The Problematic Danseuse: Reclaiming Space to Dance the Lived
Seshadri, Nirmala (2017). The Problematic Danseuse: Reclaiming Space to
Dance the Lived Feminine. In Diotima’s: A Journal of New Readings (pp.
54-79). Kozhikode, Kerala: Providence Women’s College
“The Abhinaya Darpana (13 th century CE) and Bharata’s
Natyasastra (200 BCE-300 CE), serve as key texts in a Bharatanatyam
dancer’s training. The messaging of the above verse from the Abhinaya
Darpana is loud and clear – the female dancer is the object of the
societal and, more specifically, the male gaze. How does the
modern-day ‘danseuse’ re-present her performance body to shift it
from the male or externally-defined representation?
In the years that I have lived in Singapore and India, I have
experienced classical dance training and its performance as a
jettisoning of the dancer’s real life experience rather than its inclusion.
Highlighting the separation between the lived and performance bodies
of the female classical dancer, dance scholar Urmimala Sarkar Munsi
states, “the reality of her everyday life is put aside, as she reclaims her
tradition through her body and performance - entering into an
imaginary realm of a world that begins and ends with the performance
itself, and does not have anything to do with the everyday reality of the
body” (2014: 307). Rather than move in autonomy and authenticity,
the dancer’s body is disciplined into presenting itself within the
prescribed boundaries. According to Sarkar Munsi, “locating the
female body within the historically derived public domain of the
patriarchal society has silenced any bodily activities or at least muted
them in and through classical dance” (2014: 308). Various societal
forces collude to discipline the female dancer into conformity. Against
this backdrop, I call the female Bharatanatyam dancer who defies
societal yardsticks of acceptability, resisting disciplinarity to present
her lived feminine - The Problematic Danseuse.”
“It is understood”
It is understood that the Danseuse (nartaki) should be very lovely,
young, with full round breasts, self-confident, charming, agreeable,
dexterous in handling the critical passages … with wide-open eyes …
adorned with costly jewels, with a charming lotus-face, neither very
stout nor very thin, nor very tall nor very short” (Nandikesvara 1917:
Nirmala’s opening reflection:
I opened my paper with this text.
In my reading of the paper at SCOPE (Dance Nucleus) in July
2018, I opened with a brief introduction after which this
In the translation from Paper to Lecture Performance, this is
the point at which I rise from my chair, walk across the stage
and sit on the chair that is covered with a silk sari. The text
provided an entry point into embodied expression.
Some headnotes from July 2019 during explorations in the studio
and conversations with Soultari Amin Farid:
Why not at the centre? I am not ready to occupy centre stage. Let me
place the chair on the left.
Why the seated position? By re-connecting me with a past work in
which I emoted in the same seated position, it facilitates my re-entry
into the space of performance.
Why the sari? It connects me to my early performances of the
Bharatanatyam repertoire. This is the sari I wore for my Arangetram
(dance debut) in 1985. The sari is also a connection to my culture and
symbolises for me the concept of cultural custodianship - an implicit
role that the modern day Bharatanatyam dancer is required to
In his dramaturgy of “It is understood”, Daniel Kok highlighted:
the dramatic impact of the sequence in the use of the voice, face, hand gestures,
stances and the different registers of speech.
Dr. Shobha Avadhani, on viewing the work focussed her attention on:
The strong link between the dance form and issues of caste and gender.
Bharatanatyam and Brahminism is etched on my lived and performing body. Can I
ever release myself from it?
Mervin Wong, in his audiovisual exploration within “It is understood”:
“Wanted to explore the qualities of Nirmala’s voice, the simple power of repeating”
Nrithya Pillai’s comments on “It is understood” during a residency with
“It reflects the perverted mind of a man, brahminic and misogynistic , imposing
standards on women. If we don’t question it, we are compliant and we are part of
the problem. For hereditary dancers, it’s a lived experience and is intuitive. The body
type of the dancer cannot be standardised.The dance cannot be codified.”
Nirmala’s Closing Reflection:
“It is understood that while The Fractured Female Body may be broken, challenged,
aged, uncertain, imperfect, vulnerable & devoid of those adornments … yet it
listens, speaks, thinks, feels, sings and moves … in new, authentic and empathetic