Friday, January 25, 2013

The Hindu/ Footloose/ Pride and Prejudice

When you ask dancers why they dance, they give several reasons. Some say that it’s because they are happiest when they are dancing, others say that it provides them with physical and emotional ‘release’ – an outlet for creative self expression. Still others say that it enables them to say things that words cannot express. Many also say that the mental and physical space in which one dances is a safe space – an expressive and free space. Free in the sense that it is free of ego, free of judgment and of the fear of vulnerability – essentially, a space that leaves pride and prejudice behind.

At a recent ‘Reading Group’ meeting, where a bunch of us gather to discuss issues related to art and education, the discussion led me to think about the issue of pride and prejudice in Indian (and in some instances, global) dance.

Pride is defined as a high or inordinate opinion of one’s own dignity, importance, merit or superiority, whether in the mind or as displayed in bearing or conduct. Undoubtedly, many observers of dance, dance scholars and critics do believe that at least some dancers are afflicted by this particular deadly sin. While a certain pride in your own work is a virtue, when this pride results in arrogance, dismissal of critique, and celebration of mediocrity – as it often does – then it certainly does become putrid.

Prejudice, although craftily disguised or carefully hidden, exists in the subliminal spaces of dance. Prejudice is defined as an unfavourable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought or reason. In India, and in many parts of the world, prejudice against dance and dancers of a certain kind certainly do exist.

A societal prejudice like race (or more particularly, skin colour) infiltrated into the world of dance as well. While in India, there has not been as open a prejudice against darker skin as in the west (the slave trade and subsequent racism against “blacks”); dark skinned dancers have subliminally been victims of prejudice in India as well. How many famous dancers of the previous generation do we know in India who are not ‘fair’ skinned? How come the dusky dancers didn’t quite make it as big as our fair leading ladies in dance?

Another prejudice would be sexuality. Dance is, as I’ve mentioned before, historically been misappropriated as a female form (see my Footloose article, ‘The Suppressed Male‘, Oct. 18, 2012). Male dancers face subtle and sometimes open prejudice, especially with regard to their sexual preferences. On the flipside, female dancers, because their chosen profession involves a display of their bodies, also become the subject of prejudice of another kind. Many conservative families still consider a dancing daughter or daughter-in-law to be morally dubious.

Further, young and slim dancers are favoured, whilst older and plumper dancers face prejudice. A slightly rotund dancer will have always been told by someone or another to lose weight, regardless of how well he or she manages his or her weight while dancing. And of course, youth has been a global obsession for quite some time now. One of the members of our reading group made a brutal but likely accurate statement that in many instances, “older dancers are tolerated because they are pitied”.

Many other instances of prejudice can be found within the mindsets of people who view dancers and dance in India, and the world. Prejudices do enter the outspokenly declared ‘free’ spaces of dance. Whilst these prejudices are allowed to fester in the world of dance, a false sense of pride (at not being eligible for any of the above mentioned prejudices) feeds off these prejudices as well. It is only when pride and prejudice are truly left outside of this space, can dance really be the space that the soul seeks. A space full of creation, expression, creative vulnerability, invention and experimentation – an inclusive space, that allows all people – pale skinned and people of all beautiful shades of brown; male and female and in between; fat, thin, big, small, robust, and petite; young, middle aged and old – to flourish.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Hindu/ Footloose / On his Steps

Patriarchy and Objectification

The attention that patriarchy and objectification of women has received nation-wide due to a gruesome crime against a woman and her friend in the national capital recently forced many Indians to look around them and into themselves. Introspective people have examined the presence of patriarchy and objectification in Indian society and in their own personal lives. As a dancer, I could not help but explore the role that patriarchy and objectification has played in dance.

Historically, although the devadasis were relatively liberated women – amongst the few of that time who were literate and educated; could inherit, own and pass on property to daughters and were free to have sexual alliances without judgement – it is important to remember, as Janaki Nair points out, that they “remained dependent on the triad of men within the political economy of the temple – priest, guru and patron”.

With the onset of colonialism, patriarchal values that already existed in India were perpetuated further by Victorian ideas of femininity. The shaming of the sensual Devadasi and initiation of ‘good Lakshmi-like’ girls into dance in turn spring from the nationalistic visions of womanhood in the post-colonial era. Patriarchal norms dominated this idea of ‘respectibility of women’, which inevitably trickled down into the sphere of dance too.

As far as objectification is concerned, one can speculate that although women were objectified earlier as well, this objectification was magnified during the time that dance forms moved from the temple into the courts and later into the proscenium. Dancers, who had previously offered their dance form to a faceless omnipresent ‘god’, one who would not voice his likes and dislikes, were now presenting their art for a king or a court – with people who set standards of beauty and grace according to their personal aesthetic choices. It is a matter of speculation, but it is not an unreasonable speculation.

In modern India, we have seen extensive discourse on ‘the male gaze’ and how dance has been affected by it. Several scholars have written about how dance has come to be shaped by the gaze of its male spectator. Others have written about how female performers are objectified and idealized depending on their appeal amongst male spectators. Critique in dance has also focused more on the dancer’s appearance than her skill, making specific reference to her eyes, the fact that she did not have ‘the face of a dancer’ or the fact that the design of her costume made her look ‘fat’.

Stepping away from classical dance, contemporary dance in India has perhaps somewhat escaped this objectification by defying the notions of beauty and aesthetics that were laid down by patriarchal norms in the pre-Colonial, Colonial and post-Independence era, to which the classical arts fell victim. Yet, there are Indian contemporary dancers and dance companies that have not been able to separate their dance from the demands of a patriarchal India. Whether contemporary Indian dance totally succumbs to patriarchy and objectification in India is yet to be seen.