Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Shut up and dance? Really?

 (This is a piece I wrote a couple of years ago when I was down with an injured knee, off dancing and with a lot of time to think.)

I read a quote somewhere that was attributed to Samuel Beckett: “Dance first, think later.” I do not know if he really suggested that sequence. I also wonder if it works that way all the time. He might even have used “dance” in the sense of celebration, revelry, letting go. But dance as art practice, even as it has all of these, is hardly just that. It may not be truly possible to separate dance and thought into two neat, separate boxes. Thoughts can dance their way into our heads sometimes; thoughts can also impede movement at times.

So we may not be able to put aside thought for later after all. Specialized thought, particularly academic and intellectual discourse, may have huge impacts on an activity like dancing. It could freeze you momentarily; lurk around the corner you are about to turn and cast a petrifying charm on you.       

Despite these possibly discouraging effects, theorizing is an exciting process for me; as much as dancing is. A commitment to theorizing essentially means allowing self-reflexive ruptures into practices - having small and big explosions of insights into one’s performance of, adherence to, and association with social, political, cultural and economic practices. Some of these ruptures could take the form of epiphanies that change the course of a person’s life and practice of art into brilliant directions at once. Some might find theory and politics immediately empowering. For many others, an engagement with theory could sharpen the edge of self-reflexivity and drive it as a wedge between the self and its current practices, the body and its performance, the individual and her/his self-narrative. Here’s my experience!

I started learning Bharata Natyam when I was 6 years old, on the Vijayadasami day of the year 1988 in my hometown, Kumbakonam. Initially, it was just plain, unadulterated joy to be dancing; the kind of unreflective joy that is a prerogative of childhood – the kind of exercise where you hear a huge “YES” in your head every time you think about it. Kumbakonam has a strong presence in Hindu mythology and south Indian history as a pilgrim site and a business centre for the Cholas. The Iyengarcommunity I come from also has an embedded history in this space. My family could demonstrate, with great ease, its link to the town and its temples for several generations, notwithstanding the fact that a few generations before us had not lived there. Therefore, there was an easy coherence to my childhood self-narrative - the way I thought of and spoke about myself - dancing included.

Such innocence was not to last. Dance became a zone rife with questions of self-identity during and after adolescence, because of the gender inflections it began to receive. It was an issue for the boys in the classroom and hence became an issue for me. As an activist now, I may reclaim “sissy” and wear it on a pink badge, but even the intensity of such reclamations usually says a lot about the strength of the wounds. Despite these issues, there never was an impasse,  I never thought of quitting dance. In fact, the same dance that made life as a boy complex and rife with everyday negotiations of power in school also became a therapeutic space. But dance, I started realizing, was going to be a difficult space. It was not going to be the romantic forget-your-worries-and-dance kind of a space. This was because dancing was singling me out from the boys of my age. This alienation and the anxieties it provoked were to last into adulthood.

Much later, something else, that initially appeared innocuous, made dancing - dancing Bharata Natyam specifically - very hard for me. It was the exposure to scholarship that historicized and theorized Bharata Natyam2,  that dealt a major blow to my emotional affinities to it that I had left unscrutinized till then. But it was not the revisionist understanding, per se, of Bharata Natyam that was difficult for me to deal with. That Bharata Natyam was not an ancient art form but was one constituted by ruptures with tradition was, in itself, not a disconcerting fact. But the fact that these ruptures were located within the politics of caste, nationalism, gender, sexuality and religion was the specific locus of quiet but disabling anxiety for me. For almost all of these categories already had a not-taken-for-granted aspect in my life: a brahmin boy from Kumbakonam, with parents who had strong anti-brahminical and anti-casteist personalities, a boy who was beginning to understand that he desired boys, a boy who has been called "sissy" in three different languages, a Hindu boy with strong misgivings about religion.

One result of all this exposure was the opportunity to get a deeper and defamiliarized look at different aspects of Bharata Natyam. For instance, the nauseating claims to spirituality that were being made (I quite literally grew up among these voices) were making "spirituality" itself a term and domain in need of active reclaiming. If I am now a spiritual person and a Bharata Natyam performer, it is also true that I am a sexual person and a Bharata Natyam performer. In fact, my sexuality is more in the public domain, as a visible problematic, than my spirituality. Also, once I could clearly see the strong hetero-patriarchy permeating the texts and practice of Bharata Natyam, it became an absolute necessity for me to see what subject space I could claim within it. I needed to know if I could be feminist and queer and still find a location within Bharata Natyam to “speak” from, without feeling compromised. I also needed to know if I could find a way to happily marry off aesthetics and politics in a relationship that constantly sustained the tension between them, without attempting, naively, to "resolve" it.

Adrienne Rich, American poet, talks somewhere about the importance of announcing one's subject position; to be aware of and make clear where one speaks from. My dilemma has been in recognizing my subject position with all its limitations and simultaneous centralities and marginalities – caste, class, gender, sexuality, etc. Announcing and declaring it is are simultaneous concerns. I will not sequentialize them. I don't think the (re)cognition and announcing of one's subject position are sequential acts. Often, I have known my own positions only in the stating of them.

Modern scholarships on Bharata Natyam, history, casteism and politics have made access to a lot of things very mediated and anxiety-ridden for me. They have made me see the complex links between identity and performance, both as everyday modes of being in the world as well as specialized and staged performance. And that, I think, is quite excellent. As a gendered and sexualized subject with a caste and class identity in modern India, I see that Bharata Natyam is not just dance for me. It is a practice I engage in, that is at once crisscrossed by several histories; histories that have also written themselves over my body. These are histories not just of community, art and excellence. They are also, very significantly, histories of gender and caste oppression, notions of masculinity and sexuality, even the history of the idea of the Nation.

Theorizing my relationship with Bharata Natyam, hence, amounts to theorizing myself from a few perspectives. It is an instance of acquired knowledge playing upon one's notion of the given. It offers new ways of re-imagining oneself. But it has taken sometime to be able to attenuate the edges of my anxiety with the understanding that I can re-fashion and re-imagine my selfhood; that the seemingly innocent prefix "re-" powerfully questions the givenness of the givens themselves. 

Until learning to live in and appreciate liminal zones and interstitial crevices, until learning to willingly make myself vulnerable (for I now think that a true way for me to relate to another is by dis-covering my vulnerabilities), I felt both dancing and speech had been made difficult for me. I thought every movement I executed and every utterance I made were screaming my location to the world - what I saw as the incongruity in being a Bharata Natyam dancer/ Brahmin boy and an anti-hetero-patriarchal, same-sex loving self, social worker, activist, etc. But to this day I find myself ‘doing’ Bharata Natyam, attempting to find new ways to sing my own songs, dance my own dance, as it were. I am thankful for the existence of these etceteras; they allow me new and unknown possibilities of being.

(1) People of the Brahmin Vaishnava (worshippers of Vishnu) community in this part of the country are called Iyengars. The priestly caste in the Tamil region have Iyers and Iyengars as broad sub-groups, with several sub-communities under each, with various levels of interior hierarchization. 

Bharata Natyam has a history of discontinuity from that of Sadir, the dance form performed by devadasis and rajadasis in the temples and courts of south India until the early decades of the twentieth century. This history is located in the politically charged space of colonial reformist movement that sought to end dancing in temples and the dedication of women to temples. This culminated in the passing of the Devadasi Bill in the Madras Legislative Council, spearheaded by Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy. The revival of  Sadir as Bharata Natyam is attributed to people like Rukmini Devi Arundale and E Krishna Iyer and to institutions like the Madras Music Academy. For a little more on this, see Srinivasan, Amrit. 1985. ‘Reform and Revival: The Devadasi and her Dance’. Economic and Political Weekly, 20: 1869-76