Madras HC's view on obscenity in Kathakali, Karagattam seems obscene

Renuka Narayanan
Renuka NarayananJul 26, 2016 | 16:30

Madras HC's view on obscenity in Kathakali, Karagattam seems obscene

It's taken me a few days to sort my thoughts on the latest ruling by someone vested with sarkari power on matters that possibly pass their understanding.

Last Tuesday, it was reported that justice P Devadass of the Madras High Court is critically disposed towards two respected and popular traditional performing arts of South India - Kathakali and Karagattam.

Responding to a petition that the court should direct the police of Sivaganga town to allow a performance of Kathakali at a local temple, he laid down nine conditions, some of which are perfectly valid generalisations about any public event.


But some seem unnecessarily misdirected in tone and even intrusive on the public's freedom of cultural expression. I quote from the report by Mohammed Imranullah S in The Hindu, Madurai edition, July 18, 2016:

"Besides stipulating that the event must be performed between 6pm and 9pm, the judge said the organisers of Kathakali dance programme should be mandated to avoid obscene dance, songs and vulgar dialogues.

"No dance or songs touching upon the conduct of any political party or community or caste should be played and no flex boards in support of any political party or religious leader should be erected," the judge added. The court said the programme should be conducted without showing any discrimination based on caste or community and it shall be ensured that it is towards promoting communal harmony.

Those participating in the programme must not consume alcohol during the performance.

"In respect of any untoward incident, the organisers of the programme shall be responsible for the same, and if there is any violation of any of the conditions imposed, the concerned (sic) police officer is at liberty to take necessary action as per law and stop such performance," the order said."


Though a number of other public events may, with reason, be subject to the charge of "obscenity" or may be questioned as not exactly promoting communal harmony, the judge seems to have reserved his strictures for soft targets, the traditional performing arts that are expressions of indigenous culture.

This seems a startlingly narrow view to take of these traditional Indian arts, to which the judge may or may not actually be averse, but regrettably does not seem familiar with.

In fact, the irony in this order is intriguing.

On the one hand, a group of dancers and commentators vociferously deplore the "upper caste sanitisation" of the devadasi dance form, Sadir. They critique the alleged 20th century shift in emphasis from "sringara" to "bhakti" - surely a joke, given the intimate intensity of aspects of "bhakti" that is freely expressed in this dance form, especially in the genres of songs called padam and javali?

This allegedly happened to Sadir after it was abolished in the 1930s by the British as vulgar and obscene. However, entire sections of the educated public across castes and even religion whole-heartedly took up the cause of Sadir, with some adaptation for their times, learning and performing it as part of the freedom struggle.


Sadir took on new life as "Bharatanatyam" and went on to dazzle the national stage and several world stages. It is even taught, with the Catholic Church's approval, at a convent in Pondicherry.

I have seen a dance class there and met the nun who teaches Bharatanatyam. She told me she had spent five arduous years learning the dance in Madurai and showed me a beautiful mudra for Jesus.

Indeed, after Independence, when India had almost nothing to show for herself, she sent her Bharatanatyam dancers along with doyennes of other dance forms to Europe and America as a calling card, as if to say, "We're poor now, but we're India. We'll be back."

A visual from Karagattam. 

Our arts "kept our face" in those first decades of being a ship-to-mouth economy. For some reason after liberalisation, it became the fashion among a few some to kick the ladder climbed by Sadir.

But here you have a judge in 2016 echoing narrow colonial British sentiments about two traditional arts of South India as potentially "vulgar" and "obscene". Some observations naturally come to mind about this extraordinary order.

- Only someone with a grave cultural disconnect could venture to suggest that Kathakali, one of our most honourable and stalwart art forms, could be "vulgar" and "obscene."

- Kathakali, the resplendent theatre art of Kerala, themed on the Ramayana and Mahabharata, can be performed through the night. It depends on the artistes and the audience. It is surely not for a judge, of whatever religious or irreligious persuasion, to impose a set time "between six and nine pm", restricting the flow of performance. That, too, at a temple?

- As far as I know, it is not customary for the public to drink alcohol during a dance performance at a temple.

- An invited performance of Kathakali in Tamil Nadu can only promote regional harmony and appreciation. How can it possibly be "at the cost of public tranquility" as the judge reportedly began his order by saying?

- The judge has reportedly passed similar strictures when giving permission this month for performances of Karagattam in Tiruchi district.

These performances were scheduled for the "Aadi" festival at two temples to Mariamman, the ancient cross-caste goddess akin to Sitala Mata in the north.

In Tamil Nadu, karagattam or karakattam is a "rain dance" with a spiritual dimension performed for Mariamman. Today there are admittedly some "hot" Karakattam performances staged as though by a "kurava" and "kurathi" (gypsy woman and man) that may well attract a note of censure.

But so much of traditional rural culture across India belongs in that "raw" bandwidth that these strictures seem like an urban point of view being imposed on folk art without a corresponding stricture against the rich and powerful urban art of cinema. 


One is reluctant to conclude that this complex traditional festival with its elements of cross-dressing, music and dance, is repugnant and perplexing to those with a narrow point of view possibly derived from Victorian England.

But to make such public observations on Karagattam - and, inexplicably, on Kathakali - seems regrettably indicative of just such an irony.

Can it be that some judges in the Madras High Court want to "sanitise" our traditional arts according to what they personally consider "proper"?

Such views regrettably create unwanted and unpleasant forebodings of a possible bias.

The dizzying thought inevitably follows: will they next decry a performance of Sadir aka Bharatanatyam as "vulgar" and "obscene" as did the churchmen and administrators of the British Raj?

Or, ironically, will its shrilly insisted-upon "upper caste" tag save it from critical judicial pronouncement unlike the traditional dance of the Tigala?

And what on earth could have prompted the disparaging tone by justice P Devadass towards a performance of something as grand and beautiful as Kathakali at a temple?

Will similar strictures be passed by this judge or like-minded judges of the Madras High Court on Odissi, Kuchipudi and Kathak with their dominant themes of Radha-Krishna love, if temples in Tamil Nadu wish to invite performers of these dance forms?

Have we misunderstood something here?

Last updated: July 26, 2016 | 16:50
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