How can Indian performance be decolonised? Dr. Priya Srinivasan and Uthra Vijay investigated this question in a talk on September 13th , 2019 at SNS Arts Development Agency. Their academic discourse on decolonisation was accompanied by performance excerpts from their Bharatanatyam and Carnatic piece, “Talking Dance”. The talk took place in a room of the 80-year old house where the Agency is situated, and the two artists performed in the spacious foyer at the front of the house, surrounded by a verdant garden and a rapt audience. The setting struck an intimate tone for the audience and speakers to interact in this artfully curated space.
The speakers started the talk with a brief outline of the role of colonisation in the estrangement of devadasis from their art form. The crux of the argument lay in the move that the “Bharata Natyam” that emerged in 1940s and 1950s India was a “world form”: an amalgamation of influences, absorbed through interactions across these dancing worlds and manifested in dancing bodies – of women, in particular – who became idioms for national dancing cultures operating within the colonial framework. Dr. Srinivasan illustrated how this led to the splitting of the musician and the dancer in the canonical structure and spatial relationships of a Bharatanatyam performance. Whereas the devadasi had simultaneously been singer, dancer, and storyteller, the new form ensured that the musician would remain immobile and at the corner of the stage and the dancer would remain mute.
The agenda proposed for the decolonization of their own performance was to rectify this latter bifurcation of the dancer and singer, through which performance might be mobilized to speak about a range of issues such as climate change, gendered violence, and other issues of power differentials produced under late capitalism. The next segment of the event was a presentation of three excerpts from their performance titled “Talking Dance”, which reimagined Andal’s Nachiar Thirumozhi in light of this project of decolonisation and the performers’ own affinity for the Vaishnavite tradition handed down through the women of their families. The three excerpts, Dr. Srinivasan expressed, were intended to keep intact the “classical” elements of the Carnatic and Bharatanatyam styles. The first excerpt employed the traditional spatial arrangement of the singer seated to the side of the performance space as the dancer occupied the majority of the stage through her movement. The second excerpt saw the singer seated center stage, while Dr. Srinivasan spoke in English over Uthra Vijay’s singing in Tamil. The dancer gestured to the singer – a bridging and acknowledgement between singer and dancer rarely witnessed in contemporary, proscenium Bharatanatyam performances. Finally, the third excerpt set the singer free to roam the stage as she sang, and the interaction between dancer and singer extended beyond mere acknowledgement to active interaction. The dancer whispered in the singer’s ear, and the singer proffered the dancer both material items such as flowers and symbolic offerings with the use of mudras. With the singer free to move onstage, the dancer too was enabled to free her voice and use it to tell autobiographical stories about her grandmother, herself, and their relationship to Andal.
Following the talk and performance excerpts, there was an animated discussion between audience members and the speakers. I was struck by the thoughtfulness of the performers’ agenda for decolonisation in the practice of their own art forms, particularly in this charged moment where the arts are being evaluated as sites with potential to inscribe or dismantle existing social divisions. The Melbourne-based artists, who originate from Chennai, framed this event with cognizance of their positionality as both Indians as well as Australian residents, who grapple not only with the Indian postcolonial identity, but also with the question of settler colonialism in Australia and the violence done unto the First Nations indigenous people. This juxtaposition of Indian, Australian, artistic, and diasporic identities enabled them to describe their vision for the decolonisation of their own performance. While the programme contributed tremendously important first steps towards the reimagination of proscenium Bharatanatyam, I wondered if the agenda of “decolonisation” was perhaps too broad to describe the move to challenge spatial relationships to unite singer and dancer nestled specifically within the framework of Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music.
Decolonisation involves reevaluating “colonisation” as not only the encounter between nation-states, but more specifically, reflecting on how colonisation has produced widening power differentials between the local elite and marginalized. The speakers’ aspirations to expand the category of “contemporary” might have thus been complemented by a reimagining of the “classical”. Within the decolonisation agenda, it would be imperative to examine the relationship between Bharatanatyam and other dance forms originating from the same social milieu that do not enjoy the tag of “classical”. Colonialism is produced and reproduced internally in a nation through the marginalization of the arts, practices, and customs of historically oppressed communities.
In the final takeaway, however, Dr. Srinivasan’s assertion that the “personal is political” reflected the speakers’ situated knowledge as performers, Indians, Australian residents, and women. It allowed them to generate an agenda for change from stagnation, obstinate orthodoxy, and blind belief in what constitutes the “traditional”. As a result of the speakers’ own openness to critique, as well as the intimacy of the event space, the audience was empowered to engage and interact with this thoughtful discussion and performance. I was happy to learn of spaces such as this that are conducive to challenging privilege and fostering discussion around what art and artists can do for equity and social change.