Taming of the Sensory Body: Memory, Text, Idea is geared to practitioners of yoga and dance who are seeking to academically engage with the historical, philosophical, and political redefinitions of their embodied practices over the last century and a half. The first module of this course will concentrate on the socio-cultural shifts that took place in the 19th century leading to the obliteration of lived histories of traditional practitioners and the redefinition of the Indian body, morality, and even spirituality.

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Review of the course – Taming the Sensory Body: Memory. Text. Idea (Part 1)

Colonisation warrants not only external shifts and changes, but more importantly shifts that took within, in our minds, world views and conceptualisations. To begin with, we dwelt on the conceptualisation of God, and how a wrathful/benign, sacred/erotic God of pre-modern Hinduism gradually became calendarized, standardized and rendered categorically-benign. With the interiority of God-space being stabilised and fixed, we moved on to examine its impact on the outpourings of erotic-devotion typically found in the padams and javalis of Bharatanatyam. Evoking the ecology of classical Tamil poetics, “in which the external world is continuous with, and expressive of, inner experience” (When God is a Customer, A K Ramanujan), we moved to discuss the overt eroticism of Kshetrya’s padams, “You say, ‘Come close, my girl,’ and make love to me like a wild man, Muvva Gopala, and as I get ready to move on top, it’s morning already.” Debating about the patriarchal constructs of both the devadasi’s liminal space and more so, the “voice” of her amorous songs authored by male-poets, we moved to address the criticality of her sacred/profane ethos. We replayed voices from the past around the anti-nautch debate, V Raghavan advocating the preservation of her liminal ethos, the intactness of which he thought was critical to the layered-richness of her nuanced art in which recognized great sensory value; and Rukmini Devi, on the other hand, deeming it best to redeem the art-from by extricating it from that very ethos.

It is not only interesting but very important to note how the project of dance revival becomes a pivotal means to recover a pure and imagined past. Rukmini Devi attributes the dance to the sages and imagined its origin in heaven, and for such a pristine form she envisions and creates a beautiful and befitting haven, i.e. Kalakshetra. “Environment”, she says, “is of tremendous importance to the actual form of the art,” and adds, that “the environment is what we call national life”. So, it is within the discourse of dance that the heavens, antiquity, the sages, art, spirituality, morality, dedication, environment and national life all get conflated. 

Given that Orientalism is/was given to imagining, exaggerating and distorting the mannerisms of the native, it became imperative for the embodied Indian practices, particularly “classical” dance, to be restrained, sophisticated and even cerebral. It became imperative to contain the body, not allow it feel too deeply, curb its non-verbal excesses, and subordinate the dance to a censored text. And now with the added convention of first rendering a translation of the song, most often in English, before it is performed, the body becomes twice-obliterated. First by subjecting it to the fixity of the word and then further having it accommodate the slippages of translation; the body gets strained and tamed within Anglophonic epistemology.

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