About Lal̩itam Varn̩n̩am Asuram

Lal̩itam Varn̩n̩am Asuram undertakes a contemporary reimagination of the tale of Śoorpan̩akha, a mythological figure from Indian epic Rāmāyan̩a, who was portrayed as a demoness for her dark skin, and violently dismembered for professing her love to the upper caste protagonists Rāma and Laks̩man̩a. The music takes three lines from the verse of Kharavadham, a story from musical dance form Kathakal̩i, where Śoorpan̩akha professes her love, and the accompanying dance is a portrayal of the scene through the South Indian dance form, Bharathanat̩yam.

The music by Nakul Krishnamurthy opens up an alternative space for Carnatic music, an artform appropriated by Brahmanical forces during the early 20th century reinvention of India’s ‘Classical’ performing arts. By reimagining the artform in a radically new format, he uses electronic music making techniques to subvert the dominant Brahmanical ways of thinking about Carnatic music, and presents new, unexplored dimensions for the ‘Carnatic sound’, thereby subverting the Brahmanical sound closely guarded and protected by conservative forces. The influence of Carnatic, Hindustani, Western Classical, Indian popular, and underground experimental music traditions fashion an intercultural and intersectional space that intervenes in their linear and exclusive trajectories to envision a liminal site of interaction, where hegemonic structures within and among them are dismantled through exchange and enrichment.

Joining Krishnamurthy in this project is dancer Nrithya Pillai, who comes from the illustrious Icai Vēl̩āl̩ar community, once the traditional practitioners of Bharathanat̩yam, but since relegated to the margins and denounced as degenerates during the artform’s appropriation by upper caste Brahmanical forces. Pillai’s dance captures ways of performing the artform that were dismissed as ‘impure’ and ‘degenerate’, and mounts a challenge to Brahmanical notions of respectable femininity. By portraying the character of Śoorpan̩akha, and celebrating her appearance, character, lust, and outspokenness, Pillai questions the norms of femininity dominant in the dance form, and challenges the Brahmanical narrative that celebrates the violence inflicted upon the character.

The story of Śoorpan̩akha assumes significance in the current political climate in India, where the dominant nationalistic forces impose a hegemonic Brahmanical narrative on the country’s pluralistic history in their effort to subjugate and marginalise dissenting, subaltern voices. Śoorpan̩akha becomes a symbol of resistance against such Brahmanical forces, and by humanising her and reclaiming her voice from the margins, there emerges a space of contestation which celebrates other modes of living that have been condemned to the periphery and gradually erased by Brahmanical patriarchy.

Krishnamurthy’s and Pillai’s politics are grounded in two radically different sites: while Pillai draws on her history of exclusion and marginalisation by Brahmanical forces, Krishnamurthy, having been born into a Brahmin family and trained in traditional Carnatic music, looks outside of the domain to popular music and European underground experimental music to interrupt the contemporary Brahminical discourse. This project is an attempt at bringing such differing forces in their common fight: the podcast captures conversations between Krishnamurthy and Pillai, where they discuss and navigate their politics to create the accompanying audio visual work in which their politics combine forces in their common struggle against Brahmanical patriarchy.