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How dance can help change sexism in Indian society: A perspective for International Women's Day
- Simran Khurana

March 8, 2020

Just a few days ago, newspapers in India ran a depressing headline. "Court has deferred the matter as the mercy petition of one of the convicts (of the Delhi gangrape case), is pending before the President of India." And yet again, our judiciary system has let us down. The irony here is that this news breaks out in the same month as International Women's Day, a day we commemorate women.

The women of India probably let out a collective sigh of despair, knowing fully well how this game will play out. Courts do their administrative dance. Governments dither. Social activists who once shouted hoarse are now exhausted. The newspapers move on to juicier headlines. And the people of India get on with their business. Life goes on.The dead don't speak up for themselves. It is the living who make all the noise. Thus, while Nirbhaya's soul hangs in a void, we the people of India simply shrug and say, "It's like this only!"

Now, you'd ask me, "How is this related to dance?" That's easy. Dance is a mode of expression. Dance speaks the voice of the soul. Dance is how you connect the abstract and the real worlds. If you look at the Indian classical dance sphere, most dancers are women. In fact, it is probably one of the few professions where women outnumber men. Though dance was traditionally a male bastion, today women have taken to dance like fish to water. Since most dancers are predominantly women, should we not introspect on how dance, a powerful mode of expression has played a role in the upliftment of women?

Our Indian mythology is full of women heroes. We have the all-omnipotent Ma Durga, who kills the demon Mahishasura at the end of a fifteen-day war. There is Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. Sita is the devoted wife of Lord Ram who spends almost her entire life in exile and isolation, and Draupadi is the Pandava queen who was molested in public and later seeks vengeance for her humiliation. These are names of just a few women mentioned in our holy texts, who have set examples of love, compassion, and wisdom. To this day, goddesses are worshipped and treated with reverence. Our Indian classical dances often depict the stories of these women heroes and their life lessons. Shakti, a term synonymous with women as the eternal fountain of power is a part of Lord Shiva. Shiva, the lord of dance, is also worshipped as Ardhanareeshwar, a symbolic and inseparable union of the male and the female. The feminine form is revered as Mother Nature, the womb from where all life takes form.

Despite our deeply ingrained culture of worshipping goddesses and female deities, we have innumerable incidences of women abuse. In fact, statistically, every day 93 women are reportedly raped in India. Take a moment to absorb that fact. And these are only the "reported" cases. A lot goes on under the radar, which is not accounted for in bureaucratic data. In many parts of India, molestation and rape cases are hushed by family and society for fear of taboo. The few women who take the bold step of reporting sexual crimes end up being ostracized, shamed, and eventually kept in limbo by a slow moving judiciary system. What makes Indian women so susceptible to sexual crimes? Isn't it an irony that the country that worships different avatars of Devi (goddess) has become a haven for gender based crime? Why are we a nation of perverts?

The answer has to be found somewhere deep in our cultural roots. The patriarchal societies have a big role to play in our social pre-conditioning. Even the women, who may not be outright misogynists, have knowingly or unknowingly contributed to this discriminative attitude. Any woman who chooses to express herself is termed "loose" or "a woman without morals."

Another factor could be the role of British invasion in our history. The colonial hangover continues. Before Independence, the English who came to our land viewed our cultural dances as vulgar and erotic display of love and sensuality. Their anglicized views could not appreciate the depth and maturity of our dances. Gradually, Devadasis (temple dancers) were forced into prostitution, and "nautch" dancers were invited to satisfy the lusty royals at court. Consequently, dance began to be considered as taboo in high societies, and girls from reputed families were forbidden to learn classical dance. Even today, though classical dances have regained esteem, thanks to the efforts of a handful of veteran dancers and gurus, many families will still not allow their daughters to take up dancing as a full-fledged profession. It is regarded as a "hobby" and nothing serious.

If we truly want our women to be safe, the society needs to adopt a new perspective towards women. Shakti has to make a stronger presence. Dance should be treated as a medium of expression, and not a release for sexual frustration. The outlook towards our classical arts has to change. The good thing is that many dancers are now experimenting with "women oriented" themes, where they explore abstract and real concepts through expressive movement. Many more projects should be taken up that attack the root cause of gender prejudice. Merely a #metoo movement just won't cut it. But it is a good start all the same.

Dance and other performing arts can make a significant contribution in shaping public opinion. Instead of brushing real issues under the carpet, it is time we moved towards inclusive storytelling, which will hopefully tie up loose ends that society is still grappling with. Let us stop pretending that it is not our problem. Because it is our problem. Change can only come about, when we begin before the problem takes place in our own home.

Let us prevent another Nirbhaya from happening again.

Simran Khurana is a Kathak dancer, and researcher, with over two decades of writing experience, having worked with national and international publications. An avid music and dance lover, Simran aims to bring about a synergy between her profession and passion.

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