Dancer Mandeep Raikhy's The Secular Project explores secularism as a cultural practice through bodily rituals

On the road for the past three weeks, with a dusty car for company along with two cloth banners in English and Hindi asserting 'SECULAR INDIA/ धर्मनिरपेक्ष भारत', Raikhy states that his journey is a search for a secular ritual for the body, in a country fractured along communal lines.

Ranjini Nair February 02, 2021 10:32:56 IST
Dancer Mandeep Raikhy's The Secular Project explores secularism as a cultural practice through bodily rituals

'Secular India Project' by Mandeep Raikhy. Instagram/thesecularproject

In 'Queen-size', Delhi-based dancer Mandeep Raikhy moved outside-in, challenging the viewer’s public preoccupation with what unfolds in the privacy of the bedroom. The outside world was brought into the soft, consensual intimacy of the bedroom, to witness how it gets pierced through by the political. It took the spectator speculating on the nature of the ‘unnatural’ relationship closer to the sight of two queer bodies in bed. It was a potent meditation on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which up till 2018, viewed sex outside the heteronormative as criminal.

His latest project seems to invert this process as he moves inside-out. He expands a personal ritual begun in the confines of his home in the pandemic-enforced lockdown, out into public spaces. He terms it an ‘airing’ of ideas he holds dear. Unlike the private question of who one chooses to invite into one’s bedroom, which the State and public alike seem to turn their gaze on to rather regularly, the question of what secularism entails is pushed out of public spaces, as one saw with the hasty clean-up after the end of the anti-CAA protests. The irony is not lost on Raikhy.

On the road for the past three weeks, with a dusty car for company along with two cloth banners in English and Hindi asserting 'SECULAR INDIA/ धर्मनिरपेक्ष भारत', he states that his journey is a search for a secular ritual for the body, in a country constantly fractured along communal lines. At a time when one seems unable to take a step without tripping on someone’s unattended religious sentiments (think Amazon Prime Video's Tandav in the past week), this statement is not without weight. It is through his engagement with the #NotInMyName protests that followed the brutal lynching of Junaid Khan in 2017, where Raikhy began to feel the urgency of the artist’s need to respond to the shrinking space for secular dialogue. He began engaging with this shrinkage as a dancer. The body he felt — caught as it is — within legal, political, and social frameworks, was constantly used as a site of negotiation and renegotiation, and needed to be placed more centrally within this debate of what it means to be a secular country. Making any other kind of work at this time would have felt like a “cop-out” or an eschewal of one’s responsibility as an artist.

It started with a thinking-through with other dance and movement artists in Delhi over a period of three nights, termed 'Long Nights of Resistance', which explored how the performing body could refuse co-optation by the pervasive majoritarian narrative. This thinking-through became the grounds for a choreographic work, which for Raikhy, even today remains a work-in-progress. Its latest iteration performed in 2019 was titled 'The Anatomy of Belief'; it focussed on the language of the body in prayer, and how the actions of prayer could be used to convey dissent, and to mark resistance. In making this work, Raikhy was confronted with the difficult-to-resolve, long-standing question that confronts most artists — of whether one should further one’s aesthetic preoccupation as an artist, or if one should aim to bring into relief the social and material conditions that bring about an artwork’s existence.

Raikhy describes this as the “tension between making dance, and dance as a political response”. In the various versions of his choreographic response to the lynching of Junaid Khan, he constantly felt the project fall to one side or the other. Either it charted itself too fully as a political reaction to the state of the country, or it became too concerned with its own existence as an artistic exercise. It is at this point that Raikhy returned more centrally to the body. What was it in the body that animated itself? How could the body itself respond through its musculature, through muscle memory, through its own logics of existence to the stressors which constantly worked upon it? These, Raikhy realised, had become vital to his exploration as a choreographer working within a State flexing its authoritarian and communal impulses with increasing frequency and vigour.

2019 was bid farewell to, and 2020 welcomed with the reverb of Faiz’s 'Hum Dekhenge', as anti-CAA protests resonated through the city and country. Abruptly depopulated by the pandemic, the protest which had at first seemed to mark the start of a new chapter in Indian civic protests, was suddenly erased. Its remnants were wiped clean by the government in early March. Walls with graffiti that proclaimed the unity of the country, the bus-stop library, the artwork that had emerged at various protest sites scattered across Delhi, were all cleared away. The crowds were pushed back home by the threat of the coronavirus . The banners which had accompanied him to the CAA protests were folded and tucked away within his house. Recalling carrying the banner, and holding it up at the protests, Raikhy says to have to assert 'SECULAR INDIA' itself felt strange. To have to proclaim the secularism of a country which had held the word aloft in its Constitution felt like an absurd performance that confirmed that all was not well with the nation.

In July, Raikhy was questioned by the police on his involvement in the anti-CAA protests. After the investigation, he was left only with the matter of how he could continue speaking up for the cause. The investigation had laid open a contradiction before him: he knew that to protest, to disagree and to dissent was a right guaranteed to him within a democratic state. But he also knew that its consequences were being demonstrated to him through the police investigation. Its resolution, once more, emerged from his belief that his artistic choices needed to reflect the body’s posturing or logic when confined and confronted by the State.

“I decided that while the State could punish people, it could not punish ideas,” he says. He went back home, and pulled the banner from its forgotten corner, four months after the protests had ceased. He began doing this every day, as a ritual. As performance studies scholar Richard Schechner reminds us, rituals not only express ideas but more concretely, embody them. What could his body do with the material? — Not only with the cloth itself, but also with the words it promised: a secular country? He felt that tucking the banner back into a drawer would mean that the idea of secularism would remain a forgotten word in a discarded document, rather than an idea that needed to be spoken of, breathed life into, animated by the presence of bodies it impacted. Ideas, for Raikhy, could only come alive through practice and performance.




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So then, does the artist at this moment necessarily have to play the role of the activist? Raikhy responds by saying that one’s works should always be asking questions; it is the artist’s responsibility to decide which questions compel them the most. If ordinary modes of protest continue to be attacked, and space for dissent shrinks, then it is within the sphere of performance that he must necessarily place his questions. He began by sharing videos of what he termed secular rituals, with close friends. This on-going performance ritual was not driven by the need to find an audience, but something which he found even more crucial — the need to leave behind an archive and an impression of the times we are living in, as a way to make sense of the present. The sharing and circulating of the secular belief, no matter how small the audience, became a central impulse of the project.

This is where the use of social media as a tool of dissemination became a part of the project, at the insistence of a friend, as something that needed to be placed out in the world. As someone who struggled to adapt and create work for the virtual world, it became for him an interesting interaction between the physical and the digital worlds. It charts the evolving project — as the archive and impression which Raikhy speaks of — tying together images, video clips and in some cases text that acts as provocation to what the digital viewer is witnessing. The framing of the images and videos and the positioning of the camera often act as additional storytelling devices. One of the earliest clips has the camera suspended from a ceiling fan, as the performing body below wraps itself in the banner, building an almost visceral nausea in the viewer if one stares at it too long, as though reminding one of the increasing momentum of religious polarisation unfolding through the country. One can not only follow the banner through recognisable landmarks like Lucknow, Varanasi, Prayagraj, Agra, Khajuraho and more, but also through the more everyday locales of highways, open fields, local ponds and wire fences in its simultaneous search and proclamation of the secular country envisioned within the constitution.

As the lockdown began to lift, Raikhy began imagining a more public space for this secular ritual he began within the confines of his home. Making this private ritual public was a gradual process, as he negotiated the presence of additional bodies around him. It was a process of becoming comfortable with the ‘airing’ of ideas he had decided to embark upon. In the initial days, he remembers unwrapping his banner only when there were close to no people around. As he got more used to it, he let himself perform his secular ritual where people could see but were often not close enough to come into dialogue with him. He is now finally at the point where he allows himself to be seen and engage conversationally with anyone who might want to talk to him. The digital or social media dimension of the project remains for him a more tangential aspect of the project, a way of engaging with a greater number of people. For Raikhy, this was more importantly to comprehend how public space had been transformed by the pandemic, and how it could be occupied afresh.

He hopes that soon people will begin to join him in this ritual by doing something as simple as holding the banner, as a way of holding and sharing a belief in secularism between themselves. For him, what has emerged also has to do with the vulnerability of placing one’s body in a public space that is not strictly demarcated for performance. What does his outlier body, with a banner proclaiming 'SECULAR INDIA' do? How is it shaped by this mediation on the public space? The responses have ranged from incomprehension, to excitement, but what has become most clear to him is that this belief of a 'secular India' has not been performed enough; it has not been performed by our arts, and there aren’t any rituals which perform this belief of secularism. The word itself is not discussed fully, neither in public discourse, nor within the education system. On the other hand, he feels the lack of this understanding has also led to him ‘getting away’ with his performance, where people are unsure of what he is stating, and so they leave it be. But this incomprehension points, once again, to the need for secularism to emerge as an embodied experience and practice.

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A post shared by The Secular Project (@thesecularproject)

Raikhy acknowledges that his experience of public spaces is one informed by his own gender and privilege. But also, the public space itself is gendered, in that it is men who occupy the public spaces he offers his secular rituals in. The enactment of the same public ritual might be very different for other gender identities and class positions, not to mention caste positions. For this writer, it demonstrates vividly the most crucial questions in the circulation of ideas and beliefs. Which bodies mould ideas and to what extent? How can all bodies participate in the shaping of beliefs central to our existence as a democratic, secular republic?

At the same time, the dancing body, which performs outside of forms considered indigenous, is barely acknowledged by the State. How does one talk to a State that only vaguely registers the presence of dance and movement practices outside of the canonised classical world? Raikhy says that institutions exist to confer a stable identity and uphold a world order. To expect acknowledgment from the State would be a futile exercise. More so, this acknowledgement or meeting a yardstick set by the State often means that one can no longer question it, and one becomes involved in an embodied practice by it (as much of classical dance remains, for example), according to the artist.

Ultimately, not only this project, but also the artistic endeavour for Raikhy, is about finding communities and solidarities with which to resist. Simultaneously, it is also a solitary journey where each person must be ready to wade the quagmire, and find one’s own method to question, respond and consider the world one is a part of. With India’s 72nd Republic Day having just gone by, it is time to revisit the democratic ideals enshrined in our Constitution. Much debate emerged from the presence of a religious flag within the farmers' protests on the day. But what then are our symbols of secularism? Perhaps then, this negotiation of a secular ritual is one that we must pay closer attention to not just as an answer, but also as a reminder to our commitment as a secular country.

Ranjini Nair is a Kuchipudi practitioner and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge.

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