What is interesting to me is the way in which all such appropriations, adjustments and construction of hierarchies are all brought under the rubric of sanskritization, which actually is not about any of these processes but the supposed way in which lower castes take on the customs of those above them.
K. Satchidanandan, in an article titled, ‘The Folk and the Classical: Interrogating the Boundaries’ for instance, uses the same category of sanskritization while talking about how folk art was appropriated and diluted by the upper caste discourse. He writes:
"All the so-called classical forms were once confluential, hybrid, mixed, demotic, folk; only they got taken up by the elite. Once absorbed into the upper caste/class discourse, their disruptive energy and subversive world-view came to be smoothed out, their contours stylised and fixed for all time and subjected to a canon. The forms thus appropriated by the elite from the subaltern classes and castes came to be re-circulated at another social stratum consisting chiefly of middle and upper classes and castes. With the original authors, creators and practitioners left out in the cold" (The Folk, page 9).
Even as we can agree with all that he says, it is interesting that Satchidanandan thinks of this process as “akin to what the sociologist M. N. Srinivas called Sanskritization though different in its method and emphasis”. (The Folk, page 7)
In other words, the ‘folk’ becoming ‘classical’ is considered by Satchidanandan as a clear case of appropriation through a process similar to ‘Sanskritization’. He cites several examples to prove this appropriation. He rightly points out how the dance of Devadasis was appropriated by Brahmin women and turned into the ‘eternal’ art of Bharatanatyam by “sanitising” its natural and erotic contents. The same is the case of Dasiyattom of Kerala which is transformed into Mohiniyattom.
In both cases the original practitioners/real creators were pushed to the margins. And as he points out Dasis were often called as thevidichis, a distortion of Devadasis—which today has come to mean just prostitutes that entirely leaves out the devotional, artistic and intellectual aspect of their practice. He adds that the same had happened when Kathak was taken out of the Kotis leaving those women dancers to fend for their own in the red light streets of Mumbai or Delhi. He also writes about Ottan Thullal, which was created by Kunchan Nambiar, an upper caste artist in Kerala. This was also based on elements from the Parayan Thullal, Pulayanattoms and Padayani, all subaltern forms of ritual dances.
Ottam Thullal was presented as a challenge to the elitist Koothu, where a Chakyar interprets Sanskrit slokas (verses) in front of an upper caste audience, and from folk art it was brought into the temple and was stamped as ‘classical’ art. According to him Classicalised arts like Kathakali also have a lot of folk elements which are seldom acknowledged. Most importantly he says it is equally true of classical music. The ragas, both Carnatic and Hindustani are but systematised tunes available in the folk songs.
Though Satchidanandan’s study brings out the complexities of caste and gender in the art world, he also addresses it as a process similar to Sanskritization. Why is it that one finds it difficult to name this process as deliberate appropriation and exploitation by the upper castes? Why is Sanskritization, a term which posits the upper caste culture as superior and imagines the lower caste as aspiring to this superior culture being used in all these analysis? Why is the onus of transformation put on the lower castes like this, when it is actually the upper castes that have borrowed freely from lower castes and skillfully hidden their sources and in fact destroyed the very art forms they have borrowed from?
In fact, it needs to be said that the concept of Sanskritization in the art domain exposes it as a fallacious theory. What was happening was the forceful adaptation of the lower caste forms by the upper castes. And we see these continuous and conscious efforts from the side of the upper castes. They often tend to forget figures like Balasaraswathi and invoke Subbalakshmi’s talent to sell brahminical values and make it acceptable to all. What we need to understand is that the cultural history of India needs to be studied by problematizing many established notions. In other words, for a better understanding of the complexities of caste and gender in Indian Music and art forms, one needs to do a critical enquiry of social change in India."
M. N. Srinivas defined Sanskritization as a process by which “a “low” Hindu caste, or tribal or other group, changes its customs, ritual, ideology, and way of life in the direction of a high, and frequently, “twice-born” caste” (Social Change. page 6). Many scholars have criticised this concept mainly because it reduces lower castes to mere emulators. Many anthropologists have rejected the concept of sanskritic/non-sanskritic traditions because they assume that any culture is a mixture of both. And most importantly the concept of Sanskritization fails to describe the process wherein the upper castes or Brahmins adopt lower caste traditions.
In fact, in the first write up, even other singers like Rukmini Devi and Balasaraswathi are described as differently but inextricably tied to the idea of Sanskritization, along with M.S. Subbulakshmi. Rukmini Devi, one of the first women from a higher caste to practice and perform Sadir/Bharatanatyam, is said to have modified the dance form by “purifying” it i.e., by ridding it of its erotic elements or its sensuality, and thereby removing the stigma of the devadasis. However, this process is not considered as problematic by the author and he describes this as a process of Sanskritization and Rukmini Devi is considered as the one who was irrefutably involved in endorsing Sanskritization in her field of art even though Rukhmini Devi’s effort was actually not related to the concept of Sanskritization. Because here it is a formerly low caste dance form that is being adopted and “revived” by the upper caste for the practice of upper caste girls. How can this be brought under the category of Sanskritization?
Who are the emulators here? What are the essences which are kept alive in these art forms when it gets “purified”, “revived” or “elevated”?
T M Krishna’s description of Balasaraswathi, a Devadasi who rejected Sanskritization also add to this point. He writes, “She had complete faith in her own history and heritage as a Devadasi dancer; saw Sadir as ‘perfect’ and requiring no modification. She saw the process of sanitizing (arguably sanskritizing) as unnecessary, threatening to her art form and even vulgar. For her, this process was a deadly threat to the existence of her heritage and dance, as she knew it. Her rejection of Sanskritization, in many ways, defined her and her dance.” Here what has been considered as vulgar by the upper caste women is not vulgar to lower caste women. As we see Balasaraswathi’s case is enough to criticise the whole concept of Sanskritization in art forms. And we also see upper caste women like Rukhmini Devi who adopt the art forms of lower castes and lower caste women like Balasarawasthi who take pride in their heritage and are stringently against the process of Sanskiritization.
—Sanskritization or Appropriation: Caste and Gender in “Indian” Music and Dance by Sreebitha P. V.
[Screencaps of Balasarawasthi from Satyajit Ray’s 1976 documentary Bala]
Gaman, Departure (1978)
I was only acting in commercial films when Adoor Gopalakrishnan asked me to act in Swayamvaram. In fact, being a commercial actress, I was scared to commit myself to an art film. He said he would come to Chennai and narrate the story to me.
It was at the Prasad studios that we met for a story narration. I was floored by the way he explained the story to me. As he narrated it, I could see the film in front of me. The moment he finished the story, without even thinking twice, I said yes. I was so moved by the story that I immediately told him, ‘I don’t know whether I will get an award for this film but I am sure that you and the film will get awards.’
I also told him that I had no experience in acting in art films.
I still remember how the film was shot. As the director, he was so thorough about what he wanted from all the artistes that there was absolutely no strain on us. We only had to do what he said. He made us forget our identities, and by the end of the film, we felt like the characters in the film. When we shot for Swayamvaram,not once did I think I was Sarada. I was always Sita, the character.
I would say what we did for Swayamvaram was not acting; it was realism.
There is never any chaos on Adoor sir’s sets. He is so soft spoken that the person standing next to you cannot hear what he tells you. There was never any distinction between anybody on his sets; all were treated equal.
When the National Awards were announced, we were happy when Swayamvaram won four major awards. It was not a small achievement at all.
कालिदास! सच-सच बतलाना
इंदुमती के मृत्यु शोक से
अज रोया या तुम रोये थे
कालिदास! सच-सच बतलाना
शिवजी की तीसरी आँख से
निकली हुई महाज्वाला से
घृतमिश्रित सूखी समिधा सम
कामदेव जब भस्म हो गया
रति का क्रंदन सुन आँसू से
तुमने ही तो दृग धोये थे
कालिदास! सच-सच बतलाना
रति रोयी या तुम रोये थे?
वर्षा ऋतु की स्निग्ध भूमिका
प्रथम दिवस आषाढ़ मास का
देख गगन में श्याम घन-घटा
विधुर यक्ष का मन जब उचटा
खड़े-खड़े जब हाथ जोड़कर
चित्रकूट के सुभग शिखर पर
उस बेचारे ने भेजा था
जिनके द्वारा ही संदेशा
उन पुष्करावर्त मेघों का
साथी बनकर उड़ने वाले
कालिदास! सच-सच बतलाना
पर पीड़ा से पूर-पूर हो
थक-थक कर और चूर-चूर हो
अमल-धवल गिरि के शिखरों पर
प्रियवर! तुम कब तक सोये थे?
रोया यक्ष या तुम रोये थे?
कालिदास! सच-सच बतलाना