There is saying amongst the Indian diaspora in the US that there are perhaps more Bharatnatyam students in the US than in India. Indeed, classical art forms are often sought out by Indian and Indian-American parents to instill strong Indian cultural values in their otherwise American children. The Dancer’s Voice: Performance and Womanhood in Transnational India by Rumya Sree Putcha takes a deeper look at the phenomenon of classical dance training in India and amongst the Indian diaspora by focusing on the figure of the dancer. The book focuses on Kuchipudhi – a dance form that comes from the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh and uses Telugu (rather than Tamil as in the case of Bharatnatyam) songs. Drawing from a diversity of sources ranging from personal memories of her own training sessions, her mother’s stories, archival materials such as film posters, and ethnographic research in dance studios in India, Putcha argues that the dancer becomes a vehicle through which notions of citizenship, caste identities, and gender ideals get expressed.
A stoic young girl, decorated in costume jewellery, stares out of the book cover straight at the audience from the cover of The Dancer’s Voice. This was a photograph of Putcha’s mother, who like Putcha herself as well as many other South Indian upper caste young women, was introduced to classical dance and music at a very young age. The photograph is evocative of the dancer’s silent presence as she moves her body through a series of stylized movements charged with controlled sensuality, expressing the words voiced by the Guru or the teacher and the accompanying orchestra. But the dancer is also metaphorically vocal as she expresses herself even within these constraints. Putcha reflects on her own experience of growing up as an Indian-American in Texas, where she struggled to find her own voice as both a traditional choir singer and a Kuchipudi dancer. The book revolves around four main themes – womanhood, caste, citizenship, and silence – each centring the control over the agency of the dancer.
In the chapter on ‘womanhood’, Putcha explores how questions of the ideal feminine beauty and anxieties around female sexuality shape the evolution of the figure of the dancer in Indian popular culture. Many scholars of Indian classical dance forms have written about the ways in the figures of courtesans, professional female dancers, and lower caste temple dancers get erased as classical dance forms is increasingly codified by an upper caste Brahminical (centering the Brahmin or the highest ritual caste) aesthetics. In the context of Kuchipudi, Putcha notes that the figure of the Bhogam women (lower caste traditional temple dancers) invoke extreme anxiety amongst her dance teachers. However, while the dancer’s body and even her gaze is increasingly controlled in postcolonial India by cultural gatekeepers to find the perfect balance between modesty and sensuality, the mythical image of the sexually liberated courtesan still captures our imagination through Bollywood films such as Utsav (1984) and the remake version of Umrao Jaan (2006).
The chapters on ‘caste’ and on ‘citizenship’ depict the role that songs and dance play in shaping the national self-identities of Indians in India and beyond. By sharing stories of songs from her mother’s book, Putcha notes how songs in Hindi (promoted as the national language by the Indian government) and Telegu (Putcha’s native tongue) enabled her mother (and many other women by extension) to culturally root herself to the Indian nation-state. The chapter also depicts the role that many Hindi and Telegu films have played over the years where the dancer’s body and the accompanying music is heavily coded with notions of gendered beauty and upper caste propriety. Putcha specifically focuses on films that shifted the public imagination around the figure of the dancer from being a Devadasi or customary lower caste temple dancers to upper caste ideals of demure beauty. Putcha notes the role that film songs, lip-synched by actresses, played in popularizing the message that the films conveyed about the centrality of a Hindu cultural identity.
The last chapter on ‘silence’ illustrates the ways in which the dancers body becomes a vehicle through which others perform important symbolic acts. Putcha describes the role that the image of the exotic Indian dancer played in presenting India in the advertisements of the Trans World Airlines in the 1960s. Here, the exotic Indian dancer, with her stylized pose and pressed (silent) lips, her bindi or the decorative dot on her forehead, became representative of an Orientalist vision of what India became for Western consumption. The figure of the dancer is also an aspirational one, for young women who are trained to become one to increase their marriageability, even when marriage itself added to the vulnerability of Indian women under the heteronormative set up. The silencing of the dancer’s voice also takes place within the space of the dance studio itself. As Indian classical dances now exist within international circuits where gurus and performers travel across the world, and where tourist disciplines exist alongside domicile ones, these increased encounters between the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ provide further opportunities of silencing the dancers’ voice vis-à-vis the dominant voice of the Guru.
What is unique about Putch’s book is that it centres the desires and agency of the women
dancers, rather than the cultural gatekeepers or the institutions that seek to control the art form. Her book also follows the figure of the dancer beyond the formal classical dance arenas to give us a more comprehensive idea of who the dancer becomes for multiple audiences. This is not an easy book to read, but it is an intriguing one.