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CHALLENGING PATRIARCHY THROUGH DANCE

NIRMALA SESHADRI
Choreographer and Artistic Director of N Dance & Yoga

I am a dancer. This paper represents my point of view. I have used


personal autobiographical narrative as my mode of presentation. All
the conclusions that I have arrived at in this paper are derived from
my personal experiences.

As an Indian girl growing up in Singapore, I was made to learn


Bharatanatyam1as a means of maintaining a connection with India. I
may have been born in Singapore but the message was clear: India
was my parent country; I was first Indian and then anything else.

Looking back, I do not regret having learnt the dance form and the
question will always remain: If I had not been forced into it, would I
have taken it up willingly? Perhaps not. But the issue I am raising here
is that of choice, or rather the lack of it. This lack of choice I also
experienced in other areas which determined and gradually shaped my
perception of myself and the world around me. There was no question
of a pair of scissors ever touching my hair; long hair was mandatory.
The bindi2 had to adorn my forehead. To marry out of caste, race, or
religion would have required immense strength and courage qualities
I did not possess at that stage. This is not a finger pointing exercise; I
am merely sharing my backdrop and the fact that the system that
governed my early life offered me few choices and, therefore, also
offered little scope to learn how to make choices when required. The
reason I refer to it as a system is that I gradually began to discover that
it was not limited to any one individual or to my personal life alone. In
the sphere of dance too, choices were made externally whether to
dance, how to dance, what to dance, what to wear. Life and dance,
reclaiming my right to choice in both spheres became more and more
intertwined. My understanding of the term patriarchy 3 became
connected to this issue of choice.

In my frame of reference, the term patriarchy carries in it the following


ideas: a lack of choice, lack of equal opportunity, and the subjugation

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and domination of one segment of society over another. The result is a
submissiveness that has gone deep into the psyche of women.
However, the expression of patriarchy is not necessarily gender-based
for even liberated women often end up perpetuating patriarchy for
various reasons. Therefore it is a complex system.

The primary expression of patriarchy in Bharatanatyam is the


objectification of the woman for the pleasure of men. The dancing doll
is the image that comes to mind. The history of the dance form itself
points in this direction. In the Devadasi system,4 women danced in
temples in praise of a male God. Gradually, this was extended to
include the men in society- the priests and then the kings. Not just were
the viewers of the dance male, but so were the teachers,5 composers,6
choreographers, musicians, and organisers. The dance form, thus,
became suited to satisfy the male gaze. This is reflected in the tight
costumes that accentuate relevant body parts, the positions and
stances that the woman is expected to take, the speed at which she is
expected to perform to the loud banging of the mridangam7, and the
themes she is expected to dance out. Erotic poetry describes explicitly
the act of sex and adultery. Divine love seems to exist as a convenient
loop hole. While the poet (male) would have been given all the freedom
to express his sexual fantasies, the dancer is told how she should
dance, not to cross boundaries. There is a line which when crossed
can have serious consequences for the woman.

She is criticised for being vulgar, laughed at (her art is not taken
seriously and yet the male who wrote the poetry is celebrated for
centuries) or, what can be most dire for an artist, she is totally ignored.
Deviation from the norm by a woman either in her personal or dance
life is not looked at very favourably. Thus, she is never allowed to
express herself freely. This often leads to confusion and repression
and on the other side, the spirit of rebellion.

The first signs of rebellion in me were expressed through the act of


trimming the ends of my hair when I was 16. In my culture, it was
considered sacrilegious for a woman to cut her hair. Only when she
became a widow would the scissors touch her hair; she was expected
to shave her head bald. Even womans hair was the property of the
male. It took tremendous courage to trim my hair. Even after that, I
would continue to project the impression of long hair when I danced on
stage by wearing a wig. As in my personal life, in my dance life hair
was and is still considered an integral aspect of Bharatanatyam.

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Gradually, I began to recognise the asymmetry in the treatment of men
and women in other areas of my life. The issue of patriarchy has
constantly plagued me. But, I also discovered that the more I tried to
bring it to light through verbal means, the more closed were the minds
of those around me. I began to discover that certain issues were more
effectively conveyed not verbally, but through dance. So my dance
form became my tool for saying what I could not express through
everyday speech.

My first experience of expression through dance concerned what I


perceived as an injustice in my own life. In 1992, my handling of the
composition Neene Anatha Bandhu8 by the 15th century composer
Purandara Dasa opened and closed the work with an episode from my
own life the dowry issue at the time of my marriage, an incident which
had left me feeling abandoned on all sides. In retrospect, I am aware
that it was still a male deity I was clinging to. However, this was my first
experience of bringing contemporary reality into my traditional
repertoire. Interestingly, a well known scholar and critic in Chennai
came up to me after a performance and argued that I had not been true
to the poets intention. The resistance to a dancers interpretation and
individuality became clear to me. In my view this was a form of control
and domination: Patriarchy.

Outcaste Eternal
Photographer: Sujith Panicker

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In 1998 I worked on the dance theatre production Outcaste Eternal
which was based on the English translation Outcaste9 of the
Malayalam novel Brushtu. This book was based on the true story of
the sexual revenge that a lone woman, Paptikutty, wreaked on an
entire community that was rigid, oppressive, and patriarchal. The
setting of the tale was 1910 Kerala, South India, and the community in
question was the orthodox Namboodri Brahmin community. Till then I
had performed the Bharatanatyam repertoire more or less as it had
been taught to me, depicting sexual themes in approved ways,
emphasising primarily on the bhakti10 aspect. With Outcaste Eternal, I
moved into adapting the dance form to suit contemporary women-
focused literature; in doing so I adopted the dance theatre mode which
incorporated the spoken word. After all, the story revolved around a
historic trial.

This was the first time that I was speaking on stage as a dancer. I have
always felt that vachika abhinaya11 has been denied to the dancer and,
in effect, she has been silenced. The work allowed me to explore
another facet of myself - the actor in me. In this experiment, I was
exploring the space in which the abhinaya12 in my dance form
connected with the abhinaya in theatre. In the first act, the spoken word
was used to represent the present moment (the trial) while stylised
dance movements and expressions reflected the past through
flashbacks. The concept of Goddess power and energy was also
represented through dance. Throughout the work, dance was used to
depict the subtler emotions. Seduction, a key aspect of the story, was
also handled through dance. The work addressed the dichotomy that
exists between the worship of woman as Goddess and her actual
treatment in society. My focus shifted from dancing in praise of male
deities to dancing in celebration of the female deity.

After Outcaste Eternal, I took a three-year break from dance and


concentrated on my writing. I needed a space for reflection. After all, I
had been a Bharatanatyam dancer who had danced and performed the
repertoire as it had been taught to me for over fifteen years. Now my
perspectives had changed, my range of tools at hand had increased, I
realised that there was so much I wanted to say and that it could be
said through working with these tools in various ways. I also learnt that
the world could be unforgiving when a Bharatanatyam dancer steps out
of the box. I had to reassess who I was and examine where I wanted to
go from there.

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In 2002, I presented Eighteen Minutes.13 Here, I addressed the
question: If I had only 18 minutes, where would I be and what would I
do? This piece was a reflection of my urge to make my dance personal;
to dance to music that I chose; to introduce movements and positions
that were concept rather than norm driven; and to offer myself the
freedom of dancing without the wig, jewellery, and traditional costume.
I wore a pair of black trousers and a long sleeveless purple blouse.
Once again, I experienced oppressive opposition to my inclusion of the
personal element and an individual statement. That year, I was invited
to stage the work at a festival in Hyderabad.14 Twelve minutes into
Eighteen Minutes, the organisers turned off my lights and sound as
they felt I was performing ballet movements and my costume was
indecent. One of my teachers in Chennai, on viewing the work
questioned why I insisted on presenting both the classical and
contemporary on the same platform. I was made to feel apologetic for
experimenting with the form and for seeking to integrate the various
facets of myself in my performances. Ultimately, I chose freedom to
create over learning.

Crossroads Photographer: S.Anvar

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Crossroads,15 my next work, was a viewing of the Bharatanatyam
repertoire through the mind of a modern woman. It addressed the
gender equation and explored possibilities of bringing symmetry into
the equation. The work also stepped into a multidisciplinary realm not
just presenting dance with music and poetry, but also including the use
of film and visual art. The work culminated with a suggestion of
androgyny through movement, costume, and visual art. With each
successive staging of Crossroads, shifts began to take place especially
in the solo piece, Ashtapadi,16 a composition by the 13th century poet
Jayadeva, known for his erotic poetry describing the love between
Radha and Krishna. In the first version of Crossroads, I performed the
ashtapadi Kuru Yadunandana17 (which depicts a post-coital moment
between Radha and Krishna), in a seated position using mainly facial
expressions and hand gestures to depict the moment.

In later versions, I began to feel that I needed to delve deeper into the
poetry and its implications. Radha and Krishna have just made love.
Radha does not want Krishna to leave and she finds ways of
prolonging the moment. Reflecting on the sensuality of the verses, I felt
convinced that Radha would ultimately have enjoyed a second orgasm
with Krishna. Wasnt that the purpose of having him touch her in
specific places all over again? So I took the poem to be the interim
between two orgasms. How would I depict the orgasms at the
beginning and the end of the piece? My teachers have told me that in
this verse Radha is Swadheenapatika Nayika,18 the woman glorying in
the confidence of being the loved and desired one. I then chose body
positions and expressions which I felt would effectively convey this
nayika. Reworking this ashtapadi also shifted my style of abhinaya
and the way I taught it to my students. For the longest time, I learnt and
practised abhinaya that placed greater emphasis on the face and
hands. After working on this piece, I began to explore the use of the
entire body in portraying abhinaya without negating the face and eyes.
After all, why would a woman be sitting up immediately after making
love? Rather, it is a restful and languorous moment. After I had first
performed the piece at Krishna Gana Sabha,19 Chennai in 2004, my
daughter came up to me and said, You handled it so sensitively and
beautifully. But this is not the platform. By age 14, she had become
aware of the unwillingness of the audience to view a work with an open
mind especially when it came to sexual themes.

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Crossroads was followed by Then & Now in 2003, a work that was
centred in the English translation of the Mandarin poem Aspiration20
by Singaporean poet Dan Ying. The poem describes a woman in the
autumn of her life, contemplating on her past and lamenting over her
search for that one great love that never appeared. In handling this
poem, I chose to add another layer to this woman that of being a
dancer who has passed her prime. In going back to her practice and
performance moments, a parallel is drawn between the yearning for
love in a personal life as well as in the Bharatanatyam repertoire,
where it forms the underlying thread. I also chose to introduce other
visual elements such as photographs and video clips. Certainly, as a
dancer and as a person, it is these reproductive tools, when memory
fails, that would aid my journeying into the past. I fragmented the form:
instead of performing an entire repertoire, I danced segments of the
pieces as flashes of memory and interspersed them with the spoken
word. It became a monologue through dance, poetry, music, and video
projection. In this work, I was freed from the tight Bharatanatyam
costume, hair pieces, and heavy jewellery; I was portraying the
character of an older woman in the setting of her bedroom. I chose to
wear an old and comfortable cotton sari. It was a welcome shift in
portrayal as far as I was concerned. I did not have to stand on stage as
a young, pretty and dolled up woman the stereotypical image of the
Bharatanatyam dancer.

By this time, these questions were surfacing: Are the stances in


Bharatanatyam and the speeds in which we have been expected to
dance really suited to the structure and nature of womens bodies? Is
the fast speed really how I would choose to dance? I began to
question the need for speed unless absolutely necessary in terms of
conveying concept. I began to feel less inclined to leap around the
stage merely to titillate the audience.

In 2004, I started to ruminate more on love and to question my own


approach to love. I was exposed to Jayadevas ashtapadis around the
age of 18 through the medium of dance and later through English
translations of the Sanskrit poetry. I began to relate so strongly to the
character of Radha and sought to love in a similar manner. I deified my
men, waited, pined, and wept constantly. Later, I slowly began to
question my emulation of the mythical Radha. However, she had
become so deeply rooted in my psyche that in order to redefine my
understanding and approach to the concept of love, I would have to
revisit and reinterpret Radha. This process culminated in the work
Radha Now.21

Radha Now was the first work in which I made changes not only in
terms of theme and structure but in the very form. In fact, it was after

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working on Radha Now that the ashtapadi in Crossroads was
reworked in terms of form. In terms of theme, Radha Now begins with a
plea from women for Krishna to fill the void. Gradually it moves through
a series of questions such as: In the 10 incarnations of Vishnu,22 where
is woman? As women while we wait and yearn for that one great love
in our lives, is it possible to change the texture of the waiting? Is it
possible not to suffer such intense pain in love? Is it possible to love
from a point of strength? What if the Ras Leela23 (in which Krishna
dances with many Gopis around him) is reversed? How comfortable
would a woman feel with this role reversal? The question being, while
we wait can we enjoy the company of other men instead of suffering
loneliness? How feasible would it then be to go back to the constructs
of marriage and monogamy? The work which begins with a plea to
Krishna culminates in an acceptance of aloneness. In Radha Now, the
questions are not answered, but the woman moves into a state of
peace and acceptance. She shifts her focus from obsessing with the
need for a mans love to strengthening her core and connecting to the
nurturing aspects of life such as nature, art, the solidarity of women,
and herself. In this state, the experiences of love come and go, but
they do not take centre stage.

At this stage, Radha Now represents the climax in my journey of


challenging patriarchy through dance for the following reasons:

1. the theme involves shedding dependence on the male for


emotional security. It questions the superior status ascribed to
the male as saviour in times of crisis and the central position
given to him as the focus of love.

2. in terms of music, it does not follow the traditional pattern, but


allows the entry of other genres to support the theme. The work
begins with the Carnatic genre, but gradually shifts and
culminates in the Hindustani genre.24 In my view, the Hindustani
genre helps slow down the form for it is rhythmically not tightly
structured like Carnatic music. I find it much more emotional,
allowing for venturing into unexplored areas of mood and
passion

3. the visual created is that of one woman as a centrifugal force,


having the strength to challenge and contain ten men, arriving at
a point of inner peace and self-fulfilment.

4. while it contains all elements of the Bharatanatyam repertoire,25


the structure and application shifts dramatically - it begins with a

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varnam (normally the central piece in the repertoire which goes
frequently into fast tempo), into the slow ashtapadi segment
and then the thillana,26 a fast-paced number usually performed
at the end, but is performed here as a role reversed Ras Leela
with the woman at the centre and the men around her. Instead
of ending with the thillana, it goes back to the alarippu,27 a
fast-paced piece that generally opens a repertoire. Here, it is
performed at a very slow tempo set against the backdrop of the
Hindustani raag Brindavani Sarang28 and representing a
continuous and eternal flow. As opposed to an outward
expression of speed and continuous movement in thillana, the
work ends in slow movement and finally in an ethereal and
introspective silence.

Radha Now was an abstract expression of the real life experiences I


was going through at that stage in my life. It convinces me that life and
art are completely intertwined and interdependent. In that light, the
challenging of patriarchy in one sphere has been intricately linked to
the other.

Both in life and dance, I have fought one demon at a time and have
emerged stronger and more confident about living my life and dancing
my dance in ways that reflect who I am. Dance has helped give
expression to my thoughts and experiences making the intangible
tangible and gradually shaping me from a girl who did not have the
courage to trim the ends of her hair, to a woman who has found the
courage and strength to make her choices and live life on her own
terms. It has helped me address and highlight patriarchy in a subtle,
stylised and non-aggressive way which is not blatantly message
bearing. Interestingly, the same tool that was imposed on me was what
freed me and empowered me.

It also helped reverse the lack of choice that I confronted from


childhood by granting choice to two girl children who I now have the
responsibility to nurture. In dance, this girl child is my 16-year old
student Anitha who I have taught for the last ten years. In my personal
sphere, the young woman is my 20-year old daughter Priyanka. I have
attempted to gently guide them on their respective journeys, instilling in
them core values while sharing my philosophy. Yet, I try to give them
the freedom to make their own choices. If my challenging of patriarchy
has helped free and empower the next generation, then my journey
has not been futile.

However, I must admit it has taken me a long time to move away from
seeking audience approval. Over the years, I have come to believe that

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the confidence emerging out of standing on stage and not expecting
audience approval percolates into every other sphere of life. It cannot
get more public than standing on stage.

The women that I portray today are quite different from those that I was
taught to portray. In my opinion, the traditional classification of women
into nayikas or heroines in love is one of the most patriarchal aspects
of Bharatanatyam. I consider it an insult to women that not only has it
been assumed that their love can be fathomed and classified by men,
but that the point of reference, the centre of her love has to be a man.
Over the years I have attempted to de-classify her, to move her out of
the patriarchal nayika boxes to portray who she truly is and wants to
be: free, unfettered, intelligent, and empowered.

Acknowledgements

I thank my daughter Priyanka Seshadri and my friends/colleagues


Dr. Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan and Teresa Pee for their support in preparing
this paper. I thank also my parents Prof & Mrs Avadhani and my first teachers
Mr & Mrs Bhaskar for the respect and support given on my journey towards
right to choice.

Notes
1. The famous South Indian traditional dance form based on the Natya Sastra, a
nd
treatise on natya (dance-drama) written by Bharata Muni around the 2
century AD. The form can be traced back to Sadir, the dance of the
Devadasi (a hereditary female dancer in a Hindu temple). The passing of the
Devadasi Bill in 1947 abolished dancing in the temples of Tamil Nadu as a
part of temple ritual. Muthulakshmi Reddys (1886-1968) call for a revival
was followed by the non-hereditary dancer/teacher Rukmini Devi founding a
dance school, Kalakshetra (1936) where she improved the dance.

2. A mark worn on the forehead, mainly by women, believed to have a spiritual


significance. In recent times, it has become more of an ornamental detail.

3. Patriarchy has been defined as a system of society or government in which


the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is reckoned
through the male line. In such a system, men hold the power and women are
largely excluded from it. Sylvia Walby defines patriarchy as a system of social
structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women.

4. According to some scholars, the custom of dedicating girls to temples


th
became common in the 6 century A.D, referenced in the Puranas or
religious stories written during this period. During the medieval period, temple
dancers were regarded as part of the normal temple establishment,
occupying a rank second only to the priests. Their numbers often reached
high proportions.

5. Famous composers listed were all male - Jayadeva, Tirtha Narayana,


Kshetrayya, Muvvalur Sabhapati Iyer, Ghanam Sinnayya, Ghanam Krishna
Iyer, Melatur Venkatrama Shastri, Ponnayya, Chinnayya, Shivanandam,
Vadivelu and Svati Tirunal.

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6. Apart from K. Kuppamal and Mylapore Gauri Amma, the lineage of Gurus
th
(teachers) listed from 18 century were all male - Chinnayya, Ponnayya,
Shivanandam, Vadivelu, Nattuvanar Kannuswami, Nattuvanar Vadivelu,
Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Mutthayya Pillai, Kandappa, Kittappa,
Muthukumar Pillai, Chokkalingam Pillai, Conjeevaram Elappa Pillai, Vazhuvur
Ramaiah Pillai, Dandayudhapani Pillai, T. Swaminath Pillai, T. Kuppaiah
Pillai, Kubernath Tanjorekar, Mahalingam Pillai, Kalyanasundaram Pillai etc

7. A barrel-shaped drum with a wooden body, bulging in the middle and


tapering towards the ends, that has traditionally provided rhythmic
accompaniment to the Bharatanatyam dancer.

8. Literally translates to You alone are the protector. The Kannada poet
Purandara Dasa (1484-1564) provides examples from mythology of Lord
Krishna (Hindu deity believed to be a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu) coming to
the rescue of devotees in distress who have been abandoned. When
humanity fails to stand in support, divinity rises up to offer ultimate protection.

9. The novel, written by Matampu Kunjukuttan and translated by Vasanthi


Sankaranarayanan, was published by Macmillan India Limited in 1996.

10. The three Hindu religious paths are jnaana (knowledge), karma (action) and
bhakti (devotion). The bhakti movement affected dance, as bhakti brought
forth a number of poet-saints who wrote simple songs and verses full of love
and devotion to the Lord.

11. Abhinaya, a Sanskrit word, means carrying across an idea, emotion or event
to an audience. Vachikabhinaya refers to the use of words and speech.

12. As explained above.

13. First performed in Singapore (2002), as the final segment of the work
Moments in Time. Subsequently performed in Chennai. I also attempted to
perform it in Hyderabad (2003).

14. NRI Festival, Shilparamam, organized by the Andhra Pradesh Tourism


Development Corporation in 2003.

15. Collaboration with Kalakshetra-trained dancer Neewin Hershall. Performed


between 2002 and 2008 at various platforms in Chennai, Trissur, Vellore,
Pondicherry and Singapore.

16. An eight-stanza song from the Gita Govinda, the famous dramatic lyrical
poem. It concentrates on the love between Lord Krishna and the cowherdess
Radha in a rite of spring. Intense earthly passion is the example Jayadeva
uses to express the complexities of divine and human love.
th
17. In the ashtapadi, in the 12 chapter of the Gita Govinda, Radha says to her
lover:

Your hand is cooler than sandal balm on my breast;


Paint a leaf design with deer musk here on Loves ritual vessel!
In the last verse:
My beautiful loins are a deep cavern to take the thrusts of love-
Cover them with jeweled girdles, cloths and ornaments, Krishna!

18. One whose nayaka (romantic hero) is captivated by her pleasing qualities
and by the intense pleasure of love from her. He is constantly with her and
she has him under subjugation. Bharata classified the nayika or romantic

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heroine according to eight conditions or situations, Swadheenapatika being
one of them.

19. Sri Krishna Gana Sabha (Founded in 1953), located in Chennai, is regarded
as one of the leading sabhas (performance spaces). I was associated with
the sabha from 1995 to 2006. Festivals organised at this sabha and others in
Chennai tend to be geared towards maintaining tradition rather than
encouraging innovation and change.

20. Poet Dan Ying received the Cultural Medallion from the Singapore National
Arts Council in 1996. I have presented many versions of her poem
Aspiration:

The Eternal Human Aspiration 30 minute solo dance theatre (Singapore


2002).
Then & Now Personal & Artistic Reflections 60 minute solo dance theatre
(Singapore 2004, Chennai, 2004 and 2005, Delhi, 2009).
This & That group contemporary dance theatre performed by students of
Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore (Singapore 2009, New York
2010).

21. An experimental dance theatre that I began working on in 2005. Staged as a


workshop production (Chennai 2006), the work will be revisited and restaged
in September 2011 in Singapore.

22. According to Hindu philosophy, Lord Vishnu descends on earth from time to
time, in various incarnations (animal and human) to destroy evil and to
elevate the virtuous.

23. The story of Krishna's love play and amorous dancing with several gopis
(cow herdesses).

24. Carnatic and Hindustani music are the two sub-genres of Indian classical
music. While sharing common elements, Carnatic music focusses on vocal
rendering and improvisation through compositions. Hindustani music appears
to be less tied to the structure of the composition.

25. The Bharatanatyam Margam (repertoire) is believed to have been re-edited


by the famous Tanjore Quartette brothers during the time of King Sarfoji (AD
1798-1832) of Tanjore. An ordinary programme of Bharata Natyam consists
of Alarippu, Jathiswaram, Shabdam, Varnam, Padam, Tillana and
Shloka.

26. A piece that comes towards the end of Carnatic music concerts and
Bharatanatyam recitals. It is generally fast-paced with complex rhythmic
patterns. Except for one short verse with lyrics, the rest of the song is a
series of rhythmic syllables.

27. The invocatory piece in a Bharatanatyam recital. It is also said to mean the
flowering or opening of the body and limbs, in preparation for more difficult
pieces to be performed subsequently.

28. A Hindustani raag (musical scale) sung in this work by the renowned vocalist
Bhimsen Joshi. It is a slow and unhurried composition, evoking a sense of
communion, fulfillment and peace.

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Biographical Information

NIRMALA SESHADRI is a recipient of the Singapore National Arts


Councils Young Artist Award, Nirmala is a dancer, choreographer,
yoga practitioner and writer. She seeks contemporary expression
through her classical dance form Bharatanatyam. Her recent works
include Outcaste Eternal, Then & Now, This & That, Crossroads,
From Ishta Devata to Ishta Devata and Radha Now.

Nirmala has served on the Board of the National Arts Council and the
Arts Resource Panel. She also serves on the Arts & Culture Strategic
Review Committee (Ministry of Information, Communication and the
Arts, Singapore). Nirmala is the Artistic Director of N Dance & Yoga.
2011 Nirmala Seshadri In Time Together: Viewing and Reviewing
Contemporary Dance Practice 13