Racial Politics of South Asian Dance

A review of On the Move: Transnational South Asian Dancers and the “Flexible” Dancing Body, by Anusha Lakshmi Kedhar.

Anusha Lakshmi Kedhar’s dissertation combines ethnography and critical theories of political economy to investigate the racial politics and identifications crisis that South Asian dancers confront when (re)creating and (re)presenting their choreographies. Focusing on South Asian dancer-choreographers in the UK in the late twentieth/early twenty-first century, Kedhar examines the intersection(s) of race, citizenship, and labor issues in relation to transnational, globalized, capitalist power structures. The processes of the dancer-choreographers working within and against the effects of political economy create what Kedhar argues to be “an array of flexible practices in order to navigate the tensions between global capital and the nation-state” (p. vii). Kedhar further points out that flexible, tactical practices function not only to negotiate the conflicts between race and citizenship, but also to reconfigure identities and redefine the sense of South Asianness and Britishness (p. vii). She brings together the ideas of “dance as labor” and “the choreography of migration” to unveil the processes of aesthetical and identificatory negotiations that immerse the dancer-choreographers when moving across borders and stages (p. 4). Viewing South Asian bodies as transnational economic labor and focusing on the way in which bodily labor catalyzes national identification, Kedhar ultimately highlights globalization’s toll on the body and the limits of flexibility (p. 24, p. 29).

The first chapter, “Dancing Intimacy, Dancing Intimately: Angika and the Choreography of British Asianness,” examines the performances of race and femininity staged by Angika, a company co-founded by Subathra Subramaniam and Mayuri Boonham in 1998. Investigating how the performances participate in the construction of Britishness, Asianness, and South Asian identification in the UK, Kedhar suggests that the performances broker contradictions between race and citizenship in the UK. Highlighting the intimate relationships between the Angika woman dancers, Kedhar further argues that the performances fashioned “what Adria Imada calls an ‘imagined intimacy’ between the native (white) population and diasporic South Asians” (pp. 37-38). Kedhar articulates the derivations of the word intimacy and critically defines the word as “the tangible, concrete, everyday intimate encounters with the other” and “a tactic that produces both proximity and trust as well as distance and betrayal” (p. 46, p. 56). Building on Kathy Weingarten’s definition of intimacy as a discourse of meaning-making, as well as Alison Mountz and Jennifer Hyndman Kedhar’s feminist approach to intimacy, Kedhar sees the border, the home, and the body as three intimate sites through which to investigate how intimate bodily encounters embody social impacts. Throughout the chapter, Kedhar documents her personal participation in Angika and examines the development and survival strategies of an institute that simultaneously challenges the notion of cultural authenticity and forges “a new British Asian identity” (p. 116).

The second chapter, “Between Stage and Street: South Asian Male Dancers and the Staging of British Asian Masculinities in an Era of Global Terror,” focuses on South Asian male dancers’ performances of British Asian masculinity in relation to state violence and the global war on terror. During the era of global terror, as Kedhar points out, the brown male body has been targeted as an object of anxiety and violence (p. 166). According to Kedhar, the dancer-choreographers deploy flexibility as a corporeal tactic to problematize and trouble the fixed, hegemonic notions of Britishness and of South Asians. Specifically, the dancer-choreographers represent South Asian men as “hybrid” in contradistinction to the image of the British Asian male jettisoned from the national imaginary (pp. 38-39). Kedhar draws on three choreographers—Shobana Jeyasingh, Akram Khan, and Nina Rajarani—and assesses the way in which they flesh out flexible, South Asian, male performing bodies on stage thorough parody, ambiguity, and pastiche, among other tactics. The choreographers not only highlight the paradoxes between the rhetoric of multiculturalism and the reality of racism but also “soothe public anxiety” caused by/from the racial movements (p. 122).

The third chapter, “A Tale of Two Cities: Bangalore’s ‘Flexible’ Dancers and the Negotiation of Work in Late Capitalism,” highlights how Bangalore dancers, through creative, tactical, and flexible practices, respond to the volatile, exploitative labor markets produced by the rise of British multiculturalism in the 1990s and India’s economic liberation in 1991. Focusing on South Asian dancers from Bangalore to London, Kedhar examines how these dancer-choreographers survive through artistic and living tactics. Kedhar highlights that, vulnerable to fluctuations in market structure and government power, Bangalore’s transnational dancers use multiple bodily languages that “facilitate cross-border movements” (p. 173, p. 181). Pointing out that the UK limits transnational creations through discourses of citizenship and racism, Kedhar argues that global processes simultaneously liberate and regulate, mobilize and still Bangalore dancing bodies. Flexibility is the mode through which the dancers constitute subjectivities yet it is also limited by state-powers and capitalism. She further argues that the dancing bodies unveil the ways in which the UK, aligned with transnational capitalism, exploits racialized labor and reinforces the racial homogeneity of national identity.

Kedhar’s dissertation records how dancer-choreographers work within and against the forms, environments, and powers within a specific context to point to significant issues of race, gender, citizenship, migration and identification in relation to late capitalism. The dissertation critically proposes the notion of flexibility in response to Arjun Appadurai’s study of globalization and post-colonial survival practices and Janet O’Shea’s research on contemporary Indian choreographers’ tactical relationship to transnational capitalism and state powers. Its perspective on how South Asian male dancers perform in order to deconstruct the terrorist icon of the brown male body echoes Judith Butler’s notions of grieving and global justice in Precarious Life. This work combines questions of racial and gender identification, ethnographic observation, transnational practices, and choreographic investigation, offering a novel framework and resources for the cultural study of tactical dancing bodies within transnational contexts.

Fan-Ting Cheng
Theater and Performance Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
fantingcheng@gmail.com

Primary Sources

Women and Performance Journal
Asian Theatre Journal
Documents from Arts Council of England
Ethnography in Angika Dance Company
Dance works by Shobana Jeyasingh, Akram Khan, and Nina Rajarani
Interviews with various migrant dancers

Dissertation Information

University of California, Riverside. 2011. 239 pp. Primary Advisor: Priya Srinivasan.

 

Image: Bhakti, Angika Dance Company (2004). Angika Cypher Pack.

Leave a Reply