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Author and scholar Usha Iyer talks to dancer Poorna Swami about the rich history of women dancing in Hindi cinema. Usha and Poorna explore the agency and power dynamics that various Indian actors and dancers had over the decades, how dancing in cinema can be seen as a continuation of various dance traditions in India, and discuss the roles played by important women like Vyjayanthimala, Helen, Madhuri Dixit and Saroj Khan.
Usha Iyer is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Stanford University. She is the author of Dancing Women: Choreographing Corporeal Histories of Indian Cinema (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Usha’s research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of cinema, performance, and gender and sexuality studies, with a specific focus on film and performance histories, body cultures, and Global South cultural traffic along the vectors of race, gender, caste, and religion.
Poorna Swami is an independent writer, choreographer and dancer based in Bangalore. At the age of seven, she began training in the classical Indian dance form Bharatanatyam, before extending her training to contemporary dance and post-modern techniques.
Poorna has previously hosted two episodes of BIC Talks: #28 with Rahul Rao about the politics and morality of taking down problematic statues; and #35 with Annie Zaidi about home, belonging, displacement and identity.
Usha Iyer’s research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of cinema, performance, and gender and sexuality studies, with a specific focus on film and performance histories, body cultures, and Global South cultural traffic along the vectors of race, gender, caste, and religion.
Iyer is the author of Dancing Women: Choreographing Corporeal Histories of Hindi Cinema (Oxford University Press, 2020), which examines constructions of gender, stardom, sexuality, and spectacle in Hindi cinema through women’s labor, collaborative networks, and gestural genealogies to produce a corporeal history of South Asian cultural modernities. Through a material history of the labor of producing on-screen dance, theoretical frameworks that emphasize collaboration, aesthetic approaches to embodiment, and formal analyses of cine-choreographic “techno-spectacles,” Dancing Women offers a variegated, textured history of cinema, dance, and music. Her PhD dissertation, “Film Dance, Female Stardom, and the Production of Gender in Popular Hindi Cinema,” won the University of Pittsburgh’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program’s “Best Dissertation in the Humanities” award.
Iyer’s essays have appeared in Camera Obscura, South Asian Popular Culture, and edited collections such as Movies, Moves and Music: The Sonic World of Dance Films, Figurations in Indian Film, The Evolution of Song and Dance in Hindi Cinema, Industrial Networks and Cinemas of India, and are forthcoming in The Oxford Handbook of Film Theory, The Blackwell Companion to Indian Cinema, BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies, and the Women Film Pioneers Project, among others.
Iyer is affiliate faculty at Stanford’s Center for South Asia and the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE). She is currently a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center and a 2020 CCSRE Faculty Fellow. She was a fellow at The Clayman Institute for Gender Research in 2018-19. Iyer is Associate Editor of South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies.
Poorna Swami is an independent writer, choreographer, and dancer. She writes on arts, culture, literature, and politics. Her essays, criticism, and reportage have appeared in London Review of Books, The Caravan, Open, Mint-Lounge, The Hindu BLink, Firstpost and Words Without Borders, among other publications. Her poetry has been published in journals such as Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Prelude. Between 2015-2017 Poorna served as the India Editor-at-large for the international online quarterly, Asymptote, and co-curated the journal’s first special feature on Indian language poetry in English translation. In 2018, she was awarded the Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize for young Indian poets.
At the age of seven, Poorna began training in the classical Indian dance form Bharatanatyam, before extending her training to contemporary dance and post-modern techniques. Her choreographic works frequently cross disciplines but are rooted in formal investigations of the body. Her works have shown both in India and the US, most recently at noted Indian arts spaces such as 1 Shanthi Road Studio/Gallery, Chatterjee & Lal, G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture, and Serendipity Arts Festival. She was a recipient of the 2018 danceWEB scholarship at ImPulsTanz – Vienna International Dance Festival.
Poorna holds a BA, summa cum laude, in Dance-Theatre and English from Mount Holyoke College (USA). She divides her time between Bangalore and Mumbai.