Exploring Poromboke/Bharatanatyam

Suhasini Koulagi took the Indian classical art world by storm when she released her dance video “Poromboke/Bharatanatyam” in early August 2019. A Bharatanatyam dancer with 15 years of training, Suhasini took her art forms to the landfills and urban slums of Bangalore to bring attention to the issues of unsustainable development, waste management and pollution. Dancing to the tune of Carnatic vocalist and social activist TM Krishna’s Poromboke song (released in January 2017 to bring attention to pollution in Ennore, Chennai), she has received much appreciation and praise for her willingness to mould Bharatanatyam’s aesthetic to shed light on pressing issues of the day. She speaks to Yashasvini Rajeshwar on the thought processes, inspirations and convictions that led up to the project.

Why is it important to use art forms like Bharatanatyam as a platform for social activism?
Bharatanatyam has long been seen only as performance art for entertainment or for religious and spiritual purposes. But I believe that the whole purpose of Bharatanatyam is activism. Since Bharatanatyam is one of the most influential art forms, it makes the perfect platform for activism.

Has your use of Bharatanatyam as a platform for social activism been criticized? What were some of the voices of dissent you heard and how did you engage with them?
Yes, my attempt has been criticized by some professional dancers who see Bharatanatyam only as a religious practice. It is hard for some dancers to even think of taking Bharatanatyam to common people. While some really gave some feedback on the initial video’s dance and choreography, others said that it shouldn’t be done.  Since I am only taking baby steps in my attempt, I couldn’t really answer any of the criticisms that were shoved at me. I had to ignore and look at the positive side of my attempt. This attempt itself is a response to those critiques and if am able to succeed in replicating this process with other dancers in the future, then that will be the biggest proof that Bharatanatyam is more than just a form of entertainment but rather can be a platform for activism.

What were the thought processes and motivations that resulted in this dance video?
I have been practising Bharatanatyam for 15 years now and for the last few years, I have been searching for a break to explore how Bharatanatyam can be more than what I have been taught so far. When I first saw the video of TMK in 2017,  my first thought was that this was that break. TMK had put Poromboke out there with so much impact and I knew that Bharatanatyam would add another layer of visual impact to an already impactful video. For two years, we searched for a team who would volunteer to take my first step towards using Bharatanatyam as a tool to address today’s social and environmental issues.

What is the takeaway you would like from your video? What are the calls to action you wanted to communicate?
Most of the Poromboke song is pointing towards the unsustainable development in Chennai. This is also the same in case of Bangalore or any other major city across India today. One thing which is common in all Indian cities today is the unsupervised use of the Poromboke lands (tanks, graze lands etc) and its effects on the people who rely on these resources for their livelihoods. Through this video, I wanted to convey this to not only people who are affected but also to those taking advantage of unsustainable development.
Personally, my goal for this video was to see how effectively Bharatanatyam can be used and set an example to show that this kind of interpretation of the dance is possible.  The other important realization for me was that the aesthetic of Bharatanatyam can be altered as well. I always thought that performing Bharatanatyam needed makeup and costumes to adhere to societal beauty standards. For this choreography, that just didn’t make sense. The whole thing was performed in khadi saris with no makeup and simple jewellery.

You have regularly spoken about coming from a socially conscious family. What do you think is the impact of family in your work?
Having a socially conscious family has definitely played a huge role but that doesn’t mean that it is a prerequisite for a dancer to think out of the ordinary. This is why I would like to work towards providing the opportunity for more dancers to see the world as I see it and act on things that need to be addressed.
With regard to my family though, I grew up seeing my grandfather, my father and now my brothers working together with others to create a just world. It taught me that we might not be able to change the whole world but we can change our world. That is exactly what I am trying to do with this video.

Bharatanatyam itself is not just a tool. It is a form of expression that has a unique history associated with it. How much do you think this influences your decision on the voices you represent?
How Bharatanatyam influenced my decision to represent unsustainable development and poromboke land is not something with a simple explanation. It is a thought process that developed over time.
Any study that engages with the use of Bharatanatyam as a tool for social activism shows that many artistes have addressed issues like gender inequality, social insecurity, women rights, freedom of expression, pollution and unemployment. Since the environmental damage has become so widespread, the responsibility for raising awareness and adopting proper mitigation measures to protect our ‘home’ becomes a matter for everyone. Art has the ability to adapt very easily to different times and needs and has always been considered a “cool” way for people to express themselves.
Art is defined as “the imaginative tool of human expression that is applied through the creative skills of individuals or a group of people.”[1] In the past, art has been considered to be many things - a fussing activity, a pursuit only for a few fortunate ones, or even a pastime for the lazy ones. As times changed, the belief of what art meant also changed, alternating between something that is really important at times and the exact opposite. After all, it is not a secret that the arts existed more or less as long as humans existed.
Dance is an art form that usually combines acting and music. It serves as a tool to create an interactive platform for people to socialize, exchange information and learn more about each other. According to Pounds article, “in performance art, the body of the artist is the one that while presented it becomes both stage and the subject of issue”[2]. This is why dance activism presents such a powerful platform. One can find many examples of dance being used as a tool to raise awareness on important subjects. African slaves are said to have used dance to preserve their identities and traditions while fighting colonialism. Today we see plenty of examples of dance being used to fight everyday matters such as discrimination, HIV/AIDS, poverty, etc. 
Bharatanatyam, by itself, has several origins in history. What was once considered a dance for entertainment became a spiritual and religious practice for so-called upper-class society and now it has been embraced as a space for activism. Dance is part of an evolutionary process and what is traditional today was once perhaps modern and revolutionary. Relevance is not something that can be made or forced upon society; it happens as part of an organic process over time.
This is not the first time dance has seen as a platform for activism, to name some, Chandralekha Prabhudas Patel, with her productions such has Angika, Lilavati, Prana, Sri, Yantra, Mahakal, Raga, Sloka and Sharira, has been an exemplar of modern Indian dance, based on her premise of the indivisibility of sexuality, sensuality and spirituality. Mallika Sarabhai with her solo theatrical work, ‘Shakti: The Power of Women’ uplifted women rights. Lata Pada’s Revealed By Fire brought acts of terrorism on to the stage and was appreciated across the world. Malavika Sarukkai has several productions, but her latest one “Thari – The Loom” has brought the sights of weaving on to the stage. Anita Ratnam pushed the boundaries of Bharatanatyam through her choreographies including Seven Graces, Ma3ka, A Million Sitas and Neelam. Karuna Sagari of Bhakti Natya Niketan with her productions like   ”Noyyal” and ”Thunnal.” There are just some examples of dancers and choreographies that were inspirations for me to embrace Bharatanatyam as more than what mainstream dance sees it as today.

How different is it to perform Bharatanatyam live and for a video? How do you see the intersection of technology and dance as influencing social activism?
I have performed Poromboke in several places in front of small audiences. Even though the reach is small, the effect has been powerful. However, the best thing about the video and using technology is that the reach is immense. It can be taken to everyone against the backdrop of the actual site of the crisis. This makes it easier to convey what we are trying to say to people.

While the lyrics of the Poromboke song by TM Krishna are by themselves evocative in their starkness, your visuals elevate them to a whole new level. What was the experience of dancing this classical art form in landfills and amidst such pollution? What prompted you to decide that was the direction to go visually?
We had to work hard to meet the benchmark set by TMK and his team. We couldn’t settle for anything less than this. I was inspired by the original song. It represented not just the problem faced in Chennai but also the unsustainable development across India. To make sense of this in a city like Bangalore, we had to film in the places we did. Dancing in these places is the reason we need to dance. If dance can’t be something that can be performed anywhere to anyone, representing something that needed to be represented, then it is just not an art to be practised. Now I feel like more of an artist than I felt before. Every art form is activism of some kind. What we choose to do with it is what matters the most.

[1]        Oxford Dictionary of English. Dictionaries, O. (2010).
[2]         Pounds, K. C. Performance Art, Political. in Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice 1106–1108 (SAGE Publications, Inc., 2007). doi:10.4135/9781412956215