In India, it feels like Bharatnatyam is practically ubiquitous 一 we’ve all either learned it or had a friend who has practiced it. If not, we’ve seen it be performed at school competitions, local festivals, celebrations, and recitals. For most, the dance form is associated with religion and spectacle; beautiful, brightly coloured sarees, ornate golden jewellery, bold makeup, big auditoriums, and booming drums which surround performances that begin with pranaams and tell the stories of Hindu gods and goddesses.
For Aishwarya and Priyanka Kali, two youngsters from Kolkata, this dance form meant pretty much the same. It was something that their friends and cousins learned. However, that changed upon filming their college classmate, Swathi Gangadharan, performing Bharatnatyam for their younger sister who had a dance exam coming up. The video, filmed without costume or music in an empty classroom at Lady Shri Ram College, was the beginning of their dance-film project: ‘Bharatnatyam In The Wild’ (BitW).
Launched in October of 2016, ‘Bharatnatyam In The Wild’ is an online dance-film project consisting of short videos that feature Bharatnatyam dancers, primarily Swathi, performing short dance pieces in unconventional, public spaces such as in elevators or at bus stops. The videos posted on Youtube and Instagram explore the dance form, stripped of its usual associations like dress, music and setting. Exploring feminism in public spaces, it inadvertently has also become a means of understanding both the class and religious systems surrounding Bharatnatyam. Homegrown interviewed the girls about BitW and their fascinating learnings during the project.
“Priyanka and I are not Bharatnatyam dancers,” says Aishwarya when asked about their association to the dance form.“Our connection with Bharatnatyam was that our friends, including Swathi, were learning this dance form.” Priyanka adds, “it was something that was a part of our culture and tradition - something that we didn’t interact with ourselves.”
Swathi, on the other hand, has been dancing for many years. “I started pursuing Bharatnatyam when I was 5 years old and I’ve been dancing for about 15 years now. My mother used to learn it before me, so it has been a family tradition,” she adds. Growing up in an agnostic family, she never associated Bharatnatyam with religion. “What interests me more is the dance-drama aspect of the form, and how one can convey and express so much through the dance,” she exclaims.
However, for all three girls their association and idea of Bharatanatyam has completely changed. “We really liked the videos we shot of Swathi because they were synchronised and self-compelling even though most of the symbols we associate with the form weren’t present,” says Aishwarya. This realisation, that Bharatnatyam could be so much more than what one might expect, was what led them to begin BitW.
Initially, BitW was just an aesthetic experiment with friends during the girls’ last year of college. However it soon became a medium for them to interrogate many systems like those of classical art, public space, body, and so on.
From its inception, Bharatnatyam has been deeply vested in Hindu symbolism, beginning as a temple dance that eventually moved to being performed in auditoriums and performance spaces over time. Despite its immense popularity, the reality of Bharatnatyam is that it has, over time, become a dance form only accessible to a certain class of Indian society. Only people who can afford the expensive classes and accoutrements required to learn Bharatnatyam can truly engage with the form. With BitW, the girls hope to make the form more accessible by taking it from protected spaces to public spaces and stripping it down to its basic essence.
However, they haven’t been able to do so without provoking anger. “One of our first Youtube comments said something along the lines of – you’re defiling a sacred art, stop dancing on the street, you can’t do this divine art form on the footpath,” said Aishwarya when discussing the reactions to their project. Swathi recalls that her mother’s initial reaction to the project was similar, though less aggressive. “She is not very religious, but even her criticism used words like ‘sacred’ and pseudo-religious vocabulary. I think it just goes to show how entrenched in religion, people’s perception of the dance is, even when they don’t want it to be.”
According to the girls, this perception of Bharatnatyam is exactly what hampers the dance form in reaching the masses. “Those who think it a sacrilege to dance and wear ghunghurus on the street, advocate for a status quo that allows access to Indian tradition only to a very selective, privileged slice of the population. BitW does not tinker with the form in any way, merely takes it to new spaces where people who have never had the chance to come into contact with the form may see it,” the girls explain.
Not only is their project challenging the traditions surrounding Bharatnatyam, it is also challenging the norms by which women exist and move into public spaces. “Every time we dance and film in a public space, we are making our presence known. Normally, most women go about their time in the city just thankful that they are not harassed. As discreet and efficient as we may try to be in our operation, there is nothing discreet about dancing in a public space. Dancing is a confident flaunting of the body, whereas hiding away and shaming the body is how the patriarchy polices women,” say the girls. Their name too is a reference to a famous literary essay by Elaine Showalter, ‘Feminist Criticism In The Wilderness’.
The girls have graduated from Lady Shri Ram and now live in different cities. Swathi is pursuing her master’s degree at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Aishwarya and Priyanka have taken a year off to focus on their interest in filmmaking. However, they haven’t allowed their separation to affect Bharatnatyam in the Wild. They have also produced a docu-series that portrays their experiences and learnings from this project and takes viewers behind-the-scenes to their filming process. In the future, they hope to expand their team and travel across India to film in more cities and continue to make ‘Bharatnatyam In The Wild’ bigger and better.
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