I began my Kathak training in 1998 in London and it dominated my life until I stopped dancing two years ago. This was roughly the time I became an ultra diehard Liberal. I found my political feminist views clashed with the societal expectations of a Classical Indian dancer. The unquestioning subservient dynamics of a Classical dancer conflicted with my “Question all authority” liberal outlook. After fourteen years I hung up my ghungaroos and stopped dancing.
One day while practising a Gath Bhaava I tried to get into the Radha Nayika and feel the coy shame Radha feels when Krishna teases her. The narrative was a straight forward Radha-Krishna tale: Radha is fetching water when Krishna breaks the pot and embarrasses her. While she hides under her scarf Krishna grabs her arm. She backs away with a lowered head and an embarrassed expression. While acting out the discomfort of a twisted arm I felt very uncomfortable. At no point when learning this gath (and countless similar stories) was the idea of consent raised. Twisted arms and shame were associated with romance and the pure love between Radha and Krishna.
A perfect example is the famous Kathak item in Devdas. Within this poem Krishna twists the narrator’s arm so hard she talks about her bangles breaking. As an easily influenced preteen this poetry taught me that physical assault is the norm of romance and courting. That unwanted touches are appropriate because if Krishna did it, it’s acceptable. Of course, Hindu scripture about Radha-Krishna did not talk about these relationship dynamics. These were written by (predominately male) poets around the 16th century.
This situation becomes nefarious when linked to the expectations of a Guru-Shishya relationship. A Classical Indian dancer never questions their teacher. A Classical Indian dancer must always do as the Guru, their God, tells them to. One must demonstrate unwavering respect in order to learn this ancient art. If a Guru is teaching an easily influenced student, often under the age of consent, that unwanted touches are acceptable then what is the student opening themself up for? This is a hypothetical situation but exploitation in Guru-Shishya relationships is not uncommon, normally in the form of harmless unpaid administration. If we train young obeying dancers to coyly enjoy arm twisting, we open up the potential for shadier sexual requests to go unreported.
As always, Kathak feels like it is miles behind other Classical Indian dance forms. Feminist explorations of mythological dieties are the norm in Bharatanatyam and Odissi. While Kathak has some pioneers performing feminist narratives, arm twisting and unwanted touching remains a pivotal part of the Kathak lexicon. Mirabai bhajans which explore love and devotion from a consensual and subtler platform remain in the fringes while seedier imagery stays in the forefront.
I certainly miss Kathak and I miss discovering new Nayikas and emotions. There is no feeling in the world which compares to the adrenaline rush after a two hour Kathak session. But until consent and individualism is taught to dancers alongside arm grabbing, I feel uncomfortable calling myself a Kathak dancer.