On June 28, at a protest against Junaid Khan’s lynching, his relatives reminisced about the boy who had made a pre-Eid shopping trip to Old Delhi, not knowing it was to be his last. As his brother read out Junaid’s letter from heaven, there wasn’t a dry eye to be seen.

The Delhi protest denounced hate by opting to speak about love and appealing to people as individual agents of change. How could one sustain this voice after the furore died down? As a group of dancers, we instinctively turned to our bodies for answers. Finding ourselves in a studio in Delhi a week after the Not in My Name protests, we wondered: in what codes and tensions of selfhood and citizenship could we find a language of resistance? How was this resistance ingrained in the muscularity of the body? How should one respond to being told how to pray, what to eat, and whom to hate? These questions evolved into Long Nights of Resistance, a series of night-long performances that mobilise dance, music and poetry in an attempt to reclaim the citizen body. The performances are an assemblage of structures that draw from our experiences of prayer, endurance and patriotism.

“As dancers, we have access to a knowledge of the body that helps us formulate and embody some of these ideas,” said choreographer Mandeep Raikhy, one of the collaborators. “For instance, I was struck by how the body is central to many of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution. A movement that articulates dissent needs to have several manifestations, and as dancers, we are able to do this through the body.”

Photo credit: Ranjana Dave

The art of protest

With their ability to encompass the spectrum of human experience, the arts have been a crucial form of protest in times of socio-political change. In 2012, theatre artist Maya Krishna Rao created Walk, a performative monologue that sought to call out the absence of, and reclaim, women’s rights to safety in public spaces and freedom of movement. Walk was made in response to the December 16 gangrape. “I’ll walk, I’ll sit on a bus, I’ll lie in the park, I’ll try not to be afraid of the dark,” Rao intones, juxtaposing a daily timeline of life against the ominous experiences of women in public spaces. For Rao, Walk later became a template for protest performance – its everydayness at odds with the sinister forces that seek to undermine it.

She went on to perform it at the Jawaharlal Nehru University student protests in 2016, and again at the Not in My Name protests in June 2017. In another instance, during the Arab Spring in 2013, dancers of Egypt’s Cairo Opera Ballet Company took to the streets, performing the ballet Zorba outside the Ministry of Culture to protest against Islamist statements made by public officials who sought to denounce ballet as the “art of nudity”. Performed daily over 25 days, Zorba became one of the headlining acts of the sit-in protests outside the ministry. When Zorba returned to the Cairo Opera House stage three months later, it had become a powerful symbol of protest against an oppressive regime.

These were some of the influences we carried into the studio. At our first rehearsal, we used a palette of functional and ritual gestures drawn from our experience of worship, to elaborate on a time-based movement structure. The dancers walked back and forth, keeping time as they genuflected, brought their palms together and raised their heads to the skies. A few days later, we chanced upon American composer Steve Reich’s 1966 piece Come Out, made in the aftermath of the Little Fruit Stand Riot in Harlem. The riot had followed the arrest of six black men who were arrested and beaten for defending a group of children who knocked over a fruit stand.

Photo credit: Desmond Roberts

Reich used the voice of Daniel Hamm, one of the six arrested men, as Hamm recalled needing to reopen a bruise to let out some blood, to prove that he had indeed been beaten in jail. In Reich’s looped and eventually overlapped fragmentation of the words “come out to show them”, the act of reopening a bruise to ask for justice begins to assume greater proportions as a voice against hate.

Reich’s music lent a deliberate, performative quality to the physicality of deference we were experimenting with. Thus, when the dancers in Long Nights of Resistance “come out to show them”, they project belief and commitment to the gestures they perform, within the rituals prescribed by the movement structure. Yet, they also subvert these gestures as the structured physicality of deference gradually succumbs to the body’s vulnerability.

The structures that make up the performance are named after the experiences they suggest – Pray, Attention, Endure, Eat, Touch, Complicity and so on. Poet-storyteller Sabika Abbas Naqvi, who reads poetry to complement some of these sections, finds that the movement structures are open to interpretation. “It is a beautiful form of awareness and advocacy, within and without,” she said. “Resistance should be an automated reflex in these troubled times, but that is not the case. These long nights of resistance are an act of reclaiming the night by staying awake and keeping our eyes open. They are metaphorical for me since the night is about sleep and peace – neither of which we can afford in times of oppression, violence and injustice.”

Photo credit: Ranjana Dave

Many of the collaborators share these questions about resistance as reflex action. As a dance-maker, Meghna Bhardwaj wonders what it would mean to practise resistance in daily life, beyond performing it in a structured environment. “Where do I draw the line and declare – this is the comfort I’m willing to give up?” she asked. “Is this private introspection or a public act of resistance? These moments on the edge, of nearly giving up, are when you feel completely alive in performance.”

The dancerly trap of using the body to represent rather than embody was strong. “An aperture between what is being viewed and performed is necessary,” said Raikhy. “What kind of exchange are you setting up between the viewer and the doer? You have to move away from superimposed meaning so that you are surprised by what the body has to offer, rather than moulding the body to make a certain kind of meaning.”

For the audience, Long Nights of Resistance is also a durational challenge, with eight hours of performance each night. It seeks to test their patience, co-opting them into games of endurance and complicity. For instance, the Endure structure of the performance sees the dancers spending an hour getting in and out of the plank position – where the weight of the body is equally distributed between all four limbs. The dancers’ ability to stay in the position is of little value here. The drama begins when their arms and legs tremble, when their spines begin to arch and curl in, each tremor leading to a bigger one, as they struggle to maintain their position. What starts off as an aesthetic experience of the virtuosic dancer body transforms into a study of fatigue and fragility as the body enters the vicious circle of putting up a fight, only to lose and start all over. Ultimately, it is through these tensions that the body reclaims and exercises its agency as the ‘citizen body’.

Photo credit: Desmond Roberts

Long Nights of Resistance is being performed at the Gati Studios in New Delhi from 9 pm to 5 am between July 20 and July 22.