Social change, and the show 16 December 2009
Against my best wishes, I’ve had a bit of a “finding myself” experience in India. Against the bas-relief of the hippy tourists and the absurd and at times backward culture of Benares, I’ve had to review my gut responses to things and accept myself for having those responses—or work to adjust to things.
I believe in high standards for civic government–sanitation, electricity, and other basic services. I hate ostentatious, transparent, preening spiritual tourism—and I value my ability to understand and commiserate across cultural lines according to the exigencies that tie all of humankind together. I find that the cosmic journeyers are disgusting precisely because I think they’ve come to India to find a noble, beautiful, deep, spiritual wonderland; India may be some of these things—but no one who is visiting or living in India would ever be in a position to know. India is vast, and to say anything other than a qualified local observation of its culture would be foolhardy at best. But let me say one thing about Benares. It may be a noble, beautiful, deep, spiritual wonderland—but it is none of these things without qualification. It is filthy, dishonest, angry, slow, inefficient, sexist, and backward, as well. And the people either by willful or inadvertent ignorance, or by virtue of simple inertia, choose for it to be that way. Benares, they say, doesn’t change with the times. The times change with Benares.
I’m not sure what that means, but I’m pretty certain it means that reforming the city will be a long, slow haul. That gives me some pause as a devotee of the social change that Nirman is trying to promote—still, I am hopeful that we can do some good. That’s another change in me. I’ve come to believe that it is possible to have a good effect on the world, where previously, I held fast to the belief (not without the influence of Tolstoy) that it is utterly impossible to act in such a way that we can be sure that our work will have a positive outcome. There are, I believed then, too many other factors that compose the shape of history, for us to be sure that anything we do won’t turn into a fiasco for those we pretend to be helping. The world is littered with cases of a well-intentioned west attempting to do good, while ruining its “beneficiaries.”
And yet, thanks to the George W. Bush administration, I’ve come to believe that we have to try—because not trying gives license to people who will do anything when they come to power. And working at Nirman has influenced me, too. Irfana Majumdar is an inspirational character. On one occasion, I questioned her willingness to boss around Tiwari, the caretaker, with respect to the apportionment of domestic duties in the household. His daughter, coming into adolescence, takes on more domestic work than her pre-pubescent brother. Irfana resolved to instruct him that the domestic chores had to be divided equally.
I felt this was intrusive. But she felt—she knew the result of Tiwari’s chauvinism had to be avoided, and chose to believe that her meddling, and that’s what it was, meddling, would lead to a better, more equitable set of values amongst the members of that family. She resolved to do a good act, and she based that good act on faith. The two things, the action and the faith were inextricable.
We could postulate all day about the merits and drawbacks of her standpoint on Tiwari’s domestic situation. The point, for me, was to see the necessary leap of faith necessary to try to improve the world. Nirman is built on such leaps of faith, and it does seem to be taking steps in the right direction, in a country whose educational system needs a few such steps.
My project with the kids made a positive difference in their lives, and may have repercussions elsewhere, should Nirman clones start cropping up elsewhere in India in the next twenty years. But it, too, was built on simple leap of faith—that demanding a class of students to think creatively about a text, to adapt it, design a production based upon it, to staff the production and act in it—all things they’d never done before—would be a worthwhile growing experience for them.
It was. The night after the show we had a birthday party, in which the group smeared my face with birthday cake, and then played hide and seek (8th graders are so much more childish in Benares!). Seven o’clock rolled around, and it was time for the students to go home (mind you, it was a constant struggle to get the students to stay later than 5:30 on any occasion for rehearsal), and the students simply congregated near the front gate, and would not leave. Then they gave me a birthday card they’d designed. Then the tears started flowing. It was the emotional peak of our time together, and I was leaving the next day. I had more than a few children clinging to me, crying, telling me they would miss me, etc., and to come back soon. Then, after breaking away, they would come back, and do it again. Not at summer camp, not in all the schools I’ve worked at, have I experienced that kind of pure expression of affection and grief (and love, for me). It was impossible not to be moved by the whole scene.
The production process not only produced a successful play, but it was itself fun, educational, and a bonding process for a group of students that will be soon divided as students move on to the more “adult” world of Indian high school—in which students simply have to study for exams and hope to be slotted into an advantageous place for their future according to their scores. The type of creative work we did on this process will never be repeated, and certainly not by this group, which more or less grew up together, ever again. I think my departure was a totem for the impending separation pains.
The show was also a success on its own terms—and I realize now what a tremendous accomplishment it is for a group of people to join together to create a play. The previous day, we finally finished the light hang and focus, and did some very basic cuing. That afternoon, our makeup artist finally showed and I spent the better part of the pre-show process directing makeup with our costume designers. As a result I overlooked the fact that we didn’t have a boombox set up for our “love song radio mix” that would be part of the atmospherics of the small-town environment we created on the campus.
However, that atmosphere conveyed quite nicely, I think. The play was announced for 3pm. Knowing that the audience would almost certainly not show up in its entirety by that time, I arranged to have the students living their village lives—peeling potatoes, playing with a pet hen, reading the newspaper, playing cricket, peeling peas, cleaning rice, reading, sleeping, etc., as the audience found their way through the space of the campus. I left it to the audience to find, for themselves, the compartment in which the “marriage proposal” portion of the piece would be staged, where they could seat themselves when they pleased. I also left it to them to discover the rooms in the house where Akhil was reading at his desk and where the didis in the family were peeling peas. I was worried that they audience wouldn’t discover these parts of the atmosphere—but nearly audience member found their way into the back room where the women were—and filed past Akhil’s door, and, without prompting, found seats in the area where the proposal took place.
Some parts of the piece were a debacle. I was seriously worried about little Intezar’s ability to concentrate—he had a small part in which he peeled potatoes and entered the living room of the house, just as a particularly shocking insult was delivered (reacting hilariously). But Intezar took the challenge I had given him and concentrated brilliantly. Even while he was being photographed by a local newspaper, he maintained character, and peeled his potatoes. And he reacted as a neighbor to the insult being hurled—not as Intezar laughing at his friends doing and saying funny things. But the boy playing with his hen never quite got into the hang of it, and he sat quietly with another actor, Arnav, who sat reading the newspaper. He never quite understood what I told him about not speaking to me as his director once the audience started entering. He kept asking me when the proposal would happen.
Arnav is a victim of the Indian educational system. He came to the school only this year, and has precious little ability to communicate, either in Hindi or English, when there’s some difficulty, complexity, or disagreement. He simply agrees to whatever you say, and then forgets five minutes later. He is completely incapable of thinking more than two steps ahead—he has to be directed incredibly specifically in every respect. So when I needed him to go to borrow a sweater from Tiwari (because he hadn’t brought the costume selected for him), I had to literally walk with him to Tiwari to get the task accomplished. Nevertheless, Arnav was grieved to see me go, too.
That, by the way, was one remarkable thing—kids with whom I’d fought like cats and dogs sobbing at my departure. I’ve had difficult groups of kids before, and it’s just a matter of management and incentives in any situation. But this group was indeed difficult. And I’ve never had a group that gave me this much difficulty feel so sorry to see me go.
Anyhow, after a half an hour, we had a full audience seated in the living room, and the proposal started. The performances were good, clear, physical, and original. And the “intrusions” from various members of the cast devised by Pallavi, my dramaturg, and me, stole the show. As I’ve written, they tend to cover “seams” in the adaptation—places where cuts in the action lead to actions on stage that don’t quite add up. But that were seriously funny. And they were opportunities for the children, via their characters, to make an audience laugh. I think that that’s something they’ll never forget. I never will.
The performance aesthetics led to an atmosphere that really accomplished what I wanted. Two examples illustrate this perfectly: as the action of the proposal started, a photographer from a newspaper showed up on the “stage” (really a makeshift living room) and snapped away. He was unaware, due to the way we’d cultivated expectations, that the play would start happening in a way that he might have be interfering with. The actors were there, and why shouldn’t he be near them, taking photos? Akhil rushed in with Shaurya, and the actors, without missing a beat, stepped around the photographer, who depending on your point of view, could have been a wayward audience member, a fellow villager, or member of the design team. At another point in the performance, with similar results, a child wandered through the living room, as the characters shouted at each other without respite.
And the standard Banarsi practices of late entry and early exit, cell-phone usage, flash photographer, etc., were on display. But these habits were integrated into the dramaturgy of the performance aesthetics of the piece. Audience members were not bound by some authoritative point of view on the action, which was in the round, and necessarily compromised from any angle, or by some notion that there was more or less important action, a necessary start or finish to the performance, or that there was some strict division between the audience and the performers. In Ramlila and Indian classical music performances in town, this aesthetic reigns. I’m proud that we were able to make them work in a contemporary theatrical context.
The kids served tea, after the proposal, without a hitch. And the party, with samosas and sweets served by students from grades five and six was a blast, as the students and members of the staff sang the students’ original song and danced together. And, because I couldn’t deprive the students of a bow (though I would have, had I had more nerve and my druthers), we had a bow that put a “button” on the performance. After the bow, the party, and thus, the village, gradually dispersed. But it was not as immediate as the aftermath of a Broadway show. It was slow, and folks chatted and enjoyed the gorgeous Banaras December afternoon.
Since then, it’s been vacation time for me, with little internet access. I’ll post photos and video soon.
onward 2 December 2009
Saturday, the electrician didn’t show. It would not have been a big deal except for three factors: first, my students did show up, expecting to work on hanging lights all day. When I had nothing for them to do except watch rehearsal, I have the feeling that they got the (quite correct) sense that the show was wasting their time.
That’s actually bad enough. Because the children are not used to staying after school under any circumstances–the school culture here is such that extracurriculars don’t keep children late. But, obviously, three to four weeks of 2 and 3 hour rehearsals are a minimum for any full-length piece. For our short play, we’ve been at it for 3 weeks at 2 or so hours a night. Every day after school the student ask if they can go home early–in spite of the fact that during rehearsal everyone is seemingly having a great time. But students, even if they’re having a good time at rehearsal, get pressure from their parents to return home quickly after school. Just today, during rehearsal, I got a call from the father of a student of mine who said that his son couldn’t do drama because he couldn’t be allowed to stay after school. (The boy works in a shop after school.) He said that he would come and meet with us on Saturday about pulling his son out. Fortunately, the class ends with our performance on Saturday, so no harm no foul.
Besides being an important educational element, the lights are keenly important, artistically. The audience will be allowed to roam the campus of the school without any over suggestion of where to go. The lights inside the house are going to act as subtle “guides” offering the audience different places to go and visit during the performance. Without the lights, the likelihood is that elements of the show will be missed.
The other troubling thing about our electrician’s absence on Saturday was the manner in which he resolutely and repeatedly reaffirmed the week prior that he was going to be there. When the day rolled around, I was informed by other members of the staff that he was at a wedding, meaning that a) he certainly knew about the engagement in advance, and b) he had told other members of the staff about it in advance while affirming to me personally that he would be there.
The children will do this on occasion–they’ll promise anything to mollify me or other adults in advance of some obligation only to back out or not show up (or show up unprepared). But what the children will not do, and what I find so abhorrent in this very close-knit community is the bald-faced lying about it. I don’t have any real reason to confront him about this, as I’m leaving soon, but it’s sticking in my craw of late.
Nevertheless, we’re moving forward. Our set is all loaded in, and we have to finish the light hang, focus, and cue through tomorrow. Considering that there are fewer than five cues in the whole show it should be a cinch (famous last words). And the students are starting to really communicate and flow with one another in dialogue. It’s really touching to see them grow into a living, hilarious ensemble. The physical chemistry between the father and prospective son-in-law is great–and when you see them rough housing with each other (in a way that it is clear they have done since they were in the sandbox together), it’s not hard to see why. This goes for the whole group, in fact. They know each other, and have been playing the schoolyard together so long that they’re like a bustling family of siblings close in age, who care for each other very much.
In this vein, there was a touching moment in rehearsal yesterday. One of the smallest boys in the class, Intezar, who is about the size of a child 3 to 4 years younger, got hit in the leg during some rough and tumbling of some sort. For whatever reason, he started crying his heart out, right in the rehearsal room, as we were about to start. I had to shoo his classmates away from triage, as the attention was only fueling the sobbing. I started talking to him, asking him what happened, telling him to go wash up, etc. But he wouldn’t lift his head. Finally, and to take the focus off of him, I asked him if he just wanted to watch his friends act. He nodded, and was laughing, as he does every afternoon, within five minutes.
The group works well together and seems to possess a sense of comic timing. The adaptation I coalesced out of our group writing exercises has some “seams”: not knowing their capacity to memorize and rehearse dialogue, I wanted to cut the play down a bit–and I did so by cutting from some of the sequences in which Lomov is unraveling in both the first and second halves of the play. I also cut down and made the argument over the dogs (now cows) more immediate and intense. The way we have dealt with these cuts is to get our Lomov to really embody the physical aggravation of the character more immediately–in such a way that it drives the immediacy of the conflicts.
Moreover, where there are apparent and abrupt transitions within scenes (that I haven’t been able to address in scenework) I have inserted irreverent entrances by the various characters that the students have created. When Choobokov screams at his daughter, blaming her for humiliating their guest, the boys playing cricket outside enter to ask him to retrieve their lost ball. Having his one apex of rage, he explodes into another, funny stream of epithets against the boys.
Several of these entrances were designed by me and my dramaturg, Pallavi. The best we came up with by far comes at the end of the piece when Choobokov, wishing he had killed himself previously, begs for a knife or a gun. Priya, the young loyal cousin (in homes such as the one in which the piece is set, work that might have been done by a “servant” in imperial Russia is carried out by a young brother or sister, who is duty bound to obey the orders of his elders–elder siblings included) has been fetching things for the family’s guest throughout his visit. When Choobokov begs for a knife, she dutifully supplies him with one, provoking laughter.
I’m so proud of Pallavi for having come up with it–and I hope that she continues to feed her interest in theater. She’s awfully quiet, but if she can overcome her shyness, I’m convinced, by the quality of her suggestions, that she has potential as a director.
One thing we’re working through in rehearsal: audibility. The courtyard (obviously) has an open ceiling that lets noise in and actors’ voices escape. The actors do not incorporate direction consistently without being reminded, so I have to keep telling them: slow down. Trust that you know the words. Get the intention right. Move with the pace of the scene. Pick up your cues. And project!
Three days to showtime. Onward!
tough post 26 November 2009
This is a difficult post to write. It’s about the contemporary theater I’m seeing here in Benares. The theater scene, as well as the small film industry, has been infused with a certain energy of late. For example, just this past weekend, a small theater group staged 37 plays in 32 hours in order to break a world record for continuous stage acting. And, while Benares is no Chicago or New York (or Calcutta or Mumbai, for that matter), there is something happening in a theater somewhere here, nearly every week.
Most of what I’ve seen here, (and what I saw in Calcutta) reflects a very limited aesthetic with respect to the relationship between performer and audience. That is to say everything is on a proscenium, all the time, and the audience is always in total darkness. But, as I have written previously, an audience’s viewing habits are different here than they are on Broadway, or even a rural American high school. In those venues, where the same limited aesthetic typically reigns, everyone knows and obeys certain rules: the play must be paid attention to, it is the main event, when it starts, the audience’s attention must start, and it is the audience’s job to be a good vessel for the playwright’s (and other artists’) message or story, which, in order to be understood properly should be comprehended in its entirety.
The contract of an audience entering these spaces privileges a particular, authoritative understanding of a performance. Which is not to say that that understanding cannot be the basis for a variation of opinion, or the basis of discussion or disagreement. The idea however is rather simple: if you miss the first act, or if you have an obstructed view, or if an actor misstates the words in the script or is inaudible, the performance or its reception has been compromised: it or the audience’s actions in experiencing it are deficient.
Such a “deficiency” would be incomprehensible at the Krishna Lila, for example, or at an Indian classical musical performance, if the audience member who misses a piece of the action can say that they have had a fulfilling experience based on the section that they did see or hear. The divisions of start/finish, whole/incomplete and sufficient/deficient are much, much, less pronounced.
And yet, contemporary theater is almost universally produced in an aesthetic that demands that an audience agree to a very different contract of viewership than is present nearly anywhere else in town. Even in movie theaters (the “ideal” aesthetic of which may be the basis for the aesthetic of the contemporary theater makers in Benares) there is a diffuse viewership ethic. The Grotowski/Brook/Artaud revolutions in the avant-garde theater of the 60s attempted to incorporate the environmental and ritual aesthetics of many Asian theatrical forms. So, ironically, western avant-garde theater makers who stage a play in cafe or in a parked car are attempting to incorporate the performance aesthetics of Banarsi performance into theater much more than Banarsi theater makers themselves.
There’s another aspect of this discussion that is difficult to write about. It’s the attention to detail and quality of performances themselves. I’ve often criticized ensembles in Chicago and elsewhere that perfunctorily produce plays, without genuinely knowing why the work is necessary or creating an involved enough process to discover and perform an interesting take on a classic. A friend is going to see Death of a Salesman at a theater in Chicago that is notorious for these types of zombie performances of American classics. They’re just going through the motions–putting on a text and wearing it around in the same way that you might put on a vintage leisure suit. It’s theater for people who think that theater is simply the display of a text. They like a play and so they put it on like an outfit.
There is a kind of dramaturgically limp attitude toward the interpretive and collaborative work that underlies these productions. And this is, par excellence, the attitude of contemporary theater makers in Benares. But there seems to be less preparation and attention to detail here in Benares than even amongst the most immature ensembles in the most exploitative off-off-Broadway walk-up studios.
By this I mean that lighting is exceeding perfunctory, scripts are quite apparently hastily rehearsed, and sets are totally basic. The idea of creating an experience is somewhat foreign. Shows are lit based on the position of lights in a bare-bones rep plot, and by follow spots operated from the wings. (I have it on good authority that the “light designs” are often conceived within a day or two of the performance, and that light boards are often not operated by the same operator from tech rehearsal to performance.) There are platforms and boxes covered with decorative drapes that suggest atmosphere and location. And the acting is the result of a highly abbreviated process in which actors are very explicitly told what things mean and how to recite lines.
In a recent grad school class of mine about the national not for profit theater it was fashionable amongst the self-styled young revolutionaries amongst the ranks of theater management students to passionately proclaim that “the regional theater system” was “broken.” Among these earnest young men and women, there was a sincere desire to reform a system of American theater that draws charitable resources in rural and exurban America toward large, centralized, bureaucratic arts organizations and away from potentially more innovative, equitable, and dynamic potential upstarts nationwide. Their diagnosis of the maladies of the American regional theater movement, and their prescription may both be correct; it’s not my intention to evaluate them here. But a little historical context from the American theater world is useful context for understanding the contemporary theater situation here in Benares well.
In the 19th century in the US, Shakespeare was a big deal. Troupes of Shakespeareans toured the hinterlands quite successfully, along with other forms of drama and entertainments. In the cities, productions of Shakespeare and other dramas were very long-lasting affairs, with preliminary and closing entertainments. They attracted huge and diverse audiences.
In the early 20th century, Shakespeare and “popular” entertainments parted ways–the former to high-class venues presenting pure high culture, separating the cultured from the uncultured classes. The latter went, among other places, to vaudevillian, cabaret, and burlesque showcases. Today I refer to this as the “monster truck rally” side of American entertainment; necessarily opposed to their upper class “betters.”
Yet, as movie houses began to supplant these popular entertainments and their upper-class counterparts in the hinterlands, a “little theater” movement began to crop up, through which ordinary people founded theaters that were just above the level of what we consider community theaters today. They were influenced by the whole range live theater that was present in the zeitgeist in their lives, and were committed to presenting works of artistic excellence themselves locally.
As time went on, these Little Theaters were replaced by regional theaters, which, under the patronage of the Ford Foundation in the early 60s boomed into a national network of fully-formed, fully-endowed, brick and mortar institutions with big budgets, staffs, and infrastructure. Their mission was more or less simple–to professionally present excellent (read: culturally refined) theater to the people of x community, on a level, and with an attention to detail that might be found at the best theaters nationwide.
At the same time as theater in America was evolving in this way, public education was establishing a coherent philosophy, emphasizing theater, music, and athletics as necessary parts of a proper education. And universities in the past half-century have begun offering professional training in the arts to aspiring professionals and educators.
The result of these efforts is a relatively rich atmosphere in which young artists learn the basic details of the theater-making craft. That’s not to say that I’m satisfied with the aesthetic limitations of the American high school theater I’ve seen in my lifetime, but the fact is that, within a relatively limited aesthetic, high schools display an attention to detail and preparation that is utterly lacking amongst contemporary theater artists here in Benares.
In the states, one comes through school, learns certain things about how theater is made from teachers whose ideas of what theater is and how to practice it have been inflected by seeing relatively high-quality work in regional theaters and in big cities, and by teachers who themselves have extensive education and exposure to high-quality production practices. By high-quality, I simply mean reflecting an attention to detail and thorough process of preparation.
This system may produce a baseline of expectations toward theater that is far from ideal, but it does produce one which entails attention to detail and preparation. Theater makers all over are influenced by relatively high-quality, if tame, relatively big-budget productions at regional theaters, and university training. There are a set of “orthodox” best practices that are in use in most processes. And no student coming out of a training program would be unaware of the division of labor entailed by the use of specific designers for different design elements. The ideal is a venue for various different creative inputs, even if those create inputs are subject to an overweening or highly centralized directorial vision.
In India, a roots movement, as described by Erin Mee in Theatre of Roots, sought to incorporate ritual and traditional performance into creative, contemporary theater. This process was largely orchestrated by national arts “authorities” such as the national academy of drama and dance, and it has produced a relatively rich environment for the arts in Delhi and Mumbai. But there is no regional theater in India (not to say that there SHOULD be)–no place where Banarsi theater artists can sample the possibilities for performance being spearheaded in the big cities. In America a good deal of the tradition that led to the regional theater movement was established prior to the advent of television. That tradition led to certain assumptions which inform the quality of theater education in the US.
In Benares, there is precious little training in secondary school and universities which establishes baseline best practices, quality control, attention to detail, etc. And, of course, India is a very poor, developing country. Cities such as Benares, which contain the vast majority of the Indian population do not have to charitable resources to support regional theaters on the scale of their American counterparts.
So technically, there is necessarily some less sophistication here than in other places in India and elsewhere in the world. But why should artists produce using the aesthetic relics of a 50-year-old reaction against the Parsi theater (see my post about my interview with Dr. Mehta)? There is no exposure to other theater practices or to the ethic of preparation and attention to detail that underpins the most simple, technically unsophisticated creative contemporary work in many other places in the world.
The trap in this situation is for me to assume the role of the city slicker come to enlighten the poor yokels (natives) with my notion of “real” and “good” culture. I recoil at that patently colonialist discourse. But I refuse to believe that exposure to excellence from around the world (to say nothing of India itself) is an act of cultural imperialism or marginalization of native practices. It is a worthwhile for artists almost anywhere to be exposed to the possibilities highlighted by high quality work, the world over.
It is the job of Nirman the NGO to envision a future of Indian education which contains a holistic vision for a good life for its students. Nirman’s philosophy holds that the arts are not only a key to development in other venues of a successful, satisfying life, but that the arts are an element of such a life in themselves. Ecology and conservation are likewise keys to scientific thinking, but are considered keys to guiding students to lives that are politically involved and grounded in certain notions of responsibility to the larger society.
Underpinning this type of thinking is a view of India in the future–that this model of education is supposed to help promote. As a teacher in this place, my hope is that by giving my students exposure to the production practices of amateur and professional theater artists in my part of the world, I’m giving them the opportunity to take what works for them as the artists of the future in this country. There are cultural structural deficiencies in India that are huge obstacles to overcome as it moves into the next century. Surely Nirman and our approach to the arts won’t answer these deficiencies alone. But who knows? Maybe someday in the future people will look back and realize that our work was part of what helped build into a more holistically just society–one that offers the opportunity for a variety of fulfilling lives to all its citizens. Hopefully a rich, widespread theater world will be part of that society, too.
Krishna Lila 23 November 2009
Because the Ramnagar Ramlila prohibits photography and video (without an extensive permission process), it’s difficult to illustrate what I mean when I describe public performance aesthetics in Benares. However, I have a good deal of footage from the Tulsi Ghat Krishna Lila from about a month ago, which gives a good feel for what it is like. The Bharat Milap of the Khoduah Ramlila illustrates this to some extent, as well.
The Krishna Lila tells the story of Krishna’s exploits as a child and young man–his play with the young cow herds, his victories over the wicked King Kamsa. In the episode I attended, the young Krishna and his friends have been ordered by the king to play ball near the waters of a river in which a dangerous many-headed snake is swimming. The king hopes that Krishna, who, it has been prophesied, will overthrow him, will fall in and be killed by the snake. When the ball goes in the water, Krishna jumps in to retrieve it, and kills the snake.
In Benares, Krishna and his friends play ball near the actual Ganga, and Krishna climbs and falls from a tree specially constructed as a set for the performance. The sets, costuming, verse recitation (which is in the lilt of the Ramlila verse recitation), makeup, and other logistical concerns are handled by the same committee of men who run the Tulsi Ghat Ramlila (which traces its lineage directly to Tulsi). The makeup, while similar to the makeup for Ramlila, has its own peculiarities, incorporating dashes of decorative red and white. The aesthetics of the two are similar, although the Ramila roams from location to location in almost every iteration in Benares. The Krishna Lila more or less takes place on Tulsi Ghat.
The episode I attended is very popular in Benares, and is scheduled in the afternoon, when the large crowd that assembles can see, in the sun, the young god jump into the water, flocked by pilgrims and boats, as he swims. But like so many performances done here, there is very little effective exhortation to the audience to pay attention to a “full” performance. There is a long wait as the gods sit in repose and as the Maharaja’s boat arrives.
In fact, by the time I realized that the performance was underway, it had been going for 10 minutes or so already. The king, from a nearby tower, was shouting abuse and giving orders. Then the boys, on a gangway on the ghat, that was essentially a three foot wide walkway in the midst of an overwhelming crowd, played a strolling game of catch (which some of the boys, temporarily dropping their “godly” demeanor, genuinely were enjoying).
Then, after a relatively long wait, during which the audience continued to swell, chat, make phone calls, etc., Krishna walked down the Ghat to a boat which shuttled him to the makeshift tree. The voice of the man narrating the action over loudspeaker intensified (although he had been commenting on the action throughout the first, distracted hour), and the crowd began jockeying for position in order to see Krishna swim. As he began the slow ascent up the tree, the shouting got louder, as did the numerous religious chants, which exploded when the boy fell into the water.
Devotees swam with him, and the crowd simply erupted. Footage of the “scene” and of the full immersion are posted below. A brief look at either will give a sense of the performance aesthetics that many Banarsi audiences are familiar with.
An interesting project fell in my lap a few weeks ago–and if I meet any Indian art historians who want to return to Benares with me to do research for an article in the next year or two, it might come to fruition. The source was Dr. Naval Krishna, a friend of mine and Irfana my host’s, and his father. Both are prominent figures in the world of Benares art and antiquities; the former is the current joint director of Bharat Kala Bhavan, the art and antiquities museum on the campus of Benares Hindu University. The latter is former director of the museum. And it was founded the latter’s father himself.
The collection is impressive–featuring numerous Hindu and Buddhist artifacts and icons dating back to over 2000 years ago. And they have a gorgeous collection of Mughal-era miniature paintings that retain medieval perspective, but that are suffused with vivid color that is unheard of in medieval European art.
At dinner a few weeks ago, Dr. Krishna’s father, (Dr. Anand Krishna) upon hearing that I had been studying Ramlilas in town, mentioned that he believed that certain paintings in the BKB’s archives could establish a link between Tulsi’s dramaturgy and the art of the period. I was skeptical. But a subsequent conversation with Dr. Naval Krishna revealed an interesting point of historical connection between poets, painters, and the raga composers of the era. Apparently collaboration amongst the three artists were common in Tulsi’s era were common. To my knowledge there are no painting sets associated with Tulsi’s verse. But Dr. Krishna believes that a case can be made that it would inconceivable for Tulsi to have been unfamiliar with a wide variety “ragmalas,” or painting sets, given the circles he (presumably provably) moved in.
That’s where my job on such a project would start. By being familiar with the Ramayana and Ramchitmaranas, and observing a variety of Ramlilas in Benares, I would be in a position to argue that scene selection, audience movement, costuming, site selection (in the case of the Ramnagar Ramlila), and other elements of performance grew from the zeitgeist of ragmalas that Tulsi would undoubtedly have been familiar with.
Very little is known about the origins of the Ramlila in Benares, and little is even known about the original dramaturgy of the Ramnagar Ramlila, even it has stayed more or less static in the past 200 years. Establishing a strong link between the visual art tradition of Tulsi’s lifetime, and his eventual dramaturgy could be a worthwhile enterprise.
The Action Players 22 November 2009
In Calcutta, I had the chance to see two theater groups at work: one, a pro-am group producing out of the Academy of Fine Arts, produced a disappointing rendition of a story from the Mahabarata. But the other, a group called The Action Players (TAP), was truly inspiring.
Begun by an American-trained mime artist, Zarin Chaudhary, over 20 years ago, the group is composed of deaf students from around Calcutta. They perform adaptations of Bengali and Hindi plays, as well as poetry and folk tales. They were in the midst of an adaptation of a set of Bengali short stories when I dropped in on them a few weeks ago.
The group is made up of mostly 17 to 25-year-olds, many of whom are veterans of the school for the deaf in which the group is hosted, and where Chaudhari initially taught mime years back (she still teaches mime in and around Calcutta at other schools). The group grew out of Chaudhari’s classes, giving very dedicated students a chance to perform their mime pieces for a formal audience.
As the group continued, they developed a robust roster of sponsors. Programs from previous years indicate sponsorship by major Indian banks, car manufacturers, and telecom firms.
What’s remarkable about the group is the extent to which it is the central social outlet for the students in it. Indian sign language is a new thing, and knowledge of any sign language is extremely rare, even amongst families who have deaf children. Chauhari related to me examples of children (who are nearly always valued by their families) essentially being ignored when trying to stay up to speed on a conversation or event. In the case of girls from traditional families, this kind of treatment is especially demoralizing, as there is precious little freedom to leave the house and experience life outside without a companion who is not deaf, and who does not sign.
As a result there is a kind of socially hermetic atmosphere for most students, who find in TAP a place where they can have full, free flowing conversations, and where they can work on projects that confer a great deal of respect on them. Nearly all of the students I spoke to communicated to me that their work of stage earns them respect from family and community members. Finding themselves in situations in which they lack power to make things happen, they find a good deal of empowerment in their roles in TAP. And the atmosphere is truly familial. Chaudhari related to me numerous examples of students who have walked long distances to assist their sisters in the group with getting home, or with other group members in emergencies.
TAP’s process is interesting. Chaudhari is not an expert in ISL, but she does sign ASL, which all of the students understand from their school. The students all have some basic awareness of ISL, but the group transitioned to using ISL exclusively a few years back, in order to help the students learn the language, and as part of a cultural shift in which Indian schools for the deaf teach in the relatively new language. As such, they have a deaf language translator who works with Chaudhary to adapt scripts from their original language into basic elements which are then retranslated into elements of ISL. Every student in the group then learns this twice-translated “text”—everyone knows every line, and everyone rehearses most roles before specific casting is done.
Then, Chaudhari finalizes performances, giving highly detailed directions to the students. At the rehearsal I attended, I was struck by the vividness and energy of the work done by the students, who have a great deal of mime training, and who, as a result of their experience in everyday life, are well experienced in communicating relatively sophisticated concepts using only gesture.
The group has a number of members who work with computers or in desktop publishing, and the majority are students working toward a career in deaf education or working with computers. Many former students are married to other deaf, and some hearing people, and two former group members now run a small store together north of town, which makes their continued participation in the group impossible. The group has a number of students with long tenures, with most students leaving for work, educational, or family reasons in their 20s. Sitting in the buzzing atmosphere or a TAP rehearsal, which is akin to a rather silent version of a boisterous family’s Thanksgiving dinner, it is not hard to see why.