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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Ruminations on a Review: The cultural politics involving Flame of the Forest

I had not intended to indulge in the cultural politics of the FLAME for obvious reasons. But now that it had been - quite deliberately, if I may hazard to say - touched upon, we must analyse the consequences or the spinoffs of the same in the light of the recent review of the play in The Hindu. And decide for ourselves is it welcome? The work is welcome; but if there was a culturally subversive politics hiding in there, should we take the scythe and harvest the Count Vlads of Sabha Culture - meaning the "rashikas" - away from our theatre? Truly, this write-up belongs to the dedicated sections of Friday Supplement where the arohanams and adavus are discussed. But no!
Look at this little example from the review: "Flame of the Forest... has introduced the Tamil theatre tradition in English. The tradition harks back to the Natya Shastra of Bharatha ...where dnace and music were integral features." And read the last para: "As a new genre in English theatre, it could very well widen the circle of audience in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere." First, English theatre has its own musical form. An extension: Chennai has its fair share of musical and dance theatre in English, even if it is random. Second, it is not the introduction of Tamil theatre tradition in English. Has been done before. Third, is this the writer's first time watching English theatre in Chennai? Fourth, there really is no English theatre in Tamil Nadu elsewhere but Chennai. Fifth, I dread at such a possibility of widened circles. Questions arise in my mind...
The questions that arise are:
- Should an audience have a foreknowledge of the history behind the work on attending a play?
- Should one know the basics of theatre or the functional grammar of a performance one is watching?
- Or is it just enough if they remember the watching etiquettes?
- How valid is an artist in thrusting his/her choices, preferences, foibles and whims and fancies on his/her audience deliberately? Does it not amount to evangelism?
- What must a review do?
Having asked these questions, my mind surfaces with the first salvo. The review in question - or if they want, for argument's sake, to keep their conscience clear - the writing on THEATRE column is the most singularly patronising piece of embracing a dangerous cultural politics I have come across in theatre in recent times. It shows the writer well-read, learned in the arts (probably) that she's talking about. It also shows the writer as a nostalgist for all practical purposes. This is a very dangerous sign of things to come. It is in this light my questions above have been raised. Let's see them one by one.
In my previous post on the play, I had consiously avoided discussing the story in its context as it has no more relevance to us than Mr. Bean watching a horror movie, which only tries to entertain us. Assuming I would not have known the history of Tamilnadu and had gone to watch the play, I feel it still is irrelevant. Why should I know who Mahendra Pallava was, who Sivagami was? There is no rule of the thumb I should read the original. It is not Bible. Even if it is, why should one read it? It is the same argument put forward by entertainment critics at loggerheads with literary critics and historians. In order to watch Electra why should I need to know Agamemnon was killed, in advance? Or should I necessarily Wiki myself on the Google how Hamlet Sr. was killed to watch Hamlet? Is a pre-knowledge essential? And if so, to watch extent? To what end? Is it to show, "listen folks and juntaa who are here to watch this play, I know the work better than you do, so am qualified to write about it, if not discuss it to clanking bangles and wine-glasses at a private party"? Or to put the seen performance in the true light saying "I know the background, so I know what am writing about and hence I can truly properly explain to an uninformed audience"? So, to pay tribute in an unabashedly nostalgic way is limpetty and harking back to something from the past, which is to say, something is lacking today.
What was yesterday cannot be today, but in the fashion cycle it may come round the Ferris Wheel of culture tomorrow. But to say that someone is bringing something from somewhere to elsewhere it is not present is to not question whether it is valid for the elsewhere or not! Why is it important? Without that can English theatre not exist? This nostalgisation of theatre is a new derivation in Chennai. At least among the critical aficianados. I do not want to discuss when it started. Then we may have to go into a lot more muck than we are now. And if all linens are proven dirty as charged, there won't be any left but the naked truth. Though that may lie in the middle, it definitely won't be the middle path. We may all have to take up cudgels and start slam-dunking each other goriously (I would have said gorily, but can't resist the hidden sham-glory!)

Artists have sought to consioucly eradicate theatre of its elitism in the English theatre circles, bringing the levels even. At a time when what is needed is to awaken interest among the theatre-goers in a non-political but genuinely experimental way so that audience get involved in the factual possibility of creations, we are starting to either resort to the creation of dumb, mindless farces and comedies like fast-food (and hence the creation of a 'Fast-food Theatre') or create culturally grammatical classical theatre with a lot of nostalgia for the dance and music and costume, which we need only on dance stages or music sabhas. The former can be excused, but not the latter in the opinion of, I am sure, the more politically conscious left-inclined theatre artists.
We must facilitate the watching of theatre for simple minds, which is the audience that would readily pay without any other agendas but to see theatre than being seen. If we need to create better working environment in terms of finances to facilitate better productions, without having to resort to mileage-sucking corporates and private organisations, we need to learn to generate finances through gates and that is possible only by simplifying theatre without forsaking the aesthetics. After all, art is all about bringing aesthetic quality to our lives. And we have to start dealing with real issues (which actually FLAME does, but is conveniently forgotten by theatre watchers) than superfluous and incidental paraphernalia. If the demands on audience grows, forcing them to equip themselves with preknowledge or challenge them in unrequired ways, we would only get audiences who are educated. And the ratio of educated money to illiterate money is very thin, as we know. Also, it polarises those who would like to come to English theatre, seemingly from an un-english theatre background. Make no mistake, even if the theatre work doesn't underscore this fact, the write-ups do. After all, the write-ups reach the household whereas the audience go to the theatre and you know which has more reach and hold!
It is not long before there's going to be a street-fight. You may laugh now, probably. You never know, in this country. Did we ever envision a Reservation Politics? One day the class and racial prejudice problem that has emasculated itself as casteist politics in our society is going to extend itself to the theatre. In fact, this is what has polarised Tamil theatre for decades. Even the Sabhas aren't doing well and that is no secret. And highlighting such politics hidden in the play by talking about the so-called (for lack of better phrase) Kalakshetra elements, we are only treading into unwanted territories. Let's talk about dance and music without involving certain signifiers.
Also, by cross-pollinating theatre thus, we are eliminating the simple joy of watching and forcing a certain section of audience out of theatre, and bringing those undesired, so-called cultured rasikas that cannot discuss or bother about anything "real" life into halls. A lot of these people have no concern for reality and live in a comfortable world of travelling by four wheels, drink Malt Whiskey and discuss Kalki or Christie in oh-so-fashionable ways. They can only skim the surface of society because the stench of the sub-surface is anathema to their very upbringing and ancestry. And this review is so feel-good that it glorifies the periphery aspects of the theatre work, whereas there are many more redeeming and noteworthy features to FLAME. The writing is so form-centric.
Theatre is not all about putting things nicely. Theatre is not a place for interior decoration. Theatre is a place, at the bottom, to discuss issues, however much a work may not do it openly. In fact, the beauty of theatre lies in sub-textualising the issues and the duty of criticism is to bring it to the surface. FLAME is from a writer who translated Kanya Dhaan and we know what the latter work is all about. There must have been non-apolitical reasons for any writer to create or translate a work. The writer of FLAME must surely have had such strong reasons for translating Tendulkar's work, and that is something the review in question just about barely touches upon. Such writer belongs to such audience, perhaps.
This is the truth, note this: a lot of them don't even know a menu button from call-end button. And they all carry fashionable Nokias and Motorolas in their handbags and speak sabha vocabulary of Tamil in a very accented English tone. These are the audiences the artists of late-80s thru the 90s had consiously tried to distance from theatre unless they came to accept artists of any plumage with an open mind, the only criterion being the strength of the production. Would they be seen in a show by any or every company, irrespective of the branding or who's who of the show?
Furthermore, the current patronising review, by referring to TKS brothers, only tries to revoke the dormant T-rex eggs of elitist culture. But then, the TKS plays from my hear-know from my parents and grandparents did seem to have popular elements as well!
Personally my anguish is not against the play in question. Every artist has the right to creation. Every performance artist has the right to bring on stage what they like. And as long as it is for creative purposes, it is welcome. It adds to embellish and punctuate the growing annals of culture, tradition and history. For we are very clear, without tradition and history, culture cannot be enriching or rewarding. But when this starts getting eulogised by critics who are supposed to be at the vanguard of writing and giving the truth and nothing but the whole truth about the work as is where is, it is unwelcome and subversive and counter-productive.

Take this statement: "Gowri extends her grandpa's story with a convincing sequel...." How much more subjective and personalised can a writing get? Is this what a reviewer must do? How much ever one masks the writing in the name of THEATRE or something that doesn't quite say REVIEW, it is an after-performance piece and hence an opinion, a view-point, etc etc.
When one writes in a personal space for discussive readership it is a different matter. One is entitled to one's opinion and so is a reader; and we can start exchange of opinions, views, get argumentative, debate, conflict, contradict etc etc, which at least leads to exchange of ideas. But when it goes up on a public space which people pay to read, you are corrupting possible minds that just read and lap it up. These could be the young children of these "rashikas". Probably the formers' minds are still naive and uninfluenced. Let them choose their entertainment form. Don't give opportunity to these rashika-parents to evangelise their children's choices. Or at least stop playing your part in shaping their choices. What else are we artists there for? You do your job, we will do ours.

Except for the penultimate para which just states something very unconvincingly something superfluously unseemly about the play, read the writing and let me know if there is anything boldly unpatronising about this!

Please by all means use music, dance, etc etc in theatre. This is the quintessence of theatre. It is such a fantastic multimedia confluence to tell stories in ever so interesting fashions. But do not make it elite and take it out of the reach of people who have been coming to it all these years. It would not be right to say, were one to say, we are 'attracting' audience to theatre through the opulence and richness on stage. And please don't quote Bharatha and his Natya Shastra and sully his name. That's like saying "Tom Jones" or "Tristram Shandy" was the first work of meta-fiction!!! First let us sustain the existing (whatever) masses, then talk of bringing new classes in.
Honestly, the day I visited, all I could see were blonde and brunette heads ethnically dressed... or side-parted and clean-shaven, and if not abroad educated, at least proudly possessing one person of the family in Wisconsin or Strathclyde or wherever types, who had their phones on and were half the time caught with their 'palms itching to make love to each other in the name of clapping' between scenes. And they did not even know whether their act of wanting to clap is right or not. See their hypocrisy? Their upbringing tells them it is untimely to clap and disturb the actor. But their instincts tell them that the scene either deserved to be clapped genuinely or their upbringing has taught them that one needs to clap to show their polite approval of what they saw... and hence thus be recognised as being present in the audience. A lot of insecurity is the sub-text of this dubious and sneaky act. Whereas a genuine watcher would have expressed his/her enjoyment uninhibitedly. These are the people who go to watch Yehudi Menuin when he comes to Music Academy and clap at all the odd-ball moments.

Take it from me, we are going to witness the Second Coming of the Discerning Elitists to Chennai's English Theatre: the moneyed class that do not mind throwing 500 bucks to get a pit seat proudly in Museum Theatre. You remember what pit meant in a Shakespearean context? These are only refined aficianados of the pit. I think we are unfortunately sinking in the quagmire of Fast-food theatre while the hand that reaches out is Nostalgic-Heritage Theatre. The makers are not at fault. They are being encouraged by those who are smart enough to realise business-opportunities. Somebody is driving the market subtly. Wake up artists!

1 comment:

Srini said...

Fine post Dr. KK! A very fine read: educating, entertaining, and, most importantly, galvanising the thought processes as usual. I shall, as I generally do, not touch on the more technical points of the post but direct my comments in a rather lambent way. But one thing for sure: I might learn more theatre from your posts than watching plays (though you might not agree to that!!!) or from any other source.

Let me put down my comments in a stream-lined manner:

1) Audience and preknowledge: I think you make a crucial point here. In an entertainment age where the general support for theatre, that too serious quality theatre, is attenuated, expecting preknowledge from the audience smacks of, on the one hand, a certain kind of foolhardy naivete - which could be called erudition contextually - and o the other a certain sense of a certain kind of divide between the literate and the illiterate theatre population as you rightly label them. Honestly speaking, I belong to the latter category though I can distinguish, yes with a trace of subjectivity, between good and bad plays, if not good and bad theatre.
This line, I think, beautifully sums my first point:

"We must facilitate the watching of theatre for simple minds, which is the audience that would readily pay without any other agendas but to see theatre than being seen."

2. The point that you make about a possible "nostalgisation" - hope I spelt that correctly - is also as perfidious as you state it to be, I think, for the vicissitudes of the exalted and yet accessible (read as "understandable") art. Ridding any artform of characteristics, or undermining those, even in a minute attempt to alienate from them from the common man cannot be good I am sure.

3) Though I cannot comment much about the "cross-pollination" of which you talk, I do believe that it streamlines a theatrical audience - as your last post evinced - into those who want to watch dance, those who want to watch music and those who want to watch the play. Such a fragmented approach to a unified whole I guess is not good for the production, the performance or the performers even though at the end of the day the money might be in the kitty. I make that comment because I know you are one man who would care for these nitty-gritty infinitely more than money.

4. The point I liked the best stems from the analogy of claps and "love-making palms"! The expression just took me by storm; for a moment I misread it. It was then that the sharpness of the remark hit me. I do not know if I would call them hypocrites but they certainly seem to resort to the educated dictates of the mind rather than the true appreciation of a work. I also liked the part where you talk of people who speak of music and dance in Sabha Jargon (Tamil) making use of English... (brandishing the latest cell phones of which they know very little!)

A fulfilling post... a joyous read for someone like me, not involved in the muck.
Yet I consider this one of your best posts thus far as it had purpose, a truculent sense of humour, coherence enmeshed in explicitness and subtlety and great language and flow as usual.

Cheerio!