Taming of the Sensory Body: Memory, Text, Idea is geared to practitioners of yoga and dance who are seeking to academically engage with the historical, philosophical, and political redefinitions of their embodied practices over the last century and a half. The first module of this course will concentrate on the socio-cultural shifts that took place in the 19th century leading to the obliteration of lived histories of traditional practitioners and the redefinition of the Indian body, morality, and even spirituality.

Our aim is to gain an informed view of these shifts as they have had a direct impact on the image, practice and pedagogy of Indian dance and yoga.

The course, not strictly academic, will require reading, approx. 20 – 30 pages per week. In addition to scholarly papers, it will include first-hand accounts, essays, writings, and lectures by leading figures that were instrumental in redefining these practices.

Bibliography for the Course –

When God Is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs, Ksåetrayya, University of California Press, 1994

V. Raghavan (Bhava Raga Tala) BharataNatya – Classic Indian Dance, The South Indian Sadir-Nautch, The Recent Controversy Over the Art

Rukmini Devi Arundale, The Spiritual Background of Indian Dance

At Home in the World? Bharatanatyam Dancer as Transnational Interpreter, Janet O’Shea

Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Mark Singleton, Oxford University Press, 2010

Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America 1880-1920, Clifford Putney, Harvard University Press

A History of Modern Yoga – Patan᷉jali and Western Esotericism, Elizabeth De Michelis, Continuum, 2004

Yoga in Practice, Edited by David Gordon White, Princeton University Press, 2012

Bharatanatyam, T. Balasaraswati, NCPA Quarterly Journal, 1976

Engaged Emancipation – Mind, Morals, and Make-Believe in Mokṣopa᷉ya (Yogava᷉siṣṭha), Edited by Christopher Key Chapple and ArindamChakrabarti, State University of New York Press, 2015

Review of the course – Taming the Sensory Body: Memory. Text. Idea (Part 1)

Colonisation warrants not only external shifts and changes, but more importantly shifts that took within, in our minds, world views and conceptualisations. To begin with, we dwelt on the conceptualisation of God, and how a wrathful/benign, sacred/erotic God of pre-modern Hinduism gradually became calendarized, standardized and rendered categorically-benign. With the interiority of God-space being stabilised and fixed, we moved on to examine its impact on the outpourings of erotic-devotion typically found in the padams and javalis of Bharatanatyam. Evoking the ecology of classical Tamil poetics, “in which the external world is continuous with, and expressive of, inner experience” (When God is a Customer, A K Ramanujan), we moved to discuss the overt eroticism of Kshetrya’s padams, “You say, ‘Come close, my girl,’ and make love to me like a wild man, Muvva Gopala, and as I get ready to move on top, it’s morning already.” Debating about the patriarchal constructs of both the devadasi’s liminal space and more so, the “voice” of her amorous songs authored by male-poets, we moved to address the criticality of her sacred/profane ethos. We replayed voices from the past around the anti-nautch debate, V Raghavan advocating the preservation of her liminal ethos, the intactness of which he thought was critical to the layered-richness of her nuanced art in which recognized great sensory value; and Rukmini Devi, on the other hand, deeming it best to redeem the art-from by extricating it from that very ethos.

It is not only interesting but very important to note how the project of dance revival becomes a pivotal means to recover a pure and imagined past. Rukmini Devi attributes the dance to the sages and imagined its origin in heaven, and for such a pristine form she envisions and creates a beautiful and befitting haven, i.e. Kalakshetra. “Environment”, she says, “is of tremendous importance to the actual form of the art,” and adds, that “the environment is what we call national life”. So, it is within the discourse of dance that the heavens, antiquity, the sages, art, spirituality, morality, dedication, environment and national life all get conflated. 

Given that Orientalism is/was given to imagining, exaggerating and distorting the mannerisms of the native, it became imperative for the embodied Indian practices, particularly “classical” dance, to be restrained, sophisticated and even cerebral. It became imperative to contain the body, not allow it feel too deeply, curb its non-verbal excesses, and subordinate the dance to a censored text. And now with the added convention of first rendering a translation of the song, most often in English, before it is performed, the body becomes twice-obliterated. First by subjecting it to the fixity of the word and then further having it accommodate the slippages of translation; the body gets strained and tamed within Anglophonic epistemology.

(Part 2)

“The senses in the felt body are naturally divine”

As embodied practitioners, we especially trade in a lot of “received truths” that were constructed within the last century or so, and which we are often groomed not to question. Though, one of the purposes of the Taming the Sensory Body was to point to the recent historical constructions of some of these truths, especially which rule our practices, my main purpose is to open the field, so to speak, to the plurality of voices; valid philosophical voices that may counter or even contradict the moralistic view of dance and yoga that has become popular today.

Even though I have been an ardent follower of the Yoga Sutras, it is refreshing for me to also hear a rather robust contrarian view in the Hamsavilasa, 18th century text, in which Hamsa, a Shakta, advises his partner-yogini, Hamsi – “My dear! Patanjali Yoga is nonsense since there is no spontaneity when something is mastered through force. An effortless, holistic, royal yoga has been taught by the wise” (The Transport of the Hamsas: A Sakta Raslila as Rajayoga in Eighteenth-Century Beneras, Somadeva Vasudeva, Yoga in Practice, edited by David Gordon White). Though Hamsa can be faulted for conflating Patanjali yoga with Hatha, the forceful component, it is nevertheless refreshing to hear of “royal yoga” or raja yoga as a practice of “ecstatic sensual rupture” as opposed to the rather staid Raja Yoga preached by Swami Vivekananda, who also happens to conflate the teachings and practices of Patanjali and Hatha yoga.   

In the latter half of the course, Taming the Sensory Body, devoted more toward yoga, we viewed how the “staid” version of yoga has come to rule the roost. Against the backdrop of both Victorian morality and muscular Christianity that swept across both Protestant England and America in the latter half of the 19th century we viewed the moral and political climate in which “Hatha practice (and in particular asana) [became] taboo amongst the English speaking transnational gurus from Vivekananda onward, as they were at pains to present yoga to the world as the flower of Indian culture and Hindu religion.” (The Yoga Body, Mark Singleton) And what the ramifications of such rather blurred distancing between the pure and cerebral Patanjali school from the bizarre experimentations of Hatha by eccentric “Saiva ascetics and yoginis who exerted a lurid fascination on the European mind,” would have on yoga, Indian culture and the Hindu religion.

In contrast to the more popularised definition of yoga that heavily relies on the Bhagwad Gita’s idea of “purity” and considers the “conquering of one’s senses” as the criteria of yoga, it is reassuring to read the counter voice of the Hamsavilasa which offers not only “an acute philosophical polemic and invective against contemporary strands of moralizing reformist Hinduism”, but also serves as a text on “the fine arts, musicology, aesthesis, and the erotic”. As a dancer, this twining of aesthetics and the erotic into a spiritual embodied practice is not only of great interest but, it is also deeply satisfying.

In an age of philosophical blurring and vagueness that may lead to a condition of “never-knowing-enough”, textual backing is critical to substantiate and endorse a hunch that may emerge out of the bodily practice and which maybe at variance with the “truths” assigned to the practice. To me, the leeway that an alternative voice may open is critical to the health and reflexivity of the practice.  In his deeply insightful article, A Horried Treehouse or a Charming City, Arindam Chakrabarti, introduces us to the Yogavasistha, a 10th century text, which in the form of a dialogue between the guru, Vasistha, and his royal disciple, Rama—who like Arjuna in the Bhagwad Gita, is inflicted by existential angst and “like a typical spiritual beginner . . . shows disgust at the body (kaya-jugupsa)” (Engaged Emancipation, edited by Arindam Chakrabarti and Christopher Key Chapple).  Interestingly, here is a counter voice that comes from the inside, i.e. out of Advaita Vedanta.  In this rather copious text, the guru “praises the body as a beautiful city where one is lucky to dwell for a period of time” and offers a string of body-celebratory metaphors that pretty much resemble the evocative free-associative imagery that may abound in abhinaya; images that float from the “lotus-like glimpses cast by the eyes, through the smile-flowers that blossom in the garden of the face, to the beautiful lady called “rational reflections on the Self” (atmacinta-varangana) who is roaming around under the trees of the pleasure garden on the mind.”  These roaming images are not only sensuous but also amorous, filled with languor, ease and play of a sringara bhava.

Chakrabarti also offers us an equally encouraging insight into the creative genius of Abhinavagupta, who interprets the verse of the Bhagwad Gita, “One who consumes things given by the gods without giving offerings to them first, is a thief” by defining the senses as the gods inside our bodies, thus implying that, “if someone does not give the senses their due, such a person is a thief or a fraud.”     

The aim of the course which is mainly directed towards practitioners, both dance and yoga, is to offer the possibility of licence and play that necessarily comes un-stoppered through the play between counter voices. It is the categorical-seriousness with which “purity” and “authenticity” have been advocated and inscribed into embodied practice over the last century that is problematic and oppressive. In my opinion, it is exactly this variety of constructed, acquired and heavily policed “seriousness” that is taming! And such seriousness emerges only in the absence of plural voices that can challenge, shake, and even deflate it.

I might still be an ardent follower of the Yoga Sutras, but it is plurality that I value way more to the supremacy of my text of choice. It is exactly this openness that will lend freshness to my text and will make me define and further subscribe to its specificities. With the morphing of a variety of schools of thought that prevailed in the subcontinent into one homogenous Hinduism, we have lost the taste, vitality and charge of specificities. Our tameness that I lament is also due to the vagueness that we seem to be progressively inheriting, because the ingesting of vagueness is self-defeating. Vagueness robs the somatic body of taste, intuition, desire, direction, clarity and power.

This course will be offered again in October – November 2020