The world of Bharatanatayam is dominated by women in its imagery, aesthetic value and presence. Women decked in the finest temple jewellery and makeup, draping silk with elan, move on and off stage like divas. The dancers who come perform or even just witness a performance carry a charm and air about them. The women here look powerful, intelligent, beautiful and exquisite. It is a woman dominated space as is clearly visible; but is it really? Beneath the glam and glitter that comes across, there are layers of hidden truths to what is visible which is both liberating andproblematic, all at once.
In the Bharatanatyam scene, a woman is both the muse and the creator. She does not dance to the tunes of somebody, but demands the tune to follow her dance. The stars and faces of Bharatanatyam are all very powerful women, and yet, when you study the history of dance and its texts, one cannot but wonder why is it documented by men, coded by men and full of texts and compositions penned by men? The heroine has always been pining and dancing either for her male god or lord! The history of art as we know of today is manipulated and all the contribution by women have been systematically erased upto a certain point in time. The families of hereditary dancers was matriarchal and the art was handed down generation to generation and performed by extremely knowledgeable and powerful women. It is impossible that they have nothing to attribute to the Shastra of dance. Most compositions too clearly have been written by women but credited to men, about which there is a lot of research going on. The “purification” and the “re-christening” took away a lot from this art form. Upper class women who occupied the arts scene took moral objection to its erotic content and edited it out to be showcased as a purely spiritual and devotional form.
The dancers are women yes, but there is always a clause, It is the upper class women mostly. For dancers from Lower caste or financial strata, to become popular dancers is no less than a miracle. The disparity is huge and clearly visible.
If for once we ignore the problematic equations in the dance community and just take the scene for what it is, that too is surprisingly deceptive. While women dance and own the platforms and have a huge fan following, it is the men who mostly operate the dynamics of the scene. The organisers, financiers are all men and they do not leave any leaf unturned to establish their dominance. They have to fight for a performance space evading harassment and objectification of their bodies. These women survive cruel body shaming and racist comments and still hold on strongly to the desire of performing. While some dancers are blessed with a good support system, for most women it's a lonely battle and a dexterous support building exercise. Along with their strict diets, stamina building, costumes, make up, jewellery and hours of dancing they have to handle domesticity as well.
The male dancers who pursue this dance also have a struggle of their own. They have to boldly embrace their feminine side or learn to be abashed of their choices. Invariably, the men in this art-form understand that struggles of gender better, whilst they fight away from being labelled as being too effeminate or too stiff. There is however a breath of fresh air with this current generation of dancers who refuse to conform to gender normative roles and believe in the fluidity of gender. This is one space, where men have to fight for equal space and opportunities.
The scene is definitely evolving and there is a lot of hope. Especially, from the young generation who do not fear asking questions and do not run away from taking stands. We can see today, a Rama Vaidyanathan who proudly shows the fraternity that a woman can convene a festival and make it the talk of the season, a Narthaki Nataraj who has taken her art to such great heights that nobody would even dare to think about the politics of gender when she is around, a Nrithya Pillai who daringly takes on the system with all her strength and speaks for the minorities in the dance field, an Anuradha Venkatraman who is unafraid to protest and take political stands through her art, an Anita Ratnam who can write eloquently and fearlessly about her opinions and hold a mirror to the dancing fraternity. There are a stream of young artistes who want to create content from a feministic point of view and build a new repertoire. Things are changing for the better and there is hope! If women stand by each other and make this an equal and healthy space, it can set a precedent.