In Solidarity, Together or Alone
The image of the physical body—arms and legs and ribs and guts—holds visible presence in the way we recall India’s history of protest. When we think of the last phase of the freedom movement, for instance, it is hard to look beyond the image of a bare-chested, bespectacled man, leading crowds toward the ocean to make salt. How we evaluate this man’s contribution to India’s independence may differ, but we undeniably share a similar imagination of his body—marching with stick in hand, or spinning at a wheel, or lying in a corner, debilitated by a self-declared hunger strike.
This inherent potential in the physical body to be a succinct vehicle for, and symbol of, resistance is fertile ground for the choreography of protest in performance. For the careful arrangement of bodies in a space, the directions they take, the rhythms they follow. How artists choose to choreograph bodies in works of protest is, however, far from uniform. Even if protesting the establishment, generally speaking, Indian protest performances have changed noticeably over the decades.
The poet, T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets writes, “For last year's words belong to last year's language/And next year's words await another voice.” This notion that language is time-bound is an important reminder that articulations of protest or revolution can and must decay and reform; politics is not a stagnant field. Shifting this idea of changing languages of protest onto the body, I am interested in examining how and why the dancing body in performances of protest has changed its language. What has it borrowed from its past, what images have gone obsolete, and how is it reframing its resistance? I choose two periods in Indian history to set up my comparative frame. The first is the cusp of Indian independence. I focus on the 1946 film, Dharti ke Lal, which was created by members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). I view this film not so much as cinema but as an archival document of dance choreography from staged works of that period—the song and dance sequences in the film are very similar to what IPTA performed on stages in various parts of the country at the time. The second period that I view in contrast is the last three years, on the cusp of 70 years of Indian independence. I touch upon two recent works dance works—Queen-size (2016) by Mandeep Raikhy and Agent Provocateur (2017) by Sujay Saple.
A major difference between the choreographies of these two periods is the number of dancing bodies they use. In 1946, it would seem that large, group dances were the norm, but now, the lone or duetting body is bearing the weight of protest. Using this drastic numerical change as my starting point, I attempt a brief reading of the different works to understand how the dancing, protesting body is being conceptualised and employed differently in two different eras.
On the Threshold of Independence
Dharti Ke Lal (dir. K.A. Abbas) was the only film the Indian People’s Theatre Association officially produced. The film was a response to the horrific Bengal famine of 1943 and was part of IPTA’s larger nation-building effort against a colonial government. Dharti Ke Lal tells the story of a family of sharecroppers in Bengal and the struggles they must endure when they are cheated of their land and attempt to find (without success) a better life in the city. In the end, the family returns to its native land and joins hands with other farmers to make a life despite an oppressive administration, by entering a communist model of collective farming. The message isn’t hard to read—the film promulgates a socialist system beyond the British Raj. That the British aren’t depicted in the film (even though the film protests their government) underscores the idea of a nation made of Indian people.
Dharti ke Lal wasn’t IPTA’s first effort to mobilise people against the British government and towards their own. In 1944, IPTA-Mumbai produced an anti-British dance production, Bhookha Hai Bangal, as a major fundraiser for famine victims. This production was choreographed by Shanti Bardhan (who was also the dance director for Dharti Ke Lal) and its title song makes an appearance in Dharti Ke Lal, too. In this sequence, a chorus sings, “Bengal is hungry,” while, behind them in silhouette, starving villagers slowly move across the frame. Then, we see the chorus standing in a formation of the shape of the Indian mainland (seen from the bottom of the peninsula), as if the nation itself were crying in distress. At the end of the song, a lone woman, still on an imitation of the Indian map, offers the final cry. This is the only visual in the film’s song sequences, where we see a protesting, performing body alone. Still, she doesn’t seem to display any individual agenda but instead summarises, quite literally, the voice of a nation into one united voice. By coalescing diverse bodies within the image of the Indian map in this way, the choreography constructs the new Indian nation for its audiences.
In 1946, an Indian nation did not exist. The region was a still a colony and, moreover, a diverse and disparate colony of people of different beliefs and customs and tongues. There were, through the 20th century, widespread efforts by political parties like the Indian National Congress and the Communist Party of India to unite these factions to generate a collective force that could oust the Raj. The nation was an idea that was a sold to create a unified sense of belonging. This attempt at uniting people to build a shared, independent nation can be seen as the underlying thrust of Dharti Ke Lal’s song and dance sequences. Bodies are always grouped together to build a sense of community.
Throughout the film, groups of farmers sowing seeds or tilling the land together to a lilting background score recur as a motif. These bodies, though not dancing, seem to assembled in a calculated manner, bent over the soil, or singing and walking with cattle together towards the river. These bodies that dance in jubilation at the end of the film, here are labouring bodies, too; labouring towards a collective future of an Indian nation. Their performance of the choreography, then, transcends spectacle and pushes toward work in service of an independent nation. The conflation of performance and labour in this way, assigns a specific role to the performing body, at once protesting an oppressive system and creating a new one.
“We ended the film on a note of hope,” K. A. Abbas writes in his autobiography, after asserting that the return of the villagers to their native land was “the promise of a new life.” We see the labour of these returning bodies as a thing to celebrate, and an ideal to strive towards. In the final dance sequence of the film, villagers sing and dance together, “Spring has come upon the fields of longing,” announcing the coming of the nation they had all imagined. Their movements draw from folk dances. Women bend from the waist, lightly moving their hands through the air. Groups of men and women, all coordinated, weave through each other, and women hold cane suppdis (winnowing fans) as they dance. The rural or folk identity stands at the forefront of this choreography. IPTA, inspired by Soviet Russia, pushed to rediscover, as it were, folk forms as a medium that reflected the identity of a united people of India. The folk idiom, with its allure of common tradition outside colonial identity, became a means to bringing about the “cultural awakening of the masses of India” and IPTA ensured that reach by continually performing before different strata of audiences.  The protesting body’s purpose then, these communal folk dances like in Dharti Ke Lal suggest, was not to act alone, but always to work as a collective towards the promised nation.
When the Nation is Fossilising
While dances of protest in the 1940s encouraged bodies to move as masses and not individuals, many recent works move away from depicting the collective. Of course, there may be economic reasons for this trend. After all, a large portion of IPTA’s efforts were funded by the Communist Party, and later, in the 1950s, folk dances were backed by the newly formed Indian government to promote notions of an inherited common Indian tradition.  To dance was organised work, and by extension, so was protest. Because contemporary performance makers aren’t financially supported in this way, maybe they cannot afford to employ many bodies, as artists did in the 1940s, even if they wished to. But perhaps the choice is not economic alone. Perhaps, moving away from the collectively protesting body is also a conscious political choice.
Mandeep Raikhy’s Queen-size, a durational duet that is played in the round, protests a former iteration of section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which outlawed homosexuality. At the centre of the playing area, sits a khat, a focal site for the two male bodies that perform the piece. Over two hours and forty minutes, in repetitions of forty-minute loops, the men perform moments of intimacy, tenderness, aggression, desperation, and contemplation. Sometimes, they come too close for comfort. In this proximity, it seems almost as if we are privy to the happenings of their bedroom.
The work, which is inspired by Nishit Saran’s article, Why My Bedroom Habits are Your Business consciously highlights the political charge of the private space. We see a particular couple and become a part of (or voyeur to) their intimate lives and yet, that isn’t transgressive. Rather, in witnessing their privacy, we also witness their resistance. In the sound score, we can hear the sounds of the nation outside—news clips from debates around section 377—as the performers before us hold hands or caress or replicate movements of sexual intercourse. The action within the room so blatantly defies what used to be the law of the nation that we immediately pit the individual and the nation-state against each other. We do not see mass protest through masses of bodies, but instead through distinctive, vulnerable, individual bodies.
In 1946, a nation needed to be birthed. There was well-established colonial governance that needed to be brought down. In 2016 (the year Queen-size premiered), the nation had existed for almost seven decades. In that time, several aspects of governance had changed and yet, many had remained and calcified into the skeleton of the nation-state. Colonial rule was gone, and yet a colonial law against homosexuality persisted, as it did until September 2018. So even though Queen-size might speak for a community of people, it does not seek to assimilate them into the fabric of the nation so much as stand apart from the nation itself.
Because the democratic nation today bears such a restrictive role in private lives, protest no longer remains subscription to a collectively accepted idea of the nation. Foregrounding the individual body against the nation-state as Queen-size does, then is a different kind of call to action. The attempt is not to bring people together to build a nation, but, in a sense, to collectively tear its tenets down.
Agent Provocateur by Sujay Saple, like Queen-size, relies on the individualised dancing body to articulate its protest. Choreographed as a series of episodes, the work features a man and a woman, sometimes dancing together and sometimes, solo. Each episode protests a different diktat of the nation, whether legal, extra-legal, or that which is transmitted through family and media as moral inheritance. In one episode, the man places bindis on the woman’s body and ascribes each with a location of a recent lynching. As he says to her, “Muzaffarnagar…Nagaon,” she seems oblivious to where these are or what transpired there. The scene’s commentary is two-pronged. On the one hand, we see the violent and violated nation physically mapped upon the female body, which points to how women are often made the moral torch-bearers of national ideology—the notion of Bharat Mata, for instance. On the other hand, however, this same scene unravels the individual’s separation from the nation, to the point of apathy. When the man prods the woman further, digging into the site of each bindi, personal recollections about those places come tumbling out. In pointing out the reticence toward remembering history and engaging with current affairs, the scene doesn’t depict the politically awakened individual but one who is entirely disconnected from the nation-state.
Such personal experiences of the idea of nationhood and allegiance run through Agent Provocateur. In a solo scene, the man moves in a jittery, fragmented fashion through movements that allude to kalari, kushti and gotipua—his physical conditioning. As he calls out verbally each bastardised rendition of each form, he also narrates his own life story—how he learned about his caste, the community to which he was supposed to belong, and the political morality to which he was supposed to adhere. He goes on to delineate how the difference between right hand and left hand was instilled in him, before demonstrating physically between right and left. He takes off his shirt and carefully slips it on in the most efficient manner—right arm, then left arm, and then the head through. As he demonstrates this, he says, almost too quickly, “Right Modi. Left Modi.” In that small, seemingly functional moment, we see that the individual body is dancing to protest not only the nation, but the nation as run by a particular government. Indeed, the aim seems to be to find the impetus for protest in personal, lived experiences of the nation.
In a later scene, we see the same man holding up blank placards—a stark image of censorship and the way individuals are silenced by the nation-state. The soundtrack unfurls a narration about the way humans tamed wolves into dogs so that they could no longer fight—an obvious allegory for how the nation curbs resisting bodies into obedient, “docile bodies.” Agent Provocateur’s emphasis on personal encounters with the nation becomes the heart of its protest. The nationalistic indoctrination of the bodies on stage suggests that the body itself be an agent of defiance. And these bodies do not want to resist in dances made of inherited ideology. Rather, they want to protest the nation by dancing to their own tune.
Each One, Pull One
A performance that cites itself as political may not necessarily be a protest performance. Pushpa Sundar makes an astute distinction: “Political theatre,” she writes, “though generally opposed to the Government and its policies, may not always be so, and it can be conservative as well as liberal, for the Government and against it.” The political valency of a performance changes with how it is positioned in relation to the nation-state and those running it. And, in turn, the changing texture of a nation—its collective consciousness and the politics of its allegiances—affects how performances choose to position themselves.
From pre-independence years to the present, the nation’s definition has changed from aspirational future to institutionalised presence. Performances of protest once protested to realise a nation (against colonial powers), and now protest instead against its regimentation. In both instances, the body emerges as the idiom to communicate the performance’s contemporary political aims. The body’s intentional assimilation and distinction can be read as visual summaries to the resistances of different political eras and climates.
Zahid Chaudhury, when writing on photography, suggests that when we look at a photograph, the past reappears before us and becomes part of our present, within our bodies.  That is, we have the capacity to sympathise with an image and carry its meanings with us. Performance, unlike a photograph, visually does not last beyond its moment. Yet, it too, can remain in bodily residues, and if it is successful, we may carry the resonances of its protest outside the theatre. By displaying the dancing, protesting body in a specific way—together or alone—performances of protest seem to want to evoke a particular bodily sympathy between performer and spectator, a particular residual hue. In the 1940s, this sympathy meant urging viewers to join the ideology of the bodies on stage with the promise of a hopeful future. In recent years, however, the intent seems to be more presentational—individualised bodies that could easily be our own (and yet are not) are offered with thinly veiled distance. As if to make us uncomfortable in our seats, so that we may look again, for ourselves, at our own positions.
Poorna Swami is an independent choreographer, dancer, and writer based in Bangalore. She is currently touring India with The Long and Short of It, her latest performance work, in collaboration with Marcel Zaes. Poorna has also presented her works in and around New York City, at the Wassaic Project Festival, Theater for the New City, Gibney Dance, Movement Research, Triskelion Arts, and La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. She was a 2018 recipient of the danceWEB scholarship at ImPulsTanz - Vienna International Dance Festival.
Poorna regularly writes on arts, culture, and politics. Between 2015-2017 she served as India Editor-at-large for the international online translation quarterly, Asymptote. She also edited Ligament, Attakkalari's online dance magazine for the Attakkalari India Biennial 2017. Her writing has appeared in The Caravan, Open Magazine, Mint-Lounge, The Hindu BLink, and Words Without Borders, among other publications. She holds a BA in Dance-Theatre and English from Mount Holyoke College (USA).
 Eliot, T.S., “Little Gidding” in Four Quartets, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), 42.
 Purkayastha, Prarthana. Indian Modern Dance, Feminism and Transnationalism, (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 90.
 Ibid, 87
 Abbas, K.A. I Am Not an Island, (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1977), 269.
 Purkayastha, 87
 Ibid, 84
 Purkayastha, 87 and Abbas, 270
 Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish, (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 138.
 Sundar, Pushpa. “Protest through theatre—The Indian experience,” in India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 2, (New Delhi: Summer, 1989), 124.
 Chaudhary, Zahid R. Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth-Century India, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 189.