On Thursday, I caught a bit of Ramli Ibrahim’s dance company performing Odissi, a classical dance form from the Eastern part of India. The mainstays of an Odissi repertoire are songs taken from the Gita-Govind, a long poem describing the love between Krishna and Radha, with rich erotic imagery. Here’s a sample line from the poem: “One cowherdess with heavy breasts embraces Hari lovingly/ And celebrates him in a melody of love…. Eager for the art of his love on the Jumna riverbank, a girl / pulls his silk cloth toward a thicket of reeds with her hand.” Ibrahim’s company did justice to the sensuality of the lyrics — his female dancers were all lithe and lovely, and wore far less on stage than is normal for classical dance performances here.
As the dancers writhed and bent their way across the stage, I looked around at the largely middle and upper class audience. Here’s my perpetual source of confusion in India: What on earth were these people thinking when they saw this, their sexually explicit cultural heritage?
Because that is certainly not what the middle classes are talking about at home. Sex may be everywhere present in the modern Indian city, but in most middle-class families in Chennai — the families that I know best — it goes completely unmentioned. Take, for example, this (pseudo) fact: in many families I know, children sleep in their parents’ bedrooms till the age of twelve or thirteen. Indeed, the notion of parents closing their bedroom doors at night is somewhat strange to think about. For these families, is there a contradiction that needs to be resolved between the frank sexuality in Indian mythology and the way in which they live their lives now?
This may be another instance where the American in me wants to make things explicit which are better left unsaid. But it’s so interesting! Where did all this sensuality go?