Re-scribing Tradition (Modernisation of South Indian Dance Drama)

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Item Code: NAJ732
Author: Guru Rao Bapat
Publisher: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla
Language: English
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9788179860939
Pages: 164 (12 Color Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 10.0 inch X 7.0 inch
Weight 500 gm
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Book Description
About The Book

This book is about the process of culture change and the way we make the past meaningful for the present, through a process that is termed ‘Re-scribing’ in this book.

It studies four traditional dance-drama forms of South India: Yakshagana of Karnataka, Kathakali of Kerala, Terukuttu of Tamil Nadu and Kuchipudi of Andhra. All these are performance genres that have a history of several centuries. All of them have also undergone a deep process of change, in the past-several decades. But each has charted a different course in its process of change. Closely analyzing the changes that have taken place in these forms over the past several decades the author demonstrates how our conception of tradition becomes a ‘construct’. We restructure, recreate the past, in ways that we consider relevant from the stand point of the present. The author locates and studies these changes in the context of not merely aesthetic but also social, political and even economic pressures operating on each form. Different forces have been in operation before and after independence and have played a major role in deciding the direction of change.

The author has made use of the concept of ‘Re-scribing’ to analyse the process of change. This gives us a new insight for understanding the traditional forms, and how each form and each society has negotiated with the challenges of modernity.


About The Author

Guru Rao Bapat is an academician as well as a theatre activist. Hisresearch interests include Performance Studies, Folkloristics and Semiotics.

He heads the theatre group “Udaya Kalavidaru” of Sagar, Karnataka. He has directed a number of plays in Kannada and is recognized as one of the important theatre personalities of the state.

He was Principal of Lal Bahadur College (Autonomous) at Sagar in Karnataka. He brings his insights as theatre person of modern theatre to his study of traditional theatre. He has done extensive research on traditional theatre forms of Karnataka, specially Yakshagana. He has written a number of articles and books in Kannada and English including Semiotics of Yakshagana. He has now extended his study to the traditional dance-drama forms of South India. Presently he is a senior Fellow of Ministry of Culture, New Delhi. The current book was written during his tenure as Fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.



I have been closely associated with theatrical activities in different capacities as actor, organiser, director ete., in Karnataka. My field of research has been traditional performing arts of Karnataka, particularly Yakshagana. In the present study, I have extended my field of enquiry to different dance-drama forms of South India. Here I have looked at the process of change in the four dance-drama forms of South India. The main focus has been on the process of modernisation of tradition and how these forms have charted different paths in their negotiations with contemporary challenges.

This monograph was written during my tenure as a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. I thank the Governing Body of the Institute and the Director, Professor Peter Ronald de Souza for giving me this opportunity. I also wish to thank the other Fellows, Associates and the staff, who made my stay at Shimla, pleasant and comfortable.

During the course of this study of the dance-drama forms of South India; I visited a number of institutes connected with these forms and interacted with many artists, scholars, etc. All of them have been very helpful and have shared their views with me. I wish to thank the following institutes who allowed me the use of their library and other facilities: National School of Drama, New Delhi; Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi; Regional Resource Centre for Folk Performing Arts, Udupi; Kerala Kalamandalam, Cheruthuruthy; Natana Kairali Irinjalakuda; National Folklore Support Centre, Chennai; Koothu Pattarai, Chennai; University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad; and Sri Maya School of Yakshagana, Honnavar.

I have interacted with a number of artists and scholars in connection with this study. I wish to thank all the following for their help and cooperation: Dr. Prabhakara Joshi, Dr. Raghava Nambiar, Professor Samga M.L., Sri Udyavara Madhava Acharya, Dr. P. Vishnu Bhat, Guru Sadananda Aithal, Sri S.V. Bhat, Dr. G.S. Bhat, Shambhu Hegde, Dr. Paulose K.G., Dr. V. Kaladharan, Sri Venu G., Smt. Nirmala Panikkar, Margi Vijaya Kumar, Sri H.D. Muthukumaraswami, Sri Na Muthuswami, Smt. Vyjayanti Kashi, Dr. Aruna Bhikshu, Prasanna and 17Many others.

I am also thankful to my family and the members of my theatre group who have always stood by me in all my ventures. I hope to continue my study of the different facets of the performing arts particularly of South India in future as well.



This work is a study of the process of change, transition and transformation that has taken place in the traditional dance-drama forms of South India. The four forms under study here are Yakshagana of Karnataka, Kathakali of Kerala, Terukkuttu of Tamilnadu and Kuchipudi of Andhra. All these are forms that have a history of several centuries, and they have all undergone a radical process of change in the 20th century. Different forces and compulsions have been at work behind this process of change, the most important being the changes taking place in the Indian society. This study is an analysis of how these traditional forms have been engaged in the process of redefining themselves and are negotiating with the challenges of modernity.

The study of change in Indian society has engaged the attention of social scientists. Different facets of change initiated by forces like modernisation and democratisation have been studied. Strangely enough culture change has not drawn as much attention of social scientists as for example changes in social structurations. It is only recently that culture change has emerged as an important area of enquiry in disciplines like Folkloristics, Sociology, Performance studies, Culture studies, etc. In most studies of traditional performing arts, the emphasis has usually been on establishing the antiquity and continuity, which has obscured the changes that have taken place and continue to do so in these forms. Even when a study of change was made, this process was usually conceived of in terms of binaries like tradition and modernity with the assumption that this progression from one to the other was linear and that it entailed a total break from the past, as is pointed out by Appadaurai:

Grand western social science (A. Comte, Karl Marx, Max Weber, E. Durkheim) has steadily reinforced the sense of a single moment-call it the modern moment- that by its appearance creates a dramatic and unprecedented break between past and present. Reincarnated as a break between tradition and modernity and typologised as the difference between ostensibly traditional and modern societies this view has been shown repeatedly to distort the meanings of change and the politics of pastness (1997, 3-4).

Societies like India are traditional and modern at the same time. The problem lies in thinking of them as exclusive categories. Milton Singer who was among the earliest to study the process of modernisation of the traditional Indian society, makes this point explicit. "I was convinced that the dichotomy between 'traditional' and 'modern' ... was not a useful theoretical guide for understanding India. There were just too many cases of coexistence and interaction between the traditional and modern" (1972, 247). The concept of modernisation as one homogeneous experience has also been questioned. Present day scholars are concentrating on the study of how each cultural community, region or nation-state finds its own ways of modernisation. New conceptual categories like 'alternative modernities', 'regional modernities' etc., are now being posited to understand and analyse this complex process (Knauft, 2002; Shivaramakrishnan and Agrawal, 2003).

Another conceptual error that one often encounters is to equate modernisation with westernisation. The process of modernisation no doubt began with the colonial rule. But to equate modernisation with westernisation would be to look at a partial picture. Yogendra Singh points out how Indian sociologists view the relationship between the two. "A sharp distinction was drawn between modernisation and westernisation, locating this process in the cultural historical individuality of each society and its initial historical conditions, plural traditions, patterns of modernisation" (2000, 27). Along with ideas and institutions borrowed from the west, modernisation has also meant introspection about our own past-weeding out the unwanted growth and retaining what is considered relevant. The entire process has taken different forms in different parts of India. Different social, political, economic and religious compulsions and aspirations as well as historical antecedents have played a key role in giving shape to these changes. Local, national and international forces are at work in this process of modernisation. These forces also determine the way in which we make sense of the past and of tradition.

At the same time, in spite of the problematics involved in the use of categorisations like modern and traditional, we can not reject them outright either, in any discussion of the process of change. In order to locate the radical process of transformation of Indian society after colonisation, we have to take recourse to conceptual categories like modernisation. Indian society is transforming itself from a largely agrarian rural economy to a free market, consumerist, industrialist, urban economy. The feudal set up of the past has now been replaced by a democratic polity. The rigid caste structure which was the demarcating feature of Hindu society, is also undergoing a process of change. Now the forces of globalisation are also playing a key role in this social transformation. These and related changes can be viewed as modernisation.

Similarly the concept of 'tradition' has also become a contested category. The question of tradition, its various meanings, its relevance for the present, its ideological position in a fast changing world like ours, have all been discussed by scholars from varying ideological positions. Tradition no doubt refers to something that has been handed down to us from the past. In the case of performing arts (as well as in areas like customs, rituals etc.) it passes from one generation to the next mostly in the form of oral transmission. In this process, as with any oral tradition, subtle changes go on taking place. But when we refer to tradition as corpus, we refer to the way we understand the past now, from the perspective of the present. So, our conception of tradition also becomes a construct-how we restructure, recreate the past in ways that we consider relevant from the standpoint of the present.

This does not mean that tradition was a fixed entity even in the past. Specially in the case of performing arts, no living form, however traditional, remains immutable. The form does not have a priori existence independent of the performative context. It takes shape only in the context of performance where the performers, participants and the event all contribute in shaping the form. When the context changes, so does the form itself.

Any cultural form of expression, operates in a social space. These forms remain comparatively stable without major changes when the society where they operate, remains stable. Subtle changes go on taking place in any living tradition, but within the parameters fixed by the tradition itself. But when the society is undergoing a radical process of change, the cultural form also does not remain the same. It gets destabilised. It begins to recodify and redefine itself in response to the sociopolitical changes. (Otherwise the form faces the danger of becoming what in folkloristics is termed a 'frozen' form - a kind of a museum piece.) This kind of redefining may encompass different aspects of the form - performative context, organisational structure, patronage, target audience, etc. apart from what is really presented on the stage. The grammar of the form may also undergo a change in response to the other changes. Most important of all, changes will also take place in the discourse - the meaning that is generated through the performance. Almost all the traditional performing arts of India have undergone and are undergoing this process of redefining. Different kinds of tensions, and pressures are at work in determining the shape of these changes. Local, national and global agencies are coopting many of these forms for their own ends.


This process of change in the traditional performing arts that started in the 20th century as a result of modernisation of Indian society, has been an ongoing process. In response to the sociopolitical changes, these forms have found new ways of negotiating with the challenges posed by modernity. I have named this process "re-scribing tradition". This refers to the transitions, transformations or even ruptures that may take place in any ongoing tradition, in response to changes taking place in society. This re-scribing may be initiated by an individual or it may be the result of a generally felt need with inputs from several sources. What is important is that tradition does undergo this process of transformation and continues to survive. Vve can say that 're- scribing' encompasses the entire way in which a traditional form, custom or practice, negotiates with the challenges of modernity and undergoes a process of change.

This concept stands in contrast to 'invented tradition', a term coined by Eric Hobsbaum and Terence Ranger. Hobsbaum defines the term as follows:

It includes both 'traditions' actually invented constructed and formally instituted and those emerging in a less easily traceable manner within a brief and datable period.




  Preface ix
1 Introduction 1
2 Yakshagana 25
3 Kathakali 55
4 Terukkutttu 83
5 Kuchipudi 105
6 Conclusion 127
  Bibliography 131
  Plates 137
  Index 147

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