Strategies of Resistance

Indent: The Body and the Performative serves as a repository for a body of writing that stems (and then takes off) from the Gati Dance Forum’s engagement with teaching methodologies, research and performance-making, with the intention of adding to the critical discourse around performance practices in South Asia.





Where does the body begin and end?

Ranjana Dave


Where does the body begin…and end? This was a question the artist Chandralekha asked, of herself and of dance, with some persistence.[1] In 2018, on Karwa Chauth afternoon, I am on the Delhi metro. I have found a seat, because of an instinct honed over a decade of commuting by local train in Mumbai. My body hasn’t learned how to mediate this instinct, which means I hurtle into trains like a bull in Pamplona, regardless of how crowded or empty they actually are. Getting into a train is a ritualistic act of deep focus, of gathering the body and its accoutrements, towards a perceived centre. Loose ends of fabric are fastened, bags are clutched close to the front of the body, the elbow protectively defining personal space. The free hand propels the body forward, urging it towards and then past the door of the compartment, aided by the mass of people who are moving in the same direction. Once on the train, the body slowly begins to uncurl from this moment of great speed and attack. The elbow returns to the side, clothes are adjusted, hair is retied, bags are stowed away on racks, or, on emptier trains, placed on the ground and corralled by one’s feet. It is at this juncture that I once heard a woman angrily ask her jostling co-passenger— माझा अंगावर pressure कशाला टाकते—which can be inadequately translated as: why are you applying pressure to my body? 

What is this succulent, reactive potential of the body, vulnerable to ‘pressure’ but also capable of exerting it? How is it indented by, and in turn, able to indent, in the space and time of the now? Are its extremities entirely, physical and cellular, as a body that mediates its senses through technology, ‘watching’ on screens and ‘loving’ in hypertext? Can we leave this heterotopic notion of the body outside the studio space, severing the body from all its digital, social, historical, mechanical and philosophical extremities? Or is it time to disrupt our notion of the body, and ask of ourselves – where does the body begin and end, after all? [2]

These are some of the questions we grapple with as we bring out this first issue of Indent: The Body and the Performative. Indent is imagined as an annual digital journal. The vision for Indent emerges from a decade of work at Gati Dance Forum, spanning performance, research, pedagogy, and advocacy. Post the publication of Tilt Pause Shift: Dance Ecologies in India in 2016, as we dove headfirst into the space of education, we wondered what lay ahead, in terms of new writing. What would it mean to be able to find sustainable mechanisms to seed new writing, writing that would emerge from embodied practices and feed back into them?

This is where Indent began, and over the course of this year, the process of putting it together has led us to newer questions, to problematising what it means to ‘write’. The act of ‘writing’, in its materiality, suggests a certain finality. You can forget your lines mid-speech, or blank out during a performance, and the ‘absence’ is made palpable in real time. It is the tangibility of having written that makes it hard (and suspicion-generating) to explain how the computer suddenly crashed, eating up your term paper in the process. Even though it hasn’t been ‘witnessed’ by others, the ink, paper or hard-drive space that it can consume belies its ‘absence’.

The making of performance can be engaged with ‘in progress’, constantly rewriting itself, each airing allowing for new conjugations of ideas and possibilities of meaning-making. What remains unresolved today might find new definition tomorrow; the notion of the creative ‘process’ suggests the passing of time; it hints at decisions made, unmade and recast. Conversely, the notion of putting something ‘in writing’ seems to preclude such flexibility. ‘In writing’ is an obstinately tangible state of being, at odds with expanded, fluid notions of temporality.

What then, would it mean, for the ‘outcomes’ of writing to be ‘works in progress’, for the ‘process to become more visible? What would it mean for ‘peer review’ to have an expanded life, one that doesn’t necessarily end at the moment of ‘publication’? Or for the editor not to be a gatekeeper but instead a respondent, an outside eye, one of many encountered in the process of writing. Can this temper the stolidity of having to put things ‘in writing’, allowing for variable meanings to emerge?

Our understanding of what it means to ‘publish’ a journal has shifted in the process of working towards this first issue, even as we shape a proposition and define a politics of ‘writing’ for future issues. Our contributors have stayed with us through this process, reconfiguring their essays to accommodate new formats and ways of viewing.

How can we continue to complicate ‘writing’ as a framework? When we began work on the journal, it was in familiar terrain, mainly inviting contributors who work with text. We started off by imagining a print journal, later accounting for the theatricality of ‘going to press’ and the spatial challenges of unsold inventory. Over a few months, the digital interface has gone from feeling like a substitute to a pulsating space of discursive potential. What if future editions were to account for the multiplicity of ways in which one can ‘write dance’, through text, image, sound or code? Even as we proposed this, we wondered—do we feel compelled to align ourselves with practices that are more tangible than others, even as we reflect on what it means to ‘write’ dance?

Where is the internet?

While the digital interface is a space of endless possibility, it is also one fuelled by proclamation. ‘Going live’ is the threshold between what Agamben terms the ‘not yet’ and ‘no more’[3]. Things exist only once they are called into being. In the late 1990s, I visited a trade fair in Mumbai, armed with a coupon for thirty minutes of internet time. At school, computer class consisted of typing speed exercises, drawing on Paint, and copying out BASIC programs, so it was exciting to be encountering this ‘thing’ that could connect one to the world. A volunteer sat by me, helping me open a browser and click through a series of pages, the objective of this process extremely unclear. I was not impressed. “But where is the internet,” I repeatedly asked the volunteer. “This is the internet,” he responded. As a concept, the internet signified great potential and excitement, but it was hard to believe that sluggish browser on a Windows 1995 machine could encapsulate these possibilities.

How can the whereness of the digital interface drive our investigations, leading us towards new configurations of the tangible and the ephemeral? Where our notion of temporality is luxurious and expansive—not particularly focused on the moment of ‘publishing’ or ‘going live’.  How can each piece of ‘writing’ be more than the sum of its parts? In broadening this view of time, I find particular resonance in the text 10 Theses on the Archive, written by founding members of the Public Access Digital Media Archive (Pad.ma). “Don’t wait for the archive,” they say to us, because: “To not wait for the archive is to enter the river of time sideways, unannounced, just as the digital itself did, not so long ago.”[4] Not everything needs to be archived; but the archival impulse also goes far beyond the realm of collection, capable of being deployed “as a set of shared curiosities, a local politics, or epistemological adventure.”[5] They draw on Rancière’s notion of the sentence-image[6] as a means of “thinking across” the “autonomy” of artistic practices, allowing us to “acknowledge their appropriations, invasions, and seductions of each other”.[7]

It is with the beginnings of this spirit that we offer up the first issue of the journal, Strategies of Resistance. The framework emerged from our practice, from our response to a gradually eroding democracy. This were the provocations we shared with our contributors:

· Is the body subversive? Is it a free agent? Is it resistant? Is it endangered? Is it political?

· How is resistance ingrained in the muscularity of the body? Is it a sequence of tensions that provoke the body to push, strain, clutch, sweat, endure, stretch? Can these tensions invite the body to reclaim and exercise agency? Is there resistance in moments of rest, collapse, and conformity?

· How does the solitary body locate itself in a landscape of collective resistance?

· How does the body acquiesce to form and dissent from it? How does it negotiate the boundaries of public and private, personal and performative?

· What is the particular role that the body plays in protest? Is it possible to locate performativity in activism?

· Where does one read dissent in performance – is it in the body or in the contexts that frame the body?

· What is the relationship between the political and the aesthetic in performance making?

· Isn’t resistance at the heart of all contemporary practice? Does resistance form the core of any contemporary art practice? Is performance inherently a political act? What are the various dimensions/ implications/ considerations/ motivations of this act?

· How have choreographers in India dismantled, challenged or questioned various institutions of power that control, shape or constraint the body? How have these dance makers navigated themselves through the politics of representation, identity and dissent?

In the hands of writer-practitioners who come from different contexts, this framework has accumulated new dimensions.

Shanti Pillai delves into the social sciences, cultural studies, and philosophy, offering an overview of theories of institutionalisation of power, in trying to suggest possible underpinnings for the term resistance. In situating acts of performance as resistance, then, she notes that “one must be observant of the ways in which the work’s form and message conform to convention and prevailing ideologies as much as how it offers critique”. Meghna Bhardwaj thinks about what it means for music to accompany dance, moving away from the ‘melodic’ to sounds that could even be ‘absent’, arguing that this treatment of music produces a friction that is then evident in the dancing body, distancing itself from the objectifying gaze. Poorna Swami studies the mechanics of choreographing protest at two moments— looking at 1940s notion of protest as a collective act, reinforcing the idea of an imagined nation-state, a democracy, and the works of two contemporary performance makers in the individualised bodies they offer and present, which perhaps prod us to direct our gaze inwards and situate resistance as a personal, individual concern. Urmimala Sarkar Munsi spans text and performance in her essay, segueing from the narrative of the mythological figure Draupadi to the allegorical implications ‘Draupadi’ continues to have, in situating the figure of the woman within hegemonic structures of patriarchy.  Rahel Leupin takes on the politics of financial engagement in the contemporary arts, laying bare the fissures between the Global North and South, by asking: who is performing whom and under what conditions? This inquiry motivates an ongoing series of interviews, with Daniel Kok (published), and Mallika Taneja and Venuri Perera (forthcoming). Kopano Maroga looks at the historical and ideological foundations of culture and its implications in the South African context, looking at the work of two artists who locate ways of disidentifying with these cultural modes, moving away from being represented “linearly, statically and monothematically”. Nirmala Seshadri unpacks the agendas at stake in the construction of the ‘Asian’ identity, as a classically trained dancer of Indian origin working in Singapore, while treating Asianness as a space of “continuous metamorphosis”, thus leveraging its radical potential. Christine Greiner looks at two examples of performance from her home context of Brazil, commenting on the radical openness that is possible when performance opens itself up to alterity, letting lived experience infiltrate the space of the performative action.

In the time zones these essays traverse, from Sao Paolo to Johannesburg to Zurich to Bengaluru to Singapore, living out lustrous nights, hot afternoons, and smoggy mornings in the same breath, there is room to infiltrate this loop of ‘not yet’ and ‘no more’[8], and consider how time is not outside of the archive, but within it.[9]

Ranjana Dave is a dance practitioner and arts writer. Her work in dance spans performance, writing, archiving, curation and pedagogy. She is the co-founder of Dance Dialogues, a Mumbai-based initiative that connects artists to provocative and diverse ideas, individuals, and institutions. Her writing has appeared in Firstpost, Hindu, Scroll, Time Out, NCPA Onstage, Asian Age, Indian Express, and Tanz, among other publications. She is Programmes Director at Gati Dance Forum and teaches on the MA Performance Practice (Dance) programme at Ambedkar University Delhi. She is dance curator (alongside Leela Samson) for the Serendipity Arts Festival 2018.  

Ranjana’s essay, Liminal Spaces in Tradition: Odissi as a Continually Evolving Form, features in Tilt Pause Shift: Dance Ecologies in India, published by Tulika Books, 2016. In 2017, her essay, Significant Issues for Contemporary Dancers in India, appeared in Marg’s special issue on contemporary dance.

[1] Chandralekha speaking in Lall, E. (Director). (2014, November 13). Sharira [Video file]. Retrieved November 12, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyXh_5dT0zw

[2] From the concept note for the symposium Indent: The Body and the Performative, also written by the author.

[3] Agamben, G. (2009). What is an Apparatus?: And Other Essays (D. Kishik & S. Pedatella, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, p. 48.

[4] 10 Theses on the Archive. (2010, April). Retrieved November 12, 2018, from https://pad.ma/texts/padma:10_Theses_on_the_Archive

[5] Ibid.

[6] Rancière, J. (2009). The Future of the Image. London: Verso.

[7] 10 Theses on the Archive, Op. Cit

[8] Agamben, Op. cit., p. 48.

[9] 10 Theses on the Archive, Op. Cit.

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