As we all entered the space and settled into our seats, Ruchi, covered in an oversized red cloth, stood frozen in the middle of the stage. A spotlight blacked out the rest of the intimate performance venue. The audience was separated from the performer only by a few feet. For ten minutes, Ruchi stood without blinking, mouth wide open, tongue plastered to the bottom of her lips. A stream of saliva and tears dripped from her face and pooled at the bottom of the red cloth: a haunting image of leaking substances meant to stay inside.
I first met Ruchi at a dance class during my doctorate fieldwork in South India (2017-2020). As one part of my research, I was thinking on whether movement and performance could offer another entry point into understanding extreme subjectivity (madness, violation, psychosis). Ruchi, a Bangalore-based contemporary dancer, invited me to watch a new show of hers on sexual assault and pain. Ruchi’s piece was initially inspired by the Nirbhaya case, otherwise known as the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder case, in which a 23-year-old woman, Jyothi Singh, was brutally assaulted by six men on a bus. Ruchi’s show was a choreographed bodily response to Nirbhaya and the other thousands of documented and undocumented instances of sexual violation in India each year. In a personal interview, Ruchi shared how she spent over five years researching and developing content for the show. She interviewed dozens of women who had been assaulted: women who had been sexually violated by their own family members, women who had been violated in public, and women who had been violated at random. Ruchi developed a complex movement vocabulary and a series of movement scores to represent these stories. These narratives, which Ruchi calls failed research, make up the arc of the performance, a story of bodies forced to turn inside out.
Ruchi’s performance dramatizes the incommensurability of bodily pain and also the possibility of movement to facilitate otherwise inaccessible dialogue. Throughout the hour-long show, Ruchi asks where patriarchal penetration locates itself on all bodies. “If her rape is my rape,” she states, “all genders alike, maybe you can carry some of it?” As Ruchi dances the stories of the various women she interviewed, she transforms the red cloth in multiple ways to represent various moments of violation. During the performance, Ruchi stops abruptly and then writes out on a piece of paper where violence is felt on the body in that exact moment; it is a spontaneous response to the embodiment of each narrative, as if her own body felt the impact of the assault. Different performances have yielded different words. By the end of the performance, a long list of words hangs on a clothes’ line at the back of the room: on the paper reads eyes, nose, ears, knees, elbows, ribs, hips.
Ruchi’s piece toured throughout India, each show producing new insights and new moments of bodily harm. After performing this piece dozens of times, Ruchi painfully shared that she was unable to take off the red cloth, unable to dissociate between the stories of her interlocutors and her own. “I’ve entirely lost that part of me, that desire, that need. I feel them [the women], in different parts of my body,” Ruchi expressed in a personal interview. To her, the performance no longer represented sexual violence—rather, the performance became sexual violence. Rather than the performance symbolizing the stories of other women who had been sexually violated, the performance itself became an act of violation on Ruchi’s own body. This shift happened now despite hearing the stories of women for many years; it was only within the performance space that Ruchi’s relationship with her own body changed. For Ruchi, the pain of another was opened up not through language nor listening, but through the body and movement.
Researching sexual violence in North India and theorizing pain as well, anthropologist Veena Das questions the extent to which pain can be shared through speech. Writing about women who were assaulted during the 1984 Sikh riots in Punjab and the degree to which it is possible for an anthropologist to understand such experiences, she asks, “If I cannot claim to know the pain of the other…what is it to relate to such pain?” However, the absence of any standing languages for pain does not preclude the ability to share pain. The body, she argues, can become the conduit by which one can, at least, attempt to experience the pain of another. For Das, in dialogue with Cavell and Wittgenstein, to be able to locate the pain of another is the task of imagination, a bridge toward another, by which something inexpressive can begin to be understood. This bridging is similar to Ruchi’s efforts to tell an embodied story. They write, “the fact that my pain may not be located in my body opens up the possibility for the body to be shared with someone else, an idea of lending my body to the other’s experience…I am necessarily the owner of my pain, yet the fact that it is always located in my body is not necessary” (Cavell in Das 41). Pain may lead itself to being located elsewhere, in another body. This notion is similar to Ruchi’s conviction “if her rape is my rape.”
Let’s return to the fact that, after performing the piece repeatedly, Ruchi was unable to take off the red cloth; this cloth was one of the ways she visualized and experienced the pain of another. The bridge to understanding pain was not an invitation of words (I am in pain), but rather an invitation through motion, the body, and gesture. These embodied stories unraveled Ruchi’s own body, resulting in a complete expulsion of desire and any sexual longing. “Those parts of my body have completely shut off, and I never used to have that problem,” she once stated in an interview.
Ruchi’s expulsion of sexual desire is yet another demonstration of how the performance did not just represent sexual assault, it presented sexual assault. For phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty, this move from represent to present happens precisely because the body signifies modalities of existence. To demonstrate this point, Merleau-Ponty describes a young woman’s diagnosis with aphonia – the inability to speak or make a sound – because she is forbidden to see her lover. However, Merleau-Ponty argues that such a diagnosis is not happenstance nor accidental. It is meaningful because of the intentionality of the body. He writes,
if the emotion choses to express itself by aphonia, this is because speech is, among all bodily functions, the most tightly linked to …coexistence…she [the patient] tends to break with life itself: if she can no longer swallow, this is because swallowing symbolizes the movement of existence (163).
The inability to swallow and speak is not a representation of something else (the fact that she cannot see her lover), it is the inability to swallow life itself, what Merleau-Ponty asserts is a “break with relational life” (163). The sign is not a signpost that leads to something separate, but the sign is the signification. The body signifies modalities of existence. For Ruchi, the representational aspect of her dance—“performing the sexual violence”—is no longer a representation of the voice and stories of others, but through the intentionality of gesture and movement, the body performs sexual violence. While for Merleau-Ponty this is autogenic, and for Ruchi, this is through the intentionality of choreography, both offer provocations to think through the body as not merely symbolic and representational.
Ruchi’s work demonstrates how dance can be appreciated for precisely what makes it painful. Performance does not just communicate the embodiment of stories, it has the possibility to transform, offering a bridge for bodies in pain. In experiences that are otherwise inaccessible through speech, dance offers another entry point for understanding potentially incommensurate experiences, a conduit through which one might lend themselves to the pain of another.
Das, Veena. Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Berkeley, Calif. Univ. Of California Press, 2006.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. 1945. Routledge, 2013.
Narayan, Ruchi (anonymized). Interview. Conducted by Anjana Bala, November 5, 2019.
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