I could not remember the last time I sat in darkness so absolute. With every door and window barricaded in the room at the University of Visual and Performing Arts in Colombo, I would not have been able to see my hand if I held it in front of my nose. It was so utterly disorienting that I had to work to suppress a little bubble of panic in my chest, latching on to the comforting sound of someone giggling behind me and the creaking of shifting boards under our feet, as my neighbour adjusted her stance.
Somewhere in the darkness, Sara Mikolai began her performance. It was day two of the Colombo Dance Platform’s festival Shakti: A Space for a Single Body and this German-Sri Lankan experimental dancer had made some interesting choices. For a start, if she was dancing, we could not see it. There was only an unidentifiable sound, and at one point I heard the soft tinkle of ghungroos. A laugh rising out of the darkness and the brief murmur of speech marked the end of the performance.
Soon after, Mikolai sat down before a crowd to talk about her piece and her multiple rejections: of dance traditions that refuse questioning, of boxes such as contemporary and modern, the exoticising of her heritage, and even the demand that she share more of her personal history.
“If I wanted the audience to know my story, I would tell them,” she said. “I refuse to remain in these categories where I just cannot find myself. It is a new beginning. It is a ground of not knowing.”
I admired what Mikolai had set out to do, but found myself underwhelmed by what was actually done. I knew others felt differently, and these divergent conversations were what Shakti’s curator Venuri Perera had hoped to enable.
Over the course of three days in September and October, Perera presented a collection of remarkably diverse solo pieces by female artists: performances such as that of researcher-dancer Lakni Prasanjali pairing lipstick and fire to create a visual spectacle, pressed up against Indian performer Mirra’s meditation on materialism and society, and artist Tara Transitory’s improvised, wild, feel-the-bass-in-your-chest sound. The only exception to the gender rule was the Sri Lankan dancer Pradeep Gunarathna, who managed to fit in anyway as his performance was dedicated to embodying one woman’s oscillation between a goddess and a female demon.
As curator, Perera said she wanted to create a platform that offered space and opportunities to solo performers.
A performer herself, Perera explained: “It is a very different way of making work, and I wanted people to have a sense of what a wonderful form this is because it exposes the vulnerability of the performers, their power and their individuality. There are so many different things that can be done with solo practice, and we wanted to have a space that celebrated that.”
The diversity of approach and aesthetic among her performers was intentional. Perera wanted Sri Lankan students and artists to look and decide for themselves whether this is a way they would like to work, learning more about themselves by exposure to very different kinds of practice.
Chankethya Chey – who comes from a background of classical Cambodian dance – was in many ways the most easily accessible. The rules forbids performers to speak during traditional performances, but Chey used the spoken word to create an intensely personal piece that allowed her to interrogate identity, and the nature of love and loyalty in her relationships with her mother and guru. The Sri Lankan audience, who have also lived through prolonged conflict, responded to what felt like Chey’s invitation to talk about the wider context of violence and reconciliation in politically oppressive societies.
“It is by questioning the tradition, that I keep it alive,” Chey said.
Later, she explained that she began her solo practice when she moved to the US. “In America, no one practiced my form, and I had to be responsible for my own art.” She realised she needed to take a step back to really unpack her history and her relationships with her mother and guru, two of the most powerful influences in her life. “I needed to isolate myself,” she said.
The Indian artist Mirra experiences her own version of this isolation – she is often challenged for not being “Indian enough” – and, as a result, is constantly seeking new audiences. She feels so strongly about her message of questioning consumerism that she has performed in apartment buildings and called up colleges to ask if they will allow her into their auditoriums. She said she does this to avoid the usual audiences of performers and critics – “I don’t want to preach to the converted, to be sitting there constantly shining each other’s apples”. The crux of her practice, built in solitude, is her faith in herself.
It is something that every performer at the Shakti festival, from the curator down, grapples with. In the case of Mallika Taneja, her solo performances have earned her the spotlight and yet leave her questioning the very ground she stands on.
Taneja began her performance at the Goethe Institut in Colombo completely nude, and ended it wrapped in dozens upon dozens of garments, three pairs of socks, mittens, sunglasses, and a helmet.
In the monologue that sped up to accompany her increasingly frantic actions as she pulled on more and more clothes, Taneja used wit and humour to eviscerate the notion that women could protect themselves against assault simply by taking a little more care. Her opening, which confronts deeply held discomforts about naked bodies, had people looking away, unable to meet the performer’s eyes. But she said she was utterly comfortable in the nude. And neither did she take on “the responsibility of the responsibility” of playing to society’s expectations of what makes a woman good and pure.
Her performances have changed her own outlook, she told Scroll.in: “It has taken a lot time, but I really do wear whatever I want to wear. I do still think of questions of safety of course, but the idea of what is appropriate or not, doesn’t come up for me.”
Though personally liberating, Taneja’s brave performance has often left her standing outside more conservative spaces and traditional communities. “At one point, there were more articles than shows,” Taneja said, talking about how organisers have requested that she appear in underwear rather than nude, and that she has been tucked away into more basements and private rooms than she can count. Though she has performed in places like Zurich, Paris and London, her appearance in Colombo is her first outside India in the Subcontinent.
But if she does not find herself always fitting in among her contemporaries, the artist said her audience has never been the problem. She said they have so far been entirely honest both in their criticism and praise of her work, and it seems like her place is, in a sense, with them. In that context, the workshops in which Taneja and all the others participated were critical in allowing the artists to unpack and interrogate their work with students from as far away as Jaffna in the north of Sri Lanka. Taneja said the workshops were one of her favourite parts of the festival.
Perera, who is a member of the dance panel of the Arts Council of Sri Lanka, said she hopes that they will be to carve out a space with regular events, performances, conversations and room to devise performances in the months ahead. Shakti itself allowed audiences and performers to gather for a mini-festival in the long gap between Colombo Dance Platform events. “Perhaps I am being selfish,” she said, “because I have been working independently for so long, I crave community.” Always travelling, Perera said her network in many ways is actually more outside her homeland than in it. “I would like to change that.”