As Indian classical dancers go online in lockdown, an initiation of critical dialogue on the insularity of their craft

The pandemic has shown that it can subvert the long-held narratives around the practice of classical dances, to have a critical self-reflective voice, which has remained largely absent thus far.

Ranjini Nair August 07, 2020 12:41:37 IST
As Indian classical dancers go online in lockdown, an initiation of critical dialogue on the insularity of their craft

We must constantly remind ourselves that the curated lives we see online are but the tip of the iceberg; that like John Berger noted of the photograph being an image selected by the photographer over an infinite array of images that are possible, the lives we present online are equally selected and uploaded for a reason. In the case of artists, the need to remain in public memory drives the curation of what is uploaded. Classical dancers found a pliable platform in social media to increase their reach and audience, and took to it keenly around five years ago. What started as a trickle has been in full spate since the lockdown was announced.

Periodically, even before the pandemic, I would stop wanting to open my Facebook account because all I would be greeted by each day was a barrage of photos, videos, performance reviews, announcements of upcoming performances of the dancers on my friend-list. I would scroll through, and ‘like’ countless pictures of exquisitely talented dancers, watch snippets of their videos, unknowingly make mental notes of performances coming up, but mostly, I would leave feeling more miserable than inspired. And even if I were largely content with how much I was dancing and where my life was going, these posts would make me jittery, and self-doubt would inevitably creep in. This feeling is not mine alone, countless conversations with dancers have revealed the same anxieties on opening a social media app like Instagram or Facebook. The Indian classical dance field is a highly competitive one, and with the advent of social media, it only seems to have become more so. The need to be constantly visible, to let those around you know that you are active, seems to have become an exhausting part of life in classical dance.

With the onslaught of COVID-19 , and the cancelling of live performances and precariousness of livelihoods, I was interested to see how the conversation online would change. Instead of the constant self-promotion, which had become a bane of belonging to the classical dance field, perhaps there would be something more one would be privy to. Were dancers ready to be vulnerable with each other in the face of a global pandemic? Perhaps not, since all I saw was a shift from posts announcing offline performances, talks and events, to those inviting the audience to attend a plethora of Instagram, Facebook and YouTube lives, video recordings of poetry and music, and screenshots of those performances becoming the new photographs. Which is not to say this is bad. In the face of uncertainty at a scale most of us have never experienced before, there is no right way to respond. The shift online has meant that collaborations between dancers separated by geography have become possible; interactions with dancers and those in allied fields are facilitated through the virtual realm. It has made a larger variety of content accessible across the globe, and I get to witness all this sitting in my balcony, with a glass of chai in hand.

While not denying the trove of possibilities that the shift online has made possible, I still felt that the status quo in classical dance has largely remained unchanged. There were riveting performances I witnessed online, engaging talks, creative use of spaces, and an adapting to the new normal which was, for the lack of a better word, exciting to watch. But for a community that constantly refers to itself as a fraternity, I have always felt a lack of true fellow-feeling within it. The fraternity operates in cliques that promote each other, including some, but often excluding others. What better time than a pandemic, which forces us to be home, that gives us the time to reflect and fix the things ailing the 'fraternity'? With all eyes online, how do we evaluate and step up the role social media can play for the classical dance scene? If the USA and more parts of the world can galvanise and mobilise themselves bodily in the midst of a pandemic, towards a movement which ensures the safety and dignity of black lives, surely, the classical dance community can begin uncomfortable conversations deserving urgent redressing.

As Indian classical dancers go online in lockdown an initiation of critical dialogue on the insularity of their craft

The author practising dance in the presence of her guru. Image courtesy: Ranjini Nair

A Google search on the relationship between empathy and social media is confusing because there are results of both social media increasing our ability to feel empathy, as well as studies stating that there is a decline in compassion. For a moment, let's suppose that the former study is true, that it is indeed possible to engage with greater empathy due to social media with those around us. What does engaging with empathy look like within the field of classical dance? While an article already talks of how classical dance has always kept itself aloof from the politics of the time, what I find even more frustrating is the inability of this fraternity to look critically at itself without feeling threatened. As the pandemic progressed, I found myself in conversation with dancers for the dissertation I was writing. I realised that there were many things that were tangential to the classical dance world and were being mulled over by dancers. I began to pay closer attention to posts being put out by dancers on my friend-list, where conversations were being initiated. I began to put up longer posts on my social media hoping dancers would respond, and they did — largely from my own generation. But what it laid bare was that there was a need and want to have those conversations. There was a way to engage with the dance community, which was not based on exhaustion or competition, but instead a teasing out of the complexities of the classical dance world. That perhaps, it was possible to empathise and initiate dialogue, and empathise with those around us in this field, while accessing larger questions faced by the world.

Taught in a system premised on obedience, with questioning often deemed a sign of disrespect, the classical dance world can sometimes be a suffocating space to inhabit. Even many scholars and critics of dance, who often have been dancers themselves, couch all explanations and questions within rarefied realms of spirituality, around art having a higher purpose, or a similarly abstract explanation. Where, then, is the space for dancers to have critical dialogues about their own practice? Which is also not to say that I am calling for activism in the name of art, rather, I am asking that dancers make larger connections to the world outside the Indian classical dances, and begin to engage in more holistic and meaningful conversations vis-à-vis their practice. How do we frame questions of exclusion, gender, caste, or class with respect to classical dance?

Chirasri Roy, an Odissi dancer from Kolkata, raised a question around gender binaries on a Facebook post. Male dancers get ‘criticised’ for being too feminine in their movements, or female dancers are called out for being too ‘masculine’. She further asks what it means for a dancer, who might inhabit alternate sexual identities or gender positions, to witness most traditional pieces reflecting only heteronormative and heterosexual relationships. As world over, when the conversations begin to represent gender identities over a spectrum, and sexuality moves beyond heteronormative desires, and there is a call for greater representation of these identities in our film and literature, classical dance needs to initiate these dialogues as well. Especially since it often distinguishes between the two traditional gender roles within the form itself, in terms of the difference in the stance of a male versus a female character, or even the expressions that male and female characters are meant to portray.

Sreelekshmi Namboothiri, a young Mohiniattam dancer, uses an Instagram post to question the constant control young dancers are subjected to, be it their adherence to certain bodily aesthetic of the classical dancer with long hair, or a certain kind of body-type — a constant making of ‘aesthetic rules’ within dance circumscribes what it means to be a dancer. As we call out body-shaming in the world at large, hold our celebrities accountable for endorsing fairness creams while espousing #BLM, it is equally pertinent that we look at how the arts, especially the classical dances, constantly perpetuate and normalise certain ideals around the aesthetics of the body.

Ayushi Madan, an Odissi dancer, wonders in her DMs to me if we, in our everyday lives as independent women, forego a part of that identity by subscribing to the 'womanhood' inscribed within Indian classical dance, which is so firmly entrenched within Hindu nationalism. She asks if we are still playing out the Madonna and whore stereotype, wherein our class and caste identities, coupled with our learning of dance, places us within the Madonna realm — a binary that women are no longer interested in inhabiting, and are enraged at, in its continuing hold on the patriarchal imagination. As women activists are arrested under the draconian UAPA and defamed, is our bowing down to such conceptions of womanhood without question pardonable? I wonder in turn.

As Indian classical dancers go online in lockdown an initiation of critical dialogue on the insularity of their craft

Image courtesy: Ranjini Nair

Mrinalini, a Delhi-based Kathak dancer uses her mudras to think about our new relationship to the state after the passing of the CAA. It is a sparse dance of just her fingers against a black background, bringing to mind the equally uneasy relationship that Indian classical dance has with the state, with its survival being dependent in part on state patronage. How, then, does the dancer begin to effectively criticise the state? This short clip asks effectively.

Siddhi Goel, a Kathak artist, questions the frenzy of performances on offer on social media, and if an artist is judged by numbers alone. Is output the sole parameter for appraising your artistry? The post touches upon what the consistent need to be seen has on our mental health. It is evident that there are many conversations and questions waiting to happen; the question that remains is how one could channel them into the wider classical dance discourse. It is important that such conversations begin from within the classical dance network, since largely, the space for critical reflection has been left to academic circles, with dancers at the periphery.

Social media can become a potent space for having the conversations we have been unable to have offline as classical dancers. Once these conversations are identified, perhaps it would be useful to have informal reading groups that address them through reading and discussion, in order to work through challenges dancers face. Talks or seminars, which encourage a critical paradigm on a performance practice that has kept itself largely insular from the world around it, would be similarly useful. It is important to allow people the time and space to reflect in order to respond to any paradigm shifts to be brought in. Many of these points of contention could be new for people — it could have never registered with them, or perhaps, they were thought to be unchangeable.

The pandemic has shown that while gatekeeping and access to opportunities may remain the same with regard to classical dance in both offline and online spaces, the online world holds potential to have the difficult exchanges we need to be having. It can subvert the long-held narratives around our practice to have a critical self-reflective voice, which has remained largely absent thus far. In fact, it is already doing so. The classical dance community urgently needs to be shown a mirror, for it often remains a bastion of regressive and oppressive thought and action, where social, cultural and economic injustices and disappointments we fight in our everyday lives make their appearances repeatedly. Ultimately, if we can react with empathy to the arguments and voices that are unable to find a foothold in mainstream classical dance circuits, we stand to gain a more inclusive space, where we can first acknowledge and then begin to address the problems plaguing a largely insular space. Perhaps it is too optimistic a view, but change does not happen overnight. Even a post here and a post there can light the way, stop our ship from sinking, and show us the entire iceberg, so we remember to navigate it with empathy and fellow-feeling.

Ranjini is a student at the University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education, doing her MPhil in Arts, Creativity and Education. Her research is focused on religious and social hierarchies repeatedly re-inscribed and transmitted through the practice and performance of Indian classical dance. She is also a Kuchipudi practitioner.

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