For some people, however, it is about the richness of arguments. I realised this in graduate school when it seemed like whenever I opened my books about South Asian history, galleries of scholars seemed to be standing about in some kind of figurative coliseum, launching volleys of logic and evidence at each other. I found the debates invigorating and effective in complicating any easy assumptions I had about large themes in world history. I also felt that the academic study of history almost elicited a kind of ‘rasa’ of reason. ‘Rasa’, in Sanskrit poetics, literally translates to ‘the essence of a thing and its taste’. It is a kind of delight, primarily applied to aesthetics but also to reason. Finding the ‘rasa’ of something is enjoying a mental exercise or a work of art in a more than cognitive fashion. It implies engagement with it with a kind of visceral quality that the word ‘rasa’ or ‘taste’ implies.
When I joined Ahmedabad University, later, as an Assistant Professor at the School of Arts and Sciences in 2018, I thought about how to teach courses in one of my areas of specialisation at the time: Indian women’s history. I imagined taking a ‘biggest hits’ approach and laying down an escalator line of names and events: Sati…Sarojini Naidu…Chipko Movement…MeToo. But what I really wanted was for students to see continuities and ruptures between the historic past and the present: what has changed in legal, economic and cultural terms for women and what hasn’t.
On the other hand, when I visualised this history, I felt most excited to actually ‘dance’ it rather than to read about it. As a trained Bharat Natyam dancer (eons ago), I thought it would be really interesting to read the writings of nineteenth and twentieth century social reformers and then to analyse, interpret and question this material through creating expressive choreographies. Thankfully a small selection of students, all women, who enrolled in my class, also thought this might be worthwhile. Though shy at first, my students took initiative, creating sets of characters who reflected 19th century social issues like sati, child marriage and treatment of widows. They configured the aesthetics of ahimsa by designing the sound, music, and movements of women in Gandhian protest marches, created skits around material objects (such as a ‘chaddar’ or a baby’s rattle) that represented the different kinds of loss experienced during Partition and participated in a playful final performance that imagined what women’s rights might be like in a utopian India of the future, fifty years from now. They stayed up late creating costumes, rehearsed incessantly, and most importantly for me, argued over whether the demands of the 19th century reformers had been met yet. On the last day of the course I saw the distinct imprint of a reclining figure 8 in my mind, where the ‘rasa’ of art or aesthetics blended seamlessly into the ‘rasa’ of reason and then back again.
Performing Arts, Humanities, History