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Still from a video with Urmila Matondkar.
CategoriesTechnology and SexualityVoices

The ‘Filmy’ Body: Understanding pleasure and dance in public space

In 1514 France, at the time a part of the Roman Empire, a woman named Frau Troffea started what came to be known as the ‘Dance Mania/Plague’. She took to dancing on the streets and was joined by about 400 people. Most of them danced for weeks, eventually dying of exhaustion. Following various debates, consensus emerged that these people had lost their mental balance. Consequently, there were various ideas put forth to ‘cure’ them, none of which worked. This wasn’t the only ‘dance epidemic’, but it seems to have been the most documented one, despite the fact that experts were unable to understand why these people danced.

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of people occupying the public space through dance is the visual spectacle of Hindi cinema. Songs like Rangeela Re, Khullam Khulla Pyaar Karenge, Pyaar Mein Dil Pe Maar De Goli, Yeh Ishq Hai, Raanjhanaa, Aaj Phir Jeene Ki Tamanna Hai, indicate that Bollywood has reserved a special imaginary for this form of pleasure expressed through the body in a particular location. A line from Khullam Khulla Pyaar Karenge (Khel Khel Mein, 1975) says: ‘Pyaar hum karte hai, chori nahi’ (We love, not rob), reminding us that the realm of the public space is for the open and honest expression of pleasure. Similarly, Rangeela Re is one of the rare songs which ‘allows’ a woman to dance in front of a motley crowd, in spaces which are not ‘sanctioned’ for dancing. This is the aspect of Bollywood that usually gets labelled ‘unrealistic’ and an ‘escape mechanism’, but it provides an interesting perspective on the expression of pleasure in public spaces in terms of the relationship between the body and pleasure, as well as access to public space in the city. The newer available social networking sites bring these ‘spectacles’ to our homes via the Internet and expand the ambit of the public space.

In this context, critiques directed at Bollywood, especially through social media, seem to operate on a partial understanding of the male gaze theory (Mulvey, 1975) which posits that the audience watches the protagonist through the male gaze that objectifies and sexualises the woman, who in turn performs for the male gaze and performs a perfect ‘to-be-looked-at image’. Notwithstanding the fact that Mulvey’s theory has been both critiqued and revised, the notion of objectification persists in popular discourse. While I don’t deny that media images of women are highly sexualised, the nuance of interpretation comes from the context. Surely the image of the dancing body on the stage cannot be interpreted in the same way as the dancing body on the streets in the presence of a heterogeneous audience?

I have always visualised and experienced dance as an expression of eros, of movement, of ascent, of desire, which in turn can be variously seen as either liberating or licentious. In the past two years, I managed to realise my fantasy of dancing in public spaces. My dances were non-choreographed and ‘spontaneous’. I emphasise this because I believe that the politics of classical dance forms is entirely different and based on disciplining the body. In the videos of these dances which I put up on social networking sites, my act was seen as one that can ‘only happen in movies and not real life’. The comments that I received ranged from ‘crazy’ to ‘brave’ and these are the two aspects of dancing in public spaces that I have explored.

The human quest for knowing, grasping and reasoning has disallowed us from understanding the idea of pleasure for pleasure’s sake without shunning it as abnormal. We are taught that the body must be tamed, controlled, domesticated – that pleasure is dangerous and often a ‘waste of time’. Critical theorist Herbert Marcuse in Eros and Civilisation (1955) reads Freud through a Marxist lens, reminding us of the polymorphous perverse sexuality of the body – the whole body is an erogenous zone. He puts forth the idea of ‘surplus repression’ in advanced capitalist societies wherein pleasure is renounced for the work ethic. Any deviation or dissent from the dedication to the rational work ethic is therefore viewed as pathological. Subsequently, pleasure gets restricted to the genitals – i.e. for the purpose of reproduction and development of the species, and alternative pleasures are proscribed and tabooed. In an economy in which time is money, dancing on the streets is seen as purposeless and irrational.

The bravery which was attributed to my act reflects that it somehow overturns everyday usage of public spaces, especially by women. Young (1980) investigates the female experience of embodiment and the need to use space in a constricted manner so that actions are not viewed as a ‘call for objectification’. She claims that women feel that their bodies are obligated to do what they ‘wish them to do’ rather than doing what they ‘want to do through their bodies’. Women’s access to public space is associated with the notion of ‘defilability’ (Phadke, 2009) which constructs public space as a dangerous, anxiety-provoking space and the confine of the house (the private space) as a safe space. This results in women’s restricted mobility in public space because of the presence of a dangerous Other. One such dangerous Other can be identified in the Rangeela Re video as the ‘Mumbai tapori’ (Phadke et al, 2009) – a man from the ‘lower’ class who exercises control over the street and is the cause of public anxiety especially because of cat-calling and ‘eve-teasing’. As a consequence, women usually ‘negotiate risk and strategize to produce safety’ (Phadke, 2009) by avoiding certain streets, carrying cell-phones, maintaining anonymity, or demonstrating purpose. In contrast to this, dancing in public space is rooted in the politics of visibility and the right to take risks. Rangeela Re remains powerful because it has a female protagonist dancing solo, unlike most other videos in which women mostly dance solo on stages or are present on the street with their (male) lover.

Through my experiences and that of Rangeela Re, I suggest that the dancing body in public space demands identification and attention, simultaneously resisting representation and objectification. The act possesses the power to alter the ‘penetrative and objectifying male gaze’ (Mulvey, 1975) and reinstate a ‘hesitant gaze’ (Levinas, 1974) which is reluctant to objectify, grasp and represent. The subject remains elusive in as much as pleasure is performed through dancing as an end in itself. In Rangeela Re, the tapori’s gaze, seemingly penetrative and objectifying in the initial frames, transforms into a hesitant gaze – a gaze not of mastery but one which resists coherence. Even in one of my own videos, the shopkeeper in the background was embarrassed and hesitant to look at me. As in 1514 France, the reason for dancing remains elusive. Mulvey’s gaze theory fails to understand the agency of the dancer, who comes to be viewed in a certain way – choosing, as she performs, to conceal or reveal. The dancer takes into account the presence of the spectator, yet maintains a sense of ambiguity and obscurity which can perhaps only be understood through the experience of joining the dance as opposed to theorising about it.

Dancing also calls for surrender premised on abandoning or unlearning normative and purposive behaviour. It is an exercise which calls for an abandonment of the fear associated with public spaces and attempts to build a positive relationship of trust to the public. By not conforming to the desirable image of the public space and the movements that are sanctioned in everyday life, the dancing body in public has the capacity to threaten the socio-political order. The ambiguity of bodily movements and their association with pleasure are interpreted as potentially threatening (Reed, 1998). In colonial times, modifying the forms of dance was a part of the civilising mission. In India, the dance of the Devadasis was appropriated and cleansed of its sexual elements by the colonisers to create Bharatanatyam in line with upper-caste sensibilities.

Marcuse (1955) writes, today’s revolution would mean ‘making the human body an instrument of pleasure rather than labour.’ The body can articulate its trajectories through movement, and exert proprietorship over public space without being usurped by ‘reason’. Through dance, our bodies express our sexuality, compassion, pleasure, and defiance to be contained. It is a nonviolent medium of expression and has the potential to be harnessed into organised protests (such as the One Billion Rising campaign) as well as acts of individual subversion. Dancing thus becomes not only a way to occupy and reclaim pleasure in the public space, but is also a reclamation of pleasure in the private space of the body – a pleasure which has hitherto been relegated to performing the work ethic.

This article is a part of my M.A dissertation. It wouldn’t have been possible without the inputs of Deepti Sachdev, my beloved dissertation supervisor at Ambedkar University.


Foster SL. 2003. ‘Choreographies of Protest’ in Theatre Journal. Vol 55, No. 3, pp. 395-412. The John Hopkins University Press.

Levinas, E. 1974. Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, (trans). Lingis A, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Netherlands.

Marcuse, H. 1955. Eros and Civilization. Beacon Press.

Mulvey, L. 1975. ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in Film: Psychology, Society and Ideology, pp. 833 -844.

Phadke S. 2009. ‘Gendered Use of Public Spaces: A Case Study of Mumbai’, Centre for Equity and Inclusion, Special Report.

Phadke S, Ranade S, and Khan S. 2009. ‘Why Loiter? Radical Possibilities for Gendered Dissent’. Review of Women’s Studies, Economic and Political Weekly. Vol. 42, no. 17, pp 1519 -26

Reed, S. 1998. ‘The Politics and Poetics of Dance’ in Annual Review of Anthropology. University of California. Berkeley, pp. 503-32.

Young, I. M. 1980. ‘Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Com- portment, Motility, and Spatiality’ in Human Studies, Vol. 3, pp.137-56.

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Article written by:

A believer in naïve and irrational Bollywood love as a way of being, Meghna holds an incurably optimistic view of human beings. She is currently a research scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Mumbai) and is exploring the performances of love in urban public spaces.