Posted by Prachi Sharma
Body image is one of the important aspects of identity for many. In the context of the Indian classical dance scenario, bodily shame is a factor that has been entrenched in dancers since time immemorial: their bodies are often seen only in terms of consumption and catering for the upper castes, upper classes and men look. Referring to my own experiences as an Odissi and folk dancer, I would like to elucidate body shame and the resulting influence on body image in the Indian classical dance scene.
I remember starving myself to the point of throwing up and still going to class. That was until I realized that I have a certain body type and it’s completely natural. Instead of hating my body to look a certain way, I realized that I had to embrace it, learn to function with and within it, and adopt healthy habits for myself.
As a child, I did not know how to react to certain practices and standards that were imposed on me. I have somehow managed to think that this is how society is; that a dancer will be judged based on her physical appearance, mainly because a large part of her body is expected to have a certain appearance while making specific movements. And the movements would always be judged on the basis of the quality of your physique.
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Shastric standards for a dancer’s body
Although the Shastras defined what exactly a dancer’s body should look like, with the evolution of times and the evolution of the sense of aesthetics, these notions were also subject to change. The body of a dancer is disciplined through various processes such as exercises and a balanced diet. Regular practice is another important feature of training. Art forms like Kathakali also have various measures of bodily discipline which are believed to make the body fit for dancing.
When I had finished my performance, with the appreciation of a few, there would also have been a lot of surprise questions about, “How did I manage to be on this stage for an hour”? Apparently I didn’t seem to know how to dance.
The societal stigma that a heavier person isn’t supposed to dance and instead should focus on losing weight or conforming to what society thinks is a standard norm. However, I was not discouraged and spent days and nights in the studio practicing and practicing to be fair to the trust my teacher had placed in me and not give up.
Aesthetics of dance or aesthetics of the body
Visual imagery has proven to be important for connoisseurs to appreciate any art. The idea, at least when it comes to enjoying classical dance, is that what you see should make them happy. While this means aesthetic visuals, the truth is that true pleasure can only be achieved through the purity of emotions and expressions. Often, young dancers attempt to copy the art form with the facial expressions of great performers or artists that they individually admire. But in this way, we detach ourselves from the exploration and internalization of dance. I discovered how this adherence to the conventional expression of emotions and the lack of improvisation, in turn, restricts bodily autonomy. Different bodies behave and blunt in different ways. Your facial and bodily demeanor or expression may not resemble that of your teacher or your guru.
Since we live in our bodies, I found that I was constantly doing calculations of my body weight, my short stature, my energy level. I have negotiated through many such painful occasions with my wit, humor and persistence. During this time, I was training my body to be an embodied spirit with the right amount of patience, understanding and determination required for a passionate dancer.
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My personal experience over the past 15 years is one of rejection and neglect in some of the major productions of the institute. I was made to feel that I did not fit into either the group sequences or the solo staging. I was continually made to realize that my body was at fault no matter what I did.
The industry is so focused on what dancers should look like. What happens to caring about their talent? Why is it important for a dancer to be size double zero or size six if that doesn’t affect their dance? As dancers, we face a lot of challenges, whether it’s an injury that could stop our growth or career, whether it’s financial constraints, or dealing with conservative households where to follow art as Professional career choice is a big NO. During this time, I have observed how dancers seldom receive comprehensive, empathetic advice on how to live a healthy lifestyle. The emphasis is more on the physical appearance of the dancer, to somehow fit their body into a mold of conventional perfection overnight. Instead of relying on the abilities and artistic essence of the dancer, the focus is on what could be consumable and which will be good for the market.
The thoughts and experiences presented here are not only mine, but also spill over into those of many people who have given up their passion for dance or have had to succumb to societal norms. The technical details of the dance can be easily learned over a period of time, but the deep meaning and essence, which goes beyond creating similar bodies and similar models, requires determination, a willingness to change. and of course, a long-standing practice.
Prachi is an Odissi and a practitioner of folk dance. She wants to be a student all her life. She has been training in dance for over 15 years now. A graduate in Gender Studies, she wishes to understand the gender spectrum in the artistic world and to break down stereotypical perceptions among Indian classical dancers. She wants to see dance from a different perspective and adopt new measures to educate young people. You can find it on Instagram and Facebook.
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