Faith vs art: Why Kerala's Bharatanatyam controversy is more than a Hindu-Muslim issue

Regardless of the BJP’s ‘support’ for those ‘embracing Hinduism’, this isn’t a new issue in the state.

ByNidhi Suresh
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Faith vs art: Why Kerala's Bharatanatyam controversy is more than a Hindu-Muslim issue
Shambhavi Thakur
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“I have experienced even bigger exclusions before. This is not a big deal for me. I am writing this here to show that not only have things not changed over time, but also we are going deeper and deeper into a hole.”

This is what Bharatanatyam dancer Mansiya VP angrily wrote on Facebook on March 27, hours after she had been informed that she would not be allowed to perform at the Koodalmanikyam temple festival in Kerala’s Irinjalakuda. Her performance was scheduled for April 21, but it was being cancelled because she was not a Hindu.

Born into a Muslim family, Mansiya identifies as an atheist.

Two days later, the Bharatiya Janata Party – largely viewed as a Hindu, right-wing party in the state which did not win a single seat in the last assembly election – invited Mansiya to perform at all the temples controlled by the Vishva Hindu Parishad in Kerala.

Mansiya politely refused, saying, “No, thank you.”

The VHP controls between 10 and 15 temples in each of Kerala’s 14 districts – a total of about 140 temples in the state. The VHP also called Mansiya’s exclusion a “ploy” by the left government to isolate Hindus.

On its part, the state government has said nothing, while the Congress-led opposition – apart from Shashi Tharoor – has also largely remained silent. Only the BJP is vociferous in its support.

After Mansiya posted about what happened, two other dancers withdrew from the temple festival in protest. But over the years, there have been multiple instances of performers denied a temple stage because of their religion.

Temple power structures and ‘hypocrisy’

In Kerala, most temples are managed by larger, state-led, socio-religious trusts called Devaswom boards. These boards oversee temple assets, organise festivals, and ensure the smooth functioning of temple rituals. There are five Devasom boards in Kerala – Guruvayur, Travancore, Malabar, Cochin and Koodalmanikyam – managing roughly 3,000 temples between them.

The Koodalmanikyam temple festival this year will take place across 10 days featuring over 800 artists, according to Pradeep Menon, the chairman of the Koodalmanikyam Devaswom Board.

Menon said that for hundreds of years, it’s been a customary practice to not permit non-Hindus to enter the temple area.

“It is not just about Mansiya. Whether it is a makeup artist, plumber, electrician, stage designer, everyone has to be a Hindu believer,” he said. Given that the festival’s stage is located within the temple itself, this applies to the festival too.

In fact, Menon claimed that two years ago, during reconstruction work at the temple, they discovered two of the workers hired were Muslim. “We sent them back,” he said. Eight years before this, the Irinjalakuda municipality chairperson – a Christian – had attended a ceremony at the temple which turned into a “big issue”. “The case went on for seven years,” he said.

“If we invite a non-Hindu performer here, big protests will erupt and then the artist itself will ask us why we invited him or her. Isn’t their safety also our responsibility?” he asked. When asked who was most likely to create the “big protest”, Menon refused to elaborate.

And this is neither new nor unusual in Kerala, the most famous example being singer Yesudas, who is Christian, being denied entry into Guruvayur temple despite multiple requests.

Yesudas’s desire to enter is not to perform, but to offer prayers as a devotee of Krishna. “It is possible for even insects to enter the temple,” he once said, “but not me.” In 2017, the state government’s minister for Devaswom had clarified that the LDF government thinks “everyone who believes in the faith must be allowed to enter temple and worship”, but that “every temple has its own rules”.

For the Koodalmanikyam festival, Menon said the temple board made it clear that they were only permitting Hindu performers in their advertisements inviting performers to apply. For instance, one of the advertisements read: “Hindu performers are encouraged to submit an application if they wish to perform during the festival. They’re also asked to be mindful of performing arts that are conducive to a temple environment.”

The notice encouraging Hindi performers to apply for the festival.

The notice encouraging Hindi performers to apply for the festival.

The application form itself contained a clause that asked performers to confirm they are Hindu. Mansiya’s application didn’t disclose she was Muslim, Menon alleged. “If she had, it would have been rejected then and there.”

The board only discovered this after they scheduled a phone call with Mansiya after accepting her application. “So, we withdrew her slot,” Menon said. “But the poster announcing her performance was released before the call.”

Menon told Newslaundry the core members of the Koodalmanikyam Devaswom board sympathise with the left government in the state. The BJP has seized upon this, with state vice-president Gopal Krishnan saying, “What is this hypocrisy? How can communist party sympathisers, who are self proclaimed non-believers, rule the temple but non-Hindu artists cannot perform?”

When we told Menon about this, he said, “I am a believer. Everyone here knows that.”

Newslaundry also reached out to BJP state president K Surendran, but he said he has “no interest” in commenting on the issue. But Gopal Krishnan had no such qualms.

“All people who live in India are Hindus. That’s the philosophy of the RSS,” he said, while explaining why denying permission to Mansiya is “against Hindu culture”. He cited Mansiya’s comments in the past on how the Muslim community had ostracised her for performing Bharatanatyam. This was, in Krishnan’s opinion, a form of “Talibanism”.

“Why are we denying her a stage, especially when she’s embracing Hinduism so beautifully?” he demanded. “Anyway Hindus are shrinking, and here, we are banning a Muslim woman who wants to practise Hinduism.”

It should be emphasised that Mansiya identifies as an atheist.

Newslaundry contacted K Radhakrishnan, Kerala’s minister for Devaswom, to ask about Mansiya’s case. “The board is yet to get back to me,” he said.

But why has his government remained silent, despite being vocal about the Yesudas controversy a few years ago?

“The decision will have to come from the board and the tantri, the main priest,” he said. “It is not for the government to decide.” When asked when the decision is likely to be taken, he said, “I don’t know.”

Similar cases

But Mansiya is not alone.

Soumya Sukumaran, 40, lives in Thrissur and has been a Bharatanatyam dancer for seven years. Her father, Sukumaran, is Hindu but his Christian name is George. Her mother is Christian and the family practises Christianity at home.

When Soumya saw the advertisement for the Koodalmanikyam festival, she decided to apply, regardless of the specification for Hindu performers.

Soumya Sethuraman, whose family practises Christianity at home. Image courtesy: Soumya Sethuraman

Soumya Sethuraman, whose family practises Christianity at home. Image courtesy: Soumya Sethuraman

“Due to Covid and very few sponsors, this time the temple board was giving space to upcoming artists as well,” she said, saying the festival usually features famous actors and established performers. “So, I thought this might be my one chance to perform there.”

She also personally knew Pradeep Menon on the temple board, she said, and hoped she would be accommodated.

On his part, Menon said when Soumya first applied, she was presumed to be Hindu from her surname. “But then someone who knows her told us that her last name is George,” he said. So, the board called Soumya to clarify and she, of her own volition, withdrew her application.

She told Newslaundry she was “very sad” about it. “Be it Krishna or Jesus, I am a believer,” she said, “and that’s what matters while entering a temple.” She also thinks Mansiya “should not have made it such a big issue” and said she’s performed in many temples over the last seven years.

“For temples that come under the Devaswom board, we non-Hindus don’t enter the temple and perform on a stage outside,” she said.”But in temples like Padmanabhaswamy, which is not under the Devaswom, I have performed inside the temple and right in front of the idol.”

Soumya added that, like Mansiya, she hasn’t received support from her own community for choosing to be a practitioner of Bharatanatyam. “I never had support from my extended family,” she said. “People always questioned my parents.”

There are other instances of one’s faith determining whether or not one can perform. In 2021, Vinod Panicker, a practitioner of Poorakkali, a traditional dance form performed by men, was allegedly told he would no longer be allowed to perform at a nine-day temple festival in North Kerala.

Panicker, who had been performing for over 35 years, was informed that it was because his son had married a Muslim woman four years before. He told the Hindu that temple board authorities said it was because his daughter-in-law lived with him.

“They told me to either shift to another house or move my daughter-in-law to a different place,” he said. “But I cannot accept these proposals.”

In 2014, musician Kalloor Babu was barred from performing at Guruvayur temple as he was Dalit. Longer ago, Hyder Ali, Kerala’s first Muslim Kathakali musician, was forbidden to enter temples and perform too.

Dancing across faiths

Kerala-based Bharatanatyam dancer Aswathy Manoharan told Newslaundry that most families in the state want their children to learn some art form or the other. “When I was younger, if you chose dance, most often the only options available to us were Bharatanatyam or cinematic dance,” she said.

Her Bharatanatyam class had plenty of Christian students too in her hometown of Kottayam. “Personally I have never been witness to any conversation about religion in my class. I don’t remember the teacher ever discriminating among them or, if there was any discrimination, it wasn’t explicit.”

Aswathy explained that students would often perform at temples during ulsavam, or festivals, which took on the role of community events, regardless of religion.

“Usually, the season of these festivals begin in February and go on till monsoon, that’s June or July. Most temples will host performances,” she said. “The community around will come, there will be games, food and arts. It’s not only Hindus, it’s usually seen as a community event where people bond.”

During these festivals, she added, most big temples build stages within their premises but away from the shrine itself. “Here, Hindu and non-Hindu artists and audiences can perform and watch,” she said.

Aswathy Manoharan says temple festivals are often community events. Image courtesy: Aswathy Manoharan

Aswathy Manoharan says temple festivals are often community events. Image courtesy: Aswathy Manoharan

Shabna Mohammad performing in Guruvayur. Image courtesy: Shabna Mohammad

Shabna Mohammad performing in Guruvayur. Image courtesy: Shabna Mohammad

Guru Manu Thekkoot, who teaches Bharatanatyam in Irinjalakuda. Image courtesy: Facebook

Guru Manu Thekkoot, who teaches Bharatanatyam in Irinjalakuda. Image courtesy: Facebook

Bharatanatyam dancer Shabna Mohammad, 36, also told Newslaundry she had to choose between dance and drawing as a kindergarten student. “My mother made me choose dance, which meant Bharatanatyam,” said Shabna, who grew up in the Muslim-dominated Malabar region.

Shabna said she didn’t face much backlash while learning the artform. But problems arose when she decided to quit her IT job and take up dance professionally.

“Even though my mother and brother supported me, I am constantly faced with the question of whether I have to choose social acceptance or dance,” she said.

Shabna herself has performed at multiple temple festivals; her arangetram, or first stage performance, was at Guruvayur when she was 11 years old (the stage is far away from the shrine) and her last performance there was in 2019. This is the same temple that did not allow Mansiya to perform a few years ago.

Shabna said that till date, she has never been stopped from performing. “I too am an atheist,” she said, “and when I heard about Mansiya, it broke my heart.”

Artists depend on temple festivals to make a living, Shabna said. But what worries her is this: “If this becomes a common practice, it affects the larger secular fabric of the nation we live in, especially in these times. Kerala especially should show the way because it is a socialist, left-leaning state. I believe that as Keralites, we have a responsibility to rise higher than the rest of the regressive practices that we see around India.”

Shabna teaches Bharatanatyam too, and her work predominantly revolves around social issues instead of conventional stories from Hindu scriptures. “If a student asks me to teach an item about Krishna or Shiva, I teach them,” she said. “But in my own syllabus, I don’t have any religious stories.”

Aswathy, meanwhile, has taught and choreographed for events held at churches. “For church events, many students do semi-classical dance which is heavily inspired by Bharatanatyam,” she said.

‘There are so many other opportunities’

But Guru Manu Thekkoot – or “Manu master” to his students – has a different approach. He has taught Bharatanatyam at Irinjalakuda, where the Koodalmanikyam temple is located, for over 20 years.

“But in those years, I never tried to enter or perform inside the temple,” said Thekkoot, 67. “These are traditions that have been in place for many years and I respect it.”

Thekkoot was born Abdul Manaf into a conservative Muslim family in Thrissur. It was his father, a school headmaster, who encouraged him to express himself through art.

“My father was very religious,” he said. “He used to pray five times, he used to fast, he loved Urdu poetry and was a Sufi master. Even though my father was a staunch Muslim, he saw Bharatanatyam or any performance art as a way to be closer to God, to experience God. He never saw it as a Hindu artform.”

Thekkoot was in Class 10 when his father died. That’s when he decided to become a professional Bharatanatyam dancer.

“The artform came from Hinduism, so of course the stories are from Bhagavad Gita or Ramayana or the Vedas. If you want to learn the artform you have to learn about these scriptures as well. That’s very normal. That doesn’t make me Hindu,” he said. “I find so much joy in realising how certain feelings I’ve felt while performing a piece from Bhagavad Gita can also be found in Amir Khusroos’s poetry.”

Thekkoot has lost count of how many students he’s trained over the years, and is credited with having “revolutionised” the dance form. But his journey was not easy. “My community was never supportive,” he said. “People made a lot of comments about my choices.”

Thekoot strongly believes that every religion has its own rules. For him, religion is personal. While he is not an atheist, he also said he doesn’t believe in blind faith or the idea of praying to one single god.

“If you really want to perform, there are so many other opportunities,” he said. “Why be adamant about performing in this temple itself?”

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