Conversation with Dr. Davesh Soneji – Lal̩itam Varn̩n̩am Asuram
Dr. Davesh Soneji is an Associate Professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, who is trained as a historian of religion. His work focusses on the history of interface between religion, performance, and forms of cultural nationalism that developed in India in the late 19th century to the middle of 20th century. Specifically, he explores the histories of music and dance is modern south India, and Tamil theatre.
Here Dr. Soneji is in conversation with Nakul Krishnamurthy, Nrithya Pillai, and Steve Urquhart about the histories of Bharatanaty̩ am and Carnatic music, the history of resistance to the Indian epic Rāmāyana̩ and the Rāma narrative, and the significance of the project Lal̩itam Varn̩n̩am Asuram commissioned for Counterflows at Home 2021.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Could you give us a little bit of background about how you got into what you do?
It started at two different levels for me: first as a teenager, I started to learn vocal Carnatic music around the age of 13 or 14. This was a real challenge because I come from a family where such things were just not done, I come from a totally different region in India where Carnatic music doesnʼt have much relevance. And it was a bit of a fight, a struggle to do that, but I did it as a teenager.
As I started to do that, I became aware of the strange dynamics that surrounded the practice of these forms. Around 17 or 18, I met the person who inspired me the most in all of this, Prof. Harikrishnan who currently teaches at Wesleyan University. For both of us, there were these levels of dissonance that we felt with our practice, myself being a student of Carnatic, and him of Bharatanaty̩ am. Together, over the next 20 years or so, we set off in our own ways to explore some of these dynamics and get into what precisely was causing this dissonance.
A lot of what we realised was that history was really at the root of all of this. A lot of the contemporary politics have their roots in a particular historical moment where a lot of these traditions were fundamentally, irrevocably transformed. It was around that time that we also encountered academia, and felt that it provided a space. A lot of these debates were also emerging in academia, so we had a wonderful cohort of friends and colleagues who were interested in similar kinds of issues here in North America, and a few such colleagues in India as well. For me, thatʼs how it began, and I have just been doing it ever since!
This project is a contemporary reimagination of the tale of Śoorpana̩kha. Now that you have seen the first version of the work, could you tell us how you react to it: as a piece of art, the significance of it, either historically, or in the contemporary setting, and why thatʼs important?
In some ways, the question of why stage something that is based on the Rāmāyana̩ in todayʼs world is something weʼre all struggling with. And to understand that, we need to think about the history of these kinds of interpretations of the Rāmāyana̩ as forms of public spectacle in modern India—especially in South India, in the period after the reinvention of Indiaʼs arts as ‘Classicalʼ. But I also think we need to think about the place of Rāmāyana̩ in the wider political landscape, particularly in South India. Modern Tamil Nadu has a very long tradition of staging dissent with the Rāmāyana̩ tradition—Iʼm thinking of Periyarʼs take on the tradition.
Periyar, or E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, was a radical anti-caste figure, who lived in the early 20th century, and whose influence is undeniable on the politics of modern South India. He radically transformed the entire political landscape in the region. In 1930 he wrote a very interesting piece in Tamil called Rāmāyana̩ Pāttirankal,̩ or “The Characters of the Rāmāyana̩ ”, in which he turns normative tellings of the Rāma narrative on their head, by making Rāvana̩ , the anti-hero of the traditional Rāma narrative, into a Dravidian hero, and making Rāma, the hero, into an Aryan oppressor. Interestingly, Periyarʼs version has nothing to say about Śoorpana̩kha.
I bring up Periyar here not to idealise or to reify his vision, but simply to signal that for a figure like him, the Rāmāyana̩ represented a kind of Hindu dystopia. This is a feeling that many of us share today, given the place of Rāmāyana̩ in the forging of both Hindu fundamentalism as a force, and the majoritarian politics in modern India. For Periyar, his subversion of the Rāma narrative symbolised democratic promise. He saw the narrative not as religion or art, but as a kind of didactic tool of oppression through the literary idiom. That should be a takeaway for us here.
In the 1950s, Periyar takes this to a mass, visually radical level, where on Marina beach people gather with images of the god Rāma and start burning them in public. That becomes a really major political act. Whether or not we support such things is not really the issue here. Thereʼs something else thatʼs really important: thinking about the very long history of protest that explicitly ties the Rāma narrative to contemporary politics. And all of this is before the BJP appropriates the figure of Rāma through the controversy around the Ram Janmabhoomi [the birthplace of Rāma] issue. And the fact that this [history of protest] is located in South India, in the Tamil speaking regions, is very interesting in and of itself.
This event of Periyar burning images of Rāma is still being spoken about. Rajnikant, the actor who was supposed to become a part of the BJP, was quoted talking about it. It is majorly used as a measure to discredit the Periyarist movement itself—how he burnt these images, and how he threw chappals and footwear at Rāmaʼs images and made him wear a garland of chappals. These are spoken about even today, and used as hate inducing memories by the upper-caste to increase their hatred towards Periyar.
I think the fact that Periyar performed these radical acts was fundamentally unsettling for the upper-caste. It still remains that way. Itʼs one of the reasons why Periyar did spout anti-Brahmin vitriol, but at the same time, it is countered now by this reactionary vitriol. And Periyar is fixed in the upper-caste imagination in a particular way. I think the real problem with that is that the emancipatory potential held out by figures like Periyar is discredited by the upper-caste through these strategic moves. And I think that should be the takeaway for us.
Having narrated this context, I would like to juxtapose this with whatʼs going on in the Bharatanaty̩ am world —about the reinvention of Bharatanaty̩ am in the 1930s, and the role of ultra-elite, ultra-cosmopolitan figures like Rukmini Arundale in this project. In 1949, Rukmini Arundale choreographs the Sanskrit version of the Vālmīki Rāmāyana̩ [the oldest available version of the Rāmāyana̩ , authored by sage Vālmīki]. This is perhaps not the first time in the post-reinvented form that the narrative of Rāma is invoked. But it is the first time that the Sanskrit text of Vālmīki Rāmāyana̩ —which had just decades before been redacted into a critical edition that was sponsored by the state—is being now performed as a text where the verses were tuned to modern Carnatic music, and choreographed for a stage performance. This gives rise to a whole industry of what we call the ‘dance-drama idiomʼ, which becomes the mainstay of modern Bharatanaty̩ am. The traditional solo repertoire that comes out of a courtesan milieu now all of a sudden is juxtaposed with this new idiom called the ‘dance-dramaʼ, in which we have linear narratives, stories about mostly Hindu gods and goddesses being enacted as fantastic spectacles on the stage.
For me therefore, it is really difficult to disentangle this reinvented Bharatanaty̩ am as a form from its history and its contemporary practice of staging dance explicitly as Hindu spectacle. And that notion of Bharatanaty̩ am as a Hindu spectacle is where things really slide down a slippery slope—in the sense that Bharatanaty̩ am then becomes very easily co-optable by the Hindu right, which I think it has become effectively. For the most part, Bharatanaty̩ am feeds in, in a very explicit way. There are no qualms about this at all. You can see this: we have politicians in India who are dancers; we have the linkages of state-based institutions to the practice of Bharatanaty̩ am, to institutionalise forms of funding that will fund particular types of projects and performances. The point is that the linkages between the practice of these so-called ‘classical eliteʼ arts and the majoritarian politics of todayʼs Indian government is plain to see. To argue that thatʼs not the case would simply just be to turn a blind eye to something thatʼs very much there and present in our faces.
So, I think it is important in a project like this, where this narrative is being invoked, that we are all very clear on what exactly the politics are, so that this too canʼt, in some weird, twisted way, be put to the service of Indian nationalism. This is clearly a project of dissent. And we need to be clear on that. Like I said, itʼs always a question: by embodying, re-staging, and reiterating the Rāmāyana̩, are we simply reifying itʼs hegemonic status? Or by staging it in a way that questions it and that foregrounds dissent, are we enabling people to question its very relevance? I think, hopefully, in this project weʼre doing the latter! And I hope that is clear to the viewers and the listeners.
I usually never do mythological pieces. Obviously, the reinvention did bring in a lot of mythology into my family, and my grandfather was one of those people who introduced a lot of this bhakti-related, devotional pieces. Even then, I wouldnʼt call it the kind of mythological spectacle that was created by Brahmin practitioners. But I still think he did subscribe to those notions. It was the need of the hour, he had to make a livelihood, so those kind of songs and dance came into being in my household too.
But ever since I had some kind of clarity over the politics behind it, I stopped engaging with those kind of music and dance. It does have to do with my introduction to Davesh and other academics, so it was something that Iʼd have never thought of doing. But clearly this project is about the matter of subversion of gaze. And I have constantly thought about the Hindu-ness of it. Even when I chose the costumes, how I was dressed, what I was portraying, I clearly wanted to get away from the Hindu-ness of it. I donʼt wear a bindi [a coloured dot worn on the centre of the forehead] in this piece, which would be an important aspect of a Bharatanaty̩ am performance. A womanʼs identity is in that bindi, a Hindu woman is identified with a dot on the forehead, and I didnʼt want to wear that. It may not be a huge step, but it clearly puts my stance out there. Every time I donʼt wear a bindi, and Iʼm in a cultural space, Iʼm questioned about it by well-meaning elders, people in the cultural scene. So it is kind of radical to dance Bharatanaty̩ am without a bindi. Even in terms of costumes, I have gone away from what ‘Hinduʼ culture is supposed to embody. I just want to make that clear: the fact that I donʼt do mythological pieces, or anything based on mythology. I donʼt even relate to those pieces, I donʼt feel like identifying myself as Hindu at this point in time, especially at this point in time.
For me, choosing a mythological story even when I understand that it has a hegemonic status in the society now, is to try to mount a challenge to its status itself—by trying to see how we can reinterpret the story to show that it is not consistent with the dominant narrative. There is a lot of oppression in these stories, and to highlight those issues within it, rather than to elevate its status, was the reason why I wanted to choose it. There has been continuous oppression of certain communities, regional forms of thinking, or performance of art forms; there has always been oppression [on the] part of people who have appropriated Hindu epics for their purpose. For me it was about subverting, or at least mounting a challenge to that claim that this is something that is to be respected or revered, and question that status itself.
You talked about not wanting to propagate the mythologies and all other things that are attached to it. But thereʼs a danger that that can be lost in translation too when presented to a predominantly Western audience. Of course weʼre making a podcast to counter all of that and the written text, but at the very surface level, thereʼs a danger of that. How do you go about making sure that it doesnʼt end up the way you donʼt want it to?
I guess this is something we spoke about the other day, about the burden that any non Euro- American artist carries when they present their work in the West. It is either this expectation to be representative of the country and stand for everything that the country stands for. Or, on the other hand, the expectation to be someone that subverts any stereotypes that the West may have about the country. So I am, on the one hand, either seen as an Indian who stands in for the country, or an Indian who stands in to subvert anything that the West thinks about the country. What happens with this is that finally the politics comes back to the way the West sees it.
The reason I chose this mythological story of Śoorpana̩kha was to focus on the politics in the country, and not relate it to the East-West power dynamics, and the imbalance of power. I donʼt want the conversation around this piece to come back to this idea of East in the West. Thatʼs not where I want this conversation to be focussed on. This is a burden that I bear, but I want to make it clear because I have an opportunity to do that here. For me, it is about talking about this piece in the context of India and bringing that idea and politics out of the country [to a global audience], and focus on that rather than going back to a discourse that is always from the perspective of the West.
Davesh, the other day you spoke to Nakul about the music existing in an abstraction from the traditional modes of Carnatic music, and casteism existing in virtuosity and technique. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
One of the questions that many of us struggle with—practitioners and scholars—is this deep question around aesthetic hierarchy; in other words, the real question of where does caste live in music? If I listen to contemporary Carnatic music, where does caste live in its performance? Is it simply in the fact that
you have a particular body that is producing a sound, and that person happens to be a Brahmin for example? Or is it deeper than that? And I feel that because weʼve had this radical mediation of practice through the politics of the reinvention, itʼs important to say that itʼs not just a matter of, for example, having non-Brahmin bodies performing Carnatic music as it is. I think the real question around a lot of these practices is, where does caste live? And my answer to that is, to some degree, caste lives in the virtuosity of music—this particular kind of virtuosity thatʼs been cultivated since late 1920s onward.
If you listen to the earlier sound recordings produced in India, for example from around 1910 when the voices of the women singers in South India were first captured on the gramophone—and of course, all of those women were courtesan artists—and you compare it to the music sung by the ‘greatʼ Carnatic musicians of the 1950s and 60s for example, you hear a radical shift in the level of virtuosity and technique. There are particular processes of systematisation and standardisation of music that occurred in the 1920s and 30s through institutions like the Madras Music Academy that account for that difference. In other words, this kind of virtuosity in music, the way Carnatic music sounds today, its aesthetic registers, its registers of virtuosity and technique are carefully cultivated practices. All of those practices are permeated by the politics of caste. I say that because the cultivation of virtuosity and technique is in fact a luxury, a luxury not available to non-elite artists. I say that as someone who has done decades of field work with artists in rural south India who did not have access to the luxury of being able to spend hours honing and cultivating their technique. And that too accounts for this radical difference; it accounts for why artists from rural south India have not received urban patronage by caste elites in the period following the reinvention. Their music and dance sounds a particular way, and urban music and dance that has been deeply affected by the politics of the reinvention post 1920s and 30s sounds another way. And there is a huge aesthetic gap there.
So what do we do with the problem then, of virtuosity? What do we do with what we have inherited, all of us who are involved in this project as middle class, as products of the middle class, as people who have inherited the politics and the aesthetics of reinvention? Where do we go from here? One way people have tried to deal with this is through a strategy of what I call ‘abstractionʼ for the lack of a better word, that is to strip this virtuosity down in some ways. I like to think of it as creating an aesthetic of dissonance, of shaking people out of their aesthetic complacencies, and misguided rootedness in this hierarchically organised sonic taste habits that have been cultivated. We have been taught to hear music in a particular way, to look out for certain things when we hear music. Those are cultivated sonic taste habits that are hierarchically organised. When you hear something that sounds like X, you say thatʼs good music, and when you hear something that sounds like Y, you say thatʼs bad music. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the cultivation part of it, which is rooted in caste and class politics, is really behind these hierarchies.
Many people over the past few decades have attempted to get at this levels of abstraction, sometimes conscious of the hierarchies at work and wanting to break them down, and sometimes unconsciously, sometimes just because its trendy to do things that are abstract. And contemporary art is kind of a thing that also has a lot of class based resonances. But for me it is important that this kind of strategy of abstraction be accompanied by a political discourse. In other words, hollowing out technique is not enough. That I think pretty much anyone can do. It has meaning when it is accompanied by a political discourse, by a kind of staging of the key questions of motivation and intention. Why are you doing this? To what end are you doing this? And ultimately to whose benefit are you doing this? Until those questions are answered, the mere hollowing out or abstraction of technique, to me at least, has little meaning.
Nakul and I had an interesting conversation the other day, about for example, how a technique like digital abstraction might be understood because I think the digital abstraction is not necessarily about creating equity and access in the global south, as it would be in for example North America. So when we think about abstraction as a strategy, I think we also have to be attentive to understanding the relevance of creating contemporary art that speaks beyond the elitism that contemporary art, by the fact of its very existence, is tethered to. I donʼt think thereʼs an easy answer to a lot of these questions, but I think these are questions for contemporary artists that certainly need to be in the foreground of our vision, especially if weʼre talking about the relationship between contemporary art and politics.
I think for me, the points around virtuosity, class, and caste are extremely important. Itʼs something that we donʼt think about, especially when we consume Indian Classical music. Whatʼs fascinating to me is that the invention of ‘Classicalʼ as a category is accompanied by kind of the global boom in interest in the performing arts of India. So the mass levels of global consumption of Indian music is often blind to the fact that these taste hierarchies that theyʼre consuming are deeply imbricated in class, caste, and gendered politics. A lot
of the work of groups of academics who have looked at critical histories, who have brought us this process of ‘classicisationsʼ and of the reinvention that happened at this crucial period in Indian history, have really stressed this. I wish there were some ways to get those ideas across to the global community that consumes this Indian ‘Classicalʼ music, that there are certain kind of hierarchies at work. It would kind of be like talking about American music, a form like jazz without reference to race. I think thatʼs a very relevant parallel, because ultimately the creation of the forms are tied up to particular kinds of politics. I think the same is true with the invention of the cannon of Classical in modern south Asia, but it is something that, unlike jazz, weʼre blind to for the most part as global consumers of Indian Classical music.
You didnʼt really mention dance within that particular section. Iʼm wondering whether dance is integral to that answer or a completely separate thing?
I think music and dance, in the framework of asking these questions, need to be thought of together. Simply because the same kind of historical process of reinvention happened with dance. And I think this is something that people are a little bit more familiar with now, thanks to a lot of recent interventions that have gone on by people like Nrithya. And that history has become a little more clear for many of us, at least for those of us who are approaching this critically. And I think this is key.
There are groups of people who are so embroiled in heritage politics, and who think of these forms fundamentally as part of heritage, that they cannot take a step back and look at this critically. Itʼs fair and valid. But for those of us who want to adopt a critical approach, who arenʼt tethered emotionally to these art forms through cultural nostalgia, or nationalist nostalgia—because thatʼs what it is. Itʼs not anything outside of the realm of cultural nationalism, thatʼs what heritage politics really are, theyʼre nationalist politics. For those of us who donʼt have that kind of affinities and attachments, it is important for us to think about dance in this way as well.
All of what I have said about music could easily be applicable to dance. The fascinating thing about dance is that its sort of reality, its extreme corporeality, visuality really marks it as a form of somatic, embodied nationalism in a way that we sometimes do not hear those kinds of forces, or we donʼt see those forces present in the performance of music. With dance, being the spectacle that it is, or that it has become in its post reinvention avatar, I think a lot of these links are much more explicit, much more clearly visible than they would be in music—where theyʼre certainly there, but hidden, partly because weʼre really talking about how these traces live in the realm of the sonic as opposed to the visual that is represented by dance. But certainly, all of these political questions apply equally to dance. As far as abstraction, and all of these kinds are concerned, those things have been happening in dance for a much longer period of time, I would argue, in some ways. In my view, my subjective standpoint, some of those abstractions have worked and have had enduring consequences, and others, to me, are simply a shallow, hollowing out of technique, abstraction for the sake of abstraction because it is for the sake of producing contemporary art, and thatʼs it. Again personally, I think the things that have really endured are those where we have had some kind of politics behind the abstraction, some kind of rationalisation, justification, a way of talking through the ‘whysʼ and ‘howsʼ and ‘so-whatsʼ of producing this kind of art.
Iʼm completely in resonance with what [Davesh] says. Many of these things that he says, it just gives me clarity. Itʼs more like putting in words what I felt for so long. These are the reasons I have felt what I have felt about art or about dance and music. So itʼs only a lot of clarification for me.
To bring it back to this project how do you react to what you have heard and seen so far? How do you think others will react to it, either within India or more internationally? What do you think are the sensitivities and political ramifications of the work Nakul and Nrithya are making?
One of the interesting things thatʼs going on here, sometimes when we talk about caste in Bharatanaty̩ am or Carnatic music, thereʼs a sort of knee-jerk reaction, especially on the part of the people who benefit from caste, from maintaining caste order and caste hierarchy. And that knee-jerk reaction is ‘Oh, you people are saying Brahmins should never perform music, or upper caste should never perform danceʼ. This is a completely misguided representation of what critical history does and what the work of critical history is.
We produce critical histories so that we can actually create better futures for everybody. We create critical histories so that we are not living in myopic states of existence. This kind of a project, at some level, reflects some of the works-in-progress if you will, that move us in that direction of creating spaces of equity. Here
we have an upper-caste musician and a Bahujan dancer coming together. I think that should be the future. We need more diverse representation in the practice and production of art, whether it is traditional art rooted in hereditary practice, or the production of contemporary art—contemporary art that is sensitive to politics of what it is we have inherited.
This kind of a project represents a step in the right direction where a form of contemporary art is being produced while being attentive to all of these politics. These are the kind of things we need: we need collaborations, we need to understand that when we talk about caste, weʼre not ever saying—and this is something I really want to stress, and I donʼt think any of us who have written about caste critically have ever even insinuated such a ridiculous idea—weʼre not ever saying that upper-caste people should not be involved in the production, dissemination, and consumption of the arts. What we talk about are the creation of spaces of equity. And the creation of art that is attentive to the politics of hierarchy. This project is doing both of those things: it is creating a space of equity, itʼs moving us at least in that direction by showing us a collaboration across caste and class spectrum. But it is also giving us a piece of contemporary art that has been attentive to the whole politics that weʼve outlined in this conversation—all of these complex political stances, and historical processes that have defined what we have inherited as contemporary practitioners. For me the project really represents something that is forward facing, and hopefully a progressive beginning for the artists who are involved.
The casual observer in the West might not observe how significant it is that Nakul and Nrithya have come together for a project like this. Itʼs quite rare, would you say, quite unusual?
I would say it is not so much rare that a Bahujan person and a Brahmin musician for example are coming together and collaborating. Whatʼs different here is the foregrounding of those identities and that politics. Those kinds of collaborations happen all the time in the world of Bharatanaty̩ am where you have non-Brahmin dancers being accompanied by Brahmin musicians, or Brahmin dancers being accompanied by non-Brahmin musicians. These happen all the time.
But whatʼs different here is the foregrounding of the caste politics, of the histories, of thinking about these critically, of thinking about questions of equity, of thinking about reimagining these religious narratives, or even questioning why theyʼre there in the first place or why they hold hegemonic status. That level is what is new here, and thatʼs what is to be appreciated in this project. It is that there is a self-reflexivity, a kind of consciousness that we are seeing at play here, that is definitely a step in the right direction.
Nakul, what have you learnt from Davesh, either in todayʼs conversation, or the one you had with him last weekend? Has he shed some light on things, or at least clarified, or given you more reassurance, confidence in this project?
I think thereʼs a lot that Iʼve learnt from this conversation with Davesh, in a lot of different ways. The first thing is that Iʼve been so close to the project for the past 3-4 months, I have been working on all these small, tiny details, trying to figure it out, from making the music all the way to getting the whole politics of this captured. I think at some point, while I realised what I wanted to do, I was also not very clear about how Iʼm doing it, or what exactly is the outcome of the project. I have been so closely involved with the making of the project, that I did not see what it can do, or what it did. And Iʼm really happy that, like what I wanted with the project when I was starting out initially, it has produced something good. Thatʼs really encouraging.
At the same time, he gave me a lot to think about. We had this conversation last week, when I briefly mentioned how the use of computers here as a tool of music-making makes sense in terms of creating new ways in which Carnatic music can be imagined. And the computer itself being a ‘democraticʼ medium in making such a form of music. At the same time, the computer cannot be imagined in the same context when we think about music-making in India. When we spoke about that, I realised thereʼs more work to be done: me using a computer here in Glasgow, yes it makes sense, but not in the context of India.
Another question that Iʼm struggling with is this Brahminical background, how do I deal with it? When it comes to working on a project like this, how do I think about my lineage, how do I reflect on that, how do I navigate these politics? I still donʼt have a lot of answers. But over the course of this project, and all the conversations weʼve had, I think Iʼve started figuring out a bit more about it, in the way that from where I stand, what can I do in the future to make those changes, or at least challenge those hegemonies.
Youʼve just answered what I was about to ask you. You said in the very first recording, more than 3 months ago, ‘before I embark on this, as I go through it, I have to ask myself if I have the right to do thisʼ. You said you didnʼt know the answer at that time, and that it was an important question to explore. You said, ‘Perhaps Iʼll find out, perhaps even I wonʼt find out, at least Iʼm starting a discussionʼ. What do you say about that?
(Laughs) I donʼt know, I donʼt think I still have clear answers. I guess the question of whether I have the right to do it, the question itself was wrong. It is not about the right to do it, it is about the intention probably? And thatʼs how I would think about it now.
Nrithya, how would you answer that?
I want to go back to the point that Davesh spoke about, the fact that when we want to have a critical approach to understanding the history and the politics of the present, of art forms, we donʼt actually want to stop upper-caste practitioners from practicing it or being part of it. Thatʼs my stance too. Iʼm often put in a spot by Brahmin practitioners when they say, ʼSo you donʼt want us to dance, only you should dance? Only people from your community should dance?ʼ. These are questions Iʼm constantly asked when I want to broach the subject of history itself.
I certainly think that I was very comfortable working with Nakul. I felt like an equal, he treated me like an equal. I think thatʼs most important. All along, I have constantly seen engagement between Brahmins and people from my community, both at home and in families related to us. Those relations were certainly not equitable. Neither were people in my family willing to ask for equity, willing to step up and ask why they were not being treated equally, or why they were being treated a certain way, nor was it thought about by the upper-caste people who were claiming discipleship. This discipleship that they claim with the people from my community, neither were they introspective of how they were treating these people. I think thatʼs the new kind of engagement that I wish for people from non-Brahmin communities, where they are treated equally, their agency is respected.
I was amazed that when Nakul asked this other dancer who was from a Dalit background [to participate in this project], he refused to do this. He said that he wanted to [be able to] first dance the form that he knows how to dance, in the way that he has learnt how to dance it. In a similar fashion, I have had my doubts, I have constantly had my doubts with what Iʼm doing with this, whether I want to do this. I strongly do wish for places where I can present my art, art that comes from my families where I can just present, with my politics as is, in a format Iʼm most comfortable with: pieces from the courtesan culture, pieces from my hereditary background—which is what Iʼd love to do. But this engagement has actually opened up my own mind to doing different things, to challenge myself. In the past I have tried to do it, but it hasnʼt worked out mostly because they havenʼt been equitable relationships. I have always felt like I have been forced to do something, I have been put in my place to do a certain thing. If I fail to deliver, then that becomes a point of them saying ʼSo youʼre not talented enough, youʼre not able to produce what we ask you to produce, so you have no right to question how they system works.ʼ I feel thatʼs the reason that Iʼm able to work with Nakul. The relationship is one of equity, one where he respects me, allows me to have my own opinions, and make my own decisions.
Thanks a lot Nrithya, but I just want to highlight here that it is not something great that Iʼm doing, it is something that everyone should be doing!
I want to come back to is this question about right vs. intention, especially drawing from what Davesh was saying. One of the biggest concerns I still have about the piece, something that Iʼve always struggled with in this piece, is the question of voicing Śoorpana̩kha here. Itʼs my voice when Śoorpana̩kha is singing, I am singing for Śoorpana̩kha. What are the politics of it? How can I appropriate the voice of Śoorpana̩kha is something that has always nagged me. I donʼt think I have an answer to that yet. This is where the question of right applies. The question of intention, weʼve spoken about that. But I should not be discounting the question of whether I have the right to do this. Can I, as a Brahmin who has drawn so many privileges, appropriate the voice of a marginalised character like Śoorpana̩kha?
One thing to think about is, thereʼs a danger in taking the discourse of appropriation to an extreme. With regards to what Nakul just asked, ‘Can I appropriate the voice of Śoorpana̩ kha?ʼ, yeah, but youʼve already appropriated the entire non-brahmin musical tradition in your practice! So, [it is the question of] thinking about a mythological character who exists in a mythological or narrative form and appropriating that versus the actual swaras being produced through your throat, and the organisation of them, and the
politics of whatʼs going on there. Weʼre talking about real people, real histories that are tangible and have social consequences. To me foregrounding that level of appropriation is more urgent than thinking about appropriating the voice of Śoorpana̩ kha. To me, thatʼs almost a moot point considering what I think is really relevant when we use this word appropriation.
I think the word appropriation has been floating around in academia for a very long time. Now it has sort of made it to the masses. I think some of the early dissertations to use the word cultural appropriation, specifically around Bharatanaty̩ am, were produced in the mid-1990s. Now it has gone mainstream. But we need to be careful, we need to understand that what weʼre talking about is also the usurping of space. Whatʼs really important in the invocation of the idea of appropriation is the fact that the need of the hour is to see the space. Ceding space is the idea that Nrithya was getting at when she was talking about whatʼs great about the collaboration, the fact that she had that space. Thereʼs a space where a Bahujan artist or letʼs say in the future, hopefully, a Dalit artist can create and be given the freedom to do so. There is space being ceded for those kinds of representations. To me, thatʼs the key element in invoking the idea of appropriation. Appropriation means closing off space, closing off possibilities, closing off potential. And thatʼs something that we really want to avoid.
When you think about the word appropriation, it definitely has a place, it definitely has a use. We need to be careful about where we are using it, and what the consequences are in terms of the efficacy of the usage. It can be hugely efficacious to invoke the idea of appropriation, very useful, very productive. In other times, it can simply be debilitating. And thatʼs not what we want. We want to be productive and forward thinking in our ideas. We donʼt want it to be debilitating for anybody.
Thanks a lot Davesh. You have really helped to clarify the bigger picture in a much wider context.
Thank you. I think this is really the way forward. I wish we had more people doing stuff like this, and fundamentally more people who have open minds and donʼt have knee-jerk reactions to interfacing with academics who are doing critical work. That is really key. We need more people who are practitioners, people in the community of artists who are genuinely open and are not tethered to these nationalist ideas of ‘their heritageʼ, where somehow critical scholarship is an attack on their heritage or right to perform. This is not at all any of us are in the business of doing. The whole point is to create more dialogue, to cement relationships between communities of performers and scholars rather than trying to break apart what little relationships earlier existed. Iʼm all for that, having an open mind and coming to this without the nostalgia, without the need to hang on to received ideas, to a notion of tradition, and having the guts to be able to intellectually challenge yourself and your own pre-conceived ideas. So thank you for this opportunity.