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).