Sunday, February 05, 2006

Some Feminist Bharatnatyam please...

Recently, I attended an all-night concert organised by SPIC MACAY in IIM-B. The concert featured some really great artistes like Rajan-Sajan Mishra, Ravi Kiran, Ronu Majumdar. I am an atheist and I really cannot enjoy bhajans (devotional songs). So, when Rajan-Sajan Mishra sang a bhajan, I was thinking how ones perception of the world affects the perception of the arts and how arts influence ones perception of the world. For me to have enjoyed the bhajan, I should have been able to relate the emotions conveyed in it and that was simply not possible for me.
I revisited these thoughts when Priyadarshini Govind came on stage for a Bharatanatyam performance. For the uninitiated, Bharatnatyam is a traditional dance form of South India. It started with a Ganapati Vandanam, as usual with Bharatnatyam performances, and she went on to the central pieces of the performances. The first one was about a female dedicating her life to Nataraja, the lord of dance and crying out to him to come and take her away. The wordings of the song literally went like this, "Master, I am your slave..." The song is not just a dedication to a God but also a an submission of a female to a patriarch because the tamil word 'swami' (which means 'master') is also used by a wife to address her husband. As soon I heard these first words of the song, I knew that I could not possibly enjoy the performance. And then I realised that the song was actually being sung by a male accompanist, it just added more salt to injury.
The next piece of the performance was about Yashodhara Kaushalya going through the joys of being a mother to a child Rama (another mythical God of the Hindus). Though there is nothing wrong with motherhood, and the performance of the artist was really good (she seemed genuinely enjoying the travails of raising child), I could not help feeling a little disappointed that the representation of women in the arts is always as a mother or a wife.
The last piece of the performance was about a woman mad at her lover because he does not keep his promises and shuts him out of her house. Seems promising but the representation of this strong woman was marred by casting her as someone concerned with her looks and hair, and the 'promises' turned out to be ornaments. Though this was a more positive image of a woman refusing to take in a liar, it still reinforces the idea that women are more or less concerned with looks, ornaments and material things, and she expects gifts of bangles or ear-rings all the time.

Most of these dances were composed by men a long time ago and the representation of women in Bharatnatyam, where the dancer is dressed quite lavishly with silk and ornaments, is that of a nubile woman whose main characteristics are her feminine allures and 'tendencies'. The representation of women in the perfoming arts is important as they are usually perceived as models of behaviour. Usually, the only positive female character is one who is an obedient wife or a great mother. Thats it! So when a women performs roles outside these 'spheres of competence' in the real world, they are generally chastised (as a group) for the mistakes that they inevitably do, while the same mistakes made by a male are usually ignored or are taken as individual incompetency. To change this perception, it is important to change the opnions of people and a important way of going about this is the representation of women in the arts.

I personally feel that the performing arts should reflect the struggles of the time and a dance form like Bharatnatyam, which is primarily composed of female dancers, is a perfect vehicle for the depiction of women as they are. Cant we have a dance form for the struggles and joy of a woman who excels in this male-dominted world? Is that too much to ask for?

29 comments:

Royona said...

This is a very pertinent, astutely observed and well articulated issue that is the central concern for many of us contemporary Indian dancers the world over. I couldn't agree with you more about the lack of agency in classical idioms and its lack of relevance to our experiences.

It truly is time to re-evaluate the relationship between art and the lived experience of the artist, and to push the boundaries classicism into a new language that is much closer to who we are as women and as dancers of 21st century India and the Indian disapora.

I am currently undertaking a PhD that investigates many of the issues your post touched upon.

saurabh said...

Not to contradict your critique of what you saw, but there ARE positive representations of women to be found in bharatnatyam. Durga, for example, is unbridled female power, subject to nothing, and appears fairly often in the dance form. Plus, the whole Siva as nataraja concept is sort of gender-bending, since the dancer is calling on Siva's spirit to possess her.

There's definitely patriarchal traditions to be found here, but I don't think it's as cut and dry as all that.

MadHat said...

No, I do not think Durga is feminist. Why? read this.
You see, a violent woman is not a positive image of women at all (much like the image of feminists as male-hating lesbians)! It is as if to say that for women to be positive, she has to respond to any kind of suppression in a masculine way. That is a problematic thing for me.
Durga is a masculine figure and not a femininine one at all. She is feared and revered, yes, but in the same way as Shiva is feared for his extremely volatile anger.

As for Nataraja, you say that Nataraja being a dancer is a feminine thing. You know that there are male dancers too in Indian traditional dance forms (there are ones who choreographed the dances that are generally performed).
Also, if you look at any dance of nataraja, it is never about feminine things and it is never about things relevant to the present post-post-modern world. It is about energy but not passion, anger and not love, violence and not about peace. The dances of Nataraja is always masculine and about the attributes generally attributed to men.

MadHat said...

Royona,
I am glad to make your acquaintance.

Anonymous said...

"The next piece of the performance was about Yashodhara going through the joys of being a mother to a child Rama (another mythical God of the Hindus)."

Yasoda is Krishna's mother. Kausalya is Rama's mother.

Anonymous said...

If you go to a classical music concert and ask for fusion, go to a classical dance performance and ask for something else it is definitely a problem. There are many artists though who are experimenting.

MadHat said...

Yasoda is Krishna's mother. Kausalya is Rama's mother.

Sorry, my mistake...

MadHat said...

If you go to a classical music concert and ask for fusion, go to a classical dance performance and ask for something else it is definitely a problem. There are many artists though who are experimenting.

You have got your concepts mixed up. Fusion is a fusion of different dance/music forms. For example, a bharatnatyam dance to the vocals of a tenor would be fusion (though I dont see it happening). I am not asking for a change in the art form. I cam asking for a change in content/theme which is more relevant to the times we live in.

Royona said...

Apurva,

I am sorry for my silence. Had misplaced your blog address to come back to it!

Would love to hear more of your thoughts on the subject. Have you looked into the works of Chandralekha and Daksha Seth? Both are searching for the use of Bharatnatyam vocabulary to express concerns, and issues relevant to the current times we live in. It may help you in answering a few questions.

I would love to have a bigger discussion via this blog sometime. If you were up for it?

Royona

MadHat said...

Hi Royona,
Its great to hear from you again. I have heard of Chandralekha and Daksha Seth, though I havn't been able to catch their performances.

I must admit that I do not know the intricacies of the dance form but I would love to know more.

Apurva

Falstaff said...

Sorry, but I entirely fail to see what being an atheist has to do with enjoying or not enjoying a bhajan. It's never stopped me from appreciating Jasraj or Rajan-Sajan Mishra or Amonkar, any more than it's stopped me from appreciating Bach's Cantatas or Mozart's Masses. Or, to extend the analogy a bit, from appreciating great painting - much of which, both in India and Europe, centres around religious themes (does the fact that you're an atheist keep you from appreciating Da Vinci? Michelangelo? Titian?). Or, for that matter from appreciating the poetry of Milton or Kabir or Blake. Music is not, to me, about message - it's about form and beauty, about the expression of the human spirit, about the skill that a good singer brings to the performance which has nothing to do with the words that he's singing. Is it seriously your contention that only art whose underlying philosophies agree with your own can be appreciated? If you really believe that, then I think you're missing out on a lot.

I don't disagree with the argument that for an art form to remain meaningful it needs to evolve to embody the values of its age, but to summarily dismiss centuries of artistic achievement for the sake of an ideology seems harsh and a little ridiculous. If you really wanted to apply a strictly feminist critique to every artistic achievement in history, I doubt that more than a handful of great works would survive, and that would be, in my view, an unacceptable loss (the phrase throwing out the baby with the bathwater leaps to mind). So while I agree that there may be a need to update modern Indian dance (though I suspect some of that is already happening) I think it's also important that we not judge the past by our own standards and learn to suspend judgement for the sake of honest appreciation. There are enough ugly things in the world that feminism (and atheism) could be targeted at, let's not use them as an excuse to take out the few things that are genuinely worth preserving.

Royona said...

I am note entirely sure how this necessarily becomes a debate over feminism! To me it is much more of a question of the aesthetics of art, and how art is allowed to evolve over a period of time.

If you look into the history of 'classicism' within Indian classical dance, the phenomenon is actually only about a hundred years old, brought about as part of the nationalist movement, aiming to protray the Indian dancer, hence Mother India as pure, abstinent and chaste. It somehow tends to overlook the rich and fascinating role and history of the Devadasi tradition of Sadir from which Bharatnatyam is reconstructed as part of the nationalist project.

Femininity, when it does come into question, is very specifically and politically constructed as passive within the classical idioms. And yes, I agree with Apurva, to label Durga or Kali as proactive symbols of femininity is misleading. These female goddesses are only pro-active as they are measured in the context of masculinity of their male counterparts. Femininity as pro-active HAS to be more than just aggressive or violent. Otherwise, how can we define ourselves within the dominant culture?

Royona

MadHat said...

Sorry, but I entirely fail to see what being an atheist has to do with enjoying or not enjoying a bhajan.

Ah! but bhajans have everything to do with religion. What you are talking about is, if I dont presume incorrectly, is spirituality/myticism. I would say music, in general, is about mysticism but bhajans are a specific genre of music that focuses on devotion to Gods / Gurus. I enjoyed Rajan-Sajan Mishra. They are brilliant and their harmony is excellent. I am not critiquing them at all. Nor am I critiquing the audience who were more mesmerised by the bhajans than me. I am just saying that I cant feel the emotions that the bhajans are supposed to evoke and thus, was not able to enjoy them as they are meant to be. Because I dont think using 'you' instead of 'thou' is degrading Shakespeare.

I don't disagree with the argument that for an art form to remain meaningful it needs to evolve to embody the values of its age, but to summarily dismiss centuries of artistic achievement for the sake of an ideology seems harsh and a little ridiculous.

But I am not dismissing the art form at all. The dance form is the form of expression of human emotions. If you look at the most basic tenets of dance, it is not the content that comes into picture but the emotions, the Navrasas. The dance pieces are definitely age-old but I think the thing to be preserved is not the dance pieces but the very form of expression of the content of the performance.
I still appreciate Shakespeare but it would make more sense to me to translate it into the modern English language because the Shakespearean language distances people.

Is it seriously your contention that only art whose underlying philosophies agree with your own can be appreciated?

That is a pretty strong statement. I would not go so far and say that but the truth is that I do not know. from my own experience, I would say that I would appreciate some qualities of an art (for example, I would admire the excellent cinematography of a certain film) but might not be able to appreciate it as a whole (how much I can enjoy would vary) because some things would rankle in me and make me feel uneasy.

If you really wanted to apply a strictly feminist critique to every artistic achievement in history, I doubt that more than a handful of great works would survive

True, very true. I agree totally. Nevertheless, a feminist critique of the great works of art is important, in my opinion. Not to degrade its worth, but as form of analysis, no more.

MadHat said...

Because I dont think using 'you' instead of 'thou' is degrading Shakespeare.

This line in my previous is terribly misplaced. It was intended somewhere at the position it should have been.

MadHat said...

I am note entirely sure how this necessarily becomes a debate over feminism!

It is not!

Wern't the devadasis supposed to be celibate throughout their lives. Wouldn't that itself constitute as being pure/chaste? Or was the idea different?

Devadasis, in the modern world, are the centre of controversies, mainly because they are chosen at such an young age and their entire life decisions are made by others.

MadHat said...

turning off comment moderation. please ignore any unsavoury comments (which I will delete after I wake up).

zzzz

Royona said...

Nope, the devadasis were certainly NOT celibate, or indeed chaste or pure! This is precisely my point. Google 'devadasis' and you will find some truly fascinating facts about these women and the unlicensed lives they led, deemed perfectly acceptable by the dominant culture. So, this is where the feminist question does crop up...the nationalist project heavily licensed female sexuality and expression, and one of its manifestations was the female chaste dancer.

Royona

Falstaff said...

Apurva: I'm not saying that bhajans don't have everything to do with religion - I'm saying that it's entirely possible to enjoy a well-sung bhajan even if you are an atheist by simply not focussing on the meaning of the words being sung - the fact that the emotion inherent in the bhajan is originally intended for God is irrelevant. The way I see it, the song is pure emotion first, and the meaning pressed upon it is secondary; all you have to do is ignore that secondary emotion (i.e. think of the words as pure sound, without meaning) and you should still be able to appreciate the sound for what it is. I know that's how it works for me. It's like when you stare at a beautiful painting and marvel at the beauty of the person's expression, without letting the fact that the person in question is supposed to be Jesus get in your way.

Oh, and I personally would be strongly opposed to any attempts to 'upgrade' Shakespeare. I don't find Shakespeare's English particularly distancing (it's amazing how a truly good actor can make even the bawdiest of his puns come vividly to life) and I'd hate to have some modern hack rob us of the rhythm, the sound of the original. At any rate, I'm not sure that's the right example here - 'you' vs 'thou' is not about ideology. One could argue, that, say, Othello is a fundamentally chauvinistic play, and that we should therefore 'modify' it in some way to make the plot more fair to women. That would be nice, except there's no way you could do it without fundamentally destroying the power of Shakespeare's poetry. And if you can't see that beauty because you're too caught up in feeling indignant over Desdemona, then you're missing something.

What it comes down to, I think, is really an individual way of approaching art. You say you have difficulty 'appreciating as a whole' art that contains ideological elements that you disagree with. Fair enough. My point is that that may well be the way you (and, for all I know, many others) feel about art, but it certainly isn't axiomatic, and it is possible, with a little effort and imagination, and by focussing on the art per se, to appreciate it.

Again, let me say that I agree completely that new art should reflect the values of its times, both through new content and the evolution of new forms (so, for instance, new plays should not use 'thou' instead of you, or should not perpetuate fundamentally patriarchal roles). And certainly Indian dance could use some such updating. My point is simply that we can't apply the same standards to the art of the past, because unless we can find a way to get past our ideological differences and appreciate such art, we stand to lose a great store of beauty from all our lives.

Nilu said...

is someone stopping you from creating a sequence otherwise? reviewing an art form and questioning its subject are two different things. the latter, usually stupid.

if you don't like it - trash it. call it whatever you want. but expecting them to accomodate your view is pretty darn naive.

MadHat said...

Falstaff: That is an interesting opinion. Maybe, I should adopt it because Rajan-Sajan Mishra are not going to stop singing bhajans because of me. :)
My point was basically that I have trouble with bhajans specifically because I so opposed to organised religion. But I am not saying the belief in God is wrong, even though I dont believe in Him/Her. It is the best coping mechanism.
I still did listen to their voices (which needless to say was amazing) but could not feel the emotions (devotion) that the bhajan expects. And if you can't emote with the music, you can't, well, appreciate. But I guess I need to modify my way of listening. As you say, forget the words and assign new meanings, which are more relevant to me, to the emotions conveyed by the song.

Regarding Shakespeare, I must admit I was a little incoherent. Though I would say that rewriting Shakespeare is not wrong (if it is done well) (but the original must be preserved, in spirit at least), that was not what I meant in my previous comment. 'you' vs 'thou' was my point. The reason I feel that Shakespeare's language is so alienating maybe because I have never seen a good production/performance of his plays. I have only read his plays or seen/enacted them in school (and I am no great actor, by any means). My point being that some things need to change to keep in step with the times. We could hardly have Sophocles's play in their original language now, can we?

And again, I do not think you should do away with the classical dance pieces completely. I just think that they should not be the only content performed.
Priyadarshini Govind was very, very good and I felt that she did the performance pieces justice but, but, but I was disappointed there was nothing other the usual themes (they are not bad per se). They are beautiful but my crib is that they are always the only items performed.

I agree that my ideological viewpoints has come in the way of appreciating art. There was once this movie that I watched for the first time in a critical way and trashed it. When I watched it much later, I realised that I had missed the real beauty of the film. Well, I have improved from that but I think there is room for more.

MadHat said...

Royona,
I will read more about the Devadasis and get back to you.
Apurva

MadHat said...

is someone stopping you from creating a sequence otherwise?

I am sorry, I dont understand.

reviewing an art form and questioning its subject are two different things. the latter, usually stupid.

Why is the latter stupid?

if you don't like it - trash it. call it whatever you want. but expecting them to accomodate your view is pretty darn naive.

Who am I to tell them what they should or should not perform. I am just hoping that they would...

Anonymous said...

hey! theres something here about bharatnayam being a form of feminist rebellion.

nirmala

MadHat said...

Nirmala,
That was pretty enlightening. Combined with Royona says about Devadasis, it makes for very interesting read.

Royona, I can understand why there is an impetus to move to the old tradition. Can it be really be revived in its original form? As in the idea of devadasis as women wedded to the God at an early age would be kind of anachronistic now but the idea of devotion and dedication of life to the Gods would not be. Not sure how one would go about recounciling the traditional with the modern.
Plus, the Victorian (and the Mughal) prudence is still around and in their world view, devadasis would still be viewed down upon, wont they?

MadHat said...

I just read this article and I think it makes a lot of pertinent points. I would suggest you to read it but the interesting things that I found in the article were...

[..]With the fluidity of interpretation under her control, she may just as easily choose to dance another "meaning." For implicit in Bharata Natyam performance and repertory is a dancer's agency as she embodies the text. Furthermore, in a performative paradigm, female audience members may also employ agency as they translate the dance messages. Hanna admits that many of the Bharata Natyam themes and tales are open to feminist reinterpretation as they "may evoke erotic fantasy, provide avenues for repressed and suppressed energies, and allow women temporary escape from [page 291] human toil (and, a feminist perspective might add from male dominance) through identification with the prestige and freedom of the devadasi."
[..]
Through expression of theme, action, or emotion in Indian dance (abinaya), the dancer is no longer limited by the text but is freed and spiritually empowered through her own creative control and interpretative choices.
[..]
Here, I must again intercede as I feel the shackles of objectification imposed by the "gaze" do not need to be resignedly accepted by the dancer, nor does she have to see herself complicit in this male-orchestrated strategy to sexualize and objectify her.(59) I repeat, Bharata Natyam invites assertion of agency by the female dancer.
[..]
For me, the critical feminist question when interrogating Bharata Natyam is as follows: What defines freedom and power for a woman in this dance? I would argue that the release from self as one realizes divine unity with the universe is an ultimate realization of freedom and power.
[..]
In the concept of the "I-thou," I find great inspiration, hope, and empowerment for female dancers. In Bharata Natyam, I find living evidence of the "I-thou" as testified by its practitioners. It is here I rest my argument, for if I am looking for female power and freedom through dance as my rebuttal to feminist criticism, I have found it in this paradigm, i.e., in the transcendent possibilities of Bharata Natyam.

Royona said...

The article you site is actually one of my key texts in the paper I have just written for Feminist Review entitled "Living a Body Myth, Performing a Body Reality: Reclaiming the corporeality and sexuality of an Indian female dancer".

Yes, it is precisely this issue of tradition versus modernity that we are fighting over as 21st century Indian dancers, in my case, belonging to the diaspora based in the UK, but deeply situated within the Indian cultural heritage.

I agree with you, the anachronism of the Devadasi marrying God wouldn't work for many reasons. Not least because the significance of spirituality and devotion to the divine doesn't exist within contemporary run of the mill Indian dance training in the country today.

So much to say...so little time...

Royona

Royona said...

Additionally, yes, you are absolutely right. the post-colonial hangover of chastity and a refusal to acknowledge female sexuality as alive and potent still dominates the culture.

It is therefore a double battle to fight for us dancers, who are trying to somehow articulate our lived experience through the art.

Subhalakshmi K said...

:)
You need to take a good look at what you are so insecure about. Submission is not necesarily bad. There are compositions where the the poet (male) is singing glory of his submission to Kamakshi, or lakshmi for instance. The common denominator is submission. Gender is illusionary. There is a popular cliche saying the nayika is the soul submitting to the divine. It is not catholicism. You dont have to believe to realise that the pain of submission and separation are beautiful in their own right. There are many other compositions where the description of shringara is in unison and not separation. You need to watch more and have less insecurities to not take poetry of centuries in the light of oppression of females. Infact, dancers are the only ones who have historically been able to
tell men that their actions have consequences in public. In that spirit, these compositions are the first forms of feminism where women were not allowed to step outside, leave alone dance in front of men.

Madeline Kameny said...

How can you sympathize with feminism (which implies that you believe that men should not be associated with strength and women with weakness), and then go on to state that Durga is not feminist because she embodies masculine characteristics so is not truly powerful? That is quite contradictory. Power is power, and there is only something inherently masculine about it if you conduct your sociological observations under an already-sexist lens. It's important to learn to look beyond your own limited and biased world.

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