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Inclusivity in Bharatnatyam

Source: Arun Sankar AFP

As pride month is celebrated this June, there is a pressing need to discuss the importance of inclusivity in the Bharatanatyam community that continues to suffer from the patriarchal purviews of society. The biggest of these spaces is the classroom where the performance of gender is an everyday ritual and often ironically the most unsafe environment.

Using people’s preferred pronouns is the simplest, easiest way to be more inclusive. With the shift to online spaces such as Zoom, one can include their pronouns along with their names, for instance, making it seem like the virtual world is making gender identity more accessible and easy than the physical world. This feature offers a silent way to nudge people to use one’s preferred pronouns. It seems especially helpful to get your way through a difficult audience that might not prioritize asking these questions in the classroom. The role that this feature of the virtual space plays, even goes to avoid the judgemental glances of speculation, a remarkable feat indeed among the other ‘unavoidable’ judgments that are difficult to change.

Source instagram: @veena_basavarajaiah, @cartoon_natyam

The gaze of judgment of the other is most often violent because of how foreign and alienating it can be to the body and identity of queer people. Especially in a dance class where physical appearance is an important identity marker for a dancer, ‘appearing gay’ is a paradoxical problem. Even if physical appearances could build confidence to affirm their gender or sexual identity, it is often interpreted through the inversion of the binary lens as effeminate males and butch females. The silence of the gaze is not in acceptance of the difference. Rather, it is telling of the hushed whispers of gossip that speculates the gender and sexual orientation of the queer community, that is heard loud and clear through the powerful gaze of the outer appearance of the body, guaranteeing distance, exclusion, and a distinct difference from the norms.

Source instagram: @cartoon_natyam

The appearance is not restricted to just adornment such as clothing or jewelry, but also in the way one walks, talks, and generally carries their body. In this manner, gender steeps into the performance of being and moving in the everyday. This everyday performance becomes important to understand why asking even these simple questions of preferred pronouns, for example, should be a priority for the teachers especially.

It is not uncommon to hear from these powerful people who have controlled the discourse, that the purpose of Art is to transcend gender and sexuality among other worldly things. However, this transcendence translates to not acknowledgment but rather ignorance of the dancing body, in not prioritizing the expression of gender and sexuality within a classroom. The classroom must be a space for free self-expression, to explore and understand our bodies better, as much as it is about transcending them. In playing roles of characters, the embodification of any other nayika or God, there is a part of the self that gets ignored in putting ourselves in the other’s shoes, almost encouraging dissociation from our identities. Especially because the stories told by these characters involve the emotions and feelings of human perception, transcendence does not make sense unless there is a space for self-expression that would allow one to process and experience these emotions relatable to the dancing body. If there was such a space, why is there a restriction on the expression of gender and sexuality which are very innate to self-expression? If there was such a space for freedom and expression, it should be the classroom where we can not only learn to express our identities better but also unlearn our conditioning by facilitating discussions and open communication between both teacher and student.

About the Author

Shreyaa Suresh is a passionate dancer, theatre actor, and an aspiring academic, based in Chennai. A post graduate student in anthropology & sociology, she hopes to pursue a doctorate in performing arts and academic writing.

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