October 17, 2012

Performing Dance, Performing Gender

This time, last year, Kavya Krishnan, a PhD scholar in Cultural Studies had made a presentation of her important work on gender performance and dance. She had analysed how dance, specifically looking at Mohiniyattam in Kerala, becomes a site for gender performance and how it disciplines and orders the female body into certain gendered performances of femininity. The ideas that she had shared with us as the Feminist Workshop in Kerala stayed with me for a year. Yesterday, when watching a performance of the classical Bharatnatyam repertoire of Allaripu, Varnam and Tillana at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, things suddenly became clear to me. Taking off from Kavya’s core ideas on gender performance and dance, I would like to briefly trace how dance, especially Bharatnatyam, has been critical in forming a certain gendered identity in my life.

I started learning Bharatnatyam, a classical dance form, at the age of 10. I was never really good at it- I could not co-ordinate my arms and legs, my body was stiff. Dance was a means then to loosen up my body and make it more supple. Despite my inability to dance I continued, with the support of parents and a patient teacher.

During that period, from pre-puberty, to teenage years, I maintained very short hair. We called it ‘boy-cut’ since it was cropped short like those that boys were often forced to have. I never wore makeup, nor accessories and preferred shorts. Skirts were for special occasions, and while my friends were complimented on how pretty they looked, signs of distinct femininity, I was told how smart I looked, a gender-wise ambiguous statement. Most mistook me for a boy and family and friends all lamented as to when I would become a ‘girl’.

I was fairly comfortable in what I wore and the way I looked, I could not make myself grow my hair or wear other sort of clothes. Because I was amongst the taller girls in my class and there were few boys, I was given the boy’s role in dance, plays and even in dance-dramas. Strangely, I found that unfair. Why couldn’t I wear frocks and saris and dresses like the other girls? Why did I always have to wear a dhoti, a suit and pants on stage? Despite being typecast into certain performative roles and judged by the strict codes of what being a ‘girl’ meant, I continued to learn dance.

Dance performances and school plays were also the only spaces which upset the non-‘girly’ existence that I led. Dance performances were the only time when I wore lipstick and make up and it made me feel very weird. Suddenly I had to don jewellery, put flowers in my hair and I must admit that it was all in good fun, like a fancy dress party. It was through dance performance then that I first wore makeup and it was only in those spaces that I was suddenly made to perform the role of normative femininity. Dance was also the only activity for which I bought my first salwar kameez, a dress which women historically wore in certain parts of north India, and which has now come to typify a certain type of Indian femininity. I wore that one dress only for practicing dance and not otherwise. Thus dance became the only space which made me perform a certain gender identity which differed from my daily non-feminine existence.

When I was 17, we performed for a small audience of parents and teachers. After the performance, a parent approached me and said “You dance so well, but why don’t you look like a girl? If you grew your hair it would be so good, it would add to your performance”. That was the moment when I ‘sold out’. I grew my hair, not long and thick till my hips, but long enough to occasionally reach my shoulders. Being more like a ‘girl’ was what would make me a more convincing dancer. One could say it was because of dance that I experienced a shift in my gender identity. Dance constructed my non-conformative gender into a more normative feminine one.

The other occasion that dance had to shape my gender identity was when we performed the dance drama Naukacharitam by Tyagaraja. By then I was twenty and I got the role of a Gopi, a female devotee of the Hindu god Krishna. The role of the Gopi required me to flirt, romance, be gentle, and most importantly act coy. These were behavioural traits I didn’t know and which did not come ‘naturally’ to me. I had to learn them. I had to learn how to be coy and flirt. I had to learn how to bat my eyelids and lower my head in modesty. These where normative feminine traits which I learnt during that dance drama. And it was very difficult learning to be feminine. It was difficult learning to act coy. It was alien, just as playing the male role in the previous dance dramas and theatre plays had been.

I realise now that the male roles and the female roles in dance and theatre were both alien to me. I was not comfortable playing the man, nor the woman. Dance, like most patriarchal social structures, has these strict dichotomous divisions of what is masculine and what is feminine. Anything in between, or outside of it does not exist. The defining categories of feminine and masculine disallow any space for a gendered fluidity. These then exclude those who do not conform to either one definite category but float in the interstices.

5 comments to Performing Dance, Performing Gender

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    An interesting read. 🙂

  • Surya

    This is a really interesting piece of writing that set me thinking about all the people I know who would like to have the freedom to be both masculine and feminine or to choose one or the other at different times. I think many of us live in ambiguous spaces but sometimes even the spaces to think of these have been closed off so that we then are simply one or the other.

  • Sheila

    “my first salwar kameez, a dress which women historically wore in certain parts of north India, and which has now come to typify a certain type of Indian femininity.”

    Can you expand on that? I thought salwar kameezes were the generic default for most women in India these days, and am not sure what you mean by ‘certain type of Indian feminity’.

  • Ketaki

    @Surya- Exactly!
    @Sheila- You have raised an important point here and it needs further thought, but here is a quick, first response. I don’t think salwar kameez is the generic default for Indian women these days. It is mostly worn by middle class women, in mostly, urban spaces, and it also typifies a certain marital status. In South India, specifically Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, the salwar kameez is associated with a certain modernity and influence of the North. Women, especially unmarried ones, wore ‘pavada’ or ‘half-sari’ till very recently. Only now, do you see college girls in Pondicherry wearing what they call ‘churidars’.
    The salwar kameez, in its hegemonic avatar or what you refer to as the ‘generic default’, also signals as I said a certain modernity as well as a certain modesty. A ‘proper’ Indian woman, read middle class, urban/small town, heterosexual and unmarried will wear the salwar kameez and not a sari or pavada. The salwar kameez then signals an Indian femininity which is not challenging a project of modernity by wearing the traditional pavada. The Indian female body in a salwar kameez also not raise the anxieties that one in western clothes does. In that it typifies a certain type of Indian femininity.

    • Sheila

      Ah, so you’re saying that salwar kameez in the south indicates modernity, but is not threatening to traditionalists like western clothes would be. Got it, interesting point.

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