29 March 2012

On Dancing

I can’t dance. And I can never figure out what to do when people around me are.

It’s funny, isn’t it? Not, of course, that you might be thinking this idiot can’t dance but that it’s difficult to decide what to do when people all around you are grooving to glory and you’re transfixed like this gargoyle of an eyesore on the dance floor. The music’s nice, the beats are just fine and something within you is responding, but you just can’t make the moves. And so you’re left there standing, looking around sheepishly, wondering what the heck to do.

Yes, what do you do? What does one do in a situation of that sort? What, if one may, are the ethics of the matter?

Oh no, that’s not far-fetched now. There are ethics involved most of us aren’t struck by them because we don’t suffer from any such debilitation, but that doesn’t change it one bit, What, precisely, are the ethics of looking at people dancing?

Not an easy question, that. Think about it, what is dance but a letting loose, howsoever temporarily, of inhibitions, of those notions of propriety and so-called dignified conduct which guide us in most of our everyday interactions? Each spontaneous jig is a momentary blow to socialisation and though dance as an institution makes sure that such blows are well contained and institutionalised as acceptable articulations, one really can’t deny there’s something atavistic, something immensely primal about dancing. Again, excepting formal forms of dance which are premised on certain rules, much of dance, the dancing which most of the untrained polity indulges in, seems to be precisely about doing just what comes to your mind. There are, of course, modules, people imitate what they consider fashionable and quite a lot of formal dance, or dance in which you get training, is about creating the impression of spontaneity, but more or less dancing does seem a form of purgation.

Or so it would seem. Dance is a form of purgation, but how does one explain dance pour dance, dance just for the sake of dancing? Not just because you feel like dancing but because there’s music and you, as I’m told, just can’t help it. Is it a form of purgation? Do people who spontaneously break into jigs have more pressures, tangible or not, which they break through regularly via this unconscious prance mechanism? Further, not all dance can be explained as that, as purgation: what of the early morning variety, the type which some people are reputed to break into when they wake up because they feel so nice and fresh and can’t but prance about. In that case, is prancing also dancing – or, differently put, dancing all but modified forms of prancing?

Regardless of these considerations, our moot point still remains: how should one look at people dancing? It’s easier with formal, classical dance: it’s safely confined within its own space, audience interaction is seldom invited and, like drama, dancer(s) are all but part of their own realm of creativity of which the onlooker is only an incidental, if important, part. The problem arises with the so-called spontaneous variant, when people break into celebratory jigs as part of some event or party.

Again, it’s easier – for me, i.e. – in the case of men. I mean, of course its awkward witnessing all sorts of respectable looking patriarchs and upcoming studs pumping to some popular tune, but it’s still not half as embarrassing as in the case of women. With men you can still wear the silly, sheepish grin when they dance to de daaru, but what do you do when women, and that too women you know as family and friends, dance to chikkni chameli?

You continue with the dashed grin of course, but you furiously try locating some interesting spot to comment upon in an obscure corner of the venue. You’d think as an onlooker your dharma is to appreciate the beauty of the going-ons, to partake some of the sensuality which all of dance unleashes but then you don’t particularly wish to be doing that when the unleashing agents are your own sisters. I can’t see why all parties need to have a music system and some sort of dancing. I mean, agreed, it’s the most visual way of expressing one’s joy and of celebrating something, but why all the time? And even if you have to have it, why such songs as make you squirm with embarrassment? Things which deliberately declare you to be some sort of meatball which needs must be dished up and devoured as soon as possible because apparently that’s what men and women do it each other – why, I ask, why does it have to be that?

Is one supposed to have the critical eye when all that’s happening, see them but only see so much physical movement, so much expense of energy and nothing else? Or should one openly register all that’s happening, consider the bon-bon and the bootylicious as what they really are because dancing is in anyway accentuating and bringing into direct notice your having them? Should one do both of these, consider the human ensemble as just so many creatures and everything else as part of them and their gyrating motion deserving all attention and merit because that’s what an onlooker should be doing, appreciating all that effort i.e.? Yet, is doing that possible? – for what one claims then is a asexually sexual gaze, a perspective that takes in all the sensuality of a dance and is moved to appreciating it but only in a way which considers the body not as the body, as the site of desire, but as a manifestation of beauty. Is that possible, can one, for instance, see a naked body and be struck by its beauty but not have any desire for it? Is it, in effect, possible to separate desire from sight, to see and feel beauty but not experience desire?

Mosquitoes and Civilisation

The fact that there are mosquitoes in this room is a sign of a deep rooted civilisational malaise. It’s an absolute blot on humanity, a disgrace on our entire civilisational effort, a matter of deep shame for all of mankind that there are mosquitoes in this room.

Or perhaps it’s not a disgrace on our science, on our technological might which can atomise whole worlds, but a comment on existence itself. That there are mosquitoes in the same world as there are humans is a reminder not just of the ultimate animality of our species but also a strong comment on the undeniable animality of our civilisation.

Yes, the animality of our civilisation. After all, progressive civilisation as we’ve come to know it is based essentially and inextricably on unsustainable exploitation of resources and peoples. We are humans and have laptops and the internet not simply because one bloke long back had the ingenuity to tame lightning and direct it with wires but also because we have the mechanisms, tangible and intangible, to dig up mounds of soil to make miniscule little chips and blow up mountains and rocks to make slender, fine wires. All of that digging and blowing – and that is just a very, very general understatement of all that goes into laptops and the internet – is achieved at the expense of a variety of ideas and organisms, human and otherwise. To be civilised is to be fashionably brutish.

Of course, there is no one way of being civilised. Progressive, liberal, growth oriented civilisation is what we know the most and live through, but civilisation can be various states of being and relativity, various diverse modes and degrees of exploitation and engagement with ideas and objects and their respective interactions with each other. Yet, over the past hundred years or so our civilisations have been tending towards a singular, modular civilisation, towards a more or less composite, set way of engaging with alterities and otherness and of conceiving the self in relation to itself and to these alterities exterior to it.

The fact that despite jaalis there’re still mosquitoes in this room is indicative of the coming to age of this homogenising, super-civilisation. A civilisation which directs the gaze inwards, which gives agency but sequesters it to leave much of experience outside the pale of action: we are citizens of more or less democratic communities which engender notions of free will, free press and free speech, but democracy and freedom themselves are temporal subjectivities prone to subtle domestications.

It is these domestications which, ultimately, allow macchars a free reign in the troposphere. Contemporary politics gives us the freedom to romance, the access to schooling and the choice to gainful employment, but it increasingly presents all of these in such pleasant provisos as limit their exercise for progressively transparent, equitable modes of socio-economic engagement. Market logic dictates that focus should be the self and selfhood the primary, even exclusive, domain of action – what lies outside is the responsibility of the state, the communal, the increasingly atomised yet faceless collective.

The politics of mosquito repellent merchandise is an exemplary instance of such invisible yet potent diversification. The macchar-chaap coil and machine, the mosquito repellent cream, the fly zapper, all these are symbols of a larger, global impulse towards the barricading of interiors, of the polarisation of home and world in ways which put all possible premium on the former and relegate all possible responsibility towards the latter to the ethereal yet ever strengthening arm of the state. We can control only what goes on in our own little homes and so we have jaalis on our windows and subscribe eagerly to even stronger chemical combinations to kill those who invade our domestic castles. The state does its bit in conducting fumigation once in a while, disseminating information against mosquito breeding and conducting investigations on actions taken by citizens in their homes and so the responsibility of the opens is comfortably devolved onto agencies and factors outside individual control. Whether that responsibility is undertaken to the fullest and whether such a delegation of powers allows any significant scope to the public individual is, then, a matter of and for more or less self-limiting academic debate.

Be that as it may, one can’t deny that in its entirety individual control is a happy impossibility. Still, the very fact that individual agency needs, increasingly, to find legitimate outlet through institutionalised effort is reflective of the ways in which the private is obfuscating the public even as the public is restricting the private. As long as our civilisations move towards this ideal of civilisation, individual agency and endeavour will continue finding gainful realisation in the private and macchars, for all that our achievements and economies are worth, will continue finding safe haven in our homes.