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We Stand Against Casteism in Indian Performing Arts

By now many will be aware of the furore that broke out in Chennai (with ripples felt globally) over the Music Academy’s Sangita Kalanidhi award to Carnatic musician T M Krishna and the reaction by several musicians including the Gayatri sisters to boycott the Conference. T M Krishna has a long record of ruffling the feathers of the establishment.

He has railed against both the false religiosity attributed to the origins of the music that link it to Brahminical Hinduism and has called out the domination of Brahmins amongst both the promoters ‘the sabhas’ and in the industry generally. He is first and foremost an extraordinary musician whose performances are illuminated by the same intelligence and probing gaze by which he examines both his art and the social and political dimensions around it. As a thinking and questioning artist he has provoked the ire of those who usually prefer to keep their heads down and accept the status quo.

Now the T M Krishna controversy has spilt over from music into our parallel world of Indian/South Asian dance. The spark was provided by an interview given by Dr Avanthi Meduri to ByteBurst YouTube channel following the T M Krishna event. Responding to issues of ‘appropriation’ of the dance from the hereditary dancers (1947 Madras Devadasi Prevention of Dedication Act), Dr Meduri dismisses the repercussions from this historical event which led to the hereditary dancers losing their art as a ‘false history’ with insufficient sociological evidence. She also argued that the dance which passed from the hereditary classes to the new ‘middle and upper caste’ mostly educated women was a case of a ‘collaboration’ between the giver of the training and the receiver, rather than an ‘appropriation’. 

It is hard to know how many dance practitioners have read the dance studies scholarship that has emerged both from Indian but mostly from US and UK universities. Academic work usually comes to light for the general public when a summary of the findings is shared in an article or interview in print or now online. It is therefore the role of an on-line publication like Pulse to be a bridge between the academics and the dance practitioners. 

Dance Studies with reference to Indian dance has been concerned with the historical, social and political issues that have impacted bharatanatyam, among other forms. These include issues around class, caste, modes of transmission, content of the dance itself, the themes explored and the values propounded. The fact that the dance form of sadir/bharatanatyam post 1930s became available to the middle classes is now widely known and accepted. Thanks to the efforts of the dance scholars, most dancers believe this to be the case. 

The discourse also touches on the Indian caste system, with attendant notions of patriarchy, hierarchical systems of transmission and the mythological underpinnings of the content danced. The stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata that may uphold casteist notions (we cannot forget the archer Ekalavya, who was asked to sacrifice this thumb to stop him being a rival to Arjun). Many scholars are concerned with how ideas of equality, diversity, genuine inclusion and multiple perspectives on aesthetics can breathe new life in dance and keep it fresh and connected to the world as it exists today. (A list of relevant articles is provided at the end of the Statement that follows.)

If you wish to respond to any of the issues raised please write to

Sanjeevini Dutta





The Statement below has been prepared by the following dance scholars and supported by the signatories, all listed alphabetically.

Anurima Banerji (University of California Los Angeles)
Anusha Kedhar (University of California Riverside)
Royona Mitra (Brunel University London)
Prarthana Purkayastha (Royal Holloway University of London)

On 20 March, Carnatic singers and sisters Ranjani and Gayatri took to social media platforms to announce their withdrawal from the Madras Music Academy (MMA) 2024 Conference, in protest of the conferment of this year’s MMA Sangita Kalanidhi Award upon Carnatic singer T.M. Krishna. Their rationale for doing so was that T.M. Krishna has “spread a sense of shame in being a carnatic musician” and “vilified the Carnatic music fraternity” presumably by drawing attention to issues of caste and religion in Carnatic music and Indian society, more broadly. They claimed that to attend the conference would be an act of “moral violation” as it would mean having to “bury the values” of the Carnatic music world. They followed up their protest with an interview on India Today claiming Brahmin communities are “soft targets”, “stand out because of [their] appearance”, and are the “most accepting and least casteist”, before going on to inadvertently admit that casteism is an universal reality and exists “everywhere”. They also categorically stated: 

“Brahmins are not casteist; we have not tried to take music away from any community. We have always pursued the highest of art forms, intelligence and [...] we naturally gravitate towards a certain kind of expression in our work”. 

Ranjani and Gayatri were swiftly followed in this protest by other artists similarly boycotting the MMA 2024 Conference, including the Trichur Brothers, Dushyant Sridhar, and others. 

On 21 March, dance scholar Avanthi Meduri contributed to this discourse in an interview with Sandhya Ravishankar, host of the Byte Burst Media YouTube Channel, linking the Carnatic music context to that of Bharatanatyam. In her interview Meduri: 

• dismissed the embodied knowledge and lived experience of dance artist Nrithya Pillai - a hereditary dancer from the isai vellalar community;

• dismissed the embodied knowledge and lived experience of Yashoda Thakore - a dance artist from the kalavantulu community;

• placed significance, instead, on what she framed as a concerted effort on the part of US-based academics to create a “fake history” of Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music;

• stated that these critics of Brahminism have wrongly and unfairly argued that appropriation and erasures of the art of caste-oppressed dance artists was undertaken by, and grafted onto the bodies of, the Brahmin elite;

• distanced herself from her own doctoral thesis and early scholarship where she had mobilised the language of “appropriation” and “disenfranchisement” of caste-oppressed dance artists;

• argued that such accusations of appropriation are used to “shame” the Brahmin community about “their ancient art forms”;

• claimed that the dance was not appropriated, but learned and transmitted through a consensual process from caste-oppressed dance artists to Brahmins like Rukmini Devi Arundale, founder of Kalakshetra, who “honoured” the isai vellalar communities;

• claimed that there was a lack of data to “prove” the disenfranchisement of caste-oppressed artists;

• stated that, rather than vilify Brahmins, we should be celebrating the way they “democratised”
and “diversified” the art form, while simultaneously and contradictorily acknowledging that the
majority of practising artists today are Brahmin;

• called for a rectification of this allegedly “fake history” by framing the project of the emergence
of Bharatanatyam as anti-caste and inter-caste collaboration.
As dance scholars and artists who are dedicated to examining how dance can uphold power across many social vectors, we remain committed to standing up against casteism in Indian performing arts.

We strongly disagree with Meduri, and others who may be aligned with these viewpoints, on a number of intellectual and scholarly grounds: 

• Meduri’s delegitimization of artists’ embodied knowledge as insignificant to the discourse, is fundamentally casteist and elitist; it undermines Dance Studies’ long-fought-for legitimization of dance practice as an important form of theorization. The embodied knowledge of caste-oppressed dance artists is integral to Indian dance studies today.

• Beyond this dimension, Thakore is an academic and published scholar, whose publications are informing current Indian dance studies discourse.

• Pillai’s publications and critical interventions at many academic platforms have become central to and are cited by Indian dance scholarship globally. Her most recent critique of the casteism in Meduri’s assertions in this same video interview can be found here.

• The idea that dominant-caste people get to decide what constitutes appropriation, historical erasures, and disenfranchisement, is in itself casteist. This is especially problematic when the actions of dominant-caste communities were and continue to be central to these erasures, appropriations and everyday caste violences as they play out in words, actions, and even silences.

• Meduri introduces the term “global majority Brahmin community” in the interview and thereby conflates the ideological purpose of the nomenclature “global majority” with the Brahmin community who constitute approximately 5% of India’s population. The label “global majority” is normally used to signal the fact that Black and racially minoritized peoples, the once-colonized “other” by histories of European colonialism, actually constitute the majority of the world. Claiming that Brahmins are both a “global majority” and victims of vilification, the term “global majority Brahmin community” is simultaneously inaccurate on both grounds, and glosses over Brahmin dominance despite their minority demographic status in India’s social order. Resistance against dominant power by those who are caste-oppressed is not vilification. It is justice.

• Meduri’s argument that Bharatanatyam’s history cannot be characterised as appropriation because “there was consent” by caste-oppressed teachers is specious and ignores the way in which disenfranchisement of caste-oppressed dancing women vis-a-vis the 1947 Prevention of Dedication Act resulted in economic and social precarity for many caste-oppressed communities. Moreover, framing the relationship between caste-oppressed teachers and brahmin dancers as simply a “guru-shishya” relationship and a “collaboration” ignores the unequal power relations which provided cover for appropriation.

• The idea that there is no proof of disenfranchisement ignores the lived realities of caste-oppressed dance artists, both then and now, especially as specific artist communities continue to be criminalised today.
Both Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music need to reckon with the caste supremacy that not only undergirds the history of these classicized art forms, but also the ways in which they propagate it in the present moment through exclusionary practices and aesthetic gatekeeping. We agree with those calling for Brahmanical dance and music institutions to examine the ways they uphold casteism in their very structures, as one step towards caste justice in Indian performing arts. We must take an individual and a collective stand against casteism, wherever and whenever we see it.

Signatories to the Statement in Alphabetical Order

Abha Sur, MIT, Cambridge MA
Aisha Farooqui, Retired Academic 
Aishika Chakraborty, India 
Akila, Chennai
Anubha Anushree, Stanford University
Anurima Banerji, UCLA, USA
Anusha Kedhar, University of California Riverside
Arabella Stanger, University of Sussex

Arshiya Sethi, Independent scholar and Editor in Chief online journal South Asian Dance Intersections 
Balaji Narasimhan, Independent
Brahma Prakash, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi 
Cynthia Ling Lee, UC Santa Cruz, USA
Davesh Soneji, University of Pennsylvania
Dr Bindu Desai, USA
Gowhar Yaqoob, Independent Scholar
Hari Krishnan, Wesleyan University
Harshita Mruthinti Kamath, Emory University
Jaivant Patel, Jaivant Patel Company, UK
Jay O’Shea, University of California, Los Angeles
K. Lalita, Feminist Scholar/ Researcher
Kaustavi Sarkar, UNC Charlotte Dance
Kavitha Ramu, Bharatanatyam Artist / Chennai, India 
Lionel Popkin, UCLA
Mahishan Gnanaseharan, Stanford University
Mandeep Raikhy, New Delhi
Marlon Ariyasinghe, Stanford University 
Meena Murugesan, Los Angeles
Pallabi Chakravorty, Swarthmore College
Poornima Rajeshwar, Stanford University 
Pramila Vasudevan, Aniccha Arts/Twin Cities, MN
Prarthana Purkayastha, Royal Holloway University of London/United Kingdom
Preethi R., UCR
Pritika Agarwal, Temple University
Priyanka Basu, King's College London
R Srivatsan, Independent
Ranjini Nair, University of Cambridge 
Royona Mitra, Brunel University London, UK
Rumya S. Putcha, Georgia, USA
Sharika Thiranagama, Stanford University
Shayoni Mitra, Barnard College
Sinjini Chatterjee, University of California, Riverside
Sitara Thobani, Michigan State University
sujata goel, harrisburg, pa
Urmimala, JNU, New Delhi
Usha Iyer, Stanford University
Yashoda Thakore, Professor, University of Silicon Andhra, California


For further reading, please see the suggested list of articles (in alphabetical order) given below. Please note this list is not exhaustive.

Priyanka Basu:

 Pratibha Natesan Batley:

Pallabi Chakravorty:  

Sameena Dalwai:  

Harshita Kamath:  

Hari Krishnan:
Anna Morcom:  

Ranjini Nair:  

Janet O’Shea:  

Rituparna Pal:  

Nrithya Pillai:  

Brahma Prakash:
Rumya Putcha:  

Davesh Soneji:
Sammitha Sreevathsa:

Sammitha Sreevastha :  

Yashoda Thakore:
Amanda Weidman: