Interpreting Modern Expressions as Abhinaya

Essay by Jereh Leung

“The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages.” ― Virginia Woolf

I thank Nirmala for her generosity in opening up and sharing her trove of experiences to me. Going through her artefacts, I find her practice stuck a chord that is very close to my heart; particularly the yearning to express herself while living in a patriarchal environment. In her paper, “challenging patriarchy through dance” she illustrated various examples of being ostracised for not conforming within the accepted frame. Taking the example of her solo, Ashtapadi, based on the 13th century poetry of Jayadeva, (where the accepted form of portraying the erotic ancient poem was through the abhinaya of facial and hand gestures to portray the post-coital moment between Radha and Krishna. ) Nirmala felt her depiction of “Swadheenapatika Nayika, the woman glorying in the confidence of being the loved and desired one” needed a more authentic response from her other than the usual form and hence worked on a new understanding of abhinaya that incorporated the use of the entire body. Unfortunately, there was an “unwillingness of the audience to view the work with an open mind…” The accepted form of abhinaya and expression then became a mode of control as well as prescribed way for women to express themselves and perform their gender.

In my current practice, I am working on deconstructing the female gaze as a strategy to navigate the patriarchal system as a cis male who is also queer. Female gaze is a term coined by film theorist Laura Mulvey as oppose to the term male gaze. It is:

•   a way of feeling seeing- using the frame to make the audience actually feel the emotions and not just watch the feelings on-screen. Feelings and emotions are prioritised over actions and bodies are used as tools to portray emotions.

•   showing how it feels to be the object of the gaze- the camera speaks out as the receiver of the gaze and actually depicts the gaze itself. There is a use of the heroin’s journey as a structure, revealing the shape of the story, the emotions and a growing awareness of the protagonist.

•   returning the gaze- acknowledging the influence of the male gaze culture on people and attempting to shift the protagonist from being the object to being the subject. It’s not a gender-reversal placing the women in power rather removing women as the object and allowing the viewer see this shift.

In my previous work, Auditory Intimacy, I took the domestic space as a starting point and situated a dialogue between a woman and her male friend where she tried rehearsing a potential confrontation with her husband whether he has an affair with another woman.

Here, we see her practicing ways she thinks a woman should react and her male friend chiding that she is not acting fierce enough. The purpose of abstracting the dialogue was a way for me to express how we seem to live life through living life of what we have seen other people have done before and recreating that in out lives. Quoting Judith Butler, “Does being female constitute a “natural fact” or a cultural performance, or is “naturalness” constituted through discursively constrained performative acts that produce the body through and within the categories of sex? “

Recognizing that the abhinaya is an established form of gender performance, it became obvious to me and relatable to me how it is part of a patriarchal expression.

As Nirmala pointed out, through the history of the dance form Bharatanatyam, of which the abhinaya is part of, where it is created as a dance by the devadasi to a male god and then later extended to the male audience. Furthermore, “not just were the viewers male, but so were the teachers, composers, choreographers, musicians and organisers. The dance form, thus, became suited to satisfy the male gaze.”

As such, I began to draw parallels between the modern female expressions as performed by actresses on TV and screen with the abhinaya, While there are more examples of female characterisation, the way most plots are constructed somehow made the more demure, submissive women the focal point who usually has more airtime as well as garner more popularity among the males. This inevitably leads to a false construct/education for young women to model after as well as for men to think what a perfect women is.

Taking the example of Japanese and Korean tv shows, many young starlets have been chosen by their ability to perform cuteness; kawaii(Japanese) and aegyo(Korean). This massive emphasis on cuteness has led to it developing into a culture. We now see this form of female expression in everyday life and its reach extending to other countries as well through soft power policies.

I began to work on a way to frame these expressions through a female gaze. How would that potentially look like? What came into my mind was that I should experience it and integrate into my dance practice. In doing these expressions as a male, it felt as if I was subverting the male gaze through recognising its effect on my male body. While abstracting these expressions, I had to reimagine the women who performed them and the context they are in. There was a certain softness that I felt as I performed and somehow understanding that the commonality of these expressions were a result of a system that created inequalities in gender and hence strategies such as being cute and demure may have been employed to gain power and attention.

As a cis male body performing these expressions commonly performed by women, I am curious to what reactions people may have and hear these discussions. Will the discussions be centred around that of a male body shouldn’t perform as such, or veered to the understanding of such expressions undertaken by a male body as making a statement about the performativity of gender and its consequences and effects in contemporary times.

Like Nirmala, I await a society that allows women as well as those marginalised under the patriarchal system to be “free, unfettered, intelligent and empowered.” No longer imprisoned and confined to prescribed gaze.

Jereh Leung’s work in performance seeks to reevaluate patriarchal identities. he creates landscapes of viscerality by merging different mediums such as body, sculpture and sound. he studied dance in sead (salzburg) and nafa(singapore). he has worked with numerous singaporean artists and companies such as bani haykal, choy ka fai, daniel kok, dramabox, frontier danceland and tWorks; and internationally with artists such as isabelle schad(germany) and xavier le roy(france/germany).

© 2021 Jereh Leung All Rights Reserved