Beyond the idea of gender

Meditative mood: Himanshu Srivastav

Meditative mood: Himanshu Srivastav   | Photo Credit: Sanjit Debroy


Evoking mythical tales that talk of dissolving male-female energies, recent events have shown how some young dancers are challenging patriarchy and asserting rights of gender minorities

The gallery of the cultural heritage enclosed in gaathas or stories on Indian Gods and characters from classical Indian texts on the subject of gender discourse illustrate a dynamism of negotiating gender characters and energies that provide content for the ethos of Indian dance at multiple levels – rhythm, movements and dramatic representation. Indian dance takes philosophical and metaphorical principles from these gaathas

One can hear the echo of the protagonist in Kalidas’ Meghdoot instructing the cloud messenger to reach the Shiva temple (Mahakaleshwar) in Ujjain at sunset and then to thunder to produce drumbeats so as to invoke Shiva to perform the Tandava- a dance characterised by the male vigour in contrast to lasya- the graceful performance of Shiva’s consort Parvati.The psychoanalysis of personality aspects of the yin-yang is expanded through the idea where the male-female energies are understood to be two contrasting paths that merge and are part of a unified whole. This idea is given the androgynous form of Shiva as the Ardhnarishwar half man, half woman that merge in a unified divinity. The gaathas become more intriguing when one encounters the story of Lord Ayyappa or Hari-Hara understood to be a celibate and the deity in the Sabarimala Temple. He is born of two male principals Vishnu (in the female form of Mohini) and Shiva. There are instances in the gaathas that present sex change of a number of Gods and seminal classical character as part of their self-will or a curse to fulfill their destinies. There is in the Mahabharat, the tale of Ila as Sudyumna, Amba as Shikhandi, Arjun as Brihanala.

Organic process

Indian dance, says Kapila Vatsyayan, the renowned authority on Indian arts, is the highest order of spiritual discipline where the enactment is symbolic of a ritual sacrifice of one's being to a transcendental order. Vilasini Natyam exponent Purva Dhanashree says, “For me, Shiva is an icon of energy who is represented by various iconographical symbols. The recreation of Shiva is an organic process of venturing to reach him through those symbols with the aim of dissolving in his idea.”

The example of the repetitive image of Radha and Krishna cross-dressing in each other’s clothes symbolically reflects dissolving the gender. Purva describes, “When as Radha I enter the bower to meet Krishna, I am not a woman but a yogini reaching to become one with the yogi. I aspire to connect to the concept of two universal energies coming together and not two beings.”

Gendered rhythms

For Pt. Birju Maharaj, mnemonic syllable sounds or bols assume male-female energies that dictate rhythms and body movements. For instance, a sound like Dhaa is male, Thei is female. He says, “The true essence of the body movement or sounds with feet requires a meditative understanding of these energies.”

Divya Goswami

Divya Goswami   | Photo Credit: Courtesy: Inni Singh

Kathak exponent Divya Goswami says, “Dance the ritual is a journey to reach the shunya or the dynamic equilibria in every composition. While executing an abstract rhythmic piece the process involves collapsing contrasting male-female energies enclosed in mnemonic syllables to attain at the end the equilibria. The process assumes different modalities. Simple placement of feet in the Swastika, i.e. either in front or behind, can immediately transform the body dynamics from a female- inward approach to the male- open stance.”

In one class, Pt Birju Maharaj taught a piece that incorporated androgynous energies that illustrate the technical complexities of representing gender “moving in front represents the male; the weight and the hand-arm positions are focused on the right. The stride is valorous, chest expanded…in the very next moment you need to transform as female. Here the action is oriented to the left. The switch requires a gentle turning of the neck that apes the movement of the head of a pigeon. The change in the body stance demands that knees curve, stomach, and inner thigh muscles contract, breathe falls, and only when the transition happens”

Mimetic art of abhinaya provides artistic license to interpret and explore the gaathas for contemporary time and space. Arupa Lahiry, a disciple of Bharat Natyam Guru Chitra Visheshwaram produced “Ahalya”. A tale from the Ramayan, the story is about a beautiful woman endowed with the power of a yogini to see through guises. She is married to the learned Sage Gautam. Nonetheless, Lord Indra, the king of Gods lusts after her. He assumes the form of Ahilya’s absent husband Gautam, enters her home and asks her to make love. Ahilya consents and is then cursed by her husband only to be later released by Lord Ram. Arupa says, “I couldn’t help but question patriarchy. My Ahalya was not one who was deceived but one who took a conscious decision to explore her sexuality beyond marriage. She chose to subvert the mind-body hierarchy. And to explore this, I selected “Varnam” to portray the story. My heroine was not the usual languishing maiden in wait but one who is assertive of her rights. Is she then masculine?”

The varnam a complex format in Bharatanatyam allows the dancer the repertoire of technical rhythmic pieces with poetic mimetic art. Arupa says, “The entire varnam spoke about Ahalya and not the heroes. I also selected jathis (rhythmic pieces) with more forcible mnemonics like “Tha-Dhit” etc unlike the more rounded syllables like “Tarikita-Ta”. Gender according to me is a performance society drapes around the body and it’s this performativity of gender that should be challenged more and more in our language of dance.”

Recently, again in Bharatanatyam Himanshu Srivastava presented “Shikhandi”. A rejected woman in one birth is reborn to avenge and be the cause of death of Bhishma the man who rejected her. Born a woman, she was brought up as a man. Srivastava, use two coloured hanging drapes, the play of lights and danced to present the turmoil of gender energies within and the reality of marginalisation in the outer world. The presentation by Sadir dancer-historian Swarnmalaya Ganesh and an activist on #MeToo movement titled “Choreographing Society- a Tryst with Destiny” analysed gendered identities. Ganesh presented a tale from the Tamil Epic Manimekalai exploring the journey of a man into that of a transwoman.

Contemporary relevance

The various dynamics on gender in Indian dance against two landmark legal occurrences in 2018 could lead to what Swarnmalaya Ganesh claimed to reassess democracy. After all, there is a question why the colonised Section 377 continued for seven decades after independence, or why did a ban against women entering Sabarimala Temple emerge in the post-colonial period in the 1970s. Can the theory by psychiatrist Frantz Fanon in his classic work ‘Black Skin, White Masks’ provide some answers? Fanon says that self-perception of the colonised choose to reject their indigenous cultural identity and embrace views of the coloniser. We can interpret that this choice is deliberate to augment and sustain the power of patriarchy and to marginalise gender minority communities. On the one hand, the assertion by dancers, project individual action of counter-discourse challenging patriarchy and asserting rights of gender minorities, while on the other one hand the philosophical thoughts presented in the gaathas on gender manifests a continued assertion to dissolve male-female energies, allow the unity of being and to go beyond the idea of gender.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2020 2:11:01 AM |

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