Poet and dancer, Tishani Doshi was born and lives in Madras (India). Her first book of poems, Countries of the Body, won the 2006 Forward prize for best first collection. She was also winner of the 2006 All-India Poetry Competition.
If you had to describe in few words your art to someone who doesn’t know you, what would you say?
My work, I think, has to do with simple explorations: the body, beauty,
geography, space, time, love, loss, leaving and the return. I think the main
thing I’m trying to achieve is a sense of musicality and sensuality, whether it’s in poetry, fiction or dance.
In your web page you say how you becoming a dancer in Chandralekha’s troupe at the age of 26 “seems like a mysterious force of the universe” at play to you and you talk about your relationship with her as the most important relationship of your life. What made this relationship so important?
It was important for many reasons, but perhaps the most important was that it made me understand beauty. Beauty on so many levels – the beauty of being an artist, of performance, of transformation, of being a woman, of being in love, alive. There was something very immediate about the way Chandra lived her life – it was against compartmentalization, against mechanization and aridity – and I suppose I found it a very attractive alternative to what I had seen around me. She often said to me that a woman was nothing unless she had a sense of politics and sexuality, and I think she embodied that perfectly.
Do you still dance?
Not as often as I would like, but yes, I still dance and perform a couple of
times a year.
You say that as a poet you don’t ever set out to address certain things, it’s just that certain themes obsess you. So what themes are obsessing you now?
For a while now I’ve been obsessed with place, movement, where we begin and end. I’m interested in the motivations of these movements – the reasons for displacement. The kinds of people that undertake these movements –lovers, travellers, wanderers, adventurers, money-makers, refugees – and the necessary themes of memory and exile that must travel along with these physical movements.
Why did you decide to write an ode to Giacometti’s walking woman and what does the “walking woman” represent for you?
Some time ago I was commissioned to write something for the Tate and after looking around their permanent collection, the piece that struck me most was Giacometti’s “Walking Woman.”
I have always been fascinated by Giacometti’s form, but I was quite unnerved by this walking woman with no head or arms, her tremendously lithe body and legs. In my mind I had all these ancient images of woman – fertile images – women of wide hips and many breasts that gave birth to all the vegetation of the world, and by contrast, Giacometti’s emaciated woman seemed so depleted. But his image stayed with me. It was very strong. And I realized that she was strong in a different way, in her persistence. The poem was an attempt to create a dialogue between this modern depleted woman and the full-bodied ancient women, in a way, to reclaim the powers that women have always had, but sometimes seem lost to us.
Women today have to face so much brutality and violence. It is a constant struggle, this struggle for reclamation, and I think it has to do with recovering the body, but also to do with memory – to remember that women have always had special powers, not just powers of procreation, but creative powers. How to reach that state of fullness despite the constant beating down? That is what the poem is about.
In India marriage is considered the most important event in a woman’s life. Talking about this in “The Rains have come and you’re not married” (NY Times, July 2005) you say that “the pressure to marry straddles both sexes; and while unmarried men are still seen in a kinder, more optimistic light, the unmarried Indian woman is seen in terms of faulty machinery, damaged goods, brazenness and stubbornness”. Is this is still true today?
Absolutely. Marriage remains the hallmark event of a woman’s life, and a man’s. People move towards it as steadily and surely as they move towards death with hardly any examination of what it’s all about. A woman who does not marry or procreate is a far more suspicious entity than a man who doesn’t.
Did you get married meanwhile?
No, I did not.
Is not getting married a political choice for you now or just something that didn’t happen?
I am actually the product of a very happy marriage, so it is not that I have some agenda against marriage. I just don’t see it working as well in the present context. There are those few, rare wonderful examples of marriage, but for the most part, I see men and women oppressing each other horribly because they believe that one person must satisfy every emotional, sexual, intellectual need, which is impossible. I’ve never met anyone who convinced me that it’s a good idea. That may change, who knows? For the moment though, I’m far more interested in relationships, partnerships, how the roles shift, how far you get before you come close again. This feels more real to me than marriage, which I see as a partnership for security – whether it’s for money, or to protect against loneliness.
Does it make you a black sheep not to be married in the context where you live? Do you care?
It does mark me, yes. But it’s also something that people get used to after a while.
There’s the initial suspicion that you’re a loose canon because you refuse to do what everyone else is doing. But once people see beyond that I think it’s quite refreshing for them, and hopefully even makes them examine their lives in a different way. Judgement, in general, is not something I can afford to be worried about.
How and when, being a woman living in India, you feel discriminated against (if at all)?
In so many ways it is impossible to count. Women are discriminated against because of our bodies first. At the moment of birth, and in some cases, even before that, in the womb, there is still the worship of the penis. In most places in India, people want boys, and so if you’re a girl, the first discrimination starts there. Later, you have to deal with the incredibly repressed sexuality of the Indian male. There are so many instances of abuse – physical, sexual, mental. Although I have to say that women are not exempt from perpetuating crimes against other women. A lot of the times it is the mother who deprives her girls from proper nutrition, education, and opportunities, (because poverty forces her to make the choice, but it is still a vicious cycle.)
I personally have faced little discrimination because of the social class I was born into where I suppose the discrimination is less blatant, but it is still present in different ways – more to do with manipulation and power than deprivation.
I think there has been a great move forward with the feminist movement in India, but we are a far way from equal rights.
What do you consider it to be the main obstacle to equality in rights and duties between men and women in your country?
I think our biggest problem is that we went from a society that believed and worshipped the idea of the female principle to a highly patriarchal society. In every instance where women are given control of their reproductive rights and a proper education, where they are given control of the family’s finances, there has been a more successful picture. In every instance where those rights and freedoms are squashed, we have a society that turns in on itself.
How, in your opinion, could this be overcome?
If we shift the power back to women in India I think it will make all the difference, and we can only do this by policy change and by women changing the way they treat other women.
My Guardian and cricket blogs were experiments.
I found the blog an interesting form but very time consuming and not as enjoyable as writing a feature. I can see how blogs can be very effective, but as I take a long time to write and ideas usually take weeks, months, years to gestate, the blog is not really the best forum for me.
What are you working on now?
Oh, I’m working on new poems. Lots and lots of new poems.