- Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labor by Priya Srinivasan, and: Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South Asia by Davesh Soneji
Two recent publications in the field of South Asian dance herald a significant shift in the landscape of dance history by arguing strongly for twenty-first century historiography to accommodate multilocal narratives of danced modernity. Both books ask for an urgent reconsideration of dances passed through the lenses of citizenship, race, and class, and suggest how such a retelling of history may deeply inform our understanding and consumption of both bygone and present-day dance practices. Although the focus on regions/geographical locations and dancing bodies is different in each book, both works examine the Indian dance form of bharatanatyam and excavate, through meticulous archival research, the subaltern histories of lost, marginalized, or forgotten dancers who contributed to the evolution of this form, but nevertheless slipped through the net of previous historical narratives. In so doing, these two books offer extremely valuable and original insights into the role of dancing bodies in nation-building processes and race relations.
As stated in the book’s preface, Priya Srinivasan’s Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labor has at its core the Indian dancing body as an “unrecognized form of labor” (xi). From the very outset of the book, the image of the sweating sari (the garment worn by Indian dancers) not only acts as a powerful metonymic device, it also successfully ties together the multiple and varied histories of dancers from the Indian subcontinent and the Indian diaspora from the nineteenth century to the present day. Srinivasan’s research is ground-breaking for several reasons: first, she urges her readers to recognize the danced labor of female Indian immigrants in North America, a hitherto unacknowledged concept since most diaspora scholarship focuses on the contribution of male Indian populations to the U.S. economy. This connection between the female dancing body and immigrant labor enables Srinivasan to make astute observations on U.S. immigration policies and citizenship in the twentieth century, and to expose the startling inconsistencies within these. Second, Srinivasan offers an alternative view of U.S. canonical modern dance. Through the narratives of the nautch dancers who travelled to the U.S. from India beginning in the nineteenth century, and which were uncovered by exhaustive archival research, Srinivasan suggests that American early modern dance’s debt to the forgotten travelling dancers from India is far greater than previously imagined. Finally, Srinivasan’s method of sensitively re-imagining the past through archival traces of dancing bodies, and through her own subject position as the “unruly spectator” within this historical account, not only offers an engaging but also a deeply moving form of scholarly writing.
Parts of Sweating Saris may be familiar to those readers who have encountered Srinivasan’s earlier research; for instance her discussion of Ruth St. Denis’s interaction with the nautch dancers in Coney Island in 1904 (which led to the dance piece Radha) is well known (Srinivasan 2007). However, when read along with the stories she uncovers of male Indian dancers in St. Denis’s company, relating how they straddled the precarious territory of U.S. citizenship in the early part of the twentieth century, Srinivasan clearly enables the argument for a re-examination of U.S. race relations in the early twentieth century and their connection with the emergence of modern dance. U.S. race relations and the attendant problems of marginalization of minority figures are perhaps best etched out in the book’s second chapter. Here, the recovered narratives of the dancing bodies of nautch women such as Sahebjan and Ala Bundi clearly suggest, as Srinivasan states, that the bodies of Indian women dancers “became the nexus for commercial, textual, and political orientalism” (53). Srinivasan’s research [End Page 140] into...