Sonia | January 29, 2015

Fellowship diaries: Unseen faces of India

The person I see in the mirror each day is not really me. My funky-cut T-shirts, my colourful jeans, my skates, my sneakers and my wooden beads are nowhere to be found nowadays. Instead, I wear shalwar and full body scarfs. I look foreign. I feel foreign. And it seems like a significant part of me went underground, to live there who knows for how long.

I was fortunate enough to be born in a country in which I was raised without gender consciousness. That reality, however, seems light years away today. I now live in Tamil Nadu, perhaps one of the most conservative states of India. The temperature outside is always above 30 C, yet it is socially unacceptable that I wear shorts or sleeveless shirts. It gets dark by 6 pm and I should always be indoors by that time, or at least accompanied by someone after sunset. As a seasoned solo traveller, I have never found myself worrying as much about personal safety as I do now. I feel I have woken up into a different reality, in which I am not permitted to forget that I am a woman even for one minute a day. My once peaceful trust that we are all the same has forcefully acquired gender lenses: I now see men and women.

The idea that men and women are fundamentally different is deeply rooted in Indian society, and it impacts women’s life from birth. The same ideology gives birth to heavy labels that, at least to someone from a different culture, feel almost like a social stigma: You are a woman? You have to dress, talk and behave in a certain way!  Important aspects that define me as an individual are such a huge deviation from what a woman “should be” here, that I have limited my interactions with the opposite gender. A firm handshake, thorough visual contact, a large and welcoming smile, direct communication style, genuine interest in your interlocutor as an individual, and nonetheless, confidence can be largely misunderstood and misinterpreted.

Suffocated by this newly discovered vulnerability, I was desperately looking for a place where I could be myself for just a few hours. I found an ad for a hip-hop dancing competition. I’ve not been dancing for long, but whenever I’ve faced hardships in my life, hip-hop has given me a space to be with myself and with others in perfect wordless unity.

I was on my way to the venue when these thoughts started swirling in my head: I will be the only girl in the room! How am I going to feel? Is there any courage left in me to do this? Once I stepped into the room, though, the vibrant energy of b-boys and freestyle dancers reminded me of home. Hip-hop speaks no language, knows no borders and has its own culture: of rhythm and floor. And then something amazing happened: I no longer saw men and women; I saw dancers! I was welcomed by the host: Come, meet Aina she’s a b-girl, she’s from Bangalore. And Rahul, he’s a freestyle dancer, from Chennai. And Nathan came all the way from France to participate in b-boy one-on-one competition. A place to be with each other…

Twenty-five amazing ladies set the stage on fire that day. I saw girls doing waacking, popping and even combining elements of krump, dance forms I’ve never even seen girls in my home country perform. But, more importantly, what I saw that day was a genuine deviation from what the traditional Indian society dictates women should be. And that deviation came as their most beautiful expression, through an art form that sets no boundaries for what an artist should be.

Nowadays, I walk the streets of Chennai, looking at women and girls in buses, shops and restaurants. And I wonder which part of themselves they are hiding under the veil of obedience that silences them. How much time will have to pass until India will lift the curtain and allow them to show their true beautiful colours?

PS: Special thanks to Rhea, one of the amazing dancers in the story, for allowing me to use her image with this article.