After 16-year-old Junaid Khan was lynched on a train near Delhi in 2017, Mandeep Raikhy, one of India’s foremost dancer-choreographers, started visiting temples, churches, mosques and gurdwaras to watch people pray. He discovered that, across religions, the faithful carried out the same basic actions — bowing their heads, bending their knees, bringing the palms together and lowering the forehead or placing the forehead on the floor.
“I wanted to think about this pattern through a performance and look at a universal physicality of faith,” says Raikhy. The piece he created on the theme is Anatomy of Belief, which premiered in Delhi on October 4.
Raikhy’s earlier works have revolved around issues such as his “Indian-ness” (Inhabited Geometry, 2010), masculinity
(A Male Ant Has Straight Antennae, 2013) and gender politics (Queen-Size, 2016). They have travelled to cities across India as well as the Kampnagel in Hamburg, Steps Dance Festival in Switzerland, Southbank Centre in London and Singapore International Arts Festival, among others.
In Anatomy of Belief, four dancers move between the personal and the social. They are individuals in one sequence, and, in the next, a grid of bodies that merges into a group carrying out the basic actions of worship. “We wanted to look at why, across the world and over centuries, we behave in a particular way. Is it intrinsically human? Is this how the moment of surrendering to a greater power is inbuilt, much like how cats respond to a moving object?” asks Raikhy.
At the Bangla Saheb Gurdwara in Delhi, two dancers of Raikhy’s team were told off by a devotee for sitting with their knees up and pulled in towards the chest. “We realised that there was a whole lot of training around these actions that we have inherited without realising. We watched a lot of small children entering religious spaces and the kind of ease with which they practised these gestures. In a place of worship, you go straight in and perform. Your feet don’t face the shrine. We thought these were wonderful lessons in orientations we have received,” says Raikhy.
With Anatomy of Belief, Raikhy returns to performing in his own work after seven years. “I was becoming more of a choreographer and realised that I also wanted to think of myself as a performer. Now, I am performing with dancers who are 23,” says Raikhy, who is almost 40, an age when many dancers bow out.
The physicality of worship has drawn Raikhy over and over again, with Anatomy of Belief being a third iteration. The first version, Pray, channelled anger over hate crimes such as Junaid’s lynching, and was performed at The Long Night of Resistance, an event held over three nights in July 2017 as part of the #NotinMyName movement at Gati Dance Forum in Delhi. In the work, dancers carried out acts of religious piety while American composer Steve Reich’s Come Out, with a line borrowed from the statement of a victim of police violence (“Come out and show them”) played on loop. In 2018, Raikhy developed the theme in The Extremities of a Surface are Lines. He was still angry. The soundtrack of this work featured the recorded testimony of Saira, the mother of Junaid. “I was waiting at home, waiting and waiting and waiting,” she says, as the dancers perform acts of submission to a higher faith. “The earlier versions were instant responses, like a Facebook post, and not necessarily an embodied one. I felt the need to re-enter the work and set it up so that it becomes a study of these four actions in time and in space that is articulated by the body,” says Raikhy.
For the dancer, the body is the repository of truth. It is where memory is stored, one’s personal responses are recorded and social behaviours are learnt. “Whatever has happened to us and however we have responded, whether we have acquiesced to something or opposed it, we are carrying the experience in our bodies,” he says. By performing the basic actions of worship repeatedly in various combinations and spaces, Anatomy of Belief hopes to enable the dancers and the audiences to develop a greater empathy towards the body.
“The first time I became aware of my body was when I was seven and a kid in the park ran to me and said, ‘I just saw you walk and your hips sway from side to side like a girl’s,” says Raikhy. “I remember him calling everybody in the park to watch me. I was made to walk in front of all these kids and I was thinking, ‘How can I just make sure my hips don’t move from side to side as I walk because I don’t want to feel the shame?’” he adds. He visited this memory, more than two decades later, when creating the piece, A Male Ant Has Straight Antennae, which was inspired by Rahul Roy’s book, Little Book on Men (2007), which featured various embodiments of masculinity, through comic strips, conversations and sketches. “For me, that was an exciting way to think of masculinity. A kind of masculinity was being proposed to me when I was five or six, through instructions from my mother or father to sit or behave in a particular way. I could feel, even as a child, that I was failing the test of masculinity,” he says.
Raikhy grew up in Patiala, Shimla and Chandigarh, as the family followed his banker father through transfers. He was 12, when they moved to Delhi and Raikhy began to visit Kamani auditorium to watch musicals. “I went to the Army Public School and came out hankering for a space that was tolerant and open. Back in the day, even college spaces weren’t open. I attended NIIT (National Institute of Information Technology) at 7 am and then Sri Venkateshwara College for a degree in commerce. A lot of my decisions to become an artist was to do with finding people of my kind, who were open and could think out of this box,” he says. In Delhi, he enrolled in jazz classes and found friends in the LGBTQ community, among them filmmaker Nishit Saran.
“A key moment in my life was watching a performance by Daksha Seth’s troupe. The dancers weren’t performing for us and their faces weren’t lit up for us to view. It was left to us to build a narrative and meaning. That was when something shifted for me. I realised that the body has its own ways of constructing meaning that one could not put down in words,” he says. Raikhy then left the performative jazz world for contemporary dance.
In 2002, Saran died in an accident and Raikhy found it impossible to stay on in Delhi. For the next seven years, he lived in London, where he graduated in dance theatre from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and then toured with Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company. “The question of Indian-ness was heavy all the time I was in the UK. The way the funding structures are constructed, I felt I would have to play up this identity of ‘Indian in London’ forever. I wanted to be in India so that I wouldn’t have to think of Indianness anymore,” he says.
Inhabited Geometry was Raikhy’s first work upon his return from the UK. Quite literally inspired by a heap of construction rubble, the work used Bharatanatyam as construction material, much like bricks and mortar, in order to play with the idea of home. In his next piece, A Male Ant Has Straight Antennae, Raikhy consciously gave up this preoccupation with Indianness. “With this piece, I said to myself that these are our bodies, our memories and our experiences of gender. What could be more Indian than this? With Indian dance, there is always a pressure of looking Indian. With A Male Ant, I said to myself ‘If this is not Indian dance, then I don’t care for that definition anymore”,’ he says.
Anatomy of Belief is becoming the kind of work he wants to pursue, political but not reactive. After the 2019 general election results, Raikhy realised that any resistance to right-wing politics would be for the long haul. “In a long haul, what option does the body have but to assimilate all its responses? Your politics must become deeply embedded in the works you are making. The task at hand is to ensure that one’s work does not become a knee-jerk reaction to these times but a more deeply considered embodiment that forms a vision for the future,” he says.
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