From the Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement Vol. 26, Issue 2.
Drid Williams and the Anthropological Study of Human Movement: A Holistic Way of Thinking


In a nutshell: Drid Williams taught me how to think and to be cognisant of what I was thinking, writing, dancing – and why. Everything I have done since I studied with her at New York University from 1980 to 1983 has been informed by the comprehensive way in which she taught, and not only through her classroom teaching or during the Oxford-like individual tutorials she gave but also through the debates, seminars, and writings for the Society for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement (SASHM) that she led us to establish and then guided.

I had come to NYU in search of intellectual development because, after the thirty curtain calls that followed my solo recital of Indian classical dance at Costa Rica’s gem of an opera house in 1980, I wondered, “Where do I go from here?” I had performed around the world – France, Germany, the Low Countries, Latin America, North Africa, and the United States – with a mission to introduce people to our wonderful dance forms: Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi and what they mean. I had even given a command performance for the president of Mexico. With my knowledge of French and (at the time) smattering of Spanish and German, I was a veritable ‘ambassador of culture,’ giving TV appearances and writing articles for the local press wherever I performed. Yet I longed to have my dance speak – and be heard – for itself, without explanation. How could I achieve that in the work itself? How could I look at my dance anew? It was time to extend my intellectual horizons and make up for the fact that, in spite of having worked at a research center at Oxford when my husband was studying there, I only had a BA in English from Delhi University.

As luck would have it, the Department of Dance and Dance Education at New York University had just hired Dr. Drid Williams, and, after learning of my interests, the department chair sent me to her office. Within half an hour, I became the very first student to sign up for her new program in the Anthropological Study of Human Movement. Intrigued by the term ‘human movement,’ I was also drawn by its larger compass. I had spent much of my life explaining that, in India, we don’t even have a word for ‘dance,’ and that, in classical texts, the word nritta (often translated as ‘pure dance’) is spoken of as one component of the larger concept of ‘theatre.’ Here was a category that was not culture-specific and a field of study that placed ‘dance’ within a larger whole, not just ‘movement’ but ‘systems of making meaning in movement’ regarded from a worldwide perspective.

The Teaching

Those of us who signed up for the new Master’s program soon discovered that we had signed on for a whole new approach to learning and not just a series of classes. We found ourselves interacting with our professor not just in the lecture room but also in one-on-one tutorial sessions, during which she could, in private, take apart the naïve prose and often rather ‘woolly-headed thinking’ in our assigned essays and challenge our thoughtless assertions. We also became members of a group as, together, we established a society (SASHM) to organize seminars at which we presented papers and to which we invited eminent speakers. This led to a journal filled with articles based on those presentations, the beginnings of the publication you are now reading. Each of these activities introduced us to skills as varied as public speaking and journal editing.

Our academic curriculum was also exhaustive: we studied linguistics as well as anatomy. We were encouraged to take courses in the Department of Anthropology and to study Labanotation and the principles of movement analysis proposed by Rudolph von Laban. During what were early days in academic computer usage, Dr. Williams even arranged for us to spend a summer at the Weeg Computing Center of the University of Iowa, acquiring computer literacy and the rudiments of the computer language Basic. One long night I managed to write the code that produced the visual outline of a hand in the Indian hand position tripataka (a flat hand with fingers stretched but third finger bent at the second knuckle) and even to have it rotate ninety degrees! Introduction to philosophies of science and the works of anthropologists like Malinowski and peoples like the Trobriand Islanders expanded our very worlds along with our minds.

Figure 1. FOUR. 'Hasta' (hand positions), the subject of Raika Puri’s MA thesis with Dr. Williams. Photo by Ken Van Sickle (2001), courtesy Rajika Puri.

At every step, we were encouraged to ask questions and were ourselves questioned in turn. I’ll never forget how hard I tried to answer the first question I was asked in class, only to realize that it was rhetorical, intended to get us to delve deeper into a subject and not meant to elicit a simplistic answer. This was when I first recognized that we were lucky to have not just a teacher but a ‘guru,’ which in India does translate as ‘teacher’ but includes the sense of ‘preceptor,’ as in ‘one who instructs you on the very philosophy of life and how to approach it.’ A holistic concept, it is equally applicable to a Gautama Buddha or to a maestro who inducts you into a field such as dance or music. Legendary gurus in our ancient literature often taught by asking key questions of their disciples.

Three years of rigorous work and an MA degree later, I found myself invited to pursue a PhD at NYU’s Department of Anthropology. However, a semester or so of the functionalist anthropology adhered to by the Indianist professor to whom I was assigned – plus the fact that I was cast by Julie Taymor (of Lion King on Broadway fame) in the triple role of Narrator/goddess Kali/voice of several puppets for the Lincoln Center Theater production of The Transposed Heads – led me to abandon academia and return to the stage. The next few years were exhilarating, not to mention gratifying, since I was noticed well enough in the press and by directors that I was cast in several subsequent productions – at the Guthrie Theater (Minneapolis), The Public Theater (New York) and The Classic Stage Company (New York), among others.

There were so many new skills to be learned – from how to deliver a text to how it could be memorised, from how to listen to a fellow actor to how quickly one should respond to what was said. It would be difficult to pinpoint how my work with Dr. Williams might have informed this stage of my career. I did, however, bring a larger, holistic sense of the very notion of myself as ‘actor’ to each of the productions in which I was involved during this Western theatre phase. As a result, I often ended up being invited by composers and directors to advise them on the music and movement aspects of productions, especially when these involved a multicultural milieu, as in the case of Euripides’ The Bacchae in which the title characters are ‘Women of the East.’

Aware that meanings are culturally specific and not universal, I thought about how an American audience would receive the songs and dances I composed. Instead of setting straight Indian dance or music, I devised movements and melodies that could easily be performed by American actors and would be congruent within a Western production. In semasiological terms, I created ‘action signs’ that were consonant with American modern dance, yet slightly altered so that they would be ‘read’ as ‘Eastern’ by American audiences. In a sense, I was involved in a process of ‘cultural translation,’ a fundamental skill of social anthropologists. Moreover, the ‘signifiers’ I chose were congruent with the ‘language’ of the production as a whole.

Linguistic, Movement, and Cultural Analysis

In 1998, I was invited by Works & Process at the Guggenheim to present a work I had just performed with the flamenco dancer La Conja. This was a twenty-minute suite of dances, Pani, set to music composed by guitarist Pedro Cortes Jr., a Spanish Roma, in honour of his Indian origins.1 For this well-regarded series that invites composers, choreographers, and directors to discuss and show excerpts from new works, I prepared a lecture-demonstration on our cross-cultural venture.2 I began by identifying similarities between the culture and language of Spanish Roma (gitanos), before going on to demonstrate consonances between flamenco rhythms and musical modalities and those of Indian music and dance.

The prevailing assumption among performing artists, filmmakers and even many scholars is that flamenco is similar to the north Indian dance form Kathak, since dancers of both traditions are noted for their complex footwork and the use of hands to trace patterns in the air. I had always questioned this because, in spite of the superficial similarities with current north Indian forms, my analysis of flamenco rhythms and even the melodies of its main genres like soleá and seguiriyas led me to realise that they were more closely allied to the rhythmic structures (talas) and ragas (‘melodic modes’) of south Indian music than those of north India. In addition, the footwork of south Indian Bharatanatyam dancing complemented the main song forms of flamenco better.3 This made sense historically because, in the seventh and eighth centuries, when the first musicians left India for the West, the prevailing music of India would have been closer to what is now south Indian music, rather than the later Arab-influenced music of north India, known as ‘Hindustani’ (itself derived from the Arabic word for ‘India’).

I also discovered that one of the lesser-known words for ‘water’ in Sanskrit was paníya, which is closer to the pronunciation of the Caló word paní (panee) than the Hindi word páni (páani). I would never even have thought of looking for linguistic confirmation of this reasoning had I not studied with Drid.

Since linguistic analysis had been a mainstay of Dr. Williams’s teaching, I also asked the Roma composer Pedro Cortes Jr. for the Caló words for basic concepts like body parts, numerals, and kinship terms and discovered that many of them were similar to Indian words! Having studied anthropological classics like Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, I also asked Pedro how his family dealt with rituals surrounding childbirth, food, and so on, and was delighted to find that, among Roma, even in the limited space of a caravan, there are two sinks: one for the kitchen and another for washing the body. In other words, like Hindus, they strictly kept apart what was ingested by the body and what was egested. These kinds of analysis were much more potent than noting superficial physical similarities between Spanish Roma and ‘typical’ Indians, such as color of skin, dark eyes, or slight stature.

The choreography of the Pani suite was based on the kinds of discoveries I had made with reference to the music and dance of South India and flamenco. For example, the opening alegrías was danced as a solo that focused on the theme of water as suggested by the name of the work. I articulated the rhythms of classic alegrías in the footwork of the steps I danced, footwork that was typical of Bharatanatyam. In my upper body movements, I did not try to look as if I were dancing flamenco, but followed the grammar of Bharatanatyam.

ln the duet with Conja that followed – a soleá – we discovered that it was the arm positions and not the hand gestures of the two forms that were complementary. Thus, we often danced one behind the other presenting a four-armed whole while articulating similar rhythms with our feet. The composite picture we created was in contrast to the many flamenco – kathak performances I have seen in which one dancer performs on one side of the stage and the other on the opposite half, each in their separate worlds which never really come together.

Figure 2. Rajika Puri and La Conja in a still photo from ‘Pani,’ a Flamenco – Natyam Duet. Photo by Gilles, courtesy Rajika Puri.

When Conja encouraged me to sing in response to her opening quejío (‘lament’) in the musical mode of solea, I responded with an ancient version of a south Indian raga (musical scale or mode): shubha pantuvarali. The famous Carnatic singer Aruna Sairam figured out during rehearsal that this was closest to the mode in which Conja was singing (yet more confirmation of the connection between south Indian music and flamenco).

I strongly believe that the clarity of what I said, and that we demonstrated, came from the kind of clarity Dr. Williams had required of us in our academic presentations and writing. Right or wrong, I knew exactly what I was saying in both words and in movement and why. The audience followed us with fascination, and, for years after, Mary Cronson, the director of the Guggenheim series, said it had been one of the best sessions she had presented to date.

Cross-Cultural Productions and Choreography

In 2005, I ventured another cross-cultural production, Union/Severed: Expressions of the Divine, which looked at two ways of relating to deity: as lover and as mother. Although the overt themes were taken from Hindu texts, the music was both Indian and American. I was thinking not only of Mother Mary but also of Christian mystic poetry in which singers like St. John of the Cross imagine themselves as ‘brides of Christ.’ I spoke and sang Sanskrit texts in north Indian – specifically Oriya – music as I danced, while Nora York, accompanied by an accordion, interpreted popular songs in a jazz style. We ended with a duet in which Nora sang Paul McCartney’s “Let it Be” as I chanted a hymn to Devi, ‘mother goddess,’ in a raga that complemented the notes of the Beatles song. I doubt very much I would have even thought of such a combination of traditions had I not been taught to let go of culture-specific categories like ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ and look beyond them to analyze superficially dissimilar traditions from a metacultural perspective.

Figure 3. Rajika Puri as Devi (‘goddess’) and Nora York in Union-Severed. Photo by Frances Hui (2005), courtesy Rajika Puri.

My first choreographic work with a company of eight dancers, Conversations with Shiva: Bharatanatyam Unwrapped (2007) was described by a fellow student of Dr. Williams as “a visualization in movement of my 1983 MA thesis” (Puri 1983), which she knew well since she had typed it! The overt intent had been to explore ways of presenting with multiple voices (or bodies) a tradition designed to be performed solo. Imagining myself attempting something akin to what Bach had done after the invention of the well-tempered keyboard, I analysed each dance genre in the Bharatanatyam repertoire4 to devise ways of playing with its basic structure in choreography using more than one dancer. In the process, I realised that every genre of the form illuminated one major element either of Bharatanatyam movement technique or its music; thus, I named each section by the movement or music element that it most illuminated: Anga (‘limbs’), Adavu (‘dance step’), Hasta (‘hands’), Svara (‘musical note’), Varna (‘color’), Pada (‘foot’ of verse), ending in Samgiti (‘coming together’). I could never have thought of this project had I not been trained to think in anthropological structuralist ways. Like a Saussurean semiologist who might follow a word and its signification through subsequently larger contexts, I started with a hand position, say, and built from it ever-longer sequences of movements or ‘actions signs’ that used that hand position or kineme in different ways and contexts.

Figure 4a. Rajika Puri & Dancers in Hasta from Conversations with Shiva. Photo by Jane Kung (2007), courtesy Rajika Puri.

Figure 4b. Rajika Puri & Dancers in Hasta from Conversations with Shiva. Photo by Jane Kung (2007), courtesy Rajika Puri.

By stripping down the dance tradition to its essentials and then building it up again while still following the overall rules of what made it ‘Bharatanatyam,’ I could present its essence yet play with its inherent possibilities from an artistic point of view. The ‘proof of the pudding’ was that Aruna Sairam turned to me on opening night and said, “Rajika, today you showed me the very essence of Bharatanatyam.” Subsequently, other Bharatanatyam dancers said that they had gained new insights about the very dance form in which they had been immersed since childhood.

In another work, Tapasya: Ascetic Power and Tales of the Ganges, I explored the main components of Bharatanatyam and Odissi, the two Indian dance forms I know best. These components are ‘pure dance,’ music, and theatre, as in ‘illuminating the meaning of texts.’ Starting with a nonnarrative work that represented Lord Shiva creating the universe, I went on to explore the two other main components. Theatre was represented in ever-more complex ways of storytelling with words and movement: from one performer speaking while the others acted out the characters depicted to a single actor telling a story using words, spoken rhythmic syllables, chants, and songs while she performed hand gestures, footwork, and full-body movements. In the most complex work, three actor-dancers spoke in turn as together they acted out a story with hand gesture, intricate footwork, and full-body movement.

Figure 5. Storytelling with multiple dancers: The First Ascetic from Tapasya. Rajika Puri with Shobana Ram, Nirali Shastri, and Aditi Dhruv. Photo by Stephanie Berger (2009), courtesy Rajika Puri.

At each stage of devising the choreography, music, and script of Tapasya, I was conscious of moving from a single unit – a word, action sign, or musical phrase – through consecutively larger units to create a consonant whole. Even in this nonacademic work, I was following principles I had learned in my study of Williams’s semasiology.

Onstage Slide Lectures and Introductions at Dance Performances

In the past few years, I have concentrated on curating Indian dance festivals in New York City, for which I often prepare slide lectures accompanied by images (both still and moving), as well as by demonstrated excerpts of movement and music. These were originally intended for local critics and writers who, much as they say they love Indian dance, are not always well informed about it or its cultural contexts. My first such lecture, for a festival I named ‘Dancing the Gods,’ focused on the very notion that, in India, we do not dance for deities or to deities, but actually embody them in our dances: we ‘dance the gods.’ I explained how Hindus imagine deity as an energy, then think of that energy as a vibration, expressed variously through the seminal sound ‘Om’ and rhythms made by percussion instruments, including the feet, and body movements that express the movement of the cosmos. Thus, for us Hindus, the gods ‘dance.’ I very much doubt I could have made this analysis had I not been trained by Dr. Williams.

Subsequent lectures made connections between Indian dance forms and the distinct Indian musical traditions to which they belong, to their relationship to regional forms of theatre, and to the body languages of the peoples within whose communities a dance form had developed. New York audience members, Western dance writers, and Indian dancers alike said they were struck by the connections I had made, connections that they found revealing; that provided insights into the works they watched. I doubt I would even have noticed these relationships had I not learned to look at elements of a culture as the building blocks of larger wholes and, also, that analysis of a single signifier could help one enter into a wholly different way of organising thought.

Another creative avenue I followed was a form of danced storytelling in which I narrate in English as I move, embellishing my narratives with gesture, spoken rhythms, and excerpts from chants and songs. The model for this is the narrator in traditional Indian theatre: the Sutradhar (‘carrier of the thread’) who acts as intermediary between audience and performers. The success of my storytelling shows led to invitations to be the interface between audience and performers at dance festivals like the Erasing Borders Festival of Indian Dance and Battery Dance Company’s ‘India Day’ at their Downtown Dance Festival. Audience members have remarked that the two or three short sentences with which I introduce dances that belong to very complex cultural traditions – each with its specific spoken and body languages, systems of music and ways of relating to deity – gave them an entry into what they were seeing, so they could relish it better.

In Conclusion

Dr. Williams taught in such a holistic way, starting with the very organisation of thought, that we learned to analyse movement by getting down to the essential structure and meanings of a single unit of the medium while simultaneously keeping a clear picture of the whole body language – and culture – of which it was a part. As a result, I believe I am better able to get to the core of whatever I am trying to ‘say’ when I write, choreograph, and speak. I believe that being her shishya (‘disciple’) transformed everything I subsequently did. Like gurus of old, she transformed my very way of seeing – and being.

Figure 6. Dr. Drid Williams enjoying a tongue-in-cheek skit about her theory ‘Semasiology’ created and performed by her NYU student group. The photo shows Rajika Puri, Dolores Vanison-Blakely, and Brenda Farnell. Photo by Lynn Martin (1986).


1Paní’ [panee] in Caló, the language of Spanish Roma, means ‘water’ as does ‘páni’[páani] in the north Indian language Hindi.

2 Apparently, this was the first time anyone had prepared a formal presentation, something that was de rigueur for those of us who had studied with Dr. Williams.

3 I later discovered that North Indian percussionists find it much more difficult to follow flamenco rhythms than do those trained in the south Indian Carnatic system.

4 For further detail, see Puri 2004.

References Cited:

Puri, Rajika

1983. A Structural Analysis of Meaning in Movement: The Hand Gestures of Indian Classical Dance. Master's thesis, New York University.

2004. Bharatanatyam Performed: A Typical Recital. Visual Anthropology 17: 45-68.