Janet O’Shea (Surrey) At Home in the World? The Bharata Natyam Dancer as Transnational Interpreter Abstract

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Janet O’Shea (Surrey)

At Home in the World? The Bharata Natyam Dancer as Transnational Interpreter

This paper investigates the practice of translation in 1980s and 1990s Bharata Natyam performances, examining the moment at which a dancer appears onstage and explains, in English, the meaning of the symbolic gestures that she will perform. This paper interprets this moment of translation as an indication of the impact of orientalism, globality, nationality, and dance modernism on the dance form. The paper concludes by exploring alternatives to orientalist models of translation in an investigation of the work of four present-day, internationally-situated Bharata Natyam choreographers: Hari Krishnan, Mayuri Boonham and Subathra Subramaniam, and Lata Pada.

Janet O'Shea

Department of Dance Studies

University of Surrey

Guildford, Surrey GU2 5XH

United Kingdom
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This essay first appeared in The Drama Review 47 (1) (T177): 176-186. 2003.

At Home in the World? The Bharata Natyam Dancer as Transnational Interpreter”

This is a moment we saw frequently in the 1980s and early 1990s: the stage lights come up gradually as a Bharata Natyam dancer, costumed in a tailored silk sari and beautifully adorned in jewelry, walks out from backstage. In a manner neither formal nor completely relaxed, she walks downstage and begins to explain the key features of this South Indian classical dance form. She extracts, for decoding, the symbolic mudra-s from Bharata Natyam’s lexicon. Standing in one place and without musical accompaniment, she performs mudra-s fluidly and gracefully. Meanwhile, she also translates, into English, the sahitya, or lyrics, of the song that the gestures will accompany. Demonstrating her skill in elegantly balancing the competing tasks of speaking and rendering gestural movement, she likewise signals the audience as to the linguistic nature of the abhinaya, or dramatic dance.

Pre-performance explanations have characterized Bharata Natyam performances over the course of the 20th century. When brahman lawyer E. Krishna Iyer initiated, in the mid-1920s, his mission to resurrect Bharata Natyam as a cultural treasure, he did so through lecture demonstrations as well as performances which he offered in cities and towns of Southern India (Arudra 1986/87c: 33). Jewish-American dancer Ragini Devi’s first international tours of classical Indian dance forms1 in 1937 and 1938 consisted of lecture demonstrations as well as concerts.2 In the mid-1940s, Ram Gopal introduced to his tightly-designed series’ of short, classical Indian dances brief verbal explanations that preceded each dance with a sketch of its overall theme (David 2001: 35-36). The specific practice of executing mudras while offering a verbal interpretation of sung poetic texts rose in popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s, especially in international performance contexts. During the early 1990s, the practice became so prevalent that dancers reimported explanation into Indian performance contexts, including into Bharata Natyam’s home city of Chennai.3

The demand for translation thus signals Bharata Natyam’s 20th-century history of recontextualization and its long-standing international circulation. The practice of translation both responds to and obscures the dance form’s global positioning and its participation in a culture market. It reveals the kind of historical double binds4 with which the late 20th-century Bharata Natyam dancer contended. The practice of verbal explanation thus speaks to the 20th-century predicament of Bharata Natyam in which the dance form travels internationally as both an emblem of national and diasporic identity and as a ‘high art’ that transcends national and linguistic boundaries.

At the same time, however, verbal translation paradoxically accords the choreography an inscrutability while also demonstrating its translatability. This kind of pre-performance synopsis lines up two thought-systems: an English verbal framework and a South Indian choreographic one. The explanation of mudras in succession interprets the ‘Eastern’ choreography through the ‘Western’ linguistic system. The English-language epistemology thereby emerges as the means through which the audience finds the choreography intelligible. Thus, this style of translation relies upon a problematic5 that treats the English-language framework as a mere explanatory device without its own cultural coding. A spoken interlocution thus risks representing Bharata Natyam more as a means of entry into a cultural field of reference,6 than as a set of choreographic choices and compositional devices.7

My aim is to query the effects of this practice on audience reception and to situate it historically, recognizing that its popularity has diminished in the late 1990s and into this century. Simultaneously, I, having performed this and other kinds of translation myself, acknowledge the need for explanation when presenting choreographic material before an unfamiliar audience, particular when the dance relies upon poetic text. Thus, I lay out this critique not to denounce translation but to look for alternatives to the pre-performance verbal explanation. I investigate verbal interlocution with an eye toward other ways of translating, using history to frame up the concerns of the present. I begin this study, therefore, with an investigation of the history and politics of literary translation.

Orientalism and Globality

When a dancer, viewer, or promoter presents Bharata Natyam as both requiring and evading translation and treats the English-language explanation as culturally ‘neutral,’ s/he revisits the central premise of the 18th- and 19th-century8 orientalist treatment of Indian literary and scholarly texts. The orientalist model of translation rested on the assumption that the ‘Eastern’ text required the intervention of an interlocutor who, through his9 specialist knowledge, could unlock its mysteries for ‘the West.’ The public who received this information, within the orientalist paradigm, inhabited a position of the subject rather than the object of knowledge. The representation of ‘foreign’ texts and practices within 19th-century European society thus did not encourage viewers/readers to examine their own cultural investments but rather reinforced the presumed objectivity of their own social and political position.10

Pre-performance translations, like the textual material of the colonial orientalist period, characterize Bharata Natyam as an object of knowledge, to be uncovered and explained by an expert interlocutor. Nonetheless, they invert an orientalist division of labor by conjoining the roles of ‘native informant’ and translator-author. As such, the translating dancer generalizes her own subject position by interlocuting for the dance form. The act of translation, then, marginalizes the dance form from its international viewership, as that which requires explication, but at the same time, universalizes the dancer’s status as she adopts the position of the agent of information.

The very appearance of verbal translation, however, complicates even this dichotomy between subjects and objects of knowledge. While a pre-performance synopsis foregrounds the dance form’s ‘foreign-ness,’ its standardized mode of delivery reveals the dance form’s history of international circulation. Bharata Natyam, as well as sadir before it,11 circulated internationally and responded to global discourses on dance. This transnational circulation dates back to, and, in some instances, anticipated the Bharata Natyam ‘revival’ of the 1930s and 1940s.12

The international performance careers of both Indian and non-Indian dancers inflected the refiguration of the previously marginal sadir as the respectable concert form Bharata Natyam.13 Likewise, the histories of modern dance and Bharata Natyam are mutually implicated in one another. Modern dance forerunner Ruth St. Denis (Coorlawala 1992, Allen 1997),14 ballerina and choreographer Anna Pavlova,15 and Indian modernist Uday Shankar (Erdman 1987)16 all played a role in the Bharata Natyam revival, encouraging the return of audience members’ and dancers’ attention to Indian classical arts. Conversely, Balasaraswati’s emphasis on expressivity won admirers among pre- and early-modern dancers, like Ted Shawn and Martha Graham (Cowdery 1995: 51, La Meri 1985: 12, Pattabhi Raman and Ramachandran 1984: 26) who found in her claim that interior experience articulated universal themes (Balasaraswati 1988) a corroboration of their own views on artistry. The early-century refiguration of Bharata Natyam as a stage practice likewise intersected with a global, modernist concern with the reinvention of dance as a serious, ‘high’ art. Revival period practitioners like Rukmini Devi and Balasaraswati both invoked discourses of individual creativity in their representation and legitimation of Bharata Natyam.17

In the 1980s and 1990s, Bharata Natyam circulated through ever-more global trajectories. The dance form operates as, in Arjun Appadurai’s (1996) terms, intentional cultural reproduction for non-resident Indians in places as divergent as Los Angeles, Singapore, and Manchester. Bharata Natyam likewise provides a means of maintaining nationalist sentiment in exile for Sri Lankan Tamils in Canada, Germany, and the U.K.18 Practitioners of this dance form have brought it to such disparate locales as Japan and Argentina. Iconic representations of Bharata Natyam appear in advertisements and travel guides, while Bharata Natyam dancers formed the back-up routine for Madonna’s performance for the 1999 MTV music video awards. The practice of this dance form likewise offers international acclaim to19 and requires a global orientation of a successful performer. Dancers who strive to maintain professional lives in Chennai perform internationally in order to attain a level of financial reimbursement that offsets the generally low honoraria offered by Chennai venues and to generate the credibility needed to maintain their interest.20 This state of transnational circulation, like the Bharata Natyam revival’s relationship to international discourses of dance, marks the concert art form as ‘always-already’21 global.

Translation not only operated as a method for negotiating this international circulation of dancers and choreographies, but also provided dancers with a strategy for marketing their performance work in transnational dance milieus. The association of Bharata Natyam with a reclaimed and respectable tradition resulted, by the late 20th-century, in a proliferation of trained and accomplished dancers. Chennai, for much of the late century, housed a surplus of Bharata Natyam dancers in relation to a viewing public (Coorlawala 1996: 71, Gaston 1996: 119-121, Meduri 1996: xl)22 as did other Indian and international metropolises. In order to develop a career as a performer, a dancer, facing such a surfeit, can contend with her competition by cultivating new audiences. This task presents obstacles as the complex coding of Bharata Natyam requires specialized skills on the part of audience members for full comprehension. When a dancer translates a piece before performing it, she bridges a perceived gap between content and perception, thereby enabling a broader range of spectators to access the piece than would otherwise.23

Although verbal interlocution reiterates an orientalist problematic, the factors that foster the appearance of interlocution unsettle orientalist notions of a static tradition. The 20th-century’s translating Bharata Natyam dancer, rather than representing an ancient, unchanged culture, grappled with numerous, contemporary paradoxes. Given that the prevalence of the practice has decreased over the last decade, it seems that dancers are attending to the paradoxes embedded in verbal translation. For instance, choreographers of the late-1990s, especially those working internationally,24 developed projects that, in Joan Erdman’s (1987) terms, “translate” epistemologies, choreographic devices, and poetic texts, foregrounding rather than masking their global position.25 These projects align different linguistic, movement, and musical vocabularies in such a way that they subvert a tendency to place European thought systems as the primary framework of interpretation.

Tactics of Globality: Alternatives to Orientalism

Toronto-based choreographer Hari Krishnan’s composition When God is a Customer (1999)26 relies upon verbal translation but uses Telegu songs and their English translation each as an accompaniment to different kinds of choreography. The piece counterposes sections that feature short, Telegu-language songs, which Krishnan27 interprets through Bharata Natyam’s stylized gesture, with phrases of either quotidian gesture or abstract expressionist, contemporary dance-derived movement. The latter accompanies a spoken English translation of the poetic text projected over the sound system. This strategy retains Bharata Natyam’s characteristic relationship of dance to text. The piece de-exoticizes the mudra system for its Canadian audience, however, by treating it as equivalent to expressionist and pedestrian movement vocabularies.

In creating the piece, Krishnan aligned the Telegu songs so that they formed a linear narrative (personal correspondence 1999). As a result, the non-Telegu speaking audience member can anticipate the development of the theme as it unfolds, aided not only by English translation but also by the momentum of the storyline as evoked by Krishnan’s gestures. Rather than dwell on a process of decoding, the non-Telegu speaking viewer’s attention can focus on the choreographic priorities of the Bharata Natyam-derived movement as well as the more expressionist ones. Krishnan’s alternation between stylized gesture for Telegu songs and a more abstracted vocabulary for their English translation therefore speaks directly to the problematic of interpretation for an international audience.28 In When God is a Customer, Krishnan provides an alternate solution to a pre-performance explanation by situating verbal interpretation within the work itself. Instead of mystifying the Bharata Natyam text, by providing a synopsis of the cryptic mudras, Krishnan accompanies both English and Telegu sections with movement. He therefore equates the languages by treating both as dance accompaniment rather than presenting one as the explanatory device for the other.

Triple Hymn (2000), by Angika, a British dance company consisting of dancer-choreographers Mayuri Boonham and Subathra Subramaniam, by contrast, translates not linguistic but melodic, choreographic, and rhythmic components into one another. The choreography interweaves Bharata Natyam and Carnatic music with European classical music. To the sounds of a European operatic melodic structure based on the words of the Sanskrit Gayatri Mantra and on a recitation of various names of Hindu goddesses, two dancers in classical costume render lyrical gestures from the Bharata Natyam movement vocabulary. During the Gayatri Mantra section, they perform symbolic mudras, suggesting worship, prayer, and other ritual actions. They subsequently depict the various forms of the goddess through characteristic iconographic poses.

Rather than treat Bharata Natyam as a cultural icon that depends on a European vocabulary for clarification, Triple Hymn places two signifiers of classicism – Bharata Natyam and European classical music – alongside each other. Boonham and Subramaniam intertwine two traditional forms instead of interpreting one through the other. The choreographers thereby make explicit the cross-cultural exchange that fostered the project. The piece speaks to the dynamic, cosmopolitan London environment in which it was performed and, by pointing to such an ongoing interculturality, queries the need for explication.

Canadian choreographer Lata Pada’s Cosmos (1999), like Triple Hymn, finds similarities in two different epistemological systems. As its name implies, the work concerns itself with theories of universal creation. Cosmos opens with a quote that reflects on the paradox of universal creation: “in the beginning there was nothing and there was not nothing.”

In the opening section, the dancers careen through the space, pursuing one another into an increasingly tighter spiral. Their alternating pattern of footwork impels their bodies across the stage as the center appears to eject them outward. The ensemble fractures into a collection of individual dancers, each tracing her own divergent spatial pathway after a ‘big bang’ of explosive footwork. A later section has the dancers’ spatial pathways modeled after the orbits of heavenly bodies which waver as the performers succumb to the pull of a black hole. The closing sections, by contrast, evince the harmony of the solar system. The dancers now develop cooperative relationships with one another, again interweaving without colliding or disrupting one another’s trajectories. As such, Pada’s piece depicts the creation of the universe by tracking the transition from the churning of nebulous, protoplasmic energy, its explosion into defined pieces of matter, and its ultimate condensation into the specific orbits of heavenly bodies.

The choreography thereby blends the theories of creation put forth by European rationalist, scientific traditions and by Vedic philosophy. As such, Cosmos explains the two epistemological systems through one another. The work, by placing the Vedic hymn at the beginning of a depiction of the ‘big bang,’ highlights the contradiction at the center of both the Vedic and scientific explanations of creation in that each hypothesis suggests that matter arose from an undefined primordial energy. Although Pada uses an English translation of the hymn, she nonetheless foregrounds the South Asian text as she uses it to demonstrate the paradox imbedded in the ‘big bang’ theory rather than using the astronomical hypothesis to argue for the rationality of the philosophical tract. In contrast to an orientalist project of translation, therefore, her composition does not treat the European scientific model as an objective explanation but rather foregrounds how its contradictions echo the concerns of the Vedic philosophical tract. Thus, the South Asian knowledge system frames the scientific paradigm, a maneuver that reverses the premise of orientalist translation practices.

Each of these late-century projects offers Bharata Natyam an active role in a cosmopolitan urban environment by deploying methods of exchange between epistemologies that circumvent or reverse an orientalist problematic. Krishnan retains the translation paradigm but de-exoticizes the relationship between text and gesture by using English and Telegu in an equivalent manner. Boonham and Subramaniam create a harmonious fusion of classical disciplines and symbols which highlights the hybrid positioning of performers and viewers alike and, therefore, questions the need for translation at all. Pada, like Krishnan, examines different thought-systems through one another and inverts an orientalist frame by interpreting the European epistemology through the Vedic philosophical one rather than vice versa. Each of these projects treats Bharata Natyam as an entity that responds to the hybridity of its immediate, urban environment rather than as a discrete entity that requires explanation.

I began this essay with the image of the translating Bharata Natyam dancer in order to query the historical legacy of this practice and, in doing so, to demonstrate what kinds of cultural and political dilemmas the late 20th-century Bharata Natyam practitioner faced. I suggested that verbal interlocutions retain orientalist frames but also that they emerge out of factors that belie orientalist narratives of unchanging tradition. The late-century experiments that I discuss here engage explicitly with Bharata Natyam’s transnational position and offer the possibility that choreographic translations can move beyond orientalist models of interpretation. These choreographies, rather than representing isolated experiments, speak to the dance form’s history of strategic negotiation with globality and hybridity as well as with the staging of local, regional, and national affiliations. In offering an alternative to orientalist paradigms, these projects present the possibility that practitioners can contend with the dance form’s complex historical legacy while also challenging viewer expectations. As such, they level the choreographic field so that the dance form can truly be at home in the world.

This essay is based on presentations given at the Association for Asian Studies (2000) and Dance Under Construction (2001) conferences. I am grateful to those who responded to earlier versions of this paper especially Susan Foster, Avanthi Meduri, Indira Viswanathan Peterson, and Susan Seizer. Thanks also to Hari Krishnan and Lata Pada who were particularly generous in offering me their time and their thoughts.

1 Ragini Devi performed Bharata Natyam and Kathakali. She was among the first foreigners to perform Indian classical dance forms, the first non-hereditary dancers of both forms, and the first female Kathakali dancers.

2 “The Dance in Indian Sagas” (1938).

3 The city of Madras was officially renamed Chennai in the late 1990s, a shift that reinstated the Tamil name of the metropolis.

I base this observation of the relative prevalence of pre-performance translation on my experience viewing international Bharata Natyam concerts from 1988 to the present and in comparisons between concerts in Chennai in 1989, 1995 to 1996, and 1999.

By using the phrase ‘home city,’ I do not mean to suggest that the relationship between Bharata Natyam and Madras/Chennai is organic and unselfconscious. Bharata Natyam established itself in Madras at the time of the Bharata Natyam revival of the 1930s. This relationship did not go uncontested nor did it merely fix Bharata Natyam in this city. The relationship between Bharata Natyam, urbanization, and transnationalism requires more attention than I can give it here. For more information, see my discussion of Bharata Natyam’s production of locality (2001: 155-213).

4 I borrow this idea of the historical double binds of Bharata Natyam from scholar and choreographer Avanthi Meduri who has designed a series of lectures in which she represents the tensions of gender, subjectivity, modernity, and nationhood through a performed limp.

5 I borrow this notion of a problematic of orientalism from Partha Chatterjee (1986). Chatterjee argues that postcolonial nations inverted the problematic of colonialism – independence rather than continued subjugation – but relied upon the same thematic, that of a binary difference between ‘East’ and ‘West.’ Here, I reverse Chatterjee’s argument in order to draw out a shared problematic between 18th- and 19th-century scholarly and 20th-century pre-performance translations.

6 British choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh comments on the assumption that contemporary dance derived from Indian movement vocabularies serves a function more ‘cultural’ than artistic and links this premise to the practice of offering word-for-gesture translations (1995: 192). Jeyasingh commences her Making of Maps (1991) with a deconstruction of the pre-performance synopsis. Dancers’ voices, projected over the sound system, intersect and interrupt one another with phrases like “vanakkam; good evening” and “the tillana is a dance of joy.” Meanwhile, the ensemble moves slowly and decisively into and out of postures derived from Bharata Natyam nrtta choreography. Their impassive facial expressions contrast with the sunny voices of the verbal accompaniment.

7 Jeyasingh also identifies an over-emphasis on literal meaning in the British reception of Indian performance forms (Jeyasingh 1982: 4).

8 Said cites the scholarship of Sir William Jones in the late 18th century as the inception of orientalist scholarship in India (1979: 75).

9 Here, I use the masculine pronoun intentionally in order to emphasize the gendered investments of orientalist thought. See Koritz (1997) for more on the gendered underpinnings of Orientalism.

10 A classic example of this phenomenon is the 19th-century colonial exhibitions in Europe (Mitchell 1992).

11 With ‘bayaderes’ (temple dancers) from South India appearing in Europe for the first time in 1838.

12 ‘Revival’ is the most commonly used term for the reformulation of sadir as the concert art form Bharata Natyam. As Matthew Allen suggests, however, this term is “drastically reductive” because this shift also consisted of a “re-population,” “re-conostruction,” “re-naming,” “re-situation,” and “re-storation” (1997: 63).

13 The Bharata Natyam revival, its politics, and its historical investments has already received much scholarly attention and therefore I only gesture to it here. I refer to, for instance, Allen (1997), Coorlawala (1992, 1996) Gaston (1992, 1996), Srinivasan (1983, 1985), and Meduri (1988, 1996) as well as my own essay on the contrasting perspectives of Balasaraswati and Rukmini Devi (1998).

14 St. Denis performed her ‘Nautch Dance’ and ‘Radha’ before Indian audiences in 1926. Uttara Asha Coorlawala (1992) maintains that her performances encouraged Indian viewers to seek out the dance forms on which St. Denis based her choreography. Allen likewise notes this influence but also emphasizes that the direct impact of the Denishawn company on in India was “short-lived” (1997: 91).

15 Anna Pavlova, who brought ballet to the status of ‘autonomous art,’ encouraged Rukmini Devi to seek out the art form of “[her] own country” (in Ramnarayan 1984a: 29). Joan Erdman discusses in some detail the influence that Pavlova had on Uday Shankar (1987: 71-73) who, in turn, was a “catalyst to the renaissance in Indian classical dance” (69).

16 Shankar influenced the revival of classical Indian arts in several ways. First, as Erdman indicates, Shankar participated in the institutionalization processes that supported the classical Indian dance revivals by providing his students with training in Bharata Natyam, Kathakali, and Manipuri alongside his own technique and improvisation classes (1987: 84). He also helped to spark the career of legendary devadasi dancer T. Balasaraswati. At her first concert at the Music Academy in 1933, Shankar, as a member of the audience, was so captivated by her dancing that he requested a repeat performance (Arudra 1986/87a: 20, 1986/87b: 25). Haren Ghosh, a friend of Shankar’s and an impresario, who also attended the performance arranged Balasaraswati’s first concert outside of Southern India which led to other concerts in North India and, ultimately, internationally (Ibid).

17 Both Balasaraswati and Rukmini Devi located in Bharata Natyam opportunities for creativity and individual expression. While Rukmini Devi found creative expression in the composition of new compositions which, she maintained, sprung from traditional aesthetics (Ramnarayan 1984b: 32), Balasaraswati found opportunities for imaginative work in improvised sections of inherited items of repertoire (Balasaraswati 1988: 39).

18 I am indebted to Jeyanthy Siva for first calling my attention to the use of Bharata Natyam in the production of Tamil nationalist sentiment.

19 For instance, Gaston states that younger generations of icai vellala (the caste group that largely constituted devadasi communities) dancers have pursued professional performance in recent years because of the possibility it provides for international travel (1996: 129).

20 I base this observation on personal correspondence (1995-6, 1999) with Chennai-based dancers, at different levels of renown and seniority.

21 I borrow the application of this Derridean phrase from Meduri (1996: 400). Meduri uses this phrase to query the gendered implications of the air of respectability that Bharata Natyam acquired in the mid to late 20th century.

22 Senior dancer and teacher Kalanidhi Narayanan describes this surfeit through reference to “supply and demand,” (personal correspondence 1999). She suggests that Madras simply cannot provide solo concerts for all of its dancers as the number of dancers outweighs the number of performance slots. Gaston likewise identifies a ‘dance boom’ that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s (1996: 119-120).

23 Performers use other methods of bridging a gap in comprehension as well including the provision of libretti and, more rarely, the use of supratitles.

24 Translation experiments are not, however, exclusive to performances in non-Indian contexts. Chennai-based choreographer Gitanjali Kolanad’s What She Said (1993), for example, deploys scholar A. K. Ramanujan’s English translations of Tamil Sangam poetry. Maharashtrian Bharata Natyam dancer Sucheta Chapekar has reconstructed 17th- and 18th-century Marathi-language dance compositions and has integrated Hindustanti (North Indian classical) music with Bharata Natyam (Sethuraman 1985: 46).

25 Experiments with cross-cultural interpretation are not unique to the late 20th century. For instance, as Joan Erdman (1987) argues, modernist Uday Shankar’s work translated Indian aesthetic components into European compositional frameworks.

26 Named after a scholarly text of the same title: Ramanujan, Narayana Rao, and Shulman, ed., trans. (1994).

27 Here, in the interest of consistency and in capitulation to European and American conventions of nomenclature, I identify dancers and choreographers by their second names. This creates an awkward fit with Indian, and especially South Indian, naming conventions. However, I do this to avoid a situation in which scholars appear by last name and dancers by first name, an approach which might suggest that choreography is a less serious enterprise than writing.

28 The piece would have a different, although not necessarily predictable, effect in Chennai. The majority of dance viewers in Chennai speak Tamil with a significant minority speaking Telegu as their first language. Dance compositions until recently used a number of different language, primarily Tamil, Telegu, and Sanskrit. In Chennai, as elsewhere, an emphasis on the comprehensibility of poetic texts has increased. Dancers, choreographers, and promoters have responded to this concern by presenting more pieces in the Tamil language (Nandini Ramani personal correspondence 1999).

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