Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Summer in Chennai

Has summer arrived?

Someone on chat asked

From some place far away,

Where summer arrives every year.

In here, I said,

Summer arrived in time immemorial.


It plays variations like batik print.

But always, like thin batik shirts,

Sticks to the skin

And traces ungainly contours.

When some of us here smile

For no reason,

Eternal summer's wet embraces are to blame.

Sometimes it rains

Sometimes it rains

The way unlikely dates happen.

Suspicions of mutual dislike

Sometimes end in candle lights

And going dutch.

Flirting with grimy sweat,

Summer rain is a salty tickle.

But I wonder why I think of you

With the first scent of rain before rain.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Joe Erbentraut's Interview with me on Edgeonthenet.com

Joe Erbentraut is an excellent journalist working on many issues that often fail to assume centrality within the LGBT rights movements -- issues like racism, sexism, poverty, etc. He interviewed me as part of his "Future Queer Leaders" series of profiles at Edge Media Network. You can read the interview HERE. Thank you! 

Women's Art of the Everyday

I am happy to see that Tara Books have posted my blog on a wonderful workshop they conducted in February 2011.

Selvi, a very gifted Kolam artist and a lovely woman, passed away tragically earlier this month. I am touched that   my friends at Tara Books have dedicated the blog to Selvi's memory.

Please read the blog HERE.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Dangerous Talk of Balance

(Written for my column "Monthly Misgivings" in Media Voice magazine)

I am always amused at the idea of me that people who don't know me seem to have. Recently, someone asked me if I could speak to the members of a club about how I balance my work and life. Ever the first one to laugh at jokes - unintended or otherwise - made at my expense, I had to exercise great control to keep up my serious demeanour. "You are always doing  a lot of things, travelling here and there. It all sounds like a lot of fun," he said. Amidst feeling flattered, I did not fail to notice the beautiful haziness of it all. He only knew I did a lot of "things" and that I travelled "here and there." A big thought bubble formed over my head, and inside it was my face with an evil grin etched on it, and the lines, "Oh... so that is what I possess. Mystery value. No one knows what I do!" 

It is not as if I try hard to conceal the details of my work life. But the idea of one full-time, salaried job is such an oppressive norm that it has spread its tentacles over people's heads and sucked out from them any possibility of looking at life and work differently. Someone quite innocently asked me what I do. In all earnestness, I listed out the different things I do. The poor soul looked completely baffled and said, "But what do you do full-time?" It was my turn to look baffled. I said, "I live full-time. Everything else I do part-time." It was only a few minutes later, and only after being prompted by the cheers of the other people around, that I sensed I had said something that could be considered witty. As usual, I had been witty without meaning to be so. My baffled responses to everyday queries from people have earned me a questionable reputation for being witty. 

But I love it that people think I am so put together and focussed. Little do they know that I am as focussed as a ........ Sorry, I drifted off.

It often happens to me that I realize that the person I am talking to thinks more highly of me than I do myself! I have sort of resented it, too. When someone thinks highly of you, there is a certain pressure to live up to that image. When you protest and try to disabuse them of their fancy notions, they think you are falsely modest! There is no way out. You just have to quietly resign to the faith that time will reveal to them their delusions, that they will soon know what a nincompoop you are! 

On the other hand, we are never good enough for some people. But we would flagellate ourselves to make this crowd understand our worth. Who cares about those who think we are wonderful when there is a thronging mass of people, often close at hand, that makes you think your worst suspicion is true - that you are worthless? 

On a serious note, how hard it is for some of us to accept compliments, believe them, and see us in our own true glory! As my favourite poet Wislawa Szymborska says in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, "in our clamorous times it's much easier to acknowledge your faults, at least if they're attractively packaged, than to recognize your own merits, since these are hidden deeper and you never quite believe in them yourself." 

Very true. I would like to believe in my merits. And I resolve do so as soon as I find out what they are. Also, I need to do something about this wretched force of habit that finds in my faults a richer source of humour than in my merits, whatever and wherever they are. The moment I find something else that makes me funny, I will drop my self-deprecation. I promise, my dear poet!

In the mean time, I have agreed to speak at this meeting about my work and life. But I managed to bypass the murky terrain of balance, or its utter lack there of. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Failing at Epic Episode Scale, and the Epiphanies Therein

A recent experience brought to mind the first half of the title of JK Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech of 2008: “The Fringe Benefits of Failure….” But I think I feel this way because of my proclivity to drama. For neither did I encounter failure, not were the benefits so fringe.

Some of you might have heard about a performance piece I have been working on for a few months now.  Some of you were there the first time I performed it as a work in progress in March 2011 at Madras-Chennai Local’s event, “Dancers – Separate and Together,” a video of which was taken and uploaded by friends at www.archive.org/details/Brihannala.  Some among those some were even kind enough to watch it again, when I performed it for the Justice Rocks fundraiser for campaigns working with pollution-impacted communities, on 5 June 2011. This second performance of the short version of Brihannala, which is developing into a longer and more fully fledged performance piece and taking me to exciting places (speaking both figuratively as well as literally), brought with it a staggering moment of insight and humility.

For those of you who have not watched the performance or the video: the piece is in the form of a self-narrative by an actor who plays Brihannala repeatedly as part of a theatre tradition. He maps his gender non-conformity and same-sex desires onto the character of Brihannala, an ephemeral persona in the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. Brihannala, is, in fact, Arjuna, one of the heroes of the epic, spending the last year of his exile with his brothers and wife, as a eunuch.

An obviousness that could perhaps use some stating here is that a big part of this work is also autobiographical: if not the specific details, at least the essence of the desires and dilemmas spoken about are. In thinking about the kind of inner resources that Arjuna dug into in being Brihannala, in the work, I wonder where he found the  energy within himself, what he was sublimating in thus castrating, almost literally, himself, one of the most celebrated heroes of Hindu mythology, possessor of a sort of an iconic masculinity even. Reflecting on his own repeated performance of Brihannala and his love for the character Arjuna as well as the actor who plays the part, the speaking subject, which is me, says that he knows how he keeps his sanity, what he sublimates in his performances. I had ended the script and the first performance of it with the lines “I think I know” repeated over drumbeats and some mad stomping of feet.

This moment and the kind of certainty of knowing something that it offered me were, I had assumed, pivotal to the piece as well as my current reading of my compass of desires. In the second performance of this piece, however, the rug was pulled from under my feet. When I came to the moment where I compensate for my lack of clue about Arjuna's psyche as Brihannala with an admission of my knowledge of my own mechanisms of forbidden desires, self-sublimation and sanity, I froze momentarily. Right there, while performing in front of a hundred people, I was presented with the recognition that this time around, I was not so sure I knew what I sublimated in my performance of genders, what I did to keep myself sane. There I stood, deprived of the impressive sense of sure-footedness with which I had ended my script, which I had assumed I could just stick to for any number of performances. There I was, a mere few months after the scripting and the first performance, having lost that certainty.

But I could worry about those later. What was more urgent was to decide what had to be done right then, while faced with this realization that ran completely counter to the script. Someone said epiphanies happen outside time. Wasn’t it James Joyce? Virginia Woolf had a remarkable phrase: “a moment of being.” I chose to be truthful. And the performance ended with my saying, “I am not sure. I thought I knew. I thought I knew.”

The insight was not only that I did not know whatever it was that I thought I knew. It also had something to do with a question: what do I do with such knowledge, albeit knowledge of an ignorance, while I am in the middle of giving an account of myself, even when that exercise is in the form of a performance. Not that I have resolved this question forever in favour of a candid disclosure, simply because I managed to do it once. All I know is that I did it once somehow trusting that the universe and the audience present that day wouldn’t laugh at me even if the performance capsized under the weakness of the moment. I do not know what I will do next time. Well, I do not know what will happen next time!

Why did I refer to JK Rowling’s speech about the fringe benefits of failure? Well, without being too harsh on myself, I can say that I did fail a little that day as a performer in not being able to deliver a power-packed performance that is rock steady in its course. But at a personal level, I am immensely grateful for this experience. In thus admitting aloud my not knowing some things, in recognizing that some of my answers are makeshift, I was able to get updated about myself. It is generally good to catch up with one’s truths at least once in a while, I guess. It could keep the effects of self-delusions at check, if not entirely at bay.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Back to Essentialisms

I have been a little bothered about a conversation I had with an online friend about my previous post, "Shut up and dance? Really?" Basically, she felt that much of what I had written was unnecessary thinking on my part and that I had allowed it to come in the way of my letting go and dancing, in my path to finding bliss in dance. Besides a suspicion that she perhaps thought I was kind of playing up my gay identity in my writings, I have also been discomfited by a near-total refusal on her part to engage with the crux of the piece. Of course, if what I consider to be the crux of the piece did not come through in the writing, it is only me who is to blame. 

Don't get me wrong. She meant well. Very well, in fact. She genuinely felt that I was thinking too much and allowing that to come in the way of enjoying my dance, in reaching a self-forgetting abandon or bliss that I seem to have suggested I crave. I am touched by the concern. When I said, for the sake of argument, that perhaps I did not want to forget my self in dance, she pointed out to the hollowness of that argument by showing that I did indeed seem to desire it, by directing me to what I had written.

She was right. But the thinking, however unnecessary may it be in anyone's opinion, does not end there. It is not only a question of putting up roadblocks to one's experience of bliss in dance. It also includes the questions "what specific roadblocks?" "what specific dance?" I think it is a place of privelege to be able to prescribe abandoment of thought and processes of making sense of oneself as a general panacea for issues of self-identity. I now realize that what is at the core of the issues that I have discussed in that piece is not a subjective lamenting of my inability to transcend my self. It is, in fact, an attempt to recognize that this space -- Bharata Natyam's contemporary caste-class-gender matrix -- arrogantly calls for a relinquishing of a self that it does not care about, that it positions itself as a pseudo-spiritual space that suggests differences do not matter in way only hegemonic spaces and narratives can. 

Then the question is not so much whether I want this space for the sublimation of my self, but more about whether we should spend more time teasing out what various things we mean by words like bliss, self, etc., about the several layers of essentialisms that are mounted over these terms. And when someone speaks about being at loggerheads with a cultural practice one has engaged in, could we be more respectful than to call their thought process "unnecessary," even if it appears to be so from some haloed hall of privilege? 

Bharata Natyam's history, its texts, its relationship with issues of caste, class, religion, gender and sexuality are very much situated ones. They have definite loci of power. To construct it is as a spiritual space of great levelling of differences is also an exercise that is part of that same history. There is so much to be teased out, including the apparent contradiction in the fact that despite so much "unnecessary thinking," I continue to engage with the form. That engagement feels like a dance in itself.