Ep. 16: Indic Traditions: Restorying Women and Ethics of Care through Indian Dance
This podcast explores the artistry of Sreyashi Dey's interpretations of the Mahabharata through the Odissi style of Classical Indian Dance. Dey sought to restory the life of Hidimba, a minor female character in the Mahabharata who is marginalized within structures of ethnic and class power. Alongside this artistic narrative, we explore Vrinda Dalmiya's exploration of feminist care ethics and the storied contrast between masculine order and principle against the vulnerable, embodied, and contextually situated ethic of care. Our exploration of care and restorying deepens our notions of care and narrative within peace work.
Keywords: Mahabharata, Hirimba, Classical Indian Dance, Bharatanatyam, Odissi Style, Care Ethics, Noddings, Restorying, nonviolence, empathy
Sreyashi Dey is President and Artistic Director of Akshara, an Ann Arbor-based multi-cultural, multi-arts organization founded by Dey and Dr. Chatterjee that presents arts inspired by India. Dey is also a classical Odissi dancer, and holds an MS in Economics and an MBA from Purdue.
Dalmiya, V. (2016). Ethical care in a comparative context. In Caring to Know: Comparative Care Ethics, Feminist Epistemology, and the Mahabharata (pp. 41-86). New York : Oxford University Press.
Sreyashi Dey: A powerful woman of the arts: https://www.ecurrent.com/local-buzz/sreyashi-dey-a-powerful-woman-of-the-arts/
1) What is the role of restorying in artistic peacebuilding?
2) How do stories situate ethical dilemmas of care within the complexity of lived experience?
3) What is the interelation of anukrosa (empathy), embodied experience, and practices of care?
4) How is the ethic of Ahimsa explored and expressed through a story that encounters the futility of war?
So in the process of researching the story and creating this script, I started feeling like I was really living this character that her painful moments or deeply felt within me, her struggles, her anger, and the range of emotions that she goes through were really amplified within my own internal landscape.
You are listening to the music and peacebuilding podcast, a professional development network at music peacebuilding.com, exploring intersections of peacebuilding, sacredness community, creativity and imagination through research and story, Sreyashi Dey is president and artistic director of Akshara, an Ann Arbor, Michigan based multicultural multi arts organization founded by Dey and Dr Chatterjee that presents arts inspired by India. Dey is also a classical Indian Odissi dancer and holds an ms in economics and an MBA from Purdue.
Today, our program will take an important look at the restoring of unheard women through classical Indian dance in Odissi style. Thanks to the generosity of Sreyashi Dey. We will explore audio excerpts from a recent dance performance that explores the often overlooked story of Hidimba from the famous Hindu Epic, the Mahabharata. I first fell in love with feminine care ethics as I read Nel Noddings and today's episode gives us a wonderful opportunity to explore feminist care ethics that are at the heart of this podcast and the development of this master of music education program and the work of reclaiming space for connection and care. That care ethic is woven together with this conversation with Sreyashi as well as excerpts from a beautiful scholarly work on feminist care ethics in the Mahabharata by Vrinda Dalmiya. Vrinda Dalmiya is professor of philosophy at the university of Hawaii at Manoa. But first we turn to our conversation with Sreyashi Dey.
So tell us about your childhood and about how and when you moved into dance.
Um, sure. So, um, my childhood was in Delhi, in India, and as far as I can remember, I have either danced or wanted to dance. So I, my earliest memories are of going to watch dance performances with my parents. And some of them I might even have fallen asleep or may have been even scared by a few of them because I clearly remember a performance where there were these very large scary masks that the dancers were wearing. And I remember being very scared, but it left a great impact on me. And I've always wanted to dance. I would put on some music and start improvising and dancing myself. So by the time I was around five years old, I started asking my mom to take me to a dance class because I really wanted to, to study dance. And um, it took her about a year to find somebody maybe she didn't take me so seriously. But anyway, eventually by the time I was six, around six years old, she, she enrolled me in a dance class and I started learning dance. And it's been with me ever since. So no matter what else I might have done in my life, dance is something that's been a constant in my life,
In a performance. The night before this interview, Sreyashi spoke of how many women sing their own life stories through the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.
That left me with curiosity about how you first began singing your own life story through these epics. And that, my question to you is how did you first experience, learn and treasure these stories as a part of your growing up?
Yeah, so, um, it's actually a pretty complex question because these epics, um, are in our lives in many different ways. So when I started learning dance, um, the, the dance repertoire has two main aspects to it. The, the storytelling or the narrative aspects have many stories from various Hindu mythologies, including the epics, the Mahabharata the Ramayana. So the stories became a part of the dance that I was learning because these, um, these stories formed the basis of the lyrics of the songs that the dances were set to. So I grew up hearing these stories being sung and dancing to them. At the same time the stories from these epics were also part of my family life in the sense that sometimes my mom would tell me these stories. I, I have memories of her telling me stories as I was going to bed or, you know, falling asleep or at various festivals and various holidays and religious and other rituals.
The, these stories from these epics and mythologies were a big part of the celebrations, um, because if we were doing a Pooja or a worship to, for a particular God or goddess, those stories were from the epics and from the, uh, from the, uh, the, the wide and rich mythology of India. So they were, these stories were a part of my life in many ways through, through dance and through, through the arts, but as well as just everyday life. And I've also had various aunts and grand grandma grandmothers telling me stories and I have really fond memories of that as well. Um, later on in life, when I started doing my own dance choreography and thinking of new pieces that I wanted to create, I went back to the epics to find stories of characters that were not often celebrated of, especially female characters who were often ignored or marginalized.
And I wanted to explore what really their stories represent and why they were not out in the mainstream more often. And I wanted to give them a voice and I wanted to dance their stories and understand the, understand what was going on through their minds and, and even reimagine some of those, some of their stories and their heartbreaks and their, what they struggled with and what their challenges were. And so this is how I came to creating this performance that you mentioned that you, that you saw last evening. So I wanted to work with one such character.
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[music] I asked Sreyashi about NRit and NRitya and the full use of the body in danced story.
Yeah. So, um, Indian classical dancers trace their origins to well over 2000 years. Um, there, there are old texts that talk in very great detail about the dance technique and how it should be studied and performed. So two main aspects of all the different classical dance styles in India are NRit and NRitya. So Nithya is the pure dance part of it, which means that in, in that we interpret the music and the rhythms through our dance movements and our entire bodies. Um, Indian classical dances are very progressive in the sense that we use our feet in, in ways that closely mimic the sounds of percussion or the drums. We wear bells on our feet and the feet are, we strike the feet on the hard surface of the, on the floor or the surface of the stage and it makes particular sounds, which are very rhythmic.
And they go with the, with the drumming. Um, so in the Rita segment, we interpret the melodies of the music and the rhythms through our bodies, but not necessarily telling any particular stories. It's just an expression of joy and a celebratory expression and interpretation of the music. Now the other aspect is NRitya, which means interpretive dance in that we narrate a lot of the stories from the epics and the mythologies and we use our entire bodies to tell these stories. So you may know that the Indian classical dances have a very rich vocabulary of hand gestures. We use both single hand and both hands together to. It's almost like a sign language. So we use these, we use our hands to tell stories. We have hand gestures for everything imaginable. It could be animals, birds, situations, objects, um, even worms like coming and going and eating or sleeping. We have hand gestures for everything. So we could narrate entire stories just through hand gestures. But in the performances, along with the hand gestures, we also use our eyes, neck, head, torso, um, all the limbs, the feet positions, the entire body is used to tell these stories. So the two together, the Nrit and the Nritya, they come together to form the,
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We turn to Sreyashi's choice of an overlooked story within the Mahabharata. One that seems to explain to explore how war plays out in the minds and bodies of people to quote you. Um, so can you tell us the story of Hidimba and who she is and what happens?
Yeah, certainly. So I looked at the Epic Mahabharata to find the story of this woman, um, Hidimba and she is, um, an, uh, quite a marginalized character in the, in the Epic, but an important one, although she has not been traditionally given a very important voice. So Hidimba is a woman who might've been from, uh, one of the indigenous communities in India and she was the ruler of her kingdom when the ruler, the ruling Pandava brothers and their mother Kunti, they came by the forest. Now of course, the Epic is a, it's a very, has a very complicated stories and, and it would be difficult to get into the entire story right now. But the situation where we find Hidimba is that the five Pandava of our brothers and their mother Kunti are in her kingdom. They're hiding in the forest and she happens to meet one of the Pandava brothers, Bhim and they both fall in love.
Now, given that she is from this indigenous community and supposedly a lower class woman, the mother of Bhim, Kunti refuses to grant her the status of a future queen or even a princess. So they make a deal with her that perhaps she could be with Bhim for some time, but on condition that if Bhim and Hidimba have a son in the future, then they would recruit the son in the impending war, in the massive war that was coming up with the Kauravas. And then the condition was that Hidimba's son would fight in the war with them. Now Hidimba accepts this condition because she is in love with Bhim and she wants to be with him. So she accepts this very demeaning condition where she, she knew that she was being used just for the potential of having her son fight in the war and it was expected that their son, because Bhim was a very powerful, strong warrior.
And so as she said, it was expected that their future son would also be a very strong warrior. So she accepts the condition and she is with Bhim and eventually they do have a son who is recruited in the war and he is killed. Now the interesting thing is that one of the other Pandava brothers [unknown] also had a wife and a son, but the wife and the son were treated very differently because they were not considered to be lower class. They were given a lot of respect and she was And 's wife was the the main queen and they also treated the son very differently in the war. When Hidimba's son was killed in the war. No one really bothered. They just left him alone and Hidimba was asked to leave. So this is the story which I found to be very heartbreaking.
At the same time, I found a lot of resonance of this in today's world as well because as women, I feel like we struggle a lot with the conditions that we are faced with and the choices that we have to make. Not, it's not that as women, we are not aware of the constraints that and the challenges that we are up against, but sometimes we still have to make some choices against our wishes because we just don't have other better, better choices in front of us. So we choose the lesser evil, yet those choices may not be the best for us. So I found that to be a lot of resonance of that in the present-day world as well. And to me it was really fascinating to research Hidimba, the story of Hidimba and her mental states and um, and then create this performance.
In her outstanding book, caring to know comparative care ethics, feminist epistemology and the Mahabharata, Dalmiya contrasts masculine ethics of unbending rule and principle against the contextually situated feminist work of care. The work of care is the ethical work of dilemmas where no clear solutions present themselves and caregivers pursue compassionate action in complex worlds. As Sreyashi puts it, places where there are often no better options down. Dalmiya writes that the more that caregiving is distanced from the responsibility for care and determining the good of the cared for, the greater the chances of the caring labor becoming invisible and coded as less important. When we think about some of the professions in our lives that are historically coded as feminine - teaching, childcare, nursing, elderly care, we often realize that these forms of care are devalued when compared to other kinds of professions. In this Epic. Her quote seems to point to differences between dark-skinned Hidimba and the privilege of Kunti and the differences between distanced care and intimate care.
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So we just had a conversation with Jeff Long about yogic values for peace and I was curious about these values of Ahimsa, truth and non-stealing. Um, how do you find these values expressed maybe through this particular story?
Yeah, so, um, as you know, this entire story is set in the context of a bloody war that is going to be fought and then Hidimba in my piece goes back and forth. She at the beginning of the piece, she finds that her son has been killed in the war and he has been abandoned and she finds him just laying there in the battlefield all alone. So she's with him and she's looking back at her life and she's looking back at everything that she has had to accept. Um, and, and how her son was brought into this world and how he was treated. So right there we find these injustices that she had to go through as well as her son. Now she herself embraced the idea of Ahimsa and of nonviolence because she didn't fight with Bhim. She accepted these conditions and yes, she surrendered her son to the war because that was a greater cause that, that she, she sacrificed her son to.
But we do see how the war just played out in the, in the minds and bodies of all those who participated in it and at the end Hidimba does realize the futility of war and how it just ravaged her, her son's life and all those around her. Because in the, in this piece we also see how the battle field was reduced to a cremation ground where you know, in India the Hindus burned their dead bodies and there were thousands of funeral pyres and fires that were lit all over where these bodies were being cremated. So it just ravaged an entire klan of people and the futility of that. And she realized that, so the war and the idea of violence and Ahimsa, these were at the center of the piece.
The very act of caring requires an embodied experience. It is an embodied feeling of vulnerability, pain, joy, and a host of other emotions. This care ethic stands in stark contrast to the distances of quote unquote objective rationality of masculine rule and principle. Dalmiya writes that the Mahabharata explores on anukrosa a form of sympathy or empathy that translates into a form of crying out. Anukrosa suggests an emotional reliving through the reenactment of another's pain. She writes, moral obligations arise from and within relationships when they are felt. How one should live follows from how one feels one's circumstance. Anukrosa thus works to convert actual relationships into experienced ones and thereby into motivating bonds. Let's listen as the narrator explains how the embodied experience of love caused Hidimba to change course from an act of violence because being fully embodied is a vulnerable state of feeling that changes the course of our action as we feel the tug and pull of our found relations
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from far away She could see five people deep asleep, but who was awake beside them, a man of immense power. She forgot the hungry Hidim and forgot her armor, bow and arrow. Her feet felt shackled, her steps heavy and slow.
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Bhim raised his eyes and spell bound. He too was lost. They were love struck Hidimba and Bhim
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I think what I love so much about the piece is that it explores the resonance of violence. Violence may happen on the battlefield, but you're challenging us and saying, well actually the violence continues beyond that. And it's the, the violence of being a mother and, and coming into contact with this idea that your son is not coming home.
Yes. And not just, um, not just Hidimba and, and, uh, the, the main characters. There are countless soldiers and people who fought in the war and they have had homes that have been reduced to, you know, absences. And, and as, as one of the sentences in the, in the piece, you know, these empty spaces all around us and for people who have not returned and just the lament for all those who will never come back from the war. And those who are left behind and their States of mind and what, what they would go through.
Many stories in the Mahabharata speak of the futility of violence, Ahimsa, non cruelty and a deep sense of loving care. One dialogue between Indra and a parrot that wilts away in a dying tree speaks to the conflict between logical rationality and an ethic of care that is so committed. And so loving that it appears to be irrational. In this dialogue. The parrot replies to Indra, "I was born in this tree and have lived here all my life. I have acquired the character I have and become who I am while living here. This tree has camouflaged me from hunters and has nourished me with its fruit. When it was capable, it supported my life like a child. I cannot leave it now. I follow the path of Anreyshansia or of non cruelty. And so I cannot abandon those who have been loyal or devoted. Why are you trying to weaken my bond with the tree by sympathizing with me - when such bonding is the greatest virtue? Or put another way: Why are you calling me to rationally disconnect and save myself when I choose to enter pain so I might love more deeply. Our ethics of care, make us vulnerable to pain, but may be worth it because our choice to care may be a choice to become more fully human. And our choice to care about caring may be a choice of peace.
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And then the other piece I thought was so beautiful was that you expressed to the students that you were trying to give back to Hidimba um, a sense that she was beautiful and that's one of the powers of the arts is that we can reinterpret a narrative and give something back to maybe a character who's been overlooked.
Yes, absolutely. Um, that's another very important aspect of what I wanted to do. So, um, as I mentioned earlier, Hidimba is from one of the indigenous populations and communities in India where she looked different from the ruling class, the ruling ruling class was um, the Aryan, um, of Aryan descent. And they came from outside of India and they probably looked a certain way and Hidimba being from an indigenous community looked different and she was all, she has always been represented as not being an attractive woman. She's big and powerful. Her, her skin color is dark and she is even mentioned as a demoness so, but the question that I asked is why as a woman would she be characterized as a demoness, what would be going through her? Mind, you know, how does she think of herself and what is her self image?
And I, I wanted to give back her sense of, you know, beauty and uh, I in in this piece, I show her adorning herself and feeling, um, as much in love as anybody else, any other woman from a, from an upper class would be, I gave her that voice, she had, she has two love songs in my piece where she is with Bhim and just considering herself to be no less beautiful than anybody else. So traditionally characters such as these are not accorded, the status. And I, I really wanted to give that to her because she's, to me, she's no different from any other woman.
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Because it takes a long time to plan and choreograph a story. How this story has changed is you've lived with it and how it maybe has become a part of your life.
Yeah. That's actually a really wonderful question because, um, so two things here. One of course is the, the story of the character and the process of researching and internalizing all of that. Because I'm also dancing this and Indian classical dancers, there's a lot of emotion that is, um, emotional expression that, that we bring to the performance. And really that has to be deeply felt because it cannot just be, um, kind of, it cannot just be acting. I, it, it cannot be a superficial kind of just a representation like that. It really has to come from a deeply felt place in the heart because otherwise the performance is never going to be authentic and it's never going to move the audiences unless I truly, truly as a performer, it's unless I truly feel it within me. So in the process of researching the story and creating this script and, um, also the music, the music composition and recording of the music and working with all the artists, I started feeling like I was really living this character. That her painful moments were deeply felt within me, her struggles, her anger and the range of emotions that she goes through.
Were really amplified within my own internal landscape. Um, so, so that was one aspect of it. And the other aspect was even in terms of the dance technique, I attempted something a little bit different with this piece because the traditional classical dance pieces, you, they typically don't have spoken word and, but I wanted to tell the story in a way that would also make it very accessible to Western audiences so that, um, if everything was just in the songs and if the songs were in regional Indian languages, a lot of it would have been lost to, um, audience members who didn't understand the language. So I wanted to introduce an element of theatre into the piece and I wanted that to be done in English. So I actually, um, the original script was written in my native language in Bengali, but then I had this script, uh, translated, actually I did the translation myself and then did the, the recording of the English narration in India as well, along with the music composition.
And I really wanted to be able to tell the story and I, because I feel like it's such an important concept. Um, and you know, I, it's, it's an important story to me to be able to tell as a woman because it's, it's the message is so universal that I wanted to make sure that everybody understood all the nuances of the story and everything that, that I wanted to say through it. So that from that perspective also it was an innovation because I included this element of theatre. And then, um, I actually had to rehearse a lot more with the words because traditionally we would only dance to music and that has different musical instruments that play and percussion, which keeps the rhythm in a certain way, which is, which is what we are used to dancing to and interpreting those rhythms. So the body moves in, in certain habitual ways with the music and certain rhythmic patterns. But when it's just the spoken word, it took me a while to, to be able to move well with that. So it was living with those words as well. And I had to do that for a much longer time than I would with, with traditional music. So even from that perspective, I've been living with the story for for a long time and um, but I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to really internalize it and, and really speak of this character through my dance.
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Wars, battles, fights through Hidimba They just might get a brave warrior for their side. Arms. There are plenty and money too, but always a need for Intrepid young men and hence this deceitful plan to get rid of Hidimba and appoint her son as a hired soldier. I have my pride. You keep your Royal blood
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Today I let go of the love I had nurtured, encased in a hard shell. But whose shadow do I see in the pale moon light sitting beside me? Is it you Bhim? This son is mine alone. All through this time, just as you never looked deep in your heart, I too look back No longer. I am free. Your Aryan blood, your honor are but shackles on your feet and to tempt your soul forever.
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Hidimba felt no more need to talk. Erasing her past. Hidimba truly her own person. Loving human, stepped into her future.
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May we enter the fullness of our lived experience, crying out, Anukrosa, into the full empathetic experience of our relations. May our footsteps be turned by love toward uncertain, but no less worthy acts of care. May our stories claim the fullness of our worth, the integratedness of our relations. And when stories do not, may we restory, storying marginalized shadows into fully human beings.
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our deepest thanks to Sreyashi Dey for the gift of her artistry, and time and for generously providing her soundtrack for use in this podcast. The book Caring to know comparative care ethics, feminist epistemology and the Mahabharata by Vrinda Dalmiya is published by Oxford university press. This is the music and peace building podcast hosted by Kevin Shorner-Johnson at Elizabeth town college. We host a master of music education with an emphasis in peacebuilding thinking deeply, we reclaim space for connection and care. Join us at music peacebuilding dot com.