I Choose My Own Femininity: Ruminations of a Dancer at Heart

by Arushi Ramaka ’22

If dance were to deny a woman the right to identity or freedom, then it would be considered oppressive. Let us sit down, and ponder the vast, diverse ocean that is Indian Classical Dance, in relation to these themes. For, even though I was livid at hearing this particular viewpoint about my cherished dance, as someone who values open discussion and criticism about dharmic institutions, it is my obligation to consider why a fellow Hindu would consider these art forms to be oppressive.

Many people question why the characters their friends and loved ones play on stage seem so vastly differentfrom the dancer’s own authentic personality. Popular characters such as Radha, Rukmini, Sita, Lakshmi, and Saraswati are depicted as soft, graceful, elegant goddesses, contrary to the actual personalities of the countless teenage girls that are Indian Classical artists.

Why would soft, graceful, and elegant goddesses be seen as oppressive? Probably, due to the assumption that the dancer is, in a way, restricting themselves to the submissive, soft-spoken caricature of the “expected” Hindu girl. They seem to have sacrificed the raw, energetic aspects of themselves for the purpose of emoting the character. To lend some empathy to my fellow Hindu girls, it does get discouraging to be told constantly that you must do this to be a “good” girl, that sometimes you look too American, other times you are too cultural. Understandably, seeing a particular archetype of a goddess repeatedly in tradition, would dig up these feelings in any curious, questioning girl.

But, why must a particular representation of femininity be seen as limiting? For when a dancer assumes a character, she does not forgo her identity. No! She expands it. It is the essential philosophy of the Natya Shastra that the dancer’s body is the embodiment of the universe itself, as the artist, captures stories across time and space.

Generally, the popular dance themes for women empowerment include those about Durga Mata or Kali Mata. These two goddesses are powerful, beyond time and death themselves. They are the fearsome representation of a mother’s resolve. They do not cry nor lament. They vanquish adharma so that their children may continue to experience life in all its wonders. Why are representations of Ma Kali and Maa Durga seen as more liberating than, say, of Radha?

Perhaps, because Radha is portrayed as a vulnerable, emotional woman. She is a loving devotee of Krishna, endlessly calling out his name, sweetly enticing him to come back to her, in nostalgia of his leela whenever he is not with her.

Why is a female character such as Radha, who wields no weapons, nor shows powerful anger, but instead emotions that are more touchingly human- bittersweet sorrow, anguish, happiness, joy, and divine surrender- seen as a oppressive, sexist archetype?

In a rush to free women from the constraints of patriarchy, we have rejected specific types of femininity as inferior to that of what we envision- a world of strong, opinionated, loud leaders. A character who is vulnerable, soft, and graceful, is not what comes to mind at the mention of an “independent modern woman.”

A woman who is vulnerable and finds expression through her moments of weakness and emotion is not a victim of oppression in any way. She does not have to be emotionless and stoic to be considered a liberating character. Rejecting the grace and emotion in some goddesses does not liberate; it forces yet another archetype onto women, one that denies us a type of femininity for the purposes of supposed freedom. For where is freedom if I am told that expressing the most vulnerable parts of myself on stage, is oppressive?

We must recognize that trying to impose a more “strong” or “masculine” type of femininity on women is equally as sexist as ordering a woman to avert her gaze in the presence of a man.

The purpose of Indian Classical Dance is “svaanubhutyaam” — to immerse yourself in the experience of natya. The dancer may embody countless characters: the dutiful Sita, the intelligent Saraswati, the arrogant Satyabhama, motherly Yashoda, the beautiful Mohini, the powerful Durga, the terrifying Kali. She may transcend gender itself to become Shiva mourning Sati, Krishna vanquishing Kansa. Or, she could cast away the construct entirely, donning the role of Ardhanariswara, who is Shiva in a half-male, half-female form. All so that the audience may experience the wonderful stories that make up our civilization.

We must apply these diverse understandings of dance to our understanding of femininity. There is no right way to be a woman. All types of women must be included in what we think of all strong females. There is no good in being progressive if you deny the right of women to be vulnerable, by telling them that they are submitting to the role of a “damsel in distress.” The irony is…that is sexist!

A woman who expresses vulnerability did not do so because she wanted to be saved. She did it because she wants to be heard. And, if you deny her right to be heard, how can you call yourself a “feminist”?

I am a strong, opinionated Hindu girl. And I believe that Natya is liberating.

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