Hips with no strings attached
By Mridula Rao
Article 1 Photo 1

I started learning Bharatanatyam when I was 11 years old. When I explored the form’s movement possibilities in awe, I would feel an electricity pass through the various parts of my body – except in my hips.

I saw my hips only as a foundation that divided my upper and lower body and enabled my knees to turn out to create the diamond shape that we call aramandi in Bharatanatyam. The hips had to be squared, boxed, and held as they divided my body into two halves (rather than connecting the two halves). My hips did not have autonomy of their own; in fact, they acted as insulators – not allowing the movement of the legs to echo to the top and vice versa. They could not sway!

I have always had a bad turn out in aramandi.  When I started exploring the field (attending lecture demos and workshops by various gurus) I realized that a great turn-out of aramandi, meant that you were a good Bharatanatyam dancer. Hips to me then became a site of intense focus and ambition so much so that I would prefer to have even conversations and discussions with friends whilst doing aramandi.

At around the same time, I started training in Kathak. The vertical stance drew me to the form and the casual hips were a welcome change from my Bharatanatyam training. In Kathak, the weight is not held in the center. It keeps shifting quickly between the legs. The ambition to square them is replaced by a gentle letting go in the hips. As I started to attend Kathak lecture demos, I encountered the word naachenewaali for the first time in my life.

“We keep our hips absolutely still when we do na-dhin-dhin-na, else you know what it will start looking like? You are not a naachnewaali.” A famous Kathak guru in Bangalore told me once. This guru loved thumris and had learned and passed on many of Bindaddin Maharaj’s compositions to her students. Thumak -ri! The word thumri comes from thumakana, I was told. But where is the thumak happening in the body, is it not the hips? I wondered.

In another workshop, I got reprimanded by a senior Guru from Pune “Itna lachak lachak ke kyon chal rahi ho?” It was the sheer disgust and anger in the voice of a very gentlewoman that completely threw me off. But the poetry exactly said this- Lachak lachak chale kadam ki chaiya (The women folk swayed as they walked towards the shade of the kadam tree).  Subsequently, I too learned to fall in line, I mastered taming my hips.

When there was a resurgence of the Natyashastra discourse in the mid-2000s, I started to train in karanas as reconstructed by Dr. Padma Subramaniam. These reconstructed movements brought a fresh lease of life to my dance. It allowed for swaying, twisting, lifting, and dropping of hips. Hips were finally a conduit of echo, energy, and movement between the upper and lower halves of my body. I felt sexy as hips became available to my dance. But it wasn’t so simple to feel sexy in classical dance.

“The hip movements must be done with utmost purity of heart”, said my teacher. “You need a certain amount of maturity, age, and samskara to handle these hip movements”, said Padma Subramaniam in a dance workshop at my class. Something had shifted in the language of dance pedagogy. Over the top stories of the greatness of Indian civilization suddenly became a part of my dance training. To sway my hips also meant buying into this language.

Moreover, to sway my hips I had to have the “right” hip-size, so that when they moved they could look like the Shila Balikes of the ancient Hindu temples. A Natyashastra scholar was heard telling my teacher “I didn’t like Mridula’s dance yesterday. Her hips were so inhibited. She is too thin and hence her hips are not seen. Look at Geeta (name changed) in contrast – her hips are big and hence the curves are seen so much better.”

I felt scrutinized for my hips, for not being enough of a classical woman. I detested the authority of that man on my hips. I realized that there is no freedom in either squaring or swaying them unless I give the power back to my hips. At this point, I was drawn to avant-garde choreographer Chandralekha’s work to find some answers. I started reading articles where she had situated the pelvis as the source of energy. Her work inverted my notions of what an aramandi could mean. But soon questions started to nag me again. The hips were open to sensual meanings but they did not sway. Her work was around the sensual body but she worked with Kalakshetra dancers who had been trained to give up on that very thing. Why was only a Kalakshetra trained dancer so important to her? Did she look down upon swaying, asymmetric hips? Is the draw to square hip actually a caste aesthetic? I am working on a hunch here about Chandralekha as I have never met her in person and her movements have come to me through YouTube videos. But I can’t shrug off this question from my head.

Today, I try to give my hips all the freedom they ask for. I acknowledge the blockages as also the immense softness in the flesh and bones in my pelvic area. My hips can also be cannibalistic and arouse in my huge desires for leaps, jumps, falls, and ignite my sex drive. They have many engines and starting points that go beyond the squareness and curvedness narrative.

Two years ago, one of my students performed an autobiographical piece in a class where she bid goodbye to dance. The end of her piece was about staying where she is and not wanting to move in any direction, it was about staying in the same place for the sake of pleasure – she concluded by turning her back to the audience and swaying her hips. Her performance of saying goodbye to dance by choosing to sway her hips, of her own volition, continues to linger on in my mind.

Mridula Rao is a trained Kathak and Bharatanatyam practitioner. She runs a dance space called Kala Sahita in Bangalore. She has a keen interest in investigating the pedagogy of classical dance and in exploring ways through which personal, as well as socio-political narratives, can be a part of the classical training. She was one of the participants of the course Taming the Sensory Body: Memory, Text, Idea. This paper was originally written as an assignment for the course.

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