Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The 'Western' gaze - my response to Donovan Roebert

During a post-performance discussion, I was asked by a member of the audience whether I had to change the way I perform when I do so abroad. I found myself saying that I am changing the way I perform within India. The reason for this, I realized, was that the Indian rasika is hugely overestimated. And indeed, the western rasika seems to be underestimated. The statement mentioned in Donovan Roebert's article betrays this underestimation. In fact, it is more than that. It is an ill-informed and biased prejudice and moreover, hugely overlooks some problems with the members of audiences of Indian origin.

The 'western' audiences I have encountered have been immensely intelligent and well informed. Although sometimes unfamiliar with every intricate detail of the mythology (something I would attribute to many Indian audiences as well), they seem to watch Indian classical dance with deep curiosity, interest and an open mind. I find that they are also keen to understand it, and try to get everything they possibly can out of the performance. Perhaps this is because it is unfamiliar to them, and because they don't get to see it as often as we do, but these are some of the reasons for why they make such an engaged and attentive audience. I have personally never encountered the western audiences perceiving me as a doll or a babe.

In fact, this accusation made by the dancer in Donovan Roebert's article forced me to remember experiencing this 'babe/doll' scenario with a certain Indian audience. An admittedly extreme and perhaps one-off scenario, I saw it unfold was when I was performing at the Nehru Centre in London. It was a cultural evening organized by the Oxford India Society and hosted by the Nehru Centre. The performance consisted of three short performances of Indian classical dance, and a longer performance by the Oxford India Society dancers who performed Bollywood songs like 'Maar Daala' from the Bollywood blockbuster 'Devdas' and A.R.Rahman's 'Jai Ho' from the soundtrack of Slumdog Millionaire. The audience was mixed, but was largely Indian. I noticed the Indian audiences looking bored, resigned and sleepy during the classical section, and watched them explode into cheers and claps as soon as the Bollywood numbers came on. The bad choreography made the poorly trained dancers jiggle and wobble much more than necessary. As I watched with horror from the wings, the Indian members of the audience were almost drooling watching these undergraduate girls shake their leg (and other parts of their bodies), even as the 'western' audiences looked on uncomfortably.

The reason I mention the above example is not to counter the sweeping generalized statement of the dancer mentioned in Donovan's article, with a sweeping generalized statement of my own. I am certainly not implying that all Indian audiences are the ones that objectify and doll-ify the female dancing body. I merely allude to the fact that the 'kamasutra babe' phenomenon is not one we can foist onto the 'western' audiences. This babe/doll phenomenon exists much closer to home.

There was a time when dance criticism was plagued by the 'male gaze' - the dancer's physical beauty (her big eyes, her full body, her face) was the main focus of the dance review. Luckily this is no longer the case, largely. But today, we face other problems of objectification - whether it is due to the perfect attributes dancers are expected to live up to set by the Natyashastra or whether it is the size zero phenomenon, the way dancers view themselves and each other is a factor that encourages this 'objectification' of the female dancing body. When a dancer refuses to dance alongside another because the latter is thinner and younger (this happens a lot), you know that a part of the problem lies therein. Finally, outside the realm of classical Indian dance, we have a form of dance that has maximum exposure globally - Bollywood, which celebrates the objectification of the female form with all its titilating 'item numbers'.

Of course, by saying all this, I am not attempting to diminish or belittle the vast number of informed, intelligent and incredibly perceptive rasiks and rasikas in India. There are plenty of those around, but to point fingers at the 'west' without looking at ourselves is a grave mistake, I believe.

I also wished to point out that there are enough members of the 'western audience', at least in my experience, that are genuinely interested, inspired and moved by the depth and richness transmitted through Indian classical dance. Very often, it is the 'western' rasika who pushes me to think by asking intelligent questions and it is the 'western' rasika that amazes me with their observations, despite their unfamiliarity with the form and its cultural history. And it does sometimes seem that an Indian spectator is bored or seems to presume to know everything there is to know about the form, and often becomes argumentative instead of receptive.

To conclude, to say that Indian classical dance can be understood and rasa can be experienced only by an Indian is unfair and untrue. And to say that the 'west' can only see Indian dance as an exotic female babe prancing about is a terrible accusation. If this was indeed true, and if many dancers share the same thoughts as the dancer in Donovan's article, I'd like to ask them why they are empanelled with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, why their resumes shine with performances all over the 'west' and why they crave international recognition.