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How Mandeep Raikhy embarked on a quest for a secular India

Anishaa Tavag | Updated on June 01, 2021

A new perspective: Raikhy’s project evokes questions about our relationship with the secular   -  COURTESY: MANDEEP RAIKHY

Through the search for a new mode of resistance, the Delhi-based choreographer’s experiment questions our relationship with the secular fabric of India

* Driven by the desire to bring the secular back into our lives, The Secular Project conceptualised and performed by Mandeep Raikhy is available for viewing on Instagram @thesecularproject

* Underlining the need for something more sustainable than “anti-government” resistance alone, his is a quest for the realisation of an idea

***

Since the end of 2020, Delhi-based choreographer Mandeep Raikhy has been travelling across India with two banners: one that reads “SECULAR INDIA,” and the other, its Hindi equivalent, “Dharamnirpeksh Bharat.” He has invited artists, friends and strangers to have embodied dialogues with him and the banners. Through this ongoing artistic experiment, The Secular Project, Raikhy questions our relationship with the secular and compels us to experience it through our bodies. His experiment — which has traversed recognisable landmarks in Lucknow, Varanasi, Prayagraj, Agra, Khajuraho, Gujarat, Goa and more — is driven by the desire to bring the secular back into our lives, Raikhy says. The dialogue, he adds, began at a physical, rather than a conceptual, level, with the banner inviting bodily engagement. The project is available for viewing on Instagram @thesecularproject.

“Do we place it [the banner] between us? Do we lie on it? Do we caress it?” he asks, echoing the choices that he and his co-performers face when they come into this danced dialogue — which is more than a just metaphor for how citizens can conceive of secularity as a living, breathing idea today.

“A belief only exists because it’s performed,” he says, indicating the plethora of religious rites and rituals that reiterate our varied faiths. Raikhy asks if we can have an embodied understanding of the idea of the secular. Faith expresses itself through rituals and prayer; abstract ideas thus manifest in physical actions. But can there be such a thing as a secular ritual?

“I’m not trying to institutionalise or codify these rituals,” he explains. His works, which have travelled extensively in India and abroad over the last decade, have dealt with matters ranging from geographic and artistic identity to masculinity, and are not bound by form or style. Indeed, Raikhy displays a keen interest in the form of the body itself, finding questions of personal and socio-political relevance — such as those of same-sex intimacy and Article 377, which underpinned his 2016 work Queen-Size — emergent in the posturing of the body in a particular space and time.

In The Secular Project, the 40-year-old dance practitioner hopes to find rituals that bring the idea of the secular to life. The rituals themselves, Raikhy says, need to also be alive. They vary greatly depending on who is performing them — and this flexibility allows people to form connections where they can still articulate themselves authentically. “We are always looking to construct intimacy in some way,” he muses, referring to the thread of his exploration in Queen-Size, which continues into his current work. Being connected through solidarity, he says, is more important than asserting ideas through anger. His thoughts point to the hopeful possibility of a diverse nation premised on loving acceptance rather than hostility.

A living, breathing idea

Although he sees the Project as less of a choreographic work in the conventional sense, his background as a performer and choreographer undoubtedly gives him the creative tools to envision this experiment as a quest for new modes of resistance.

“Protests can be exhausting… There has to be something [in] between going to jail and going completely silent,” he says, alluding to the scores of activists and journalists who have been harassed, threatened and thrown in jail for expressing dissent against the ruling dispensation.

The search for this in-between expression is reflected in the diversity of performative material that the Project enfolds. A video taken on Mandrem Beach, Goa, posted on Instagram with the caption “Our Bodies will Come Together,” begins with a brief, instructional exchange between Raikhy and his co-performers; it then gives way to an aerial view of their bodies, ant-sized, slowly rolling together to form the words “SECULAR INDIA.”

No boundaries: Filmed in Gujarat “In Search of a Ritual” features a solitary Raikhy and his banner in the desert, on the beach and in open fields   -  COURTESY: MANDEEP RAIKHY

 

This moment of shared expression contrasts with another video, filmed in Gujarat and captioned “In Search of a Ritual,” which features a solitary Raikhy and his banner in the desert, on the beach and in open fields; his only interaction with another sentient being is a heartwarming moment of play with a wandering dog. His search is visible not only in this familiar, cinematic framing, but also in the dialogue between him and the banner, which becomes a co-performer in the work. He underlines the need for something more sustainable than “anti-government” resistance alone. His is a quest for the realisation of an idea.

“Some people hear the word secular and ask if I’m a Congressi aadmi [Congress man],” says Raikhy. Others, he says, associate it with French secularism and Westernisation.

Finding resonance

What has kept his experiment in motion, he says, is the range of encounters he has had with other players. However, it has not been a linear journey; some of the project’s social media posts have been received with hundreds of views, admiration and encouragement, while others have had lukewarm receptions.

A video of Raikhy and Masoom Parmar — both non-Hindu, queer male artists — engaging in an exploration of Bharatanatyam sparked a Facebook debate about the Brahmanical appropriation (versus Brahmin roots) of the form. It asks why secularity threatens not just the self-proclaimed custodians of a present-day art form, but also the historical, upper-caste imposition of Brahmanism on an earlier dance form, Sadir Attam, which all but disappeared after the Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act of 1947. The revival of the form and the birth of Bharatanatyam was undoubtedly a move towards fostering a kind of cultural nationalism against colonialism, but 73 years after national independence, The Secular Project is not framed against an outside ruler, but against the backdrop of shifting ideas of nationalism.

Audiences might wonder: is the idea of secularity at all relevant at a moment when lakhs of people are literally gasping for air? This moment will pass; we will once again hear chai-time debates over whom to vote for in the next general election. But the question of a secular nation is one that transcends the ideology of any party.

Anishaa Tavag is a dancer and writer based in Bengaluru

Published on June 01, 2021

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