Global Gaze: Dancing Towards Equality
Some people like to think of the world as one big compartment plate, with different aspects of life tucked securely in their neat, walled-in stations, not touching or intermingling. Two areas of the human experience that some individuals vehemently wish to keep separate and others gleefully enjoy blending are politics and the arts. If you want proof, you need merely to look at any of the many times that artists who have dared to have opinions and political positions of their own have been told to “shut up and sing,” or some variation thereof.
Whether we like it or loathe it, however, it is becoming more and more a truth universally acknowledged that all art is somehow tied to or influenced by politics, whether it be implicitly or due to deliberate manipulation by the artist. Two mediums that are particularly amenable to conveying a political message are theatre and dance. A genre such as traditional Indian dance, with its focus on the past, folklore and mythology, however, may seem at first glance like an ineffective vehicle for promoting the modern fight for queer rights and equality.
In practice, however, some have been working to change this. Theatre and dance, as mediums, work through and manipulate the audience’s personal and collective memory and sense of identity, both of which are deeply tied to their views on society and politics. As Marvin Carlson writes in his book The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine, theatre and dance operate via “the retelling of stories already told, the reenactment of events already enacted, the re-experience of emotions already experienced.” This recycling process allows an artist to incorporate new elements and messages into a piece that already includes easily recognizable images and themes to convey a political message in terms the audience will be able to understand and relate to. It is with this in mind that Washington, DC-based choreographer Daniel Phoenix Singh and Indian performer, writer and gay rights activist Aniruddhan Vasudevan came together from across the globe to blend dance and social justice into a Bharata Natyam piece for the Fall Festival of Indian Dance, which premieres October 23 and 24 at DC’s Lincoln Theatre.
As a choreographer with an MFA in Dance and a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies from the University of Maryland and a member of the faculty at the Maryland Youth Ballet and Results gyms, Singh is also active in the LGBT community, primarily through KhushDC, an organization serving the South Asian LGBT community and its friends. In DC, however, he’s probably best known for his dance company, Dakshina.
“Dakshina means ‘offering’ in Sanskrit, and it also means from the South of India,” he explains. “I founded Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company as an organization that strives to offer artists and audiences the unique opportunity to experience dance as a movement that links the arts, cultures, and social causes. I find that I gravitate towards artists that are able to bring together the multiple interests and facets of their lives together. I find the messiness of life exhilarating and fellow collaborators who embrace it give me the buzz I need to keep moving forward.”
Singh is one of those individuals who fully believe that politics and art are often inseparable, and in fact embraces this idea, consciously adding a social justice element to his company’s work.
“I don’t think you can separate the different aspects of an artist into compartments. I find works of art stale and disconnected when they are devoid of personal connections to place, history, and community,” he says of the relationship between the political and the artistic. “I think it is crucial for artists to model activism (political or otherwise). We cannot expect a community to engage with us, if we don’t take the time to engage with the issues that are at the heart of our community.”
This willingness to share ideas and address political issues naturally led to a collaboration with Aniruddhan Vasudevan, a dancer, writer and activist based in Chennai, India and the Co-founder and Director of The Shakti Resource Center, a two-year old organization that works towards establishing support services for LGBT people and creating public discourse on sexuality in Chennai. While the collaboration makes sense, it’s still impressive that the project came together despite the pair living half a world away from each other.
“Daniel contacted me sometime in 2006 after he read a review of one of my performances somewhere. We met on his subsequent trip to India, and discussed possibilities of collaborating,” Vasudevan recalls. “That led to my first trip to the U.S. in 2007, when we worked on a piece on love, peace and non-violence, commemorating 60 years of India’s independence from British colonialism.”
This meeting of the minds has resulted in a new piece that will be presented at this year’s Fall Festival of Indian Dance.
“This year’s work is based on the story of Karna, a very important character from the Indian epic Mahabharatha,” Vasudevan explains. “It was Daniel’s suggestion to work on this, and it suited me very well because I was, on a different track, looking at queer and other political re-readings of Indian mythologies, epics, legends, etc. What is unique for us with this year’s work is that we are doing something that is not part of traditional Indian dance composition, at least the training — we are beginning with the dance first and moving to creating the music/sound track later. It is being a very exciting experience.”
While the story may be a classic, the pair insist that it will still resonate with modern audiences and address very timely political and societal issues.
“There is an Indian concept of ‘Dharma,’ which roughly translates to a person’s ‘Calling’ in life, and Karna, the protagonist in our dance story recognizes his Dharma as giving to anyone who comes to him in need,” Singh says. “He gives even when he suffers in the process, he even gives his life when his birth mother asks for it in the stead of his half-brother, and ultimately even gives away the fruits of his good deeds as his last gift before dying. In a world that seems so intent on taking, given the greed displayed recently that contributed to the economic collapse, I found this old concept of giving refocused my original vision of offering that prompted me to start Dakshina.”
And Vasudevan is no stranger to putting on a production, whether it be on the stage or in the streets. In addition to his dancing and his work with The Shakti Center, Aniruddhan is known for being one of the driving forces behind Chennai’s first ever Pride event, which was held earlier this year. While many people still debate the usefulness and nature of Pride in the U.S., this event was incredibly meaningful in India, a country which is currently in the process of making strides towards equality.
“Pride marches in India are being helpful in making LGBT issues visible, to draw attention to the existence of LGBT people, to generate a public discourse on the issues through the media,” he explains. “Also, it is one way of letting a whole lot of LGBT people, who find it hard to imagine free and fearless LGBT lives and are lonely, that a movement exists, that there is hope.”
A lot of work went into the planning of the event, however.
“Primarily, to gather the courage to be ‘out’ to such large scale publicity, to take on all the media visibility, just the willingness to subject oneself to all the limelight and possible homophobic reactions etc.,” Vasudevan replies when asked about challenges he faced in making the march a reality. “The State Government of Tamil Nadu, of which Chennai is the capital, has, in the recent past, instituted some progressive policies vis-a-vis transgender women. That also served as an entry point in generating public discourse on LGB and transmen’s issues. I organized a public event – the release of the Human Rights Watch report on sodomy laws in British colonialism, a panel discussion and cultural performances by LGBT artists as part of the Pride month celebrations.”
But this month the focus is on the dancing, and spreading the word about queer issues in India and within the South Asian community in the U.S. How best to accomplish this, however, is an ongoing question that both men will continue to grapple with in the future.
“I am yet to find a comfortable space when it comes to combining political activism with the arts. I continue to explore the zone with theatre and dance,” Vasudevan notes. “Traditional Indian dance is not directly amenable to being a political art, in the sense of being alternative or confrontational. I am in the process of seeing what kind of space I have in it – a queer, feminist, secular space.”
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