I am sorry. We cannot sanction the grant for Anita Ratnam’s dance residency. She does not look authentically Indian.” This was the message from the bursar of a college in New England, USA.
I was invited for a performance and teaching residency.
The prestigious women’s college has a dynamic Women’s Studies Department, headed by and Indian. Having visited Madras one summer and watching me rehearse my acclaimed solo Seven Graces on the Buddhist Tara, she graciously extended the invitation for my visit. Mails, biographies, photos and contracts flew back and forth and my travel dates were sealed. And then this doubt cast on my “authenticity”! What is authentically Indian? Does ethnicity demand a particular way of dressing and appearance? Does it exclude anything that could resemble the independence of the West? Is it Indian to look sweet and submissive and Western to look bold and confident? The former director of the famed Parisian Theatre de la Ville told me, “Please don’t do contemporary dance. Your classical is so beuooootiful!” If geography is our history then as Indians first and world citizens next, we carry our cultural DNA within ourselves.
We also carry the memories of invasions, cross pollination of cultures, races and a veritable melting pot of civilizations right within our shores.
An ASEAN nation often showcases its multicultural motto with this image.
A Malay woman dressed in traditional garb. A Chinese woman in a mandarin collar outfit and an Indian Bharatanatyam dancer. Not in a sari but a dance costume. Why? Bharatanatyam is Indian culture? An art that has morphed into a cultural product? Why are we being denied modernity on our terms? Why are we accepting of these norms thrust upon us by presenters and funders of art? I finally did visit the New England college. The question of authenticity however, still persists.