Faculty of Religious Studies
Chair, Panel: Recalling a Gesture: History, Identity, and Memory in Bharatanatyam Dance
Spanning almost two centuries of modern cultural, social, political and aesthetic negotiation, Bharatanatyam’s colonial and postcolonial legacies are central to contemporary articulations of Tamil self expression. The three papers in this panel attempt to deepen our understandings of the complex, contested relationships between gender, nation and memory and dance in South India and Sri Lanka.
Hari Krishnan’s paper examines the shifting roles of the male performer of Bharatanatyam from the time of last Maratha ruler of Thanjavur to the middle of the twentieth century. He argues that notions of masculinity and religiosity embedded within Orientalist and nationalist discourse create a public and reproducible new masculine identity for male performers of Bharatanatyam in the early twentieth century. Janet O’Shea traces the emblematic uses of Bharatanatyam for competing expressions of Tamil and Sinhalese national identities in Sri Lanka. Based on recent fieldwork in the region, her paper interrogates the affective political dimensions of Bharatanatyam as reifications of ethnic and national selfhood. Davesh Soneji’s paper, based on fieldwork with devadasi communities in modern Tamilnadu, traces the ways in which individual remembering and practice re-constitute the female self in post-reform South India. Analyzing mnemonic "performances behind closed doors" in Tamil devadasi communities, Soneji comments on the strategic revelation and concealment of memory and stigma in the everyday lives of devadasi women.
Together, the papers in this panel illuminate, from a variety of conceptual and methodological standpoints, the ways in which dance practitioners negotiate the fragile and potentially volatile tensions between history/memory, the local/global, and tradition/modernity. These papers mark the interface between gender, nation, and the cultural scripting of the dancing body that explains, subverts, and challenges the familiar trajectories of Bharatanatyam’s pasts.
Throughout the Kaveri delta region, and even in the city of Chennai, women from devadasi communities remember and perform their dance repertoire, but behind closed doors, in the privacy of their homes. The courtly and salon repertoire – sabdams, varnams, padams and javalis – root them in their historical identities as devadasis, but simultaneously mark the "undesirable differentness" of stigma that makes being a devadasi in South Indian today untenable. How can we talk about the doubled-meaning of these performances of memory, nostalgia, and loss by women? How do the women themselves straddle the fragile boundaries of voice and silence? Using ethnographic data from devadasi communities in Viralimalai, Thiruvidaimarudur, Chidambaram, and Chennai, I demonstrate the complexities of self-representation in these communities. The pleasures of performance are now transformed into an exercise in aesthetic mnemonics. Their "underground" performances have no audience, but are seen as the last clues to a past that otherwise has disappeared from their everyday lives. These performances of recall in the present constitute a strategy or "technique" of mnemonics – a memoria technica – that re-makes the self from scattered fragments of history, memory and experience.
Prof. Soneji's research and teaching focuses on gender, ritual and performance in Tamil and Telugu-speaking South India. His current research on devadasis in nineteenth and twentieth-century South India examines the interface between female public performers and colonial modernity. His other academic interests include various aspects of poetics and literary production in South Asia, Sakta-Tantric philosophy, Indian Hermeneutics, and Jainism. He is co-editor, with Indira Viswanathan Peterson, of Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India (2007), and has also been commissioned to edit the Oxford Anthology of Writing on Indian Dance. He is currently completing a social history of dancing women in Tamil and Telugu-speaking South India from 1830 to the present.