A crucible of ideas
Tishani Doshi’s most anticipated work, a collection of poems and is expected to be published next year. Half-Indian and half-Welsh, born to Gujarati father and a Welsh mother, Doshi now 44 years, ties us to another “magical” emotion that holds close to her heart--when performance is entwined with words. Doshi always finds a common ground for dance and poetry, including the “ideas of rhythm, time and abstraction”. She is among the few writers and poets who have pushed boundaries of performing arts, by synthesising dance and her poetry and writing.
Tishani was fortunate to be part of the troupe of Chandralekha Prabhudas Patel, the niece of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, India's first deputy Prime Minister, in Chennai. Chandralekha as she was famously called, was herself an exponent of performances fusing Bharatanatyam with Yoga and martial arts like Kalarippayattu (the martial art form of Kerala) and Tishani was her pupil. ‘Chandra’ as she is lovingly remembered by all, was one of India’s most acclaimed choreographers and Bharatanatyam dancers. Chandralekha's many productions, notably Angika, Lilavati, Prana, Sri, Yantra, Mahakal, Raga, Sloka and Sharira, have become the exemplars of modern Indian dance, based on her premise of the indivisibility of sexuality, sensuality and spirituality. Truly this reflects in Tishani’s dance too. Her meeting with Chandra was a life-changing moment which helped her to see her real self – the possibility of being a dancer. She learnt the idea of touching time and the idea of slowness which is considered as a luxury today. The dance form Chandralekha created, titled ‘Sharira’ (the body), was performed by Tishani for 15 years, even after Chandra passed away in 2006. Later Tishani toured places to exhibit the accomplishment that she gained after tremendous physical training and performative ability. This dance form that evolved connects Tishani with her audience.
Slowness is the pulse of Tishani’s dance form that stands out in contrast to speed. Tishani distils poetry in performance. Churning to slow movements her dance gets hoisted by her poetry. She hates being “oppressed by the time” and focuses on slowing down through her dance form. One of the reflections of this refinement is her recent performance called ‘Girls Are Coming out of the Woods’ – a poetry dance performance piece that takes draws its title from a collection of poems with the same title. It was shortlisted for the2018 Ted Hughes and Firecracker awards. Her poetry was published in 2017 by HarperCollins India. It was a poem that likened to a kind of anthem, a battle cry - that elevates her experiments in dance. The theme reflects that ‘girls are waiting to explode and rage’ against heinousness acts towards the ‘female’ gender.
The poem 'Girls Are Coming out of the Woods’ is also dedicated to her beloved friend, Monika Ghurde, a designer and perfumist, who was raped and then murdered in October 2016. For Tishani, this poem is reclamation of her grief. The poem is a follow-up to her previous literary works: ‘Countries of the Body’ (2006 poetry collection), ‘The Pleasure Seekers’ (2010 novel) and ‘Everything Belongs Elsewhere’ (2012 poetry collection). “Writing poetry is my way of transforming anger and sense of injustice,” added the author. The poem also reflects the violence and rape of Jyoti Singh (India’s Nirbhaya). In a recent interview Kitaab, she said: “The poem is a vehicle for some kind of transformation but it also needs to be able to make occasional fun of itself, it needs to be able to hold the light and dark simultaneously.” Looking back, Tishani's first performance on stage was when she was three years old. She played the role of a flower. Although she had the informal education to dance during her stay at Madras, her formal education began when she was in her mid- 20 after she returned home from the UK after her studies.
Tishani’s third and the latest novel, Small Days and Nights (2019) was published last year by the Bloomsbury Publishers, and recently it was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize. The book is about how two sisters, Grace and Lucia - exploring their space when speech shrinks and the imagination expands. Starting with a corpse in a freezer box, Small Days and Nights turn fragmented characters together into one frame, as Grace’s mother dies. When Grace returns to Pondicherry for the cremation of her mother, she had to stay back in a lovely beachside cottage in Madras similar to the one the author built in Paramankeni in 2004, a rural coastal village eighty kilometres from Chennai (Madras), India. Grace moves here to give care for her sister Lucia who has Down Syndrome and has limited language abilities —a sister she hadn’t known about, who was raised in a special residential facility.
Grace and Lucia live in the house with their dogs and a housekeeper Mallika, a Tamilian. The novel has parallels with the author’s own life. Tishani’s brother Ajay, who has Down syndrome, is similar to the character of Lucia. In this novel, men are marginalised. Tishani has touched upon the feeling of claustrophobia in small narratives, about freedom and duty, desire and alienation, narratives, which deserve to be part of the larger idea of nation or country
Living in Paramankeni, a beach away from the city had made the author rethink her role in society as a woman. She realises her insecurities and fears. How then is it possible to assert freedom amid fears?
Tishani is greatly influenced by Anita Desai’s works on alienation and loneliness. She quotes Desai in one of her interviews. She says that the act of writing for women is almost a private and a secret activity where she has to wait for the children to go to school to continue her writing activity and finish before they return home, that many women writers agree, she said. Vogue India magazine recently wrote about Tishani’s lockdown diaries on loneliness and solitude in its June 2020 issue. For the author, loneliness is something which one must learn to live with or requires one to practice it, to achieve it. When she was a child, her sister forced her into loneliness. In those days Tishani wanted to be a part of different games with her sister but she was restricted and that led her to loneliness. This is when Tishani turned to storybooks, to painting mountains, tigers and elephants. Her father too was a busy individual that led her to explore theatre, dance, music, film. These later helped her to coexist with loneliness. She experiences solitude during her stay at Paramankeni even though her husband, Carlo Pizzati spends time in writing in the other room linked by a common corridor. This brings a kind of unity of being alone together she says.
Travelling is Tishani’s another passion and it leads her into the discovery of an aspect of herself. This process blooms and becomes her poem. She never plans her poetry themes. It happens accidentally due to the experiences she gains during her travel. In Vietnam, she saw a pig slaughter and it became the theme of her poem. She said in one of her column 'Travels in hyper-reality' , “I boarded my first aeroplane when I was six months old. My first solo train ride was when I was four (okay, the neighbour auntie was with me, but she has been obliterated in the memory). I have performed headstands in all seven continents and spent extra money I’ve ever made collecting animal souvenirs and ethnic jackets from remote hill tribes. Up until a few months ago, if you’d asked me to describe myself, I surely would have called myself a ‘traveller’.”