I’ve known no greater loneliness than to walk onto a dark stage, put my navel to a small fluorescent cross on the ground, and begin. I am a writer, so I like to think I know something about loneliness. And I have survived childhood, a place beset with loneliness. But I know that the real enemy of childhood is boredom, and that even though writers talk about the terror of the blank page, it is simply not the same as positioning your body onto a stage so that people may stare at it.
I became a dancer at 26. It was one of those moments when you hear wheels rattling beneath you, moving you in a direction you had not expected to travel. Her name was Chandralekha, and you know her image, the white hair, the intense eyes, the laugh. She lived in a house of swings, facing the Bay of Bengal, in a garden choked with neem trees. The first time I met her she made me do backbends in her living room, inspecting me as though I were a svelte Arabian pony, when in fact I was more like an overfed llama — energetic and agile but with little understanding of a centre. She asked: “Would you like to come work with me?” I said, yes.
For 15 years I performed a piece called Sharira , which in Sanskrit means the unending body. This turned out to be Chandralekha’s final choreography. Some have questioned whether it is even dance. It begins with a body — mine — emerging, coming to life for 22 minutes on the floor. Later, I am joined by another body, my dance partner’s, Shaji K. John, who leaps onto stage with a flying kick, before crouching down before me.
For many years I thought of us as two creatures — amoeba, butterflies, birds. There was something primordial about our movements, the way you could discern a leg here, an arm there. Through the shafts of light and shadows, it sometimes felt that we were the first creatures emerging from sea to land. Sharira is a strong, slow piece with definite overtones of purusha-prakriti, shiva-shakti, male-female, but over the years I lost sense of these binaries, and it became about transcending gender altogether. An ancient, androgynous, sensual space, where it was simply body being celebrated.
Only two spaces
Writing or talking about dance is almost as bad as watching videos of dance. It becomes a dead thing, stripped of all vitality. There are only two spaces, the rehearsal space, layer upon layer of time, where repetition and revelation live side by side. And the performance space, where everything is tested. To view either of these through a lens is to diminish it somewhat. Of the two, the rehearsal space is most sacred because it is the ode to the everyday. But for those of you who may have sat in the dark as a member of the audience, let me attempt a brief picture from the other side of the stage.
Everything changes in the dark. Your body, that you imagined you knew so well, becomes a stranger. Arms and legs quiver. You, who have spent so many hours on a stone floor, repeating movements, are no longer you. The first wash of light. Momentary warmth. Tanpuras start, and their stirring drags something up inside you as well. Movement begins from your navel, which is pinned to that small cross on the floor. This is your centre. Over the course of an hour, you will try to hold that centre. You will try to hold time. Many things will vie for your distraction. Bangles clinking softly. Throats being evacuated. The morning’s sadness. Once, in Bhopal, a cockroach landed on the inside of your thigh, and the entire audience let out a collective gasp. You continue to move your legs without flinching. For days afterwards, you feel the cockroach’s dry legs and wings upon your thigh.
The poet, Marianne Moore, said that the only cure for loneliness is solitude. I think, perhaps, what she meant is that we must learn to inhabit this space of loneliness so that we may know ourselves better, so that we may create. The remarkable thing is that while writers must endure this solitude alone, dancers can share their solitudes. When Shaji leaps on stage at minute 22, the pattern of my breathing changes. It’s not just that the anxiety of being alone on stage passes, it is simply that we can be alone together.
There is a point in the production when we both stand on our heads for a few minutes. In the sunlight of our theatre, it is the moment I feel most like an oak tree, rooted to the ground, branches rippling softly in the breeze. Under the lights of the stage though, I turn into a sapling in a gale, and it is only when I lock into Shaji’s eyes that I steady somewhat. He cannot ease the cramp rising in my thigh. Were I to topple, he could only improvise. But the eye lock assures me that I have done this so many times, and I can do it again.
“Always walk alone,” Chandra once told me. We were on a train to Baroda in 2002 for my first performance. Our journey was delayed by 33 hours, and she told me of her travels in Greece and Egypt. How she wandered the streets looking for the Fisher Boy of Thebes, how disappointed she was that the descendants of Ramses had none of the rectangular glory of their ancestors. She talked of postures, of women — how in India they had been carrying water on their hips and putting flowers in one another’s hair in the same fashion for centuries. She spoke of the girl of Mohenjo-Daro and herself and me as though we were all part of an unbroken line and could always communicate with one another.
Yesterday, it was 11 years since her death. I remind myself of the things she said — about resisting the mechanical, about the luxury of slowness. But it is loneliness I keep returning to. As a writer I suffer that loneliness, because the relationship between the page and the world is a delayed one and not necessarily tangible. But as a dancer, I know loneliness to be a strength. It is like the concept of zero or shunya — nothingness and fullness. It’s how I assess my limitations and possibilities. On the dark stage I understand that within the body there are multiplicities; that in the rarest of moments I can be the light and the music, the rain on the pavement outside, a prehistoric beating heart. And yes, even a withered cockroach wing.
After a failed career in scuba diving, writer-dancer Tishani Doshi moved to a beach to grow vegetables. Her latest book of poetry is Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods .