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In Response to Gayatri Iyer's article in The Hindu about Indian classical dance and Queerness - In context of Dharmic Texts, Characters and Bharatanatyam
- Ramaa Venugopalan

July 9, 2024

(In response to Gayatri Iyer's article in THE HINDU about classical Performing Arts being hesitant to explore queerness and other non-binary identities for the stage, here is a response by dancer Ramaa Venugopalan.)

Why are Indian classical arts hesitant to depict queerness?
By Gayatri Iyer

"It is no surprise that proscenium stages in Chennai are still hesitant to showcase this subject matter. When queer dancers themselves struggle for acceptance, how can we expect the subject of queerness in art to be unequivocally accepted? Perhaps, the answer lies in looking to the past, before our sensibilities were encumbered by Victorian ideals, to a society that produced the image of Ardhanarishvara - neither man, nor woman, but both simultaneously.''

Let us dwell on the reality of this premise using a broad spectrum of facts.

The Ardhanareeshwara bait
Ardhanareeshwara is an often used bait for skewed narratives! Representing Purusha and Prakriti, the interplay of the active and the non-active aspects of the universe is the essence. Reducing this to a gross mapping of cross-dressing or some queer identity only reflects the shallow perspective of this core concept.

The Parabrahma Vastu, the Brahman, is a concept beyond any gender identification. The practitioner can use the art as means to experience Brahman and hence the art experience is called the Brahmasvaada-sahodara. To be able to relish the svaada or the essence of that eternal Brahman - which is beyond all the differences that a human mind can conjure.

We have two choices - One to defy the whole concept and use art just for a personal gain or happiness; two, to try and understand this higher essence and use art as a vehicle to elevate our understanding from the mundane! It is an individual choice. Art helps us in both the paths.

Accusation on the Dharmic fold
The current trend is to constantly perceive all our Dharmic texts, characters and literary works and impose the narratives of queerness, patriarchy, disdain and accusation of exclusivity. I have watched productions that combine Bharatanatyam, theater and movements with concepts that are ripe with a single perspective of slandering our dharmic values in the name of queer, sexuality and liberal perspective. Every artist has a right to their intellectual perspective. But isn't it also convenient that only our Hindu texts are chosen and not those of other religions? If one claims to be inclusive, let it apply across all religious texts too, which incidentally strongly condemn and deny the existence of homosexuality and even call it a sin. How convenient to only subjugate Hindu dharmic texts with this accusatory tone!

Our poets, seers like Manickavachagar, Jayadeva, Kabir, Jana Bai, Míra, Sant Tukaram, Namadeva, Andal...used their art to transcend the emotions to a divine space and their work is an expression of profound bhakti, and a loving madness to the Higher Power. Across the length and breadth of our Bharata, our texts and poetry speak of a wide range of emotions used to bond to the divine in various forms and relationships. The sexual union, although a completely physical and physiological act, in the momentary orgasmic state, is actually an out of the body experience, isn't it? This is why even Tantra uses sex as a means of a cosmic union with a pathway to transcend and experience something beyond the gross body.

A cursory reflection into our own relationships will offer us a view that we may love, care and show concern to various people, without any sexual tone. Emotions such as Shringara, Vaatsalya are not just a single dimensional landscape but are multi-layered. Our poets therefore used these aspects of our emotions with the Deity and expounded their bhava. Bharatanatyam or any other classical art form has always been encompassing and will continue to do so, despite the forced narrative. The author's imposition in the article elsewhere that Jayadeva or Manickavachagar were queers, is a gross disrespect to them, their work and their profound intention.

The core issue of non-acceptance
The core issue of non-acceptance is the responsibility of the entire community of dancers, audience and organizers. The author shifts the focus from this, and chooses the accusation on Dharmic texts as a convenient recourse.

The dance fraternity is made up of humans - single, unmarried, married, divorced, multiple partner relationship, consensual relationship, broken relationships, married with children, married without children, gays, lesbians, transgenders, paedophiles, power mongers, sexual abusers, women beaters, illicit relationships, partners with convenience, without convenience, humane, sensitive, kind, empathetic, giving, caring, generous, magnanimous, intelligent... you get the drift, right?

The ecosystem of performance is filled with humongous challenges to all artists inhabiting the competitive art scenario. For the record, Nrithya Kalanidhi is a transgender and many of our artists are queers and chose not to speak about their sexual preference in public. Accusative narratives are more a call to impose upon us a certain Victorian morality, which the author herself has fallen prey to perhaps! But our Dharma is never about morality. And therefore our classical arts have always encouraged every practitioner to learn, practice and perform it with a sense of freedom and creative instinct. The sexual orientation - queer, straight or whatever else is the new definition in the forever growing identity dictionary, is irrelevant to this process. Artistry is!

The author displays a contradicting view by referring to sculptures in our temples, and the display of esoteric and erotic representation of sexuality in texts, literature, paintings, poetry. These references affirm that our art and thought is all inclusive without discriminating against anyone based on sexual preference. The fact that our dharma gave the world not just the Kamasutra but also included Kama as the four fold path in the evolution of our mortal life, is suggestive of inclusivity of human sexual behaviour.

The Focus and Onward...
The point being this - as a society, we face challenges to accept and understand the vagaries of human bonds and choices across all religions.

Let us, as a community, focus on the core issue of not just queer, but on other serious issues such as sexual abuse and power play as well. It is our collective responsibility to enable a healthy environment and opportunity to allow all artists to display their artistry.

To impose skewed, incorrect perspectives to the practice of art form, the dharmic premise of our text, literature, is a gross misappropriation and adharma.

Art is meant to transcend, even if momentarily. Our worlds are inhabited with chaos and challenges. Art provides us a respite and allows us to travel to a space that is devoid of these mundane perspectives. Let this space be one that we all inhibit, share and attempt to experience transcendence. And let the mundane world be just that - mundane!


Ramaa Venugopalan is a performer and teacher of Bharatanatyam from Bangalore, for a little over three decades.  

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