Sandra Chatterjee & Shyamala Moorty
University of California at Los Angeles
The borderwriter, in Emily Hicks' definition, is a person who is standing on a borderline, looking in two directions at once. The borderwriter, who "is both 'self' and 'other'" emerges "from double strings of signifiers of two sets of referential codes, from both sides of the border" (Hicks 1991, xxvi). Tracing our two individual stories through writing and choreography, we set out on our own borderwriting journey to explore notions of representation and agency based on our experiences of being half-Indian dancers in Germany and the United States. On the way, we attempt to evade the dangers of being split into the binary categories "East" and "West" and set out to discover what Guillermo Gómez-Peña calls a "border semiotics" (Gómez-Peña 1993, 38). Because we did not anticipate choosing this path of scholarly writing, we did not always write down the details when they actually occurred. Thus, the events described are primarily notes from memory and we have taken the liberty to re-combine a number of experiences into single examples.
I open my closet, to wear a warm pair of pants and a sweater, as it is cold at this time of year in Munich, my hometown in Germany. The bag with my costume is packed; I am on my way to the performance. I was hired as a classical Indian dancer for a promotional event that is meant to encourage Germans to visit India as tourists.
At the event, I perform Kuchipudi, which is a regional dance form from Andhra Pradesh, South India. The person announcing the performance, however, claims that I will perform Bharata Natyam. For me, if not for him, the distinction is relevant. Beginning in the 1920s, members of the Indian urban intellectual elite re-evaluated the cultural traditions of India in search of a national identity which was constructed to fit the prescription of a modernizing nation. In this process, aspects that were seen as compatible with the image given to the new Hindu nation India were emphasized, while those aspects that were objectionable were eliminated (Coorlawala 1994, 26-27). Bharata Natyam, in this process, became an emblem of India's national culture, while Kuchipudi was initially not recognized as a classical dance form.
In order for Kuchipudi to be accepted into the ranks of classical dance forms, the tradition of men dressing up and dancing as women, which was frequently perceived as "vulgar," had to be eliminated. Consequently, the form, which began as a dance drama tradition of male traveling actors, was transformed into a solo dance tradition with primarily female exponents.
At this promotional event, however, for this specific audience in Munich, this distinction between Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi, and its history is not relevant. For advertising purposes, this kind of specificity is secondary. I was hired to sell the illusion of the Indian temple dancer, foreign, exotic, and unspecific enough to allow space for the audience's imagination.
Deborah Root writes in "Conquest, Appropriation, and Cultural Difference" that "[w]ithin a capitalist economy, culture . . . . has been inserted into a system of exchange in which any element can be abstracted from its social and ceremonial context and assigned a monetary value. Indeed, culture itself has become a commodity, provided it can be marketed as authentic and hence interesting" (Root 1996, 73). I look Indian, and the dance I perform fulfills the organizer's expectations of what "authentic" Indian dance is supposed to look like. Judging from the feedback after the performance, it seems that the costume, jewelry and long, flower-decorated hair were the most impressive part of the performance for the audience who wants to be seduced into visiting India. With my appearance, I can sell the illusion of the exotic Indian temple dancer at least almost.
A German connoisseur of Indian art who has worked and travelled in India extensively for several decades is invited as a speaker to the same event [note, who speaks and who is looked at?]. He approaches me, saying: "Your technique is as good as the dancers I have witnessed in India, but you have to work on your presence. It is too self-confident. Women in India are not like that! Oh yes, and please have someone else announce your dance, your accent-free German destroys the illusion."
Clearly, my task was to embody what the people who hired me see as "Indian." In "Number in Colonial Imagination," Arjun Appadurai exemplifies a colonial body politic that became a numeric metonymy, where the idea of representation was tied to the idea of representativeness (Appadurai 1994, 132). Reproducing this colonial body politic, the representation of an Indian cultural and national identity, therefore, can be tied to the idea of representativeness, where one body can, by inference, represent the cultural core of "Indianness" in general. In the case of this event, my body is used to "evoke regional identity" (Root 1996, 68), which I have been trained to embody through my dance training (aided by my appearance), even though, the identity evoked does not correspond to my "bidentity" as a a half-German, half-Indian, German citizen.
Looking at the classical Indian dancer allows the spectator to imagine what they want an Indian woman to be in their fantasy. As soon as I speak, or assume a presence that potentially interferes with that image of an Indian woman, I am at risk of losing my job; i.e., not being hired again. Borrowing Deborah Roots words; I am paid to be an Indian dancer "neatly packaged for the consumer's convenience" (Root 1996, 70).
I slide open my closet doors and pull out two long strings of ankle bells and a set of finger cymbals that my father brought back from India for me to perform Indian dance. The rest of the costume is waiting for me at the Monterey Double Tree Hotel where I am scheduled to perform an Indian duet with my dance teacher's daughter. This Indian choreography was taught to us by my dance teacher my ballet dance teacher, that is.
I am about 13, and while I have never seen Indian dance, I have studied ballet for about five years. The teacher with whom I have studied the longest is a woman in her seventies who migrated from Russia. Sometime before coming to the U.S., her British husband had a military assignment in colonial India. She accompanied him, and says that she studied some Indian dance while she was there. At 13, I don't think to ask if there is more than one kind of Indian dance and she doesn't let on that there is any other kind than that which she teaches us. Our dance, for an International diplomatic meeting of some kind, is in the lobby. It consists of shifting our head and neck from side to side, moving our arms in graceful spirals, covering and revealing our faces with veils, tapping the ground lightly with our feet, placing our hands in prayer positions, and gracefully turning with pointed toes (like a soutenu en tournant in ballet, but with bent knees).
In retrospect (I'm now 28), I recognize some of these movements in La Bayadère, a classic romantic ballet about an Indian Temple Dancer. La Bayadère, first staged in 1877 in Russia by Marius Petipa, is filled with near naked, leaping savages; chaste women with bare stomachs and scarves dripping from their arms; various royalty; a golden dancing god; and an evil Brahmin (a Brahmin is a caste of scholars and priests in India -though this particular Brahmin is more like a heathen sorcerer). Just like Petipa, my ballet teacher called on her imagination, mediated by her memory of colonial India and the technique of ballet, to create an "orientalist" vision of India and Indianness. True to Said's notions of orientalism, the specificity of the actual place is lost as India is mixed with other vague notions of Asia and the Middle East. This imaginary Orient is presented as primitive and exotic everything the West is not. Thus, an occidental, subjective identity is constructed in opposition: one morally and intellectually more advanced.
Of course, as we dance to represent India, I am the authenticating face, for I appear Indian. Yet how is it for me as a part-Indian ballet dancer, to be representing my father's culture through a Russian woman's imagining of Indian dance? Foucault refers to the militarily trained body as a form of disciplining the masses in 18th century Europe (Foucault 1984, 185). While he was referring to men, I would argue that, in the form of ballet, females are also trained en masse. So many girls are sent to ballet class to receive their training on how to be feminine, graceful, soft: "docile." In my case, my ballet teacher not only trained me how to be a girl, but also how to be Indian. The image of India she portrays is feminine and exotic...voiceless. The dance informs my bodily experience and is incorporated into my actual identity and understanding of myself. I become the exotic one, the one to be looked at, desired, and feared both by others and by my American self. Looking at myself from an outsider's point of view and "othering" myself, I become divided.
|Reading the dancing body (Shyamala's story)|
"Ta ki ta, di ki ta, tom ki ta, num ki ta," my teacher recites, matching each syllable with a strike of a stick on the ground. The room is hot with sweat and eager minds. I am in my first year of college at UCLA now, and because there is such a large population of South Asians in Los Angeles, I have the opportunity to study Bharata Natyam. This new technique, however, is so foreign: I hate the heavy stomping ("You sound like a herd of Elephants!" the ballet voice in me reprimands); and I cannot manage to get the strong, sharp movements correctly for they are so contrary to what I think dance should be (I see dance as ideally graceful, floating, feminine). The technique of Bharata Natyam, except for similar placements of the limbs, seems opposite to the technique of ballet. My bodymind, trained into the "docility" of ballet, is now challenged to re-examine all my previous notions of femininity and dance.
As an undergraduate student I became caught between two techniques, trying to perfect each in order represent each cultural form correctly for I didn't want to offend anyone by doing the movements wrongly. As I performed more Bharata Natyam, my ballet technique started to fall apart. I could no longer extend, leap, float with the soft grace I had once so adored. In between the two, one diminishing and one building, (performing neither well) I had lost myself. There was no space left for me to express myself in either form; rather I was floundering in attempting to be the technically perfect model of each. I had become the "hired body" that Susan Foster describes: "The hired body, built at a great distance from the self, reduces it to a pragmatic merchant of movement proffering whatever look appeals at the moment" (Foster 1992, 494). I did not see the forms as growing and changing, or as dynamic and alive activities to which people can contribute. Rather, I saw them as strict and static. I was dedicated to them in their imagined perfection, petrified of doing them disservice.
The physical contradictions between my two dance heritages were heightened by the awareness that my European ancestors had colonized my Indian ancestors, and that the two are still in complicated relationships due to global capitalism. Furthermore, as I became exposed to theory in relation to dance, I became aware of the narrow definition of femininity ballet perpetuated in the West. At the same time, I learned that Bharata Natyam, as we know it today, is a dance form that was re-created (read cleaned-up) with nationalistic underpinnings during India's newly formed Independence. In the process, the female body was used to perpetuate traditionalism and a fixed vision of Indian culture. Now, how should I embody these two differing and problematic ideas of women?
Gloria Anzaldua describes such cultural confusion as part of being mestiza (mestiza is a Spanish term that refers to a person of mixed heritage):
There were certainly cultural collisions in my being part-Indian and part-American, trained in both Bharata Natyam and ballet. How could I reconcile one group of ancestors having such a history of oppressing the other group of ancestors? Did I reject one culture and only identify with the other? Could I equalize the two by putting them side-by-side? Could I choose the parts from each culture with which I wished to engage? Or was I doomed to be doubly oppressed by two histories...colonialism from one side, staunch traditionalism and nationalism on the other, and sexism from both? Was I the female body to be displayed and desired in the West and at the same time constructed as the carrier of culture in India? Could I be a bridge between cultures, or would I just fall between the gap of understanding? Could I travel across the border, or was I caught forever repeating its division?
It was time for me to find my own voice in all of this confusion.
|Reading the dancing body (Sandra's story continued)|
My rehearsal room is outdoors, behind the dorm I live in at the campus of the University of Hawai'i. I am facing the mountains of Manoa Valley, tinted red from the sunset I can't see. The wind is blowing gently, as I am working on a new choreography called "Hapa." In Hawai'i, besides enjoying the soothing environment, I am romanticizing right now I learned about the concept of "hapa," which means half, and refers to individuals of mixed ancestry.
Getting to know a "hapa-way of being" fundamentally changed my outlook on my identity, as well as my dance practice. Hapa, for me, is not merely another word, which means "half." It is a concept, which reserves a place for hybridity within the structure of the social framework I got to know in Hawai'i. In contrast to my experiences before moving to Hawai'i, learning about the concept of hapa allowed me to find an approach to hybridity, which does not imply the burden of impurity.
Previously it seemed to me that the training which I had received as a classical Indian dancer, trained every impulse of creativity out of my body. Every finger had to be in the right place, and I had to repeat the same step, until my teacher was satisfied. Foucault writes that in order for the body to be useful within the political economy, it needs to be skilful as well as subjected. The body, as the target of power, needs to be "manipulated, shaped, and trained" (Foucault 1984, 180). Discipline, therefore, produces "subjected and practiced bodies, 'docile' bodies" (Foucault 1984, 182). In this situation, my body, trained in the discipline of classical Indian dance was utilized to evoke a regional identity, which, on occasion, was packaged for the German tourist's convenience, tacitly supporting an image of Indianness as something that can be purchased as a packaged deal. Where, however, am I, the dancer located within this?
At a recent conference on Indian dance in the diaspora, the question was raised whether one could view contemporary dance as the "insertion of personal experience into traditional practice" (Chatterjea 2001). Although contemporary Indian dance is not always autobiographical or obviously oriented toward personal expression, a sense of urgency is often derived from the attempt to make Indian dance relevant to contemporary circumstances of life. This urgency that derives from the insertion of personal experience stands in strong opposition to the predicament of representativeness and the adherence to prescribed values, which is connected to, and taught through classical Indian dance. As a result, Indian dance does not need to be a constraint any longer, forcing me to embody a particular interpretation of Indianness. The technique can become a tool to express something that is Indian, yet has personal relevance for me.
In search of a way to insert my personal experience into the traditional practice of Kuchipudi, I initially thought I could work out this dilemma by studying modern dance. In Critical Moves Randy Martin writes that "[m]odern dance technique is often enshrouded in the myth of an individual creator, whose urge to be free of convention gives rise to new expressive forms" (Martin 1998, 151). However, the recipe of solving the cultural equation: Kuchipudi + Modern Dance = Self-expression, did not yield the desired results. I needed to experience a sense of agency and urgency which I discovered in my experience with "Hapaness." Learning about "the concept of hapa helped me separate the notion of hybridity from the notion of impurity and thereby allowed me to embrace a sense of agency. I realized that I do not need "to protect" technique from my hybridity.
As a dancer in Germany, Sandra was hired to represent "Indianness." In the U.S., Shyamala learned to dance 'Indianness" from her Russian ballet teacher. While both the examples illustrated in the text were in diplomatic and promotional, tourist-oriented settings, they serve as extreme examples of a quotidian experience. Events of this sort were what inspired us as choreographers to search for something in our dance practice that goes beyond particular, politically and economically motivated representations of a culture. We were inspired to go beyond orientalist or nationalist notions of Indianness and represent ourselves as individuals (who happen to be half-Indian). Individual voices, here, are not meant to be interpreted as individualistic self-expression, but as dissenting voices re-emphasizing heterogeneity over homogeneity, asserting the freedom to articulate alternative visions over pressures to represent an entire culture.
While we discovered a comforting similarity in each other's situations, we explored our own expression in unique ways. Sandra stayed close to the form of Kuchipudi in her project to give form to her interpretation of Hapaness. She attempted to embrace the double vision of those who perpetually stand on the border, and let it manifest itself within the form in which she was trained. Shyamala began investigating the space between two classical forms, Bharata Natyam and Ballet. Confronting binaries, chose to celebrate and highlight contradictions in the meeting of cultures as well as the unexpected combinations that evolve as borders dissolve.
In this text we do not intend to argue that there is no room for personal investment or resistance within traditional dance. However, reflecting our our "bidentites", we are interested in making the dance forms we were trained in pertinent to our transnational border realities, to help us reflect the double vision of the border subject.
Note: This quote is paraphrased.
 Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism
 I wish to thank Professor David Gere, for it was in his classes at UCLA's World Arts and Cultures' Department that I was first exposed to these issues.
Anzaldua, Gloria. "La Consciencia de la Mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness," in Bhavnani, Kum-Kum, ed. Feminism and Race. NewYork: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 93-107.
Appadurai, Arjun. "Number in Colonial Imagination" in Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1996, pp. 114-135.
Crisp, Clement and Edward Thorpe. The Colorful World of Ballet. London: Octopus Books Limited. 1978.
Chatterjea, Ananya. Panel Discussion. Indian Dance in the Diaspora: Tradition and Innovation, 2 September 2001.
Coorlawala, Uttara Asha. Classical and Contemporary Indian Dance: Overview, Criteria, and a choreographic analysis. PhD. diss. New York University, 1994.
Foster, Susan Leigh. "Dancing Bodies," in eds. Crary, Jonathan and Sanford Kwinter. Incorporations. New York: Zone, 1992, pp. 480-495.
Foucault, Michel. "Docile Bodies" in ed. Paul Rabinow The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, pp. 179-187.
Gómez-Peña, Guillermo. "Critical Texts" in Warrior for Gringostroika. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1993, pp. 34-63.
Hicks, Emily. Border Writing: The Multidimensional Text. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1991.
Martin, Randy. "Between technique and the state: The univers(ity) in dance." Critical Moves. Dance Studies in Theory and Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998, pp. 151-179.
Root, Deborah. " Conquest, appropriation, and cultural difference" in Cannibal Culture. Art, Appropriation, and the Commodification of Difference. Boulder: Westview Press, 1996, pp. 392-403.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage books. 1978.
|Sandra Chatterjee and Shyamala Moorty are trained in diverse dance forms such as Bharata Natyam, modern dance, Kuchipudi, Polynesian dance, ballet and post-modern dance. Their collaboration started in 2000 at UCLA's Department of World Arts and Cultures. Since then, Shyamala has received her MFA in dance and is working with the Aman International Dance and Music Ensemble, while Sandra is pursuing a PhD in Culture and Performance at the department of World Arts and Cultures. Their choreography has been presented in various venues in LA, Houston, Princeton, Salt Lake City and NYC.|