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Queering (my) Bharatanatyam

It happened a couple of years ago when I was still coming to terms with my homosexuality. That varnam in Charukesi raagam always had me riveted. Just seeing my classmates dance to it would kindle some kind of a yearning in my heart. I never got to perform it since the varnam was perceived as a strong expression of feminine shringara towards Krishna.

Anyway, it had to happen. I was invited for a performance and workshop tour to Kolkata. The request was to bring audio recordings instead of an orchestra. The time to prepare was very short and so I decided to take some known, tried and tested dance compositions with me. But after days of trying all available recordings in my dance school I ended up with just one decent recording that of the same Charukesi Varnam! I chose to see it as some divine dispensation and set out to choreograph it to suit my mind and body.

At that time, I was a little tired of performing daasya bhakti pieces (pieces that express servitude and devotion to god). So I decided to explore this composition in terms of sakhya bhakti (god as friend). Throughout the choreographing sessions there was a tangible feeling of discomfort. It was probably due to the fact that I was forcing an interpretation on the lyrics. They actually expressed a very dignified form of Bhakti-Sringara (piety-erotic love complex). There was a dilemma. Neither did I want to show a woman pining away for Krishna nor do a pure bhakti piece. My mind, I guess, was looking for something more. At the same time, it did not occur to me that my actual, subconscious intentions behind choosing to treat Krishna as a friend was because I was looking for some expression of male-male bonding. It just did not strike me. I thought the discomfort was probably because I was yet to soak in the piece and it would take time. I decided to leave it to Krishna.

While on the train I listened to the varnam some twenty odd times! I was in love with it! Never before had I had such a personal relationship with a composition. It was exhilarating.

I was performing at an ashram headed by a swamini endearingly called Ma by everyone there. On stage, when I started emoting to the lines “Innum en manam ariyaadhavar pola” [“As though you still do not know my mind”], it suddenly struck me with the force of lightning that I was in love with Krishna. I realized I was not looking for something abstract like grace or blessing, but for this touch and caress. In an epiphanic moment, I realized I had my own ideas of what Krishna will do to me to my mind and, equally or more importantly, to my body. It was a palpable physical yearning. For those forty minutes, I felt in my bones what it meant to be in love emotionally and physically. I could feel each cell in my body throb with desire and in a flash I understood what Radha must be going through in those beautiful pieces from Geetha Govindam. They were a series of epiphanies, I would say. But those forty minutes felt like one, long moment. It felt like I was simultaneously in and out of Time. How I yearn for another such experience! That concert was a defining moment in my search for my personal relationship with my art.

After the concert when I went to do my pranaams to Ma, her foster son remarked to her in Bangla, Ma! Look at this child! What bhakti! She looked into my eyes while she answered him, No! It is more than Bhakti. My friend interpreted it in english for me. I was glad someone understood it and my eyes went watery.

This piece was written originally in January 2006 and was published in the Trikone magazine the same year.

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