MUSINGS Dance has come to be shaped by the gaze of its male spectator.
The attention that patriarchy and objectification of women has received nation-wide due to a gruesome crime against a woman and her friend in the national capital recently forced many Indians to look around them and into themselves. Introspective people have examined the presence of patriarchy and objectification in Indian society and in their own personal lives. As a dancer, I could not help but explore the role that patriarchy and objectification has played in dance.
Historically, although the Devadasis were relatively liberated women – amongst the few of that time who were literate and educated; could inherit, own and pass on property to daughters and were free to have sexual alliances without judgement – it is important to remember, as Janaki Nair points out, that they “remained dependent on the triad of men within the political economy of the temple – priest, guru and patron”.
With the onset of colonialism, patriarchal values that already existed in India were perpetuated further by Victorian ideas of femininity. The shaming of the sensual Devadasi and initiation of ‘good Lakshmi-like’ girls into dance in turn spring from the nationalistic visions of womanhood in the post-colonial era. Patriarchal norms dominated this idea of ‘respectability of women’, which inevitably trickled down into the sphere of dance too.
As far as objectification is concerned, one can speculate that although women were objectified earlier as well, this objectification was magnified during the time that dance forms moved from the temple into the courts and later into the proscenium. Dancers, who had previously offered their dance form to a faceless omnipresent ‘god’, one who would not voice his likes and dislikes, were now presenting their art for a king or a court – with people who set standards of beauty and grace according to their personal aesthetic choices. It is a matter of speculation, but it is not an unreasonable speculation.
In modern India, we have seen extensive discourse on ‘the male gaze’ and how dance has been affected by it. Several scholars have written about how dance has come to be shaped by the gaze of its male spectator. Others have written about how female performers are objectified and idealised depending on their appeal amongst male spectators. Critique in dance has also focussed more on the dancer’s appearance than her skill, making specific reference to her eyes, the fact that she did not have ‘the face of a dancer’ or the fact that the design of her costume made her look ‘fat’.
Stepping away from classical dance, contemporary dance in India has perhaps somewhat escaped this objectification by defying the notions of beauty and aesthetics that were laid down by patriarchal norms in the pre-Colonial, Colonial and post-Independence era, to which the classical arts fell victim. Yet, there are Indian contemporary dancers and dance companies that have not been able to separate their dance from the demands of a patriarchal India. Whether contemporary Indian dance totally succumbs to patriarchy and objectification in India is yet to be seen.