IT FEELS HERETICAL to think about regeneration in a time of widespread death. To write about how dance transforms us. How language is breath, divinity. How art, because it has to do with making, has the capacity for restoration.
As I write, the news in India is that in one day we had over 400,000 Covid infections and 4,000 deaths. Staggering as those numbers are, the real numbers may be ten or fifteen times what the government is reporting. These kinds of numbers crush. They sit at your throat, paralyse your limbs. And still, this morning the koels are in the trees making their plaintive song, the dog is ready to play, some man in a distant valley is spraying his crops with pesticide, filling the silence with a steady drone.
I haven’t danced since the start of this pandemic, which is more than a year now, and it seems to belong to the long list of things we did in the before times, such as file into rooms with strangers or climb into metal birds that fly in the sky. But my body remembers, yearns for the good dull ache in the bones after a morning in the dance theatre, the sensation of being outside oneself but also so thoroughly inside.
I came to dance by accident. I took the usual dance lessons that many Indian children fall into, but it was nothing rigorous. In middle school, with the help of my mother, I choreographed a zesty sequence to Abba’s “The Winner Takes It All”, which involved a series of back-bends and glowering looks. This made me feel as though I’d found my calling. But it was only when I returned to India at 26, after eight years away of study and work, that I’d meet a woman who would change the direction of my life, who would make me a dancer, but tell people proudly: “Tishani is a non-dancer.”
Her name was Chandralekha. When we met she was 73, and was regarded as India’s leading choreographer. She had revolutionised performance by incorporating elements of traditional Indian physical forms – yoga, dance and martial arts – into gorgeous abstraction. I knew nothing of her reputation. Only that her hair was silver. Only that she was beautiful. When she asked whether I would like to come work with her, I said yes, unhesitatingly.
It is impossible for me to think of writing without dance, or dance without writing. They are both grounded in time, in the body. If I move a leg, it is a prehistoric creature emerging from the bog. If I write the words “Begin with trees”, it is my diaphragm fluttering up down, up down.
For the many years I worked with Chandralekha, she told me never to think of myself as young. Instead, to think of myself as an ancient woman of this land. Look back, she seemed to be urging, even as you blaze ahead. It wasn’t some glorification of tradition, but an invitation to consider the idea of lineage.
Over eight thousand years ago, across the north-western region of the Indian subcontinent, in the delta of the Indus river, a civilisation flourished. These people seemed to have cared little for war and a lot for pleasure and ritual, because very few weapons have been unearthed compared to the plethora of ornaments, toys, amulets, terracotta figurines and clay seals. They had a script that no one has yet been able to decipher, and there are as many theories of their eventual disappearance as there are names for clouds, but we know they believed in the magic of water because they built brick houses with toilets and drains, wells, and giant baths for community bathing. We know their women were considered at least on a par with men, if not predominant.
One of the many miraculous clay seals from the Indus Valley Civilisation depicts an upturned woman, head to floor, legs spread, with a plant emerging from her yoni. For Chandralekha, this was the starting point of a choreography “Sri” (Woman), which explored pre-Hindu ideas of women as free beings, bodies unshackled, aligned with nature. The opening sequence was a six-minute solo, performed by her entirely with her legs – branch-like movements, a single organism birthing others, an idea of a self-contained empowered femininity.
Variations of the Indus Valley earth goddess have appeared in different Indian philosophies over the centuries. In the Markandeya Purana, she is Shakambari, bearer of greens, and says, “I shall support the whole world with the life-giving vegetables I shall grow out of my body.” Later, in Buddhist and Jain ideology, and continuing into Mughal and Pahari paintings, there’s a slight demotion from mother-goddess to tree nymph, shalabhanjika, yakshi, apsara – tendril-like women who were found adorning temple gates, stupas, walls, parchments, their limbs entwined with flowering trees and branches. You would need to be of limited imagination not to get the connection. Women = nature = fecundity.
Camille Paglia in her Sexual Personae calls this “belly-magic”, the “femaleness of fertility”, foundational for so many early civilisations. Earth-cult mother-goddesses who were worshipped because of their slightly terrifying ability to give birth. And while it’s empowering to link women’s bodies to the tides and the moon, because, “Every month it is the woman’s fate to face the abyss of time and being, the abyss which is herself”, as Paglia writes, it would be a mistake to think of birthing in such a literal way.
Once, an interviewer in Germany asked Chandralekha whether she ever regretted not having children. She made a grand cupping gesture and said she was proud of her “undrunk breasts”. Chandralekha was fond of saying, “When I say creation, I don’t mean procreation. I mean all of creation.”
Tishani Doshi – credit: Michael Vatikiotis
Early in my artistic career I began to consider what my ancestries were beyond family and DNA. What are our modes of connection with one another and with the elements that surround us? And what is this mysterious ability to want to describe, praise, make? If you think of the creative impulse as a force in our bodies, whatever sex or gender those bodies may be, what is this need to leave our mark, to signal to the future, be it in the shape of cave paintings, or a tiny ivory hedgehog carved 40,000 years ago, or a one-inch clay seal of an upturned woman with a plant coming out of her yoni? Art-making is a kind of graffiti, saying we were here. But also: This is what it was like when we were here.
There is a story of how Nadezhda Mandelstam memorised the entire corpus of her husband Osip’s poems after he died in Stalin’s Gulag in 1938. She did this because she feared his work would be obliterated by the authorities. Later, with the help of friends, she committed the poems to paper and smuggled them out to the West, to ensure his words would continue to live.
It is only recently that we have come to think of literacy as graphic. In the medieval period in Europe, far fewer people could read, but this doesn’t mean they didn’t have access to books. Reading was a private activity enjoyed by some, but for the most part, engagement with texts was oral and auditory. In India, memorization was considered the more dependable way of recording texts. According to the scholar David Shulman, the term for illiterate in Sanskrit is niraksara-kuksi, “one who does not have the phonemes in his belly”, because the belly is where they belong – not palm leaf or birch bark. Knowledge, he writes, should be kantha-stha, in the throat.
I like the idea of language being held in the body. Just as I like all notions of body as microcosm of the universe, from Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man to Buddhist mandalas and Jain scrolls of the cosmic man, lokapurusha, who contains within him rivers, mountains, galaxies, places of pilgrimage. I memorise my poems because I want to eat my poems. I want to hold them in my body the way time is held in the body, and language and breath. And when the words leave the body, when they are chanted or sung, they are transformed, set into the world like birds.
A poem is a house the way the body is a house. Stanza means room in Italian, after all. Come, see the many rooms within me. Nadi in Sanskrit means river, but also tube, nerve, pulse, a channel through which blood and breath flow through the body. See how the nadis inside and outside us are tirthas, crossing points, fords. In Australia I was told that in some Aboriginal sign languages the act of pointing to different body parts corresponds to different kinship relationships and landscape features. Trees too can have mouths, noses, legs. See how naming connects us. How we use language and song to create the world. There are so many worlds within us. See how language can be a homeland, a place where we can shelter together. It means that no matter how far we wander, however lost we are, we come home to ourselves.
It is a mistake to think that there is such a thing as linear progression. We only need to turn back to see how there are dips and rises in history. Times when women had more rights or fewer, when we had more humane laws or less, when we placed beauty at the centre of our lives – or war. Some might say that we are living in particularly apocalyptic times. Environmentally, we know we are at some kind of precipice. But what will it mean to have lived through a pandemic as a world together? For those of us who survive, how do we move forward now that the rotten foundations are so clearly exposed? Where do we find hope?
I am thinking about two sisters, Maria and Camilla, who in 1629, when the plague came to Florence, sneaked out to dance with friends in their building while their mother was at the plague hospital. After they were discovered, their friends’ parents were taken to prison, and at the trial their mother lashed out, saying, “Oh traitors, what have you done?” I have been hearing the tip-tap of their shoes against a wooden floor, have imagined the thrill of them dressing up and grabbing each other by the waist, dancing defiantly even though the world around them was falling apart.
I am thinking of a time before them, in July 1518, in Strasbourg, when a few hundred people took to a dancing madness in the streets. How it began with one woman, Frau Troffea, who stepped out of her house and danced until she collapsed. For days she danced her solitary jig, shoes soaked with blood, until she was carted off to a shrine in the mountains. In the days that followed, hundreds more took to the streets, dancing, until they collapsed or died. Trance or hysteria? We cannot know.
One of the many miraculous clay seals from the Indus Valley Civilisation depicts an upturned woman, head to floor, legs spread, with a plant emerging from her yoni. For Chandralekha, this was the starting point of a choreography “Sri” (Woman), which explored pre-Hindu ideas of women as free beings, bodies unshackled, aligned with nature
I am thinking of a time after, in January 2019, when five million women gathered across the national highways of Kerala, creating a chain of 620 kilometres, a human wall of support for a Supreme Court verdict that finally allowed women to enter a temple, which for centuries had banned women of menstruating age, fearing it might incite the residing bachelor deity Ayyappan. They held their arms out in protest like the stubborn branches of a tree. The collective force of their bodies working as a single breathing living being.
I am thinking of the many ways the body finds to create when the world around us seems scorched, how dance is defiance, hope, wonder, joy, the body’s way of saying, I’m still alive. The root that fixes itself, the bud that insists. I’m thinking of taking my body to whatever piece of floor I can find and touching my head to it, and calling it earth, calling it holy.
APRIL 2022 Tishani Doshi MONK
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