ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

The Languid Arms of the Bayadere: Aesthetics and Politics


Nair Ranjini - University of Cambridge, Education, Cambridge, United Kingdom


13 – The Travelling Female Performer: Mobility and Agency in and beyond South Asia, c. 1760-1940


In June, 1838, a group of five dancers and three accompanists, including the nattuvanar, were brought to Europe by E.C. Tardivel. The troupe was attached to the Perumal Temple in Thiruvanthipuram. The archival trace left behind by these ‘bayaderes’ is vast, and there is a profusion of images the performances left behind. In this paper, I would like to draw attention to the arms of the dancers even without fully trusting the image, various iterations of which came about painted by an Orientalist gaze. The arms are not taut. They are loose, soft, almost hesitant in their placement. In none of the images I have come across do they rise parallel to the floor, as in modern day Bharatanatyam. For the European who painted or drew these images the armsĀ  conveyed perhaps the indolence of the colonial subject. To me, the arms convey only that classical dance today, has pushed those arms up. Can these images tell us more about why the arms had to be held taut in more modern renditions of the form, which came up within the backdrop of the Indian movement for independence?These images point to how a kinetic pull which has shifted in the dancing body over the years. Focusing on the languid arms provides an embodied visual illustrating concepts and terms like sanskritization, sanitisation, revival and reform in Bharatanatyam, which otherwise appear to be mere theoretical debates.