Dance dialogue

tradition: Modernisation of south indian dance drama
Guru Bapat Rao
2012, pp 154

Indian traditional performing arts, like most art forms around the world, have been subject to change. This change has to be understood in the context of the aesthetic, and also socio-economic and political conditions of the times they have been through, believes theatre activist and academician Guru Rao Bapat.


He explains why he came up with this very academic take on four dance-drama forms –– Kathakali of Kerala, Kuchipudi of Andhra Pradesh, Yakshagana of Karnataka, and Terukkuttu of Tamil Nadu.

Rescribing is explained by Bapat thus: “The process of change in the performing arts has been an ongoing process. These forms have found new ways of negotiating with the challenges posed by modernity. I have named this process ‘rescribing tradition’.” While Bapat’s book fills a gap as few works have studied changes in dance traditions, it could have been more comprehensive. More interview-based inputs from renowned artistes and scholars would have added depth.

The chapter on Yakshagana is the most authoritative and comprehensive –– understandably given his long and successful record of writing and lecturing on the subject.

He brings out how technology, commercialisation and emergence of new characters and ‘fictitious prasanagas’ have influenced and altered Yakshagana’s presentation and content. He points out how traditional ‘villains’ of epics have now been reinterpreted and presented as more human and as victims of flaws in their characters rather than as pictures of undiluted evil. Tulu Yakshagana receives detailed attention. Finally, he touches on the revival of Yakshagana and its restructuring to suit modern themes.

While discussing Kathakali, he stays away from its grammar and communicative process, and wisely so, considering how much has been already written and said about this. He focuses, instead, on the socio-political and cultural influences which led to its emergence.


Bapat traces its growth through the influences of Ramanattam, Tamilganam, Kudiattam, Kalaripayattu, etc. However, while talking of Kathakali being an all-male art, where men played even female roles, he has not noted the entry of female artistes who have pierced the glass ceiling. Some of the earliest women artistes in Kathakali were Sunithi Raja, Chelanattu Subhadra, Deshaman Galam Savithri, and Chavara Parukutty. Around 1960, Natana Nikethan, an all-women Kathakali troupe, was established in Thrissur, though it later disbanded. Today, there is Thripunithura Kathakali Kendram Ladies Troupe — an all-women Kathakali group, where women play male characters too.

Bapat traces Kuchipudi’s history from its origins in Kuchipudi village. It had important defining aspects in the early stages, like the dance-drama aspect and the monopoly of Brahmins and males. All this has changed and today, women performers outnumber men; solo dance items dominate, and performers belong to a wider social base.

The contributions of Siddhendra Yogi, Vedantam Lakshminarayana Shastri and Vempati Chinna Satyam are noted. But he could have devoted more space to the important tradition of female impersonation, with inputs from living legend Vedantam Satynarayana Sarma and younger practitioners like Kala Krishna. The history of Kuchipudi’s lyrics –– from Telugu and Sanskrit ones by Thyagaraja, Narayana Theertha, Annamacharya, javalis and padams to modern-day experiments with other languages could have been included.

Terukkattu, a folk-dance tradition from Tamil Nadu, associated with village deities, particularly Draupadi Amman temples, is a kind of street play with strong ritualistic elements that also serve as entertainment.

The uniqueness of this form is how the entire village becomes a performance space and involves all residents; spectators become participants. The fertility aspects and aavesham, and how Mahabharata has been localised to suit the Tamil ethos.

Bapat throws light on how new themes have made an entry into this art form, and on successful efforts to revive Terukkuttu’s importance in the state’s cultural fabric. He relates these to the changing social dynamics including caste equations and the struggle for assertion by non-Brahminical groups.

The book is, overall, an interesting overview of the four dance forms and will be a useful addition to the collection of performers and dance-scholars.

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