'Sweating Saris' attempts to reveal the invisible lives of dancers

History, memory, culture and politics overlap in Sweating Saris,

Updated - January 04, 2018 01:20 pm IST

Published - January 03, 2018 06:01 pm IST

On a boat from Java to Melbourne, as part of her work with the Theosophical Society, Rukmini Devi Arundale bumped into ballet legend Anna Pavlova. “Can you teach me ballet?” asked Arundale. Pavlova asked why she wanted to learn ballet, when there are so many dances in her own country. “Our dances have been destroyed. Dancers who normally practise this art form, are not allowed to do it any more,” she replied.

“Rukmini learnt ballet from Pavlova and eventually forgot her, just as Martha Graham, an American modern dancer, forgot her guru Ruth St Denis, also a pioneer in American modern dance. Just like Denis forgot the devadasis and the naachwaalis in Coney Island in the US that she learnt the dance from,” says Priya Srinivasan, dressed in a hybrid of Bharatanatyam attire and a ballet costume.

“There is so much forgetting,” she continues, as she dances, “I hear the vasantha raaga again, and every time I see the quintessential Bharatnatyam piece ‘Natanam Adinar’, I see not only the dance of Shiva but also ballet.”

Eye of the beholder

History, memory, culture and politics overlap in Sweating Saris , which she describes as a “performing historical ethnography”. It is a unique performance, where Srinivasan, Ramya Harishankar, and Carnatic vocalist Uthra Vijay interact with the audience, bringing to life the former’s book Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labor .


A dancer, choreographer and scholar, Srinivasan worked as Associate Professor of Dance at the University of California in Critical Dance Studies. She realised her work was inadequate, “because it does not allow the subject, who is the guru, to fully speak back to the writer. The performance was a way for the subject to challenge the author, rethink power, not just in the form, but also in the teaching.”

Her work brings together performance with visual art, interactive multimedia and digital technology. At its heart, Sweating Saris reveals invisible lives and the labour of dancers.

The book claims Bharatanatyam is a hybrid art form. “The influence of devadasi dance is evident in ‘Radha’, a piece of choreography by St Denis. She was influenced by the Indian artistes who a boarded ship to Coney Island, and lived there in the late 19th Century.” In turn, Arundale was influenced by ballet due to her tutorship under Anna Pavlova. “A student of Anna came to learn under Rukmini after she established Kalakshetra. The first show Arundale created in Kalakshetra was a Ramayana ballet. She used western theatrical methods to bring the art from the temple to the modern space of theatre.”

The presentation is intimate and interactive. At one point Srinivasan reprimands the audience for not clapping. She also addresses the labour that goes into the spectacle called Bharatanatyam: in scenes where a girl hurts her feet while performing on stage. She points out, “It tries to show how we labour as artistes. And raises the question: if we look at Bharatanatyam as political, historical, aesthetic, cultural, pleasurable and painful, what does it look like? What happens when we reveal everything that goes into it?”

Watch Sweating Saris at Spaces, Besant Nagar, on January 6, 6 pm. For details, call 9790924889.

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