Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reading the Gestures

The sub-title that CS Lakshmi gives to her book ‘Mirrors and Gestures’, is – Conversations with Women Dancers. That they are ‘conversations’ and not ‘interviews’ is an important insight into the nature of the book. “What is revealed to us is an oral history of how the emerging modern woman of the newly-independent India had asserted her claim over the creative space. It seeks to account the compromises and sacrifices that a woman has to make to continue to remain an artist throughout her life,” says Sajitha Madathil, adding that she uses the book as a sort of energy drink when the artist in her has to make way for the homemaker. “It is inspiring to know that women artists everywhere and in all ages go through the same crisis in their lives.”

Lakshmi, a veteran in the field of women’s studies, and a dancer in her younger days, combines the researchers’ tools with her artistic instincts to bring to the fore the processes - personal and political - that shape a woman artist, while attempting a social commentary of the times in which these artists had lived and performed. She says in the introduction that she had prepared the list of persons to be included in the book quite carefully, taking care not to include many women who had become legends in their own lifetime and about whom everything was known. There are exceptions of course, like Gangubai Hangal and Chandralekha. But most other people who are featured in the book are the less-interviewed, but astonishingly ahead of their times, as is revealed through the conversations.

Sita Pooviah, for instance, was a nationalist who had actively involved in the political movement of the 1930s and later associated with US Educational Foundation in India and the Women’s India Trust. She, along with her three sisters had consciously decided to shape their lives around the freedom movement and chose to remain unmarried. Sita took a PhD in dance in 1950, becoming the first one to do so in India, on the topic, ‘The Art and Science of Indian Classical dancing and Its Social Bearings’.

Says Sajitha, “The Pooviah sisters are representatives of the educated women of those times who dared to enter into an art practised by a certain caste, the Devadasis, and was looked down upon. The story of their creative work also becomes a historical link to a period. We find the interviewer asking them about whether the spinster life had helped them pursue their art. In answer to that, Sita talks about two very talented dancers, Rita Chatterjee and Kamala whose married lives were messed up, putting an end to their career as well. See, but for these meta narratives, such characters would be completely lost in the hsitories about those times which is one significant aspect about oral history.”

Dance, as it becomes apparent through the course of the book, was a culturally loaded space, the appropriation of which was not legitimate on the part of upper class women. We find repeated references to Uday Shankar whose fusion of Western and Indian Classical dance infused the art form with a new aura that somehow became acceptable in an India steeped in the colonial hangover. The female dancers who remained unmarried were, in fact, reviving the Devadasi tradition in a modern form. Whereas, those like Sucheta Joshi and Chandrabhaga Devi, who also turned out to be successful wives, seemed to have helped remove the cultural constructs that had made dance a taboo in ‘good families’.

Sucheta, who learned dance at the age of forty-four and after her marriage to an army man, pursued her career successfully until poor health demanded her to quit performing. Lakshmi asks her several questions about why she took to dancing so late in life and whether she found the support of her husband crucial. But Joshi also confesses that she gave up theatre, which her husband did not approve of. She says, “I said that’s alright. I will please you because you have encouraged me to pursue the art I liked right from my childhood (dance). One must adjust.”

Also, Chandrabhaga Devi, who was married to U S Krishna Rao, also a dancer, says, “Since the last few years, I am much more self-confident, independent and all that. But in those years, I was a very docile housewife. And ‘yours obediently’ to my husband. He respected my integrity, my education, my culture and so many other things but I was a true Hindu wife who would never place herself ahead of him, always after him.”

As Sajitha says, it is important that the conversations take place within the homes of the artists, letting them stray into personal details without the interviewer seeming to make any deliberate intrusions. “The whole idea of an accomplished artist unwinding while fixing lunch for the family, or settling accounts with a vendor is in itself a woman-specific concept. Or else, interviews with them would be limited to the perfection of the mudras or their stylistic innovations, which is actually a telling of the story from the middle of it. I think the book can serve as a benchmark for authors writing on women,” says Sajitha, who has penned a history of women theatre artists in Kerala.

Lakshmi points out in the introduction that the method she chose was in fact a ‘non-method’. We see her delve into the tiniest of details, facilitating the process of remembering and reliving. When Chandrabhaga Devi says Krishna Rao asked her, “Will you marry me?”, Lakshmi quips, “Did he propose to you in English?”

We get a glimpse of how the terse conversations veer off to freewheeling chats - when a particular photograph would cause a very long dialogue, or an anecdote would revive an old wound, as when Gangubai Hangal broke down into tears talking about her mother. At times, other family members, like father and mother-in-law, would join the conversations, which is again, an occurance with gender connotations. The book, a sequel to Lakshmi’s earlier work – ‘The Song and The Singer’ on women musicians, certainly does justice to its mission of constructing an oral history, while at the same time, placing the lives and art of these women beyond the bindings of gender specificities.

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