PSi#21 Fluid States - The Campus Body, by Promona Sengupta India Correspondent

'The Campus Body'

by Promona Sengupta

31 March 2015

PSi#21 Fluid States - India: Rethinking Labor and the Creative Economy - Global Performance Perspectives

PDF available here.

An important aspect of the PSi conference in New Delhi concerned the pedagogical future of performance studies. With this in mind, conference curator Rustom Bharucha inserted brief interventions by JNU students in the plenary session on what performance studies means to them within the context of their own ongoing research.

The following is an intervention by Promona Sengupta in the plenary session of the conference on ‘Rethinking Labour and the Creative Economy’ at JNU.  Promona is presently completing her MPhil degree in Theatre and Performance Studies at JNU.  She is an independent performer and dramaturge, and is presently working in the art collective Khoj.

My research originates from a long-standing interest in the role of students as stakeholders in the political processes of the country. I look at the idea of the “campus” as a space that is distinct from the architectural edifice of the institution. Etymologically Kampos  refers to an alcove or a wooded area within the institutional grounds, ostensibly a “retreat” where students can temporarily escape the rules of the institution for relaxation and recreation. Drawing from the work of Henri Lefebvre, I argue that the campus is a physical space that is produced through the presence and work of its residents, most importantly, students. My study specifically focuses on a particular type of work that the students carry out – collegiate theatre. Due to the systematic nature of its workings, and also my own involvement as a theatreworker within it, the collegiate theatre circuit of Delhi University (DU) has become the site of my study.

The everyday practice of DU theatre becomes an important means of producing what might be called a “campus body”, a body that remembers and reignites the campus space even outside the physical boundaries of the campus. It is interesting to study how this “body” is different in its conduct from the normative body of a “good” or “well-behaved” student, and how this difference comes across through a more assertive relationship of the campus body within – and against - the institutional architecture. This changed relationship of the campus body with the institution is facilitated through the rehearsal, a special shared time when students exercise the right to changing or altering the general use of an institutional space.

The rehearsal becomes an important everyday event, where students assemble at various spaces within the institution for long hours of indulgent role play, improvisations, gossip, fights and loitering. The lack of infrastructure compels student theatreworkers to take over classrooms, lawns, foyers and other spaces and turn them into makeshift performance spaces. During rehearsals, held in the afterhours, student theatreworkers reclaim institutional spaces and rearrange them, giving rise to an ephemeral campus space.  This temporary rearrangement of the space subverts the relations of power within the institutional use of such spaces during the day.

My research is tethered to a moment in the recent history of DU when there is a sense of higher education becoming more professionalized. The Commonwealth Games of 2010 had changed urban existence within Delhi with architectural and infrastructural overhauls that reached the college campuses and hostels as well. In 2011-12, the Four Year Undergraduate Program came into place. According to the General Agreement on Trade in Services at the WTO in 1995, member countries such as India have been slowly gearing towards neoliberal policies within higher education that would take cognizance of the education sector as a trade zone and students as human capital. In this context, the institution becomes a space in which the international market is interested to employ professionals optimized for being part of the labour force. Knowledge production within higher educational institution can be recognized as a form of immaterial labour that can be commoditized. Campus theatre is not an exception. Yet, it is possible to see a resistance to the commodification of the contemporary campus in the simple act of rehearsing, an activity that does not necessarily add to the increased productivity of the student.

While many theatreworkers from Delhi University go on to becoming members of the larger professional theatre groups within the city, some even joining the Bollywood culture industry, there is a sense of invoking a campus feeling through common theatre exercises or jokes or memories of past productions etc. when they come together, even in other spaces, long after they have graduated. It is certainly difficult to denote this sense of fellow-feeling as a “community” in the sense that Partha Chatterjee uses the term – a shared consciousness of political dissent that dissociates itself from the imagined, flattened community of the nation. Given the fractured nature of the campus space and the very different experiences of higher education among students, the sense of “community” that student theatreworkers share can only be based on affective solidarities – friendships, bonds and ties that come from having a shared practice.

The death of Sudipto Gupta, a student activist during a protest demonstration in 2013 in Kolkata reopened the long-standing debate around the necessity and consequences of students participating in political processes within the campus. One recurrent concern had been the lack of political vision among young people and their dependence on political parties for ideological validation. In this scenario, I want to understand the potential of radical thought within campus spaces of today, which goes against the grain of the larger neoliberal project of higher education policies.  

The existing literature surrounding the campus has mostly focused on student movements in a historical perspective. While this has been an important resource, I have not been comfortable with the often unproblematized idea of the student body or student solidarities. Understanding the campus as a fractured, ephemeral community of affect, drawing from the lived practice of college theatre has seemed to be a more honest understanding of student solidarity.

Performance Studies has given me the tools to understand the relationship of bodies within a space and how the former can alter and transform the latter through shared performative practices. In this sense of transforming spaces through presence and movement, I am able to trace moments of resistance that would otherwise be overlooked in the grand narratives of protest. In the context of all-encompassing neoliberal life, Performance Studies allows me to highlight the quiet, bodily moments of subversion within the contemporary campus.  


Copyright –  Promona Sengupta (2015) “The Campus Body”, PSi #21 Fluid States: Performances of UnKnowing LOG, ed. Marin Blazevic, Bree Hadley and Nina Gojic, Performance Studies international (PSi), 1 January 2015-31 December 2015, available

Tags: Class Labor Economy and Performance  Community and Performance  Daily Life Daily Rituals and Performance   Performance Studies in Asia  Performance Studies in Languages Other Than English  

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