Asian Music and Dance

Skin, Uma (stree vesham) – and Other Journeys in Hari Krishnan’s Contemporary Indian Dance

Choreographer and Artistic Director of Toronto’s InDance Company Hari Krishnan has taken what he calls ‘vintage bharatanatyam’ and reinvented it. His risk-taking heterodox creations arrest and challenge. Ketu Katrak looks at his work, its background and impact.

“My choreography subverts cliché and stereotype… My sexuality is a blessing, which organically informs the very emotional/physical presence in my work.”*

Two male dancers (in underwear) enter the stage, sharing private rapture with a rapt audience. Bare thighs and legs, chests and arms, sensual and subtle love-play are choreographed by queer Indo-North American choreographer Hari Krishnan in his latest work, Skin. In a masterful play of light and shadow characteristic of Krishnan’s choreography over the past fifteen years, one’s gaze is drawn to a spotlight with a third dancer, naked, showing his back and bare buttocks. The further peeling away of that last covering of the male genitals becomes a creative necessity as this naked man enters a shower stall, a space where all humans bare their bodies. The dancer moves inside the shower stall, still with his back to the audience. The purpose is not to tantalise, so in the natural process of washing himself, he turns around to reveal his full-frontal nakedness. The sight is evocative and empathetic. Reviewer Michael Crabb notes that Skin showcases “the difference between nudity and nakedness, the one touching on display and voyeurism, and the other on transparency and human vulnerability” (thestar.com, 19 May 2014).

Skin premièred alongside Krishnan’s 2011 work Quicksand at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto. Brendan Healy, the theatre’s Artistic Director, recognises, as well as the strengths of its ‘intercultural’ nature and its blending of classical and contemporary, the ‘queer undercurrent’ in Krishnan’s work – though as Krishnan remarks, “My queerness is only a part of the palette of what I am as a human being” (thestar.com, 19 May 2014).

“My queerness is only a part of the palette of what I am as a human being.”

Krishnan’s research into queerness from a global perspective inspired Skin. He was working with dancers who, he remarks, “emphatically identified as gay… and that dominated their intention.” Krishnan and his dancers discovered and deployed common gay ‘rites of passage’ in the creation process. “Skin started to emerge as a tactile story,” he says, “experienced by ‘gay-Greek-Gods’ indulging their five senses” (‘The Blessing of Sexuality’). 

Skin is a culmination of Krishnan’s gradual peeling away of external accoutrements in his choreography, from ornate colours and jewellery, commonly used in classical bharatanatyam (in which Krishnan is trained), to wearing a black dhoti up to the knees (like shorts) with a leather (rather than the usual gold-plated) belt, to performing bharatanatyam with street shoes, to showcasing a naked male dancing body. 

“[He peels] away external accoutrements… from ornate colours and jewellery… to wearing a black dhoti up to the knees… to performing bharata-natyam with street shoes… to showcasing a male naked dancing body.”

As co-curator with Anita Ratnam of  ‘Purush: The Global Dancing Male’ in Chennai in 2013, Krishnan presented his work Uma, which had premièred in Toronto in 2006 as part of the Gender Transformations Festival featuring global cross-gender dance traditions. Krishnan created Uma as a contemporary tribute to the tradition of stree vesham (female impersonation) in South India. Krishnan’s many contemporary bharatanatyam-based choreographies, like Uma, raise compelling questions about narrow and normative definitions of gender and sexuality, while celebrating multiplicity of identity.

In Uma, with his signature playful seriousness, Krishnan deconstructs many aspects of the javali (love song). His choreography subtly dramatises the many dimensions of what the programme notes described as ‘the Diva and the Devi’, exquisitely rendered by the male dancer Srikanth. The transformation was complete as Srikanth’s aura and expression convincingly conveyed a delicate yet strong, coy yet defiant female, playing with a long braid, holding the audience spellbound. This use of stree vesham raised questions about the external accoutrements that signify a man or woman in society, and the inner energies of male and female that we all have and that can be accessed and performed. 

Another gender-bending work, The Frog Princess, earned Krishnan the prestigious Bessie Award (New York City) nomination. Princess Mandodari is cursed to be a frog until she meets her soul mate, whereupon she transforms into a beautiful woman, seduces and marries him.

Krishnan’s Signature Style in Contemporary Indian Dance

Krishnan’s style, based in bharatanatyam, is distinctly hybrid, drawing upon dance languages from across the globe and inventing a new dance language that explodes sexual, cultural and national stereotypes. He connects as much to dance forms from India, China, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore (where he was born) as to the avant-garde contemporary dance art scene in Europe and North America. The InDance Company, formed by Krishnan in 1999, is constituted from Canadians of diverse backgrounds – Japanese, South Asian and Caucasian.

“He asserts the modernity of bharata-natyam and its status as ‘a signifier of South Asian identity’ in the world.”

Krishnan was born into a family in Singapore that practised classical Carnatic music and dance. His bharatanatyam guru was the late Kittappa Pillai; then undergraduate study (Linguistics and Speech Pathology) took him to Canada. He considers the move from Singapore to Canada as a most fortuitous life-changing event: “My move to the West was truly a positive and empowering one, not only as an artist and academic, but more importantly as a human being searching for his identity.”

Krishnan’s scholarly concerns (he is completing his PhD from Texas Woman’s University) are realised uniquely in his choreography. As Assistant Professor of Dance at Wesleyan University (Connecticut), he researches colonial and post-colonial discourse, globalisation, hybridity and the dancing body. He asserts the modernity of bharatanatyam and its status as ‘a signifier of South Asian identity’ in the world. He is remarkable as well for his collaborative spirit, having worked in particular with dancer Anita Ratnam over many years on choreographies such as 7 Graces, Ma3Ka and A Million Sita-s. For what he describes as his “tripolar dystopian ‘messed-up’ universe”, he collaborated in I, Cyclops with the Bhaskar Arts Academy in Singapore. 

Pushing Boundaries, Subverting Stereotypes

Krishnan’s choreography in Box, Mea Culpa (a parody of Ted Shawn’s iconic Shiva dance) and Bollywood Hopscotch is playful, subversive, and intellectually exciting in terms of pushing boundaries of gender and sexuality and narrow stereotypes of the ‘nation’. He subverts classical bharatanatyam when he interprets lyric poetry not via abhinaya (gesture language) as is done traditionally, but conveying the story and emotions via nritta (footwork and dance syllables). At times, movement unfolds in silence. In another innovative mode, Krishnan danced a technically virtuosic bharatanatyam work with complex jatis (rhythmic patterns) in street shoes rather than with bare feet. 

“…he interprets lyric poetry not via abhinaya (gesture language)… conveying the story and emotions via nritta  (footwork and dance syllables).”

Preserving Heritage

Krishnan has “reconstructed several vintage temple and court dance genres” in the Thanjavur tradition, learning temple dance repertoires from the last surviving member of the hereditary female dance community from the Tiruvarur temple in South India (narthaki.com, 7 August 2005). He is the only dancer to have inherited the entire repertoire of the Viralimalai temple tradition from R. Muttukkannammal, the last devadasi (hereditary female temple dancer) who was dedicated at the Murugan temple in Viralimalai. He places these historically significant works creatively, with thoughtful interventions, onto the bodies of his InDance Company. 

“He is the only dancer to have inherited the entire repertoire of the Viralimalai temple tradition from R. Muttukkannammal, the last devadasi (hereditary female temple dancer)…”

Krishnan is dedicated to the historical recuperation of the creative legacy of devadasis, nattuvanars (expert musicians who sing and play the cymbals and conduct the dance recital) and their families. Krishnan founded the Mangala Initiative, a non-profit Canadian organisation that offers financial assistance to female artists in rural Tamil Nadu.

Krishnan’s goal is to make “bridges with other cultures” as well as making his own accessible to others, especially in Canada: “This is not about having everything taken over by diversity. At the end of the day, it’s about celebrating excellence in any chosen art form” (Toronto Star, 21 March 2007). Krishnan is an artist par excellence whose creativity is marked by intelligence, thought and integrity − qualities that he both demands and inspires in his audiences, whether in Toronto, Chennai, London or Singapore.

*Hari Krishnan (‘The Blessing of Sexuality’, Gaëtan L. Charlebois, In a Word… www.charpo-canada.com, 14 May 2014).



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