Image: Patruni Sastry. 

How to Learn About Sex Through Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi and Odissi

“Rather than talk about the reproductive system of human beings, some of them talk about peacocks and its tears.” Yup, we definitely need to re-haul the way India views sex-education, as one Indian classical dancer takes on the challenge.

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Jul 25 2018, 6:48am

Image: Patruni Sastry. 

This July, we’re heating things up with Sex-Rated: The VICE Guide to Sex in India. Come with us as we dive deep into Indian sexuality, as well as cherry-pick some of the best videos and stories about sex from VICE around the world. Read more here.

So you’ve just watched Godzilla. Except that it was a Bharatanatyam performance. And it’s inspired you to use Indian classical dance as a medium to impart sex education among children and young adults. In a country where we have classical texts exploring sex in its wildest and healthiest forms, but won’t tolerate the act being spoken about in public—positively or otherwise.

This is what 26-year-old Patruni Sastry, a HR professional in a MNC in Hyderabad, thought when he watched Chitra Visweswaran perform at IIT Kharagpur. “It really inspired me and I started getting attached to dance,” he says. “I have been learning Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Odissi since I was a child. I still perform, present and write on dance and constantly keep myself involved in it in a 360 degree manner. I follow a unique style known as ‘Indian Expressionist dance’ which brings in activism through the performing arts. I see dance as a tool to communicate complex and hard-to-understand ideas—anything from data analytics to gender studies.”

It’s not that much of a stretch to understand how Indian classical dance can be interpreted to impact knowledge on sex education. A significant portion of it deals with seduction, identity, and respect for the body itself, accompanied by stories across all forms that value and speak of multiple genders, while also alluding to consent. It’s abstract enough to gently gesture at topics that might be uncomfortable to some, but precise enough for the message to get through.

Masks and scarves work as great fluid metaphors for sexual identities. Image: Patruni Sastry.

“Classical dance forms have lot of mudras that form the basics of vocabulary. Their subtlety to demonstrate anything makes it an innovative form without making it vulgar,” Sastry said. His initial research led him to understand that sexual education was difficult for a lot of teachers simply because they were uncomfortable using the terminology directly or indirectly in class. To avoid doing so, the educators skipped it with random context, only leading to an increase of sexual illiteracy. And, more dangerously, incorrect knowledge.

“Rather than talk about the male and female reproductive system of human beings, some of them talk about peacocks and its tears,” he shares. “But by using dance, the gap of language and subject can be bridged, and we can pass on the information without any barrier.”

Sastry was lucky to have had sex-ed in school as a child, sadly a rare occurrence in Indian schools. It’s what gave him the courage to take on this challenge. “I strongly believe that sexual education is the only solution to combat the rape culture that is developing in the country. The more we ignore it, the more it will throw us into darkness,” he said.

VICE: What led you to think Indian classical dance is a great medium for sex education for children and young adults?
Patruni Sastry: Sex—if I even utter this word in public I may be coined as a pervert. However this is the land of Kamasutra and other erotic texts, and our culture never shied away from subjects like sexual education. While going through an article, I read that the sexual education act was passed by Indian government long ago; however soon after, the teachers were uncomfortable about teaching these subjects to their students. I believe all the discomfort is with the way it’s articulated. Dance being a universal language of movement and action, would be a right fit to talk about sex education without offending anyone.

Where have you held these workshops? And what has the reaction been like?
I started with my own college (Bankura Unnayani Institute of Engineering), with a bunch of friends. We created a play Aratrika (journey of life), through which we showed concepts of adolescence in the form of shadow dance. Then we moved to other colleges and LGBTQ+ communities, as well as sex workers. In one such event, which was organised for awareness of non-binary genders, I presented a piece on intersexuality and the related biological conditions. Bringing in these concepts on types of intersexual identities through dance brought a positive response. However, it’s not the same case each time. We were presenting a similar performance in a college when the staff walked up to us and asked to refrain from using words like “sex” and “organs” in the performance introduction texts.

How do you talk about sex without using the words 'sex' or 'organs'? Through experimental Indian classical dance. Image: Patruni Sastry.

What are your bigger plans for this?
As a community we are able to reach mostly adults, but the seed has to be sown at the right age. I would like to collaborate with more schools and colleges, both in rural and urban areas.

How do you know this method is working?
All I can get after a performance is people being open about it and talking, either with their friends or colleagues. I see them becoming vocal and it’s evident that the message is going out. Sometimes a curious audience member comes back asking for context. That definitely shows a sense of understanding and that this is working.

Abhinaya or the art of expressing oneself is integral in this form of communication, both for the dancer as well as the audience. Image: Patruni Sastry.

Can you describe a typical performance?
I usually put the performance in context of mythological characters and stories to make the subject clear. One such presentation was called Yoni (the vulva, especially as a symbol of divine procreative energy), where using the analogy of the Hindu goddess Kamakhya (also known as the bleeding goddess) I showed the cycle of menstruation.

I select the topic based on the audience. If they are a mixed audience of all ages, I use acute topics such as “distinguishing between a good touch and a bad touch”. If it’s a developed audience, I talk about body dynamics. I prefer pairing this with instrumental fusion music, to help the youth connect.

Which particular aspects of classical dance teach what?
I use props such as masks to show the roles of two adults. As well as veils to show the flow and cycle of reproduction. Mudras and symbolism showcase body parts. Mask puppetry helps to highlight a basic involvement between two adults. And abhinaya (the art of expression) is great for showcasing the importance of consent.

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