M. N. Srinivas defined Sanskritization as a process by which “a “low” Hindu caste, or tribal or other group, changes its customs, ritual, ideology, and way of life in the direction of a high, and frequently, “twice-born” caste” (Social Change. page 6). Many scholars have criticised this concept mainly because it reduces lower castes to mere emulators. Many anthropologists have rejected the concept of sanskritic/non-sanskritic traditions because they assume that any culture is a mixture of both. And most importantly the concept of Sanskritization fails to describe the process wherein the upper castes or Brahmins adopt lower caste traditions.
In fact, in the first write up, even other singers like Rukmini Devi and Balasaraswathi are described as differently but inextricably tied to the idea of Sanskritization, along with M.S. Subbulakshmi. Rukmini Devi, one of the first women from a higher caste to practice and perform Sadir/Bharatanatyam, is said to have modified the dance form by “purifying” it i.e., by ridding it of its erotic elements or its sensuality, and thereby removing the stigma of the devadasis. However, this process is not considered as problematic by the author and he describes this as a process of Sanskritization and Rukmini Devi is considered as the one who was irrefutably involved in endorsing Sanskritization in her field of art even though Rukhmini Devi’s effort was actually not related to the concept of Sanskritization. Because here it is a formerly low caste dance form that is being adopted and “revived” by the upper caste for the practice of upper caste girls. How can this be brought under the category of Sanskritization?
Who are the emulators here? What are the essences which are kept alive in these art forms when it gets “purified”, “revived” or “elevated”?
T M Krishna’s description of Balasaraswathi, a Devadasi who rejected Sanskritization also add to this point. He writes, “She had complete faith in her own history and heritage as a Devadasi dancer; saw Sadir as ‘perfect’ and requiring no modification. She saw the process of sanitizing (arguably sanskritizing) as unnecessary, threatening to her art form and even vulgar. For her, this process was a deadly threat to the existence of her heritage and dance, as she knew it. Her rejection of Sanskritization, in many ways, defined her and her dance.” Here what has been considered as vulgar by the upper caste women is not vulgar to lower caste women. As we see Balasaraswathi’s case is enough to criticise the whole concept of Sanskritization in art forms. And we also see upper caste women like Rukhmini Devi who adopt the art forms of lower castes and lower caste women like Balasarawasthi who take pride in their heritage and are stringently against the process of Sanskiritization.
—Sanskritization or Appropriation: Caste and Gender in “Indian” Music and Dance by Sreebitha P. V.
[Screencaps of Balasarawasthi from Satyajit Ray’s 1976 documentary Bala]
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