The night’s watch
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At 9pm on a Friday, nine contemporary dancers stand in a line against the wall at the Gati Dance Studio in Delhi. Barefoot, in T-shirts and track pants, they’ve rejected the idea of creating a distinct identity for themselves, and could easily belong among us, the audience, sitting on wooden benches against the three remaining walls of this closed, intimate space. It’s the start of their—or should we say “our”—Long Nights Of Resistance, night-long performances that took place over three days from 20-22 July and aimed to break down, in minute detail, the idea of a “citizen’s body”.
The entrance hall outside is prepared with more comfortable chairs, a large mattress with a couple of pillows, and a table with a coffee filter and tea and some eatables that we all turn to as the night wears on.
Pray, the hour-long piece that they start with—and also end with at 4.30 am—has the dancers walking forward and back, creating a loop that jolts us whenever there’s a disruption in the pattern; gestures that we identify with religious deference; and once, a dancer walking in the opposite direction. Playing in the background is Steve Reich’s Come Out; on loop here too is the phrase “come out and show them”—taken from the statement of a victim of police violence. It’s a deliberate choice of music, vocally articulating the dancers’ intent. The pace changes, Reich’s music is now a fevered clanging, the words no longer discernible, even as the movement turns frenzied, with bodies collapsing violently, leaving ominous-looking dark stains of sweat on the linoleum floor.
The impulse to create Long Nights Of Resistance emerged from the ‘Not In My Name’ protests that took place in the country at the end of June. These saw thousands of citizens emerging on to the street across cities to protest the mob lynchings of those from the Muslim and Dalit communities; to end, as they saw it, the complicity of silence as they witnessed the country’s secular fabric being shredded. “I felt, as a dancer, I needed to respond, take a stand against hatred. I proposed a mode of protest different from other modes of protest,” says Mandeep Raikhy, who sent out emails seeking to collaborate with other dancers on the project. Joining this group of dancers—apart from Raikhy, Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy, Gopal Dalami, Kavi Dutt, Manju Sharma, Meghna Bhardwaj, Rajan Rathore, Sanchita Sharma and Kamakshi Saxena—were musician Samar Grewal and poet Sabika Abbas Naqvi.
The structure itself—of dancing, and inviting the audience to “survive” with them, through the night—is an attempt to test the limits of the body. On the afternoon of 18 July, when I reach Gati to speak to Raikhy, Shivaswamy is tossing and turning on the studio floor, attempting to catch some sleep in preparation for the long night ahead of him; that night of practice, they survived till 2am.
Resistance has formed a part of Raikhy’s practice earlier too. Triggered by a piece on Article 377 written by the late film-maker Nishit Saran—“Why My Bedroom Habits Are Your Business”—Raikhy composed Queen-Size, a deliberately discomfiting movement of two male bodies in an intimate setting that has been performed in bedrooms, libraries and people’s living rooms over the past year. The discomfort was an indicator, even to him as a dancer, Raikhy says, of the importance of the piece—a litmus test of sorts. As was the fear attached to doing Long Nights Of Resistance. “We’re talking of state-sponsored violence. So there is fear in being vocal about it.”
In just about a week, the dancers created a loose structure of seven pieces that would unfold over the nights, examining the body in states of resistance, endurance and vulnerability, as well as “the narratives that manipulate notions of selfhood, citizenship, collective memory and identity”. Attention, for instance, focuses on a regimented mode of displaying one’s patriotism, from standing at attention to pumping one’s fist. It’s also a comment on vigilantism, an obedience enforced through a climate of fear. With each loud beat of a marching band’s drum, the dancers’ bodies, slowly relaxing from the prescribed position, jerk up.
Performing contemporary dance in this country is itself a form of resistance, says Raikhy. Through the history of independent India, classical dance—unlike other forms of performing arts—has been used as a tool to construct a notion of national identity. “Dance lends itself to this projection by becoming a tiny capsule of Indian culture,” he says. And since the state was the main patron of dance, it has had a hold on what kind of dance was practised, and flourished. The challenge to the institutional burden placed on dance started, he points out, with Chandralekha, “a strong voice against the fossilization of dance”.
The members of the audience on this particular night are not just passive witnesses; they are encouraged to be participants, examining their own role in “society”. As the dancers perform Interlocked, they pull the audience into the hand- locked chain that breaks off and links again at different points; where people allow themselves to unthinkingly be tugged in different directions; where each person left behind seeks to be joined to the whole, searching for a hand to hold on to. In Complicity, the dancers sit amid the audience, in two parallel rows. Each holds the gaze of a member of the audience till the latter notices, and is compelled to return the gaze. The physical gap between them closes, both wear blindfolds, and through the sense of touch and in an act of empathy, move in tune with the other.
‘Not In My Name’ itself was intended as a form of protest with no slogans, no political affiliations—just songs and poetry. Cultural resistance can be a powerful tool. Long Nights Of Resistance used few words; it did not need any. It made us examine how we act as a collective and how, sometimes, one may need to walk in the opposite direction.