Why I refused to be pretty…
By Priyanka Chandrasekhar
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Owing to the number of times Navtej said “listen to your body, the body is the answer, the body yearns to be recognized”, I had to recount the times I did not acknowledge my body and unpack for myself why I did or didn’t do it.

As a brahmin child of the upper-middle-class, hard work was instilled as God and the body a mere coincidence that one is born with. I was told I was gifted but I was also told to labour hard to actually deserve it.  It was an odd proposition that was hammered into my head that I had to deserve this body- like a Maybelline lipstick that one had to be worthy of to own it. My body and me (however absurd this distinction maybe) have ever since been two entities living together but competing to own each other, like in a marriage between two gifted but jealous individuals. I was taught that the body was to service the mind, to function, to aid the mind to perform and excel. The hierarchy was established.

So, when someone told me how pretty I was, I judged them for being shallow or for objectifying, for missing on what was beneath the surface. I was happy when someone said ‘beauty with brains’ as nothing lesser would do. Of course, I loved the attention, the turning heads in college, the staring faces, boys, and girls who were infatuated by the way I looked. I have held on to those memories so vividly but stuffed them in the far and deep corners. I refused to allow my body the credit, the pleasure of just being who it was. I abused it by sleeping less, with other emotional and physical stresses, pushing it to overwork, all to prove one point; I was more than ‘just’ a body. This mad and senseless drive helped me excel at multiple fields and I started to stand out naturally for it (though nobody saw it like that including me). Maybe in the end it all worked out well and I turned out fine but I cannot fathom how or why I would participate in this raging debate with myself and how this recklessness came to occupy my life for so many years.

Brahmins have been educators, teachers, scholars, worshippers, all of which had to do largely with the mind and not the body. In my household and culture, the distinction is stark and the mind must overpower the body, as it is inferior and only houses the vices of an individual to steer them to be ‘less spiritual or evolved’ or ‘less brahmin’. I was a good child so obediently I believed this and grew to have ambition (which is of the mind) but no desire (which can be of the body). Especially being pretty and also publicly seen on stages I could never have been misunderstood as showing off my gifted face and body. I had to clarify my presence with my labour. Also, growing up, my father took great care to ensure I never got into a pair of jeans my adolescent years (bad cop), and my mother ‘allowed’ me to wax my underarms so I could wear sleeveless kurtas (good cop).  I was decorated with silks, accessories, colourblinds and so on, suiting the tastes of my mother for she had to decide for her doll. There were no greys in my wardrobe. I was dressed like the bride is dressed by many people on her wedding day in typical Bharatanatyamsancharisand funnily made to love it and I loved it. I was constructed carefully to be Indian, to be a classical dancer, to be marriageable for a man of refined taste and intellect living abroad, as an apology for being good looking. Bharatanatyam played a significant role in making the construction inseparable from my skin.

It is not to say that my mother didn’t take pride in my looks. She secretly did and she knew it and sold it the most whether on stage or to the family that would ‘allow’ me to dance when I was married. She criticized every pimple I got or when I put on weight or when I lost some. She constantly prided about my ‘grace’ (as she called it) which I conveniently passed off as not a trait of my body. She encouraged backless blouses for sarees but no short tops or short haircuts. Anything western was unsafe (though I was destined to be married off and live in the west). Anything incongruent with my Indian aesthetic was dismissed and I became accepting and comfortable of the dismissal. My mother and Bharatanatyam in many ways were very synonymous in terms of the role they played in my life, similar agents, and suspiciously similar agendas they had for me (both my body and me).

I had bigger worries and sleepless nights to pull off to realize how I was being casually but deliberately sculpted into a woman who denies herself her body. The bubble that I was put into became a true home for me.

I started attributing my looks to ‘just good genes’ uncomfortable beyond expression. Parlours were for less smart people with a lot of time. Boys who said I was pretty just were after looks. Every time someone said ‘dancer’s face’ I thought it was my hard work and practice of years that had started to glow not knowing they meant slender arms, big hips, small breasts, beautiful eyes, and infectious smile. A very senior Bharatanatyam artist advised me at a workshop that I should smile less as it was too captivating for the audience to be able to concentrate on the dance itself (as if the art form had nothing to do with looking pretty). I was so embarrassed that I could never really look up and dance for the rest of the workshop. I stopped meeting people after my performances afraid I would hear compliments about my looks. I practiced hierarchy between a face (important) and body (not important) because stupidly and subconsciously I believed it was the head that housed the brain which had to be preserved.

There are occasions that I do not have the strength to recount which I have inflicted upon my body; suppressed incidents of violence perpetrated on it, repeatedly been in the presence of my abuser, returned to spaces to show my sincerity of mind and renunciation of any bodily desires that I was accused of, almost punishing it and letting the mind still decide for it. Yes, curiously despite all my attempts I was seen as a desirous woman threatening the civilized brahmin manners of society I belonged to, by my parents, my friends, acquaintances, dancers, and dance classes. Perhaps, I tried too hard and my resisting body gave it away.

I tamed my senses, shut my body down, had a number of thoughts in my head when I first kissed, or first made love because the mind had to participate. Only recently have I realized that in every situation I found myself running to the rescue of pros and cons, logical argument, critical two-sided debate, presenting myself with thoughts, reasons, and deciding basis it. I had no instinct. I didn’t know what it meant. My body didn’t twitch or yearn or murmur or crib. It had become a silent spectator, a vehicle, a witness to the violence imposed by the caste, the form, the mother, and ‘me’.

Today as I turn 30, I feel my body is upset with me, angry for the treatment and censoring. I find it hard to move her, connect with her, or hear her voice. She still can’t take a compliment with comfort. Little desires come with guilt. She refuses to be pretty anymore.

Priyanka is a professional classical dancer based in Bangalore. She is trained in Bharatanatyam and Kathak for many years and has also learned the margi techniques of movement. Priyanka has performed extensively in both solo and group formats along with popular dance companies. She is a freelance performer and also undertakes choreography projects and trains students in Bharatanatyam. Presently, Priyanka is trying to explore the pedagogy of classical dance training and designing a new curriculum in arts. She aspires to create a new body of work in Bharatanatyam that accommodates relevant content, a thinking mind, questions, personal stories and has the ability to leave the audiences with an experience. 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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