In her performance piece, “Wedding,” YaliniDream says this to an imaginary aunt who points to her ‘unwomanly’ haircut as the source of her mother’s anguish: “I have seen my mother cry more than twice… She cries because women who talk behind backs, accuse her of having been a bad mother…She cries because though chilli grow in clay pots — it is cold, so much is dead, and the sky is grey growing only loneliness… She cries thinking of bodies hung from lampposts, chopped limbs in jungles, cyanide capsules around necks…” It is not her short hair; it is not even Yalini’s talking about her queerness that has brought forth the tears from her mother. That is not how wounds and blood-gushes work: “My queerness is like the latest layer of scab in an ancient wound. When it is pricked, the bloodjet and pain start all over again. This prick is not the root cause. It is because we all have wounds that have been left unkissed, unhealed,” says Yalini.
A second generation Sri Lankan Tamil- American, Yalini is a performer and activist based in Brooklyn, New York City. She has a degree in theatre and liberal arts from the University of Texas, Austin. She has been an active part of the Audre Lorde project, a New York City area-based community organising centre for queer people of colour. Her particular engagement has been with the Safe OUTside the System (SOS) Collective that “organises and educates local businesses and community organisations on how to stop violence without relying on law enforcement,” (http://alp.org/community/sos).
YaliniDream’s performance work incorporates poetry, spoken word, elements of Aerial (CordeLisse), South Asian classical and folk movement techniques, US urban performance forms like popping, as well as modern and jazz forms. Her work is layered and in its simultaneous engagement with questions of race, gender, class and sexuality, it resists prioritising one experience over another, one identity over another. “These are all embodied. They co-exist in us. Through performance, I draw attention to that fact — these are embodied, they are not just products of thought,” says Yalini.
YaliniDream firmly believes that artistic tools can be used to resist “the dehumanising model of living” that capitalism has forced on us: “I believe that art can provide a way of thinking that is different from or alternative to the way of thinking that capitalism dictates; this logic of wake up in the morning, go to work, make money, come home, go to sleep, get married, have children, you work, survive…. This way of living our lives centred on the modes of production, on global capital, etc.” However, Yalini is conscious of the fact that art, in itself, is open to any kind of use. It is her conscious intent to use it to connect and heal: “Art can also become a means for separating rather than connecting. Artistic tools have also been used to manipulate and for propaganda. So I don’t want to romanticise!”
What has brought YaliniDream now to Sri Lanka and India is a travel-and-study grant from Jerome Foundation, which supports experimental work in literature and performing arts. Yalini’s vision for this project stems from her understanding that performance work can “carve spaces for other people to claim their own creativity, embody themselves, and acknowledge the ways in which their bodies have experienced violence, displacement, and war.” She talks about how performance art can at once provide a space for healing and for claiming one’s creativity and voice. In fact, it does one because it does the other. Our bodies store memories and trauma. They can lie trapped and blocked within us and manifest in bizarre ways. As Yalini observes, such pain can “sometimes manifest as mental illness or through the body actually deteriorating. Sometimes it just ends up being passed through emotions to the next generation.”
For Yalini, another important aspect of her project is that it enables the telling of stories. Stories of trauma and suffering either lie untold or are pressured to be told in certain prescribed ways. Art can, in Yalini’s perspective, subvert that. She says, “By owning your body through movement and dance, you can own your voice and tell your story. It is not a forced testimonial. It is a choice to tell your story for your own sake. Not for human rights reporters, not because a certain kind of a story is expected of you, but because you are claiming your voice. Through this process, we can acknowledge pain, give it the space it needs, and release it.”
It is no coincidence then that one of Yalini’s important performance works is titled “Wounds Unkissed.” An excerpt from this larger work, titled “Wedding,” alternates between montages of her mother’s reaction to her queerness and Yalini’s own frustrating attempts at writing a letter to her aunt to let her know that Yalini’s sexuality is not the source of her mother’s anguish, but only the latest layer of scab the pricking of which has brought years and generations of pain gushing forth. That is primarily because we all have many of these unkissed, unhealed wounds that lie on top of each other within us. Yalini believes that by consciously choosing her performance work to focus on “the spirit that exists in our bodies, that permeates the boundaries of skin and bones, the energy that passes between people, living things, our surroundings,” she is able to carve spaces for other people to claim their own creativity and acknowledge the ways in which they have experienced violence, displacement and war.
Yalini grounds her life and work in her faith in what brings us together, what connects us. She says, “I believe there is something that exists beyond the tangible that neither capitalism nor science has explained as yet... I think that art speaks to that connection. Maybe we will call that force love.”
— Aniruddhan Vasudevan is an activist, performer and writer based in Chennai.