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Why do I hear it in Surround sound?
Why do I need to cast this column as an allegory?
- Dr. Arshiya Sethi

January 31, 2022

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author.)

Why do I hear a cacophony in surround sound, on the occasion of Birju Maharaj's death? The last choreography, of his funeral,where hundreds of his students chanted the 'bols' of Kathak, had barely reached its 'sam', when two distinct sound tracks became identifiable- with both the tracks playing a different tune. While the dominant track sound sung loudly, and in chorus, about the golden artistry, the quieter, more disturbing, multiple voices, but rendered singly, were about darker actions.

Does death free one of bonds and bondages, bags and baggage? Does death reinforce fear, or fearlessness? Does death make one face oneself, as did the thirty birds, with each representing a human fault, in Sufi poet Fariduddin Attar's Persian poem the "Conference of the Birds"? Or does death cause erasure, losing both life and its lesson?

The quieter voices that are speaking today, having broken their silence, are fearless voices- excavating excruciating, and often long buried memories. But they are voices of courage to go against the flow of the celebration of a 'revered' artiste, which the feminist and humanist from the dance work, scholar and professor of dance, and choreographer of social justice themes, Ananya Chatterjea has called in her Facebook post, "the deep-seated hypocrisy covering over the pain of violences".

Ironically the voices in cadence are not the only injured voices. Surprisingly many of the chorus voices are injured as well. They chose to remain silent then, a position anyone who has experienced violences, abuse and injuries understands well. It is a choice and position that is respected too. But will these voices, which chose to remain silent for years, maybe decades, now, at least, be set free? Will the injuries finally stop hurting? Will speaking out, even now, stop the pain, drive away the demons?

Continuing with the metaphor of birds in the context of a death related story, the soul is regarded as a bird - specifically a 'Hamsa' that flies away to the light and the highest realms of the Kailash Mountain, as the soul, flying off to the cosmic realm, after leaving the mortal coil. In Hindu philosophy, the hamsa has the mythical ability to extract milk from a mix of milk and water, symbolizing its ability to separate good from that which is not. This quality is known as "Hamsa Ksheera Nyaya".

Apparently, water birds do have a feature in their bills called lamellae, a miniature ridge, carrying comb like serrations that acts as a filter to separate water from mud, when feeding. But no bird has really been known to separate milk and water, or as one version says, pearls from milk. That is entirely in the realm of myth but very strongly enshrined in the Hindu way of being.

Hamsa Ksheera Nyaya is an idea rooted in three words- Hamsa for swan, Ksheera for milk and Nyaya for justice or judgement! As the Hamsa is a metaphor for the soul, what this idea tells us is that our soul is capable of wisdom and discretion. That is also the reason why Saraswati's vehicle is the swan. But our soul does not come into play on death alone. It is our partner in life too.

In fact, the soul in life is our divya shakti, the God factor, that all of us carry. In life it serves as our intellect, our inner voice, the voice of our conscience, the articulated consciousness, that advices us in an internal conversation, almost like an 'anhadnaad', about right values, about the difference between good and bad, that protects us from unsustainable material indulgences, drives us away from the unethical ways and exploitative pleasures of the flesh. Why does it happen then, that in the training of dance, we stress on training the body and not the soul? Why not? After all, in Indian dance, we work with a Guru who removes the darkness and shows the light and the way!

If the Guru does not light up the bigger path beyond dance, not just through its pedagogy, but via personal example too, then we need to unmute, and speak up to question the Guru. It is difficult to speak to power, but each one of us has a powerful ally in our soul. Don't minimize it. Don't silence it. Don't kill it. Ride your personal Hamsa to be like the Vak Devi, and speak up, sing up, dance up. Speak up singly and speak up together. The laws of ethics and the land are with you. You will not be fighting alone. It is not always about "Eklachalo", even if it may start like that, because increasingly it is inevitable that somewhere, someone will emerge out of the shadows to stand with you. There is now large enough a circle looking out for you.

Indian dance, as we all have been told, is about more than dance. It is reformatory with the reformation coming by the way the Guru illuminates the path. The reformation comes starting with the self and then goes on to embrace the larger world around. Did we keep out tryst with Saraswati, the one who is the goddess of the arts and of knowledge, hence our power both of the art and of discrimination? Don't forget that she is the one who also rides the swan, the hamsa, as we all do, we who are mindful of the fact that our soul is zoomorphically represented by the hamsa. Does our intellect not let us pick out the artist from the artistry; after all they are two separate entities?

Let me continue with stories of birds. The other God who rides a swan is Brahma, the Creator in the triumvirate of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer, or regenerator, a term I personally prefer. He is also the Hindu God with the least number of temples dedicated to his worship, of which the best known one is in Pushkar in Rajasthan. Brahma is also always depicted as a loner, not with his consort Saraswati. It stems from the fact of being embroiled in a celestial scandal, in the realm of what we would call sexual harassment in today's times. The legend has it that he was preying on his own creation.

In a Speaking Tree column, of July 3rd 2018, the columnist explains the story. Acording to the writeup, a Hindu mythological legend tells us that along with the creation of the universe, Lord Brahma created a very beautiful female deity called Shatarupa, the one who could acquire a hundred beautiful forms. According to the Brahma Puran, Shatarupa was the first woman Brahma created, as a 'manasputri', born by the power of his mind, along with the first man, Manu, sometimes called Swayambhu Manu, the mythical forefather of mankind, as a result of which we are called Manushya.

Brahma had only one head when he had started creating the universe. Later, due to his shenanigans with this female deity, he got five, including one that looked skywards.So great was Shatarupa's beauty, that Brahma became completely infatuated with her. He could not take his eyes off her and stared at her constantly watching her wherever she went, attempting to hold her and control her. In today's time this would fit the description of stalking, hardly a quality that would qualify as divine, or worth emulating.

Shatarupa was shocked, frightened and embarrassed by this attention and intention. She attempted to escape his gaze, but in every direction that she moved, Brahma sprouted a new head until he had developed four, to cover the nodal directions of North, South, East and West. Desperate Shatarupa took the form of the cow Gayatri, and jumped high in the sky. To keep her captive in his gaze, Brahma sprouted his fifth head that looked skywards. Angered by this unacceptable behaviour, none other than Lord Shiva, also known as the Lord of dance, Nataraj, appeared as Bhairav, admonished him and chopped off his fifth head, as a punishment for over stepping the line, by being overly attached to his creations, especially the beauty of the body. He also cursed him for forgetting 'dharma' or righteousness, declaring that henceforth he would not be worshipped.

Imagine if this sort of behaviour - with one so much younger, the obsessive stalking, unethical demands, sexualised relations, undue and unwarranted control was to be pursued by a Guru, who in their right mind, and the mindfulness of the soul, would want to persist in a Guru Shishya parampara? Among the many descriptions and adjectives for the Guru of dance that I have come across recently include Natya yogi with eyes that see beyond. Regrettably, many such Gurus have eyes that don't see beyond the dancer's corporeal forms.

In a way, like Brahma created Shatarupa, the Guru also creates the dancing body and sometimes get stuck at the level of the dancer's body. With the deification with which we filter Guru behaviour, one may ignore both the initial signs and the final transgression. But in doing so, don't we go contra to the powerful warning signals sent by our discerning soul? "The currencies of filial piety weaponised Guru Shishya parampara. Elitism, and massive power differentials" says another contra voice, in these threads. With the words "Our golden idols have clay feet", a US based dancer started his post, as he broke the silence on this much hushed up prevalence of sexual violence in the arts,that has come uncomfortably close to us, and in our own times.

Given the absence of checks and balances in this verticalized relationship of trust and ethics, imagine what a terrible abuse of whimsical power sexual violence amounts to? Those faced with this situation, if they don't speak up in protest, and whenever they do, are not heard empathetically, supported and acted upon, would have only two pathways before them - to leave the art as a clean amputation of association, or to put up with such abuse in a desperate pursuit of the art they love. Both are very heavy burdens to bear for love for the arts. Therefore, it is not enough to speak up when the water goes over the head, but instead a standard proactive policy of zero tolerance is the need of the hour. Such a policy is needed for ourselves for self-protection, but it is equally needed for coming generations, and the future of the art. So, each time we break the silence, we also break the cycle of abuse, and pump up protective immunity in the ecosystem of the arts.

Sometimes such levels of abuse are impossible to pursue, unless the abuser is aided, abetted and enabled by another. Look for signs that could lead to such a situation. Look out for the disguised operators, who create a false sense of comfort. Look for the deviant Gurus, and the "slow drip of molasses," to use a term coined by one of the quieter voices singing the contra tune. Look out also for "those who chose herd safety" for they often "knowingly enable abuse of many kinds to survive and mutate on"- words born of deep thought and subsequent realisation. Remember every abuser has an army of enablers, those complicit in various ways, and by-standers who let it happen. They may often themselves have been the first victims of this heinous crime, but by adopting the route of complicity, they are no less guilty of perpetrating the crime, for which there exists a definite legal term - moral turpitude. They are also the ones who have willingly strangled their hamsas. They are to be pitied for they do not know what they have done to themselves and their divya shaktis.

I would like to replicate here the anger of Ananya as she asks, in her Facebook post, the question - "WHAT WILL IT get the justice we deserve". That is the seminal question to answer. For researchers and scholars this question opens up a morass of intersectional lines, in which patriarchy and gender, informed with caste, class, community, criss-cross in a plexus. But for the one who means business and wants a quick solution, the answer is as clear as crystal. It will take us unmuting, speaking up and calling out, demanding a safe environment.

They say in the eulogies pouring in, that it is the end of an era. Such a time is a time for change. Prof. Ananya Chatterjea argues for a "hard reset (that) the dance field needs". Will this turn out to be that historic moment? Can one individual swing it? As one deeply concerned with social justice issues through a lifetime of scholarship and dance-based research resulting in "people powered dances of transformation", Chatterjea urges us to "together screw shut the doors of this field and refigure it". The shutting of the doors is essential for "What is racist is casteist, is toxic, is homophobic, is misogynist, and does not belong here."

We sincerely hope that this is the end of the era of pernicious play, noxious nightmares and unabridged abuse, the tolerance of negativity and the normalising of toxicity in the arts. May it mark the dawn of an era of safe learning and safer performing spaces, and more than that, may it mark the active creation of brave spaces where there is the courageous readiness to call out wrong from right, with conviction and not judgement, not as hunters but as humanists.

In a recent conversation I had with performer and intimacy coach, Neha Vyas, I found that she was actually creating an organisation, Brave Spaces Inc. Brave Spaces was an augmentation of the idea of Safe Spaces, that is a term used often when talking about countering abuse. "A safe space assumes a guarantee of individual safety, but can a space or an individual deliver on the absolute promise of safety? We believe not, and even when it does, it can become a tool of silencing", explained Neha, one of the three co-founders of Brave Spaces, with the two other founders being HR professional Smriti Tiwari and Film maker and producer Jahnavi Mody. "Silencing questions and opinions for the "fear" of harm to another can definitely mitigate harm, but can it be all-pervasive? If humans are unique then how can their feeling of safety be homogenous?" asked Neha.

Who can decide for you when you feel safe? Shouldn't you, yourself, hold the power to advocate for what makes you feel safe, and creates the latitude for you to grow? Can the same rules apply for different spaces, or could there be need to tweak them for changed spaces and changed threat perceptions? What if you could decide differently what makes you feel safe, in different places? Wouldn't that give you enormous agency allowing you to be your most authentic and brave self, and build a culture that advocates for individuals while holding space for the community? Therefore, a "Brave Space" is one where the community you belong to, creates expanses where art thrives, and consent, boundaries, and individual agency, are valued. Brave spaces do not get born on order. They are created through daily effort, through acts of quotidian courage and the conviction that it will become more possible and plausible with each passing day, after the first step is taken.

This piece, like all others written in this column, is not about diminishing but of building a more empathetic ecosystem for the Indian arts. Much has been said, even if left unsaid, just as much is conveyed by the use, and the need for the use of figures of speech, especially in the metaphor of the birds and the allegory of the Brahma legend. Even though the Brahma legend is a timeless one, this piece has been written with the hamsa as a metaphor for the soul or our discerning intellect that resides in each one of us who claims to be a sentient being.

This soul, or intellect, walks with us throughout our life, whispering to us about what is right and what is wrong. Do we hear it? Or do we let it go unheard? Is it due to noise pollution or is it out of FOMO, the fear of missing out? Do we ignore it, as we seek opportunities and approval, at any cost, from Gurus and other power peddlers with enormous egos and asymmetrically aligned pelf and privilege positions, all of us who fail us as human beings? Will it be wrong then to wonder if we as artistes and stakeholders from the arts community have kept our tryst with Saraswati? In life itself, have we let go of the soul, the divya shakti, the God factor, that normally flies off on death? Are we allowing ourselves to be the living dead? Are such people even fit to be artists? Why are we deliberately, purposefully and determinedly, out of touch with our souls?

Dr. Arshiya Sethi, trained in Kathak, has served as dance critic, commentator, institution builder for the arts, having created both tangible and intangible institutions and equities. She has been a Fulbright Arts Fellow (2003-2004) and a post doctoral Fulbright (2016-2017). Her doctoral work has been on the link between politics and dance in the case of Sattriya. She is presently working on the intersection of dance and activism / social justice through her NGO, Kri Foundation (estd. 2003), and has extended her academic work to Indian dance in the diaspora. She is a Co-Founder,

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