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Mandeep Raikhy’s recent project links performance, research, and pedagogy

The New Delhi-based contemporary artist questions the idea of ‘secular’ in our politically-charged times through his art practice.

by Srinivas Aditya MopideviPublished on : Mar 19, 2021

Mandeep Raikhy, a contemporary dancer and choreographer based in New Delhi, works at the intersection of ‘dance creation, performance, research and pedagogy’. He began his journey studying jazz at The Danceworx in the Indian capital city before learning contemporary dance at Laban Dance Theatre in London.

The Secular Project on the bank of Narmada river, Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh | Mandeep Raikhy | The Secular Project | STIRworld
The Secular Project on the bank of Narmada river, Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh Image: Mandeep Raikhy

In 2007, he co-founded the Gati Dance Forum to foster an ecology for contemporary dance in India. His dance practice over the years has navigated through the ideas of the body, sexuality, legality, and resistance, presented in his notable works such as Inhabited Geometry (2010), a male ant has straight antennae (2013), Queen-size (2016) and Anatomy of Belief (2019). Raikhy’s ongoing work, The Secular Project, is a departure from his prior projects as it unfolds across the geographical expanse of India while he travels through its landscapes without a predefined script.  

In early March 2020, when India went into a complete lockdown in the wake of COVID-19 guidelines, Raikhy began revisiting the idea of ‘secular’ in the national context. For him, it also meant to diversify what ‘secular’ meant to India today beyond its constitutional definitions of tolerance to multiple religions and ethnicities.

03 mins watch ‘the secular project’, Gujarat | Mandeep Raikhy | The Secular Project | STIRworld
The Secular Project, Gujarat Video: Mandeep Raikhy

He began creating short movement pieces with a banner that read ‘Secular India’. While initially these were confined to the personal space of his house, it slowly evolved into an ongoing six-month long road trip across the country. Created during the unrest that followed the new Indian Citizenship Amendment Bill, the banner led Raikhy to ponder about how the idea of the secular is an unfolding much like the materiality of the cloth. He says, “How do we keep the idea alive by airing it? And what new questions and interpretations will emerge in the process of taking this journey across the diverse landscapes and publics of our country?”

03 mins watch If we march long enough, ‘the secular project’ with Atul Kumar, Mandeep Raikhy, Pallav Singh, Rashmi Khanna, Samrat Damyanti, Saylee Meshram, Shruti Maria Datar. Mount Mary Steps, Mumbai | Mandeep Raikhy | The Secular Project | STIRworld
If we march long enough, The Secular Project with Atul Kumar, Mandeep Raikhy, Pallav Singh, Rashmi Khanna, Samrat Damyanti, Saylee Meshram, Shruti Maria Datar. Mount Mary Steps, Mumbai Video: Mandeep Raikhy

The notion of India as a ‘secular’ nation was an addition to the Indian Constitution as part of the 42nd Amendment in 1976. The Preamble that identified the country as a ‘sovereign democratic republic’ was amended to ‘sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic’ declaring that the Indian state adheres to unity and integrity of different religions and ethnicities. In July 2020, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court of India, requesting for the omission of the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ arguing that they limit the Indian citizen’s right to practice, propagate and profess religion. This ongoing debate is the most recent of the many instances that sparked a huge uproar on the relevance of the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ within the Preamble.

‘the secular project’, Taj Mahal | Mandeep Raikhy | The Secular Project | STIRworld
The Secular Project, Taj Mahal Image: Mandeep Raikhy

As a dancer who has been committed to a variety of critical issues pertaining to the legalities that condition our social bodies, Raikhy’s engagement with the secular is not an anomaly. For instance, his 2016 performance piece, Queen Size, was a response to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalised LGBTQ+ and other minoritarian sexual identities. It speaks about the intimacy between two men as they negotiate the space of a queen-sized bed. The work was performed in over 30 cities in India and went from conventional theatres to private terraces. It gained a variety of responses spanning across the emotive states of anger, shock, and transformation.

01 min watch ‘the secular project’, Rajasthan | Mandeep Raikhy | The Secular Project | STIRworld
The Secular Project, Rajasthan Video: Mandeep Raikhy

While Raikhy’s earlier work brought contemporary social and political concerns into the realm of dance, The Secular Project is for him an opportunity to move into the landscape of the country without speculating the outcome. Two months into the journey so far, he has been building a variety of rituals and processes to keep the idea of ‘secular’ alive especially in the times of religious fundamentalism. During his time in Rajasthan, the drive was to engage with the monuments as if one is enveloping these age-old lineages with the idea of the secular. In Madhya Pradesh, it led him to have more interpersonal conversations with the locals who were excited to hold the banner together as a community. He imagines that the processes he formulates in each location he visits will redefine themselves across the geographic, cultural, and political realities of our country. Raikhy realises them as a series of performative interactions and public engagements.

02 mins watch ‘the secular project’ with Mandeep Raikhy, and Lalit Khanna. Badshahpur, Haryana | Mandeep Raikhy | The Secular Project | STIRworld
The Secular Project with Mandeep Raikhy and Lalit Khanna. Badshahpur, Haryana Video: Mandeep Raikhy

While being situated in the open landscapes, he asks: “What does one do with the landscape, and spending your solitude with this idea? I thought of body/bodies in all these spaces as ‘secular’ being present everywhere we go at the same time. It is also to cultivate an openness to the landscape and have a dialogue with it. Similarly, with the communities it is important to find a common ground without projecting any popular perceptions on to them”.

How can a homogenous idea of secular be dismantled to more micro understandings on the diversity of our country? Is it possible to reclaim the secular beyond its unique associations with the image of our nation?        

Raikhy’s project is a reminder that ‘secular’ is in a state of ‘permanent transition’ and a range of amenable methods are needed to make sense of its diversity and gravity. It is also to see ‘secular’ not as a homogenous concept of tolerance, but one that could embody solidarity among diverse religions and ethnicities.

Mandeep Raikhy | The Secular Project | STIRworld
Mandeep Raikhy Image: Chandni Sarcar

I see Raikhy’s journey as an unfolding from the prism of ‘secular’ to carve out new understandings of coexistence beyond the abstract concepts that define our contemporary political reality.


Private correspondence between Mandeep Raikhy and the author, February, 2021.

Diganth Raj Sehgal’s ‘Arguments for deletion of the word ‘Secular’ from the Preamble of the Constitution of India’

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