Rukmini Vijayakumar Defines Indianness In Classical Art Forms

Rukmini Vijayakumar Defines Indianness In Classical Art Forms

As part of CSP's series on Art, we feature an interview with Bharatanatyam dancer Rukmini Vijayakumar who dances to packed halls both in India and abroad. She recently played 'the goddess of love' in 'Sukanya' produced by The Royal Opera House in London. She will be speaking at Soft Talk 2 at 4 pm IST on May 2. Register at

Interview of Rukmini Vijayakumar 

How is Indian-ness defined in Indian Classical Dance?

A: In dance, along with the vocabulary of dance there is the philosophy which comes into play. This exists for every dance form. In jazz for instance there is an inherent strength – it is very strong and forceful and if you take that out of it, it is not jazz anymore.

Most artists experiment with the form a lot. People use the vocabulary to address different content, sometimes changing the music, sometimes the clothes. In that context it is an important question to ask -What defines the boundaries of what Bharatanatyam is? Is it when a person who is not aesthetically conditioned at all, is able to recognise the form. For them when you no longer wear the costume, it is not Bharatanatyam. But, we can’t say that is Bharatanatyam.

The classical Indian dance forms largely came from a personal journey - not an individualistic journey where the ego was involved - but a journey of self-revelation, which hopefully enables the viewers or audiences present to experience the same. The form itself hopes to facilitate this through the narratives, stories and metaphors. The content usually revolves around these ideas more than other generic type of topics. The idea of a spiritual consciousness that exists in everyone defines the art forms of India.

In the world of visual art, we find many international artists distancing themselves from the idea of being identified with a region or country and instead embracing a global identity. What are your thoughts on this and how does identity operate in the performing arts?

I empathise with that idea, because many of our art forms are seen as being ‘ethnic’. So, suddenly you are given a label as an ‘ethnic dance festival’ or an ‘ethnic form’, or an Asian arts festival. So how do we take that tag out and be seen just for the art, and not as ‘ethnic art’ or Indian art or Japanese art. When you say that you are Indian artist, then you are seen as upholding a value, a tradition, a structure rather than exploring creative abilities.

As artists, we wonder, why do we need to hold to an identity? Ideally Art must be enjoyed for being Art, irrespective of where it is from. This is an idealistic position.

Can the two not go together? Can one not pursue creativity in a certain mode – the Indian mode? How does it make it any less creative?

It's not that it is less or more, it's just that the fact that when you see something, you don’t first identify it as being Indian. When you look at a tree you don’t say it is an Indian tree. The air you breathe in is just air, it's not Indian air. Artists aspire to be like that, to be able to move in and out of people as freely as air.

There are two aspects to this. Many feel that Indian dance is the preservation of tradition only, and as an artist myself I think this is a wrong starting point when you think of creating. ‘Identity’ will flow without one’s knowledge. While it is not necessary to veer away from ‘identity’, I don't believe that you need to showcase your identity to be seen as special, either.

These are just vocabularies in a particular medium which lend themselves to certain nuances, poetic variables to be expressed in certain ways, a culture within which the language is created, especially when it comes to physical gestures. So when we use the vocabulary, we have to be mindful of the context and the content we are using. It's not that you can't show any modern or contemporary content. We just need to be aware that this is the gesture - this is what I am choosing to do, what do I keep and what do I take out of it, in order that it communicates this very contemporary, modern subject.

But, if the artist adds hasthas while doing a turn so as to ‘look’ Indian, it doesn’t express the essence of Indian dance at all. At the same time, suppose the vocabulary is ingrained in you, and you want to show the plight of the world today, it can be shown very effectively while adhering to your traditions because that is the way you speak and not because you are showcasing a form.

Non-Indians who learn dance are interested in different kinds of dance both classical as well as film. In which of these forms is India actually influencing the world more deeply and which direction should this influence take?

When you talk about Bollywood or other non-classical dances, to be honest it has a farther reach. Is India seen more because of this Bharatnatyam-Bollywood mix - yes definitely. Arts that appeal to the masses are an immense source of soft power.

People watch and enjoy them and the only thing I can comment on is whether the essence of Bharatanatyam is preserved. No it is not. It is preserved only when you learn it for many many years and then you decide to explore different kind of content and I have seen people do it, very beautifully and very creatively. So then you do not veer away from the form itself, but you kind of embrace something else and include that in the form. If I learn ballet for three years I can't do anything with it. It is ridiculous to even think that I can. But because ballet is physically demanding, people don’t do it. Here because the form is physically less demanding, so people just take from the surface and use it freely. They don’t realise it involves other things which you need, without which the essence of the form is not preserved.

India has influenced ‘aesthetics’ study in general with our treatises. In your opinion what role does the Natya Shastra and other source texts play in creativity?

It is very important when you are a teacher or when you are imparting knowledge. Having said that, sometimes we forget the intuitive ability of the performance itself, and you can't say someone is a better or worse performer for the lack of theoretical knowledge in any of these texts. They can be fantastic performers and never have opened a single page of the Natya Shastra because some of these things are passed on intuitively. If there's an idea that someone has imbued, children will learn by just watching.

As a performer while it may not be necessary, it is very important for me to know the texts as this helps me develop a logic for things I intuitively practice. And I am able to validate my thoughts and practice with the texts.

Rukmini Vijayakumar on the vocabulary of Indian dance:

Are there different kinds of influences and different spheres of influences among artists who largely operate from India and those who stay abroad?

Being in India, one tries especially as a classical artist to work with rules. You really try to keep to the rules, keep to the beat, and know the parameters. You work a lot on the technique, the form and make sure you don't even go half beat off talam.

The struggles of an artist in the West are very different. They are struggling to get  audiences. They want people to come and see and know Bharatanatyam and to think about it. In India, in some ways, we live a lavish lifestyle of art because we have larger audiences for classical dance. So we are not struggling to get people to watch us.

One can’t necessarily hold the same parameters of judgement on someone who is doing it somewhere else. They might bring some Afro-Cuban drumming into the jathi or have a Mexican dancer come in. They could try to integrate into the community they live in and still hold on to the essence of Indian art. The challenges will be different and it's not whether it's right or wrong. Each person must do what they believe in and only then the full scope of the art will be preserved and it will flower.

(By Aparna Sridhar and Varsha Venkatraman)