TIRNA SENGUPTA | 12 APRIL, 2018
Navigating Bharatnatyam’s Problematic Relationship With Caste, Class And Nationhood
Why and how this form of dance mimetically reproduces social hierarchies.
I have been training in Bharatanatyam for 18 years. I left my hometown and moved to Delhi for college 4 years ago. I started attending dance lessons from the very first week of relocation. I soon realized that my social handicaps started making dance less accessible to me. It was hard to pay my fees after paying my rent. The commutes to dance class and back to the hostel were scary because a woman in the public space in Delhi is never safe. Sometimes the hostel curfew interfered with my dance performance schedule. I was constantly harassed and humiliated by my guru for coming from a small town. I looked around and noticed that only women from backgrounds of great social and material privilege practised this form of art. There is a total exclusion of Dalits, Muslims and the lower classes from Bharatanatyam. Despite being a woman of considerable privilege even I cannot afford to have an Arangetram. I could never consider Bharatanatyam as a career option because being a professional dancer meant enormous expenditures and little income.
I started questioning the monolithic representations of gender and sexuality in Bharatanatyam in my academic projects as a student of literature at Lady Shri Ram College. I was also very disturbed by Bharatanatyam’s unsecular flavour and problematic relationship with caste, class and nationhood. This form of dance mimetically reproduces social hierarchies whereas I see activism as an integral part of art. Independent India sought to consolidate its ultra-nationalism by appropriating certain cultural tools. Bharatanatyam was brought to the service of the nation that largely functioned on the principles of exclusion. It was institutionalized after the establishment of Kalakshetra in Chennai. The art form was also de-commercialised because there was a desperate attempt to erase its devadasi history. Eroticism was cleansed and the content of dance became almost wholly devotional. The woman dancer in traditional Bharatanatyam has remained passive. She was first forced to dance to please male deities and her earthly lords and ended up being sexually and economically exploited. When the same dance form was appropriated by Brahmins there was a perilous pressure to uphold the image of a “good woman” in choreographies.
The stagnation of a classical dance form which had infinite potential to express contemporary realities upset me. A few like-minded friends and I started a video project where we shot dance in public spaces. We were no longer dancing within the elite enclaves or proscenium settings. It soon felt like an empowering feminist project because we demanded visibility, agency and the right to be erotic on the streets and in the metros where we were harassed. I proceeded to work independently and my choreographies became overtly political. There was a dire need to revolutionize the content of the pieces I was performing. A formal experimentation would be an inadequate attempt to subvert hierarchies within Bharatanatyam and outside. The Brahmanical context had to be displaced. I started using the mudras, movements and expressions used to traditionally represent the Hindu master-narrative to talk about systems of oppression. I was taught theory and literature in college that sensitized me towards various kinds of discrimination. Dance became a point of praxis. The dance I was involving myself in no longer required grace to enchant men, but power, compassion and intelligence to be executed.
The people who have been involved in recording and archiving my work are all women. It is unfortunately very rare to see women handling technology. Hence my friends and I have received opposition and criticism very often. I am also used to working with very limited resources. People who help me put my videos together are all students. We have coursework to finish and there is absolutely no monetary support for initiatives like mine. Hence the quality of my videos is not as good as those that are produced in studios. While I say all of this I must acknowledge my own set of privileges. I do not know what it is to be a Muslim to be in an Islamophobic country or a Dalit in a thoroughly casteist society. I cannot claim to represent authentically the struggles I have not experienced, but I try to educate myself about the injustices faced by marginalized communities. The only responsible way to deploy the art I have been privileged enough to learn is by questioning prejudice, sectarianism and violence. I am increasingly trying to break out of the brand of feminism that is guilty of blindness towards the intersection between caste, class, religious identity, race and gender.
I had the chance to dance at a protest gathering called I Will Go Out that tried to make the statement that women will remain in public spaces despite all threats. The poem I danced to argues that there is nothing essential to being a woman except that we are all threatened by patriarchy in some way or the other. I danced in front of a Mosque and was asked to stop just as my friend who danced in front of a Hindu temple also faced opposition. It is safe to say all religions are largely patriarchal, but Muslim women encounter Islamophobia, men who try to rescue them from their “barbaric faith” and patriarchy within their own religion. Muslim women do not need me to be the vanguard of their rebellion. But I have learnt that silence is support to the oppressor and never to the oppressed. Therefore my performance before the Mosque was an attempt to be critical of the rampant Islamophobia in the country and the patriarchy within Islam. It was important to reimagine Bharatanatyam with an Islamic background in order to render the dance form fertile to tell stories without any religious bias.
I have especially enjoyed performing to Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Bol ki Lab Azad hai Tere. I had obviously never danced to Urdu poetry before because traditionally Bharatanatyam is performed only to songs which have Sankriti, Tamil and sometimes Telugu lyrics. I had an audience of about 80 people which is the greatest I have ever had. This performance gave me the chance to protest against many things that disturb me. Urdu is fast being forgotten and is systematically repressed. It was a humble effort to attack that. When I as a female dancer enacted the lines “tera sutvan jism hai tera”, my dancing body was transformed into a disruption in patriarchy that tries to control my movement every day of my life. Faiz’s poems vindicate rebellion and secularism. He was fighting an extremist Islamic government in Pakistan which tried to throttle art. I thought it pertinent to dance to this poem again when India is flexing its muscles as a jingoistic Hindu country that is shamefully intolerant and often monstrous.
I have also taken the dance form to Tibetan monasteries in Sikkim to express solidarity with the displaced Tibetan peoples. I have a photo series shot at the Ralyoung monastery. I have personally encountered a lot of purist arrogance in the classical dancers I have met in metropolitan centres. It was important to decenter the art form. So I shot my dance in North Bengal and Sikkim to assert my identity as a dancer from a small town. Working on these performances has been tough, but very rewarding. Many people write to me about how they have been impacted by what I do and it is heartwarming. A lot of people volunteer to collaborate even though I have nothing to offer to them, but the pleasure of working together on something creative. Projects like these take a long time to find visibility. Journalists are not always interested in writing about polemical work. But I believe there will always be enough people supporting these endeavours to keep me spirited and interested in continuing dancing.
(The writer is a student at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University)
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