Scroll Top

Interview – Tishani Doshi

Photograph of a woman with long hair in red sari, sitting with a brown dog against a background of bushes with vines and pink azaleas. The woman is resting her chin on one hand and petting the dog with the other.

Tishani Doshi is an award winning poet and writer, dancer and performance artist, and an experienced traveller. Amongst other places, she has journeyed to Antarctica, Ethiopia, Bhutan, Mexico, Japan, Tanzania and Italy. She has participated at festivals across the world including Jaipur Literary Festival, Apeejay-Oxford Calcutta Literary Festival, Hay-on-Wye, StAnza, Kala Ghoda, Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad, Incroci di Civilita (Venice), Mantova Literature Festival, Etonnants-Voyageurs, St Malo, Galle Literary Festival, Byron Bay Writer’s Festival, and Berlin Poetry Festival, to name a few. She has attended and performed at the Forum d’Avignon , is part of 40UNDER40 Young European Leaders Programme, and has been a judge for the Forward Poetry Prize, the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize, the 2014 Dylan Thomas International Prize, the Prabha Khaitan’s Women’s Voice Award 2018, and the 2021 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. Speaking with Shikha Aleya about movement, Tishani shares engaging, reflective and deeply enjoyable accounts of her experiences and observations as a traveller, and as a writer. She writes, “What drives us to make a work of art, to create anything? It is fullness, a being in love, exuberance, against the face of all that we find unbearable, and the movement is the journey between these inner and outer worlds.”

Shikha Aleya (SA): Tishani, thank you very much for this interview. I want to start with these words from an article you wrote about a trip to Bhutan: “leaving behind footsteps in the shape of lotuses”. This is so gently, magically, evocative of movement and change, past and present, flowing between the physical, emotional and spiritual. So, please tell us what movement means to you, in the way that you live your life.

Tishani Doshi (TD): I look at movement primarily through my work as a dancer, as an attempt at getting closer to understanding oneself and the relationship of self to world, and in a deeper sense trying to understand time.

For some years now my time has been divided into periods of staying still and periods of moving. Even in the moments of stillness there are micro-movements of course – daily practice, walks, rituals, hanging out the clothes, bringing in the clothes, etc. But when I think of movement, I think of it initially in a larger context of displacement, from one place to another, a kind of uprooting from dailyness and all the complications and joys that arrive with that displacement. So, this is really about journeying from one space to another. Sometimes it’s into territory that is familiar, and so the journey is a kind of return – something I’ve written about a lot, and that is a very potent experience. Sometimes, it’s into an unknown space, which can leave you grasping for the familiar or be happily adrift in the unfamiliar.

I’ve essentially thought of movement as a kind of freedom, but one that has the capacity to destabilise you in some way. My most creative moments are when I’m not moving, when I am in fact rooted and still. The concept of elsewhere has been such a charged one for me – slipping between places, otherness, outsiderness, that idea of things happening where you are not, of your life at some distance from where your body is and the need to try and catch up with it.

Migration and restlessness are genetically coded into the human species, we have curiosity and imagination that is fuelled by these movements. But creating settlements and staying put is also a part of who we are. So, I think of movement as an impulse against too much settling. A recalibration. When we move out of necessity rather than desire, as can be seen in every part of the world today, because of climate concerns or economic reasons or war, we are talking about a different kind of impulse for movement. But I am talking here about movement that is desired. And how we decide to occupy space in those conditions.

The idea of leaving only footprints is an old one. Not disturbing the environment. Passing through in the lightest of ways. I think of the word pada, which means both poem and foot. And really, poems arrive through a kind of movement, through this scansion over landscape, that is connected to body, through the feet, through a kind of wandering—whether it is moving to do a bhujangasana on the mat before going back to the writing chair to destroy your back, or whether it’s taking a train to a new place. Moving is what displaces and connects us back to the earth.

SA: You have performed in Sharira, the choreographic work by dancer and choreographer Chandralekha, for many years. As a dancer, how have the concepts of movement, the body, space, identity and sexuality evolved for you? How would you describe the relationship between movement and sexuality?

TD: One of the things Chandra spoke about a lot was against mechanisation – how to withstand the mechanisation via the labour of our bodies. In her work with women’s groups, the women would say to her, but we are using our bodies everyday. They meant doing housework, of course, domestic duties, but she was trying to bring them into the realm of dance, other movements, which she believed had the capacity to regenerate, to bring power to the body, instead of depleting it.

I remember coming back to dance rehearsals after a break, and those first days were such a torture. I would go home and collapse, barely able to drag myself about. And after a few days, there would be a reversal, where dance was giving back to the body, and then it moved into this kind of power and soaring. So how to find those energy centres in the body and empower them? Chandra believed dance was a way of reconnecting ourselves with our bodies. And when we talk about the body we are very much talking about areas of politics, sexuality, time, space – this constant shift and yet a container somehow.

I performed Sharira for 15 years which is a very long time to spend on one choreography, so we had to talk about how to resist mechanisation within this context too. How to bring newness to it. By the time I finished performing it, I was 40 and I had lost some of the physical suppleness and limberness from when I’d started, but I was better able to emotionally inhabit the movements. I had also witnessed my teacher moving from a state of complete independence to wheelchair to death, and it was very difficult to contend with this loss, to see how a body in which so much had been invested will ultimately give way.

At the deepest level I think of sexuality as desire, and that has not just to do with what is erotic, but to do with creation itself. What drives us to make a work of art, to create anything? It is fullness, a being in love, exuberance, against the face of all that we find unbearable, and the movement is the journey between these inner and outer worlds.

Dance, and certainly performance, can be a kind of dissolution, where the body – that thing that has brought you to this feeling, ceases to exist, a kind of out of body feeling. Gender-free, hierarchy-free, it is an ultimate freedom. And sexuality as I see it, is linked in some way toward revelation and wonder, a bursting out of self, a communion, amalgamation. As a writer and dancer, I want to resist futility and move toward this idea of wonder.

SA: In a 2015 essay available online, you begin with sharing this story: “At a recent literary festival, I was questioned about my fashion choices by the moderator who had seen a magazine feature in which I’d been photographed wearing a borrowed Hermès jacket. This portrait, he said, didn’t quite fit with his image of a poet.” When we hear the term fashion movement, can we assume a movement towards or away from something? What influences a movement, around appearance and clothing, in the context of diverse identities and policing bodies?

TD: That was a kind of throwaway remark that perhaps was not intended with the kind of sharpness with which I received it, but I wrote the essay because I felt it was important to address this expectation of what we consider a “serious” writer to look like, particularly a serious female writer.

I was also making a point to talk more about style rather than fashion, as fashion is a mega industry, whereas style is intimate. Ultimately, style is an extension of our personality, our choices of what we want to present to the world, and this is separate from the economics of the fashion industry, which is trying to convince us that buying an expensive T-shirt with some banal words emblazoned on it, is somehow worth it. But I can’t say that I’m not interested in fashions and trends. As a child of the 80s I gave in to shoulder pads and neon and leg warmers, and I repent every time I look at those photographs, but there’s also tenderness as it marks a phase of life, just like a song from the past will bring you to a certain time of your life. I can never look at legwarmers and not think Eye of the Tiger, dancing with my friends in sweltering Madras.

But I think we have to address the question of power when we are talking about these things. At another literary festival, a woman, a quite famous feminist, asked me whether I wore saris often. Then she pushed further about whether it was a kind of daily thing or a dress up thing and I found myself again having to defend this sartorial choice, and withhold myself from saying, that actually I can do a headstand in a sari and splits and backbends, that I wore a dance sari for fifteen years and can do this motion of pleating and folding with my eyes closed, so it’s not a fancy dress kind of thing lady, please back it up. I am as comfortable in a sari as I am in shorts and a ganji but why should I have to explain this to anyone? It’s also true that a sari gives me a feeling of power, and so that’s why I might choose to wear it on certain occasions, so there’s a level of code-switching here with my choices that comes with a certain privilege that I’m aware of, but essentially this freedom to choose should not have to be so fraught.

And yet it continues – wear hijab, don’t wear hijab, wear bikini, don’t wear bikini, don’t dry your bra on a washing line because god forbid someone will see a floating bra in the world and somehow be offended. It’s all too tedious. The right to what we wear, the spaces we occupy and our reproductive rights are all entwined, and we must fight like hell to push back against any obstruction to these freedoms.

SA: Thank you, you’ve given us a lot to reflect on. A last question, Tishani! How can we engage with these multiple aspects of movement to foster safety, inclusion and self-affirming spaces in our world, not just for human beings, but all life on this planet?

TD: I suppose it’s a question of how we occupy space – whether it will be invasive or affirming.

As a woman I find myself on guard a lot, with a range of mild alert to heightened in public spaces, and this is something that has been coded into me at an early age, but it’s very real, this low-lying expectation of threat that can quickly be amped up. When I’m relaxed, there’s a distinct uncoiling within the body of that on-guardedness, and I think this is something very physically felt, and many people can relate to it.

But I’ve found that it’s not only the people we assume will be threatened that are so. Some years back in London, in a park with an outdoor gym, I remember seeing a father and his autistic son, and quite soon after, a group of young men, who were also working out, started to imitate the autistic man, his voice, his mannerisms. It struck me that they were bullying because they felt threatened in some way by his presence. I’ve grown up with a brother with disabilities so this scene is not uncommon to me, but it always strikes me with a freshness every time – why is it that those who we perceive as “strong” – who are holding the centre in some way, feel so threatened by another body that cannot harm them? Watching the whole incident gave me that tensing in the stomach feeling, and I think it has to do with power, control and fear.

Along all lines of division, whether it’s race, caste, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, there is this sense of: who is occupying the centre and what space will be given to everyone else? And my feeling has always been – how to enlarge that vision rather than give in to the narrowing? Retreat is not an option, hiding away is not an option. So, how do we populate the margins so much that the power of the centre becomes a thing of myth, or that there are multiple centres, a kind of galaxy of spinning planets?

How do we extend this vision not just to humans, but to birds, trees, animals? It’s always treading the boundaries of inner and outer, these membranes we all contend with, and how sometimes these boundaries we put up are self-protective, but sometimes, they are limiting. So, I think it boils down to how not to feel separate. And the only way I know is to find connection. Find connection and nourish it.

Image Credits: Photos by Carlo Pizzati