Watch: An Indian Short Film Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes Through Bharatnatyam

Watch: An Indian Short Film Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes Through Bharatnatyam
The Wire

The Indian art form of Bharatnatyam has shared an uneasy relationship with gender, sexuality, caste, class and nationhood since the time of its inception and early stages of practice. The theoretical foundations of Bharatnatyam can be traced back to the ancient Sanskrit text Natya Shastra by Bharata Muni. Historically, Bharatnatyam has been associated with Hindu temples where many of the ancient Shiva sculptures resemble Bharatnatyam dance poses. It was initially practised by the devadasis of south India—women who were dedicated to worshipping a deity or a temple for all of their life. However, with the arrival of British East India Company in the 18th century and the consequent British colonial rule in the 19th century, many classical Indian dance forms started being derided and ridiculed, as a result of which their practice declined.

Christian missionaries launched the anti-dance movement in 1892, portraying the so-called ‘nautch’ girls of north India and the devadasis of south India as harlots, and demanding that these traditions be stopped immediately. What happened thereafter was the appropriation of this exclusive dance form in the confines of the typical middle-class household leading only women from privileged backgrounds to practise the dance form. This art form was in danger of being pushed to the brink of extinction under the garb of social reform, which tried to rid society of prostitution and ‘licentious women’.
It was essentially an effort to democratize the arts and absorb it as a part of mainstream society. It can also be looked upon as an attempt at homogenizing the female identity through the lens of patriarchy.

It is all these and more, that Tirna Sengupta, a Bharatnatyam dancer and a post-graduate student of English Literature at Delhi University explores through her dance. She had been dancing for almost 18 years when she moved to Delhi sometime in 2014.

However, after shifting to Delhi, it became a constant battle for her to pay her dance fees after paying her rent. Her commute to the dance class and back to the hostel was scary as “a woman in the public space in Delhi is never safe.”, as she mentions in her article in The Citizen. She also mentions that the hostel curfew interfered with her dance performance schedule and was a deterrent in her practice. She was even subjected to constant harassment and humiliation by her guru for coming from a small town. These constant battles with the society that she had to put up with made her realize the ways in which one’s caste, social status and gender contributed to the obstacles in practising the art form. It is significant that Dalits, Muslims and the lower classes refrained from practising Bharatnatyam, which is inherently associated with only the Hindu upper and middle classes. This taboo essentially went against the very definition of art, which is otherwise considered to be an inclusive space.

Bharatnatyam as a dance form was institutionalised with the establishment of Kalakshetra in Chennai. It took place during the Indian Freedom struggle in the 20th century, when efforts were being made by the native people of the land to reclaim their culture.

However, a negative aspect of this appropriation was how Bharatnatyam was employed in the services of a nation which was largely based on the principle of exclusion. The art form was cleansed of the eroticism of the devadasi system and reformulated into being completely devotional. The woman performing the dance was reinvented to resemble a ‘good’ and ‘pure’ woman – a stereotype of femininity that patriarchy happily approves of. This was done by making alterations in the body movements of the female dancer in order to fit her into this mould.

Tirna Sengupta started experimenting with this dance form in order to subvert all such stereotypes and taboos associated with it. She does this by performing publicly on the streets, or by shooting videos about personal journeys of characters whose identities are a creation of both their public and private lives. Tirna explains, “Dance is my way to comment on contemporary politics and also to participate in it. I am mostly concerned about marginalization across gender and sexuality, faith, regionality and caste.”

She breaks gender boundaries by dancing in places which do not provide a comfortable space for women. She says, “Finding a woman dancing on the streets or in public transport is not an ordinary sight. I probably look hysterical while doing some exaggerated expressions and energetic steps of Bharatanatyam at a traffic point. What I aspire to achieve with this spectacle is the visibility of deviance.”

Another stereotype that she aims to break is Bharatnatyam’s association with the upper caste, privileged Hindu section of society, and its consequent affiliation to radical right-wing ideology. With regard to this, Tirna talks of the “metropolitan arrogance” of the dancers coming from privileged economic backgrounds, whom she had met in Delhi.

“Bharatnatyam”, as Tirna Sengupta mentions, “has for long been relegated to the domain of the body”, probably because of which men have shied away from practising it. She further mentions that since “women are anyway ‘reduced’ to their bodies”, “they are allowed to dance.” It is this stereotype of the notion of femininity which is subverted when a female artist uses her body as a means of expressing herself.

A recent short film made in collaboration with poets, filmmakers and dancers, Hum Jinns is a dance production where the all-encompassing Urdu word, ‘Hum Jinns Parast’ that denotes LGBTQ+ communities, has been explored in all its various aspects. Ghania, one of the members of the collaboration says, “I expect Hum Jinns” to revolutionize all our experiences because the film has the power to affect that. It made me step out of the pure technicality of shooting dance movements to capturing thoughts, space, memory and emotions.”

In this short visual production, the multi-pronged aspect of human sexuality has been explored through dance, poetry and creative shots through the medium of videography. A few expressions considered to be embarrassing have been brought up and spelt out loud in this film. Such expressions include words like khabeeth, haram, besharami, behudgi which have been reiterated in the film. In doing so, the shame and blasphemy associated with these words have been brought out in the open, and eventually dismissed. Somewhere along the line, an attempt has been made to normalise the varied sexualities that can be found along the spectrum. The heteronormative narrative of sexuality has been subverted to produce a narrative that does not stigmatise against anything that identifies differently from the convention.Through the poetry in the background, the film also explores how language is also ideological and plays a part in sustaining the grand narrative that patriarchy professes.

The political role of language can be seen in the kinds of expressions it claims to possess. The expression LGBTQ+ is relatively new and serves to empower a large section of people who until recently did not even have a term that would assign them a place in language, and therefore in history. The erasure of LGBTQ+ voices in history can be attributed largely to their anonymity in the spectrum of language.

A short film titled Hum Jinns made in collaboration with Maniza Khalid (poet), Tirna Sengupta (dancer), Ghania Siddiqui (director) and Talat Shakeel (sound designer) explores the varied layers of identity in a human being and his efforts to come to terms with them.

Here are a few testimonies from the artists associated with the production :

Maniza Khalid (Poet) : “The name of the project is the same as the title of my poem, ‘Hum Jinns’. At first, it was written to be read in isolation, simply as text. We altered the poem to express the same ideas through multi-media. As for the title of the poem itself, I had set out to find more of myself within my mother-tongue, Urdu. Were there words for the forbidden? Those gaps and silences that wouldn’t explain who we are. This journey began almost two years ago when I started asking scholars and students for resources regarding the same. I was fortunate to have found The Queer Muslim Project and as I spent more time mulling over the significance of forging these connections, I realized I yearned to feel at home. What other way than finding myself in my own language? It meant so much to me to find meaning in my existence within my social context. Hum Jinns was brought to my notice by a research scholar from JNU. We had discussed how medical jargon had made its way to conversations, how words in English had helped pick out nuances. Even so, cultures have their own way of referring to the fluid, the liminal, undecided, what is perpetually questioning and what is nonbinary. If some native American communities could speak of the ‘two-spirited’ and if among desi words we are unable to translate ‘hijra’ directly into its English counterpart, we can honour Hum Jinns with all its vagueness and its uncertainty. It reaches far and its scope is not yet defined, perhaps always meant to be open. In Urdu, the headlines would say “Hum Jinnsi abh jayaz hai” (‘Hum Jinnsi’ is now legal) but one cannot say if it refers to sexual orientations or particular gender identities. We wanted the title of this film to call out to those who do not have a label customized and made ready for them, to the unidentified and marginalized.

I know too well the anxiety of not having words for my experiences. To be rendered silent regarding what makes the stuff of us is its own kind of linguistic violence. To not be able to speak of me, about myself, using words and stories that colour my childhood and dreams, left me feeling lost. For example, I could not relate to the experiences of one who identified as butch or nonbinary. Too often we also encounter homophobia within our communities in specific ways. I needed to speak to and hear from those who know where I come from. This is where intersectional identities are needed.

It’s true that labels are designed for convenience and soon enough they establish their own conventions. However, language has been humankind’s most exciting domain - the history of words and narratives, how they are constantly being reinterpreted as our cultures develop, leave open tremendous scope for fluidity. Claiming Hum Jinns, which is not used popularly in spaces where one may be trans, bisexual, gender-noncomforming, is my way of expressing uncertainty and plurality.”

Tirna Sengupta : (Dancer) I joined dance lessons immediately after moving to Delhi for my undergraduate education. But my dance teacher was a total bully. He made it impossible for me to continue. I would leave for Siliguri during the vacations and it would be taken as absenteeism. My entire family and I have been fighting a battle against medical crises. I would often not be able to attend classes as regularly as I would have liked to. I also had to devote a lot of time to studies since I wanted to enter the academia. Dance classes were traumatizing.

I dance out of fear, anxiety, gladness, pleasure, pressure, madness and rage. I do not dance to rise above emotions, but to feel them intensely. I am helplessly in love with it and I usually find myself in situations and circumstances where I cannot pursue it. Dance does not transcend the human world. It is present within all the complications of human existence. I struggle to spread my arms, leap and move in PGs and rented rooms.

I have always approached dance with all my inadequacies. I feel empowered only when I am able to critique social hierarchies through my artistic voice. I am tremendously disturbed by the hijacking of Bharatanatyam into Hindu nationalist propaganda. I have therefore always wanted to choose stories to tell that would disturb the existing fabric of Bharatanatyam. Hum Jinns, like most of my other projects, attempts to expand Bharatanatyam’s artistic possibilities. A lot of work has been done on queer identities in Bharatanatyam that go back to the Hindu legends of Ardhanarishwar and others.

However, Bharatanatyam has no vocabulary to express a 21st century queer Muslim’s life. So I wanted to invent a new language of movement and expressions in order to articulate and accentuate the writer’s ideas.

Most of my recent performances have been shot outside in the public sphere because I intend my dance to be a part of political negotiations carried out on the streets every day. But Maniza’s story demanded a different locale. A large part of the character’s struggle is with the family. The home had turned obnoxious despite being a place that was supposed to provide safety and comfort. The terrace is that liminal space between structures such as the family/society that bind us and the limitless sky that signifies freedom. Hence the choice.

Ghania Siddiqui : (Director) “As a filmmaker, I must really feel connected with a script to express it with an honesty. ‘Hum Jinns’, from the beginning to the end has been about exploring that honesty. When Maniza recited the poem to me, her words expressed vulnerability, fear, despair, and yet a certain strength to keep going, to accept an identity and coin a word that helped best express herself, ‘Hum Jinns’. The combination of poetry and dance almost presented itself to me, like a blessing. As a director, I had to find a way to weave these mediums, and do it best through the medium I love - filmmaking.

We may not understand dance, and we may not understand poetry, but we understand emotions, and as a director, I strove to communicate those emotions through Hum Jinns.”

Talat Shakeel (Sound Designer) : “Ghania wanted me to play with diegetic sound as I generally do in my sound portraits. I tried to create different spaces through the sound design to indicate the journey of Maniza and this word.

I am happy and proud to be a part of this project.”

Hum Jinns

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