Reclaiming land- Rediscovering body

Sandhiya Kalyanasundaram

This post describes a class that I co-taught at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, India during Aug-Nov 2018.

The students explored the idea of time as paradox and creating dance through site- specific gardening and land reclamation. Gardening creates a new order of mind-body connections and a new experience of time as the gardening process is internalized. The students who chose to create dance were previously untrained in any dance form and it was an experimental process for me as I tried to deepen and shape their mind -practice through the viscerality of gardening and being actively in touch with their emotions while creating movement sequences. Through the post, I also wish to open the discussion to how embodied dance practice can contribute in creating an ethical ecological consciousness in the individual amateur student and the question of process versus outcome oriented teaching of dance.

In teaching students, I often wonder if the focus of the class should lie in the process itself or in the outcome. I love seeing outcomes and it gives students a finished work for their portfolio or just enough confidence to deliver the next idea. Yet, there is the whole internal process, the subtle magic of felt-self, the innumerable dialogues of self with self, the minor transformations along the way that may add to evolving and being ‘human’ that get sidelined in the outcome-driven classes.

Clearing Urban Wasteland © Stuti Jiandani

We are all witnesses to the incredible daily loss of forests, biodiversity, displacement of indigenous people, monocropping on cleared forest land and the responsibility of living on earth.  As an educator, I  am interested in the question, what can the individual do as an action that will feed coherently into the larger business of living. Personally, I relish the intense viscerality of digging, planting and delighting in a peony or a harvest of zucchini, ginger, peas and tomatoes. Since 2014, I have been working extensively on best practices for land cultivation, gardening and land reclamation. I co-taught a transdisciplinary unit ‘All of a sudden!- Time as paradox’ with SriSriVidhiya Kalyanasundaram (Srivi Kalyan),  for first year M. Des students from the IAIDP (Information Arts and Information Design Practices) and EEC (Earth Education and Communication) programs at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology during September-October 2018. Srivi Kalyan, Principal curriculum designer and Associate Dean, School of Law, Environment and Planning, had outlined the goal for the unit as ‘support students in emerging an individual quest for developing an ethical ecological consciousness and Sustainability and Design Leadership’[1]. This class sought to explore the complexities in the relationship between human perception, subjective time and the physical world time by focusing on process and enabling students to create self-chosen design outcomes from a place of inner transformation.   Questions that I asked myself while teaching this class and would like to share with the community of performers and educators here include:

  • What is the role of process-oriented teaching in emerging a student with critical thinking skills as well as compassion in their future role as leaders of a planet in crisis? How can dance training contribute to this particular question? How does one define ethical creativity?
  • How does training amateur/previously untrained students who want to dance (as an embodied experiment) to learn to be aware of their limbs in space-time; be in touch with their emotions and learn to express themselves in a span of 3-4 weeks become a lifelong tool for developing the self? 
  • In what ways can the educator reveal the students’ inner self to themselves in a few weeks? A different yet related question is how does the educator document the complex and intricate mind-body training processes that are individual-based? (I pose this question in contrast to the long years of training that students of bharatanatyam spend with their teachers. For instance, when I trained in Bharatanatyam, the training was modified by my guru to suit body types, gender and individual emotional presets, this is not often the case in today’s bharatanatyam training).

I don’t have all the answers to these questions but find it important to ask as we continue to build on physical technique and cross-training across different styles of dance. I welcome comments, thoughts or suggestions on these questions as well as the larger question of process versus outcome oriented teaching.

The class was taught through a multilayered process where the early phases involved fact-finding, researching and analytical understanding of the ecological issues that surround reclaiming urban wastelands or urban dumping sites in India as well as plants that would thrive in the local microclimate of Yelahanka, Bengaluru and the latter phases involved creative decision-making and design development. Students were assigned two outcomes: 1) Team outcome: to regenerate the land through creation of a community resource garden with social, ecological and ethical design principles and 2) Individual student outcome: to emerge a body of creative work based on the embodied experience of regenerating/transforming wasteland into a community garden. 

Fenced and converted to a community medicinal garden © Stuti Jiandani

Here I share the work of two students Sahil Raina (IAIDP) and Shivangi Pant (EEC) who chose to work with dance for their individual outcomes. Using bodies not previously trained for dance, the idea in this short piece was for the two students to find movement from within themselves as a resonance of working the land in an amateur attempt to cross the resistance of the mind and the body’s unwillingness to move. As a dance educator, my role was to enable them to explore their bodies, serve as a witness and ask questions that would push their inner process. I used simple phrases such as ‘walk in slow motion anticlockwise gradually speeding up to a run’; leap and drop to the floor; reach out farther farther’; ‘establish contact with partner’. Finally I suggested ways to arrange their movements to reflect their individual processes and include the soil from the land in their piece. “Digging the land”,”Understanding the land” is the constantly evolving spiral presented in a study of contrasts from the outward in and the inward out.  In this piece , the two students explore raw emotions: a lilting happiness here and there; deep sorrow mirrored into pain; threatening anger pulsed against involuted anger; fear and disgust sublimating into silent witnessing.  As they cleared the land, the students encountered its resistance in the form of rocks, experienced how the soil allowed each of them to go deeper and reflect on the nature of time: time at once as geological; microscopic; ant- beetle-caterpillar-butterfly times; King Cobra time; seed-bulb- plant- leaf-bud- flower times, time as plastic, light bulbs, other non-biodegradable waste; time as memory, time as perception, growth, aging, ephemerality. Lived time expanded for the students as they battled many emergent problems of clearing the land upto two-feet deep, land ownership issues, budget issues, watering issues and their own physical tiredness, reflecting on their time spent with the land through journaling. In this scenario, the students were experimenting with embodied ways of learning and expressing themselves. One of the interesting observations is that as educators we were able to break through the resistance from students at several levels once they committed to engaging with the natural world in small ways, for instance, taking ownership to water the plants everyday! 

Excerpts from Shivangi’s reflective journaling:
“Understanding time for other beings: I understand that the physical life of any being, a plant or a human has a very defined cycle of birth, growth and death. In my introspections during this class I found that we are often limited to our concept of time  and do not seek to understand life for the other beings when not seen through an anthropocentric lens. Working on this performance piece as part of the class allowed me to rethink my ideas about time and physically placed me in close proximity to other beings on the land.  
Time seems to expand with emotion: Perception of time is also subject to emotions. Any emotion can expand or contract the time around us, for instance a feeling of working together in a group of eight people on a piece of land evokes a feeling of unity, progress, shared emotions which contracts the perception of time in our heads. Similarly, my perception of time expanded while I was physically working on the land, when each and every action seemed like it has been happening over a longer period of time. Time also contracted while I was trying to understand the land mentally. During the performance, I move from a contracted position to an open position while saying the two dialogues: ‘Understanding the land’ and ‘Digging the land’, representative of how time worked of me at that moment. For me emotions moved in a sequence of happiness, sadness, lost , anger and then peace.
Memory scale of time: As any action in which we have invested a lot of time, my memory soaks that episode to a deeper level , on the other hand something that I did not invest much time in is less memorable. This memory also becomes a memory scale of time.
For me that one moment where there is nothing more important, nor the artist, nor the work but only the act of doing/making is important. That moment is what I have been looking for. At that moment time ceases to exist for me. After repeating the same performance piece several months ago, in a different place, it did not feel or evoke the same emotions it did when it was first performed. The things that had mattered to us a several months ago did not matter anymore, the emotions that we depicted did not come out the way it did earlier.  How a performance does not always stay in its original form, like how a painting would, made me question the idea of the time of an art piece”. 

Excerpts from Sahil’s reflective journaling:
“Working on a piece of land, with the intention of creating a garden, brought to the fore, an internal journey in simultaneous motion with the physical aspect of a creation…One of the things that has stayed with me is an understanding of patience…If someone were to look at the rain garden, one would imagine we haven’t spent as much time working on it, but our perception of time felt much longer during this process. There was a certain relationship between time and the routine that we had adopted. The act of repetition almost served as the most integral aspect of my learning process. My strongest relationship to the land has been built through the act of digging. I can see myself and how I have transformed through the process of digging. The things around me that have changed, that have transformed through this constant process of digging. My observations centred around certain elements that I noticed while spending time on the land. My way of seeing until the class had been largely defined by a constant search for the complex, rendering almost a dismissal of the immediate or the simple. 
The Aloe vera plant was the only plant that I noticed. I noticed how it devised its own method of survival, even after reaching a point of almost dying. When I think about it now, it amazes me how much we can learn from the nature of plants. It comes down to how I feel about these concepts of destruction and creation, that point in human life, when we reach a point of destruction, we come back to create something more. What is the difference between us and other forms of life? Has this intelligence been ingrained in all forms of life? I now find myself thinking about the four years that that land was left untouched. Probably more than that. So many years of leaving the land the way it is. What is our relationship to land? Is our relationship to land for mere profit? Will our experience on this land guide us in sustaining this effort? If we cared about land, wouldn’t we have tried to do something about it in the past? Is what we are doing, best for the land? If we had only created a compost pit, would that have been enough? Is there a need to cut down the grass that existed before? Is our sense of aesthetics guiding us on how we should see the world? What would have been wrong in letting that land flourish the way that it was, and just create a mechanism where people wouldn’t litter the ground? Why is there a need to maintain the ground?”

Shivangi and Sahil performed in the class as well as on the land. Sahil used a small instrument, a variation on the hang drum, that he included as part of the class performance. 

Video credit: Stuti Jiandani
Video credit: Prashant Raghuram

[1]Transdisciplinary Futures: Where do embodiment, ethics and education meet for sustainability leadership? Srisrividhiya Kalyanasundaram and Sandhiya Kalyanasundaram, LENS world distributed conference publication 3-5 April 2019.

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About Sandhiya Kalyanasundaram

Sandhiya Kalyanasundaram is a choreographer, art-science curator and poet. Trained in Bharatanatyam, Butoh and Flamenco, Sandhiya has led and performed in several collaborative performances between dance styles and used dance therapy to work with special needs children and survivors of domestic violence. She has worked as a research professional for ten years in the field of Neuroscience and has received the Milpitas city grant to curate an exhibit on Neuroscience-based visual and performing art. In 2013, Sandhiya co-founded and worked as the Creative Director of Sangam Arts– a non-profit whose mission is to enable meaningful and lasting connections between communities using classical arts. Sandhiya has served on the Jury Panel for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in San Francisco, 2014. Sandhiya loves working the land and has been extensively working with master gardeners to design sustainable landscapes in the Pacific Northwest for the last 4 years.