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Storytelling in Bharatanatyam: Misogyny and Feminism

Written by Idaya Sasikumar and edited by Eesha Srinivasan and Sukanya Mahadevan.

When someone who is familiar with Bharatanatyam thinks about the art form, often what first comes to mind is one of Bharatanatyam’s main themes: its devotion towards Hindu Gods. It is undeniable that this style of dance is known for telling stories and singing praises about Hindu Gods, such as Krishna, Saraswathi, and Murugan. By showcasing the tales of Hindu mythology through dance, not only does the dancer embody these themes, but the audience in turn interprets and learns about the stories that are being told.

Storytelling is an art of many forms of dance, however, what sets Bharatanatyam apart from them is that Hindu mythology is often considered part of India’s history and culture. History is often being told through these dances. While the dance allows us to showcase the good, fun parts — such as the silly tales of Krishna eating dirt and being mischievous, it also brings to the forefront the bad examples.

All art forms have their negative aspects. One of Bharatanatyam’s flaws is that in its visual storytelling, it also showcases misogyny. Since the main characters being portrayed are Gods and demigods, it can sometimes lead to incorrect interpretation.

The ​​Mahabharata

The truth is, while Bharatanatyam seems to be performed primarily by women, there are certain themes within the tales of mythology being portrayed that display misogyny, thereby portraying them in a weak light. Hindu mythology, whether you want to admit it or not, is filled with misogyny and ideas of patriarchy. An example of this is within the Mahabharata. This epic refers to a time where there seems to have been no concept of marriage, until it became important to establish fatherhood. Throughout the Mahabharata, there were themes of women being “possessions” without any control of their own future. Similar ideas are ingrained in this mythology. In turn, some of these ideas make their way into the very dances that Bharatanatyam dancers perform.

But while Bharatanatyam does have connections with misogyny, this doesn’t mean Bharatanatyam itself is misogynistic. While there are pieces performed in Bharatanatyam that can be considered to have misogynistic roots, ultimately it comes to how an individual portrays the dance, and how it is interpreted. The art of storytelling is more to inform the audience of what is happening, than an individual’s opinion. Storytellers should tell their stories with integrity to the original storyteller, and that is exactly what Bharatanatyam aims to do.

While some of these stories tell tales of Hindu mythology, many of these also combat issues such as misogyny and aim to spread themes important to humanity: like feminism.

One of the dancers who is part of the

project “Bharatanatyam in the Wild.”

Bharatanatyam has been and will continue to be used to spread relevant messages, including that of feminism through its dances. An example of this is the project “Bharatanatyam in the Wild,” which is a project in India that is about performing Bharatanatyam in outside spaces where women are often told to keep to themselves or not draw attention to themselves. However, by performing outside, these women draw attention to themselves. They break the societal barriers that have been put in place for generations.

Modern day interpretation of pieces may be expected to address such issues and figure out a way to creatively spread the message of female empowerment through the storytelling of dance.

Ultimately, Bharatanatyam tells stories. And whether these are stories with positive or negative messages, with good or bad connotations in history, they accomplish what they strive to do: they leave the audience with an impression of the story, and the devotion of the dancer’s commitment to telling it.

Bharatanatyam is an art form that has done this for hundreds of years; it is undeniable that it will continue to tell stories for hundreds of years more. The hope is that as people evolve, so will the art form, and the interpretation of these stories told through the art form.

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Eesha thank you for the editing assist!


What a beautiful article Idaya. Very nice to see that my students are able to question what they portray in their art so they can keep the integrity of the source but still give it a new context.

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