11. Text on the Danseuse_


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

paragraph followed.

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


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