Arts & Entertainment
6 min

How one dance piece is redefining cultural assumptions about India

Hari Krishnan’s latest work, Holy Cow(s)!, combines Indian dance forms with a healthy dose of humour, politics and queerness

(R–L) Beth Despres, Vinod Para, Paul Charbonneau, Peter Hessel, Xi Yi, Roney Lewis and Megan Nadain star in the inDANCE world premiere of Holy Cow(s)! Credit: Courtesy Miles Brokenshire

Hari Krishnan’s latest work, Holy Cow(s)!, was sparked over breakfast. While dining out with a colleague, the Toronto-based queer choreographer decided to order a fat, juicy burger. 

His companion was shocked. But not because he considered burgers inappropriate breakfast food. Instead, he was floored to see Krishnan consuming beef. In keeping with cultural stereotypes, he’d assumed that all Indians revere the cow as a sacred animal.

“I just laughed and gave him a brief primer on Indians and their food choices,” Krishnan says. “Contrary to the assumptions people might have about me, I don’t worship cows. I love burgers and poutine. I don’t like chai or kopi. I’m not a fan of Bollywood, but I love The Golden Girls.” 

“The incident was comical at the time but it left a lingering aftertaste,” he adds. “It’s one thing for a casual acquaintance to say something like that. But this was a person I’d been working with for more than three years.”

His creative flames were further stoked while in New York last fall. A friend dragged him (against his will, he insists) to an “India-inspired” dance piece by celebrated American choreographer Mark Morris. 

“During the pre-show talk he told us, ‘Cultural appropriation is just called culture, airport gift shopping as I like to call it’,” Krishnan says. 

“I was pissed. As one of the few brown people present, I was frustrated that the audience wasn’t allowed to give feedback. I needed to speak up. I wanted to perform re-appropriating the misappropriated.”

From this white-hot rage, Holy Cow(s)! was born. The work continues his melding of classical Indian and contemporary dance forms, along with a healthy dose of his trademark humour; clown noses, Saturday Night Live riffs and something he calls “pussy hats” all figure into the work. 

indanceoutreach/YouTube

Krishnan plays with clichés and tropes of South Asian dance, recycling and rejecting as his vision dictates. He also actively rebuffs what he terms “performing culture,” a tendency that some artists of colour sometimes have to fill their works with cultural markers easily identifiable to white audiences. But anyone expecting multi-armed gods, quaint fairy tales or parading elephants is going to be disappointed.

Although Holy Cow(s)! was catalyzed by anger, the aim is to create an event that’s fun. It also comes with a healthy dose of politics, something South Asian dance typically shuns. The US election, the 2017 women’s march, and Hillary Clinton all serve as inspiration. “I’m STILL with her!” Krishnan proudly proclaims.

As with many of his works, gender and sexuality figure prominently. In this case, Krishnan specifically confronts the normative notions of binary gender that Western society is obsessed with, and takes on the legal prohibitions against homosexuality in India.

The ensemble talks about of Holy Cow(s)!
indanceoutreach/YouTube

“In the piece, we confront staid archetypes of masculine and feminine by butching up the women and feminizing the men. We see strong lesbians and proud gay boys, instead of victim women and patriarchal men,” Krishnan says. “Going against the grain of my South Asian genes in my personal and artistic life offers me a lot of comfort and excitement. It feels fucking great.”

The show follows Krishnan’s 2012’s Quicksand,  which tackled homophobia in the ballet world and 2014’s Box, which was inspired by his experiences as a self-described flamboyant brown queer crossing international borders.

Holy Cow(s)! continues his ongoing quest to push back against normative assumptions. With a combination of irreverent humour and exuberant queerness, he picks apart the stereotypes he experiences as a queer Indian immigrant and tears down the artificial East/West binary that shapes many people’s worldviews.

“Even after 26 years of being Canadian, I’m still being boxed into these annoying, frustrating clichés,” he says. “It’s like being forced into a stereotype straight jacket. What’s different now is that I’m older, bolder and don’t give a shit anymore. I’ve had it with being the good little brown boy. It’s time to resist and persist.”