EnGendered 2008, a multi-disciplinary arts festival exploring the complex gender and sexual identities in South Asia was held recently at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. The three-day event presented by the Nayikas Dance Theater Company, was, in the words of founder Myna Mukherjee, “was a conversation between New Delhi and New York”. Through visual arts, performing arts, film and writing, EnGendered encouraged an open dialogue on gender identities and gender roles, the still taboo subject of sex, sexual choice and the intersections of all these with religion and ritual.
The visual arts exhibition Pardah, featuring artists from India, Pakistan, Germany and the US, opened the festival. The works exhibited included paintings, prints, photographs, digital art, installations and the works of the traditional art form Mithila painting.
The opening night titled Linga Sarita (Rivers of Gender) explored the possibilities of interpreting and constructing gender through neo-classical forms of dance, followed by a keynote plenary. The backdrop for the evening was the cityscape of Manhattan seen through the enormous glass wall of the Allen Room, and definitely a world apart from the usual dark curtains or panels printed with advertiser information, and at certain times of the year, a temple shikhara (dome).
Rudrakshya, an all-male ensemble performed in the purush ang or male form of a classical dance (the Devadasi tradition) which has its roots in temple dance and was originally performed only by women. Excerpts from ‘history of unforgetting’ presented by Parul Shah and Co., was a tribute to female dancers and their forgotten contribution in dance and culture. A Story and a Song by Aparna Sindhoor Dance Co. blended storytelling, dance and song to talk, metaphorically, about the taboo topic of sexuality. Excerpts about other performances from the performance guide:
Entwined, by Sudarshan Belsare based on the vision of the Ardhanarishwara (Half-Woman God), revisiting the duality of male and female principles in one entity; Astad Deboo’s Every Fragment of Dust is Awakened which aimed for cosmic scope while retaining human particularity; Bell Song, a story of two male lovers by The Dakshina Dance Theater Co.; and an Odissi dance performance by the Nayikas based on the Das Mahavidyas --- the ten female goddesses in the Tantric Hindu pantheon representing the ten primal forms of feminine energy.
The panel that followed featured Shohini Ghosh, Bharati Mukherjee, Urvashi Vaid, Reema Kagti, Dr. Alka Pande, and Zila Husein Khan. The question asked of them by moderator Gautam Bhan was, “What is it that gender, sexuality, religion and ritual have, that brings them together and pulls them apart?”
Bharati Mukherjee, author and Professor of English at University of California at Berkeley, said samaaj (society) and not religion creates the gender boundaries. “The moment we give ourselves the permission to say sexuality can take many forms and it is not transgression, except for the bourgeois gatekeepers of social codes and morality, we are all going to be okay,” she said.
Urvashi Vaid, executive director of National Gay and Lesbian Task Force came out in 1980 at the age of 22. She said that the argument against gayness, that it’s inherently sinful, may never be overcome. Proposing a solution for such divergence within society, she said, “Let religion be religion, let truth be truth. In a plural society, unanimity of viewpoint is not the goal, peaceful coexistence, I would argue, is. If religious fundamentalists seek to condemn my being, let them, but if they attack my safety, or family, or security, neither I nor society should let them.”
Reema Kagti shared her experiences as director of Bollywood film "Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd.", a film that celebrates sexuality (both hetero and homo) in a funny-direct sort of way. A film critic, apparently suggested that her film should be called ‘Homomoon Travels’ although, Kagti said, the homosexual narrative lasted less than ten minutes in the two-hour film.
Indian new media artist Satadaru S. Banduri’s "Night Reveals the Secret" (see photo above) represents the tension between expressing and concealing desire, often faced by same-sex couples. “MySpace, Orkut have helped people to come out. Here [in the US], they use their picture. But in India, they don’t use their picture, they hide their identity. They put a picture of Calvin Klein type models. That’s why I put a Western body here – it’s like Calvin Klein”. The Delhi-based artist says that most spaces, barring Gurgaon (Delhi suburbs), which is emerging as the site for sexual expression with a night life and gay clubs, the rest continue to force secrecy on same-sex couples.
The next two days featured film screenings and performances by celebrated danseuse and activist Mallika Sarabhai, dynamic choreographer and Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas, contemporary Kathak group Parul Shah and Company, and Dakshina whose work is a syncratic blend of Bharat Natyam and modern dance.
Vivaad - Phrasing Differences was a conversation on geopolitics, identity, desire and power structure between Bharati Mukherjee, Taslima Nasrin, Mallika Sarabhai, Gayatri Gopinath and Shamita Das Dasgupta . A music evening with renowned Sufi singer Zila Husein Khan and the illustrious Fareed Ayaaz Qawwal Ensemble from Pakistan closed the event.
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