By Rumya Putcha. Rumya is an Associate Professor at the University of Georgia in the Institute for Women’s Studies as well as the Hugh Hodgson School of Music. Her research interests include citizenship, race, gender, sexuality, the body, and the law. She is the author of The Dancer’s Voice: Performance and Womanhood in Transational India (Duke, 2022).
As you may have heard by now, a song from an Indian Telugu film soundtrack won “Best Song” at the U.S. 2023 Academy Awards. Many people were thrilled to see the hit Tollywood song, Naatu Naatu, performed live on stage at the awards show in front of an audience of American celebrities and broadcast to millions of viewers around the world. The performance was followed by numerous reflections on the politics of representation in Hollywood, with many focusing on the absence and exclusion of South Asian dancers on stage.
This moment has me reflecting on an equally significant performance at another historically white space – Nina Davuluri’s dance at the 2013 Miss America beauty pageant. Davuluri, a Telugu-American woman, performed what she called a “Classical-Bollywood fusion” for her talent. She went on to become the first Indian American woman to be crowned Miss America.
Although the performances at the Academy Awards and the Miss America Pageant are separated by a full decade, it’s worth looking at them together. I believe they both reveal a great deal about Telugu identity in a global context and tell us what kinds of performances are legible to U.S. media as “dance” or even as “music.”
In Davuluri’s case, the song she danced to in 2013 was well known by that point, at least in India. She danced to “Dhoom Taana,” a track from the 2007 Bollywood film Om Shanti Om, starring Shah Rukh Khan and and Deepika Padukone.
If one views Davuluri’s performance next to the song scene from the film, it becomes clear which movements are adopted directly from the film’s choreography and which ones she adjusted to feature her abilities as a trained Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam dancer.
With the exception of the movement that appears during the chorus, during the words “Dhoom Taana,” the rest of the choreography features a potpourri of movement styles – from Kathak, to Bharatnatyam, to even a hint of Kuchipudi. Unlike the film choreography, Davuluri turns the energy up to a ten. Compared to the original performance, she jumps, moves, and bounds in a chaotic but extremely athletic and virtuosic manner. Significantly, the majority of the film’s sinewy and belly-dance-esque moves are removed, scrubbing the performance of any overt sexuality.
Of course, in 2013, the popular media response to Davuluri’s dance was simply to call it “Bollywood.” This was the case even, and perhaps especially, when she became the target of Islamophobic and racialized attacks for her victory in the pageant. In 2023, the reaction to a Telugu dance(r) appearing on an American mainstage did not seem to incite similar racial vitriol. Perhaps this arguably points to the way cultural institutions like Miss America or femininity are somehow more entrenched in white supremacy than the Oscars.
Despite the fact that RRR was a Telugu film, as many have noted, the vast majority of media commentary has referred to it as a “Bollywood film” – an insult for most Telugus, but not an original one by any means.
Gender, Region, and Sound
I have been following the commentaries on Naatu Naatu’s dance and the choreography, including those published here on Maidaanam. I’m left wondering how gender and the very specific politics of “the South” in India – where Telugu and Tamil musical expression are hotly debated and contested – might figure into this song’s unprecedented global legibility.
Whereas most songs that “go viral” from Indian cinema feature a solo dancing woman with backup dancers, strikingly, Naatu Naatu features two men, dancing together.
It’s worth noting that some scholars have highlighted the role of the rhythmic devices in the song, in some cases describing them as “syncopation.” Technically speaking, Naatu Naatu, like most songs that could be described as Kuthu pop, relies on a fast (around 150 bpm) compound meter, 6/8. This is not the same as syncopation as understood by music scholars. However, I suspect that many people have (mis)applied the term “syncopation” in an attempt to explain what makes Naatu Naatu a “dance song.”
I would argue that it is a composite of visual and sonic elements that allowed this dance, and thus this song, to become so popular among U.S. and global audiences. For example, many dancers would recognize the rhythmic pattern in Naatu Naatu as a “three beat” or in dance terms “ta-ki-ta.” There is a lot more that could be said here about the “odd numbers” – including the “five beat” (ta-ka-ta-ki-ta), “seven beat” (ta-ka-di-mi-ta-ki-ta) or “nine beat” (ta-ka-di-mi-ta-ka-ta-ki-ta) – and how they elicit a rhythmic tension that is synonymous with “dance.”
But perhaps more importantly, it is the variety of musical and extra-musical elements that make Naatu Naatu and other songs like it register as dance music.
To be sure, the song Davuluri performed to also features similar rhythmic devices, including a very fast tempo and specific instruments that are associated with dance. In other words, it is a combination of sonic elements – the instruments used in these tracks, combined with the lyrics, and of course the musical language – that taken together make a song sound like one that is danceable.
And in the case of Naatu Naatu, in featuring a pair of men in what could be described as a “dance fight,” this performance also draws on narrative conventions of martial arts films. This is a genre that, in the U.S. at least, offers an easy and well-trodden path for audiences to make sense of what they are seeing and hearing, especially in what is otherwise a foreign and Asian film.
In this regard, social media, especially platforms like TikTok and YouTube are also part of the story. Though the film RRR was released in March 2022, Naatu Naatu was released five months earlier in November 2021 as a single on YouTube. In my case, I first encountered the song in December 2021 on TikTok. Naatu Naatu had already become popular as a viral dance challenge well before the movie was released in theaters.
For those familiar with TikTok dance challenges, the “hook step” in Naatu Naatu relies on the fundamentals of shuffle, an extremely popular style on the platform. The song’s choreography also features certain kinds of limb independence that are not usually associated with Indian dance and particularly not with kuthu. Put another way, with the exception of one movement – a classic kuthu wide stance – there is very little in Naatu Naatu’s choreography that locates this dance specifically in India.
As interviews with the choreographers and composers have suggested, this was a calculated move, especially for a Telugu language film. Kuthu sounds have traveled from their origins in Tamil-speaking regions, particularly through global circulations like cricket as well as popular musicians like Sri Lankan-Tamilian M.I.A. But Kuthu sounds remain local and tied to the Tamil-language film industry, even as they are now sourced in Telugu cinema and speak to Telugu audiences.
Ultimately, the genius of the Naatu Naatu performance at the Academy Awards, much like Davuluri’s performance at Miss America a decade ago, is that it relies on sounds that can and do resonate with local Telugu and Indian audiences, but are paired with movements that speak to and even appeal to U.S. and global audiences even, and especially, on social media.