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Modern Dance: Embodied Histories of Indian Dance in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century
Organizer: Archana Venkatesan, St Lawrence University
Chair: Davesh Soneji, McGill University, Canada
Archana Venkatesan, St Lawrence University
Focusing on the histories of Indian dance, the three papers in this panel address the intersection of identity and modernity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Each of the papers in this panel centers on specific historical moments when the confrontation of the identity of dancing bodies and emergent modernities was particularly explosive. Based on ethnographic work with the last surviving devadasi of the Viralimalai Murukan temple, Davesh Soneji reads the shifting sites of devadasi performance in the 1920s and 1930s as indexes for the gradual disenfranchisement of the community. He posits that devadasis reimagined their identity in the face of their decline by continuing to perform a repertoire divested of function as a means to. Priya Srinivasan explores the complex encounter of the American public and nautch dancers, when they first arrived in North America in the late nineteenth century to participate in street theater. She argues that the quixotic discourse of American orientalism largely erased the nautch dancers’ contributions to the development of North American artistic practice dance. Avanthi Meduri questions the categorizing Bharatanatyam simply as dance when it intersects with, multiple fields such as theatre, dramaturgy, ritual. She analyzes the transcultural modernity of classical forms like Bharatanatyam and uses it as a case study to raise larger issues around the question of Asian modernity in general. The three papers in this panel creatively read the embodied histories of Indian dance in the nineteenth and twentieth century as expressed in the meeting of identity and modernity.
"No More Nautches in Poodoocottah": Colonial Modernity, Memory and the Devadasi Dance Tradition of the Viralimalai Murukan Temple
Davesh Soneji, McGill University, Canada
R. Muttukkannammal, the last dedicated devadasi of the Murukan temple at Viralimalai in Pudukkottai district, remembers dancing to English marching-band songs when the Maharaja of Pudukkottai came to her temple. Integrated into the catir kacceri or formal concert repertoire in the nineteenth century, these compositions were meant to be part of the courtly "rituals of display" of the Tanjavur and Pudukkottai Maharajas, and devadasi dance was a central visual marker of these spectacles. But by the 1930s, for temple administrators, priests, zamindars, and audiences, devadasi performances in both the temples and courts of Tamilnadu had become merely perfunctory. Transmogrified by colonial modernity and the discursive contours of "social reform," the performance culture and lifestyles of devadasis in the Pudukkottai and Tanjavur districts had become irrevocably divested of function or meaning. In this paper I argue that the shifts in the sites of devadasi performance can be read as indexes for the process of the community's disenfranchisement in Tamilnadu from c. 1920-1955. I suggest that the impact of social reform movements is felt early in the devadasi communities of Tamil-speaking South India, accounting for the disappearance of "ritual dance" on the one hand, and the disappearance of patronage of courtly dance on the other. Using ethnographic data and analyses of specific genres within the dance repertoire, this paper illustrates the innovative ways in which the Viralimalai devadasis transformed and negotiated their identities in relation to the temple and court before, during, and after the implementation of the Anti-Devadasi Act of 1947.
Making Visible Intercultural Histories of Modern Dance: The Nautch Women of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century
Priya Srinivasan, University of California, Riverside
Nachwalis, or Nautch dancers, as they were known, were transnational artists moving between India, Europe and North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. What I argue in this paper is that due to the quixotic discourse of American orientalism, Indian dance performers' contributions to North American artistic practices have gone largely unrecognized. When nautch women first arrived in New York in 1880 to perform in Augustin Daly's theatre as part of a production called "Zanina" together with snake charmers and jugglers, the troupe received mixed reviews from audiences and critics alike. Arriving as serious theatre practitioners, nautch women found themselves on the street, quite literally, by 1884 when they performed with P.T. Barnum (of the Barnum and Bailey circus fame) in his street theatre, and by 1885 they were displayed as freaks of nature, oddities and curiosities in Dime Museums. In 1904, another troupe of Nautch women arrived in Coney Island in New York to perform in a show called "The Durbar of Delhi." It is unclear whether they were taken seriously as stage performers or continued to be viewed as oddities. When Ruth St. Denis, a white American woman, credited as one of the three "mothers" of American modern dance, saw nautch dances in Coney Island in 1905, she was inspired to create "oriental" dances based on dance movements she had witnessed. Although this troupe of dancers jump-started American modern dance in the twentieth century this contribution has gone unrecognized in American dance history. The shifting identities and perceived contributions of these Indian artists can only be understood in dialogic relation to critical race theory encompassing labor, gender, and citizenship issues unique to North America, framed by the changing discourse of American orientalism that both reviled and desired Indian bodies, philosophies, practices, and goods.
Interdisciplinarity and Modernism in South Asian Performing Arts
Avanthi Meduri, School of Arts, University of Roehampton, UK
The Euro-American west has till recently othered South Asian theatre forms by studying them selectively within the disciplinary categories of dance versus theatre. Although these disciplinary categories have facilitated in depth studies of Asian theatre forms like Noh, Chinese Opera, Kathakali, they have also limited our understanding of the interdisciplinary theatricality of representations like Bharatanatyam, researched primarily within dance programs in the west. Yet Bharatanatyam does not fit easily into Western definitions of dance because of its connections to ritual, theatre, drama, dramaturgy, texts, script, storytelling, and performance. Performers and scholars alike have struggled with the forms interdiscplinarity. For example, the pre 1980s generation of dancers described used Indian classical and traditional dancers interchangeably to describe themselves. The post 1980s generation re-articulated themselves not as traditional or classical dancers but as contemporary choreographers. While the pre 1980s generation developed an interdisciplinary epistemology for the dance by self-consciously inscribing Bharatanatyam within the larger intellectual fields of drama, music and religion, the post 1980s generation reified Bharatanatyam as a dance form, rejected the dramaturgical conceptualization, and named themselves as choreographers. The epistemic difference in the two modernism captures not only the local and global practices of the dance but also Indian and international scholarship on Bharatanatyam. In this paper, I draw on my recent experience as convener of the new MA in South Asian Dance studies at the University of Surrey, Roehampton, and raise questions around the creation of Asian Arts pedagogy in higher education in the United Kingdom.