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Kaustavi: Movement and Text

Juxtaposed languages—an embodied one and a linguistic—combine at the cusp of a static sculptural pose, Sukasarika, meaning the indolent heroine speaking to her parrot companion as her reflection. The caption reads, "Looking at the mirror and talking to the parrot companion," giving a taste of the Sukasarika that is represented in the embodied language. Sculpture weaves into the embodied language of Odissi movement since the kinesthetic maneuvering religiously involves a negotiation between stasis and motion—the motion is punctuated by sculptural poses that are part of the choreographic fabric of Odissi. The flattening of the live body on the 2D screen and the intermittent obscuring of footwork by the linguistic captions in English foreground the question of access. Perhaps to an uninitiated audience, the captions were enabling for a deeper engagement with the movement. While I recognize the ease of access that captioning enables, I question the reduction of the array of nonlinear signification made possible by the kinesthetic into linear signification. However, the captions try to capture the multimodal specificities of the movement, namely the linguistic gestural codes as delineated in the Natyasastra, which is the ancient performing arts treatise providing a theoretical foundation to the dance. The captions also abstract as well the sculptural codes of embodiment in stone. This capture of my live motion, hence, allows for an infusion of the kinesthetic, the static, and the linguistic for disseminating a complex and multi-modal signification to a virtual audience.

South Asian dance studies scholar Avanthi Meduri (1996) believed that the movement does not stand outside verbal representations, given its structure within textual treatises. She argued that the dance is textually overdetermined, and the body can be read only as a linguistic text with its hyper-codified gesticulation where each gesture corresponds to an array of textual interpretations as delineated in historical performing arts texts such as the Natyasastra and the Abhinaya Darpana. I resist Meduri's prohibition by treating my embodied movement on a historical continuum across Mahari (temple-dancer) ritual performances and my Odissi concert practice. In Given to Dance (Hess, 1986), a documentary on Mahari performance, I notice the sensate nature of Mahari Sashimoni Devi's dancing. In my doctoral dissertation, I experiment with her embodied practice to find the fragmentary traces of the Mahari repertory within the sensations of my Odissi movement. I suggest that the Mahari persists from within Odissi even though the popular history of Odissi dance draws from the ancient written treatises.

Erin: Access to Culture

This is the last video we worked on, but the one that really opened up the others for me in a new way. In our discussions, Kaustavi emphasized the importance of the textualized Odissi body within the dance tradition, in a way that each movement mapped onto a particular symbolic meaning in order to tell a story. Kaustavi's work as a dancer pushes back against this over-textualization of the Odissi body, in order to focus on the movement itself; however, as an outsider, I needed to understand this textualized narrative before following the push against it. Thus, this is the only video we worked to create together. During one of our working sessions, we sat down to watch the video; I pulled the clip up in MovieCaptioner and typed while Kaustavi narrated each motion sequence's symbolic meaning. This process, and the resulting mediation, helped me as outsider understand the culturally specific symbol system being presented in a new way, and gave me access to the videos as narrative sequence in a way I had not been able to appreciate before even after watching them dozens of times.

How does new media honor the local efforts of communities to represent themselves to those both outside and inside of the community via practices that generate meaning as well as "boundaries that are at once inclusive and exclusive of people and practices?" (Getto et al., 2011, p. 162). Keeping the above question in mind, the captions accompanying the embodied dance video provided one way of negotiating the barrier of accessing culturally specific materials in a way that brought together the creator and the audience (Getto et al., 2011) in a moment of collaborative understanding. This is not to say that outsiders' understanding of the videos' narratives is the prime value by any means; the classical Indian aesthetic theory of rasa makes it clear that this shared emotional state communicated between dancer and audience is a carefully cultivated experience, let alone learning the complicated symbolic system of dance poses and the narratives they express. Nevertheless, these captions provide one level of access to the aesthetic information being communicated by the dance sequence in a way that gives the audience some clearer context for understanding the information communicated by the captured movement data.