.
Here is an example of a religious and devotional dance form, and religious practices such as rituals and processions, being appropriated for a political and nationalist agenda. O’Shea writes of how the LTTE in Sri Lanka consciously cultivate a Tamil identity through the arts by sponsoring music and dance competitions and commissioning revolutionary dance pieces, some of them danced by female cadres of the rebel forces (2006). Creative choreography, innovative use of the hand gestures,xxix and story-telling, have become an accessible vehicle for the Tamil refugee and diaspora community to express their solidarity and support for the war and for the creation of a separatist state of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka.
Nationalist identity is for Tamils a multi-layered, multivalent issue, particularly in the diaspora. Nira Wickramasinghe comments:
Defining Tamilness in purely national/territorial terms is problematic today, as transnational factors play a crucial role. Diaspora Tamils have multiple allegiances – to their new home in the West, to the land they left and to the dream of Eelam – and in various ways they have forged close and organic links with one form or another of Tamil nationalism. (2006: 254)
There is no doubt that these new rituals and cultural performances celebrating LTTE-linked events “have been incorporated into the festivals of the diaspora Tamils … and link them with their imagined nation of Eelam” (ibid: 266), again encouraging a “globalised localism” (Waghorne, 2004: 171). Posters advertising Mahavira’s Day for the Tamils settled in Toronto used the image of a Bharatanatyam dancer, thereby playing on both Tamils’ great love of, and identity with, their culture, and on their history and collective memories.
Despite the local sense of place that dominates the London Tamil environment, there is evidence that Tamil dance events there too, are involved in the production of both local and global elements in relation to Sri Lanka. In March 2005, the Sri Lankan Tamil community in south London hosted a programme of music and dance to raise funds for a new charity, Tamil Aid, an organisation established in January of that year to help with the rehabilitation of victims of the 2004 Tsunami disaster in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The performers and audience were local Tamil children studying music and dance at the Surbiton Tamil Temple (south London), who were supported by an audience of their families and guests from the Sri Lankan community. The event was filmed by CeeITV, a global digital Tamil channel which broadcast it to British Tamils and trans-nationally, stressing once more the strength of the local-global connections. The Sri Lankans’ political sensibilities and cultural ties to their homeland are major factors in their diasporic lives, not necessarily in the sense of a longing to return, but as displaced people whose political and financial support is devoted to rebuilding and supporting their homeland. Tamil globalisation is, for the Sri Lankans, an adherence to an articulation of Tamil nationalism.
New, Fluid Identities
Recent theories of identity have addressed the complexity and hybridity of the cultural identities being forged by young Asians in Britain. These identities have been termed “new ethnicities” (Hall 1988), an expression indicating how particular backgrounds, cultures and experiences no longer bind these second and third generation Asians. As anthropologist John Eade points out, new ethnic identities “point to a liminal third space – the boundary between the opposites of insider/outsider” (1997: 147) where new narratives of belonging are negotiated. Concurrent with this is evidence of a shift towards a fluid hybridisation of identity, as boundaries are eroded amongst second and third generations. The previously cited comments by young Sri Lankan Tamil girls, for example, contrast with the values of young Asians for whom Asian and Western club music is an essential part of their distinctiveness and individuality. Clubbing, attending music festivals, driving in cars blaring loud music, are modes of expressing a modern, Asian Kool, global identity, which may either sit happily with traditional practices or eschew them Rehan Hyder comments that music, like the dance, is “a site of cultural negotiation and change, where identities are performed and transformed” (2004: 5), suggesting this provides evidence of a more hybrid, adaptable notion of cultural and ethnic identity.
It is also clear, however, that the Hindu communities settling in Britain are at variable points of change. This is most evident with Gujarati Asians who have been well established in Britain since the early 1970s and some a decade earlier. Thirty to forty years of residence in Britain, first marked by efforts for financial survival, then by the successful formation of their communities, and followed for some by very prosperous business lives,xxxi have brought significant changes to their social and cultural life. Modes of behaviour are modified to suit the particular context, and “most young Asians are very skilled at doing just this,” writes Ballard (1982: 196). Wenonah Lyon’s ethnographic study of a multi-ethnic community theatre group in Oldham, Greater Manchester, reveals how the British Asian members of the group identified themselves by different names at different times, a use of assorted multiple identities to suit the requirements of specific situations. At times, they would stress their religious affiliation such as ‘British Muslim’, or just ‘Muslim’, ‘British Hindu’ or ‘Hindu’, but in other contexts they might choose the terms ‘Asian’ or ‘Pakistani’. Lyon notes that the classifications they used included “Asians, British, black, white, by area of origin… by subregion within the area of origin … by religion … or language” (1997: 187).
A similar response to the concept of being British was found by Les Back in his ethnographic studies of young working-class black and white groups in London. This study examined “new and challenging forms of cultural practice and identity formation that had been produced within metropolitan contexts” (Back 1996: 3). Some respondents were content with the terms ‘Black’ and ‘British’ as an indicator of their identity; others had abandoned the notion of Britishness entirely. For many of them, the islands of origin of their parents featured as an important aspect of their new ethnicity. Other black youngsters spoke what Back (ibid: 8) terms a “harmony discourse”, describing how colour was of little importance to them, and stating that everyone on the housing estate integrated freely. Back comments that the youths’ description was of “a place where people can move in and out of different kinds of self-presentation” (ibid: 8) as they willed (see also Eade, 1997).
For many young people, their cultural identity is a syncretic, fluid amalgam of past and future, Asian and British, black and brown – an identity that is multi-layered and multi-faceted. This more versatile, complex and developing sense of identity of the younger generations expresses notions of culture and religion that are more personal, and less circumscribed by the beliefs of preceding generations. It indicates an eroding of ethnic boundaries and of a greater influence of globalisation in areas such as music, fashion, religion and politics.
In terms of religious identity, Tariq Modood’s study of second-generation Asians in Britain concludes that they are negotiating their own “religion of private spirituality” (1994: 50). Those interviewed acknowledged religion to be important, but felt it was a matter of personal spiritual fulfillment that each should find in his own way, perhaps more in line with the dominant beliefs of the British population. Regular, formal worship and attendance at the temple were no longer seen as a necessary structure in their lives, unlike the first generation groups. Eade’s study of young Bangladeshi Muslims in London’s East End shows that they inhabit a “more complex, fragmented, deeply reflexive world where individuals can develop highly versatile interpretations of collective solidarities” (1997: 161). I would suggest that we are seeing not a single phenomenon of religious beliefs held by second and now third generation Asians, but a highly variable articulation of selfhood that ranges widely from conservative and devout religious affiliation to a comprehensive rejection of ethnic religious practice. Along this continuum is a range of more individual viewpoints, which include such concepts as ‘private spirituality’, ‘personal spiritual fulfillment’ and ‘unstructured religion’ (Author’s fieldnotes).
Coupled with this are the vexed issues of cultural authenticity, where fixed ideas of an unchanging, traditional dance form are held by some teachers, elders in the community and religious leaders as if part of a cultural essentialism. Several of the London Tamil dance teachers I interviewed presented the dance school of Kalakshetra as the epitome of authenticity, using the Kalakshetra style as the criteria to judge standards of Bharatanatyam performance, a discourse invoking the past to interpret the present. The dance performances at London Tamil temples have never included any creative or innovative work, as first-generation settlers keep strict control on the presentation of traditional, classical items. Here, the stakeholders who maintain tradition have also become the agents for preservation.

Concluding Comments
Among British Tamil groups, there is widespread evidence of a growth of dance activities that includes Bharatanatyam training and performance as part of religious and devotional practice. This new discourse of performed Tamil Hinduism raises questions about the role of such cultural practices within a religious setting, revealing how traditional orthodox views seek to retain Tamil language, Bharatanatyam dance and classical music as part of a diasporic cultural and religious identity. There is indication that an increasing religiosity, apparent not just in Hindu communities but amongst other religious groups, for example, Muslim and Christian, is not always free from dogma or political agendas. These factors can be highly influential on a group’s socio-cultural expressions, as this paper has argued. In the case of Sri Lankan Tamils living in Britain, the unspoken presence of the LTTE in their lives has both a positive impact in supporting and securing their hopes for a Tamil homeland (Tamil Eelam), and a negative one, through experiences of intimidations and gang violence in the suburbs of London. I have also shown how Bharatanatyam is being used as a political vehicle in other Tamil diasporic communities, whilst in Britain it is seen by many as a vehicle for religious sentiments.
As I have discussed elsewhere (David, 2007), younger-generation Asians are emerging in Britain who appear to have no strong material, financial or symbolic ties to their family homeland (whether India, Sri Lanka or East Africa), and who see themselves as British, British Hindu or British Asian, straddling both cultures yet bound by neither. These young Asians participate in a “global youth culture” (Saldanha, 2002: 340) and hold a sense of global identity, unlike their parents and grandparents who struggled to maintain their identity through establishing space and place. These generations are resisting “the existing categories of ethnicity and identity…and articulating a multi-accented sense of self and belonging” states Hyder (2004: 10). For some, a transnational identity has meaning as a religious identity; for others, identity embraces a more complex, fragmented and shifting sense of selfhood. But there is no doubt that the forces of the local, national, transnational and global elements continue to effect a transformation on the lives of British Asians via their sense of ethnicity and their cultural practices.
This ethnographic study has sought to redress the marginalisation of certain dance forms such as those of the Tamil community, in religious contexts, and in the Hindu diaspora, by gathering ethnographic insights at a local level and questioning the embodied identities manifest in the social space of the dance practices. This investigation of a British-based South Asian community not only exposes these particular traditions to a wider audience, enabling the growth of a richer understanding, but places them in the extended international field of dance scholarship. It reveals the importance of a cross-disciplinary approach that draws from anthropology, cultural studies, folklore and religious studies and offers fresh insights into the place of ethnicity, identity, community and aspects of cultural transmission through the study of dancing.

 Bharatanatyam, originally known as sadir or dasi-attam is an Indian classical dance style from southern India. It developed in Hindu temples. It was re-named (and some would argue, re-invented) in the 1930s. Its contested history is well documented by other scholars, such as Amrit Srinivasan (1983, 1985), Avanthi Meduri (1996, 2001), Joan Erdman (1987), Janet O’Shea (2001, 2003).


 Devadasi is a shortened form of the Tamil word tevaradiyal which translates as the ‘slave of the God’ (Srinivasan 1985). It literally means ‘at the feet of the God’ and is used to describe the hereditary female dancers in south India who were dedicated to the temple at an early age and performed dance and ritual worship before the deities. These dancers would also perform at secular occasions. It is important to note too that devadasi practice varied from region to region and according to which religious tradition they belonged (Gorringe 2000:11). In this regard, Davesh Soneji critiques the use of the term devadasi as a gloss to connote all temple dancing women from all parts of India, disregarding all distinction of origin and vernacular differences (2004: 32). Meduri comments that there is no equivalent English term for the name devadasi as their sexual freedom and artistic prowess “had its roots in a culturally accepted polygamy alien to modern western culture” (1996: 11).


 I made frequent visits to six Greater London temples between 2002-2005, and again between 2006-2007 at festival times, at times of daily worship, and at other times, to meet devotees for interviews and discussions. Methods used for gathering data included participant observation, in-depth and semi-structured interviews, film, photography and audio-recording.

iv One of the London Tamil leaders suggested these numbers during a discussion. Although it is a well-known fact that insiders often exaggerate their numbers, the estimated number of Sri Lankan Tamils in the UK is also given at 150-200,000 on Brent Council’s website ( As the 2001 government census did not distinguish Asian places of origin, there is no accurate record of the community’s numbers. Danny Sriskandarajah (2002: 292) gives the total numbers of overseas Tamils as approximately 800,000 – 400,000 in Canada, 200,000 in Europe, 40,000 in the USA and 30,000 in Australia and the rest spread over several other countries.

v The LTTE was designated a terrorist group in 2001 by the British government and later by George Bush’s administration in the United States.

vi Unpublished current research presented by Nick Van Hear and Catherine Brun at an informal workshop day that focussed on ‘Research on Tamils in the UK’, and held in January 2006 at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society in Oxford (COMPAS), UK.


 Human Rights Watch, 18, 1, 2006: 21.


 Despite the fact that majority of the London Tamils live peacefully within their local communities, during the last several years there has been a worrying escalation of violence between gangs of Sri Lankan Tamil youths in London. By May 2002, there had been four violent deaths and up to 200 other reported incidents, and in August 2003, an eighteen year-old Tamil man was murdered by other young Tamil men, the fifth to be killed in that year. In 2007 two Tamil gang leaders in East Ham were jailed for extortion and violence in the community, and others were subject to Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBO), banning them for five years from entering the London Borough of Newham (which includes East Ham).


 It is important to note that once I had been accepted into the Tamil temples, respondents’ homes and Tamil Sunday schools, people were generous and helpful.

x See David (forthcoming) ‘Negotiating Identity: Dance and Religion in UK Hindu Communities’ in Dance Matters, ed. P. Chakravorty, (Routledge).


 These girls I interviewed attended dance classes at the London Sri Murugan Temple in East Ham, east London. Some parents are professionals –– doctors, accountants, teachers, others own their businesses, such as retail outlets, and some of their parents are employed in shops or garages.

xii For further discussion on issues surrounding the practice and transmission of ‘Bollywood’ dance forms in the diaspora, see David 2007.

xiii Rukmini Devi founded Kalakshetra in the late 1930s at Adyar, just outside of Chennai, India.

xiv Second generation Asians are beginning to continue this work. One example of this is found at the Shree Ghanapathy Temple in Wimbledon, London, where the son and daughters of the founder of the temple now assist their mother in the financial, organisational and cultural running of the temple. Geetha, in her thirties, arranges the children’s classes in Tamil, Hinduism, Bharatanatyam and classical music, and she is concerned that they have a good spiritual education at the temple. The classes were started originally when devotees at the temple asked for them and are mainly offered for the 4-15 year olds. The older teenagers are encouraged to help with the classes (Author’s fieldnotes 15/1/2003).

xv The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, or Bhavan Centre as it is now known, was established in London in 1972 as a UK branch of the same organisation in Mumbai, India. It is primarily a secular teaching institution, called ‘Hindu-centric’ by some, and values a traditional approach to the learning of classical forms of music, dance and languages. Since 1975, it has been based in

premises in west London, using the site of an old church and newly enlarged adjacent buildings

xvi There is now also a group of adults at the Shree Ghanapathy temple who are learning and performing these devotional hymns. This group performed as part of the week-long ritual events at the London Sri Murugan temple during the consecration of their new temple in May 2005.

xvii The SADiB report (South Asian Dance in Britain: Negotiating Cultural Identity through Dance 2002) was written at the end of a two-year research project (July 1999-July 2001) and funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The project examined the role played by South Asian dance in Britain and was directed, and the report written by the anthropologist of dance, Andrée Grau, Reader in Dance at Roehampton University.

xviii The teenage girls in the Bharatanatyam class at the London Sri Murugan Temple were uncomfortable speaking Tamil, and spoke to each other in English and responded to their teacher in English even though she addressed them in Tamil. This teacher later explained to me that all her dance vocabulary is in Tamil and she is therefore not so confident of teaching in English (Author’s fieldnotes 28/9/03). Not all ethnic groups place such a high value on language maintenance as essential to ethnic identity (see David, M.K. 1998 for research into the Malaysian Sindhi community).

xix Saskia Kersenboom, writing of her dance training by a traditional temple-dancer (1991), traces the dancer’s family back for four generations of devadasis to the early 1800s.

xx Anti-nautch campaigners followed on from the late 19th century movement to abolish dancing in temples, and were “related to a larger Indian social reform effort driven by two separate groups pursuing rather different goals: British Protestant missionaries and Indian social reformers” (O’Shea, 1998: 50).

xxi Much has been written about the reinvention or revival of Bharatanatyam in the 1930s in India. Rukmini Devi played a central role in the revival, changing the content of the dance, the costumes, the training and the performance to establish a nationalist, respectable, middle-class dance style suitable for young women, transforming it from a liturgical to a dramaturgical art form.

xxii Arangetram is a solo debut performance after many years of intensive training The word arangetram is Tamil and means the erru or ascending of the arangam or stage, and is written of in the third century classical Tamil text, Cilappatikaram, where a young, twelve year old dancer is described giving her first performance before the king (Gorringe, 2005: 91)). Instead of the arangetram marking the commencement of a professional dancing career, as it traditionally represented, it has become the completion of the training when the young woman stops dancing to go to university or to take up a more lucrative professional career in medicine, dentistry, accountancy or in law. (See also Greenstein and Bharadvaj 1998, and Schwartz, 2004: 89). An arangetram, argues Gorringe, has become “a symbol par excellence of ethnic heritage…a cultural commodity” (2005: 97-98) enabling the parents to present not only their daughter as an accomplished and marriageable young woman, but to demonstrate their status and wealth to the community at large.


 Talam are the metal cymbals played to beat the foot rhythms in a Bharatanatyam performance by the nattuvanar, who also speaks the rhythmic syllables.

xxiv These instruments were “traditionally the hereditary specializations of the Isai Vellala, [music landlords], a politically powerful community of Tamil Nadu” (Srinivasan, 1998: 3). They play as an accompaniment to the deities, at times of ritual worship in the temple and at festival times, to initiate processions, and as a prelude to the deities’ arrival on the streets during processions. As their sound is powerful, they are considered to be outdoor instruments.

xxv Tai Pusam is an annual Tamil religious festival dedicated to the deity Murugan, Lord Siva’s son

xxvi The Black Tigers are the elite fighting force of the LTTE, trained to commit suicide in war, and on their deaths, worshipped as heroes.

xxvii This holy day’s celebration was started in 1989, and then extended the following year to whole week. Its purpose is to channel veneration for all LTTE martyrs.

xxviii See Natali (2002).

xxix For example, the hand gesture of alapadma, literally meaning ‘an open flower’ has been used to depict a hand grenade.
 See David (forthcoming) for extended discussion on the negotiation of religious identity in British Hindu groups.
 See Barot (1991: 193).


 Asian Kool – see Sharma et al. (1996).

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