Writer Tishani Doshi introduces her long-time lover, poetry, to dance

Feb 25, 2018, 10:29 IST | Jane Borges

The sound of a string churning to the slow, but dramatic rhythms of a percussion instrument, closely hoisted by Doshi's recitation of verse, and lifted by the measured movements of her body, is poetry in performance

Pics/Michael Vatikiotis, Carlo Pizzati
Pics/Michael Vatikiotis, Carlo Pizzati

One can't dismiss the energy pervading writer and dancer Tishani Doshi's recent choreography. The sound of a string churning to the slow, but dramatic rhythms of a percussion instrument, closely hoisted by Doshi's recitation of verse, and lifted by the measured movements of her body, is poetry in performance.

When Doshi, a student of legendary dancer Chandralekha, recently decided to showcase verse from her new collection, Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods (HarperCollins India), on stage, it was the first time that she had decided to bring the two art forms she most engages with, together. Over the last two months, Doshi has been captivating audiences at literary festivals across India, including Mumbai, Jaipur and recently in Bengaluru, with this rivetting combination.

"For years people asked me about combining dance and poetry. And, I always felt that they fed into each other in any case, of course – because of time, and rhythm and slowness and what it means to walk onto a dark stage, and what it means to stare at the blank page, and what it means to give yourself as an artist, in terms of vulnerability. But, I never actually felt like I needed to twin the two things in a concrete way until Girls are Coming," says Doshi.

What's most affecting about Doshi's performance is the incantation of the lines from her poem, which shares its name with the title of her book. "Girls are coming out of the woods, lifting their broken legs high, leaking secrets from unfastened thighs, all the lies whispered by strangers and swimming coaches, and uncles, especially uncles, who said spreading would be light and easy…," she recites.

With #metoo and Time's Up campaigns lifting the veil on the predatory nature of men, this poem couldn't have come at a better time. Doshi doesn't deny how closely reflective the words are with what's happening globally, but she admits to have penned it down years ago, as a reaction to what happened to Jyoti Singh in December 2012 on a bus in Delhi. "I was in Ireland on a bus, passing these tremendous forests and it must have been six months after Jyoti had been raped in Delhi. I had this image of armies of women coming out of those woods, bearing weapons, in various stages of mutilation. Women who had been raped, killed, tortured - and they were coming back to claim their voices. I wrote the poem as a kind of anthem, a battle cry: To say that there must be a resurrection of sorts, a return, and that it does not end with death," recalls Doshi, who lives in Paramankeni, a coastal village around 85 km from the city of Chennai. However, describing Doshi's new poetry book as a melancholic expression of our times would be limiting the nature of her work.

Her new collection also reflects an impressive variety, from fantasy to finding happiness and love, and her own expereinces as a dancer. The poem, 'Your Body Language Is Not Indian! or Where I Am Snubbed at a Cocktail Party by a Bharatnatyam Dancer' is one such.

The work, she says, emerged from a throwaway comment someone made when they heard Doshi, who is born to a Welsh mother and Gujarati father, was a dancer. "But your body language is not Indian," this person said. "I wondered about what defines Indian body language. How certain bodies may be deemed 'authentic' and others not. How because of my mixed race background, this question of fitting has in any case always been a chip on my shoulder. And, how offended I was that 20 years of yoga and several years of Kallaripayattu and a 15-year apprenticeship with Chandralekha was not deemed Indian enough. Yeah, so I was pi***d. I wrote a poem," says Doshi.

That this unbridled poetry collection also saw the 42-year-old elevate her experiments in dance, wasn't something she saw coming. Neither was the fact that she wanted to become a dancer. "I had absolutely no desire to be a dancer. It was never a thing I thought about because I'd never studied dance seriously," says Doshi, who joined Chandralekha - known for her postmodern fusion of dances - at the age of 26. "You know, the thing about Chandra, for anyone who ever knew her, was that she was a wildly charismatic person. She had the gift of intimacy, which meant that almost as soon as she met you, she was a part of your life, and you were part of hers. And that's what happened with me. She asked me to come work with her and the way she said it, made it sound like it would be the biggest adventure of my life," says Doshi.

But, it was dance that came to her rescue when her writings were going nowhere. "I published by first book, a book of poems, Countries of the Body, in 2006, which means that I'd spend a decade of my life engaged with poetry without ever knowing if it would go anywhere. To have dance in that time was a real anchor. I felt that even if I never published anything, I was still a dancer. I knew I would never give up on poetry, but it mattered less that things weren't happening at a speed that I might have desired. You can say that dance taught me to be patient."

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