An Explosive Experience

Note: I wrote this for the British Council India blog but didn’t hear from them in over two months. I didn’t want the article to languish somewhere on my hard drive so here it is. 

On a sultry September evening, Chennai geared up to see ‘Political Mother’ by the Hofesh Shechter Dance Company. Chennai does not get that many international shows a year and when it does, it’s theatre and not contemporary dance. I doubt if contemporary dance exists in the public consciousness. If you ask people what comes to mind when one says ‘contemporary dance’, you’d be lucky if anyone mentions Astad Deboo, probably India’s foremost contemporary dancer. I remember watching the Akram Khan Company perform at the same location and was looking forward to the Hofesh Shechter dance company. But nothing prepared me for the sheer scale, decibel level or visual extravaganza that I got to see.

I am getting ahead of myself. Let me begin at the beginning. ‘Political Mother’ starts in darkness. That’s not a surprise, is it? But it was an absolute kind of darkness. Not the darkness where you can make out shadowy forms of people and things. Out of this absolute darkness appeared the name of the piece as if out of nowhere. Then started the signature music that weaves in and out throughout the performance. After this, we saw a series of tableaus – the Japanese Samurai who commits hara-kiri on stage, a row of drummers beating the drums, dancers in groups and in twos in freeze frame, a rock star singing wildly on the upper stage. Each time the lights went off, I gasped at the surprise waiting for us. Perhaps a sense that what makes this cinematic are the jump cuts. A few steps were repeated, combined with the others and modified just as like the letters of the alphabet in various permutations and combinations to make words, sentences and therefore meaning. And it’s up to you what you make of it. I saw oppression in the stooped form of the prisoners; I saw the dictators in the drummers; I saw the rock star, whose songs in gibberish didn’t need any translation, as the noise from mainstream consumerist culture; I saw the couple’s dance as the dance of love; I saw conformity in the circular dance; I saw struggle, revolution, freedom and the madness of it all. It was like watching one of Marquez’s novels played out in the rock concert format.

Which brings me to the music. The high-decibel, heart-thumping and strangely addictive music was a literal cry for change. The idea was to shake us out of our staid and complacent lives. Music also sketched the emotional canvas of the entire performance. It soared, dipped and reverberated through my very being. It was difficult to be neutral to such music. No, strike that. It was impossible. I wanted to get up and follow the dancers’ movements! Towards the end, when we thought there were no more surprises, both classical music and a popular love song made its appearance.

The first thing that hit me when the lights came on were the grid of lights on either side of the stage. Unconventionally placed rows and rows of lights close to the wings were a visual treat. When dancers came in from the wings, it looked as if the dancers came in from the light and when they moved back into the wings, they disappeared into the light. That gave a rather surreal effect to the whole performance.

No response would be complete without mentioning the dancers and their fluid movements. Through the various costume changes and tableaus, the movement of their limbs was mesmerising.

The stage with its grid structure was a constant backdrop to the changing scenes. It was highlighted or hidden depending on the effect required. In fact the stage space was transformed in quick succession with strategically placed lights and the judicious use of both horizontal and vertical space.

Sometime in the middle of the performance, written in light ‘Where there is pressure, there is folkdance’ appeared in the centre of the stage. Since ‘folk dance’ appeared after a longish pause, there were a few chuckles. The message is a reworking of the idea that art can be found in the most unlikeliest of places. In other words, art gives us hope when there is nothing to hope for. That sounds like something Banksy would agree with.

Much like Banksy, the Hofesh Shechter Company subverted a few of our existing notions. Especially, the notion of an ending. What do you think an ending looks like? The lights come on, the performers disappear and there is no action on the stage, right? Wrong. All these happened but the music played on. Probably the biggest clue that the show wasn’t quite over. A few people walked out and missed the part where the performers literally ‘rewound’ the introductory tableaus in swift succession towards the end.

When finally the show was over, I was left feeling in a trance with the music playing in a never-ending loop in my brain. ‘Political Mother’ was truly an explosive experience that moved beyond the confines of dance.

Postcrossing Part Deux

Sometime in 2005 I signed up for the Postcrossing project but didn’t continue it once I had moved to Bangalore in 2006. There was no question of continuing it as I was without a fixed address: I lived in about 7 different places in less than a year and mostly out of my suitcase. I got back to Chennai but for some reason or the other didn’t pick up the Postcrossing thread. About a month ago, nearly eight years later, I had the urge to get back to postcards. So I revived my Postcrossing account, found ingenious ways to get my hands on ever diminishing supply of picture postcards (read amazon and neighbourhood bookshops; I also bid for and won a bunch of postcards on ebay), visited the post office, which looks way swankier than what I remembered it to be, and posted about 7 postcards, which is the maximum number I am allowed right now. My Postcrossing phase 1 postcards are tucked away somewhere that I don’t remember right now. Today I got my first Postcrossing phase 2 postcard! That too all the way from the Czech Republic. I am so stoked. Ah Prague! Ah Václav Havel! Ah Milan Kundera! This is such a high! I have built up quite a supply of cards right now and can’t wait to send them off to their destinations. Postcards are like the next best thing to actually travelling to different places. I will definitely visit these countries. For now there is Postcrossing.

The 11 AM Yellow Butterfly

Every day I sit at a desk that faces a window and work. It’s not much of a view given the urban jungle we live in, but there is some relief in the form of a yellow flowering tree, the cassia fistula, also called golden showers. It is the national tree of Thailand. Anyway it was planted a long time ago before the current building stands. Right now, the tree is quite ill and has holes in its leaves, which means it is infected. But without fail it manages to sprout yellow flowers every few days. Without fail, every day at around 11 AM, a yellow butterfly materialises. It’s as if the butterfly has an appointment with the flower and always turns up. And every day I am amazed.

Yellow butterflies obviously bring to mind Gabriel García Márquez. One of the many papers I had to write during my master’s was on magic realism. I chose it after having my mind blown by One Hundred Years of Solitude. (I liked it so much I still have it. Or maybe a version of it.) My research included tracing the evolution of magic realism. I remember researching big fat reference books at the American centre library and the college library. And having intense discussions with M. We were trying to grapple with what magic realism is. We can recognise it in literature because someone else tells us so. But how do we recognise it without this guidance? I remember so clearly what she replied because it has stayed with me even now. She said that she read somewhere that a cloud of butterflies following a man is not magic realism but a cloud of yellow butterflies following a man is. This is when I could grasp the concept.

In literature, magic realism seems to have run its course. At least that is the sense I get. Articles like this one and then there is Roberto Bolaño and his visceral realism which is as far from magic realism as it possibly can be. As are authors associated with the McOndo movement which parodies Macondo, Márquez’s fictional town and the gangotri of his stories. The McOndo sensibility also permeates the Granta Spanish novelists’ issue. I was so excited to find this volume in a local bookshop but when I started reading it, I was confused by the stark, grey and gritty narratives.  It was beautiful in parts but had none of the magic realism or even lyricism of Márquez or Allende. It turns out that was the wrong place to look for lyricism or magic realism. I didn’t realise that Latin Americans had gotten over magic realism and I hadn’t. It’s not entirely surprising when you think about it. The events which gave rise to and shaped magic realism are no more. Technology has changed the way we interact – travel, eat, watch and play. Globalisation has brought down some barriers and raised some new ones. There is no time to spend on watching yellow butterflies when you have to catch the next flight or meet the next deadline. In short, magic realism did not portray this new reality anymore. You could say it is rather depressing. But it is also exciting. Since it just means that there might be something else – either a reinvention or a completely new invention – which we can look forward to. The optimist in me refuses to give up though. I would still like to think that magic realism is hanging around waiting for a rebirth. Let’s not nail its coffin just yet.

In the meantime, let’s observe butterflies.

Phenomenally Maya

Dr. Maya Angelou walks along the beach in San Francisco, 1970. Image copyright and courtesy: http://mayaangelou.com/

Maya Angelou walks along the beach in San Francisco, 1970. Image copyright and courtesy: mayaangelou.com

This past Tuesday, I went back to my college after a long time to see a student production. It was the result of running into one of my favourite former professors at the Hindu Metroplus Theatrefest and she invited me over for this production that she directed.  Continue reading

Notes on theatre: Ratan Thiyam’s Macbeth

Macbeth_Ratan Thiyam

 

Last night (15 August 2014) the Hindu Metroplus Theatrefest 2014 started off its annual theatre show with Macbeth by the Chorus Repertory Theatre from Manipur directed by Ratan Thiyam. I am a total stranger to Thiyam’s work. The first time I heard of Thiyam was through a friend’s friend who was working on Thiyam’s plays for her PhD. Thiyam is a poet too and I am trying to get my hands on his poetry. Not sure how much of it has been translated yet and even if were available probably might be in Sahitya Akademi bookshops.

I digress as usual. Back to the performance, at first I am not sure what to expect. The images on posters, newspapers, websites and tickets promised something dark and powerful. In that aspect the play kept its promise. It is a stunning visual spectacle. The colour scheme is the basic red and black (and a splash of white in the form of Banquo’s ghost and the green of the four witches). The use of red and black is obviously to indicate the bloody and dark nature of the play: the exploration of madness and guilt.

The witches in green have been imagined as a part of the folklore of the play. They are forces of nature and four (rather than the original three) in number. Three is an occult and magical number but four changes the rhythm. Perhaps Thiyam is referencing interpretations which see Lady Macbeth as the fourth witch.

The appearance of the witches – always a chilly scene – was heightened by their ‘natural’ yet otherworldly garb.  ‘Natural’ because of the several green creepers that flow from their form. The seated and writhing witches sing out their prophecy. Their voices clearly female, which along with the green of their form makes me think of them as part of nature and a regenerative force. Their tree-like form reminded of the Ents from the Lord of the Rings. Perhaps they were imagined as tree spirits in Thiyam’s interpretation.

Macbeth the play is transported to an ancient and tribal place. Thiyam is said to have created a fictional tribe for this production with the features of all tribes. Certainly, there is a sense of timelessness and magic and power in the long black bamboo helmets, the skull on top of a vertical flag, the large Grim Reaper-ish scythe that Macbeth carries and other scythes carried by the group, the red flowing woolen shawls – on the left shoulder – dramatic against the black armoured vests, the brass gong, the drum roll, bamboo scroll, the dance-like formations. I was in awe. I didn’t follow a word of the dialogue but I was in awe. This is the magic of theatre; it transports us elsewhere. The sense of timelessness also gave it a very modern feeling. Visually, the world of Thiyam’s Macbeth would make a very cool video game. Unfortunately, the plot won’t work as well since the monsters are all inside the humans.

The pose and walk of all the actors reminded me a bit of Bharatanatyam dancers. Actors entered and exited the stage in tune with the energetic drums. And powerful formations such as the one where Lady Macbeth welcomes the king gave the play an air of dance drama. She and her ladies in waiting moved slowly and gracefully from the south east corner of the stage while the King’s army rapidly marched from the north-west corner. Both group groups met in the middle diagonally across the stage.

A few scenes stand out long after the play is over. One is where Banquo’s ghost appears. As Macbeth is the only one who can see him, he tries to use his scythe on Banquo’s ghost but it passes through him. The formation in which the King and his guests were seated reminded me of Tibetian monks in prayer. Another is the movement of Birnam Woods to Dunsinane Hill, which also had the witches moving alongside the trees. One more is the murder of King Duncan. We see Macbeth lowering his scythe standing over Duncan’s white bed when the lights go off. And when the lights come back on a minute later, Macbeth is in the same position but instead of Duncan’s body, we see a river of red cloth in between the split bed. That was so astonishing that I forgot I clap.

I must mention the larger-than-life scroll that Lady Macbeth reads. It even has its own rectangular light! It’s a mesmerising prop. The scroll is something like a pattamadai mat but thicker, bamboo coloured and inscribed in black. Lady Macbeth does not only read the scroll, she wraps it around herself. It’s her sense of security about her future which she thinks lies with Macbeth as king. Macbeth too does the same but towards the end of the play when there is no hope and no security in the prophecy. He searches again and again for a word or clause that will give him hope.

There are two things which I thought did not work well for me. First was the language. It’s true that neither Shakespeare nor ruthless ambition needs translation. However I felt that I would have appreciated the play better had I been able to understand the dialogues in Manipuri. It sounded to me a mix of Sanskrit and Chinese. I totally get where Thiyam is coming from: the play would have lost an important component had it been in any language than the language he imagined it in. But with long dialogues and sometimes little or no stage movement, I did grow restless. And there were some people who walked out.

The second thing that did not work for me was the asylum scene. I’m calling it the asylum scene but obviously there is no such thing in Macbeth. After the multiple murders, when the Macbeths are racked by guilt, Thiyam imagines a battery of modern nurses in their white dresses and hats push Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and a few human figures on wheelchairs in circles around the stage. A beautiful metaphor of the labyrinths of a mind that is tormented by murder and guilt. But in tone, it was out of sync with the rest of the play. Nothing in the previous scenes had prepared me for this modern intrusion. Lady Macbeth is given a hospital bowl by an orderly to wash her hands! Madness is not a modern invention but in this play it was a modern interpretation. Gone was the ancient tribal power, all I saw was cold steel and white. The scene was powerful, no doubt. But the steel and white made me think that the play was dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century just for this scene. And as soon as it was over, the play settled back into the primeval mode where it was most comfortable.

Thiyam is onto something perhaps trying to create a new theatrical grammar, which is exciting and could have been a richer experience had I understood the language.

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Image copyright: Lies with these people.

The purpose of saving lives

Exactly a week ago, around this time I was in a long hospital corridor walking back and forth a room where a loved one lay. At other times, I was in the lounge. (I say I but I was not alone.) As I sat there waiting in the lounge while the doctors discussed the intricacies of the treatment, I was thinking of the purpose of my life. It seems to me that the purpose of the lives of these people in white, grey, pink and other soothing shades was well chalked out. They had to save lives or reduce the pain in their last hours. Even the orderly who pushed a cart of dirty linen was helping in this business of saving lives. I, on the other hand, was not. It was such a painful realisation. What does writing or art mean in this context? Nothing. Writing or art can probably save a person from throwing herself over a bridge but not when she needs intense medical care after that. Anyone associated with the business of saving lives or making them comfortable in their last hours is doing astounding work. I felt rather hopeless, useless even. What is the purpose of a fantastically-crafted sentence, poem or book? (My passion.) Not to mention what is the purpose of training people in A, B and C specialisations? (My day job.)  None that I can see right now. Have I saved any lives? No. I doubt I can even save my own.

Notes on Books: Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Disclaimer: A few plot details have been discussed here. Proceed no further if you want to be surprised when reading either of these two books.

I have fallen head over heels in love with the searing writing of Junot Díaz. I’d like to kick myself for taking this long to read both Drown (which I didn’t know existed) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (which I did). I intend to read This Is How You Lose Her now. Drown is his collection of short stories – a bit of a debate on that one but that’s what the library filed it under and I’m going to call it so for the time being. I know I haven’t posted an entry in sometime and while I’ve been reading, I’ve not been shaken up in a long time. Before reading him, I thought Díaz was a festival circuit author having noticed him appear at the Jaipur Lit fest a few times and several other festivals. You know the ones who appear at literary festivals because they are either good looking or have good connections. I’d put him down as both. No, I wasn’t there but I follow lit fests like football fans follow football. But I am happy to say have been proved wrong.

Let me explain why. I’d picked up Drown at the American Library and couldn’t put it down. Ten short stories so incendiary so luminious and so true I haven’t read in a while. I can’t think of them as separate short stories since more or less the same characters appear in all of them. Yunior could be said to be a central character while the others circle his orbit and sometimes he circles the others’. Almost all the stories appear to be concerned with Yunior either aged nine or older, his brother Rafa, their absent and charismatic/strict father and the long-suffering tragically-beautiful mother. Sometimes the oppressiveness of this set up is lightened by the presence of other relatives usually an abuelo (grandfather) and a few tíos (uncles) and tías (aunts). A sense of oppressiveness is also achieved because nothing is said aloud, feelings are repressed and, sometimes when expressed, are violent. Tipping the balance is the additional factor of poverty. It’s a stark third-world poverty. But their lives are rich in spite of it. It reminds me so much of the Brazilian film Cidade de Deus.

Drown has ten gritty, dark and ravishing stories which appeared to me as ten episodes in the life of Yunior. The tone, texture and insight of all the stories were connected and appeared to be facets of the same stone. Hold up the stone to the light and you will get one kind of story. Put it down and you get another. Turn it around and you get yet another. And no matter which way you observe that stone, the kernel of the story is the same – how a child copes with several lacks (love, money, food) in trying circumstances. While in the Dominican Republic, he has one set of challenges and when he moves to the USA, he has a different set all the while observing the world from the margins. Much later, I read somewhere that Díaz wanted his first collection (published in 1996) to be this genre-bending creative work.

‘Aguantando’ (holding on) is perhaps my favourite of the lot. It’s from the point of view of the absent father. A story that the son reconstructs partly by interviewing his father’s mistress and partly by imagining it himself. Yunior through these stories is trying to understand why his father abandoned him and how this abandonment shapes the life he leads.

Drown attracted me because of the voice. The voice of a mature yet carefree nine year old growing up in the edges of poverty and violence in a corner of the world probably off the map as far as the mainstream narrative is concerned. It’s the voice that Díaz gets so right. Every nuance tells me more than any description ever will. (I try but I cannot resist, I have to say this, Díaz teaches creative writing at MIT. There, I have succumbed to biography.)

What attracted me to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was the title. A title like that is like the first step to a long striptease and indeed reading Oscar Wao is a seduction. The best is kept for the last but the journey is so interesting. It is not just the story of an obese comic-book reading introvert obsessed with love and women and his unsuccessful attempts at losing his virginity, it is also the larger story of a curse that follows the Cabral-de León family right from the days of Oscar’s grandfather, Abelard Luis Cabral during the rule of Dominican Republic’s very own Pinochet, Rafael Trujillo. His all-pervading and terrorising presence in the tiny Caribbean island changes so many lives – many by ending them – including that of Oscar’s family. This curse which Díaz calls fukú goes a long way back when North Americans landed on the small island. It strikes down Oscar’s grandfather, follows Oscar’s mother Beli as she moves from the DR to the USA following the arc of her own story, affects Lola to a large extent and finds its natural home in Oscar. If fukú is a curse, zafa is the force of protection, a blessing, and the most powerful zafa is – remember Harry Potter? – Love. Zafa brings Beli to La Inca, who single-handedly brings up Beli. While fukú makes Beli fall in love with all the wrong sorts, it is La Inca’s intense prayer (zafa at work again) that brings her back from the dead. Lola has a hate-hate relationship with her mother which can be attributed to the same fukú. Even though he is unlucky, Oscar thinks he is fukú-proof but he isn’t and realises the pull it retains no matter how far he is from the motherland. Basically the forces of good and evil pull our protagonists in opposite directions. As you can see, the scale of this book is epic.

Such clear-cut distinction between good and evil can only be born from someone who has a deep and abiding love of comic books. Narrated by Yunior (from Drown probably), who has a humungous crush on Lola, comic book allusions and footnotes abound. Allusions from Watchmen, Fantastic Four and references to Tolkien, E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith, H.P Lovecraft and Doctor Who among others which sometimes makes complete sense to the nerd in me. There are a few that slip away but they don’t affect the story.

Most of the footnotes are a historical background to the story. (The last time I came across this detailed footnotes was in Jonathan Stroud’s The Bartemaeus Trilogy.) Long footnotes detail the history that is never found in the text books. It is the untold story which everybody knows but won’t admit.  A parallel narrative, the footnotes, by themselves tell the bloody history of the Dominican Republic. The South American continent’s relationship with violence is well-documented in fiction but violence and the Caribbean – of which the Dominican Republic is a part – is rarely so. Oscar Wao is Díaz’s contribution.

The Spanish-English street patois that the story is narrated in lends a certain rawness and rhythm to the story. I could understand some of them. While it was tempting to search for meaning online, there was just too much of it so I let the language lead me: the context providing much of the meaning.

No matter who does the telling – Oscar, Lola, Beli, La Inca, or Yunior – you get to hear the same patios. Each character tells their own story, Yunior collects them together but it is up to the reader to piece together the narrative. That is another similarity between Drown and Oscar Wao.

Díaz writes this powerful story in a light almost comic-book hero voice. And this voice kind of follows you around even as you go about your day and do your everyday things. I was tempted to add ‘cabrón’ and ‘pendeja’ in my conversations despite not knowing what they mean. (Eventually, I googled.)

Writing, being written and rewritten are a particular focus in Oscar Wao. Oscar wants to pen his magnum opus to be a cross between E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith and J. R. R. Tolkien. He also writes copiously to keep his sanity. He also prefers to leave evidence of his last days in writing. Yunior is writing Oscar’s story. He first studies creative writing, then teaches it. Abelard Cabral was hunted because he was rumoured to have been writing a supernatural history of the Trujillo regime. Trujillo, detestable as he is, is also engaged in an act of writing: he writes and sometimes rewrites the history of his country. Unfortunately he writes it in blood and on the people. Trujillo significantly did not leave a paper trail, unlike the Germans, the footnotes say. The women Beli, Lola and La Inca do not write. (Oscar Wao is begging to be analysed. I’d be surprised if it does not have a few master’s theses and dissertations focused on it by now.)

Since we are talking about the Caribbean, there is of course the supernatural. Apart from the fukú, the zafa, Abelard’s rumoured book, there is the appearance at key moments of a Mongoose and a faceless man. Oscar and Beli see it at different times but usually when they are very close to death. This supernatural element is not magic realism by any account. It’s more a Frostian nod to the road that it did not walk on.

I usually read several books at once but while reading Oscar Wao, I couldn’t.  It consumed me and entranced me so much that I was in a zone from which I did not want to leave. Even as I closed the back cover of the book, I refused to break the zafa (and the fukú too) of a book as good as this. It’s been a day since I finished reading it and I haven’t touched another book while I write this. That for me is the mark of a good book. So read it if you want to be blown away by sheer talent.

Happy WordPress birthday!

Please note: I said ‘happy WordPress birthday’ not ‘happy birthday WordPress’.

WordPress tells me that today is my blog’s birthday! I am a bit surprised, I must admit. I did not start blogging in the humid heat I am sure. It was in December 2004 if I remember it right. But what will WordPress know of my pre-WordPress blogging life? I was on Blogger before this for a long-ish time. And then shifted houses 6 years back to WordPress. So it is a happy WordPress birthday today! And in December of this year, the blog birthday will come up. There will be more activity this year, I am sure. Lots of things are happening behind the scenes. Hush, you did not hear it from me!

Reading update: I am reading Introducing Marxism and Introducing Modernism. While I have read the theories in the past now I am reading them in the graphic format. What a fantastic idea! I am having a blast. Thanks M for introducing me to the series.

A functional life

I live a functional life. I pay my bills on time. I think of taxes and investments – odious things until a few years ago. Now, they’re just routine. I plan purchases like a battle. Well, not entirely. I am still learning but I have come a long way since I never used to plan anything! I try not to think too deeply about what I am doing right now. Partly because it pays the bills and partly because that way lies madness. Some days a restlessness overcomes me and I wait until it passes. I get up and write poetry at 2.20 am and I still think of the title of my perpetually-in-progress poetry collection.

***

I met M after ages and it’s wonderful because we had so much to say to each other. She no longer lives in the city but that is not the problem. I fell off the radar – or rather we fell off each other’s radars. Lots of things come into perspective when she asks those piercing questions of hers; I am always left a bit shocked. Shocked out of my complacence that is. I need to think long and deep about her questions because they are like facing a mirror and seeing the naked truth. I see all that is wrong stare back at me. Once she asked me, ‘So what is holding you back?’ That was like many years ago. I am still figuring out the answer to that question. So on this trip, she was talking about our ‘functional life.’ On the face of it, we are leading our respective functional lives. But underneath there is this profound dissatisfaction with the way our lives have turned out. Not something we expected that is. I thought I’d be out of here (read take off from planet Earth) by 27. So I suppose this is an improvement. (Or not, depending on your perspective.) She was saying that a functional life is all that is possible right now because she doesn’t have the energy or inclination to pursue more. I agree. But something rankles me anyway. I still have that dangerous thing called hope gnawing at my heels. I still think we can make our ‘functional lives’ out of the ordinary. I still think we can get out. And live. That is really scary. I don’t know how but I think it is possible. Even though the days blur by, even though there are bills to be paid and deadlines to be met and duties to be attended to, we can still build our non-functional extraordinary lives.