The Touch of Love, the Touch of Death and a New Dance in Tamil Nadu


GroundXero. July 2018

A new choreography by a Chennai-based dancer speaks of caste-oppression and honour killing in Tamil Nadu, addressing the contemporary socio-political issue in a straightforward manner. How severe is the truth underlying the content of this work? 

Teenda Teenda

In travel advertisements, the image of Indian culture is often represented by a smiling Bharatanatyam dancer, to be immediately associated with Tamil Nadu. Even otherwise, for those who do not look at dance as an exotic entertainment practice of dressed-up painted women, or those who are actually interested in the history and science of dance in India, Tamil Nadu – in particular Chennai – has been an important space to explore. Not just as a hub of Bharatanatyam and other South Indian classical and folk dance forms, but as a city that hosted some of the pioneers of Indian contemporary dance, and has been hosting practitioners and researchers who have influenced Indian contemporary dance in definitive and progressive-liberal ways.

Chennai-based contemporary dancer Akila’s new choreographic work Teenda Teenda (தீண்டத் தீண்ட: As We Touch… or As We Get Close By…) falls in the same legacy. It is Akila’s first full-length choreography, though she has created smaller works earlier in her 12 years long training and engagement with contemporary dance and various other forms of movement and music for many more years. The work is a straightforward statement in dance, critiquing caste dominance and the many facets of its atrocities with the focus on inter-caste honour killing that plagues Tamil Nadu till date. Minimal in its composition and choreography, Teenda Teenda is an almost entirely non-verbal play between two bodies, performed by Akila and contemporary dancer/movement-practitioner Chandiran, “finding a balance between abstraction and narration, not reflecting the content through the body, but within the body.” – explains the Tamilian choreographer. The movements in this work stem from wanting to identify the body-language of social hierarchy – violence, pain, arrogance, submission, dissent and such like, exploring “how the caste-violence affects the personal space of an individual who attempt to resist with an aspiration of equality” in particular.

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Visiting Mutthukkannammal, Revisiting Sadhir


(Durbar Prakashani, December 2017)

বাংলা অনুবাদ

  •  The ‘Devadasi Debate’  


A step forward in one direction is sometimes a significant step back in another. The so-called ascension of ‘Sadhir’: the precolonial ‘temple dance’ in Tamilnadu, to modern Bharatanatyam has been seen as a certain empowerment of Indian women and a campaign to denote the victory of certain Indian cultures. The 1947 Devadasi Abolition Act (Prevention of Dedication) and the consequent redecoration of Sadhir into Bharatanatyam was conceived as constructive means of uncovering and banishing an exploitative practice on women. The goal behind enacting this law was to put a stop to the transformation of innumerable ‘Devaradiyar’s: women pledged in the service of god in the temples of Tamilnadu, to ‘Thevadiya’s: sex-workers.

But to some, this reform came as a forced transfiguration of the art form and its performing body. During the process of redecoration and grammarization based on various Sanskrit texts, the form submitted to high-brow morals and religious sanctification on one hand. On the other hand, by all practical means, it ironically retained the politic of objectification of the dancing body (e.g. by idealizing the now-smiling-now-pining ‘Nayika’); the same objectification, which was referred as problematic by the reformists largely belonging to the urban upper class and caste. As a consequence, the reform led the performing body lose its purposeful and well-practiced act of spontaneity and the strength of its unabashed language exercising powerfully raw emotions and subversion of content.

This moment of redefinition of Sadhir also marked the beginning of a shift of this particular family of dance from a position in close contact with other public performance-forms in rural Tamilnadu – increasingly bringing it within the urban Brahmanical fold that it would later come to be synonymous with. This way the reformists promptly sealed the possibilities of this form being actively politicized on a mass scale, allying with the forces such as the Self-Respect Movement struggling against common oppressor powers such as patriarchy, class and caste-hierarchy and feudalism.

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প্রাক্তন দেবদাসী মুত্থুক্কান্নাম্মলকে দেখতে গিয়ে ‘সাদির’ নাচকে ফিরে দেখা


(দুর্বার, ডিসেম্বর ২০১৭)

English Translation

দেবদাসী বিতর্ক


কোনো এক দিকে এক পা ফেলে এগোনোকে আরেক দিক থেকে দেখলে আবার এক পা পিছোনো বলে ঠাহর হতে পারে, সে যতই ঢাকঢোল পিটিয়ে ফেলা পা হোক না কেন। প্রাক-ঔপনিবেশিক যুগ থেকেই তামিলনাড়ুর শহরে-গ্রামে, রাজার বাড়ি থেকে মন্দিরে, স্থানীয় ধর্মীয় অনুষ্ঠান থেকে গ্রাম্য পালাপরবে, বড়-ছোট নানান সভায় হাজির ছিল ‘সাদির’ নাচ, যা এক বিশেষ সম্প্রদায়ের দেবদাসীরা নাচতেন। তাকে অশ্লীলতা দোষে নিষিদ্ধ ঘোষণা করার পাশাপাশি, মোটামুটি তিরিশের দশক থেকে তার পুরোদস্তুর সংস্কৃতায়ন ঘটিয়ে আজকের দিনের ভরতনাট্যমের অভিষেক হয়। এই ঘটনাকে অনেকেই ভারতীয় নারীর এক ধরনের ক্ষমতায়ন, এক বিশেষ ভারতীয় সংস্কৃতির জয় বলে দেখেছিলেন। তাঁদের কাছে ১৯৪৭ সালে পাশ হওয়া ‘প্রিভেনশন অফ ডেডিকেশন অ্যাক্ট’, যা দিয়ে তামিলনাড়ুতে দেবদাসী প্রথা আর তার সাথে পেশা হিসেবে সাদির নাচকে সম্পূর্ণ বেআইনি ঘোষণা করা হয়, এবং এই নাচকে নানা নতুন নিয়মে সাজিয়ে ভরতনাট্যমে রূপান্তরিতকরণের পথটি ছিল একটি শোষণমূলক ব্যবস্থার মুখোশ খুলে দেওয়ারই নামান্তর।

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