Diya Naidu, dancer and choreographer, writes about working on three distinct pieces on women’s rights.
Red Dress Waali Ladki is my work of anger and resistance. The general violence, disrespect, and hostility towards women in India had consumed me. I found myself wanting to run over crude teasers and stalkers on the street, paranoid about female friends and family members who, like me, lived alone. I was unable to be civil at social events when confronted with even the slightest hint of misogyny from the so-called educated elite (I do not apologise for this—did I need to have control of my reactions?). Women around me were also as adamant to never shy away from conversations around this subject. So I decided to approach Red Dress almost like an activist—and yes, I had my doubts! Voices urging me to be abstract not literal, experiential not pedantic, kept sounding in my head. They made me question why I was making the work, and slowly the answer emerged: the need to participate in making change.
My research started with documentaries and journalistic reports about violence against women in India—women being sold as brides and prostitutes, domestic abuse, and contested issues like making prostitution legal and renting wombs. I studied the archetypes of women that are projected and propelled by popular media and found that they had carried through the ages, disguising themselves thinly to survive—witch, whore, mother, goddess, virgin, and so on. I also interviewed various people about their lived stories. My body became the receptacle for their narratives of violence and fear, and I channeled these into my personal memories to let motifs and impulses emerge.
Red Dress meanders through different anecdotes. There is the exaggerated live show host with an American accent on ‘www.howtokeepyourguy.com’ dispensing valuable advice like “Learn to party like a man, but make love like a woman” or “When it comes to blow jobs, no more than four but no less than two”. There are also more real characters, like the bar dancer and the wife who wants a divorce.
I made most of Red Dress during a residency in Switzerland in mid-2015, confronted by the unavoidable question: Who is the work for? Although I hope it is globally accessible, I decided during that residency that the piece is for “the Indian viewer”.
One night in Zurich, steeped in doubt about pursuing this work, I had a chance interaction with two Indians at a tram stop—a young man from Mumbai and a pregnant 26-year-old woman. The man and I soon learned that the woman had been raped in India by a high-profile politician, was seven-months pregnant with his baby, and had fled after receiving death threats because she had considered reporting the crime. The man at the bus stop was in absolute shock when he heard this. But I was amazed to meet him the next day only to find that his authentic reaction had now given way to complacency and a kind of shoulder-shrugging political correctness. His apathy would become my piece’s connective thread. Told in his voice, this woman’s story runs through the piece, appearing at odd intervals to root the work in the sinister reality that originally inspired it.
Red Dress did get deeply emotional reactions from its initial Swiss audience. Women cried and men expressed shock, and yet I felt this was the empathy (bordering on sympathy) that one feels for flood victims in a faraway country or for soldiers fighting a war that is not ours. The themes of the piece were perceived as the problem of the “other”, much like how Indian men feel about women’s issues here.
This Indian equation was what I wanted to address—the urban Indian man and woman, his lack of response and her complex reality that is at once liberated but bound by pervasive fear. The piece’s second iteration to an Indian audience received a more guttural reaction. I was touched by the post-show dialogue and by the guilt some men felt. But I was also shaken by some men telling me that they “hated” watching the piece. I was upset, until I realised the vehemence of their reaction was not a critical evaluation of the work. And although the piece has a long way to go, I feel validated in my decision to stick with my intentions, be they activist or feminist.
The gender atrocity question now entered a subtler space for me and I worked simultaneously on another piece called Rorschach Touch (working title), which I recently premiered at Gender Bender 2016 at the Goethe Institut/ Max Muller Bhavan, Bangalore. The work gets its name from the Rorschach Ink Blot Test, which is a thematic apperception test. Rorschach Touch begins with two people slowly waking up together and moving from stage left to right. Two men, then two women, then a man and a woman repeat the same choreography. On occasion the movement develops or transforms and separate energies are juxtaposed. The piece is slow and repetitive, and invites you to watch the intimate interactions between the performers, closely and quietly. Hopefully, the work is also an invitation to watch yourself—your reactions and tendencies, what pleases you and makes you uncomfortable about human touch.
The power of seeing intimate interaction close-up became apparent to me as I watched countless rehearsals of the same movements by the same dancers and still saw something new each time. To retain the fun, the tension, and the juiciness of a gendered physical phenomenon, I chose not to choreograph too much, but to get out of the way and let the dancers’ bodies and beings shape and execute the piece without judgment. I became a discerning curator and observer that held the space while they confronted their own conditioning and idiosyncrasies.
But I was still left with many questions about the perceived and real dangers around Indian women. I needed to understand both the perpetrator, or the threat, and what makes him so. Is there something particular to this country that makes its streets so challenging for women?
These concerns led to my latest project, The Hands and Face Project, which asks questions about caste and class through the canvas of gender. The piece comprises a film of me standing opposite different men—a paan waala, a corporate employer, a dancer, a security guard. The men are all similar in age but of diverse social and economic backgrounds. The footage is unrehearsed and depicts us simply looking at each other and maybe touching hands and faces. I appear live in front of the projected film and recount my verbal interactions with these men, from a man pointing out sardonically that he is not older than me and therefore I should not call him “bhaiyya”, to my own desire to appear attractive to one of the men.
The piece ends with a travesty of the national anthem, almost to turn on their heads values of equality for all, fundamental rights, secularism, and liberty. Particular to an Indian humour and context, the song seems to clinch the class implications in gender politics that I am trying to highlight:
When I was a little girl, I thought I loved everyone.
Now I know much better.
Loochi aloo dum, pizza, paratha
Idli, momo, samosa
While my shoes are jimmy shoes—sar pe topi Roosi…
Beta, beta, beta, beta, BETI!
Ghar pe maa-behen nahin.
Raa- aa- aagi mudde
The Hands and Face Project, a work-in-progress, was presented in September 2016 at the Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance Awards, where it received a Jury Award. I look forward to developing the piece through 2017.
The three works that I have reflected on here are my first attempt at spending two years engaging with similar questions around gender, although through different approaches—there is the activistic piece, the sensorial truth, and the social experiment. Each work feeds and reflects the other, but they are in varied stages of process. I am excited to go back to the floor with each piece and see how its predecessor influences it—a kind of retrospective learning process. After all, art must be transformative, and if this question of gender does not transform within me, can it transform through me?
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“From somewhere in the middle” is Ligament’s new section of dance makers reflecting on works in the making. In this edition, long-time Bangalore-based artists Diya Naidu and Hemabharathy Palani, along with visitors Atalya Baumer and Tamar Mayzlish, talk about their still-forming works, which are as diverse as feminist activism and an exercise in communication.
Anger, Touch, And Class In Gender
Between Experience and Choreography
Peeking Through the Barriers
Atalya Baumer & Tamar Mayzlish
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To pick up and run with a magazine that has had another life is never easy. There are those conflicting desires to find close continuity and to just scrap it all and start anew. Ligament 2016-17 reemerges from a half-way point. We want to build on the investigations and insights of the magazine’s past contributors and also find ways to say what they perhaps had wanted to say but could not, or forgot to, in that moment.
Ligament was founded to facilitate the articulation of an evolving language that encompasses the impulses of contemporary dance. The idea of “contemporary” is inherently bound to time, to a sense of history, rather multiple histories unfolding. In its 2016-17 iteration, we hope that Ligament can grapple with the idea of how dance might hold a place in-step with the patterns of active and forming histories, rather than remaining a canonised and pondered response to a bygone world. We’d like to embrace the immediacy of “contemporary”, and invite contributions from dancers, choreographers, arts practitioners, scholars, audience members, readers. In this way, we hope to reach for the intimacies, resistances, and fragilities that permeate the developing field of South Asian contemporary dance.
Articulating a medium as visceral, visual, and ephemeral as dance requires making connections to methods of thought and critique that lie outside evaluative language. So for Ligament 2016-17 we welcome, of course, the critical essay, but also audio, photographs, ekphrastic poems, interviews, and hybrid media of various kinds that might speak to us about dance, carefully and proximately. Like the anatomical connective tissue for which it is named, Ligament, we hope, can help us locate dance in tandem with the many bodies that produce and encapsulate it.
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—Poorna Swami, Editor
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