About Touch

Girija Hariharan
Published: May 2019

Girija Hariharan, an accomplished muralist and artist and founder of 2flatbrush shares her experience of ‘Rorschach Touch’ by Diya Naidu.

As I wait at the foyer at a performance space in Bengaluru for Rorschach Touch to begin, I have no idea what to expect. With the slow gentle Bangalore breeze wafting in, I see a lot of young and curious faces, dressed in flowy clothes. I also see some old theatre regulars and several newcomers.

Based on the concept of the Rorschach Test, an inkblot test used in the late 19th century for psychological assessment, Diya Naidu’s show Rorschach Touch is inspired from the simple but essential phenomenon of ‘touch’. It places touch in different contexts and uses perception to explore it; it aims to create a space of intimacy, while inviting the audience to examine their own relationship and associations with intimacy based on their life experiences. Simply put, it reminds you of your own life, the touch you have experienced and perceived.

What is quite impressive is that it is an immersive work and does away with the fourth wall entirely, to democratise the space and disrupt any hierarchy between the performer and the audience. It compels the audience to make their own choices about how they physically see or view the piece, thus constantly making them reclaim the process of perception.

It intends for the viewer to watch closely, two or more beings in acts of intimacy such as play, romance, disruption, aggression, competition, love, as well as abstract and poetic expressions, while at the same time observing and becoming aware of their own prejudices, biases, patterns, desires and discomfort. Essentially it uses juxtapositions, surprise and deep honesty among the performers to achieve this. It is a choreographed piece, yet the performers are trained and encouraged to improvise constantly in order to keep it alive; in order to “be” instead of to just “do” or “perform”.

The Inspiration

Modern society constantly exposes us to an exaggerated, dramatised and sexualised rendition of tactile interaction. Diya felt that touch features in our day to day life in a hyper mode. Media and popular cinema seem to have defined exactly how gestural and tactile language needs to look – whether it is romantic or maternal or brotherly or playful. There is no room for the nuance and subtlety of real human emotion and interaction.

Diya feels that much of this has to do with contemporary issues like consent (men not even being equipped to sense the cues of a female body), toxic masculinity (disallowing men from being sensitive, gentle or delicate), violence against women, untouchability (India’s caste system that historically declares entire communities as being too low to even touch), queerness (our binary perceptions in this context and our damaging biases).

Diya was interested in what happens to the viewer if they simply watch gentle touching for eighty minutes, and what this means in terms of the aggression we witness in daily life. During research for this piece, Diya realised that there seems to be a Touch Crisis, with so many people admitting that they don’t know how to touch or are scared to touch and so on.

The Process

The show as a concept, started with just two dancers, then became a quartet and now has up to eight performers in the space.
Diya began with the simple idea of two beings asleep together and the act of waking up. They resisted giving a narrative or a context, but tried to stay in a space where these beings could be anyone. It was left to the viewer to decide whether it is a parent – child, lovers, kids in a camp, strangers on a bus, refugees, a one-night stand or anyone else.

Diya usually holds space and allows actors to play and respond to each other. Often phrases are taught to another set of performers, or one performer is exchanged for another, just to see what nuances and possibilities this throws up. For example, seeing two women in a duet is often a strikingly different experience than a man and woman, and throws up a whole other set of reactions in the viewer. She devised a set of tools and exercises to bring the performers into deep awareness and presence in the space, so that they are really experiencing what they do, and not just performing or executing. This became their training process and the research involved sharing a lot of what was going on in their bodies and beings. Another thing Diya tries to do is create an open and safe space so people can be themselves and respond to what they see without feeling judged or shy. The performers’ real responses became central to her material generation and shaped the flow and order of the scenes.

It was a conscious choice to focus on interactions between two bodies, at any given time. This is where the show started, and the slow gentle touch that we see repeating in the work is really the crux of the show itself. The idea of providing less content is to allow the audience more attention, presence and time to process.

The Response

To offer deeper access to the piece, and to keep it alive through real input from non-performers as well, Diya has created the Rorschach Touch workshop for anyone who wants to experience this. She brings feedback and input from these workshops and uses it to keep the work alive.

Diya has received several heartfelt responses for her piece. On several occasions people have expressed being at a loss for words and an overwhelming bodily experience. Once someone made her put her hand on her heart and said that that was her feedback – that her whole body was triggered and pulsating, and she could feel her entire being. The audience often say that they take several days to process what they just experienced.

Often the piece makes people think of their childhoods, their first intimate experiences and their own lives. Our almost universal and underlying need for closeness with strangers comes up strongly.
For Diya, to be able to capitulate a guttural and somatic experience beyond intellect, is a very beautiful experience. As for me, the piece ends with a touch ritual, and I witnessed myself, an abuse-survivor and a very shy person, going for a full-bodied long hug with a stranger, and I felt such a strong desire for intimacy and comfort. It has inspired me to paint about ‘touch as a confluence of two persons.’

About the Artist

Diya Naidu is an exciting breath of fresh air in the contemporary performance art scene in India. An independent artist based in Bengaluru, she was part of the Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts’ repertory company for about 7 years. With a Diploma in Movement arts and Mixed media, her training was largely contemporary dance with a strong base in Kalarippayattu and some influences of Bharatanatyam and Kathak. With a background in Jazz Ballet and an Honors degree in English Literature, Diya has diverse collaborative experience with artists from all over the world. From the large proscenium space, her work has become more intimate and immersive and recently entered the gallery space. Diya also works extensively in the area of gender violence and gender fluidity.

What Lies Ahead?

Diya hopes to relaunch the show soon, with a new cast and a fresh perspective. Someday she hopes to be able to create a show with a group of older actors and performers, exploring touch for the elderly, in this youth-centric world.

Rorschach Touch workshop and rehearsals lead Diya to the understanding that as humans, we yearn closeness with strangers that reinforces the message – “the world is a safe space”.

This led to the creation of her solo Strange Intimacies, which is a one-on-one show. It is performed by Diya and she spends an hour to ninety minutes with one participant. It can be best described as a performative, immersive, intimate interaction between two strangers.

Conclusion

There needs to be a sustainable ecology for independent artists; financial support that helps them blossom. It is our duty as humankind to sustain art, to document the human experience and raise collective consciousness with these path-breaking shows.

When I walked out after the show, I was transformed. I hope someday, you will be able to participate in Rorschach Touch, and feel what I felt – a deep and reverberating human bond.