Our Interconnected Hybrid World

It was just three years ago that I chanced upon a book called Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labor written by Dr Priya Srinivasan. This book was an eye opener for me. It made me really question – What is modern? What is traditional? How are we so interconnected? I couldn’t believe that the wave of modern dance started by Ruth St Denis was inspired by the devadasis. Why is this connection never spoken about? Talking to the author herself, I realised I am not the only one going through this wave of emotions, of unlearning and re-learning and re-imagining history.

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Dr Priya Srinivasan accompanied by Carnatic singer Uthra Vijay in the show ‘Nagarathnammal’s Dream’ premiered at the Mumurthigal Festival on May 20, 2017 organised by Smt Narmatha and Sri Ravi M Ravichandhira (OAM). Photo Supplied

Srinivasan is one of the foremost dance scholars of Indian dance history who blends ethnography, history, critical race theory and post-colonial studies in her work. In the book, Srinivasan shifts away from the usual emphasis on Indian women dancers as culture bearers of the Indian nation. She asks us to reframe the movements of late nineteenth century Indian dancers to the foremother of modern dance Ruth St. Denis in the early twentieth century proposing a transformative theory of dance that is groundbreaking. She wrote Sweating Saris as part of her PhD thesis and released the book in 2011. She tours with a performance based on her book internationally. And she calls her performance format as ‘Talking Dance’ – where she makes it more accessible to the audience by using multimedia, dance, live music and establishing the context through her words.

I asked her what the audience reaction was and she says, “They are shocked! What! How can that be possible? That’s unbelievable. Their minds are exploding.” But she is quick to remind me that our Bharatanatyam traditions are also inspired from modernity. “Rukmini Devi’s invention is the other part that we don’t think about. She also invented Bharatanatyam and most of our traditions are invented traditions and therefore modern. So who is modern and who is not modern is basically what we decide as a category. We want it be called our tradition because of our colonial history. They (western world) want it to be called modern because they want to be seen as new and innovative. But they have histories that come from us and we have histories that come from them. So it’s this interconnected hybrid world that I am interesting in exposing and making our communities and their communities really think through in this divided world of us and them, me and you, self and other… that these are fake categories that we are putting people in for no reason and if we actually investigate through dance we realise how we are fundamentally interconnected. “

Srinivasan explains that when she came up with this performance she didn’t want to let go of an alternative vision of modernity and post modernity. It comes from the dance that is in our bodies. We can’t get rid of that. “I want them to be aesthetically interesting. I want my audience to be moved. And I want them to think all at once. I didn’t want it to be one or the other. That’s why I don’t want to lose our form.  I can’t travel afar from our music and the form because that really is where I am coming from.”

Srinivasan started her dance career really young when her family was settled in Kolkata. Her first dance teacher was S Rajalakshmi. After her family migrated to Melbourne, she was trained under the renowned dance and teacher Dr Chandrabhanu and was a principal dancer at his Bharatam Dance Company. She is also trained in Odissi under the same guru. During her Masters she was trained under late Smt Kalanidhi Narayan while working on her Masters thesis at University of California followed by a PhD in Critical Dance Studies at Northwestern University. She says that she was inspired by Avanthi Meduri’s work which opened up a lot of things for her. That’s where all her theoretical questions about devadasis started coming.

Srinivasan left Melbourne 22 years ago. She lived in USA, Shanghai, China and then Holland. She was a tenured faculty (Associate Professor) at the University of California Riverside. Currently, she is a visiting professor at the Asia Institute at Melbourne University. Once back in Melbourne, she realised that the city was not the same anymore. “When I left, the dance scene was thriving. There were three major dance companies and several other companies. The multicultural arts policy funded everybody so well that it was a different era and a different time. And it was an interesting history and a period for us which is where I emerged from, as a dancer from the Bharatam Dance Company,” she remembers.

She concurs that in the last 15 years, the policy cut back all the funding and therefore everybody had to restart all over again. So there’s no memory of the things that happened before 2001. Plus, there was a new wave of immigration that came after 2000 who doesn’t have a memory of what happened before. This has wiped out the previous history of what existed and how our dance was in the mainstream and not so much just in the community. She reckons there is a big gap between community dance work, music work and what’s happening in the mainstream. But Srinivasan has been trying to approach this issue in an interesting way through her performances. “I have been trying to look at both – at community level and mainstream level. So I have been thinking about how to apply my theoretical work in the community and mainstream level by making it aesthetically pleasurable. “

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Dr Priya Srinivasan at the Immigration Museum on February 16, 2017 for the AsiaTopa Festival called ‘What’s Left’. Photo Supplied

To accomplish this, Srinivasan has approached performing Sweating Saris in three ways. One version is the solo which is a performative paper for academic audiences and not highly theoretical or somewhat theoretical depending on the audience. “If it is a post-colonial studies crowd then I make it all theoretical. If it’s a dance audience at a university, it’s mostly dance based. I embody the book. And I found that people really like that embodiment,” she said.

The second version of it is a duet she does with well-known dancer and Bharatanatyam educator Ramya Harishankar who is settled in USA. Here, it is a three-fold engagement. “In that version, it looks at Ramya and my relationship, Ramya and her relationship with her students and my relationship to my guru and her relationship to her guru. We use a javali marachithivo… to talk about all kinds of invisibilities and forgettings that happen. I think it gets at different ways of understanding power,” she said. The form is structured in Bharatanatyam however, in a postmodern framework so that a western postmodern dance going audience can enter into the performance and our audiences are also able to access it because it has aspects of storytelling. The performance uses multimedia and is interactive with the audience. After this, the performance culminates with a round table discussion.

Srinivasan is very clear when she says, “I am not interested in applause, people saying look at her sari, she looks great or those adavus and look at her hands, I am not interested in that. I let go of that a long time ago. Now for me, my art making is about politics, it’s about activism, feminist theories, it’s about thinking through questions that I want my audience to engage with and how do you activate audiences? How do you re-text in different ways? How do you find the sub-alterns that are always present in these texts? Whether the texts are written texts or bodily texts?”

While touring internationally, Srinivasan uses the talents from University dance students and scholars, along with local Indian dance gurus and their schools and also the Western contemporary postmodern choreographers. “The triangulation of audiences in this scenario and putting them on a round table afterwards for discussion is a useful model to think through some of these questions because after all we are all related. Our forms are hybrid. We are all connected,” she said. In the third variation of the book, Srinivasan collaborates with a Carnatic singer Uthra Vijay and has been working on developing aspects in a different way. “Thinking about how do I use classical music inside the piece for creating different kinds of emotional state in the audience?”

Recently, Srinivasan performed Becoming M S Subbulakshmi as MS and also as Bangalore Nagaratnammal for the Tyagaraja Aradhana Festival in Melbourne. Lending an inner voice to these powerful artists for being who they are and embodying them in her dance. This is her way of re-imagining history or rather ‘her’story.

–Swaroopa Unni

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