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When five women smashed patriarchy: Praatohkrityo, An Urban Ritual

I am writing this as a straight Bengali upper-caste Hindu male who didn’t either choose these epithets nor has learned to enjoy the privileges, or rather, is painfully learning to unlearn them.

I am writing an impressionistic account of Theatre Formation Paribartak’s dance theatre, Praatohkrityo that premiered at Academy of Fine Arts on 21st February (which is, interestingly, the Intrenational Mother Tongue day). Instead of approximating a politically correct objectivity, I am trying to understand what this performance is doing to my unwanted identities.

Praatohkrityo posits a feminist self strongly, but let me try to assume a position of not being so. One’s claim to be a feminist cannot qualify her to be so. The performance is spellbinding – it is difficult summing up an artistic event which has a movement but not a narrative, an irreverent coda but not a closure, a politically persuasive edge but no messages as we are accustomed to receiving. I am not conversant with dance. My limited knowledge suggests me that dance can either be very classical – rules, codes, conventions abounding – or it can be spectacularly commodified – things we are so habituated to being exposed to a lifetime of mainstream Indian cinema.

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Bengali bhadralok men don’t need to learn even a rudimentary bit of dance like other cultures, not because they are tough, but because they are less physically expressive, less athletic, less accustomed to visceral enjoyment.

Incidentally, the musical strand of the performance, prominently features a dhak (along with drums, percussion, bass guitar and a saxophone with few recorded tracks) – a percussion which is supposed to send Bengali males into frenzies of limited steps; but again, something bhadraloks engages in controlled degrees. While women also do respond physically to the beatings of dhak, the dances during the pujas are largely a male affair. The iconic image of femininity associated with the dhak is – of course – the stasis of the sculptures of the deities. While the deities are often sculpted as if freezed moments in the middle of a martial dance, they are never supposed to move. Deities are essentially static; in other words – they are fixed both spatially and semantically, as supposed to be in patriarchal cultures bearing traces of a pre-Aryan matriarchal society.

In Praatohkrityo the figures do explode into a spatial and semantic chaos breaking free from the shackles of stasis. The performance begins with stasis: five girls standing in the stage for more than five minutes. They resemble less deities but more embodiments of a common minimum femininity, or, in two words – like mannequins. Then they start swaying – not necessarily in sync – as if they are thin like leaves in the breeze. Then they start walking as if they are strutting up and down ramps, colliding into each other now and then like balls in a snooker table. Praatohkrityo – likewise – for the next fifteen minutes or so, catalogs gestures, poses, signs which map the terrain called femininity in a mediatized urban space. Five girls present a montage of fragmented images – culled from TV screens, billboards, advertisements – spiraling in loops as in GIF images. We have moved from stasis to loops, a kind of suffocation has been set in desperately waiting for a breakthrough, and nothing but chaos can be better to disrupt these stultifying set of images, to open it up. Dance follows.

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In the meantime, I could imagine the subjectivities triggered by the preceding phases of performances. The girls are clad in minimal – men can lech at them; when they start moving – they look like, move like robots – men can only react as masculine viewing robots. Repetitions has its collateral drudgery, loops bring back the eversame though sheltering us in cocoons of comfortable meanings, spirals displace us to zones of unknown discomforts through the semblance of returning to the same point. So when dance happens, femininity explodes, collateral spectatorial masculinity is bound to change too. You either embrace the newness in your sensations, or you can deny, disavow that you are enjoying a defamiliarized eros. It might change to what? The liberation from loops and spirals is signified as a desire – exactly that, desire for liberation – when a lesbian act is contorted by normative prohibition and the lesbians on stage insists.

If I need to break free from the preceding suffocation, I need to identify with the queer desire to liberate. If I need to feel the pleasure of motion and chaos in my sinews, I need to identify with the femininity contrapuntal to nationalistic, sectarian, brahminical patriarchy. Let me repeat this, and elaborate: Praatohkrityo does not pursue a ‘meaningful’ narrative towards a closure, it does not use legible language to signify, ‘readable’ gestures or motions to communicate. The only traces of culturally readable ‘meaning’ is in the naming of forces it wants to oppose. The renegade counterpoint is not easily named. A name is a sign pointing at the signified, Praatohkrityo ‘becomes’ the signifying matter. Therefore, the bodies up there do not need meaningful costumes, meaningful archetypes, meaningful statements; the bodies becomes pulsating, throbbing, gyrating existence liberated beyond language. They become forces yet to be named. Therefore, the sheer visceral pleasure of motion, athleticism, power it unleashes – unleashing is the word – teases us that to enjoy it, feel it in our nerves and senses we need to break away – at least momentarily – from all those trappings of epithets with which I described myself at the beginning. Otherwise, the loss is mine. Otherwise, I am forced to brand these five girls as non-normative, upstart, indecent, queer (in the erstwhile way), disrespectful performers.

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It is the easier way of dealing with a new art, but such a response lessens my pleasure of identifying with liberation. Therefore, it depends – whether you are already desiring liberation beforehand when you experience the event – you might have a deja vu – or whether you consider radical changes detrimental to society, then you better cling to your known certainties. If the latter is opted, then I am bound to leave the theater with the hackneyed conviction that desire and pleasure lie in the domain of the ‘other’, where I will never be able to belong.

The pleasure and achievement of Praatohkrityo is exactly in pushing us – albeit momentarily – to a hazy zone of risky possibilities – the vertiginous bliss of becoming free.

Go for the push if you desire it.

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Anindya Sengupta is a professor of Film Studies in Jadavpur University.

You can find Praatohkriyo on facebook for more updates on their shows.

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