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.