Butoh- Dancing in the shadows

Eyes searching for something, their bodies spare and painted white, some with clothes that seemed blood-stained, others naked, the students float in from different directions. Behind them, their teacher’s words soar, “Imagine you’re liquid, flow, flow in every direction, flow effortlessly.”

It wasn’t a session of black magic in progress, though. These were students at the Subbody Resonance Butoh Himalaya, a dance academy started in 2005 by 60-year-old Rhizome Lee, which teaches butoh, a form of Japanese dance theatre that encompasses a diverse range techniques and movements.

Butoh, or the dance of darkness, was first performed in 1959 by Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo. It was their response to Westernised, overly stylised movements of Japanese dance. The grotesque gestures, unpolished movements, shaven heads and white body paint was a shock to the otherwise refined Japanese aesthetics.

Butoh can be performed in the presence or absence of an audience. It calls for free-spirited performances at unsettling locations.

In the 1980s when dancers began performing outside Japan, Butoh began to gain some popularity. During one such performance in Seattle, Washington, a member of the popular butoh dance group, Sankai Jaku, died when a rope broke. The tragedy was widely reported and brought Butoh into the limelight. Even though it has been accepted as a performance art outside Japan, after its initial flourish, Butoh remains relatively niche even in Japan.

After having traveled to various places, Lee chose this quiet place in Jogibara village, close to McLeodganj, and set up the school. Now, it offers long-term courses and workshops.

Lee, a butoh dancer for over four decades, says, “It is like meditation. We research inside, bring out our weaknesses, stop thinking and enter a subconscious world. The essence of butoh is resonance. In classical meditation, you don’t move, and try to detach yourself. Here, we achieve detachment by moving our body. We take off the superficial mask we wear for the world and dance for anything in the universe.”

Under Lee’s careful guidance, students from all around the world come to learn and practice butoh in this remote hill station. There are not many takers in India — in all these years, there have been less than 10 Indian students at his school, but it enjoys a steady popularity among Europeans and Asians outside the subcontinent. Lee lives on the first floor, a cozy Japanese style living area and there are rooms for short-stay students on the top floor.

During the course of their workshops, the students are made to perform for the public every Friday, in school premises or out on the streets. In one such performance, the dancers performed on a garbage patch on the streets and received mixed reactions from the locals. Many villagers, who were unaware of the form, did not appreciate the ugliness it projected or the starkness it entailed.

In his book, The Intensity of Nothingness, well-known butoh dancer Iwana Masaki says, “I have never heard of a butoh dancer entering a competition. Every butoh performance itself is an ultimate expression; there is no, and cannot be second or third places. If butoh dancers were content with less than the ultimate, they would not be actually dancing Butoh, for real Butoh, like real life itself, cannot be given rankings”.


The forgotten women in an Indian mental health ward

First published at BBC – The forgotten women in an Indian mental health ward

The female ward at the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS) in India’s capital Delhi is home to about 80 women with mental health problems.

I spent months documenting the women on the ward. Mental illness is “not the only war the women fight here – the stigma of social acceptance and gender discrimination is a major cause of their trauma.

The male ward is always filled with anxious faces waiting for the sons to return home, while the daughters are so easily forgotten.

These are some of their stories:

Vaishnavi remembers helping her father on the farm in her village in the Garhwal region of the northern state of Uttarakhand when she was six years old. She said she got distracted by ripe mangoes and a couple of hours later, could not find her father anywhere. She was brought to the hospital by the police, and has been there for 22 years.

The hospital has failed to find her home despite several attempts.

Most patients on the ward are admitted by their families or picked up from the streets by police.

Bhavna wasn’t happy with her advertising job as it used to stress her out. She started exhibiting psychotic symptoms after the death of her father and was admitted to the institute 10 years ago. Her mother still sends her a box of sweets every Diwali through her driver, Alok uncle.

Bhavna is one of 22 long-stay patients, who have been on the ward for more than two years. Her fellow patients suffer from a range of illnesses, including depression, anxiety and panic attacks.

Some have fully or partially recovered but remain on the ward because their families have abandoned them.

Kunti contracted HIV after she was raped, which led her friends to abandon her. This institute has been her “home” for three decades now.

Lali has been at IHBAS for over 20 years. Other patients remember her arriving dressed in a sari as a young girl from Nepal. She suffered a miscarriage two days later. She was brought to the ward by the police. She refuses to share her story with anyone.

Chhaya died before these photos were published – she was 68 and had spent 30 years on the ward. No one came to her funeral.

Razia’s mother died while giving birth to her. A few years later her father died too. Her siblings realised she had mental health issues when she started to do all the household chores, dressed in traditional marriage attire. They brought her to the ward three years ago.

Razia still dreams of getting married and leading a “normal” life.

Anu was beaten, accused of being shameless and threatened with death because she dared to initiate sex with her husband of two years. A wife suggesting sex is still a taboo in certain regions – the husband is expected to lead. She developed mental health issues soon after.

Aruna, who cannot speak, was found on the streets of Delhi 19 years ago by police. She is notorious for her playful antics and is often chased by other patients because she hides their personal belongings.

Vimal (left), a mother of two, was kidnapped from her village, raped and thrown on the streets of Delhi with 100 rupees in her pocket. She bought a cigarette pack with the money and left it where her assaulter dumped her.

She remembers her children, but cannot recall the name of her village.

The hospital, funded by the Delhi government, is now planning to open a half-way home called Saksham (capable) for its long-stay patients.

Rohingyas feel safe in India, but uncertainty looms

Link to the published article

The Rohingya are often described as one of the most persecuted communities in the world. A significant number of them are also living in India as refugees and asylum seekers.

Most commuters who pass the Kalindi Kunj bridge in Delhi tend to generally notice only the metro construction. From a distance, the makeshift settlement near the construction area appears to be a normal sight in the city: tents built with recycled material found on the streets comprising of plastic, rubber, plywood, tires and old clothes.

A closer look, however, reveals the plight of the Rohingya community, a Muslim ethnic group from Myanmar, and their relentless struggle in search for a home where they will not be beaten, raped or killed.

In Kalindi Kunj, a total of 307 members of the Rohingya community live together. The Zakat Foundation, a US-based NGO, has made this possible by providing 11,000 square feet of land to pitch tents on. This arrangement, however, was only valid for a year and now the Rohingyas, after having overstayed, have been asked to move again ten days after Eid al-Adha, an Islamic holiday. This case of displacement is not the first one and yet another occasion for them to not know where to go next.

The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim community hailing from Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. But the Myanmar government views the roughly one million-strong ethnic group as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. As a result, most of them are denied citizenship and outbreaks of sectarian violence have prompted many to flee.

Over several decades, the Rohingya have suffered a lack of self-identity, persecution and forced relocation within and outside the borders of Myanmar.

Many of them now live in miserable conditions in makeshift camps within and outside Myanmar and are exposed to the risks of exploitation, human trafficking, and rape.

Since 2012, over 100,000 Rohingya Muslims have embarked on boat journeys in search of better lives outside of the Southeast Asian nation, and they have taken refuge in countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand and India.

More welcoming?

India has so far been receptive to Rohingyas, and the South Asian country is generally considered to be a safe place for the refugees.

Mohammad Usman, a 33-year-old man from Myanmar, spent three days without food and water in the dark forest near the India-Bangladesh border before reaching Delhi. Almost three years after that fateful night, Usman recollects his experiences: “Back in Myanmar, officials would blindfold young men and women in the night and take them away. These people would never return.”

India may not offer the Rohingya the same basic facilities it gives to Afghan or Iraqi refugees, but the country still does more than Myanmar ever did, says Usman.

The makeshift settlement near Kalindi Kunj bridge is currently home to some 70 Rohingya families. And over 35,000 Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers are estimated to reside across the country.

Out of the 137 children in the Kalindi Kunj settlement, 60 are under the age of five and do not go to school, while only 47 children are offered education for which fees are paid by the Zakat Foundation.

Young Rohingya girls read namaz at their makeshift tent at the Kalindi Kunj refugee camp in Delhi.

Living in Delhi has made a significant difference to the lives of many of these Rohingya Muslims. Mohammad Ismail, 27, arrived in India almost two and a half years ago. His family of six members, two brothers, a sister-in-law and two sisters had to leave their parents behind in Myanmar.

Now, Ismail has found a home in Delhi. He says, “At last we’re accepted here. We can practice our religion without the fear of getting killed for it. India has accepted us. Despite the stench and filth, I feel safe living here and never want to return.”

Facing eviction, again

But poor health conditions and the looming eviction notice might accelerate the possibility of displacement. With the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses Dengue and Chikungunya during the monsoon season, over 40 people at the camp in Kalindi Kunj have fallen sick and are unable to pay for their own medicines.

Due to a lack of access to healthcare facilities, the health conditions continue to worsen every day. Although the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has pledged support, there has been little improvement so far.

Furthermore, the employment situation for Rohingyas living in Delhi remains uncertain.

Usman, for instance, works as a daily laborer and irregularly finds work for 10-15 days a month earning less than 300 rupees ($4.4, 4.0 euros) a day.

Abdul Wasim, another refugee, lives with his daughter and cannot work because of his poor health condition. He had to leave his wife and five children behind in Myanmar, and he has no hope of seeing them again in light of the border lockdown with Myanmar. Now, he and his daughter get by with the income earned by her as a domestic help in Kalindi Kunj residential areas.

A hopeless future?

The plight of the Rohingya has received a lot of media and public attention, but the question still lingers: where do they go from here? The Rohingya are still finding out how many they are in number, spread across borders in Asia.

With most of them being impoverished and lacking valid identity cards, it’s common for Rohingya Muslims to live in small groups in makeshift camps. And within these small groups, they try to stick together but it’s unclear for how long they can continue to survive amidst conditions of poverty, unemployment, lack of education and violence.

A world of highs, and terrible lows

Link to the published article

In the national capital, children as young as 11 are turning to cheap and easily available drugs, while some parents are getting infants high to help with begging. DNA takes a closer look at the underbelly of the drug menace

Aye maalik tere bande hum,
aise ho hamaare karam,
neki par chalein, aur badee se tale,
taaki hanste hue nikale dam”

The plaintive notes echo in the winter night as Hasina sings softly. Dressed in nothing but a torn kurta and salwar in Delhi’s Kashmere Gate, she sniffs a rag soaked in ‘solution’, a substance that drives her life and leaves her doubled up in painful abdominal cramps when she doesn’t get it.

Hasina, one of thousands of homeless drug addicts in the national capital, is only 15. Her story ­is a tragic pointer to the alarming fact that 20 per cent of addicts in India are under 21, according to government estimates, and that urgent interventions are needed to help them save their lives.

Originally from Bawana district in Uttar Pradesh, Hasina is the third of six siblings, all of whom still live in the village with her mother. Four years ago, when she was only 11, Hasina boarded a train with her ‘best friend’ and came to Delhi. Both lived on the streets for a couple of days before her friend disappeared.

Her companion these days is her husband Vishnu, a labourer with wedding contractors who she had confided in when she found herself alone. The couple wants to have children but Hasina, still a child herself, knows that she has a drug problem and that it’s just not possible.

She says she can go without food, but not without her daily dose of ‘solution’. She was introduced to drugs by her friends on the streets and has been sniffing ever since she found the ‘magical’ (‘jadui’ as she puts it) world of high.

‘Solution’ is a chemical vulcanising fluid used to repair tyre-tube patches. The tube declares clearly, “avoid prolonged or repeated contact with skin or breathing of vapour”, and warns that it should be sold in bulk. But it is readily available and is much in demand amongst children who cannot afford more serious drugs. A tube costs Rs 50 and a cloth piece soaked in ‘solution’ from another kid costs only Rs 10 — just what we give them when they beg at red-lights.

Many stories

“Ismein itna dum hai, poora tent jalaa sakta hai (This stuff is so powerful that it can burn the entire tent),” pipes in another child at Loha Pul, Kashmere Gate, as he breathes into a cloth in his hand. Of the estimated 4,500 addicts in the area, 100 are children.

Seven-year-old Hajikul can’t remember the last time he was sober. He ran away from his home in Delhi’s JJ Colony. “Gham hai to pee raha hun,” (I take drugs because I’m depressed),” he says with the philosophical air of someone thrice his age. He has been sent to a drug-rehabilitation centre twice, but the pain and nightmares of the withdrawal process make him leave the place every time.

Nightmares are common among drug users. In Freud’s theory of dreams, dreams/nightmares are the fulfilment of unacceptable wish. Thus, it can be that these nightmares are hints which may prompt an increased desire to drugs. Kids are more prone to these nightmares and scared, they go back to using drugs.

Hajikul and his partner, Salman, go home every time they feel the need to stay away from drugs. But the crippling stomach pains, loose-motions, dizziness and vomiting bring them back to the life they have now come to terms with.

Cold turkey

Cold turkey is the abrupt termination of substance dependence and the resulting painful experience. In his book Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts, impressively describes ‘cold turkey’, a process Hajikul, Salman and a few have tried, but failed.

Injectable too

If some like Hasina and Hajikul sniff their way into oblivion, others like 12-year-old Mohammad Qasim inject themselves. Wearing a jacket double his size, he sits stroking his hand to inject a needle in his veins. He was introduced to Amvil injection by a fellow addict to ease the pain after he developed painful sores on his legs. He has been injecting himself since he was seven. Both his arms have needle marks.

Qasim has seen people his age and older die here in the streets. “Mera dost Akash mar gaya injection lagate hue. Maine uske syringe se injection lagaya (My friend Akash died while putting an injection. I have used his syringe for an injection)”, says Qasim, who does not mind stealing injections from or near dead-bodies who die of overdose. Drug overdose is common and one or two unidentified bodies are found in the area each day.

Not surprisingly, several people have acquired HIV. ‘Addnok’ tablets, distributed by NGOs to stop the urge to get high, are crushed and mixed with the Amvil ‘solution’ and taken as a strong intravenous drug. The used syringes have led to an increased risk of HIV among adults as well as children. For better effect, some of them have started to inject needles in their genitals.

We manage to send children to rehab centres after a lot of effort but they run away from there. The problem is not making them leave drugs for a few days, the problem is what to do afterwards? Their families don’t accept them and their life on the streets makes them go back to drugs,” said Gurfran who works with the NGO Aman Biradri.

“We receive HIV cases too. These are passed on to the NACO (National Aids Control Organisation). I’ve seen kids as young as four years addicted to ‘solution’ and injections. In most cases, their parents make them sniff ‘solution’ in order to use them for begging (so they can carry the high/sleeping child in their laps)”

Cops in the area do not go near these addicts, an official admitted. “They are in huge numbers and we know about their diseases. Sometimes, they use syringes as their weapons.”


In his child rights petition filed in 2014, Nobel Peace laureate Kailash Satyarthi asked the government to act on the issue of child drug abuse. Moving on the petition, the Supreme Court on December 14 ordered the Central government to come up with a national action plan to control drug abuse among people under 21 in the next six months. While the government thinks of a plan to deal with the problem, the young minds of India are busy finding ways to get high.

“Ye andhera ghanaa cha raha, tera insaan ghabara raha.” Hasina’s singing haunts. But are the authorities listening?


‘I know the child is not mine’

Link to the published article

Smiles and some significant bellies welcome you when you climb the stairs of the ‘surrogacy hostel’ that houses 21 women in various stages of pregnancy waiting to deliver the ‘tenant’ child. A short drive off the Gurugram highway, the hostel in a small residential colony in this suburban town adjoining New Delhi is run by an organisation promising a ‘complete solution to surrogacy needs’, including ‘surrogate care’, in the National Capital Region (NCR). In the large common area, the women, some with young children tucked by their side, sit around watching television.


Most of them are unaware that the government introduced a bill in the Lok Sabha banning commercial surrogacy three days ago on November 21. Amongst them is Jira, who is 34 weeks pregnant. Jira is carrying a baby for a childless couple (they discovered a year ago that the wife didn’t have a uterus) who found her through the agency and agreed to pay Rs 6,85,000 for a healthy child. While she’ll receive Rs 3 lakh in installments during her pregnancy and after the delivery, the rest would be used by the agency for managing the hostel and providing medical care and food. She can visit her family for a week after the first trimester; and her husband can visit her whenever he wants. Her younger child lives with her in the hostel. “I’m just renting my womb for Rs 3 lakh to a woman who needs a child,” says Jira, who came from Champaran in Bihar to Delhi six years ago with her husband. They have two children, aged eight and two-and-a-half years old.

This is Jira’s second time as a surrogate mother. She needed the money then, and she needs it now. “My brother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer seven years back. We took a big loan for his treatment. But he died and we are heavily in debt. We moved to Delhi to find work in factories,” she says. “A lady at my last workplace told me about surrogacy and the money it provided. We were counselled by the doctors who confirmed that no intercourse would be involved as they will only inject an egg into me.”

Legally speaking

People such as Jira and the couple will be impacted by the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016. It is the first step towards preventing the exploitation of poor women by prohibiting commercial surrogacy, a thriving industry that sees 2,000 cases in Delhi/NCR alone. As per the bill, Indian heterosexual couples who are legally married for at least five years can try for surrogacy after they produce necessary documents to confirm that they cannot reproduce/procreate. The surrogacy will only be possible with a relative who is married, has a child and has never been a surrogate before. While there is a need to regulate the industry, some believe that the ban would be unfair on both sides—to the surrogate mother and the parents-to-be.


“Commercial surrogacy ban is a way to sideline women who do not have a uterus,” says Dr Abha Majumdar, director and head of IVF and Human Reproduction at Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi. “The law should be such that it safeguards the women who bear children for others; it shouldn’t call them or the child illegal. With this law we are risking women, who cannot have children, their homes. Surrogacy is the only option for those who marry into families that want them to bear children.” The introduction of the new law will be helpful only to married couples who can successfully convince a relative to be a surrogate for them. It does not provide any solutions for single parents, homosexuals, divorced or couples who live together. “If the law is introduced, surrogates will still bear children commercially, but there will be no guarantee of them getting paid,” warns Majumdar. “We should instead look at removing the middleman, safeguard the surrogate and provide better health facilities.”