Choreographer Mandeep Raikhy speaks with Ranjana Dave about his latest work, Queen-size.
On its day off, the charpoy leans against a wall. It is not far-fetched to say that it looks forlorn. Dancers hang sweaty towels on its legs and disappear behind its webbing for a quick change of clothes. Occasionally, it sways dangerously, threatening to crash to the floor. Perhaps it itches for action. When there is ‘action’, the charpoy looks alive. Once, after some vigorous ‘action’, it broke, its wooden frame cleanly halved. That paved the way for a whole week of ‘palang-tod’ jokes. After that, another charpoy—a body double—always lurked in a corner.
Occupational hazards apart, we’ve established that the charpoy is a people person. But it favours intimate gatherings and likes to interact with the audience. In collaboration with two male dancers, it creaks, rattles, and cracks, vocalising assent, dissent, and consent. So, where does one meet the charpoy? It is at the heart of Queen-size, choreographer Mandeep Raikhy’s response to section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises homosexuality in India. Ranjana Dave speaks to Mandeep as Queen-size tours four cities in North-East India.
Nishit Saran’s article from 2000, Why My Bedroom Habits are Your Business, forms the premise of your critique of section 377. Nishit insists that his sex life cannot unfold behind closed doors—it IS your business to notice how the law meddles with his life; you need to be discomfited by it and respond to it. What brings you back to Nishit’s writing, 16 years later?
In 2015, I made a short work that focused on the rotation of the body, with the body being seen as an analogous device that turned on itself. After performing that work once, I had no desire to perform it any longer. We are living in times when cultural censorship is shutting down all forms of healthy debate. Artists are returning their awards. I found I was uninterested in making art that only served aesthetic purposes. It was a moment in the regime when one had to respond to one’s context.
Around this time, I read Nishit’s piece again. I also happened to chance upon Pakistani painter Asim Butt’s work. Like Nishit, he passed away many years ago. He had painted a tiny study of two men in bed with each other. Between the desire to look at intimacy as a point of study and the need to respond to one’s context, in looking at these works, something clicked into place. I ended up wanting to draw attention to the bed as a site for performance, to see how intimacy had to be played out to protest against section 377.
You literally started in bed, by looking at what you could make of existing sexual positions, and working out new ones with your dancers…
During the first half of the making, the thrust of the work was very different. I was dealing with my own discomfort with putting something like this out there. What would my parents say if they saw this? Would the dancers be comfortable doing this? The work was veering towards being provocative because of what I set out to do. It wasn’t enough. At a work-in-progress showing in April, there were two kinds of responses. If the piece had to be provocative, audiences felt that the provocation needed to be notched up till it felt uncomfortable. The second response was—why was I making an audience watch this? The latter response led me to think about the craft available to me as a choreographer. If my craft was to treat the body in space and time in a certain way, this work needed to have that element. It could not ride solely on its provocative power. This turned the entire process on its head.
Instead of looking at sexual position after sexual position, what were the various kinds of little studies I could set up by playing with two bodies in this space on and around the bed? What could I do to deconstruct intimacy? From being provocative, I entered the realm of being choreographic about the exercise. I also wanted to take this argument further and go beyond Nishit’s article. How does the body differ from the written word in how it makes an argument? How compelling can the performance of intimacy be? Can there be dissent in an argument the body makes, demanding its own rights? Whom does it want to sleep with? What kinds of desire and pleasure does it seek to derive?
How do you negotiate provocation and choreography, form and politics? Where does the text reside as an underlying narrative in all of this? The piece is divided into fragments, and is looped, so the dancers exercise a great deal of choice in how they choose to patch the piece together. They also come with their own baggage, each suggesting a certain kind of sexual being in their presence and actions. And now they are implicated even further, because they must make their bed before they lie on it.
I struggled with the idea of narrative. Every time I put the sections together, they began to fall into some sort of narrative. Were the two men meeting for the first time? Did they just have their first sexual encounter? Have they broken up now? This wasn’t about a particular story acted out by Parinay and Lalit (the dancers). Could the story gesture towards a universal study?
Then I stumbled upon A Lover’s Discourse by Barthes. The book is made up of fragments that relate to each other but don’t necessarily begin to build a narrative. One of the emerging structural themes in the work then began to be this idea of choice and non-linearity. The piece needed to be autonomous of its choreographer for there to be a larger politics of choice at play. The dancers now decide the order in which they play the seven fragments of the piece, and the direction in which they position the bed. They may choose to take it off-centre and be closer to the audience on one side. They also assemble the bed before the performance begins. It felt like each element in the performance needed to become autonomous. Then, every time they come together, there is a new encounter being proposed. It’s the only reason I can continue to watch Queen-size, actually, because it surprises me. Each performance opens up a new reading.
The personalities of the dancers also make it a certain kind of piece. In the rehearsal process, one could see their sexualities coming into play. They would easily assume positions they were comfortable with. I am still in the process of undoing that. Sometimes, I make the choice of going with it. However, I feel like the piece needs to surprise us, just a little bit. How does one keep the unfamiliar going? The construction of the work has a lot to do with how I see these two bodies together, but it doesn’t necessarily encompass all the ways in which one could see these bodies together. I am watchful of what I desire to play out and, sometimes, I rein in that tendency.
Then, is this intimacy clinical?
During the creative process, I did get very clinical about breaking intimacy down. We played with the proximity between the two bodies. We thought about touch, as opposed to no touch. How could one body part touch another and produce a reaction? How could one look at the gaze in isolation? How could one look at the act of one body cradling another? How could intimacy penetrate the very tips of fingers and join two bodies? What did one do for foreplay? How could one enter the sexual act without actually entering it? So, the process was clinical. In some places, it became quite mechanical and I had to think about how one could infuse intention into the movements again. Even that was clinical, in how we thought it through. The intention took you back to a particular root desire, but it wasn’t always ‘I want to have sex with you’. For instance, we played with the gaze. What if the eyes were suggesting a particular pattern while the body expressed another intention altogether?
We are used to seeing intimacy around us and experiencing it ourselves. Through this act of making things clinical and reconfiguring them in unexpected ways, how does one complicate the provocative and make the familiar a little unfamiliar? How do we look at two bodies as a unified creature of sorts? How do we transcend an image of two bodies of the same gender and view them as two breathing organisms that have exercised the choice to be present?
You’ve rehearsed in a prayer hall. You’ve performed Queen-size in universities. I’ve convinced my mother to watch it in Bombay. Her most pressing reaction to the trailer was—the audience looks very young and I’m afraid I’ll stick out like a sore thumb. And long after that—oh, two men on a bed, huh? What are people telling you?
Just the other day, a man said to me, “We appreciated the performers and the sound and the light. But it was very uncomfortable to look at the work. I just couldn’t look at it directly”. People have said that they were offended by having to watch this, that they find this vulgar. The absence of a narrative complicates matters.
What I realised early on in the process was that this wasn’t the kind of work where three or four performances would have any meaning. Did I make this work so that it could be watched by 300 or 400 people who were familiar with contemporary dance and at peace with homosexuality? There was no point to that. There is a whole lot of queer activism in the country and the joy of this work is to take it outside the theatre into different kinds of contexts. In Guwahati, we performed the work in a legal chamber. I want to open up discussions around section 377, about the discomfort of seeing two men on a bed, and the relationship between the political and the performative in the arts.
Mandeep Raikhy is a dancer and choreographer based out of New Delhi. He pursued his BA (Hons) in Dance Theatre at Laban, London, and worked with Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company for several years. He has created three full-length works, Inhabited Geometry(2010), a male ant has straight antennae (2013) and Queen-size (2016) and divides his time between creating and touring his artistic work and his work at Gati Dance Forum as its Managing Director.
Ranjana Dave is an Odissi dancer and arts writer. Her work has been published widely, in print and online publications. In Bombay, she co-founded Dance Dialogues, an initiative that works with dance makers and dance lovers, helping them connect with provocative and diverse ideas, individuals and institutions. As a dance practitioner, her interests include performance and teaching, with a focus on making personal meaning of classical dance and making it accessible. She lives in Delhi and is Programmes Director at the Gati Dance Forum.
In October of this year, during its annual IGNITE! dance festival, Gati Dance Forum launched the much-awaited Tilt. Pause. Shift: Dance Ecologies in India. The book’s various essays consider how we in India might generate a localised, yet internationally-aware, vocabulary to discuss, describe, and push back against the various modes of contemporary dance practice in this country. The first of its kind, the book took three years to complete and anchored IGNITE!’s three-day conference themed Form. Identity. Dissent. The conference, with panels that ranged from “Activism and Sexuality in Performance” to “Pedagogical Modes of Transmission Emerging from Classical Dance”, raised many questions that run through the book: What is contemporary dance? How does it, or should it, speak to a classical or colonial past? How can it negotiate its present? What aesthetic form must that present take?
These questions, along with various performance works (such as Sujata Goel’s Dancing Girl, Daniel Kok’s Cheerleader of Europe, and Preethi Athreya’s Conditions of Carriage - The Jumping Project) that formed IGNITE! 2016’s lineup have helped shape Ligament’s November 2016 issue.
Through interview, essay, poetry, and photography collected from India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, this issue attempts to unravel the aesthetics and politics that surround South Asian contemporary dance and its makers.
Choreographer Mandeep Raikhy speaks with Ranjana Dave about his latest work, Queen-size.
Surjit Nongmeikapam talks about his current projects, as a part of "From somewhere in the middle"
Sadanand Menon, art critic and photographer, speaks with Ligament’s Editor, Poorna Swami, on the history of dance in India and the history of India itself.
A Poem By Karthika Nair
Meghna Bhardwaj, dancer and PhD scholar at JNU, reflects on ‘spirals’ and Euphoria in the JNU protest.
Zoha Husain responds to Joshinder Chaggar’s recent Karachi performance
Choreographer Venuri Perera discusses dissent, dance, and community with Asim Siddiqui, as a part of "From somewhere in the middle"
03-12 February, 2017 : 10 AM to 4 PM
(this does not include evening performances)
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.
To those who find themselves here for the first time, welcome. And those whom we have met before, we are glad you are back.
—Poorna Swami, Editor
Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org