Christian Denigration of Indian Spiritual Dance

published on June 7, 2011

Excerpts from “Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines,” by Malhotra, Rajiv and Aravindan Neelakandan, Amaryllis Publishers, Delhi, 2011

Chapter: 8. Digesting Hinduism into Dravidian Christianity
Section: Christianizing Hindu Popular Culture
Sub-section: Christian Denigration of Indian Spiritual Dance
Printed Pages: 113-120
Footnotes included

From the 17th century onwards, Christian missionaries made scathing attacks on the Indian classical dance form seeing it as a heathen practice. This was often expressed by attacking the devadasi system on the grounds of human rights. The devadasis were temple dancers, dedicated in childhood to a particular deity. The system was at its peak in the 10th and 11th centuries, but a few hundred years later, the traditional system of temples protected by powerful kings had faded away under Mughal rule especially since the Mughals turned it into popular entertainment devoid of spirituality. The devadasi system degenerated in some cases into temple dancers used for prostitution, although the extent of this was exaggerated by the colonialists.

Many of the English educated elites of India accepted the colonial condemnation of their heritage and apologized for its “primitiveness.” Some of them turned into Hindu reformers, and found the devadasi system detestable for moral and even social-hygienic reasons.[1] However the devadasis saw their very existence threatened and sent handwritten pleas to the colonial government explaining the spiritual foundation of Bharatha Natyam. They quoted Siva from the Saiva Agamas saying, “To please me during my puja, arrangements must be made daily for shudda nritta (dance). This should be danced by females born of such families and the five acharyas should form the accompaniments.” Since these Agamas are revered by every Hindu, the devadasis asked, “What reason can there be for our community not to thrive and exist as necessary adjuncts of temple service?” They opposed the proposed draconian punishment for performing their tradition, calling the legislation “unparalleled in the civilized world.” [2]

Instead of abolition of their traditional profession, they demanded better education to restore their historical status. They wanted the religious, literary and artistic education as in the past, saying, “Instill into us the Gita and the beauty of the Ramayana and explain to us the Agamas and the rites of worship.” This would inspire devadasi girls to model themselves after female saints like Maitreyi, Gargi and Manimekalai and the women singers of the Vedas, such that,

“we might once again become the preachers of morality and religion… You who boast of your tender love for small communities, we pray that you may allow us to live and work out our salvation and manifest ourselves in jnana and bhakti and keep alight the torch of India’s religion amidst the fogs and storms of increasing materialism and interpret the message of India to the world.”[3]

Despite such attempts, the missionary influence continued to dominate Bharata Natyam came to be seen as immoral and facing almost certain extinction. For example, a Dravidianist supported by missionary scholarship called the dance “the lifeline that encourages the growth of prostitution.”[4]

However, Hindu savants worked tirelessly to remove the Christian slurs cast on this art form. Chief among them was Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904-1986) who protected and revived this dance by founding the Kalakshetra Academy of Dance and Music in 1936. She made it an acceptable norm for girls (and even boys) from middle class households to learn Bharat Natyam. Though operated like a modern institution, it functioned as a traditional gurukula with prayers before the deity Ganapati, vegetarianism, and a guru-shishya relationship. Throughout Tamil Nadu the guru-shishya form of decentralized one-on-one learning spread in various ways as part of this revival. Thus, far from being dead as intended by missionaries, colonialists and their Indian cronies, Bharat Natyam again became well established as a spiritual art form in South India, and started to achieve acclaim throughout India and abroad. Kalakshetra grew into a university with a large campus in Chennai.

Strategic Shift: Subtle Christian Appropriation of Hindu Dance

In recent years, missionaries are again targeting Bharat Natyam. But this time as a takeover candidate for digestion into Christianity. This reversal of strategy is in response to the growing enthusiasm for Bharat Natyam, including among many Western feminists who see Indian dance as a valorization of feminine sexuality.[5] Westerners took up this dance initially showing respect for Hindu practices and symbols, and studied under Hindu gurus who naively welcomed the Christian disciples. Each of the individuals who are at the forefront of Christianizing the Bharata Natyam today was initially taught by Hindu gurus.[6] In India there are many unsuspecting, or perhaps opportunistic, Hindu gurus who take this genre of Christian students under their wings. These Christian disciples worked very hard and many became exemplars, dancing to Hindu themes and enthralling the media and audiences.

However, they ran into conflicts between traditional Hindu art and Christian aesthetics and dogma. Father Francis Barboza, a prominent Roman Catholic priest and dancer of Hindu art forms, confesses that “the main difficulty I faced in the area of technique” concerned what is Indian classical dance’s unique feature, namely, the hand gestures (hasta) and postures. He confesses:

I could use all of them in the original form except for the Deva hasta [hand gestures], because the nature and significance of the Bible personalities are totally different and unique. Hence, when I wanted to depict Christ, the Christian Trinity (Father, Son and the Holy Spirit), I drew a blank. I realised that I had to invent new Deva Hasta to suit the Divine personalities and concepts of the Christian religion. This was a challenge to my creative, intellectual and theological background. Armed with my knowledge of Christian Theology and in depth studies of ancient dance treatises, I then introduced a number of Deva Hasta to suit the personalities of the Bible. These innovations succeeded in making my presentation both genuinely Indian and Christian in content and form.[7]

Dr. Barboza has Christianized the Bharatha Natyam by inventing the following Christian Mudras: God the Father; Son of God; The Holy Spirit; The Risen Christ; Mother Mary; The Cross; Madonna; The Church;  and The Word of God, as well as two postures, Crucifixion and The Risen Christ.[8] This strategy is strikingly similar to the development of “Christian Yoga” and “Jewish Yoga” by western practitioners who take what they want from yoga but reject or replace any symbols or concepts that are too explicitly Hindu.

Another example is the Kalai Kaveri College of Fine Arts, founded by a Catholic priest in 1977 as a cultural mission. He received patronage from various sources and sent out priests and nuns to learn from unsuspecting Hindu gurus. The college claims to be offering “the world’s first, off-campus degree program in Bharathanatyam,” with another program in South Indian classical music (both vocal and instrumental). Its website’s home page shows Dr. Barboza’s “Christian mudras” using the Christian “Father Deity” as the Bharata Natyam mudra replacing thousands of years of Hindu mudras.[9] Kalai Kaveri is backed and funded as a major church campaign. The Tamil Nadu government is also actively funding and promoting it.[10]

Kalai Kaveri also has overseas branches. Its UK branch with Lord Navnit Dholakia as its patron, “administers performances and educational workshops in the UK by the dancers and movement instructors from KÃ lai KÃ viri College in south India.”[11] Its website contains a passage from its 25th Anniversary handbook, Resurgence, which reveals the time tested Christian technique of first praising Indian spirituality and then mapping it to Christian equivalents, such as the subtle the use of the phrase “holy communion” which has specific religious importance to Christians that might not be noticed by others. It starts out with respect for the Vedic tradition:

“Music and dance when viewed in Indian tradition are fundamentally one spiritual art, an integral yoga and a science of harmony. According to the Vedas, the Divine Mother Vak (Vag Devi) sang the whole creation into being. God’s eternal life-force, Para Sakthi, entered or rather assumed the perennial causal sound Nada through the monosyllabic seed-sound Om (Pranava). Thereby the phenomenal world with its multiple forms evolved. This process of physical, vital, mental and soul contact or holy communion with God aims at complete harmony, perfect integration, and absolute identification with God, in all His manifested as well as unmanifested Lila (divine play and dance) at the individual, cosmic and supra-cosmic levels of existence.”[12]

But the article continues, the mapping turns more explicitly Christian:  

“Therefore it is possible to trace each human sound or word back to its source by retracing step-by-step to the positive source, until the body of Brahman called Sabda Brahman is reached: ‘In the beginning was Prajapathi, the Brahman (Prajapath vai idam agtre aseet) With whom was the word (Tasya vag dvitiya aseet) And the word was verily the supreme Brahman’ (Vag vai paraman Brahman). This Vedic verse finds parallel in the fourth Gospel of the Christian New Testament: ‘In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.’ (John 1.1) The ‘Word’ referred to here is the primal sound or Nama. It cannot be the spoken word, and hence it is the creative power of God. The mis-named Odes of Solomon, which are probably from 2nd century Christian Palestine or Syria convey the same truth metaphorically: ‘There is nothing that is apart from the Lord, because He was before anything came into being. And the worlds came in to being by His word’ (Ode XVI:18 – 19).[13]  

Father Saju George, a Jesuit priest from Kerala, is a Kalai Kaviri celebrity who learned from various Bharat Natyam gurus. He performs both Christian and Hindu themes. Kalai Kaveri boasts that, having also danced before Pope John Paul II in New Delhi, he has thus raised Bharathanatyam to the realm of Christian prayer and worship…Here is a rare opportunity to experience a new flowering of an ancient vine. In the concerts, imageries of Radha Krishna share a platform with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.[14]

Blatantly Rejecting Hinduism while Christianizing the Bharat Natyam

Rani David, the founder of Kalairani Natya Saalai in Maryland, USA, (strategically located right next to a prominent Hindu temple) is even more blatant about Christianizing the Bharata Natyam. Her website does not hesitate to reveal her disdain of Hindu symbols that are a part of Bharatha Natyam, and her vow to remove them from the dance. She wants to make Bharat Natyam non-Hindu:  

At one of the elaborate ‘Salangai poojai’, in spite of her conviction, she was embarrassed because her Christian values would not permit her to bow down before a statue, whether one of Nataraja, Mary or even Jesus Christ. It was then that she vowed to herself that one day she would fashion this beautiful art into one that could not be exclusively claimed by any one religion. That vow began its fulfillment at Edwina Bhaskaran’s arengetram in ’92 when a patham on Christ, ‘Yesuvaiyae thoothi sei’, was included.[15]

But her initial posture of pluralism leads to an exclusively Christian dance as an “innovation,” of which she is proud: Edwina’s grandfather, Elder Edwin, congratulated Rani and inquired, ‘can you stage a full program with only Christian items?’. Consequently, ‘Yesu-Yesu-Yesu’ a two hour program on Christ was innovated and staged first in Maryland and then taken on tour to many parts of USA..[16]

Rani David is also proud of her collaborations with Father Barboza and other Indian Christians. In an article tellingly titled, “The Concept of Christianizing,”she begins by comparing the problems of Bharata Natyam with similar problems supposedly found in the Bible, making her assessment seem even-handed:

History of Bharatanatyam reveals that it was misused by religious people and became a social stigma. Likewise, the word ‘dance’ itself in the Bible has had two bad ‘sinful’ references: once with the Israelites and the golden calf and the other by Salome who danced before Herod. [17]

In the next sentences this facade of equal treatment is replaced by focusing on the positive aspects of dance only in the Bible. Citing particular verses that mention dance, she concludes:  “dance is strongly implied to be present in God’s Kingdom. But is there an unquestionable support? Yes, in Psalms 149:3 and 150:4 there are definite commands to include dances in the praising of God! “One can hardly get any more definite than that![18]

In other words, when dance is condemned in the Bible, it maps onto the Hindu nature of Bharatha Natyam and both share the problem equally; but when dance is positively depicted in the Bible it is solely a Christian phenomenon without Hindu parallels.

What is neatly glossed over is the obvious fact that Bharat Natyam was developed, institutionally nourished and theologically refined within Hinduism precisely because it is a tradition of embodied spirituality that valorizes the body both male and female, and even animal ”whereas the Abrahamic tradition, precisely because of its obsession with sin and fears of idolatry, has stifled the possibility of such bodily representation as a divine medium.[19]

Rani David then explains the challenges in trying to make Hinduism and Christianity co-exist in the dance. She states that there are  two major differences that we cannot overlook. Hinduism is liberal and will accept anything ‘good’ as sacred. Christianity, on the other hand, is based on a ‘zealous’ God who commands you cannot worship any other gods. Christian form of worship is simplicity; that is why you see Christians dressed in white when they go to church. But a Hindu devotee believes in elaboration in worship. The more you beautify, the more acceptable! So where does one bring in Bharatanatyam? It is not an easy task to merge the two worlds. it was the Catholic Priest, Father Barboza, who laid down some definite mudras which you see displayed on this page. With the idea of making a universal adaptation, I have used some of these mudras in my choreography. [20]

Anita Ratnam, a prominent dancer, goes even further and claims in her 2007 event in Maryland: Rani David laid down facts and demonstrated that Christianity existed along with Bharatanatyam and Sanga Thamizh, but history lost in time has given Christianity a western outlook.[21]

It is interesting to note how self-conscious and strategic the various Christians are when engaged in this cross-religious activity. Their Christianity is very explicitly present in their minds and they are deliberate in making their strategic choices. On the other hand, Hindus engaged in such cross-religious activities are easily lost in ideas of “everything is the same” and “there is no us and them.” One side (i.e. Christian) has a strategy and is constantly reworking it and perfecting it, in order to expand itself. The other side (i.e. Hindu) is naively unconcerned, and unwilling to see this is a competitive arena.


[1] One of the most vocal champions for the abolition of the system was Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, (1886-1968) the first female doctor of Madras Presidency, an advocate for women’s rights, as associate of Mahatma Gandhi, and a member of the legislature who worked for the abolishment of the devadasi system in 1929. 

[2] Quotes excerpted from (Hinduism Today Archives 1993) . It is true that with the loss of royal and other forms of social patronage dating from (in many areas even before) British times, many of these institutions had sunk to a depraved level indistinguishable from prostitution (with possible elements of coercion given the patriarchal social structure). However, this was part of a more generalized decadence that could be seen also in the greedy behavior of temple priests at pilgrimage sites due to the same loss of patronage. Just as Bharata Natyam has long since regained its status worldwide, so too well-trained priests have now regained their status in the temples of the Hindu diaspora and in the better maintained temples of India,

[3] (Hinduism Today Archives 1993) .

[4] (Rao, Ramamirthammal and Kannabirān 2003, 210)

[5] For example, Western anthropologists (like Frédérique Appfel Marglin) have not just learned Hindu classical dance (the closely-related Odissi form) but have also lived with and given very sympathetic accounts of the daily lives and values of the devadasis. The Tantric inspiration behind these dance traditions, which were earlier the object of so much Christian-inspired censure, has become a badge of honor.

[6] Dr. Francis Barboza, who later invented Christian Mudras in Bharatha Natyam, was instructed in the dance form by two Hindus, Guru Kubernath Tanjorkar and Prof. C.V. Chandrasekhar. (Barboza 2003) Father Saju George, a Jesuit priest, was instructed by Sri K Rajkumar, Khagendra Nath Barman, Padmashri Leela Samson, Nadabrahmam Prof. C V Chandrasekhar (all from Kalakshetra, Chennai) and Padmabhushan Kalanidhi Narayanan and Kalaimamani Priyadarshini Govind. Of these Gurus, Leela Samson is a Christian. (Kalai Kaviri 2006) Leela Thompson was instructed by the very founder of Kalakshetra Rukmini Arundale and Sharada teacher, another talented Bharatha Natyam Guru of Kalakshetra. Rani David, daughter of an evangelical fundamentalist, was instructed by Shri Shanmugasundaram in the Tanjore style and later by Smt Mythili Ragahavan, a direct disciple of Smt. Rukmini Arundale of Kalekshetra. She later studied Nattuvangam under Shri Seetharama Sharma and Shri Adyar Lakshman. (R. David 2004:Dead Link )

[7] (Barboza 2003)

[8] (Barboza 2003)

[9] Gesture presented as representative of Bharatha Natyam in (Kalai Kaviri 2004) to be compared with “Christian gesture innovated” in (Barboza 2002)

[10] (Tamil Nadu Govt 2003-2004)

[11] (Kalai Kaviri 2004:2005)

[12] (Stephen.A 2004)

[13] (Stephen.A 2004)

[14] (Kalai Kaviri 2006)

[15] (Arangetram Brochure 1999)

[16]  (Arangetram Brochure 1999)

[17] (R. David 2004:Dead Link)

[18] (R. David 2004:Dead Link)

[19] Thus, Sufi-inspired syncretism in India has focused on rasa and dhvani theory as applied to poetry and music rather than to dance, which had to be ‘secularized’ into Kathak to enjoy widespread patronage (the trance-inducing sama dances have little of the representational or aesthetic dimension of Indian classical dance). However, many among the Muslim audiences and patrons (e.g., in Awadh) could appreciate (at least at the aesthetic level), and despite the apparent contradiction, the backdrop of Hindu mythology with its various deities (esp., the already ‘secularized’ Krishna). Because of this acknowledged incompatibility, there has been no attempt to Islamize (as opposed to ‘secularize’) Kathak.

[20] (R. David 2004:Dead Link)

Since the middle of 2009 the website has expired. However the pseudo-historic narrative attempted by Rani David for Christianizing Bharatha Natyam has been approvingly displayed in a prominent Indian dance portal,, which is run by a prominent dancer named Anita Ratnam.

[21] ( 2007)

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