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From Ashtanayika To AsthaNowYika: How We Revisited The Traditional Heroine Through Art

While the traditional ashtanayikas of the natyashastra represent conventional notions of femininity, this art project tried to reinvent them.

While the traditional ashtanayikas of the natyashastra represent conventional notions of femininity, this art project tried to reinvent them.

This was a high summer morning; by then, the food and tourist places in the city were just opening to the public in Hyderabad. This was the time when I had a chance to visit my hometown, Ranasthalam, a village in Andhra Pradesh situated in the suburbs near Vishakhapatnam.

My stay at this place was for not more than three days; however, I did get a chance to revisit the famous Ramatirthalu temple, where much elevated sculpture was carved on the high towers of the temple.

There were multiple themes of women carved in these stone towers, starting from the startling Apsaras, to the iconic devis and gana- stirs and a tale of Krishna rasaleela indented in the welcome gate. As I was going through these art sculptures, I came across a very established concept of women and their emotions – a blend of Navarasas seen through the eyes of women – the concept of Asthanaika. This was something I learned as a part of my initial Bharatanatyam training.

While going through further with Geeta Govinda translations on which those sculptures were based, I came across the much-known concept of Asthanayika which is mentioned in the Natya shastra. A concept where there were multiple dance pieces, performances, padams performed and spoken about time and again in multiple contexts.

The idea of Asthanayika is something only associated with women. For men in the Natyashastra there are only four mood-boards and all of it has one thing in common, being brave. The classification of Heroic was Dhirodhata – Brave and haughty, Dhiralalita – Brave and sportive, Dhirodata – Brave and magnanimous, Dhiraprashaanta – Brave and calm.  This classification made me wonder, why aren’t men shown as weeping, vulnerable, non-commanding in each romantic portal? Which also brings us up to the idea that the Asthanayika itself showed women as week, seeking, deprived and veining for men. The context of gender was seen with such a patriarchal and unilateral lens that it played the binary game of heteronomativity. That was something which pushed me to seek an artistic take.

The majority of these Asthanayikas are old and conservative imageries of women – not something relatable to this age, where we recognise the diverse gender spectrum. We moved out of seeing gender as a conventional binary and my constant vision to rebuild the narratives of asthanaika with a gender non confirming imagery paved the way for a photo performance project.

I called this project as ‘AsthaNowYika’, the now-a days imagery of heroines who are more gender variant and have a self-powered femininity.  Upon creating this concept, I connected with Santosh Gangala, a friend and a well-known photographer who helped me bring this concept to life as a photo-performance project.

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I wanted to bring up an imagery that was non-conforming and self-centered with the framework of defined terminologies; I saw the idea of Asthanayika as an aspect of a same story changing its narratives with the changing outcome. I wanted to interline the ideas of opening up on the aspect of Kink and Self exploration. Hence I used a purple apple print saree with visible stocking pants to create the look.

I used objects like a hand fan, comb and other external objects to navigate through the narrative. Purple was my colour to signify the non-conformity and I recreated the eight different types of imageries of Asthanaika with a new narrative as listed below.

Abhisarika

Abhisarika (“one who moves”) is that femininity, who sets aside their so-called social modesty and moves out of their home to secretly meet their lover. They do not have any problem in being the action taker, they are at the door of their house and on their way to the tryst, defying all kinds of difficulties like the traffic, sunlight and pollution of the city. They are prepared to leave the house and go on for a date. Their uber is ready and they don’t care about who makes the first move. They are empowered to walk agile and they are a free bird looking to explore their ultimate potential.

Kalahantarita

Kalahantarita (“one separated by quarrel”) is a femininity separated from their lover due to a fight or jealousy or their own arrogance. Their lover is usually depicted leaving their apartment disheartened, while they too become heartsick and repentant without him. They go on venting out their frustration about their situation. They are empowered enough to support their self and don’t care about the patriarchal abnegation insisted on for them. They are enraged and stream up their voice loud and proud.

Khandita

Khandita (“one enraged with their lover”) is an enraged femininity, whose lover had promised to spend the night with them, but instead comes to their house the next morning after spending the night with another woman. They are depicted offended, rebuking their lover for his infidelity. They are glamorous as they are untouched but feel pity for the lover who chose another one instead of them. They are sassy and their rage filled eyes tell the pain they were put through surviving the earlier night. They are uppity and doesn’t spare a word for this lover and fan him out.

Vipralabdha

Vipralabdha (“one deceived by their lover”), is a deceived femininity, who waited for their lover the whole night. They are throwing away their self on the floor in pain and in a void as their lover did not keep his promise. Their body coils up as they are left to feel the coldness of their sexuality. They are deceived and drenched in the pain of their own self.

Virahotkanthita

Virahotkanthita (“One distressed by separation”) is the distressed femininity pining for their lover, who, due to his preoccupation, fails to return home. They are dazzled and bored to wait for their lover, by blowing up their makeup and preparing to water it down as sweat. Their fire gets cold as they pins them self into the ground to tone it down with the coldness of the surface. Their cheeks leave imprints of the sorrow and loathing they feel for their partner.

Vasakasajja

Vasakasajja (“one dressed up for union”) or Vasakasajjika is waiting for their lover returning from a long journey. They are dressing their self for the union with their lover and “eager with expectation of love’s pleasure”. They are ready to surprise their lover with kink and beauty. They dress up their hair, tighten their stockings and keeps their self ready to impress and charm the lover.

Swadhinbhartruka

Swadhin Bhartruka or Swadhin Patika is a Nayika who is loved by their beloved and they try controlling him. Their admirer is subjected and enthralled by their goodness and character. They prevail in his richness and wealth, and command dominance both in and out of bed. They are the dominatrix, the dominant and one who kicks the heights of an Alpha-ness.

Proshitabhartruka

Proshitabhartruka (“one with a sojourning husband”) is the person whose partner has gone away from them and does not return at all. They are depicted seated mourning the loneliness the partner has left them under, tearing apart the true self to the mirror of reflection. The artificiality is gone, and they feel it to be real, surrounded by the thoughts, memories and dreams they wove with the wrong person, but refuse to be consoled. They are unhiding themself, depleting the covers one by one and feeling their own skin.

These imageries definitely helped me relook into the larger aspect of seeing Femininity as an access to all gender and sexuality and reinstate the thought that its not always women or femininity which needs to be seen as  something submissive or seeking. It was high time to rethink and reflect the art with progressive thinking and this project enabled me to tap into the same.

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