My name is Elizabeth John and I am a senior with a major in women’s studies. I decided to pursue this art project as an extension of a senior thesis that focuses on the history of perceptions of the female body in the Indian American diaspora.
I was classically trained in Bharatanatyam, a style of dance embedded in South Indian religious contexts, traditionally used to depict Hindu mythology. Not only did this dance tradition teach me the art of storytelling, but provided a venue where the female body was admired and adored.
This project is a reclamation of body. Instead of a story of mythology, these images utilize the symbols, movements, and attire of the dance to unsilence a history of the body within the Indian American diaspora.
Kanmashi, meaning eyeliner in Malayalam, my ancestral tongue, is a distinct piece of the dancer’s attire. As eyeliner frames the eyes, this art provides a lens to view lived experience. The word kanmashi is used as the title of this piece because the art is meant to immerse the viewer as though being in essence with the body, its history, and more so its potential.
Ornamentation dovetails this dance tradition. One of many adornments is a string of bells meant to be tied around each of the dancer’s ankles to emphasize even the most subtle movements of the dancer’s feet through sound. Here, those bells are held against the most stigmatized part of a woman to restate my purpose of unsilencing the female body.
The Vitruvian Woman
Da Vinci created the Vitruvian Man during the Renaissance, a time of cultural erudition and inviolable humanism. The image of a naked man became a symbol of culture, while the bodies of Indian women were forced to be concealed. This image aims to praise the human form, as a dancer assumes a fluid role of gender.
British colonialism in India forced assimilation. Whether it be through dress, education, language, skin color, or behavior, Indian people were forced to adhere to external constraints for generations. This piece satirizes an assimilative movements that directly affected women in Kerala, the state where my family originates. While my ancestors performed traditional dances bare-breasted, the Western world viewed them as perverse. The nakedness of the the female body became improper and illegal. This piece pays homage to my fore-mothers’ tradition yet recognizes modern assimilation.
What Blinds Us
Othering is used as a method of control. From the beginning of major diasporic movement to the United States, othering was used to humiliate and oppress immigrants. In my experience, othering made me resent all the beautiful traditions I had, it made me resent the foods I ate, and the languages my family spoke. But now what I resent the most was my fear of being different. In Bharatnatyam, different hand motions or “mudras” are used to represent different animals, feelings, or characters in the retelling of mythology. The mudra can be used to represent fear.
Hinduism trusts in the cycle of reincarnation, a belief that one’s actions in a lifetime will translate into rebirth in the next. Liberation from this cycle, or eternal peace, is known as “moksha” and comes from the story of Gajendra Moksha, an elephant who is bit by a crocodile while leaving a lake. In a desperate attempt, the elephant prays and offers a flower to the god, Vishnu. Seeing the act, Vishnu decapitates the crocodile and sets the elephant free. This story serves as a metaphor for the cycle of life and is captured in iconic depictions and artistic captures. This image is a play on such iconic depictions. Instead of a crocodile, I am bound by the cycle of silence and stigma. Instead of to a deity, I offer flowers to you, the audience, in hopes of creating a culture in which we break the cycle.