In mid-May 2018, I attended the premiere of Sydney Dance Company’s new work – ab [intra] – choreographed by the artistic director, Rafael Bonachela. Following a prevalent custom in Australia, the evening opened with an acknowledgement of country – a protocol of showing respect to the traditional custodians of the land on which an event or meeting takes place. In Australia, with its violent colonial history of genocide of the aboriginal people, this practice attempts to bring a severely problematic past into sharp focus, insisting that it sit in the present – though it may be distinctly uncomfortable like Banquo’s ghost – so as to illuminate the paths towards better futures..

This particular acknowledgement to country came in the form of a speech by a First Nations woman. With pride, conviction, and commitment, she spoke to the packed theatre, asking us to imagine a future for Australia with “my people, your people, and our people”. It was a profoundly moving experience. The use of the phrase “our people” clearly illustrated the difference between inclusion and pluralism as choices of being in the world. Inclusion implies a central tenet or a set of beliefs, which expands to generously embrace many within its fold. But to include means to choose, therefore automatically to also exclude. To be plural implies an innate multiplicity. Choosing then becomes about preference, not power, since it is not the prerogative of gatekeepers of any sort. Of course, these are generalisations, and there are pros and cons to both – as with everything else.

I was in Australia as a participant in the Arts Leaders Programme offered by the Australia Council for the Arts. The programme makes a conscious effort to ‘include’ engagements with indigenous cultures. During our residency in north Queensland in May, we had two such experiences. The first was what was called a cultural dinner ‘on country’ (the meaning of which I will come back to later), in the middle of the mangrove forests that reminded me so much of the Sundarbans. Hosted by the Mandingalbay Yidinji people, this was a lavish affair: a traditionally inspired fusion menu complete with alcohol, a white harpist from New Zealand performing intermittently in an arbour of vegetation, and short snippets of tribal dances accompanied by running commentary. The experience left me deeply discomfited. As so-called ‘arts leaders,’ what were we endorsing? That something created for touristic entertainment was representative of authentic art and culture? That it was fine to be briefly attentive between dinner courses while we drank wine? And that it was alright for ‘them’ to be brought in to perform excerpts of their culture while the white harpist from New Zealand – as much an outsider on their lands as we were – joined us at the tables for dinner?

Snippets of traditional dances with running commentary at the Deadly Dinner. (Image courtesy Kevin du Preez)

This is an instance where the acknowledgement of Australia’s original people fell into something that it is often accused of – mere tokenistic representation, where ‘they’ are ‘included’ to assuage the white man’s guilt more than anything else. Here, ‘my people’ and ‘your people’ can never make the transition to ‘our people’. In India, we are no strangers to tokenistic representation: resorts in overly exotic locales greet guests with incense sticks, garlands, red kumkum, a spurt of drumming and bejewelled dancers; music and dance of smiling tribals presented at festivals of India in contexts that could not be more divorced from those they live in – we are masters at creating an imagined idea of India seen through hopelessly rose-tinted glasses.

A white harpist in an arbour on aboriginal land. (Image by Vikram Iyengar), A traditional smoking ceremony amongst the mangroves (Image courtesy Vikram Iyengar)

There is, however, another way where one can yield the space to the other’s voice completely, where ownership and control are relinquished, and where deep and moving truths – not part of your own milieu – are discovered. This was very much our second experience in Queensland when we went on the Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk in Mossman Gorge. The gorge is part of the Daintree rainforest, said to be almost 200 million years old. That information in itself puts our own stunted human existence and ego in perspective! The walk through the forest paths is led by local indigenous people, who – completely and effortlessly – embody what it means to be a ‘custodian’ of the land. Our guide, Santos, through easy conversation and anecdotes about the customs and beliefs of his people, touched on areas as varied as ecology, individual and community identity, medicine, sustainable use of resources, language, art and culture, inter-community relationships, and much more. How much do you use of a natural resource in any one location? How do you align this with the changing seasons to ensure sustainability? How do you leave signs for the next community passing through? How do you read what the natural world is telling you in a myriad different ways? In a nutshell – how do you quieten yourself to listen to other voices that do not sound like yours?

Santos, our guide shows us how the indigenous community in the Daintree Forest use earth colours as identity markings (Image courtesy Vikram Iyengar)

In India’s rush to become a ‘developed nation,’ we have consistently ignored the voices and wisdom of our aboriginal peoples, who form such an integral part of the fabric of this country. Instead, we water down environmental laws, do away with tribal land rights, and sacrifice large swathes of astonishing landscapes to questionable industrialization.

In the ancient, lush miracle of the Daintree Rainforest, generosity abounds. It explodes with a diversity of vegetation and invisible living beings, each making space for itself and for the other. The indigenous peoples here seem to have imbibed this lesson: for them, ‘my people’ and ‘your people’ segue quite naturally into ‘our people’. This multiplicity could so easily become chaos and anarchy if one did not also learn when to defer and when to lead, when to speak and when to listen, when to order and when to ask. However, to suggest that everything about aboriginal life is utopian would be wearing rose-tinted glasses once again.

Santos talks about the sword and shield made from the wood of the red cedar trees like the one behind him. (Image courtesy Vikram Iyengar)

A standout feature, though, is their connection to their land. Being ‘on country’ is a term I encountered for the first time in Australia. And the synergy between the indigenous people and the lands they inhabit is palpable. That is what makes them ideal custodians: the land and all it supports is central to community ethos and ethics of First Nations people.

First Nations: note the plural. As the sole (included?) aboriginal participant in the Arts Leaders programme vehemently pointed out at one of our residency sessions last year – Australia is not one nation, we are many nations. Again, note the ‘we’. I venture to extend this affirmation: Australia may be many nations, but could it be one country?

The two terms – though often used interchangeably – propose very different ideas. A nation’s people are united by common descent, history, language or culture. These are the (hopefully fluid) parameters of inclusion. A country is a much more amorphous idea. It is not about the people, but more about the geographical entity they connect to, inhabit and add colour to; a land that may also be home to many other peoples. A country is already about ‘our’ multiple identities.

The idea of India is an experiment that imagines a country with pluralism at its core. The Indian Constitution’s Preamble – a distillation of the values the country stands by – reminds us that ‘we’ gave ‘ourselves’ this gift. Today, there is a projected image of India that paints a shining future based on a glorious, united, monolithic past. Both are imagined. Most contrived is the idea of India as one cultural entity. This land (even before it was designated as India or Bharat) has always been many: many societies, communities, peoples, arts, languages and belief systems. There is a strength and uniqueness to this that can inspire us to imagine a fretwork of multiple, parallel, crisscrossing futures that talk and contribute to each other, rather than a single, unidirectional, linear one. These are futures that – like the arts – constantly create and recreate themselves with playful responsibility and rigour.  As a country, as individuals, as artists, as citizens, as people who make up our tapestry – do we dare go down this path?

Vikram Iyengar is a dancer-choreographer-director, performing arts researcher and writer, arts manager and curator based in Calcutta. He is co-founder of the Kathak-based performance company, Ranan and initiator of The Pickle Factory – a hub for dance and movement practice and discourse. Vikram’s work spans productions, workshops and performance collaborations; research, writing and curation projects for several arts bodies; and various organisational roles. His performance work is linked by a fundamental and continuing engagement with the kathak form and kathak-informed body. An ARThink South Asia Arts Management Fellow (2013-2014) and Global Fellow of the International Society for the Performing Arts (2017), he is one of four Asia Pacific participants in the International Arts Leaders programme run by the Australia Council for the Arts (2017-18). In 2015, Vikram was awarded the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar by the Sangeet Natak Akademi in the field of contemporary dance.