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The Bechdel test and the Natya Shastra

The Bechdel test and the Natya Shastra

I had an incredibly fulfilling trip to the Annamayya Jayanthi celebrations in NJ a couple of weeks ago, followed by a whirlwind of midterm exams and Sampada prep (and a nasty bout of cold, plus regular life), out of which came two fully formed blog ideas (thank you so much, Mallika Aunty!) that I was intending on writing as soon as I got some time in front of the computer.

Then, we had our MA class today. So, I won’t be writing about those just yet. Our class materials had covered the classifications of nayikas, their messengers, nayakas, and their messengers according to the Natya Shastra. The nayika classifications - whether based on their existing mental state, their occupation, or their general nature, were entirely based on the heroine’s relationship to a man. The nayaka classifications, on the other hand, could be separated between the sringara nayakas (how he related to women) or the hero’s role in society.

The discussion got to why that is, when strong, shrewd women lived and ruled and battled and contributed to Indian society over centuries, if not millenia, both in our mythology and in our history.

My perspective (largely made cogent by the excellent course “Nation, Gender, and Race in South Asia” by Dr. Chitralekha Zutshi at W&M) was that it was probably because the woman is more of a symbol than as an individual (whether of mankind - as seen in the Bhakti period; or of the nation as seen during the Independence movement on to the modern day). Dr. Yashoda reminded me that this classification is from the Natya Shatra, which is believed to predate both these times by at least a thousand years or more.

She challenged us, in class, to think of how women could be classified beyond the range (however beautifully vast and nuanced) of sringara. This reminded me of the Bechdel test.

The Bechdel test - for those of you not familiar - is named for Alison Bechdel, the comic who drew the strip I’ve used in the cover photo. (She herself credits it to her friend Liz Wallace). It states three rules for a movie:

  1. There must be at least two female characters. (So, nayika and her sakhi - that’s easy enough to meet)

  2. The two female characters must converse. (Of course the nayika and her sakhi talk, so check)

  3. The two female characters must talk about a topic that is not a man. (Sad trombone sound)

There’s already a website for Hollywood movies and how they fare against the Bechdel test, but how about our movies, dramas, and dance dramas?

So far, I’ve come up with Missamma (1955) - Sita and her mother talk about Mahalakshmi, her long lost sister. I’m debating whether the introduction of the four beautiful maidens in Jagadeka Veeruni Katha (1961) counts (Jalakalatalalo). I must confess, I’ve only been thinking about this for an hour and my Telugu movie knowledge is pretty pitiful.

So, what other movies and dramas fit? And if tasked with classifying nayikas, how would you do it?

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ASL and Abhinaya

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