Far from Forgotten: Bharatanatyam, cultural infrastructure, and the conundrum of promoting equity when funding US-based state folklife apprenticeships
National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)-funded state folklife programs historically aim to “[identify]...arts that are at risk for being forgotten” and “fortify those at-risk art forms” (Malloy and Murphy, 2017, p. 11). Far from being forgotten, Bharatanatyam—classicized Indian dance—is an elite artistic genre upheld by strong cultural infrastructure and a large body of socioeconomically privileged Hindu Indian practitioners in the US (e.g., O’Shea, 2003; Soneji, 2010; Putcha, 2019). The tension between Bharatanatyam’s status as a prestigious, well-supported dance form and the NEA’s priority to support and sustain “at-risk” artistic practices inspires a nuanced examinination of the ideologies, institutions, and individuals involved in regularly funding Bharatanatyam folklife apprenticeships across the US. I push back against the notion of uncritically safeguarding minority cultural forms uncritically by expanding on Grant’s (2016) idea of artistic infrastructure. In this article, I analyze NEA’s and UNESCO’s intersecting ideologies on folklife and heritage promotion, Bharatanatyam’s US-based history and artistic infrastructure as a genre belonging to a racial minority group, and autoethnographic reflections as a former Bharatanatyam apprentice and ethnomusicologist. Through this three-pronged approach, I seek to unveil the multilayered and nuanced analyses that grantmaking organizations and individuals must exercise in order to enact their commitments to equitably supporting artistic genres—especially those belonging to minority or marginalized groups.
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