Narrative, Memory, and Social Responsibility
When I was an undergrad student at W&M, I spent a weekend at UPenn for a Model Congress conference. As a student of political science and mathematics, I avidly followed the public policy debates of the day (this was 2010, so… it was health care).
At that time, as much as I loved Indian classical dance, I really didn’t know what I could do with it. I did not know any alternative path that was available to a member of the Indian diaspora, outside of performing. American politics? I loved it. I was fascinated by it, by the combination of research, contextualization, numbers, heart, and politicking at the federal, state, and local level to effect change. I was being introduced to the idea of intersectionality - again, largely in the American context.
I just dug up the bill I had written for that conference - it was an act to redetermine the calculation of poverty thresholds. It seemed extremely important that weekend, when I spent days in conference with students of some of the most elite schools (W&M was the only delegation that was not an Ivy League university; we are a public university). Casual, off-hand warnings from some of the students hosting us not to wander to dangerous areas of the city within walking distance of the campus just highlighted the mere blocks and streetlights that can separate vast chasms of wealth, opportunity, race, and class (and the ever looming specter of America’s original sins of slavery and genocide).
That same semester, I was introduced to the concept of intersectionality in the context of South Asia by an incredibly transformative course taught by Prof. Chitralekha Zutshi titled “Nation, Gender, and Race in South Asia”. However, the path for that was laid earlier, in the class that convinced me to pursue my major in government. The densely titled class - “Survey of Political Theory” was taught by Prof. P.J. Brendese. A brilliant scholar, he intricately wove together seemingly ivory tower concepts like liberalism and the social contract theory with the millieu of modern life specifically through the lens of a society’s memory, time, and narratives we build around identity.
All of this came rushing back to me in seemingly full circle this weekend. I arrived at Philly for a performance / lecture event at the Philly Improv Theater, along with a cadre of fellow students in the M.A. Kuchipudi program at the University of SiliconAndhra. The event, titled “South Indian Dance in Critical Context”, was organized by the South Asia Center at UPenn, featuring Dr. Yashoda Thakore (University of SiliconAndhra), Dr. Davesh Soneji (UPenn), and Dr. Hari Krishnan (Wesleyan University), as well as vocalists K. R. Sudharani and Vaaraki Wijayaraj, mridangist Kajan Pararasasegaram, and violinist Mithuran Manoharan. The presentation was part lecture by Dr. Soneji (who somehow reminded me of both Prof. Brendese and Prof. Zutshi from my W&M days), part performance by Dr. Yashoda and Dr. Hari Krishnan (specifically the dance form of the hereditary women dancing communities from the Coastal Andhra regions and Tamil-speaking regions, with live orchestra), and a much-too-short Q&A session.
The performances themselves were brilliant - equal parts heart and technical prowess, and the music was incredible. I could write so much more about that, but I won’t. I don’t think that is the takeaway that these scholars wanted us to leave the theater with, that they were incredible performers (and yes! They were!).
Here are some of the ways in which this presentation was different from a typical Indian classical dance performance. (I was not able to take notes during the presentation, so, my sincere apologies if I fail to capture the full context or mischaracterize things. Doing my best not to.)
Dr. Soneji began with a contextualization - historical, societal, and personal. He spoke about the place where the Kalavantulu women danced - in temples, in royal courts, and in zamindari courts - as well as the confluence of the nationalist movement, the idea of morality, the establishment of the “classical” and “purified” forms that elevated (and in the process, fundamentally reconstructed) dance into the classical forms we know today, like Bharatanatyam. Kuchipudi was also noted to having a narrative of its origins that did not recognize the contributing of the Kalavantulu in its repertoire. The effects of nationalistic, political, and societal changes led to marginalization and erasure from memory and silencing of the women and their bodies. At the same time, their music and dance contributed to modern day classical dance forms, to the new media forms of the early 1900s - gramophone records and cinema.
He spoke of how he, Dr. Yashoda, and Dr. Krishnan met the descendants of the Kalavanthulu family, and their efforts - as well as the moral imperative - to ethically and responsibly understand and approach this dance form and to not engage in cultural appropriation. He also spoke more personally, of Dr. Yashoda’s personal history: she was a dancer belong to a lineage of Kalavantulu who did not know that identity until she was in her 20s because of the very same forces that led to the silencing and erasure of the voices of these women. A trained Kuchipudi artist, she chose to learn the history of these women and their art, and to challenge the comfortable narratives of classical dance.
Dr. Yashoda presented four pieces - a nritta swara pallavi in manirang raga, the padam illerungaka mari, and two javalis - emoyaniyancakura and boti talagalene. Dr. Soneji prefaced every piece with the history of that particular item, as well as a translation of any lyrics. I was struck by a couple of marked differences from the way I have seen Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam pieces introduced - the padams and javalis were not presented within a spiritual framework, and there was no coyness or eroticizing about the lyrics, both in his translations and in Dr. Yashoda’s presentation. They were not leading the audience on how to understand or interpret the lyrics, they were just stating the meaning as-is.
On a personal note, I first saw a clip of Dr. Yashoda on Youtube several years ago, performing the padam illerungaka mari, and I was emotionally moved by the dance itself, but had no context beyond that. This was before I had the privilege of interviewing with her for the SiliconAndhra MA program, and taking courses from her. I cannot put in words how meaningful it was to watch that very piece, this time, in person, with a much better understanding of the weight of history and the radical nature of that performance.
Dr. Soneji introduced Dr. Krishnan next, emphasizing that he was not from these hereditary families, but had spent years researching and learning from them. (There was a lot more, but I didn’t take notes, so I don’t want to misstate information). Dr. Krishnan presented a swarajathi in raga Huseni. Dr. Soneji explained that at least six different versions of this swarajathi have been documented, in various languages, and that the most popularly known one is in Telugu - e mayaladira. The version presented yesterday was in a Thanjavur dialect of Marathi, based on a manuscript found in the archives of Saraswathi Mahal Library in Thanjavur. This piece was a rhythmically complex, emotional journey, performed improvisationally with live music. (Read that last sentence a few times and let that sink in.)
The Q&A session was wide-ranging, as the audience was a mixed audience with various backgrounds. My major takeaways:
The importance of understanding history and being curious, as well as being willing to share that history.
The importance of memory and narrative and letting marginalized voices speak for themselves (and creating space for them to do so)
The differences in technique and the historical underpinnings of those differences.
I’m sure there was more. But I’ll stop for now.
If you attended and are reading this, what were your takeaways?