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The meaning of rituals

By Hong Xinyi


What do you miss?

Should we have worn lipstick every day, smiled more at strangers, luxuriated in moving between spaces all the while unheralded by electronic beeps, unencumbered by existential dread? Once we feasted like kings, on repasts unprologued by QR hieroglyphs. I miss the humanity of tangible menus; of a top-deck bus ride shared with faces unveiled in contemplation. I cherish the thought of someday buying an apple again without first taking out my phone. I promise I will always remember that this, all this, is joy.

These are such slight sorrows. The real ones don’t bear thinking about. But of course such a choice does not, should not, must not, exist.


What are your present rituals?

Do you know now, intimately, the distinct synthetic smell of a freshly unsealed surgical mask? Has your body proved pliable to the perhaps disjointed shape of your new circumstances? I am writing this with a crick in my neck because I no longer like to sit at desks. Have you ventured back into the world, weighing your desires against your fears? Was it worth it? Have you since sat in a cinema, or a theatre, or a concert hall, where vivid memories of amassed energies, of tidal laughter or choral roars, almost bridged the new distances between us? Do you remember the lush hush we used to make all of us together? Wasn’t it wonderful?


What rituals do you remember?

When a Chinese child turns one year old, some families will place a variety of objects within his or her reach, to see which item the child picks. This ritual is said to date back thousands of years, and I am convinced it has lasted so long because it sounds quite entertaining for everyone involved. Traditionally, it is believed (or hoped) that a child who grabs an abacus, for example, will grow up to run a business. Nowadays, you can put anything in the mix, really – a microphone if you hope for a superstar, a stethoscope for a doctor, perhaps a toy Bitcoin for a future tech bro. I am told I picked a book, which makes sense.

My family did not follow the old custom of placing only items related to cooking and sewing near a female child during this ritual. But some things do stick. At my grandmother’s funeral, we were instructed to line up according to seniority and gender as we went through the rites. I remember how the repeated reminders of these hierarchies coaxed shards of irritation from my skin. My mind started to invent new choreographies that prioritised instead the keenness of grief.  

But here’s the thing. Death often weaves a paradoxical cocoon of rawness and numbness around the living. The clarity and clamour of ritualised mourning can burrow past this   psychosomatic barrier, and find a sort of harmony with its atonal frequencies. Ritual can feel like a relief. Do this, then that. Bend, bow, breathe, rise. Okay. On the threshold of profound mysteries, we reach for shapes in the dark formed by others over time and try feel our way forward. What sort of person will a child grow up to be? What kind of life will a couple create together? Will a mother survive her labour? Will a hunter survive his hunt? When will the world return to us? How will I go on without you? Don’t know. But here – do this, then that. It’s a start; then we’ll see how. Okay.


What is the difference between a ritual and a performance?

It depends on who you ask, I guess. According to The Routledge Encyclopedia of Religious Rites, Rituals, and Festivals, there are those who believe that "all performance has at its core a ritual action".  

This is certainly true of Ceremonial Enactments, a performance in SIFA 2022’s opening weekend, in which three Singaporean companies re-imagine customs and rites from Singapore’s diverse cultures. Designer Max Tan draws on Chinese and Southeast Asian birth rituals; percussion ensemble Nadi Singapura weaves music, dance and narrative into the majlis persandingan wedding ceremony; dance icon Santha Bhaskar presents an ancient dance ritual performed in Hindu temples, which pays obeisance to the nine celestial custodians that guard the eight directions and the centre of the earth.

The inspirations are traditional, but the presentation will be contemporary. So, aesthetic choices are one way of potentially differentiating between a ritual and a performance.

But not everyone subscribes to the categorisation of ritual as traditional and performance as contemporary. For instance, anthropologist Karin Polit believes that rituals "are not only an integral part of modern societies, but can also be a means to construct alternative modernities", positing that “rituals are fields of discourse, where social positions are negotiated”.

Another way to look at things concerns you, the audience. Ritual theorists tend to see the audience of a ritual as passive, notes the same encyclopedia. "Performance theorists see every performance, whatever the genre, as a creation of the audience and the performers. They believe that if the performance is successful, the audience is transformed by it."

Debatable (not to mention a very tall order), but there you go — if the experience changes you profoundly, if you feel you helped to engender it, then it’s a performance rather than a ritual.


What new rituals shall we make together?

Because why not invent some new choreographies?

Psychoanalyst and novelist Sudhir Kakar has his own personal taxonomy for rituals — there are protective rituals that defend identity against perceived dangers, and transformative rituals that open one up to new experiences. The rituals that are able to combine these protective and transformative qualities, he writes, can create enchantment and sublimity. Perhaps the same can be said of performances, or of the myriad ways we can meet life’s profound mysteries.

This edition of SIFA is themed The Anatomy of Performance — Ritual. Some interesting people will be joining me in doing some adventurous anatomising, stitching the rituals of performance to our new realities. There’s no telling what's going to happen.

See you in a bit.

About the writer

Hong Xinyi is a writer, editor, and producer. Her essays explore the intersections of gender, technology, and culture. Read more about Hong here.








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