A Conversation with Dr. Priya Srinivasan
Interview by Baya Ou Yang
Dr. Priya Srinivasan is a performance studies scholar, choreographer and performer who has lived and performed in Chennai, Melbourne, Los Angeles, Chicago, Shanghai, The Hague, London, Berlin, Geneva, Salzburg and Amsterdam. Her work uses critical feminist performance and ethnography to explore the connections between Asian labour, migration, history, and performance.
This interview has been created in partnership with Mapping Melbourne. Priya, is performing 'Serpent Dreaming Women', with Vicki Couzens, Gina Bundle, Yaraan Bundle, Uthra Vijay and Priyadarsini Govind. Join these women as they attempt to undo the warp and weft of the binds that constrain their minds and bodies through an embodied process of decolonisation. Join the December 6 event here.
As a scholar and dancer, how have you come to this point?
When we came to Australia I was eight years old. Growing up was a dichotomous existence! I came from suburbia but through dancing, I was exposed to queerness and to radical artistic practices because of my dance teacher Dr. Chandrabhanu and his partner, the visual artist Geoffrey Goldie. Dancing was my only constant. I lived in a very racist, white suburb and was probably the only Asian, let alone Indian, in my school.
I suffered a lot under that, and dance empowered me. Even though there are aspects in Indian dance that are disempowering, you are never stuck as one character in a dance piece. So you can be a relatively weak character one moment, and then really strong in the next second. In one performance, you can switch from portraying a woman to a man, to animals, spirits, trees, demons, gods and goddesses.
When I finished VCE, I got an important role in a large-scale production with the Bharatam Dance Company at the Arts Centre Melbourne. It changed my perspective and although I couldn’t escape familial pressures right away having to study, a Bachelor of Psychology and Ethnomusicology at Monash University I also knew I had to pursue dance somehow. People around me asked me to make a choice to either be a dancer or a scholar. I decided to do both. I completed my Masters at UCLA in Dance Ethnography, before completing my PhD in Performance Studies at Northwestern University. After I finished my dissertation, I was hired by the University of California, Riverside with a PhD and MFA program called Critical Dance Studies. This program enabled me to do both theory and practice. I started performing chapters of my book in conferences, and implemented the performance of the theory back into the writing. And then my writing would, again, feed back into the performance. This is how I developed my 'talking dance' practice.
How has dance informed your identity?
One of the most powerful moments for me was when I learnt the dances about the Goddess Durga—who is an eight-armed, weapon-wielding warrior goddess riding a lion into battle. She chops off demons’ heads and kills them. The demons can be understood as literal but also metaphorical demons that represent ego, jealousy, selfishness, anxiety, fear and obsessive compulsion. When you’re growing up and only seeing blonde-haired, blue-eyed figures on television—there’s no representation of you at all. Embodying this powerful, brown goddess was an incredible alternate model of femininity.
I think that’s why the form became so important to me—it became intertwined with my identity. Dance was my haven from racist pressures for assimilation. At that age, I didn’t fully understand how race worked, but I knew I didn’t belong. I only felt like I belonged in the dance classroom and on stage.
How do South Asian performance practices inform Western identity and performance?
When I travelled to America, I encountered the concept that the Indian classical dance form I had been trained in was only sixty years old. I was shocked! We had always been taught that the form was 3000 years old, when in fact it was a contemporary modern practice. Through colonialism and nationalism, 'traditional' dancers known as devadasis and nachwalis became linked to prostitution and were erased, later replaced by a contemporary form (and upper caste and middle class dancers) masking itself as a 3000-year-old tradition.
At the same time, Martha Graham and Ruth St. Denis the mothers of contemporary dance were influenced by Indian dancers, along with other Asian, Native American and African-American dance forms—but all of this was hidden inside their appropriation in the early part of the twentieth century. There were Indian women in Coney Island, and St Denis copied their dances, learned from them, and when she wrote her autobiography, deleted them. Due to immigration laws, no one could contest Ruth and Martha’s framing of Indian dance as ‘American’ dance. Similarly, there is increasing evidence that one of the foremothers of Australian Dance: Louise Lightfoot, was also influenced by Indian dance. But this history is relatively hidden.
So, what we call 'traditional' dance is actually modern and contemporary, and what we call 'contemporary' dance in America and Australia are rooted in these historic and Indian forms (among other forms of appropriation including Asian, black, and Native American forms as well). When I discovered this, I was set in an entirely different direction. How could I continue doing the so-called ‘traditional’ Indian or ‘contemporary’ western form without acknowledging the fact that the histories were so problematic and that I too was contributing to the appropriation and invisibilisation of devadasis and nachwalis? At the same time, I was wondering how to work with the forms embedded inside my body by exposing these appropriations through interruption to decolonize the practices?
Working towards resolving these questions, I realised I didn’t have to let go of the technique that I had been trained in in order to be contemporary. There’s a deep misconception that in order to be contemporary in Australia, you have to do Western contemporary dance or theatre. If you are perceived to be engaging in 'ethnic' forms, you’re not considered 'high art', you’re not considered contemporary. I am working against this idea, and this has been the root of my activism since moving back to Australia.
How did you first decide to perform your academic writing? What are the limitations to academic writing in relation to accessibility, and how can art and performance seek to deconstruct this?
I used to have anxiety around publishing because I felt like it was so final and it was the end of a product. Whereas performance is never final—it’s always in the moment. So the anxiety over the written word is what led me to describe myself as a ‘recovering academic’. After I wrote my book, Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labour, I knew the audience would be limited. How do I take the theories about race, immigration, law, gendered identity and labour, and present them in an easily comprehensible way? My decision was to turn some of my written material into live performances. I worked with postmodern choreographer Susan Rose and Indian dance teacher and choreographer Ramya Harishankar to create the multidisciplinary interactive humourous performance that we are now touring in the USA, UK and India.
It’s really hard to explain how I turn my academic writing/theory into a performance. I don’t have the words—that’s exactly why it’s a performance. That is one of the key features of performance is that though we might be saying something, our bodies may be doing something else. That contradiction cannot always be read inside a book.
Performance shows how the body resists power in ways that writing about that doesn’t easily enable. The viewer can actually read the performance as multiple texts and arrive at the conclusions mimetically. They are not being told the answer; people can come to different interpretations.
When you were writing your book or when you’re performing, do you ever feel like you want your audience to have experienced both forms to have a holistic understanding of your theory? Or do you think that in isolation, they do separate and equally important things?
For the most part, the people that watch my performances have not necessarily read my book or my theoretical articles. I often see light-bulb moments during performances, because we have something in the form that everyone can connect to. Performance enables a new way to access theory. Written material is important for the detailed analysis, but performance is something that draws people in through the affective register to make them feel emotions first before they think critically.
How do you translate dance and performance into dialogues of empowerment for diaspora?
A lot of my dance forms and practices consider two things: how do we create awareness within Indian, South Asian and Asian communities through the practices that we do, and how do we rupture the idea that Indian dance is a continuous, uninterrupted form to bring these invisible women, those devadasi and nachwalis, out? I’ve been creating archival research based theatrical dances to make visible these invisible women in our histories. I look at how these texts are not only relevant for us now as young performers, but also as young women who need alternate feminist perspectives to modern, Western feminist models.
The thing about contemporary dance—and modernity in general—is that it tends to look at the present and the future as if there is no past. That is not my definition of modernity; I guess you can call me more of a postmodernist. But a critical postmodernist feminist looking at it from a third-world feminist perspective that accounts for histories and power differentials, who believes all of our dance and art-making is political.
Can you walk us through one of your more political performances?
To give you an example of my performance form—I recently presented my work at the Berlin Wall Memorial with Uthra Vijay, a Carnatic singer I have been working with in Melbourne. We have been developing the texts of an eighth century girl poet/mystic named Andal from South India who came from the same village as my grandmother. Andal’s texts have been handed down generation to generation for centuries through matrilineal lines and came to me through my grandmother and to her through her mother. In this performance, we collaborated with a Yiddish musician, Inge Mandos and a Jewish-American choreographer/scholar Dr. Hannah Schwadronf. Hannah’s grandmother had escaped Hamburg during World War II and was a refugee for many years before she was allowed into the US. Hannah was performing her grandmother’s stories from her grandmother’s diary, and I was performing my grandmother’s stories and the passed-down poetry of Andal while Uthra was singing these texts she had set to music.
At the same time, Inge Mandos was looking at Yiddish songs that had been lost because the young girls that had been singing them either had been taken to concentration camps or were deterritorialised, but fragments of their voices remained through the music. What connected us was the shared sense of longing and female desire/potency present in all these stories.
While Uthra sang in the Carnatic classical form, the Yiddish musician was singing in the Yiddish song format, and Hannah and I were interspersing it with movement and text. We performed along the Berlin Wall Memorial and people just joined us as we were walking. We ended up inside the Church of Reconciliation and when we finished, we had so many people come up to us crying and say: ‘Wow, that was just so moving. Who would have thought that Yiddish and Indian songs, and this story of your two grandmothers, would be so powerful?’ It was a great way to start a discussion around the current refugee and migrant crises in Germany. We were also part of a larger group performing that month called Moving Matters ( a collection of artists, scholars who are all serial migrants).
Similarly, Uthra and I have used the Andal text as a kernel from which to create other engagements with a Romanian photo journalist and visual artist Andreea Campaneau around the crisis of South Sudanese girls on the border, with Chilean-Australian visual artist and dancer/choreographer Arun Munoz, and Iranian singer Tabassom Ostad and performed it in galleries, museums, and theatres in London and Melbourneto generate conversations about non-western feminist thought, female desire, global south women’s texts, and processes of decolonization. We will now take this work back to India this summer for performances and engagement in theatres and galleries, and museums in Chennai, Bangalore, Pondicherry, and Assam. I’m interested in using art for setting up conversations, and multiple forms of community engagement.
What role do you see the arts playing in creating social change for migrant communities in Australia? What are the complexities in how these communities value arts?
Migrant communities want their children to be doctors, lawyers, engineers and professionals, because they feel like that’s why migrated to Australia. What’s the point of their children becoming an artist that can’t support themselves? We are not encouraged to learn the arts in order to become artists. Rather, we are only encouraged to learn the arts in order to maintain culture—a preventative for complete assimilation into mainstream Australian identity. There are hundreds of young women and men learning Indian dance and Indian classical music in Australia. However, I’m pretty sure I’m one of a handful of women who actually continued in the arts in the Indian community, and I find that absolutely shocking! So when I moved back, I decided to pursue my role as an artist and critical thinker, to show by example that we need the arts.
It was not always like this. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Bharatam Dance Company and others were thriving. Then the Howard government rescinded the Multicultural Clause and so began the whitening of Melbourne stages. Now, most of the bigger stages in the city center have very little work that reflects the demographics of the city that we live in. Is it because there were no spaces for people of colour on stages that the next generation of migrant artists didn’t show their work? Or is it because next-generation migrants were not encouraged by their communities to pursue art, therefore they didn’t go on to pursue the mainstream spaces? This is definitely changing but we need a massive shake up for things to truly shift. I’m interested in agitating migrant communities, but I’m as much interested in mainstream arts spaces to open themselves to alternate forms of artistic practices. I want to take on traditionally White performance spaces to make them rethink their own aesthetic about what is modern or postmodern practice. What is considered high art and what is so called community, ethnic performance?
Simultaneously, I want to explore what it means for migrants to deal with and disengage from colonial settler models, in order to have solidarity with Indigenous people and other people of colour. I am really interested in building those connections between Indian/Asian communities and Indigenous communities—to provide that solidarity and conversation without a white mediator in the center of it. What would it look like for people of colour to work with one another? Because one of the reasons that we’re in the state we’re in is because we’ve been divided and ruled. So that’s my utopian hope for emerging performers, scholars and artists—for us to rethink and decolonise ourselves, prioritising Indigenous concerns first, to reimagine what our place and space is as we create together for the future putting First Nations first.
Through the arts, we can begin to triangulate conversations between Asian/Indian communities, solidarity with Indigenous and refugee concerns, between trans/bi queer communities and agitation towards mainstream representation which is a rightful place that reflects the demographics of this city. This is what my work is about.
Tell us about your upcoming performance in Mapping Melbourne. What would you like your audience to learn/consider/feel from your performance?
The performance is called Serpent Dreaming Women. I’m creating it with Indigenous women Vicki Couzens, Yaraan Bundle and Gina Maree Bundle, as well as world-renowned Indian classical dance performer Priyadarsini Govind, and singer Uthra Vijay. This project is about engaging with the politics of how Asians connect with Indigenous women. We look at pre-colonial engagement—how Indian-Indigenous interactions happened before. Because there’s evidence that Indians were here in Australia and that instead of colonising, there was trade and cultural exchange of a very different kind. And how we can rethink futures around decolonizing and reimagining our relationship to the Earth, to pollution and capitalist exploitation from a feminist perspective. If we’re really trying to create social change, not just for migrant communities but for everyone, what are the alternate ways we can understand relationship to land through a feminist principle such as the Earth Mother. We’re drawing on these themes to look at how we can reimagine Indian-Indigenous engagement to reshape migrant artistic, cultural and social practices. How do we engage with Indigenous issues? How do we prioritise and respect land and Indigenous knowledges?
The site-specific piece will take place at Bunjilaka, the Indigenous exhibit at the Melbourne Museum. It’s very exciting because the Arts Centre Melbourne has offered us a residency and co-commissioned this work at the Playhouse to work and build the piece. We’re hoping this is part of a long-term project. We’ve also been supported, unexpectedly, by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Indian Council, which is unprecedented. There’s a change in the air and its coming because of the labour of many First Nations and people of colour working to agitate this shift. I am grateful and happy to be a small part of the movement towards change.
Do you have any advice for emerging performers and/or scholars?
Solidarity with First Nations and People of Colour/ minorities/ Queer /Transgendered /Differently Abled Bodies is key so we don’t think of ourselves as solo individuals but as communities who can work together and not allow ourselves to be pitted against one another.
My key advice is even if you do not like the aesthetic choices of a fellow performer and/or scholar how can you find a way to support their work as an ally for increasing representation of minorities on mainstream stages and venues.
Who are you inspired by?
I am inspired by those who seek peace instead of violence, those who are kind and powerful, and those who will speak against all forms of violence from a critical, spiritual, political, intersectional and enlightened perspective.
What are you currently listening to?
Mainly audio books, Abraham Hicks, Dain Heer, RagaLabs, and carnatic music.
What are you currently reading?
How do you practice self-care?
Access Consciousness, Yoga, meditation, acupuncture and sleep.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It means that being the hyphen allows me to think beyond dualities, oppositional positions, into the third space of both/and, to staying in the question rather than coming to conclusions and finding answers. To allow Durga the warrior Goddess to enter and being all the energies of different goddesses when required. To wear a sari and bindi in one moment, and Melbourne black the next, and feel equally at home in many spaces.