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Deepa Mahadevan, PhD

Dr. Deepa Mahadevan is an artist scholar. She is a Bharatanatyam practitioner, researcher, teacher, choreographer, and curator. Her doctoral research in Performance studies the history of aesthetics in Bharatanatyam, through the vectors of caste, class, sexuality, gender and religion, between the 1930s till 2020.

Kuruntogai (குறுந்தொகை) - 18 - Kapilar

The creative impetus for my research comes from my practice as a dancer, teacher and choreographer.

As a teacher and choreographer for students of dance for over 30 years I noticed that the methods I use to teach and the aesthetic benchmarks that I set for myself and my students for a stage presentation has been changing consistently. What I was taught  by my teachers and what was pointed as important by the field while I was learning Bharatanatyam between the 1980s and 1990s is vastly different from what is the coveted currency of Bharatanatyam aesthetics today. Bharatanatyam today, specifically after the onset of social media in the early 2000s, has become a very athletic dance form. The most critical currency for a dancer today is measured in terms of their overall fitness level understood by their core strength, their body flexibility, their aerobic fitness levels, for instance. These were not terms used within the classroom when I was learning Bharatanatyam or entering the field as a teacher and performer in the 1980s and 1990s.


There is a growing intolerance to presentations and pedagogical models that don’t align with these aesthetic ideals. While this is on one end of the argument, I join other scholars in challenging the ‘mythopoetic’ history of Bharatanatyam that claims an unbroken legacy of Bharatanatyam dance by tracing it to temple sculptures and Sanskrit texts dating back to over two thousand years (Soneji, 2008, 2010, 2012; Hari Krishnan, 2010, 2010; Harp, 1997; Meduri, 1996; Srinivasan, 1984). Thus, on one hand I am a dancer, and teacher who is constantly required to re-skill myself and my teaching practices to align with the changing aesthetic demands of the field exacerbated by social media in the past fifteen years and on the other I am coopted by the Bharatanatyam dance field comprising of dance practitioners, connoisseurs, and art promoters in the rhetoric of Bharatanatyam being an ancient art form forging direct links to texts and temple sculptures dating back to 200BC.  


My research interest drew from this dissonance and I set out to trace the history of aesthetics in Bharatanatyam. I propose that knowing this history and making it available to students and dancers and bringing an appreciation or acceptance for aesthetic diversity will augment equity and justice in the Bharatanatyam field.

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