Meet the women who are taking classical dance to public spaces
Three women in their early 20s, armed with a camera and ghungroos, are taking Bharatnatyam to the streets, staging what are essentially classical dance flash mobs. The dancers are usually dressed in T-shirts and track pants, and each performance is recorded for their YouTube channel, Bharatnatyam in the Wild.
They’re trying to demystify the dance form, address issues about women’s safety and the uncomfortable public gaze, and become more confident about their talent, say twins Aishwarya and Priyanka Kali and classmate Swathi Gangadharan, all 22.
Their first impromptu gig was in August 2016, at Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College. They were recording a dance video to help Kali’s cousin, who had a Bharatnatyam exam coming up.
“We were doing basic steps like the adavus,” says Aishwarya. “We were taken aback by how aesthetic the video looked, even with no costumes or music.”
Intrigued, they began doing impromptu performances in crowded marketplaces, on pavements, even once at Hawa Mahal in Jaipur. They uploaded short clips on Instagram and Facebook.
The stares they got weren’t always friendly, and the responses online ranged from encouragement to rage. The women realised that not everyone appreciated seeing the ancient and highly stylised dance form played with like this. Which gave them the idea to take it further.
“Bharatnatyam was once performed in temples. Then it moved to auditoriums. It has always catered to a niche group, so we thought, why not take it directly to the masses,” says Swathi, who has been learning the dance form since she was four.
“The message we want to send out is that the public gaze cannot shame, police or embarrass us. There is a feminist element too. As with the Why Loiter campaign [a movement that encourages women to occupy public spaces in Indian cities], it’s our way of claiming our space.”
And so the women dance at traffic intersections, bus stops, heritage monuments, even on a boat in the middle of a lake.
“After we performed at Sarojini Market, we interviewed the hawkers and were surprised to find that most of them could not even identify the dance form,” says Aishwarya. “Some bystanders tell us we’re brave. Others stare awkwardly. Some scold us for ‘trying to get famous’.”
Convincing people that they mean no disrespect has been hard, and it’s a battle that began at home for Swathi. Her mother, who has studied classical Indian dance all her life, was aghast at what she saw as a disrespectful attitude to the form.
“I stood my ground,” Swathi says. “Then on a trip to Aurangabad, I convinced her to do a few steps with me in front of the caves and, to my surprise, she agreed. It’s the clip closest to my heart.”
Back home in Kolkata, Sushmita Kali, 46, mother of the twins, feels the project has made her daughters bolder and more confident. “When they try and explain concepts of feminism to me, I don’t always agree and maybe that’s the generation gap,” she says. “But I know they are on the right track when they ask me thought-provoking questions about gender equality. If this is their small attempt to bring a change, I am all for it working out.”
Meanwhile, the young women are having fun contemporising. Sometimes, they perform a traditional Bharatnatyam piece on the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh in front of a mosque; other times they rope in friends and add elements of Kathak and Mohiniattam as they dance in a garden.
“The nervousness will always be there. I still get a little shy and need to warm up to the spot before I start,” says Swathi. “But we are a lot bolder and more confident as women. It feels like we are reclaiming our spaces, one dance at a time.”