SELECTED PAPER & CHAPTER ABSTRACTS by Nirmala Seshadri
The Problematic Danseuse: Reclaiming Space to Dance the Lived Feminine
Paper published in (2017) Diotima’s: A Journal of New Readings, Kozhikode, Kerala: Providence Women’s College, 54-79
Classical dance training and its performance may be viewed as a jettisoning of the dancer’s real life experience instead of its inclusion. Rather than move in autonomy and authenticity, the dancer’s body is disciplined into presenting itself within prescribed boundaries. Various societal forces collude to discipline the female dancer into conformity. Against this backdrop, I call the female Bharatanatyam dancer who defies societal yardsticks of acceptability, resisting disciplinarity to present her lived feminine - The Problematic Danseuse.In this practice-led research paper I examine, through the lenses of history, performance aesthetics and presentation, the approaches towards and challenges of representing the lived feminine through Bharatanatyam. Even as continued transgression may result in the marginalization and eventual erasure of the Problematic Danseuse, I emphasize that this act of erasing the Problematic Danseuse who does not fit conveniently into the mainstream agenda is after all, embedded in the history and emergence of the transfigured Bharatanatyam. Highlighting the various hegemonic forces that conspire to suppress the Problematic Danseuse in various ways, I propose that creators of alternative works in Bharatanatyam acknowledge that they occupy a different space, thus presenting their work in settings that facilitate the gradual building of viewership and a critical mass that seeks engagement, challenge and societal transformation. I suggest that in the treatment and resistance of the Problematic Danseuse lie the basis for some form of solidarity with other women who have expressed their lived feminine emphatically, in time past and present that might support her persistence in critiquing status quo and searching for alternate paradigms both within Bharatanatyam and in its wider sociocultural context.
Bharatanatyam and Butoh:
An Emerging Gendered Conversation through Site-Specific Dance in Chennai and Singapore
Published in "The Moving Space: Women in Dance" (2018), Primus Publishers, New Delhi. Book Editors: Dr. Urmimala Sarkar Munsi and Dr. Aishika Chakraborthy
This practice-led research chapter engages with history, performance aesthetics, and presentation as it outlines the process by which a structured and codified form such as Bharatanatyam (the practice and performance of which is largely indoor and proscenium- based) was drawn into an outdoor space of improvisation and sensorial perception through Butoh, sculpture, poetry, music, and site-specificity. Two choreographic works serve as key points of reference—the site-specific works titled Crossroads: Journeys and Transformations through Life and Dance (2003–8) (hereafter, Crossroads) and I Carry Your Heart (2015). The works were choreographed and premiered in Chennai and Singapore respectively. Through the description of a creative process that opened up into a space of collaboration and cultural hybridization, this chapter explores how the choreographic process that interweaves sites and the dance forms (Bharatanatyam and Butoh) challenges the traditional ideas of the gendered body and provides the ground for the emergence of new contemporary expression in the Singapore milieu.
In this chapter, I adopt the analytical lens of body as I examine the intercultural, interdisciplinary, and place/space dialogue that facilitated a shift from an embodied habitus into a fluid and hybridized concept of identity. Drawing on auto-ethnographic as well as ethnographic perspectives, I demonstrate that this intersecting space of Bharatanatyam, Butoh, and site-specificity offers scope for questioning the conventional notions of the body that are embedded in a classical dance form such as Bharatanatyam, as well as in ‘erasing cultural differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’’ to create hybrid spaces that hold immense possibilities for autonomy, re-contextualization and change with respect to the present-day female Bharatanatyam dancer.
Butoh & Bharatanatyam: An Emerging Conversation through Site Specific Dance in Singapore
Paper presented at World Dance Alliance- Asia Pacific 2015 conference, “Asia Pacific Dance Bridge: Connectivity through Dance”, Singapore 2015
This practice-led research paper engages with history, performance aesthetics and presentation as it outlines the process by which a structured and codified form such as bharatanatyam (that is currently largely indoor and proscenium-based) was drawn into an outdoor space of improvisation and sensorial perception through butoh, sculpture, poetry, music and site-specificity (Hunter, 2005). Two choreographic works serve as points of reference - the site-specific work titled “I Carry Your Heart” (2015) and the site-inspired work "The Vanishing Point” (2015) – both choreographed and premiered in Singapore. The paper hinges on the question - how does the intersection of site, butoh and bharatanatyam provide the ground for the emergence of new contemporary expression in the Singapore milieu? Through live dance demonstration as well as video presentation, I demonstrate how the two-part experiment opened up into a space of collaboration and cultural hybridisation (Bhabha, 1994).
For the purpose of this paper, I adopt two analytical lenses – body (Grosz, 1998)) and hybridity, as I examine the intercultural, interdisciplinary and place/space (Turner, 2004) dialogue that facilitated a shift from an embodied habitus into a fluid and hybridised concept of identity. Drawing on autoethnographic as well as ethnographic perspectives, I argue that this intersecting space of bharatanatyam, butoh and site-specificity holds immense potential in “erasing cultural differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’” (Fraleigh, 1990) to negotiate and construct “new ethnicities” (Hall, 1988), thus demonstrating that in a multicultural context such as Singapore identities are dynamic and constantly evolving.
Revisitations of the Ramayana by Women Performing Artists in Singapore
Paper presented at ASEAN Cultural Heritage & Identities Conference, Bangkok 2015
How does the engagement of present-day women dance and theatre practitioners located in Singapore provide the ground for the emergence of new representations of the Ramayana in the Singapore milieu? Three choreographic works serve as points of reference - the classical Indian dance work titled “Samvaada” (2012), the contemporary Asian dance work "Anwesha” (2012) and “Project Ram”, an intercultural theatre project. All three works have been choreographed/directed in Singapore by women of diverse ethnicities and sub-ethnicites. I examine the significance of the epic through the different approaches and processes that opened up into spaces of collaboration and cultural hybridisation (Bhabha, 1994) in the contemporary Singapore performance context.
Then & Now/This & That : A Continuing Conversation
Paper presented at the International Conference on Bharatanatyam in Singapore, 2014
This practice-led research paper engages with my three choreographies as points of reference - the solo dance theatre production “Then and Now - Personal and Artistic Reflections" (2003), the group production "This and That" (2009) and the collaborative duet "I watched the flowers" (2012) – choreographed and performed primarily in Singapore (within a chronological framework). The main aim of the paper is to examine how the cross cultural collaborations provided the ground for new constructions of the classical dance form Bharatanatyam, while drawing largely on auto ethnographic as well as ethnographic perspectives. In this paper, I revisit the initial point of contact between my Bharatanatyam practice as a native Singaporean Indian dancer and the Mandarin poetry of a Singaporean Chinese poet Dan Ying. I demonstrate how the three-part experiment opened up into a space of collaboration, contestation and hybridity. I also engage in conversations with selected practitioners who have been located in the Singapore context.
For the purpose of this paper, I adopt three analytical lenses - body, phenomenology and hybridity, as I examine the intercultural and interdisciplinary dialogue that can facilitate a shift from an embodied habitus into a fluid and hybridised concept of identity. By drawing upon theories and through video excerpts, I illustrate the deep connection between the body and text – through the Bharatanatyam dance tradition and within a contextual setting. While this paper highlights the complexities in this dialogical construction of identity, I argue that Bharatanatyam holds immense potential in opening up that liminal “third space” to negotiate and construct “new ethnicities” (Hall, 1988), demonstrating that in a multicultural context such as Singapore identities are dynamic and constantly evolving.
Shifting Representations of the Nayika (Heroine) in Bharatanatyam
MA Dissertation (2013), University of Roehampton
The nayika or heroine in love is the central figure in the classical Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam. Over the ages, she has been classified in various literary treatises, into categories that depict the different emotional states of a woman in relation to a male lover/deity. This dissertation examines the shifts that have taken place, specifically from the 1980s to the present-day, in the representation of the nayika as enacted by the female dancer on stage. My study focusses on mainly the work of two women practitioners – Kalanidhi Narayanan and Chandralekha, and my own artistic work that has been influenced by their approaches.
Has the eightfold system of nayika classification, or ashtanayika, been propagated as a vital construct in Bharatanatyam? How central is it to the dance form, or does questioning its validity signify the start of a dancer’s exit from the traditional Bharatanatyam repertoire and its core elements? How does society respond to such interrogations? I address these questions through historical, anthropological, socio-cultural, feminist, ethnographic and auto- ethnographic approaches. Primary and secondary sources include written texts, interviews and video recordings.
The research demonstrates that the ashtanayika construct is patriarchal and widely supported by the establishment. While introducing a feminist choreographic approach can allow for core elements of the traditional dance form to be retained, rejecting the ashtanayika framework is likely to result in a complete departure from the key aspects that have come to define Bharatanatyam. However, the feminist choreographic process results in empowering alternatives to the traditional nayika representation. The dissertation highlights the potential of Bharatanatyam as a powerful site for feminist intervention in relation to patriarchal aspects both within the dance form, as well as in its larger socio-cultural context.
Breath.Time.Space - A Continuum
A practice-as-research paper at Practice, Process and Paradox: Creativity and the Academy (conference), Roehampton University, London, April 2013
This paper draws on my practice-as-research choreography titled “Breath.Time,Space – A Continuum” (2012) and reflects on the creative process involved in the art of making this dance. Its temporal framework is outlined from my subjective experiences beginning from my childhood to the present time. Ancient scholars have proposed that temporality, which refers to the structure of movement patterns and the characteristic rhythms within Bharatanatyam, are impersonated through footwork. However I complicate the notion of temporality by situating my journey as a dancer on a timescale.
Drawing on the relevant theories from performance studies and dance studies, I revisit the piece that exploited dance space as much as my personal space as a choreographer to weave a complex web of spatiality through my travel trajectories. The research methodology combines auto ethnography and ethnography to reveal layers of meanings related to the nature of movement creation. This intersection of practice and research primarily draws inspiration from sources including Bharatanatyam dance, yoga and Butoh dance technique and it aims to portray interconnections among the codified hand gestures, footwork, movement improvisation and breath.
Challenging Patriarchy through Dance
Paper presented at World Dance Alliance Global Dance Event, New York, 2010. Published in "In Time Together", Texas Woman’s University (2011)
Editor Prof. Linda Caldwell’s Note:
Nirmala Seshadri leads the reader into a different sense of politics, the politics of gender and gender performed. She questions the patriarchal constructs experienced as an Indian girl growing up in Singapore made to learn Bharatanatyam as a means of maintaining a connection with India. By providing insights into her choreographic process examining issues relevant to her as a modern woman, she brings awareness to the patriarchal nature of Bharatanatyam as a dance form; she breaks the very form she knew, “challenging patriarchy not just through dance, but through change from within the dance form.”