When We Dance Naked…
By Ashrukona Deka
With the outbreak of the crisis at JNU the entire nation was caught in a frenzy of passing judgments and hurling indignities at the ‘anti-nationals’ who were being ‘systematically bred’ on campus. While on the one hand, we were flooded with phone calls and messages from anxious parents and well-wishers, on the other hand, we were mocked on social media and threatened by self appointed custodians of the motherland. Bewildered at the unprecedented hostility in the virtual and real world, I was in a state of shock and disbelief. The crisis seemed too large for my confused and largely apolitical mind to comprehend. A few friends and I further lapsed into a state of despair and helplessness as we saw our fellow students and teachers being roughed up by goons inside a court of law!
And then came the comments of a BJP MLA from Rajasthan, Gyan Dev Ahuja. Reporting on the event, a popular newspaper wrote: “BJP MLA from Rajasthan Gyan Dev Ahuja has said that Jawaharlal Nehru University has lost its sheen and has become a place for anti-nationals where students use more than 3,000 condoms/ anti-pregnancy injections every day, dance naked after 8 pm as part of cultural programmes and eat meat.” My immediate response was that of amusement. I had a hearty laugh after days of mounting tension and anxiety. It came as a source of welcome comic relief.
While a number of satirical pieces were written and the internet flooded with memes mocking Ahuja, a bit of what he said would not leave my mind. While he talked of condoms, anti-pregnancy injections and drugs, his claims about students dancing naked at night in the campus remained with me. It seemed incredibly funny and absurd to me initially but with time as the element of humour subsided, the image of young souls dancing naked on a dark night kept making rounds within my consciousness. Although Ahuja had not mentioned a specific gender, I could visualize in my mind’s eye, luminescent women dancing naked around a fire on a moonlit night. The vision always made me feel an enormous sense of power and independence. I suddenly realized that Mr. Gyan Dev Ahuja, although his claims were fantastic and ludicrous, had unknowingly made sense.
Separating myself from the present context briefly, I would like to talk about the significance of nudity in ritual behaviour. While being sky-clad or ritual nudity is an important part of Neo-paganism/Wicca in contemporary times, its historical association with witchcraft is proven by visual arts such as paintings and illustrations that date back to the medieval times. Nudity also features prominently during the notorious witch trials of early modern Europe as one of the chief accusations leveled against women identified as witches. Thus, nudity has remained over time as an important ritual associated with witchcraft.
Now, the question arises as to why nudity and what is its significance as a ritual, especially in an unorthodox and subversive context? Before answering this question I would like to very briefly discuss the witch hunt trials in early modern Europe, roughly from 1450 to 1750 C.E. Since these trials were spread unevenly over a huge geographical area, scholars have diverse opinions regarding the historical motives and causes behind the trials. A plethora of reasons ranging from the Reformation, the Counter Reformation, the Inquisition, the religious fanaticism of the clergy, the rise of state structures, the growth of capitalism to the attempt to wipe out paganism are attributed. One of the important factors, as pointed out by historians, that led to these witch hunts was the Church’s fear of female sexuality in general and that of female healers, soothsayers and oracles in particular. These women had an important place in the peasant societies of medieval and early modern Europe where the poor and the illiterate would approach these women for alleviation of their quotidian problems such as disease, crop failure and locating stolen or lost items etc. Orthodox Christianity viewed women as the devil’s gateway and the biggest impediment to the pursuit of a spiritual life. The Inquisitors who wrote the Malleus Maleficarumor (The Hammer of the Witches) stated that women are more prone to become witches than men because:
“…the female sex is more concerned with things of the flesh than men;’ because being formed from a man’s rib, they are only ‘imperfect animals’ and ‘crooked’ whereas man belongs to a privileged sex from whose midst Christ emerged.”
These women were independent and were held in high esteem in society and they directly challenged the Church’s hegemony over the social and personal lives of common people and also the purported idea of female sexuality as dangerous and malevolent.
Clothes, over the ages have been considered to be a marker of civilization and status. Conforming to the current and prevalent standards of fashion is considered to be an affirmation of one’s credentials as an obedient member of a larger group. Clothes and one’s outer appearance to a large extent ensures one’s acceptance in the human psyche as a non-threatening member of the society. Nudity on the other hand is largely abhorred and treated with disgust and repulsion. Although a person’s response to nudity is also decided to a large extent by the context: for example, nudity in an artistic context may elicit an aesthetic response in sharp contrast with public nudity which may elicit revulsion. Nudity sometimes can be the ultimate act of subversion or revolt. Manipuri women stripping naked in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters to protest against the brutal rape and murder of a local woman, Thangjam Manorama, by the army in 2004 is an example where nudity translates into a source of power and protest.
However, the power of nudity does not lie only in its subversive quality. Nudity also has a lot more to offer. One of the main ideas underlying the concept of nudity in a ritual context is that of freedom or liberation. Nudity is held to be a liberating experience that liberates one from the dual inhibitions of personal & imposed social stigma such as shyness, body image and sexuality. On a psychological level nudity liberates one from the necessity to conform to set standards and live up to expectations imposed by society. It is about conquering one’s own inhibitions when one is uncertain as to whether the impediments to self-realization stem from within or without. One of the greatest challenges is to ascertain whether our beliefs are our own or simply accepted from others.
Conclusively, I would like to establish links among nudity, Ahuja’s comment and the crisis in JNU. The BJP MLA’s comment about JNU students dancing naked at night kept playing in my mind for a long time. As I mulled over it repeatedly and visualized it, I was transported to the age of the witch trials when free spirited women must have secretly assembled in a forest clearing, shed their fears and danced naked around a fire, in defiance and insolidarity. Here in JNU we do dance naked, but not literally. We dance naked because we discard our prejudices, social conditioning and other shackles that stifle thought and the ability to question the world. We dance naked in the sense that we believe in discarding the discriminatory layers of caste, class, gender and religious bigotry. We dance naked because we believe in dissent. JNU has always been a place, where I, as a human being, have been able to think, move about, and operate freely without being constantly reminded of my gender identity. This is a place where I do not have to be on guard constantly and where my mental energies could be diverted to more creative, constructive and self-exploratory pursuits. I would like to end by quoting Charles Godfrey Leland’s speech in “Aradia, or The Gospel of the Witches”;
“And as the sign that ye are truly free,
Ye shall be naked in your rites, both men
And women also: this shall last until
The last of your oppressors shall be dead;”
Ashrukona Deka is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in History from JNU. In the course of her career as a research scholar, she has worked on themes concerning gender, sexuality, religion, and performing arts. An optimist by nature, she believes that love, conviction and compassion triumphs above all in life. Also, being a free spirit she loves to explore the less frequented avenues of life. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.