Day 18 OR To performers in the time of Corona

Today is Day 18 of my time in the hospital.

A few days ago my friends (primary contacts) were picked up and taken for testing. We were relieved to find out that none of them tested positive for Covid. They are all artists like me and have suddenly lost all ways and means of income, also I am sure none of us has a cushion of savings because we live primarily hand to mouth and any large sums that come in are invested in producing our work or training ourselves, attending classes and workshops.
It was only then, in the worrying for them that I realized the intense work isolation actually is. I worried about how they might already be in a fragile place mentally and isolation in a government hospital could be the thing that knocks them over into permanent mental fragility.

I realize now that I was not giving them enough credit. Not because isolation can't push you off the psychological robustness cliff - it very much can (there is a reason the state has assigned a Psychiatrist to regularly check up on each of us) but because I remembered what happened to me.

When I got the call that I had tested positive and that I would be picked up very soon by an ambulance I felt a stillness and willingness to dive into whatever this was going to be - a surrender. I was conscious of the guilt, shame and fear I carried about the people I may have infected. I had no idea that I was scared till I looked at my shaking hands. When I sat in the ambulance directed by men in plastic who were at the time more scared of me than I was of them, I realized I was feeling insecure because the street smart Indian woman in me started video recording her surroundings to ensure her safety. I saw the outward manifest symptom and I hypothesized the internal emotional or somatic reality.

The "I" that saw the shaking hands, and observed the act of recording was the one that took over through a large part of this experience. I have known her /it/ this before - she seems genderless but I can't confirm so I will use "she" out of habit and also because that is not the point here. This "she" has taken me through turbulent flights, through confrontations with people in positions of power and helped me follow my doubt in situations where I could have been brainwashed. I remember her appearing in this spaceholding role when in 2010 someone close to me passed away. She was there in the 12th grade when a shot put hit me on the head in the sports field and I passed out only to regain consciousness with the teacher on duty frantically trying to shake me awake, her baby pink dupatta dyed red with my blood, my friends standing around afraid I was gone. She appears quite surprisingly in familiar situations and in strange ones. In fact I'm beginning to think she is always there. In the aloneness of corona quarantine and isolation it's just been easier to welcome her to speak.

In 2010, when the news was broken to me of my friend's passing, I heard a sound, a voice saying or wailing, " No, no, no". It took me a while to figure that the voice was coming from inside me. As we stood around the body of the beloved being uncased for the first time the chemicals used to embalm him had got everybody's noses and eyes watering. Mine too. We stood there holding our breath and processing our grief. Then a voice said to me three times; "embrace it, embrace it, embrace it". I took a deep breath in. The smell was potent but I embraced it like I had been directed to do. The watering of my face stopped. I became still, in the presence of the beloved's final stillness.

When the shot put hit my head I dropped to the ground. For a long time (or what felt like it) I was in a dark quiet place. Some part of me remembered that the previous week my friend's mother had experienced a head injury. A part of the ceiling had landed on her head and she had begun to bleed. My friend had been frantically calling the doctor and trying to help, when her mother said to her, "Don't let me fall asleep". In that dark, quiet, painless space this information reached me... I don't remember remembering the story. I figured it out only later. But in that moment I began systematically reciting numbers - all the numbers I knew, my address, people's birthdays, phone numbers. I was drawn back, my eyes opened and I was on the sunny school field surrounded by teachers and students.

Today while talking to my close friend, an actor and director, I was able to process this presence in the context of a more familiar setting and not just life crisis events. SHE had been the one waiting in the wings before a performance, she had often turned my attention towards a perfect stranger who would later become an intimate other. In some cases she had held me back - lead me to fail an interview, blow an audition.

Earlier in my career as a dancer, I identified almost suffocatingly with the nervousness. I still posit this disclaimer, "I am a nervous performer okay". The risk of going out there, being naked, not knowing at all what will happen, giving up complete control of the rehearsal environment and doing one's best to "nail it " is daunting and does not get easier as the years go by. Often we say to each other back stage - "break a leg", " kill it", "good luck" even "show them what you've got" and so on.

In the last few years, this "them" that must be shown the good stuff  has disappeared more and more. Performance for me is no longer about the alien, other, them, they audience. The audience, I have come to realize, is me. Every human who takes the trouble to come watch live performance is here to witness themselves. They confront and witness the part of them that we dance, act, speak or reveal and often even the parts we don't express. The relationship is as much in their seeing as it is in our doing or being. They see not just what we show but what they want to and are ready to witness thus travelling in non linear and glorious trajectories that the performance maker could rarely have imagined - and so the magic... and so the democracy. And so, the humanity of it all.

Lately in the wings, the nervousness that comes is only a tiny bit about getting it right and largely about the fact that this is one of the most intimate ways of saying I love you, of embracing strangers, of being of service, of surrendering myself to the Me that has bought the ticket to watch the Me that performs. In those moments I experience integration with the selves that are witnessing.
In the wings and on stage everything is at stake because anything can happen... the part of me that has rehearsed, that has done its share of dialogue and dance boot camp, that has activated and anchored the neural pathways of body memory is alive. But the one who saw my hands shake in the ambulance, the one who saw and resisted from doing - she is the one most present in that moment. I end up performing for her and so does the audience.

My best performances have been when I was able to go to the place without words. I can't locate it. But that place, if and when I do achieve it, is the portal to a kind of communion onstage. Its simple. Experientialy the simplicity throws me off - Can it really be just this! It is a homecoming. It is a no-thing and an everything. It is a little game with time that we have the priveledge to play, the ask is to get out of the way and allow it.

So looking back, I realized that all my primary contacts who were rounded up by state surveillance were experienced performers and the witness self was perhaps available to them in profound ways. I need not have worried. Yes we are an overly adrenaline-ized, often in the primal
(because - physical performance ) and impulsive bunch. But that is a simplistic description. We are disciplined, passionate and intelligent in ways that aren't so fashionable and yet are invaluable. Most importantly we know why we wake up in the morning. In the depths of our being we have this clarity.

I am worried about us. Not that we don't have a purpose and future, here I have no doubt at all. Just that we may not notice the one or two (or more) of us who need a hand, a float, a hug or a cheque to swim through this time and its unpredictable tide. I want to say this and I mean it with every cell of my being - if you are ever that person, and you are reading this please reach out. It is very easy to feel dispensable, unworthy and useless in just the normal capitalist world situation especially in an unfunded environment. Now that we have entered an unusual phase I want you to know, we are in this together. If you feel even a little bit on the edge - please please reach out. You are not alone.

I am taken back to moments from earlier this year, standing in protests in Kolkata, Delhi and Bangalore watching students become stunning orators and fantastic rappers, sloganeering and leading large crowds. Ordinary people getting us to recite the constitution like they were conducting a real theatre event - an induction into the new India, an initiation into a world where we are all one. I watched with tears in my eyes as burkha clad women took over, spoke powerfully, moved, recited, pumped fists into the air, revealed their truth, organized everything around them and in so doing choreographed the movement that gripped the country. I noticed how everybody was in this moment in time a performer - performing citizenship. Our presences at the protests or our absences were declaratory and performative, even (to use that much hated word from theatre jargon) "stage-worthy". Our online personas were performing. We were even asking our children and elders to enter the arena. This performance while it may have been sabotaged by the virus, is far from over.

It made me ask - If everyone Is now a performer, what is the performer supposed to do? This was half a question, a quarter wondering and a quarter invitation.

Back then, she emerged as she does now - this space holding, seeing self (I hope she doesn't ditch me for my poor naming skills). She came to me in the context of the thunderous white noise around me - "Azaadi azadi , Azaadi azadi...
Awaaaaaz do, hum ek hain".

Here she is with me now in a hospital bed in Jaynagar General hospital. Both times with the same message - The performer is meant to listen. To wait. To listen to what is needed. The performer is here to provide respite, to be the cave, the mirror and the prayer. The performer is here to experience the happening. To perform absence, silence and patience if that is what the mirror of immersion seems to suggest is needed. We are here to witness.

The performer is here to serve.

I cannot pretend to know exactly what that means. Also I sense that it means different things for different points of consciousness. Being a performer readies me for risk. It keeps me still when I have no idea what next chapter this lifebook will turn to. It prepares me for heartbreak and wounding... often I suspect even leads me to it. It makes me comfortable with mirrors - all kinds of mirrors; from glass ones with neon lights in greenrooms all over the world and pools of water in the moonlight to moral compasses with shrieky voices and a conscience that knows exactly how to ruin my indulgences.

Being human heals the heartbreak by negating the wound - making it small. NO. By making the heart bigger. Expanding.
Being human makes me accept the mirrors by shattering the boundaries between my reflection and me. I reflect you and you reflect me. I AM you and you are me.

I wonder, if in the time of Covid 19 we can conjure a love so dreadful, a mercy so blasphemous, an empathy so violent, a kindness so devastating and a vision so seemingly impossible that we prove ourselves wrong. Wrong about all the efficiency, the nationhood, the gods and the markets. Wrong about the codes and morals, the rules and laws. Wrong about the systems and predictions...about everything. If we can stop performing the agreed upon behaviors and pass through this time stripped of every role but our humanity.
I wonder if our practice during this time could lead us there.

I learnt early on that my practice is my power. Over the next days whether in hospital, the self quarantine that is to follow or the lockdown that looks like it will extend, I wonder if I can curate (or surrender to) a practice that will invite her (the She that witnesses) to speak more freely and candidly to me. To witness my own performance of selfhood away from the selves I love so much.

 I will end with sharing my suspicion that this is an opportunity. Not an exam, an audition or even a rehearsal but a rare and profound opportunity. May the witnessing continue beyond this moment of time and may we serve.


  1. So powerful and deeply honest! Love Diya

  2. YES! I totally agree that this is not revenge by mother nature, but a portal to our essential nature. A unique, unexpected opportunity, to be seized by both hands, in whatever way it presents itself to our particular ' performing selves'- to manifest change, everywhere we have been wrong.

  3. Diya .. incredibly soulful interpretation of ever"she" out there who needs to be acknowledged and re-introduced!

  4. Thank you for sharing such a powerful, "speaking to the truth of your power" that is you. Blessings and tons of love to you. ---Rob Murphy


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