THE ASSEMBLY, Raghav Handa
Nithya Nagarajan

When I call Raghav Handa and ask of his hope for THE ASSEMBLY, which in subtle ways is a revisitation of the ideas explored in his previous work Follies of God for the Keir Choreographic Award, he says it is “to throw out enough flowers and hope audiences will catch them.” I expect to catch some flowers. I did not expect the work to puncture my collective unconscious. I would have flung bills in the air if I could.

At first, the audience is presented with a relatively safe and alluring vision of Handa delivering a monologue he has penned alongside a choreography of mudras or hand gestures. Handa appears in beige pants and a white shirt and strikes a Kali-esque pose and tells us that his grandfather could control time, in the fashion of a sutradhar or storyteller. His direct address is at once familiar and surrealist. Having recently returned from Handa’s ancestral lands of Punjab myself and spending time in the Punjab province on both the Indian and Pakistani side of the border, Handa’s work hits different through the creation of vivid and theatricalised imagery.

Raghav Handa, THE ASSEMBLY, 2024, performance documentation, Campbelltown Arts Centre (CAC), Dharawal land (Sydney). Photo: Nat Cartney.

The monologue of a training camp on target practice descends into joyous rapture, “Add a little hip in and add a little shoulder in,” Handa trails off… We get glimpses into how movement marks time and space through a jazz-inspired abstraction of an Indian army drill by the trio on stage. The two male performers, Victor Zarallo and Josh Freedman, accompanying Handa are skilled movers in their own right. The work is scored by the inimitable James Brown whose divergence of sonic thought: whispers, dreams, prayers, echoes and screams are occasionally macabre and other times delightful. They capture a sense of the bravado and euphoria of rage-fuelled destruction, while challenging us to let go of reality, to surrender to the subterranean realm of the mind. Handa even sings a folk song passed down by his mother at a different point in the work, his quivering voice making audible the poetics of love and relation.

Raghav Handa, THE ASSEMBLY, 2024, performance documentation, Campbelltown Arts Centre (CAC), Dharawal land (Sydney). Photo: Nat Cartney.

From this moment on, Handa tackles difficult issues head on, but turns away from the didactic modes of performance commonplace to work exploring South Asian migrant narratives in the pursuit of something more complex and multi-layered. In many ways, THE ASSEMBLY straddles mythology, social formations and sense memories to construct and deconstruct the archetypal Indian male. He once said to me, “When you live overseas, you only see your heritage through other’s lives.” This moved me deeply and I recognise in THE ASSEMBLY the collision of his family memory with Handa’s psyche, the dismantling of masculinity in micro and macro ways and the counter-narratives he conjures to the bank of images that feed our exoticised or impoverished ideas of an imagined India. Watching Handa’s work is like witnessing effort to heal himself and our fractured society.

Raghav Handa, THE ASSEMBLY, 2024, performance documentation, Campbelltown Arts Centre (CAC), Dharawal land (Sydney). Photo: Nat Cartney.

As the tension in the choreography rises to suffocating levels, I wonder how much of the piece I’m processing is lost on the wider/Whiter audience. I decide the raw immediacy of the unique worlds he wills into being means it doesn’t matter. I know in my bones that Handa and I come from a patriarchal culture that heralds male supremacy, re-inscribes cis-hetero normative modes of colonial desire and has been steadily engulfed by Hindutva hate over the last decade. These are issues that are difficult to debate in the public realm both in the subcontinent, but especially in the (oft conservative) diaspora and Handa’s work goes there entirely through the body. In THE ASSEMBLY, he asks us to give him an hour of our lives to sit with this discomfort.

Raghav Handa, THE ASSEMBLY, 2024, performance documentation, Campbelltown Arts Centre (CAC), Dharawal land (Sydney). Photo: Nat Cartney.

There is an inner logic to THE ASSEMBLY that is beguiling and lucid and that sometimes escapes the written word. In his own work, he says “logic is a mistake” and true to his word Handa’s choreographies derive meaning from doing. Handa, Zarallo and Freedman paint a number of images for us to bear witness to: street dogs, fast bowlers, whiskey bars, war memorials, firecrackers, goddesses, public hangings, dancing boys, male orgasms and tonga rides. Handa’s solo where he weakens the knees to control his ghungroos and is at once an army officer, a lover and a peacock—stopping time, moving it forward, repeating history if you will through the interpretive use of tatkars or the striking of the floor with the ball, the heel and the foot in syncopated rhythms —is an absolute highlight. When Zarallo is on a board with wheels whirling to the front of the stage and creating a soundscape with the microphone, it is reminiscent of experiences you encounter at railway stations in India, men discriminated against because of Leprosy. Leprosy colonies exist throughout India and even though it has been eliminated as a public health problem, there is deep social stigma and ostracisation of people visibly affected. Zarrallo comes up close to the audience and interacts with their complicity with a confronting proximity in this moment. It is also clear that Handa’s collaborators have a say in the work, exploring their own expressions of male-ness. Registers of brotherhood, love, survival, violence, lust and animalism paint an intricate picture of masculine expression and confront us with the cause and effect of our narrow socialisations of gender and sexuality.

Raghav Handa, THE ASSEMBLY, 2024, performance documentation, Campbelltown Arts Centre (CAC), Dharawal land (Sydney). Photo: Nat Cartney.

Handa has been widely acclaimed in the contemporary dance circuit in Australia, but there is little serious analysis of his choreographic work. While Handa has performed with a range of leading choreographers and companies on this continent, the genesis of his own making practice has taken shape across the last 10 years and has culminated in notable original works like Tukre (2015), Cult of the Titans (2020), TWO (2021) and Follies of God (2022), each one picking up from where the previous left off.

Often these works are playful and overtly political, addressing issues of power, hierarchy, intimacy and the seduction of violence through a racialised and gendered lens. Through his works, Handa is having difficult conversations about the liminal space between his two homelands: India and Australia. He performs in his own work and also makes work on other dancers, however the sculpting of his movement alongside the control, precision and technique he demonstrates makes it hard to peel your eyes off of him in ensemble work. As a dancer, Handa pushes himself in unique ways and suffused within his psychosomatic range are imprints of First Nations contemporary dance vocabulary courtesy of his teachers Vicki Van Hout and Marilyn Miller and remnants of Kathak and modern dance funnelled through a body-based signature that is entirely his own. He pays meticulous attention to movement detailing.

Raghav Handa, THE ASSEMBLY, 2024, performance documentation, Campbelltown Arts Centre (CAC), Dharawal land (Sydney). Photo: Nat Cartney.

There is an increasing interest in alterity in contemporary dance in Australia, yet programmers and producers lack the perception and sensitivity that comes with embodied knowledge to engage meaningfully with such alterity when it is right in front of them. In this way, it is refreshing, even for me, to see a mid-career Brown male body on an Australian stage—partially nude at times—and not concerned with resolution in his performance work. Yet, Handa leaves the audience with hauntings, traces, sensory assaults and stilted laughs. Stilted because the audience writ large can read a silliness and discomfort in that silliness, yet they do not know what they are laughing at and indeed if it is appropriate to be laughing at all. Handa is aware of this and plays into this discomfort, typically derivative of brushes with power. Humour is a key factor in all of Handa’s work and he uses it as a political tool: he understands that making people laugh might be more important than making people think in today’s age of information saturation.

***This is not a review. I have known Handa as a funder, programmer, co-curator, critic and fellow artist. Over the years, he has become a friend and I know that his life is immersed in dance every single day. I have come to appreciate the freshness of his choreographic vocabulary, the narrative abstraction in his works and the quality of his artistic explorations through an insider-outsider lens. He has changed the way I view dance. With this lens, I understand Handa’s works as experimental embodiments - speculating upon what shared humanity might mean as a movement practice. Sometimes these look like acid trips with friends and strangers.

THE ASSEMBLY was made possible by Campbelltown Arts Centre’s innovative curatorial commissioning mode. The opportunity for a mid-career artist to seed and realise an experimental work of scale, whilst working in intensive development bursts, with the support of strong producing muscle toward a new work’s first outing is nothing short of a miracle. Programs like Campbelltown Arts Centre commissions remain a rare thing in Australia.

Nithya Nagarajan’s response to Raghav Handa’s THE ASSEMBLY has been co-commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre and Performance Review, as a means of facilitating critical engagement with this work.

Nithya Nagarajan is a contemporary performance maker, curator and researcher with 15 years of experience in the field. She is also an equity and justice advocate and has worked for systemic change in the arts here and across the Asia Pacific. Nithya currently forms 1/4th of the South Asian artist collective H-ME W-RK, serves as a board member at Theatre Network Australia and is working on a range of independent projects. Her dance-theatre work NAYIKA: A Dancing Girl co-created with Liv Satchell had its global premiere at Belvoir St Theatre in April 2024.

Most recently, she was co-Artistic Director at Arts House and has previously held senior roles at Creative Australia, NIDA and Leeds City Council. Her writing has been published in a range of open access formats and she holds an award-winning PhD in Performance Studies. Nithya lives between Australia and India via Kuwait and the UK.

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