Interview: On Embodied Ideologies, Improvisation, Decolonisation and the role of Art, ‘Vengayam’

The following conversation was had at Bus Projects, Collingwood, after the Melbourne performance of Vengayam. The conversation was facilitated by Dario Vacirca (Artist Director, Well Productions and PhD, Deakin University).

D: Thank you for that generous, critical and passionate evocation of your existence and life. Do you feel like you’ve proficiently cut off the tail of the onion (vengayam)?

N: It is somewhat like this story in Indian mythology, of a snake who’s head grows back once it is cut off. Yes I’ve cut it off, but I think it will keep growing back in some way. The day that I finished recording the text and listened to it, some part of me realised: it’s already redundant. We’ve already moved passed this in the debate. Unfortunately, I think this is just the result of making art, that as soon as you’ve completed it it’s already part of your past. So every time I revisit this work I think of the points of criticism, and that’s part of the process. It is the unanswerable question and it will always have holes in it because it is experiential.

D: And there’s always more layers. You’re always going to see parts of it each time you do a work like this and the audience is going to experience it through their sense.

N: Yes. Because I’m experiencing it through my body, these ideas or ideologies that embedded in our fibres, every time you skin off one part of it, the patterns and reactions that we have show up in another way. You’re almost always doing this dance to adjust and catch yourself out.

D: You’ve spoken about engaging your body through listening to your voice so that largely this work is improvised. Could you talk a little bit about that experience as a performer and what listening to your voice does and how you experience that?

N: Two things fed into how I chose the format of the work. Firstly, when I did a residency in Bangalore, I recorded my own voice and choreographed a dance piece to go with it. The choreography looked awful and contrived, and so instead I layered it with an recording of my improvisation and the result just blew my mind. That these two things that were created without knowledge of the other spoke to each other so poignantly. I knew then that there was this interesting layer thing that occurred when the voice was involved and I was curious. The other thing is, you can’t bullshit yourself when you’re listening to your own voice. If you’re up there being contrived, your own voice tells you: this is bullshit. Your voice is something you can keep returning to.  As for the improvisation, in my Masters I was researching how both procedural and episodic memories are related to slight musculoskeletal contraction, and that every relative emotion has a contractive pattern that goes through your body. Psychotherapy sometimes uses this, where the therapist tries to trigger a pattern in your body in relation to a memory in order to coax an adjustment to how the emotion of the memory is held. I thought, why don’t I just trigger myself constantly and see what emotions present themselves and how they speak, and its terrifying because you never know what’s going to happen. You always want to hold it and pull it, and so there’s another dance there – to hold on and let go.

D: I think it speaks to the generosity of what you’ve just done. It’s very difficult to do what you’ve just done and to do that a few times as well which I know that you have in the build up to this performance you’ve been performing this for yourself and for close people who can feedback and you’ve still gone through this every time and it’s a really interesting thing that artists do. That performers do especially. I want to chat with you a little bit about what you think the space that art has in critically evaluating and analysing and re-dreaming and understanding the multiple effects of colonialism, capitalism, expectation, identity-structures, what role does art have in really being able to deconstruct that and then potentially hopefully maybe reconstruct something anew.

N: I’ve been thinking a lot about what is the space that you enter when you’re doing improvised work like that and what is the nothing space that you enter in order to let that happen. When warming up, I felt fleetingly ‘oh god maybe I don’t have it’, and then something made me remember that when you go into an improvisation something else meets you. So you’re not going into it to enact by yourself; you’re going into it in a conversation with this unknown force, and you understand it as a meeting and  attend to it constantly. The amount of times I have thought ‘it would look so fabulous if I did this right now’ and then my arm goes the other way and I think ‘ok well, I guess that’s not happening’.

The thing about the space of art is that it is suspended from the conditions of reality as we understand it which is why there is controversial art and there is art that really challenges what we think of as acceptable to do. And that’s the sort of space that it has – it is the ‘what if ?’ space: what if you weren’t what you were, you aren’t what you are, and you just put these things in and all you are is this pulsing flesh matter thing body and you suspend your own knowing of yourself and I think that creates this really flexible space where you can tempt out different, not archetypes, but different patterns.

A lot is discussed of late about the decolonisation of the body, and the way this resonates with me most deeply in this work is in the uncovering of patterns of subordination, obedience, and the redrawing of the boundaries of who I am, how I can present, and what I should aspire to be. Decolonisation is about structural change and the decentering and re-centering of perspectives, but it is also about understanding how our bodies reinforce messages to ourselves over time about the parameters of our identity and the roles we ought to play. I think improvisation, particular in response to difficult and personal provocations, provide a fertile ground to uncover the inconsistencies in the freedom we seek for ourselves and the perceptions we hold that impose upon our agency.

In improvisation, you can tempt out different expressions and I’m sure if you inquire into them they will also have roots in something, but it is simultaneously a space of freedom for recasting the possibilities. There is a safety to this actualisation, because it is contained. I know that I can do this because I know that there is 45 minute script and there is a projection on me and I can enter it and I can exit and I don’t have to ask any questions about what just happened or what I was, it just was. I don’t need to know – that was between my body and the voice and the sound and I don’t even think I could understand it. It’s like the concept of the ‘Chinese Wall’. It keeps itself suspended from humanity’s corruption of reason through its containment within absolute freedom.

D: Yes that’s right. And the parameters or the institutions or structures that art allows brings that person into that space of presence in which they can then break open and potentially reconstruct who they are.

N: It brings that person in or you can train yourself to suspend yourself and trust in that unknown.

D: There is something about the ‘present’ing which is paramount to live
performance work and this work especially. There was a moment
where I felt like everyone in the audience was listening to everything
simultaneously. It was kind of 3/4 of the way through, before then it
was smaller groups and individuals deeply listening here and there.
But was this moment when the whole group seemed to be actually
really hearing it, together, and that’s cool. That’s good writing and
good style and it takes time for that to happen as well because we’re
all coming to be present in this space with you. I’m interested as well in what you were just talking about when you are structuring these new images of who you might be, or what you could be, and reflecting about that in relation to the notion of hybridity – the post-colonial idea of hybridity which you talk about quite a lot in this. And your variation on that in this beautiful piece of text where you write about the multiple psyches that are in conflict with each other so that the conflict is ultimately the self that is embodied. Could you talk a little bit about what hybrid forms that you’re currently doing? More about the effect of your hybrid sense of self in the world? The person you are. The person you are currently. You talk a bit about the people you’ve been, as a student, as a professional as a potential wife. Or being able to reflect on it, the other part could be how you see that still effecting the others in your world.

N: The thing that comes to my mind when you’re talking about this is I feel like this pieces is an ode to my dysfunction, because I’ve spent so much time making work and really enjoyed making work where I was beautiful, where I presented with grace and skill all this kind of thing, and then I found that when I started improvising I just wanted to do these ugly things. I really had it all in me and I was previously training it out of myself so then I thought, ‘what if I just go right into it?’. And I think the polarities that I’m talking about here with this perfect managerial material the model minority and then the classic traditional Indian woman, I think if you’re growing up in between those things then you keep comparing yourself to either one and you are dysfunctional compared to either one. Then you start to think that you are lost and ‘oh, maybe there’s no place for me and I’m wrong’, but every human feels sometimes: am I just really not right?. I feel like by going right into it I claimed: this is my culture, and I don’t have to understand it, and there are billions upon billions of people in the world, and the more displacement that is happening, we are becoming diluted. We are becoming so hybridised that we cannot make claims about culture anymore. I might want my Overseas Citizenship of India, but I’ve been to India and I can’t speak for Indians or India, and I can’t speak ‘as an Indian person’. It’s different. In the same way you travel and you meet people, I remember being in Italy and having people beat their chest and say‘Yeah I’m Italian!’. But for me, yes I’m an Australian, I have friends there and I have a hometown, but I don’t know what that means anymore,

D: I don’t think anyone knows what it means. These structures were supplanted on us at a certain point in time when we started to globalise and it made sense for tribes to get together and nation states to combat against the others and trade etc etc etc, but we are now so beyond that. Colonialism, imperialism have done their trick and we’re now actually globally conscious citizens

N: Not all of us though. This is the friction.

D: Some are left out of that. Totally. A lot of us are left out of the dream.

N: Or they reject the dialogue. Because their identity is right there saying ‘NO! Without this, what becomes of us?’ that nothing space of when you strip it all back can be too much for some.


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