Mesma Belsare Updates the Indian Classics - OZY | A Modern Media Company


Because the twain are meeting: east and west and past and present and trust us, it’s a spectacle to watch.

By Sanjena Sathian

There’s plenty to be entranced by on Mesma Belsare’s small frame: six pounds of temple jewelry, kohl-lined eyes, riotous silk dressings — and the mesmerizing swing of her hips. Yet most people focus on a part of her that isn’t obvious at first glance, but that shocks because this woman, who performs India’s most ancient feminine art form (a South Indian temple dance called Bharatanatyam) was born, in cosmic error, a man. It’s an obvious and perhaps unavoidable place to begin — especially since India hasn’t done LGBT so well recently — but Mesma is so much more, and more complicated, than this single, albeit sensational, fact. 

“Nothing has changed except my body,” says the five-foot-seven performer from her humble studio in Boston; she speaks with jangly bells in her voice to match the ghungroos that are never far from her ankles. But change, for her, just years from her transition – in body and in name – is neither shocking nor unusual. ”I always believe in change, everything in the world is changing — the only constant is change. I didn’t think of my transition as anything extraordinary. It’s just like changing the seasons.”

This woman, who performs India’s most ancient feminine art form was born, in cosmic error, a man.

What’s extraordinary, however, is the reception she’s received over 12 years performing in the United States. Mesma’s been hailed by critics (even when she was still Sudarshan, back in 2008, and reviewers swore the man they were watching on stage was a woman). By choice she’s never performed in India — preferring Boston and New York. (She’ll perform next in May at a conference in Toronto.)

Part of a growing wave of classically trained Indian artistes who insist that art is art, dance is dance — screw the labels — Mesma’s attracted the attention of top-tier critics, including the New York Times. Her audience includes people who aren’t the types who flock to temple on Sunday – cracking the rigid constraints on a dance style that’s resided in a niche immigrant community for too long. Trained not only in the classic Indian devotional pieces — performed by courtesans and temple dancers in the fourth and fifth centuries — but also in ballet, art theory and painting, Mesma’s ditched the philosophical blinders that limit other performers. 

Bharatanatyam dancers in India are … taught by gurus whose exacting standards could hobble a Marine. 

What comes from that kind of artistic freedom isn’t exactly “fusion,” which too often looks like whitewash, but what Mesma might instead call fluidity. Which is cool — and ever changing.

Bharatanatyam dancers in India are put through their paces like it’s always pre-season, taught by gurus whose exacting standards could hobble a Marine. But despite the rigid structure she comes from, Mesma says the dance — and identity — is all about fluidity, and transcendence.

”While one dancer may let the tradition hold her back,” she says, ”the other dancer may take the dance and make it the key to flying. I believe that the goal of art is to help you reach heights, to take you beyond. It should take you somewhere to lose yourself.” (Or find the self you were meant to be.)

If you’re new to Bharatanatyam, think of it as stomp-the-yard-level footwork meets Swan Lake. The pieces are operas, set to wildly layered compositions that are typically love poems written to the gods. Yes, there’s an undeniable eroticism to the dance where dancer is lover and god is the beloved — serving to remind us, after all, that India is where the freaking Kama Sutra came from. 

And if god is sex and love, then the dance had better be downright smoking: 

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