The Outsider

"In a universe suddenly divested of illusion and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.

His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home

or the hope of a promised land." Albert Camus (The Outsider)

Friday, April 22, 2016

Cohabitant Bodies: Samudra Kajal Saikia’s Disposable House Project in Guwahati, Assam

"The Breath with the Breath: Contemporary Performance Art in India",
Melissa Rose Heer's dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of The University of Minnesota for the PhD (May 2015) examines contemporary performance art practices in India, with a particular focus on the work of three artists with diverse approaches to this ever-evolving art form: Ratnabali Kant, Samudra Kajal Saikia and Nikhil Chopra. In her examination of specific performances, that have taken place between 1985-2012, weaves together performance studies, histories of theater, postcolonial critique, and a theoretical analysis of “the performative” nature of the nation-state in area of art and globalization.

Samudra Kajal Saikia’s Disposable House Project
is the first chapter of Melissa's case studies [Chapter 2 in her PhD submission].

The roof of Kankhowa’s house leaks
Thousands of eyes from the evening sky
Keep staring at me
I cannot go out
I cannot stay in
-Kankhowa, The Body House of the Actor

Kankhowa’s illustrated poem, The Body House of the Actor (2011), begins with a leaking rooftop (fig. 13). The ceiling of the artist’s house is profusely dripping, pooling on the floor and filling the space to the brim with elements from outside. It is not simply rain that leaks into the house; rather, it is “thousands of eyes from the evening sky.” Moreover, the house in this poem is also the artist’s body. It is this house – the “body house of the actor” – into which the spectator/reader begins to seep. Across sixteen pages of watercolor illustrations accompanied by poetic verse, this porous body-house of the actor is saturated with the bodies of spectators. The body appears and reappears in various forms throughout the text: once, as a long leg wrapped around two figures shaking hands at a doorway; once, as a faceless figure tightly embracing the ten wide-eyed faces in its torso; later, as two legs on a chair with a long thin neck attached to ten hovering heads; and still later as two brachiosaurus-like creatures sticking their long necks through the open doors in each other’s bodies (figs. 14-17) As the watercolors soak into and across the paper, so this body drips outside of its own contours and off the edges of the frame.

Even the name of the author of the text, Kankowa, acts as an identifier for a number of bodies. The attribution, Kankhowa, is the nom de plume of the Delhi-based Guwahati born artist Samudra Kajal Saikia, but it also refers to an interdisciplinary collective of artists, writers, and actors that Saikia helped organize in 2006. In a 2010 article in the Kolkata-based magazine, ArtEtc, Saikia described this group’s artistic process as “Disposable Theatre” which promotes a type of performance-based art practice rooted in an interdependent relationship between the actor and spectator that opens up a space for connectivity as well as dissent.[1] Kankhowa’s practice takes the spectator as an integral part of the performance, thereby opening a radical exploration of spatial experience that disrupts the concentration of power and voice so often given solely to the actor. As Saikia puts it, “where the spectator is privileged over the actor’s side, the spatial experience is counted over the pre-designed text and the linearity of experience is deliberately hampered, their power is not concentrated anymore.”[2]

In my first chapter I looked at the way in which Indian performance art arose out of the activist-based roots of modern Indian theatre and its historical intersection with the art world’s complex encounter with the global contemporary art world. In this chapter I examine the ways in which the very definition of spectatorship, in the work of Sumudra Kajal Saikia, is structured through a conceptual reformulation of the actor/spectator relationship foreground through the socially invested activist-based mission of modern Indian theatre. As I will discuss, Saikia looks back to the work of the late twentieth century playwright and theater activist Badal Sircar to think about how to address issues of audience experience and participation within the context of subnationalism and immigration in his home state of Assam. As illustrated in his poem The Body House of the Actor, Saikia is interested in a type of cohabitation by cultural/ethnic “others,” which is mirrored in the cohabitant relationship between the actor and the audience that arises in performance art.[3]

My theorization of cohabitation is informed by the artist’s own methodology of performative interconnectivity, which he describes through this metaphor of a body that functions also as a house. This body-house, for Saikia, is constantly bustling with new and returning visitors, some of whom are strangers to each other. This metaphor speaks to the concept that the actor and spectator may not “know” each other directly, but are deeply connected through a mutual investment in viewing and interpreting one another. Similarly cultural/ethnic “others” in the Indian metropolis (i.e. the Muslim, Hindu, Tribal or Recent Immigrant communities) are unified by the same desire for place-hood in a shared space, despite the ideological tenuous, which separate them. For Saikia, the theorization, visualization, and performance of the body house is an aestheticization of this inevitable cohabitation.

In cultivating his theory of the body-house Saikia draws from interpretations of the body found in the writing of mystic poets. Poets such as Kabir and Lalon Fakir often describe the body as a house, and Saikia uses this concept, as in The Body House of the Actor, to illustrate the submission of the actor’s fixed body to a body that extends outside of itself, becoming part performer, part spectator. These philosophies visualized in Saikia’s illustrations reiterate the methodologies of the artist’s broader body of work, which aims to implicate both actor and spectator in shared public space. Since 2010, Saikia has utilized the text of The Body House of the Actor to explore this interrelationship in a series of performance-based works that reflect on the concept of home. Most recently the text was part of a large public performance, funded by a Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art Public Art Grant, entitled Disposable House (2012), which was one of the primary works at a month long series of site-specific projects in Guwahati under the auspices of Regional Arts Performance and Events Assam (RAPE).

The Disposable House project took place on February 20th 2012, when five lifesize houses hoisted on top of auto-rickshaws moved through the central city streets of Guwahati in the state of Assam (figs. 18-26). The mobile houses were accompanied by a large public procession of artists involved in the Regional Arts Performance and Events led by Saikia. They started at the Jyoti Chitraban Film and Television Institute, moved through the main commercial corridor of the city (Ujan Bazaar), and ended at the banks of the Brahmaputra River, where the group initially intended to set the homes afloat on the water. Instead, as I will discuss, the cohabitant relationship between the actor and the audience altered the outcome of the performance. The materials were given instead to local homeless residents near the riverbank who were displeased with fact that housing materials would be wasted if they were left to drift away in the water. During this final portion of the performance, before the houses were initially gifted to the Brahmaputra, and ultimately to those residing on its banks, Saikia read aloud The Body House of the Actor text.

The body-house is a metaphor for the fundamental philosophy at the heart of Saikia’s performance-based art practices, as well as the activist underpinnings of his work. These inseparable, amalgamated body-houses express the artist’s interest in the profoundly paradoxical relationship between the artist and spectator, as well as that between the self and other in society. The artist’s gaze is fixed on both the shifting and intransigent ethnic, religious, racial and class tensions in India, which have been spawned by its recent economic ascendency and enduring colonial legacy. The body-house offers a site of critical interconnectivity in which the many faces of power and dissent meld together and break apart. Such interconnectivity produces an intangible and fluctuating architectural corporality that contains conflicting desires for belonging.

This chapter examines Saikia’s work in relation to the political theories foregrounded by modern Indian theatre practitioners such as those of Safdar Hashmi discussed in the previous chapter, and the work of Bidal Sircar. In addition, by considering the body as depicted by mystic poets Lalon Fakir and Kabir, I want to give an indication of what is at stake in Saikia’s work as it attempts to maintain and perform acontested notion of belonging[4].

Saikia’s work and his theory of Disposable Theater underscore how contemporary performance art practices in India did not arise exclusively from either theatre or visual arts. Rather, these practices can best be understood as emerging out of the interface between these two – already mutually constitutive – art forms. In chapter one, I argued that contemporary performance art in India unsettles the dichotomy between visual arts and theatre, and showed how this untenable demarcation, carried over from the Euro-American context (where it is arguably already untenable), cannot be simply mapped across the complex histories of Indian art and theatre. Consider, for example, the slippage between Saikia’s self-identification as an actor and as an artist, and the way this slippage (which this essay further enacts) self-consciously fails to resolve semantic complexity. It is important to acknowledge the significance of this semantic complexity because it works to undermine the authorial legitimacy given to “the actor” alone. While the word theatre naturally situates Disposable Theatre within the history of theatre, disposable equally suggests that this is a radical form of theatre that disposes of its own structures and practices. Kankowa cites the seeming cleavage between theatre and visual art as among the various dichotomies it aims to reactivate (the public and the private, the individual and the collective, the conventional and the radical, and the mainstream and the alternative, to name just a few).

The concept of the body-house and the theory of disposable theater expands and critically reworks philosophies of theatre and spectatorship such as those articulated by the Bengali dramatist, theatre director, and performance theorist Badal Sircar (also known as Badal Sarkar). Sircar began his career as an actor and director in the early 1950s and later became a writer of proscenium plays in the late 1960s. In the 1970s, however, during the Naxalite movement, Sircar began to foreground a concept of non-proscenium theatre through his model of “The Third Theatre.” Saikia, who graduated from Kala Bhavana Institute of Fine Arts in Shantinekatan in 2005, was part of the Shantinekatan theatre group Sanko (meaning small bridge or canal in Bengali), encountered Sircar’s theories as a student. The group, later renamed Samakal (meaning current time or contemporary in Bengali) was established in 1997 and was based around Sircar’s theories of performance.

In his 1978 essay, “The Third Theatre,” Sircar argued for a theatre that addresses what he describes as the dichotomy between rural and urban culture resulting from colonialism. Indian cities had acquired a colonial character under British imperial rule, particularly through its educational system, to such an extent that culture in these urban areas is understood to be rooted in English ideologies and interests. By contrast, Sircar saw the culture of the countryside as less contaminated by this colonial imposition, and thus as having maintained its indigenous cultural and artistic roots. For Sircar, theatre is one of the primary cultural fields through which this cultural dichotomy took shape. City theatre, in the form of proscenium theatre, is based on styles and forms originating in the West, whereas rural theatre continues to work in traditional folk-based forms.

Accordingly, Sircar proposes a “Third Theater” that would work between these two forms. He writes, “In such a situation, if we want to revitalize the city theatre or the village theatre, we have to hit at the root of this dichotomy and attempt to create a link between the two through a Third Theatre which synthesizes the two.”[5]

For Sircar, a large part of achieving this synthesis depends on dismantling proscenium theatre. The very architecture of the proscenium auditorium, as well as its stage, lighting system, and set design, are all modeled after forms rooted in the traditions of the West. At a practical level, Sircar was concerned with connecting theatre with a wider audience and, for this reason, wanted to reduce the exorbitant costs involved in maintaining the upkeep of a proscenium theatre. Comparing theatre to the more widely popular art of cinema, he argued that theatre should draw upon its unique advantage of facilitating live, direct communication between the actors and audience – the very advantage he saw inhibited by the alienating structure of the proscenium auditorium. In proscenium theatre the performer is elevated on a stage above the audience, engrossed in elaborate sets and designs, and forced to shout to the back row to be heard. Moreover, through the eyes of the actor, blinded by oppressively bright stage lights, the audience appears as nothing more than a faceless mass consumed in darkness. Thus, in addition to its colonial legacy, proscenium theatre renders a disinterested spectator.

Sircar promoted a non-proscenium theatre for its potential to dismantle the alienation between actors and audience members produced by the dominant form. Such a theater could cultivate a more direct form of engagement between performers and active spectators. In 1967, Sincar had already formed the theatre group Satabdi, which worked in open space without costume, make-up, lighting or props. By 1976, Satabdi started doing open-air, free performances at Surendranath Park (then Curzon Park) in Kolkata and the group travelled on weekends to nearby villages. These non-conventional performances entirely rejected the use of characters, plot or storyline. For example, the 1974 performance, Micchil, moved largely away from narrative in favor of situation. It began with actors sitting among the audience outdoors in urban space, directly engaging them in the performance and ultimately inviting them to join it in a procession to end all processions.

Earlier works such as these resonate strongly with the structure and rhythm of Disposable House. Like Micchil, Disposable House involves a procession through the city streets that involves the public in the realization of the performance. The organizational framework of the piece simultaneously plays with elements of chance and uncertainly, and like Sincar’s “third theater,” the performance itself is ultimately subject to the unpredictable pulse of the city in space and time. Yet, Disposable House is different in important ways. Saikia argues that while Sircar’s articulation of the actor-spectator relationship “brought immense possibilities for us to disturb,” this work is also interested in the limitations of disruption and therefore strives to “search for some other language.” Thus, the practice of Disposable Theatre both looks back at Sircar’s work for inspiration and critically re-envisions the interconnected spectator/actor relationship foregrounded by Sircar.

Saikia is especially critical of the current state of Third Theatre. Citing a 2009 performance of Raktakarabi at the National School of Drama in Delhi, Saikia describes a situation in which audience members were asked to first buy tickets and, only after passing multiple checkpoints, entered into an “open-air” performance space,to find actors on an elevated stage lit by bright spotlights. Although the space was technically open-air theatre, Saikia describes how the situation cultivated by this staging of the environment rendered the audience unable to speak. The audience, sitting silently amongst each other in darkness, look up towards the performative power of the actors. According to Saikia, “What went wrong with Badal Sircar is, he took the ‘proscenium’ as the central object for objection where his critique has larger promise.”[6] The mere physical removal of the play from the proscenium stage does not open up the performance to a revision of the alienated spectator/actor relationship; rather, dialogue happens when the actor’s body is inextricably intertwined with that of the spectator through the articulation of shared ideological and physical space.

The organization of the Regional Arts Performance and Events in 2012 arose largely out of this desire to re-imagine the role of a mutually constitutive artist, place, and public within contemporary art practices in India. (Samudra Kajal) Saikia, who co-organized the event with the curator Rahul Bhattacharya, and the support of the BlackRice and Kankowa collectives, aimed specifically to address the problem of “defining the ‘public’ within the existing public art practices.”[7] In previous ventures, Bhattacharya had expressed concern about the limitations of space as it is regulated through the contemporary art scene in Delhi, including those practices that describe themselves as “performative.” As performance art was becoming more visible within the art scene through the Khoj international performance art festivals in 2007, Bhattacharya responded by organizing a series of events and a blog entitled Can it Be Done in Any Corner You Like? With Kankowa’s participation, these actions aimed to make an intervention into performance art practice by bringing space and public engagement to the forefront. The Regional Arts Performance and Events acted as an extension of these aims, and furthermore articulated the imperatives of Disposable Theatre to reshape the performer-spectator relationship. Put differently, performance should not only take place within public space, it should produce a conversation within and with the space.
When the Disposable House project took to the streets of Guwahati the above notion of shared space was pronounced largely through the concept of home. Saikia presented “home” not as a private space or family-owned, static and insular property, but instead as a mobile, malleable, entity offered up to the public. The performance began at Jyoti Chitraban accompanied by the auspicious undertones of a hariddhwani prayer. Following the prayer, Saikia, alongside the Baroda-based painter and multi-media artist Anuradha Upadhyaya, started the procession through the city towards the Bramaputra with blooming lotus flowers in hand “to purify the space ”[8].A group of artists involved in the Regional Arts Performance Events, themselves followed by a truck carrying a group of local musicians, joined the procession next as the musicians in the truck began playing dotara and singing dehatatwa songs (Bengali songs that deal with themes of the body). Finally, the five homes on auto rickshaws made of mixed materials, including timber, clay and hay, joined in the procession. Each house invoked a concept: sufi house, urban house, house of displacement, house of social norms and Kankhowa’s House (or the body house of an Actor). And each house was covered by paintings suggestive of its respective theme, which were made collaboratively by artists from across Delhi, Baroda and Guwahati.

The procession of these transient, communal, and pliable homes through the heart of Guwahati situated both artists and unexpected spectators within a complicated and multilayered engagement with history and memory in the public space of the city. Guwahati, which is the major metropolis as well as the primary commercial and transit corridor of the Northeastern State of Assam, reverberates with complex layers of social and political history. Assam, which shares international borders with Bhutan and Bangladesh, makes up the core of Northeastern India, a region geographically connected to the rest of the country only by a narrow twenty-kilometer-wide passage. This tenuous geographical location in relation to the rest of the nation was underscored by the “subnational” politics that took shape during the Assamese insurgency movement, which reached its height in the late 1980s and was largely suppressed through the often-violent counter-insurgency of the Indian army.[9]

Thus, the notion of who is “at home” in Assam is fraught with historical and geographical tensions. Interlinked with the politics of Assam’s position in relation to the Indian nation-state, and claims over who has rights to this “homeland,” there are also various tensions regarding immigration. From 1979-85 the “Assam Movement” campaigned against the Indian government’s alleged policy of admitting “foreigners” tothe area. The campaign leaders argued that immigrants from foreign countries, mostly from Bangladesh (Formerly East Pakistan) and Nepal, were illegal aliens unless given citizen status by the state. These accusations led to ethnic violence and ultimately to the acquired citizenship and systematic deportation. In his book, India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality, Sanjib Baruah offers a critical analysis of the interconnectedness between Assamese subnationalism, immigration and colonial history. Not only did Assam’s immigration politics sustain a crisis in governmental legitimacy (linked to the perceived failure of Assam to resolve its immigration policies), it also further perpetuated tension between so-called “indigenous” and “immigrant groups.”[10] Moreover, through the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958 (AFSPA), which granted special power to the army in so-called “disturbed” areas of India, surveillance and control methods began to be used that were based on ethnic profiling to distinguish between “ethnic,” “immigrant” or “tribal” communities.

Baruah’s larger argument situates these more recent politics of immigration (as well as the Assamese subnational narrative and its counter-narratives) within Assam’s colonial history by demonstrating the ways in which colonial geography shaped projects of personhood in Assam. Once Assam became a part of British India and the pan-Indian economic sphere, colonial policymakers encouraged immigration to increase settlement. Moreover, the immigration issue wrestles with unavoidable historical problems: the treatment of India’s Muslim minority population and what many see as an unavoidable legacy of India’s partition in 1947, and India’s de facto obligation to allow Hindu refugees from Pakistan to settle in India. As Baruah notes, “India’s policy on immigration is framed by a pan-Indian formulation problem.”[11]

Moreover, Baruah’s analysis of the way the legacies of colonialism persist in contemporary politics of place in Assam challenges misreadings of Assam within the global media where violence is all too often presented as some type of failure of the “Third-World” to achieve democracy, or, in India in particular, as problems relegated to “troubled” areas such as the Northeast. Baruah’s historical account demonstrates how in this region “violence is about the contradictions of the many worlds created by modernity rather than about a place or a people being left behind of modernity.”[12] To that end, narratives that construct Assam as a place and people “left behind” efface a more nuanced understanding of the plurality of place and people in the regions – that is, Assam’s many homes.

This survey of Assam’s recent socio-political history should not lead us to view Guwahati through a simplistic frame that reduces the character of the city to a violent or tumultuous political history. At the same time, however, an understanding of the politics of immigration and subnationalism in Assam remain necessary for responding to Disposable House’s call to think about the concept of home. Tending to this recent past enables a perspective that implicates actor, spectator, critic, city and state in shared social space and contests the frequent effacement of these public histories.

Disposable House enters the public space of Guwahati and its histories by simultaneously aesthesticizng and politicizing the concept of home. “Home” becomes part-protest, part-ritual, part-celebration and, as such, it is offered up to the space of the city and its “public,” which includes all parties participating in the performance as well as any person on the street who encounters the procession. The body-house becomes a metaphor not only for the actor’s body but the social body as well. Of the five houses, the body-house of the actor (or Kankhowa’s house) is the last in the procession. The concept of the body-house unfolds largely through the conceptual foil of The Body House of the Actor text, which, as I said, is read near the procession’s end at the edge of the Brahmaputra. In the text the notion of an interconnected actor and spectator are illustrated through the concept of cohabitation. Through cohabitation the actor and spectator are merged into one indistinguishable entity. By describing the body as a house within which many inhabitants reside, Kankhowa suggests that this body-house is so full one cannot enter it. This shared space is foregrounded by a shared act of seeing:

I am an actor. Before and after being an actor, I am a spectator.
I see, I can see,
It is important that I should see.
I have to see other people looking at me.
Therefore, if I am an actor,
there are many spectators inside me. They share the house with me.
That is why I am confused, how many people live in my house.
I lose myself in my own house.
My house is so full of people that I cannot enter my own house.
I remember Lalon Fakir. I remember Kabir.

If the actor defines his own body by the act of being seen by the other, then this same body takes form and is defined by the gaze of the spectator. As previously noted, the printed version of this text is accompanied by illustrations. Juxtaposed against these lines, there is an image of a blue figure sitting on a simple black chair in the corner of the frame. The figure’s tall thin neck reaches up to the top of the page and connects to a kite-like string of heads. The heads are faceless abstract smudges of blue watercolor paint that faintly bleed into the paper. Interestingly, vision does not belong to any one of the single heads; the figure has no discernible eyes and neither do any of the individual heads. This lack of a divided gaze underscores how the figure itself is comprised of a shared act of seeing. The combined actor-spectator is grounded, and ultimately formed, by its two legs that touch the floor. This image illustrates a fundamental relational formation for Disposable Theatre: performer, public, and space are presented as mutually constitutive.

The postcolonial politics of immigration and sub-nationalism in Assam foreground the significance of shared and unshared social and civic space (shared in the sense of coexistence, and unshared in the sense of unequal distributions of power). Disposable Theatre’s desire to articulate a notion of shared space does not imply that social space is a vacuum in which power does not exist, but rather that both actor and spectator are implicated in the politics of power. Thus, to return to the earlier discussion of the power dynamics of theater, while a conventional proscenium theatre places the actor in the authorial seat of power in a performance, The Body House of the Actor aims to unsettle this dynamic by demonstrating how it is the spectator’s gaze that forms the very existence of the actor’s body. In this way, Disposable Theatre cultivates shared space through the contestatory possibilities of performance as a form of radical dissent. It contests both the logic of social control and surveillance through which the state renders space unshared and a model of theatre that reproduces this logic. To that end, the Disposable House performance enacts an encounter with difference in a space that is shared between ethnic or religious “others.” This dimension of the work is underscored through naming two well-known poets (“I remember Lalon Fakir. I remember Kabir”) who are both associated with nonsectarian beliefs. In a sense, the structure of The Body House of the Actor text, as well as the ambiguity of the name Kankowa (which, as previously noted, both names the artists’ collective and Saikia’s nom de plume), function as a critical reenactment of Kabir and Lalon’s work.

As noted in my introduction, Kabir was a fifteenth-century poet born in Varanasi. While there are many divergent biographies about the legendary poet and his life, it is commonly understood that during his lifetime he studied with an unknown powerful Hindu guru, and later became a poet and teacher in his own right (although he did not achieve wide acceptance or veneration until after his death).[13] He is now famous for his rough powerful voice and his critique of rigid orthodoxies. Several religious sects have produced collections of his works and his poems have been sung and recited throughout North India for over 500 years.[14]

In the Disposable House performance, Saikia announces, “Kabir stands at the market place, a burning torch in his hand, one who has put fire to house may come and walk with me.” Before reading from the The Body House of the Actor at the Disposable House performance, Saikia first recites lines of a famous poem attributed to Kabir,

I’ve burned my own house down
the torch is in my hand.
Now I’ll burn down the house of anyone
who wants to follow me.

This text appears translated into both English and Hindi at the beginning of the video documentation of the performance, which Saikia posted on YouTube to extend its public reception. And, as Linda Hess has noted in the introduction to her translation of Kabir’s poetry (with Shukdev Singh), this famous couplet expressed Kabir’s emphatic independence from both of the major religions of his time, Hinduism and Islam, and his “penetration of everything inessential.”[15] Hess explains that for Kabir, “the individual must find the truth in his own mind and body so that the line between ‘him’ and ‘it’ disappears.”[16] To the extent that the burned house represents Kabir’s denouncement of a worldly and sectarian identity, Disposable House invites others to do the same. Telling the crowd that Kabir “stands in the marketplace,” as Saikia himself similarly stands in the street, the artist invites others to walk with him as they begin their procession through the marketplace and towards the river to dispose of the houses.

A famous story about Kabir is worth noting here. It tells of his Hindu and Muslim followers fighting over the ownership of the poet’s body after his death. Before any real violence ensues, however, someone takes off the shroud to discover that a heap of flowers has replaced the cadaver. The two groups agree to divide the flowers and each group goes off to burn or bury them according to their respective ritual. The story, considered inter-textually alongside Disposable House, offers neither a synthesis nor transcendence of religious identity, but rather a foregrounding of the necessity, urgency, and efficacy of performative practice. It is the diffusiveness of Kabir’s body that precludes exclusive ownership by either community. As such, it enables each group to enact a sense of belonging and attachment through the performance of religious ritual. As is the case with Kankowa’s body and the actor’s body in The Body House of the Actor, Kabir’s body belongs to many people and inhabits many places.

The very notion of the body-house resonates with poetic metaphors used by the second poet mentioned in the text of The Body House of the Actor, Lalon Fakir (also known as Lalon Shah). Lalon was a nineteenth-century poet who was thought to have lived in what is the present-day Kushtia District of Bangladesh (formerly part of Nadiya District, India) where he died in 1890. No other Baul poet is as famous as Lalon in Bangladesh and India, and he is one of the most well-known in the West as well.[17] His fame is partly due to Rabindranath Tagore, whose thoughts and writing during the Swadeshi movement where largely influenced by the Bauls. In 1915-1916 Tagore published twenty poems of Lalon in the literary journal Prabasi bringing them to the attention of middle-class, Bengali society. Lalon’s status as a cultural symbol was tied in part to his strictly nonsectarian belief that eschewed any birth religion, believing, in Tagore’s words, that the only religion is “the religion of man.”[18]

Lalon’s poems were composed in colloquial Bengali and used imagery from everyday activities such as farming, fishing, and even home foreclosure, as metaphors for one’s spiritual life. Often, his poems used the metaphor of a house for the body. As scholar of Lalon, Carol Salomon, notes,

This is often the case with dehatattva songs. The body may be depicted as a house with two pillars (legs), nine rooms the cakras; although the standard Hindu tantric system lists seven, they can vary in number depending on the tradition, a basement (muladhar), and an attic (sahasrar) in which a madman who is the Lord sits; or a bird cage with nine doors, housing an unknown bird (the soul); or a broken-down boat constantly leaking water (semen); or a tree of beauty that produces moon fruit (offspring). Everything from a watch to the city Mecca has been used in Baul songs to symbolize the body.[19]

This is evident in works such as Dhanya dhanya boli tare, which Salomon interprets as nine or ten modifying doors that stand in for the nine or ten openings of the body. Lalon writes:

I've got to hand it to the fellow
who built a house like this,
with its foundation up in the sky!

The house has just two pillars, no more,
and their bases aren't attached to the floor.
How will this house stay in one piece,
when it's battered by a raging storm?

It has a basement and nine rooms,
even an attic at the very top.
There a madman sits,
in solitude, the sole Lord.

Upstairs and downstairs,
one after the other,
are nine and a half doors.

The conceptual layer of this poem that is particularly relevant to the Body House of the Actor is the composite and porous nature of the body illustrated through the home’s multiple levels and doors. Saikia reenacts Lalan’s notion of the body-house to illustrate a model of an actor who is made of many parts that are open to, and composed of, the spectator. This multiplicity undermines the notion of an insular and fixed actor who opens up his mouth to deposit knowledge into others. The entryways and doors of thesebodies not only invite the other to enter, but suggest that he/she is already inside. Such co-mingling of bodies suggests that dialogue and narrative is not transmitted by the actors to the public, but activated through an already interconnected relationship. The body-house acts as a theoretical model for participation, which also allows for the subversion of dominant relational dynamics. It argues, paradoxically, that while a passerby on the street encountering the performance may appear “passive,” he/she is fundamentaly intertwined through the very act of spectatorship, and thus, invited into the performance and its critique.

This invitation for others to enter into the “body-house” of critique – or rather to recognize that they are already a part of it – is illustrated in elaborate detail in the watercolor images in the Body House of the Actor text. The watercolors depict porous bodies, melded with others, reappearing in various forms of intimate interconnectivity. One image in particular shows a multi-part figure, drawn with overlapping lines, that has two eyes shared between three mouths. The figure’s hands grasp a torso composed of a

framed image of a house. Residing in the background are a cityscape and a tree, whose branches house an abundance of birds. Here the actor, made of many people, offers up his/her own body, the body-house, to the city and its inhabitants. This “offering up” of the body-house to others is further underscored by the collaborative nature of Disposable House, which Saikia attempts to realize through the collaborative paintings on the houses and the participation of the auto-rickshaw drivers, local musicians, the various artists and interested spectators who walk along the streets in the procession, and ultimately the homeless Guwahati residents who repossess the house structures.

Interpreted from a politicized standpoint, this collaborative, non-individualistic approach to performance and art-making resonates strongly with the theories of the Communist playwright, actor, and performance theorist Safdar Hashmi (as discussed in the previous chapter). As we have seen, Hashmi became famous as a powerful advocate of Street Theatre in India, was part of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, and became one of the founder members of the Jana Natya Manch (JANAM) in Delhi in 1973. More relevent in this context, Hashmi’s work involved activist-based performances that were done in the streets in front of large public audiences that addressed a variety of
social and political concerns. JANAM famously performed Machine for a trade union meeting of over 200,000 workers in 1978. This performance was followed by series of public performances through the late 1970s and 1980s that sought to raise awareness of the position of marginalized communities with respect to topics such as violence against women (in Aurat, 1973), the poverty of peasant communities (in Gaon Se Shahar Tak, 1978), and unemployment (Teen Crore, 1979).[20] When Hashmi was brutally assassinated in 1989 during the performance of his public street play Halla Bol, he became a powerful cultural symbol of artistic resistance against the state. The Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) was founded the same year in his name and continues this day to serve as a space of support for a young generation of performance artists.

During his lifetime, Hashmi also wrote prolifically on street theatre, outlining his theoretical and political understandings of the stakes of public performance. His critique of a self-contained, individualistic notion of the actor and artist is most clearly articulated in his 1983 essay “The Enchanted Arch: On the Individual and Collective Views of Art.” Like Sircar, Hashmi was critical of the notion of proscenium theatre, but for different reasons. While Hashmi himself was known to participate in proscenium plays, he was constantly forced to defend the artistic legitimacy of street theatre, and was highly critical of the mythical power given to the stage. For Hashmi, the notion of the individual actor thought to contain coveted insights on existence was linked with a selective sanctification of the proscenium theatre. “Here the proscenium is being seen as a kind of enchanted archway to the region of divine inspiration, creativity or the wherewithal in which the drama of profound analysis of man, love and death is born. The proscenium becomes, as it where, the tree of wisdom under which every Gautam becomes a Buddah.”[21] To counter this notion, Hashmi challenged the valorization of the proscenium space, suggesting that it, like any space, is “empty” until it is brought to life by performance. By empty, of course Hashmi does not mean emptied from socio-political dynamics, but empty in the sense that the space is inert until artistic movement reactivates it. But space is truly activated only through collective action. In that same essay, Hashmi identified what he saw as a “definite and irresolvable contradiction between the bourgeois individualist view of art and the people’s view of art.”[22] Such commitment to the individual, and consequent anxiety about collaboration, makes the artist unable to offer up a real critique of the state. Because the bourgeois artist/actor places faith in the individual and fears collective voice, he/she ultimately falls victim to the “mythic power of the instrument of production.”[23] The instrument of production, here being, the artist or actor himself as expressed directly through his chosen medium.

The notion of the body-house offered by Saikia provides a contemporary architectural and corporeal metaphor, which undermines the mythic valorization of the individual actor and the proscenium stage. Instead of limiting artistic production to the space of the illusionistic stage, the body itself is understood as a house that carries with it every possibility of performance. Moreover, this porous and mobile body-house, with its many open doors and windows, is formed through its dependence on elements from the outside, which paradoxically build-up the structure from within. This interconnected relationship between the inside and the outside, the actor and spectator, forms the very basis of Disposable Theatre. Through a collaborative model, it allows for conflicting positionalities and dissenting voices.

As Disposable House and the theories on which it is based suggest, this collaboration is possible because both the body and the theatre are disposable. They do not belong to any space, group or individual. They come alive only through the process of disposal. This evokes religious practices from both Islam and Hinduism. In the Islamic tradition ta'zīya, mobile mausoleums built as replicas of Imam Hussein's mausoleum in Karbala, are used in ritual processions by Shi’a Muslims during the mourning month of Muharram. Similar to the Disposible House project, ta'zīyas vary in shape and size, and carried in a procession through the streets. Although some ta'zīyas were originally madeof precious materials for royal and wealthy patrons, to be housed permanently, the majority of ta'zīyas are of kind of disposable art made of wood and bamboo for the frame and tin foil, colored paper, mica and glass for the ornament on the exterior. This Disposible House also resonates with Hindu ritual during Durga Pooja in which the goddess Durga is processed through the street and ultimately placed in the river to float away. Both practices include a component of public process that ultimately leads to a ephemeral sacrifice.

This intersection of disposability and collectivity is further reiterated through the work’s engagement with performance-based rituals in Assam, particularly those that take place during the harvest festival of Bhogali (or Magh Bihu). During Bhogali, temporary houses called bhela-ghor are built for the harvest celebration. On the night of the community feast, uruka, people gather together for a collectively prepared meal and everyone spends the night inside the bhela-ghor. At dawn, as community members offer prayers for a bountiful harvest the following year, these “disposable houses” are burned down and their ashes are scattered on the earth, either on the edge of the city, or in the open space of the rural country.

In these festivals, the disposal of the home becomes the generative possibility of the following year’s abundance. The bhela-ghor homes underscore Saikia’s aim to create a cultural symbol for the public linked to community-based and collective practices that express a desire for regeneration. Appropriately than, even though the homes were originally intended to be released into the Bramaputra (similar to the procession and immersion of Durga during Durga Pooja), the houses in the 2012 performance were given to local residents, who live near the river and had inquired after the homes and their materials. Instead of being submerged into the river, they were instead submerged into the environment and re-appropriated as domestic structures by the people of Guwahati. Thus, the materials of the homes, like the ashes of bhela-ghor, are scattered through the land and given over to the community.

The second lives of these homes, made possible only after their disposal, speaks also to Disposable Theatre’s commitment to radical critique. Both ritual invocations—the harvest festival and the Disposable House Project—emphasize the disposable, ephemeral nature of the body-houses, which are moved through the city, and later turned over at the banks of the river to make way for something greater expressed by the work’s underlying non-sectarian message and its critique of the state’s role in intolerance. At the edge of the river when Saikia reads Kabir’s line, “one who has put fire to their house, may come and walk with me” he underscores this message of both subversion and unification. The idea being that whoever is able to let go of attachment to his or her own identity, religion or ethnicity (“who has put fire to their house”) may come and walk in solidarity. These lines echo the act of offering-up homes to the river in Disposable House, which performatively suspends classification, regulation and intolerance on the basis of identity in favor of a fleeting moment in which the city both venerates and turns over its conflicting desires for home. The complexity involved in Saikia’s work is that one sets fire to one’s own home not to obliterate or subsume difference, but rather to challenge the ways power depends on these categories and to demonstrate a relinquishment of them.

While Saikia’s work ultimately aims to promote tolerance, it would be reductive and naïve to suggest the underlying message of Disposable House is for everyone in Guwahati to simply transcend their differences, and see that they belong to the same spiritual home. Instead, Disposable House, as an activist intervention, offers a much more complex model of pluralism in its critique of state power, one, which I believe, harkens back to a model of interconnected habitation offered by Saikia’s poetic description of a body-house as a space of both belonging and difference.

It is valuable to note also the ways in which Saikia’s performance perhaps “failed” to project the cultural inclusivity and pluralism of his own philosophy. Saikia, who walked through the streets with a bare chest, wore only a lungi, and performed devotional rituals at the start of the procession, took on the character of a Brahman priest or holy man, which evoked the presence of a figure who is ultimately upper caste and Hindu. This important to consider not to disparage Saikia’s work, but to think of the limitations of the body as a text in the socio-political public sphere, and the complex reception of the artist’s body. Saikia chose to present himself as a figure according to his own religious background, and utilized an ethnic and religious subject-position that maintains a level of acceptance and privilege within Guwahati’s socio-political landscape. In this sense, even Saikia’s own intention of inclusivity, which he aimed to evoke through the reading of Kabir, was perhaps less visible through the representational presentation of the body itself.

To that end, the expository and site-specific nature of “disposable theater” managed to produce unexpected elements that transcended its own representational failings. In the final stage of the performance, near the banks of the river, as Saikia read his “Body House of the Actor” poem out-loud in preparation for the immersion of the body-houses into the water, local homeless residents expressed their sense that it was wasteful for the artists to simply dispose of stable housing materials in a purely symbolic gesture. The group of residents who approached Saikia was of a mixed ethnic and religious demographic, both Hindu, Muslim.[24] Both individually, and as a group, the residents rearticulated finale of the performance, as well as the significance of the body house itself. While the initial aim of performance was to dispose of the body-house in the river as a spiritual expression of a unified tolerance critical of the state’s insistence on ethnic differentiation, this untenable ideal was rewritten in the midst of the performance as dissenting residents envisioned the work as having an entirely different value, despite the potentially less religiously inclusive role projected by the artist himself. The body house was reworked within its own framework of dissent and ultimately reformulated through the critique offered by the homeless residents.

The ultimately goal was not to achieve an ideal of cultural harmony, but rather, to give the performance up to the body-house of the city so that it might foster critical dialogue. While it was initially conceived symbolically to express the connectivity of people in Guwahati through an ephemeral act that expresses a relinquishment of the homes of identity, religion, nationality, and political allegiance, the intervention of local residents instead restructured its symbolic and material value in the construction of actual new homes in the city. When the performance shifted after its direct encounter with an unsuspecting critical audience, the body-house redefined cohabitation through an ever malleable notion of home.

In the chapter that follows I will turn towards one of Saikia’s predecessors, Ratnabali Kant, a performance artist who was primarily active in the 1980s-90s. Kant’s practice of “installation performance” further demonstrates a similar value given to thecontinuous process of destruction, disposal and rebuilding, as fostered in Saikia’s  Disposable House Project. While Kant and Saikia have met at events in Delhi, and are aware of each other’s work, they have never directly collaborated.[25] Nonetheless, as we will see, both artists are committed to interrogating dominant paradigms of difference and othering, and turned towards body-based practices in search of a malleable form of dissent that gives way to the creative potential of destruction and renewal.

[1] Samudra Kajal Saikia, “Disposable Theatre: Conceptualizing the Spectator in Shifting Space,” ArtEtc
2.3 (2010): 1-4.
[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 3.
[4] It should be noted that Saikia’s body-house is not like a Hobbesian body, which aspires towards a
shared social contract binding together the fundamental tenets of liberal democracy. Rather, the body-house
is more akin to the type of the unfixed antagonism described by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in their
book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (1985). Laclau and Mouffe
sought to unsettle and expand the concept of unity and group formation in the face of the pitfalls of liberal
democracy. By providing a theoretical framework for post-Marxist thought that questions ideals of a
subsuming unification, Laclau and Mouffe offer a radical model of democracy in which antagonism and
conflict is sustained instead of squashed. See: Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist
Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985) 184. More directly relevent in this context is Claire Bishop’s frequently cited essay “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” which uses
Laclau and Mouffe to challenge Nicolas Bourriaud’s arguments in his 1998 book Relational Aesthetics.
Bishop examines the work of Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanija alongside Laclau and Mouffe’s notion of
radical democracy in order to argue that these works are not simple relational but antagonistic in the sense
that they are not “intrinsically democratic.” See: Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,”
October 110 (2004). I take a similar position in relation to Samudra Kajal Saikia’s work insofar as that
work, while interested in building unity across communities in Guwahati, is equally interested in
cultivating a space in which dissent and belonging coexist.

[5] Bidal Sircar, The Third Theatre (Calcutta: Naba Grantha Kutir, 1978) 3.

[6] Saikia, “Disposable Theatre: Conceptualizing the Spectator in Shifting Space,” 4.
[7] Sumudra Kajal Saikia, Regional Art Performance and Events Final Report (New Delhi: Sumudra Kajal
Saikia, 2012).

[8] Ibid
[9] Sanjib Baruah, India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality. (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1999), xiii.

[10] Ibid, 117.
[11] Ibid, 15.
[12] Ibid, xx.
[13] Linda Hess and Shujdev Singh. The Bijak of Kabir. (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983) 3.
[14] Ibid, xi.

[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid., 5.
[17] Baul refers to a group of mystic artists/writers/musicians from Bengal (India’s West Bengal and
Bangladesh). Baul’s are a heteregenous group with a number of diverse sects that practice similar mystical
beliefs expressed through religion and/or music.

[18] Carol Salomon, Baul Songs. (Princeton University Press, 1995), 187-188.
[19] Ibid.
[20] The play titles translate as follows: Aurut meaning “Woman,” Gaon Se Shahar Tak meaning “From the Village to the City,” and Teen Crore meaning “30 Million.”
[21] In the following line Hashmi writes, “This is of course, pure drivel” to underscore how strong he
contests these claims. “The Enchanted Arch: On the Individual and Collective Views of Art” in The Right
to Perform: Selected Writings of Safdar Hashmi (New Delhi: SAHMAT, 1989). 26.

[22] Ibid, 29.
[23] Ibid, 28.
[24] Syed Taufik Ryaz, interviewed by the author, Kolkata, May 2, 2012; Samudra Kajal Saikia interviewed
by the author, New Delhi, April 13, 2012.

[25] Samudra Kajal Saikia, interviewed by the author, New Delhi, April 13, 2012; Ratnabali Kant,
interviewed by the author, New Delhi, April 5, 2012.