Intangible Heritage

Of Water And Dance

The bha­ra­ta­na­tyam dan­cer dan­ces with her enti­re body. Her eyes, her mou­th, her head, her neck, her shoul­ders, her arms, her hands, her fin­gers, her abdo­men, her legs, her feet. Her move­ments are deli­ca­te but inten­tio­nal, for­mu­la­ted but expres­si­ve. Her hands shift dex­te­rous­ly bet­ween mudras to express spi­ri­tual or nar­ra­ti­ve mea­ning to accom­pa­ny Car­na­tic lyrics of the song. The bel­led-bands around her ank­les keep time to the beat of the music. Her long brai­ded hair is kept secu­re­ly within the belt tied around her waist, but the tas­sel han­ging from the end of the braid and the pleats of fabric fal­ling in loo­se pants sway as she moves around the sta­ge. She is a beau­ti­ful ima­ge of Indian cultu­ral heri­ta­ge.

Bha­ra­ta­na­tyam is the clas­si­cal dan­ce of Tamil Nadu. The first evi­den­ces of its ori­gin have been dated to some­ti­me bet­ween 500 BC and 500 CE, but during this time the dan­ce was pro­ba­bly known as Sadir. The term bha­ra­ta­na­tyam was not coi­ned until the 20th cen­tu­ry, and this name is made of two parts: natyam, whi­ch means dan­ce in Sans­krit, and bha­ra­ta, whi­ch is short form for bha­ga, rava, and tala, mea­ning emo­tion, melo­dy, and rhythm. Bha­ra­ta­na­tyam is tra­di­tio­nal­ly set to Car­na­tic music played by cym­bals, a flu­te, a long pipe horn cal­led nagas­wa­ram, drums known as mri­dan­gam and vee­na, and lyrics sung in Tamil, Telu­gu, Kan­na­da, or Sans­krit.

The dan­ce was first per­for­med exclu­si­ve­ly by girls in Hin­du tem­ples, pri­ma­ri­ly for reli­gions and ritual occa­sions. It has sin­ce grown to inclu­de male dan­cers and to find a pla­ce on the per­for­man­ce sta­ge. But some­ti­mes that per­for­man­ce spa­ce har­kens back to the dance’s ori­gins in the tem­ple. The ope­ning event of the 2017 Pon­di­cher­ry Heri­ta­ge Fes­ti­val was one such per­for­man­ce: modern bha­ra­ta­na­tyam, inclu­ding both men and women in a dan­ce-thea­ter ver­sion of the art, dan­ced in one of the region’s oldest tem­ples, Mula­na­thas­wa­mi tem­ple of Bahour.

Bha­ra­ta­na­tyam can be divi­ded into three main types. Nrit­ta is the tra­di­tio­nal ritual dan­ce of “pure” bha­ra­ta­na­tyam, in whi­ch the dan­cer empha­si­zes speed, form, pat­tern, ran­ge, and rhythm without any inter­pre­ti­ve aspect. Nri­tya sty­le bha­ra­ta­na­tyam  com­mu­ni­ca­tes a nar­ra­ti­ve or spi­ri­tual the­me, whi­ch is expres­sed through ges­tu­res and slo­wer body move­ments. The final type is cal­led natyam, whi­ch is a form of dan­ce thea­ter usual­ly per­for­med in a group. The event in Bahour, The Legend of Ban­ga­ri-Sin­ga­ri, was of this natyam type. In six seg­ments, the dan­cers told the sto­ry of a local legend, in whi­ch two sis­ters ini­tia­te the dig­ging of a canal to form Bahour Lake and alle­via­te pro­blems of water scar­ci­ty in the region. The per­for­man­ce inclu­ded acts with both tra­di­tio­nal bha­ra­ta­na­tyam dan­ce and more thea­tri­cal miming and expres­sion.

A Tamil voi­ceo­ver nar­ra­ti­ve told the sto­ry bet­ween each dan­ce seg­ment. I tried to lis­ten for any of the few words I can sort of unders­tand, but the only one I could make out was tan­nir: water. I wat­ched each seg­ment clo­se­ly, trying to fol­low the sto­ry. My Ger­man friend next to me did the same, and we che­cked our unders­tan­ding bet­ween songs.

The girls are going to be mar­ried,” she hypo­the­si­zed after the first dan­ce, an ado­ring pre­sen­ta­tion of the pro­ta­go­nist sis­ters by their parents.

The­re is some pro­blem that needs to be sol­ved,” I gathe­red, after a dis­cus­sion with elders and an exchan­ge of ideas.

Oh, now they are dig­ging the canal,” we saw the clear rhyth­mic pan­to­mi­me of per­for­mers in labo­rers’ cos­tu­me.

Ah, here comes the water,” when we saw young girls in flo­wing blue cos­tu­mes pre­pa­ring to enter the sta­ge.

And now a cele­bra­ti­ve fina­le with the enti­re vil­la­ge,” we pre­dic­ted.

The Bahour tem­ple cour­tyard was filled with over 1,000 peo­ple; some of them asso­cia­ted with the spon­so­ring orga­ni­za­tions – Peo­ple for Pondicherry’s Heri­ta­ge, Pon­dy Citi­zens Action Net­work, and Indian Natio­nal Trust for Art and Cultu­re Heri­ta­ge; some of them unaf­fi­lia­ted but still coming spe­ci­fi­cal­ly to see the per­for­man­ce out of inter­est in Pondicherry’s Heri­ta­ge or bha­ra­ta­na­tyam; and still others, locals, who atten­ded spon­ta­neous­ly after invi­ta­tions from orga­ni­zers drew crowds from the streets, or out of curio­si­ty about the music coming from the town’s prin­ci­pal tem­ple. Some atten­dees knew Tamil, some did not. Some were fami­liar with bha­ra­ta­na­tyam, others pro­ba­bly were not. But sill the dan­cers told their sto­ry, through music and song and nar­ra­tion and dan­ce.

This per­for­med legend of Bahour falls into the cur­rent the­me of social acti­vism in the region, joi­ning other recent events addres­sing the impor­tan­ce of water and water conser­va­tion: the Pon­dy Pho­to exhi­bi­tion, Water; the Madras Players Auro­vil­le per­for­man­ce of Water; and the Bahour Water Fes­ti­val. It is per­haps a remin­der that our cultu­ral heri­ta­ge – that is, our arts, our know­led­ge, our cus­toms, our beliefs – is inex­tri­ca­bly lin­ked to our natu­ral heri­ta­ge – the resour­ces, ener­gy, and food­stuffs that we bor­row from the ear­th. After a long dry mon­soon sea­son whe­re the rains were sup­po­sed to come in Octo­ber, then Novem­ber, then Decem­ber, after whi­ch a drought was offi­cial­ly decla­red, the bha­ra­ta­na­tyam per­for­man­ce of The Legend of Ban­ga­ri-Sin­ga­ri reminds us not only of the rich cultu­ral heri­ta­ge of the Tami­lian peo­ple, but also of the vul­ne­ra­bi­li­ty and sanc­ti­ty of the region’s natu­ral heri­ta­ge.

Intangible Heritage

The Blitz of the Bahour Bulls

Bahour bull-cart pull

Eve­ry Janua­ry, Sou­th India cele­bra­tes Pon­gal, whi­ch marks the start of the har­vest sea­son. The four-day fes­ti­val begins with “Bho­gi,” the bur­ning of the bad and the old – a tra­di­tion whi­ch ori­gi­nal­ly was meant to burn the old that­ch roof and repla­ce it with a new one, but whi­ch has now trans­for­med to bur­ning old clo­thes and other unwan­ted mate­rial goods, and some­ti­mes rem­nants of bad habits like emp­ty ciga­ret­te packets and alco­hol bot­tles. The next three days of the fes­ti­val are enjoyed with feasts on the first har­vests of rice (eaten in its sweet boi­led form, a dish also known as pon­gal) and sugar cane. But the most exci­ting events of Pon­gal hap­pen on the third and four­th days – the cele­bra­tions of cows and bulls, the beasts of bur­den who play such an impor­tant role in har­ves­ting live­li­hood.

One of the oldest tra­di­tions of Maat­tu Pon­gal (lite­ral­ly mea­ning “Cow Pon­gal,” whi­ch is cele­bra­ted on the third or four­th day, varying by vil­la­ge) is the bul­lo­ck cart pull. Varia­tions of this can still be seen in some vil­la­ges, like that of Bahour, just sou­th of Pon­di­cher­ry. A pro­ces­sion of bul­lo­ck carts begins by eve­ning, but pre­pa­ra­tions take pla­ce throu­ghout the day. Bulls’ horns are pain­ted and ador­ned with flo­wers or bal­loons, and bells are hung from their brid­les. The carts are also deco­ra­ted with palm lea­ves and bal­loons. As the carts assem­ble along the road, locals begin clim­bing in them, squee­zing small chil­dren onto the laps of their siblings, parents, or cou­sins, to fit more peo­ple than the bull seems capa­ble of pul­ling. At near­by tem­ples, musi­cians bang rhythms on drums and per­for­mers dan­ce and spin bam­boo sticks.

Trac­tors, the modern ver­sion of the tra­di­tio­nal bul­lo­ck cart, are deco­ra­ted in lights, lea­ves, and flo­wers. They pull their own carts of Maat­tu Pon­gal enthu­siasts and speed down the oppo­si­te side of the street in a para­de of their own. Some men wear sequin­sed cos­tu­mes over exag­ge­ra­ted bel­lies and whi­te plas­tic masks, see­min­gly in imi­ta­tion of sumo wrest­lers. They join crowds of young men dan­cing to drum beats and bugle calls in the streets.

Anti­ci­pa­tion grows wai­ting for the bull cart pro­ces­sion to begin. Then sud­den­ly, they’re off! The bulls pull their carts in starts and stops accor­ding to traf­fic flow, trot­ting along to the bea­ting of drums, the jan­gle of the bells around their own necks, and the chee­ring of the crowds along the side­li­nes and of the pas­sen­gers in their carts. “Pon­ga­lo Pon­gal!” “Maat­tu Pon­gal!” “Hap­py Pon­gal!” Eve­ryo­ne cheers and waves as the cele­bra­ted bulls para­de through the streets of town and around the tem­ple.

Peo­ple riding motor­cy­cles wiz by through the nar­row lanes on either side of the carts, hon­king their horns and chee­ring along with the rest of the par­ti­ci­pants. The bulls, bred for cart pul­ling and accus­to­med to the sounds of the Indian streets, keep trot­ting along unper­tur­bed. Their pain­ted horns bob along to the beat of their trot as if joi­ning their humans in cele­bra­ti­ve dan­ce.

The sky grows dark but the Pon­gal spi­rit is loud and bright. The dan­cing conti­nues even after the pro­ces­sion comes to its end and the bull carts have emp­tied. The vil­la­ge of Bahour rings in the har­vest with the most fes­ti­ve of Maat­tu Pon­gals.