Through Bharatanatyam dance, Prathiba Natesan Batley challenges gender stereotypes and classism
Prathiba Natesan Batley walks toward the back of her at-home dance studio in Louisville to try the sequence again. Her teacher, guru Preetha Ravindranath, counts out loud, her voice filling the space through computer speakers.
They’ve worked this way for years, Skyping across continents with Natesan Batley in the United States and Ravindranath based in Chennai, India, and have been student and teacher for more than three decades.
“[Natesan Batley is] very intelligent. She's very smart,” Ravindranath, a celebrated dancer herself, says, adding that she’s able to bring to life the choreography that the guru envisions in her head.
Natesan Batley, who is a three-time Indian National Champion of the classical Indian dance form Bharatanatyam, says she and Ravindranath have a special student-teacher relationship, and their shared values have helped it endure so long.
“One thing that we have a lot in common is that both of us feel like dance is beyond just a physical movement,” Natesan Batley says. “It has to be a social movement. It has to be a political movement. And it is for everybody.”
Social justice is embedded in Natesan Batley’s every move, using dance to push back against gender stereotypes and the caste system in India. And it’s the central message of her dance company, Eyakkam.
Dance/USA recently recognized that work. Natesan Batley is one of 30 dance artists from across the country to be named a 2022 Artist Fellow by the national organization. The accolade comes with a grant of $30,167.
“I think artists have a responsibility to talk about social justice issues… because art has to be relevant,” Natesan Batley says. “And how can you be relevant without actually responding to the things around you?”
Part of her social justice work is also challenging the dance form of Bharatanatyam itself, which Natesan Batley says has been “gentrified” by the upper caste.
“I'm never happy with the status quo,” she says. “I grew up in a mixed-caste family, and I grew up in a family where money was not abundant.”
She wanted to learn the art form because she found it beautiful, but she also found it was rife with religious, class and gender dynamics that troubled her and perpetuated inequities.
“I wanted to disrupt that,” she says.
One way she challenges that status quo is by “finding stories that are more relevant, that people will identify with a lot more.”
For example, a forthcoming short dance film called “Dirty Secrets” focuses on sexual harassment and abuse. Natesan Batley says it’s autobiographical.
She’s also working on a live dance work that pushes back against the caste system, featuring a protagonist from the oppressed population considered to be at the bottom of the imposed societal hierarchy.
Natesan Batley is also a professor of statistics at the University of Louisville. She says her endeavors in math and dance have earned her the nickname of “Peanut Butter and Sardines” from some friends “because Bharatanatyam and statistics are so the opposite of each other.”
“I feel like there is rhythm in everything that we do in life. There is so much mathematics that goes on in dance and there is so much creativity that goes on in research as well. So I actually see them as very complimentary.”