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What is Art?

When I started dancing at age 5, it was for the love of it. Before long, that love was buried in other things: expectations from family, community, and myself, and the restlessness of a child unsure of her place in the world. Somehow, by 16, I was a dancer with some skills. The love had remained at the center, but there was a new pressure, suddenly omnipresent: to be more than “just” another dancer. To be an “excellent” dancer.

I started longing for this “excellent” dance as a diasporic teen. I danced in leading dance drama roles in my hometown of Phoenix. I fervently applied myself in every workshop opportunity with a teacher from India, hoping to improve. Once I left Phoenix, the quest for excellent dance took me to other excellent teachers in the U.S. and India. From each of them, I learned of new mountains of excellence to scale in Bharatanatyam. At the risk of “mixing” too many styles, I persisted, and learned from each of them.

It took decades for me to realize that my quest for “excellent dance” had been limited. Excellence had only meant one thing: execution. And not just any execution—execution deemed correct by those who were thought to be excellent by someone else. Dancers deemed “excellent” often do not make my skin tingle or make me shed a tear. They appeal to my sense of judgment. They ask me to adjudicate every leap, stamp or dhi-dhi-thai: is this really good? Or not?Evaluation instead of connection, intellect instead of heart, objectivity instead of subjectivity.

Somewhere along the way, Bharatanatyam went global, and us diasporic kids, long alienated, arrived at the heart of a thriving industry, and fueled it—with money and nostalgia, but also sweat and tears. And now,it really is an industry: there is replication on a worldwide scale, as well as hierarchy, prestige, and exploitation, (though admittedly, in spite of all this, not as much money as one would think!).

As that huge expansion took place, Bharatanatyam under went a tragic transformation: homogenization. As a result, we now have too much excellent dance, but not enough art. Too much execution, not enough creativity. Too much “fusion,” without enough introspection or exploration of what, after all, is being “fused.”

For every assertion of “pure dance,” I now ask, “Is there an ‘impure’ dance this dance is avoiding? Can I watch that instead?” And instead of looking for “excellent” dance, I am interested in art. Transformative art. Art that comes from a place of feeling and self-expression. Art that invites the audience to connect, not evaluate. To unlock hearts, not to unleash egos. If a dancer, however “excellent,” doesn’t appeal to my entirely subjective sense that we are all part of a shared humanity, it’s not art to me.


Contributed by:

What is Art?
Mona Lisa Smile, 2003
Too Much “Excellent” Bharatanatyam, Not Enough Art
Dr. Smitha Radhakrishnan
Dancingsociologist at gmail dot com
NATyA Dance Studio
April 16, 2016