Strong caste discourse in Indian diaspora classical dance practices is vital – and overdue-Art-and-culture News, Firstpost


Black Lives Matter movement must spark a count in the Indian classical dance world of the diaspora with its own race and caste issues

With an interest in generating accessible writing that makes more evident the connection between the country’s broader social and political landscape and its performing arts, this monthly column is an attempt to detach the discourse of dance from its contained category of “Arts for the sake of art. Sake. ”Read more of the series here.


In an article after the murder of George Floyd, Thenmozhi Soundararajan points to “white adjacency” as something that allows Asian minorities to be armed by dominant whites to further the marginalization of black voices. White adjacency is when a person who is technically a minority has access to, uses and sometimes benefits from white privilege. Taking a critical look at the role South Asians, especially Indians, play in the equation between oppressed black communities and the racist American state, she highlights examples such as the tied selling of rakhis to the white cops and “Hindus in favor of Trump”Like blatant performances of white adjacency.

In the context of classical dance, white contiguity can take the form of self-orienting behaviors, internalizing the exotic gaze, or even concealing caste privilege to benefit from its racial profiling. The birth of classical dance itself is the result of the collusion between white supremacy * and the desire of the upper castes to be the guardians of “Indian” culture. Two attributes of colonial rule – Victorian morality and the oriental gaze – proved useful in the classicization.

While Victorian morality provided the conservative framework required to justify the abolition of public dance by women from hereditary dance communities, the oriental gaze helped reshape the tradition to suit the ideological and aesthetic palate of members of the elite of upper caste communities. This remodeling involved restricting anything that was considered excessive in the performance practices of hereditary communities, especially when it came to erotic expressions. It suffices to remember that it was in the nest of deeply Eastern theosophical society that Bharatanatyam evolved into its modern form.

(L) Ruth St. Denis and (R) Rukmini Devi Arundale. Images via Wikimedia Commons

The collaboration between Rukmini Devi (founder of the Kalakshetra Institute) and the Theosophical Society is symbolic of how the upper caste position of classical dancers gave them an advantage over lower caste stage communities in their equation with culture. dominant white. Diasporic discourses that position classical dancers as cultural representatives of a racial minority often overlook the location of their caste. For Arpita Bajpeyi, a Canadian-based kathak dancer and dance specialist, it’s because “First, caste privilege (like any privilege) makes it hard to see when you benefit from it. Second, race is the pressing issue that defines how we understand our lives and ourselves in the Global North. This means that the “Indian” version you occupy in the white spaces cannot capture the multitude of identities that make up “Indian” or “South Asian”. This means that we present ourselves as a more homogenized and hegemonic version of these identities.

Due to their belonging to a higher caste, many classical dancers who happen to be a racial minority in predominantly white countries, are simultaneously those who have structurally benefited from the ubiquitous caste violence in the field of Indian classical dance in the United States. last century.

There are currently enough studies to establish that Indian classical dance forms were appropriated by upper caste communities by systematically pushing back the predecessors of these traditions – the isai vellalars, maharis, kalavantula, tawaifs – in the margins. This continues to be reflected in caste demographics and in the lingering aesthetic discourse in the field today. Diaspora classical dance communities are an extension of the same networks of privilege that dominate the field in India, there is also the same pervasive absence of caste discourse, except with a further complication of race. The lack of caste diversity of almost all major international dance festivals is testament to the exclusivity of these spaces in caste and class cases.

This is not an exercise to dismiss the racial experiences of upper-caste Indians or to deny that they would remain “outsiders” despite their caste privilege in a white country. Cultural gatherings such as dance festivals or dance classes can provide a space to collectively sigh in relief, to be unapologetic brown in predominantly white countries. However, it is important to consider whether being brown is enough for someone from a marginalized caste to let out that same sigh of relief.

In India, for example, a lower caste student Bharatanatyam said she had been called a “bad dancer” and although she had no words to express why, she was sure it had to do with it. being the only person of this caste in his dance class. . She felt that her clothes were too “old-fashioned” for her dance class or that the lunch she wore for rehearsals smelled too strong. Just as “ethnic” might be equated to “exaggerated” in predominantly white countries, the aesthetics of lower caste traditions are seen as “excessive”, “outdated” by the dominant aesthetic canons imposed on the ground. With diaspora dancers being the Brahmin elite, it is important to ask whether the spaces they hold, the aesthetics and bodily practices they promote, are truly caste inclusive.

It becomes imperative that the racial equation of classical dancers with the white majority be triangulated with their caste position so as not to participate in a culture of white contiguity and obscure the experiences of lower caste members on the ground.

A strong caste discourse in Indian diaspora classical dance practices is vital and expected

Cultural gatherings such as dance festivals or dance classes can provide a space to collectively sigh in relief, to be unapologetic brown in predominantly white countries. Image for representation only. Getty Images / Photo File

A large number of classical dancers who run dance institutions in the United States migrated after 1965 on dependent visas, as wives of doctors and engineers. (Srinivasan 2012, 38). They stand on the shoulders of the many blacks who lobbied during the Civil rights movement to open US borders to people of color. It was under pressure from the Civil Rights Movement that the US government decided to open its borders to Indians and other Asians, but only to the educated minority, which now constitutes the “model minority”.

The history of the Brahmanic appropriation of hereditary traditions in India on the one hand, and the civil rights movement pushing for racially inclusive societies in predominantly white countries on the other, were essential in laying the groundwork for the dance. classic in diasporic contexts.

In her work exploring the stories of Indian dancers who emigrated to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Priya Srinivasan argues that the contributions of the hardworking Indian bodies (people of lower castes) are written out of it. dominant cultural history of dance. in America. In particular, she criticizes the popular biographical account of Ruth St. Denis – known as the pioneer of modern American dance – proposing that Denis used her inspiring encounters and interactions with nachwalis to build a career as an oriental dancer without recognizing their contributions. What Srinivasan’s work fails to recognize, however, is that the hardworking bodies of hereditary dancers who danced at Coney Island were not only “different” from the dancers who migrated after 1965; the relationship between them is that of the oppressor and the oppressed, just like their equation with Ruth St. Denis.

contrary to nachwalis or women from hereditary castes, Brahmin dancers now occupy a more visible place in the diaspora. When classical dancers of the diaspora project themselves as cultural representatives of an appropriate tradition, in a first world context, how many such contributions from hereditary dancers erase? This is no different from the question that needs to be asked in India. But shared racial identity cannot subsume caste differences, and without recognizing these differences, it is not possible to take advantage of its privilege to build solidarities that are truly intercast in nature.

Remarks –

*VSColonial rule is an example of white supremacy because of its assumption that the white race is morally, intellectually and genetically more superior to the colonized.

*Nautch women have a history in the United States, and the Coney Island nautch dancers were no anomaly. An unusually large number of Indian dancers were brought from Bombay to Coney Island by Thompson and Dundy in 1904. Simultaneously, PT Barnum brought another group of dancers from South India and Sri Lanka for their performances in New York, and another troop from Sri Lanka was brought to the St. Louis World’s Fair. (Srinivasan 2012, 69)

The references –

Srinivasan, Priya. Sweaty saris: Indian dance as transnational work. Temple University Press, 2011.

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