Dancing in the Diaspora: Remembering the Devadasis
In Canada, the classical dance bharatanatyam is both greater and less than an art form, greater because, unlike more common forms such as ballet or jazz dance, it offers its practitioners and its spectators something more than an opportunity to experience art or to be the vehicle for its expression, and less because what it offers along with its art is ethnicity. And in our multicultural society anything tagged as ethnic is caught in an intricate web of exaltation and denigration: by the very act of its celebration, which is frequently state-sponsored and state-endorsed, ethnicity is cast outside and so kept from seriously invading the mainstream. My task in this essay is to suggest the complicity of nationalist India in this ethnicizing of bharatanatyam in Canada, to explain how it is that girls and women learn this dance as part of a process of acquiring Indian femininity and then perform it, in various venues, from concert halls to school gyms, as a sort of massive group hug that affirms the wonder that is eternal India. Finally, I want to point to what is lost and what is damaged in this celebration of a national ethnicity so determined to be timeless and unchanging.