Beyond Bharatanatyam: Re-visions, Ruptures and Resistance in the Feminist Choreographies of Anita Ratnam and Mallika Sarabhai

Author: Nithya Nagarajan

Nagarajan, Nithya, 2016 Beyond Bharatanatyam: Re-visions, Ruptures and Resistance in the Feminist Choreographies of Anita Ratnam and Mallika Sarabhai, Flinders University, School of Humanities and Creative Arts

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The South Indian neo-classical dance tradition of Bharatanatyam, a purposeful reconstruction of the temple dance tradition of by the bourgeois elite of society in Tamil Nadu in the 1930s, simultaneously fulfilled larger Nationalist, Orientalist and Anti-Orientalist objectives and typified the representation of the Nayika or heroine on the Indian performance stage. The traditional solo repertoire in Bharatanatyam performed almost exclusively by women, paradoxically renders the dancing female body invisible, and every emotion on stage is embodied as a heterosexual response of love and longing to an imaginary male character, usually a King or God. Further, every decision-maker in the construction of the Nayika, is predominantly male – the writers of the mythology, the storytellers, the Gurus, the composers, the choreographers, the critics, the musicians, the festival organizers and those responsible for funding decisions. Given this context, the Nayika becomes a disempowered figure, dancing to the desires (and tunes!) of a voyeuristic gaze.

In this thesis, I analyse the feminist works of two contemporary Indian performance-makers and dancers, Anita Ratnam and Mallika Sarabhai, whose choreographies occupy the charged space of the beyond. The political intertwining of gender and genre in Indian dance, constantly in a state of flux, becomes the liminal space of the beyond in their body of work, which stems from this web of significance as the base. Dwelling in the beyond, these dancers re-vision the dancing female body as a site of intersecting vectors of gender, race and nationality; rupture the imagined boundaries of form, structure, aesthetics, theme, content and scenography in Bharatanatyam; and perform an embodied resistance through a self-referential writing of the female dancer, allowing for her power and agency to be reflected on stage.

By means of an ethnographic inquiry, I read Ratnam’s and Sarabhai’s select feminist choreographies, conduct semi-structured interviews and adopt participant observation strategies to address how these artists contribute to a growing canon of contemporary woman-centric work. Their work is contextualised and critically framed drawing on discourses from dance studies, performance studies, gender studies, cultural theory, and postcolonial theory. In their performance analysis, I draw extensively on my own experience as a trained and practicing Bharatanatyam dancer in the field and the kinaesthetic models of knowing that underpin such training and practice. Through a subversion of the patriarchal (b)order of Bharatanatyam, I argue that Ratnam and Sarabhai negotiate a space for the rebellious dancing body in a postcolonial India to contest and map ideological notions of idealised Indian womanhood. As a result of an examination into how these women are choreographed by culture, and how they in turn choreograph culture, a transformative politics of the racialized and gendered body begins to surface.

Keywords: Bharatanatyam, dance, choreography, feminism, modernism, performing arts, Anita Ratnam, Mallika Sarabhai

Subject: Humanities thesis, Creative Arts thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2016
School: School of Humanities and Creative Arts
Supervisor: William Peterson