Debating "La Bayadere" a bit on Tumblr: Exoticism, Orientalism, etc.

I came upon this string of comments related to the above animated Gifs on Tumblr:

1/5. Why you should see “La Bayadere”

The drama: Love triangle story that ends in death






i was extremely confused and for a minute i’m like

why would all these indian people have white makeup on

then i realized it was just white people

and now i has a sad

op means why you should NOT see this pos right?!!

where’s the section called “the racism”?

My first reaction was “Oh look, only white passing Indi… WAIT, THOSE ARE WHITE PEOPLE REPRESENTING MY CULTURE!”. White people representing my culture, I am not surprised, I’m merely mildly infuriated. 

Here were my own thoughts on seeing the above:

First, I respect the reaction, and believe me this bothers me a fair bit as well. 

But we can do more than simply label it "racism." Are we unhappy because these are white dancers performing Indian characters, or because of the whole context of this ballet -- including its original choreographer (the Russian Marius Patipa), as well as the modern choreographers and designers who have produced the Paris Opera Ballet's 2012 version (from which these Gifs are derived)?

This is a ballet called La Bayadere, first performed in 1877. It's part of a long tradition in European high art of using "exotic" Indian themes and settings with all white casts. (Another classic example is the opera Lakme.) It was produced as a reaction to a visit from real temple dancers to Russia in the 1870s. 

Such stories are usually based on actual Indian sources. While there are many elements of La Bayadere that are clearly historically inaccurate (a Rajah's daughter would never be involved in dancing publicly, as the character does in this ballet), it's not entirely out of the question that a story like this could be recuperated and rethought to make it more relevant and 'true' to real Indian culture. 

A future version, for example, might rework some of the original choreography using elements from classical Indian dance formats. And yes, use dancers of Indian origin. (Presumably one reason why they might not be casting any Indian dancers is that there may not be very many who are trained at this level in western ballet. If they change some of the choreography to include Indian classical dance, the complexion of the cast could look very different.)

In short, I'm not thrilled about what I'm seeing in the images above, but maybe this Gif series might be an opportunity to get educated, not just mad. 


Anonymous said...

Getting offended by the lack of South Asians in the cast is a bit presumptive. Do we know how many auditioned? Were they objectively more qualified than the ones that were selected?

Selecting the cast just on their ethnic origin, rather than on their talent, would be rather patronizing.

Should Americans be offended when Christian Bale speaks with an American accent? (Outrageous! They could have just cast an American!)

Until you know that a qualified South Asian was passed over for a role as a South Asian, the outrage is not warranted.

Sean Weaver said...

I have to disagree with the above person. You may be right in the point that we don't know how the casting went for this production. YET, you are missing the bigger picture here. The major issue is the appropriation of Indian culture through a Western form of art. The garb, the actions, and I am sure the setting, are all misconstrued and presented as an absolute truth. LET'S look at it this way. WHAT if this was an Indian play about Americans or Europeans? They "white" their skin, wear overly exaggerated clothing, and presented us in a way that would be offensive. THAT would cause outrage in America or Europe. This shows Orientalism at its finest--the unequal balance in power when it comes to representation.
Do I need to remind the above person about the American anti-Muslim film that caused major riots in the Arab world?
The binary of oppositions is totally hypocritical. Why is it ok for Americans/Europeans to use this form of representation? When is representation taken too far? And when we acknowledge the fault in such representations, are we in all actuality giving power to the binaries that define our interactions and acceptance of other cultures?
Am I right in assuming that this is the place where your infuriation comes from Dr. Singh?
I must say I enjoyed the way you deconstructed the ballet, proving that it is possible for it to be more culturally inclusive. It just shows the faultiness of such creations.
Thank you for a thought provoking read.

indian who wants postcolonial scholarship, not postcolonial petulance said...

"WHAT if this was an Indian play about Americans or Europeans? They "white" their skin, wear overly exaggerated clothing, and presented us in a way that would be offensive. THAT would cause outrage in America or Europe."

Are you offering any reason to believe this other than your emphatic capitalization? I've never seen any outrage from in the US over caricaturing Americans in "whiteface" in Chinese theatrical performances. More broadly, what I see here in these gifs and from Amardeep's description strikes me as no more offensive than an all South Asian cast trying to do an English-language version of Hamlet and mucking up some of the historical details. Do you think the later would really provoke outrage in Europe?


Unknown said...

"More broadly, what I see here in these gifs and from Amardeep's description strikes me as no more offensive than an all South Asian cast trying to do an English-language version of Hamlet and mucking up some of the historical details."

Broad generalizations. Hmmm

Let's look at the implications of said statement.

Are you implying that the ballet is a gift that is not offensive? Clearly Dr. Singh outlines how offensive it is to see people that are not of his own culture and heritage perform a play in which characters are endowed with Oriental stereotypes.

Are you suggesting that the representation of Indian culture within this ballet is just a "historical mix up of details." Do you believe these stereotypes are representations that convey some universal truth? No harm done? Because as I see it this is more of a capitalized empathetic misunderstanding of Dr. Singh's analysis.

Therefore, would you suggest Orientalism doesn't exist? Is it a representation like this that is just a mere misunderstanding of what is presented as historical fact?

By all means, if the answer is yes to all of these questions, then we should forgo post-colonial theory all together---not to mention we should ignore Said's own work on Orientalism.

Dear friend, my "empathy" and "petulance" are much more then these simple feelings--my passion for post-colonial theory is pure fury in its unrefined fullest. I'm outraged at the way people of different cultures continue to misunderstand each other through these modes of thought and "artistic" representations--all of which are products of colonialism.

I stand firm in my previous statement, "that Americans or Europeans would be outraged when they are misrepresented." After all, we Americans hate to see ourselves in the eyes of our so called "enemies." HOW dare they present us as the new cultural imperialists of the world. Americans are presented as Liberals with loose morals. Maybe because there is a lack of research on Occidentalism or even trying to define it.

I will continue to be outraged because cultures, and people, continue to treat each other as they do. I will point out the behavior of ignorant human beings, and I will write about it in a way that I feel is honest and open.


A gay French/Native "American" poco scholar.

Anonymous said...

As an American ballet dancer of Indian ancestry myself, the fact that caucasian people are playing Indian people is not offensive at all. Rather, as far as ballet goes, I think it's racist to cast people based on their skin color at all, no matter what the role. It's a ballet, not a documentary about India, it's ok for non-indians to be portraying Indians.

Let me say, for the record, that this is absolutely one of my favorite ballets when it's done tastefully.

What DOES bother me is the black face, the savage choreography, and the savage costumes. I am drawing my opinions from having attended the Paris Opera Ballet's version of La Bayadere, and from what videos I've seen of the bolshoi and la scala.

In fact, I LOVE La Scala's version of the ballet is tastefully done, without the blackface, and without much of the "savage" aspects that the Paris Opera Ballet happily employed.

At the end of the day, it's an art. It is silly to be upset about caucasians playing Indians, and no, the story may not be accurate, but it's fictional. So long as they are not dancing in black face with distasteful costumes, I find no issues with this ballet.

And just to be clear, I identify as American, and though I do acknowledge my Indian heritage, I am American, not Indian, as many people like to label me because of my tanned skin.

As far as the previous comment goes, so what if America is misrepresented a bit, it usually is anyway. That doesn't affect our identity as Americans. We happily accept the overwhelming negative world view of us and take pride in our country and our culture despite is faults. No culture is perfect, and you speak as if your culture is perfect, which is not the case either. Remember that this is art, this is not a television drama or a documentary or a movie of sorts. This is a ballet created ages ago, and your lack of acknowledgement of this fact an the context of this ballet shows your ignorance. I certainly agree that some aspects of this ballet need to be updated to accommodate the changing times and views towards racism, but to be upset over a non-ethnic cast or a fictional story line is going to far.