Performing Labour

Dr. Priya Srinivasan performing Sweating Saris with Uthra Vijay, London UK 30 May 2017. Photo Credit: Vipul Sangoi, 2017

I have been performing my book Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labor in various cities around the world. As a ‘recovering academic’ I have found that my writing and theory do not just belong on the page. Keeping it in this realm means narrowing the number of people who can actually engage with my work, which looks at transnational Indian dancers as gendered, racialised labourers, whose work in the cultural sphere has remained invisible.

This invisibility is a result of the enduring politics following anti-Asian exclusion laws in the USA and the White Australia Policy in Australia. What has been interesting to audiences is the continued relevance of anti-Asian immigration laws as they affect Asians now in Australia, USA, UK and other parts of the world.

She was whirling and twirling and stamping her feet

Wearing a beautiful Gagra choli

Like an Indian princess

A white woman in New York

Performs “Radha” in 1906

I am watching her on a film from 1947

Wondering how a white woman

Known as the mother of American modern dance

Learnt how to do those “kathak” turns?


Although parts of my work are historical, it’s undeniable that anti-immigrant sentiment is ongoing and more relevant than ever.

A focus on performance and embodiment often reveals the ambivalence and potential negotiation present in these laws that perhaps an examination of the law as a legal act does not always reveal. For example, it was the 1873 anti-Chinese immigration act that enabled Indians and other Asians to migrate to the United States. Dancers and performers from India were part of the group that escaped anti-Asian labour laws, because performance was not considered a form of labour.


Then her hand formed the hamsasya mudra perfectly

She must have been taught by an Indian dancer

Who was the Indian guru I asked?

They said there was no guru

She was a solo genius

That’s impossible I said

There is no way she can form that mudra

Without being taught how to do it


They travelled the performance circuit from 1880-1907 until even more stringent laws prevented them from staying on in the US. They performed in theatres, circuses, streets, dime museums, world fairs and at Coney Island, leaving their mark on white women, such as Ruth St. Denis (the mother of American modern dance), who absorbed their performance practices. When the anti-Asian immigration law went into full-effect in 1924, these women became the sole performers of Indian dance. There was no one to contest this, and the labour of the nachwalis were kinaesthetically appropriated onto white middle-class female bodies. What emerged was contemporary Western dance as we know it today.


She met some Indian dancers in Coney Island in 1904

Called the Durbar of Delhi

They said

But then she went and researched her ideas

But what about the men in the photo I said?

Were they her gurus?

They were extras she found on the street

They had nothing to do with her

They said


On this side of the Pacific, The White Australia Policy meant that very few people from Asia could enter the country, let alone performers from Asia. This meant that white women – such as Anna Pavlova and Louise Lightfoot (an Australian dance student of Pavlova’s) – were the primary representations of Indian art forms in Australia. That is, until the mid 1950s, when Lightfoot brought Shivaram (an Indian Kathakali performer) to tour Australia alongside her. Lightfoot and Shivaram taught many young white men and women aspects of Indian dance forms, some of their students including pre-eminent contemporary dancers like Ruth Bergner and Margaret Lassiker.

It wasn’t until the abolition of the White Australia Policy in 1973 that we began seeing actual Asian performers migrate and settle in Australia. Here, they created some of the most incredible and political work with funding from the Australia Council and other bodies. This includes the prolific work of Dr. Chandrabhanu (OAM) the artistic director of the Bharatam Dance Company, Tara Rajakumar (OAM) the artistic director of Natya Sudha Dance Company, Padma Menon the artistic director of Padma Menon Dance Company, and many others. Their companies performed on mainstream stages such as the Arts Center in Melbourne for decades. However, since the Howard Government’s defunding of the multicultural clause, we have seen silence around contemporary South Asian performance practices in Australia in mainstream stages.

What does this history of women’s dancing bodies, feminised racialised bodies of men, reveal about the labour of dance and performance in Australia?  Specifically, what does an attention to embodiment itself reveal?


Whirling and twirling

Twisting and turning

Stamping and thwacking

White woman dancing in brownface

The mother of modern dance

The mother of contemporary dance

Here down under can we ask

Why another white mother wearing brownface

Houses our asian forms?

Housing asian culture?


In my multidisciplinary performances using visual images, classical Indian music (in the form of the female voice), spoken word, speaking theory, and dance, I ask my audience to participate and help make chappatis (Indian bread).

I ask them to read the recipe out loud, then have volunteers come and get their hands dirty. As they make chappatis I show images of a 1906 performance by Ruth St. Denis as Radha, surrounded by various South Asian men in New York. I tell the story of how many of these men spent long hours with St. Denis cooking and cleaning and creating dances with her (as she admits in her autobiography and diaries). One of these men, Mohammed Ismail, ultimately sued her in 1909 for $1000 USD for stealing his choreography.

He lost his case in the Supreme Court because the judge deemed that a cook like Ismail could not know anything about dance. After all, this was “a native’s avaricious attempt to disgrace Miss Ruth.”. By the time the audience members have finished making their chappati, they are asked to confront the irony and juxtaposition of chappati making with an intersectional analysis of race, gender, and class as it relates to performance. An innocuous object that can be consumed, ingested, and excreted emerges in the intersectional encounter between the performer and the audience. This questions the borders of bodies, across time and space, through the performative event and the act.

Priya Srinivasan’s Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labor was first published by Temple University Press.

Priya Srinivasan

Author: Priya Srinivasan

Dr. Priya Srinivasan is a dancer, choreographer and writer originally from Melbourne and has lived and performed around the globe. Her award winning book "sweating Saris: Indian Dance As Transnational Labor" connecting modern and postmodern dance with Indian dance, migration and labor forms the basis of her research and practice. Her research and performance work reveals its own labor framed by postmodern sensibilities while grounded in Indian "classical" performance practices. Her work has been presented in diverse settings in many theatre houses, galleries, universities, museums, parks, historic buildings, and in public spaces such as the Showroom Gallery in London, Gangviertel in Hamburg, Berlin Wall Memorial, Treasury Building Melbourne, Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai (China), The Korzo Theatre and The Allard Pierson Museum (Netherlands), typografia galleria in Bucharest (Romania), Krishna Gana Sabha in Chennai (India)Unknown Theatre, Barclay, Irvine Civic Center and Bill Barber Park, in Los Angeles (USA), Harvard University (USA), Stanford University (USA), Oxford University (UK).

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