The microphones were silent and the marquees empty. It is a rare afternoon of calm at Jantar Mantar, Delhi. Just then, a group of masked men turned up and began to arrange army boots and leather jackets on the ground. They were carrying blackboards with them. They formed a row and began to dance. Within minutes, all eyes were on them.
The audience comprised ice-cream vendors, auto-drivers, college boys wielding cellphone cameras, and loiterers. A layer of violence lay under every sequence. The dancers hit and kicked each other, grappled with each other in headlocks. When the performance ended an hour later, the audience responded with a raucous applause. They formed rings around the dancers with questions and comments. “Why do men think they can do anything they want?” “Men pee wherever they like.” “I think every man should be a part of this dance. We will realise how we look to women,” said a youngster.
Untamed Donkeys is an attempt to get the man on the street thinking about patriarchy and violence against women. Its stage spans public spaces crowded with men, from Atta Market in Noida to a park in Chandni Chowk to a site near Tees Hazari Court. At the helm of the project is Sudesh Adhana, a tall and bearded contemporary dancer based in Norway, who won the National Award for Haider in 2014.
In one sequence, a group of dancers gang up and shout abuses at one performer. “Men habitually attack other men by using abusive words about their female relatives. This shows how deeply the idea of ownership [over women] has entered our psyche,” says Adhana. In another sequence, one of the men rushes to an image of female genitalia drawn on a blackboard. Using one hand on the vagina, he pushes the female figure drawn on the blackboard down and forces down on it. Lalit Khatana, a member of the troupe, recalls walking 22 km in Delhi with blackboards that carried the message: Hamarey desh main balatkar kyun hotey hai? (Why are there rapes in our country?) “One word on every board. We stood with them for three hours at the Delhi Zoo,” he says.
“When this project was happening, I realised that I have to first criticise myself. I have to look in the mirror and say, ‘Yaar, you have made mistakes’. It is true that I used to sit in the gali and stare at girls. I have to ask, ‘Why did you make these mistakes?’” says Adhana, 37, a Gujjar who grew up in a village in Haryana. Untamed Donkeys is, in some ways, an autobiography of the man he might have become.
The power structure was rigid in his village of Tigaon in Faridabad. His mother covered her face in a ghoonghat and his sister married the man his father chose. Of his two brothers, one is a wrestler and the other a policeman. Their father wanted Adhana, his youngest son, to become either an engineer or a doctor. After school, he was expected to study for 12 hours to clear entrance tests. “Once, my friend wrote a love letter and we gave it to a girl in class. She complained and the teacher beat us up. Our society is so conservative that it led us down a certain route. My friends and I would sit in a corner and go through porn magazines. We would lie in wait for girls,” he says.
He relives his adolescence by pairing the dancers in Untamed Donkeys with blackboards. The writings in chalk echo words that every boy hears while growing up, “Money runs the world. Study, study, study. Be successful. Earn money…” The blackboards become the ground on which the dancers fall, the wall against which they crouch for shelter, the maze they cannot escape. Finally, in one explosive moment, they draw naked figures and write the slang for private parts on the blackboards. “We used to do this in school,” says a driver during the show at Jantar Mantar.
The site had witnessed massive protests in December 2012, when a young girl was gang-raped in a moving bus in Delhi. Since then, there has been soul-searching about the place of women in Indian life on canvas, page, screen and stage. Untamed Donkeys is one of the few pieces on patriarchy made by men. “There are not many platforms to talk about the problems of men or ask questions of society. News of rape cases have poured in even after those guilty of the Delhi gang rape were sentenced to death. This problem will not be solved by punishment alone,” says Adhana.
For this piece, the dancers went back to their roots in villages of Haryana and Rajasthan. They came across boys hanging around after school, smoking cigarettes or drinking. They often talked loudly. “The idea of shouting has something to do with gang culture when boys get together and try to intimidate other people. The need for overpowering is later applied to women,” says Adhana. Growing up, he always tried to be in a group because fights would break out frequently. In a scene in the piece, a dancer falls on the ground and keeps rolling while the others abuse him — the brotherhood versus the lone wolf. “There is no culture or art in these boys’ lives,” says Adhana.
He had taken up science in Class XII and was studying all the time. When his parents were not looking, Adhana would listen to music. “I would dance. It was the only time I felt I could get some release from my environment,” he says. Somebody gave him a cassette of Black or White and Michael Jackson became his first dance guru. He stayed awake to watch MTV at midnight. “Watching Michael Jackson move was….wow. What energy. This guy used to float. I began to look at my own body and found it heavy,” he says.
Adhana quit studies after school and left his village. He chased dance through the classroom of Shashidhar Nair at Sri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra and the studio of Santosh Nair, both in Delhi, enrolled in workshops by foreign dancers and performed in productions that travelled abroad. He was too tall for group dances and his body was unsuitable for classical structures. “I could not fit into any system but, from every genre, I took something for myself,” he says. His choreographies draw from the flexibility of Kalaripayattu and techniques such as the barrel turn of Chhau.
Adhana had realised that his metier lay in contemporary dance by the time he was selected to be a part of an Indo-Norwegian cultural collaboration in 2003. One of the dancers from Norway was Ella Christina Fiskum, who would become his wife. In 2006, he moved to Norway with her.
At 27, Adhana enrolled in a dance school in Norway and finished the education he craved. “I learnt ballet, jazz, improvisation and release. I did not like ballet but it cleaned my body. It told me about lines,” he says. Today, he works with prominent choreographers on pieces that have been presented at events such as the Peer Gynt Festival and the Nordic Opera Project in Reykjavik, Iceland. Untamed Donkeys has been funded by the Arts Council, Norway.
At present, Adhana is a part of a solo piece, Men, with which Sølvi Edvardsen, considered one of the stalwarts of contemporary dance, is making her comeback. It offers a woman’s narrative of men. “Patriarchy is present all over the world. With Untamed Donkeys, we wanted to bring audiences to a place where they could reflect. You see, men don’t want to talk about themselves. They hide behind quotes such as ‘I am the way I am’ rather than thinking ‘Why am I like this?’” says Adhana.