I told Mandeep a secret last night," says 31-year-old contemporary dance artiste Lalit Khatana, sitting in an airy apartment in Bandra, Mumbai, that has an expansive view of the Arabian Sea. Mandeep Raikhy, the director and choreographer of Queen-size, a contemporary dance performance with two men—Khatana and 31-year-old Parinay Mehra—smiles. “I told him that 15 days into rehearsals of Queen-size I was ready to quit. I couldn’t do it," says Khatana, who grew up in Badshahpur, Gurugram, near Delhi, in a family filled with army men. It wasn’t that Khatana found the sequences gruelling or the concept alien. “I’ve danced intimately with a woman in other performances, but this was different," he says.

Queen-size is a 180-minute-long performance with a minimalist setting—a charpoy in the centre of a room, situated under a net of lights. Mehra and Khatana perform the roles of two men in love with each other and express desire, anger, companionship, pain and playfulness through tautly choreographed movements. The chemistry between the two is palpable. Whatever doubt Khatana may have faced while rehearsing for the show has clearly melted. “I began to wonder why I was ready to quit even though I love to perform. What was stopping me?"

So Khatana gave himself another week, and when Raikhy began to look for someone to make the charpoy, he volunteered. Overnight, he strung a sturdy jute charpoy together (“We do this all the time back home," he says), and this intervention allowed him to connect with the play in a more material way. At the same time, Khatana’s “investigation" into his own discomfort led him to realize that he simply didn’t know how to touch another man’s body “with emotion, feeling and desire".

The trio was in Mumbai for a series of performances on 10-11 December.

In part, Raikhy’s piece is about breaking self-imposed barriers, and it is not surprising that Khatana undertook an exploratory journey and had an important realization—his discomfort was his alone to resolve. For the audience viewing the show—which first premiered in New Delhi in May, toured four North-Eastern cities in November and then came to Mumbai—the potential for discomfort is ever-present. At different intervals during the performance, the two performers undress down to their briefs; there is a visualization of homosexual desire that is absent in our hyper-sexualized environment, saturated otherwise with images and references of cisgendered heterosexuality; and the performers, quite often, make eye contact with their audience, sit amid them and punctuate the performance with opening the door, allowing more people to enter (or the existing audience to leave) every half-hour. There is an implicit expectation of voyeurship that puts the audience further on edge—they are made to bear witness to a kind of desire that was re-criminalized three years ago by the Supreme Court, when it ruled on the constitutional validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.

The inspiration for this performance lay in late film-maker Nishit Saran’s piece on the necessity of scrapping the colonial-era law, titled “Why My Bedroom Habits Are Your Business", which was first published in The Indian Express in 2000. Raikhy, then 20, was Saran’s partner at the time. After the film-maker’s death in an accident in 2002, Raikhy left the country to study dance theatre at London’s Laban Dance Centre (now the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance).

After graduating from the Laban Dance Centre, he joined British choreographer and dancer Shobana Jeyasingh’s company. By the time Raikhy returned to India, the landscape for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons had changed vastly. A legal battle begun in the 2000s reached fruition in 2009, when the Delhi high court delivered a landmark judgment that read down Section 377 so that it didn’t apply to consenting adults. Some sections of the media began to represent the LGBT population in less sensational, more humanitarian ways, and the conversation on consent and sexuality became more common than it had been when Saran and other queer activists such as Siddharth Gautam (who helped form the Aids Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan, to fight discrimination against people with AIDS) were talking of these issues in the 1990s.

Four years after the high court verdict, a bunch of petitions filed against the Delhi high court order were heard by the Supreme Court. In December 2013, the apex court upturned the high court verdict and reinstated Section 377, thus re-criminalizing any form of intercourse that was non-penile vaginal, bringing even consenting adults under its purview. Making Queen-size was both a political gesture and an act of personal courage for Raikhy.

“Making Queen-size was a big deal, because it was a decision I had to make for myself without worrying about what (my father’s) morality is (and realizing that his morality) is for him to deal with, not me. This was a struggle," says Raikhy, who describes his father’s attitude to his sexuality as one of “quietude"—one which does not talk about his sexuality or engage with any conversation about sexuality. Raikhy also struggled with his intended audience and wondered if the piece would be reduced to something that is only “outrageously provocative" and little else.

Raikhy began to think of this piece in 2015—it was a year when several artistes, writers and scientists had begun to protest against what they perceived as censorship; many returned their Sahitya awards for excellence in various fields. “In this country, dance is one of the more apolitical art forms, and I felt it was important for me to respond to the growing right-wing intolerance that was sweeping our country. I wanted to make a piece that would speak to the world we’re in," says Raikhy.

On 4 February, they will perform at the Attakkalari India Biennial in Bengaluru. For details, visit Bookmyshow.com.

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