ITF 2nd Theatre Seminar: One-on-One (Sadanand Menon and Manu Chakrabarti)
Duration: 00:34:04; Aspect Ratio: 1.778:1; Hue: 6.363; Saturation: 0.146; Lightness: 0.376; Volume: 0.232; Words per Minute: 131.821
The 2nd national seminar held by the India Theatre Forum
intended to address the overall theme of "Spaces of Theatre, Spaces for Theatre" in a wider and holistic manner. It was held between 14 to 18 March 2012 in Ninasam, an extremely special theatre space in Heggodu village of Karnataka which has served as a community centre for over 50 years. The seminar intended to cover a gamut of related topics ranging from the relationship of performing "bodies" to space, to the actual physical spaces of performance, to the politics of the spaces in society , to the new virtual spaces opening up and to the future of Spaces. In other words, the seminar built on the understanding that the act of theatre is always more than simply an act of theatre. To think of theatre and its processes is, ipso facto, to think of its temporal and spatial specificities. However, the main approach of the seminar was not to develop an academic theory of the spaces of/for theatre but to sketch the contours of a "spaciology" of theatre as perceived by its practitioners.
Ninasam, Heggodu, Karnataka
Manu: Sadanand, quite a bit of the presentations yesterday dealt with the use of the body in relation to units of time and space. Even the body of performers, whether it is theatre or dance, moving into traditional spaces and drawing some kind of a creative energy from those spaces, in fact quite a few presentations dealt with that.
Manu: But it did create a certain kind of a problem for someone who would take up a rational secular position, that those traditional spaces were barred, many communities were kept away from that. In face, quite a few discussions centred around that. Let us open this conversation by reflecting on the difficulties and the possibilities of using such spaces. In fact I am engaged with this question.
Manu: Today, if a performer, whether it is a person from dance or theatre, moves into those spaces and talks of drawing creative energy from those spaces - now the difficulty is for this performer using her or his body, there is no point in saying that this performer too endorses the oppressive schemes in which those sites or places were embedded or the ideological positions that emerged and that are embedded in those spaces. So shall we reflect a bit on the difficulties for a performer who draws creative energies from those spaces without really either conciously or endorsing any of those oppressive practices. This is a problem for the creative people who want to return to the past.
Manu: Are we then also trying to say that contemporary artists, very sensitive and politically conscious, aware of questions of justice and equality, cannot return to the spaces of the past, whatever those spaces are, only because they carry all the burden of history. So what are the possibilities for creative negotiations for a contemporary artist, even when the contemporary artist subscribes to very democratic, secular, rational notions? So how does the creative mind reconstruct, recontextualize and rehistoricize those sites? We can now begin by reflecting on all these.
Sadanand: It is a great beginning, Manu, and I think that without a doubt this has been the preoccupation of art practice in India; certainly since the 1930's, when the question about the past and present has always been addressed. So we will have to segment it into two or three sections- one of them is the phase when the high movement of Indian Nationalism found purchase in revisiting the past and reinventing it. And investing it with a new charge, obviously an anticolonial challenge that if you from the West claim that you have a great past then we have greater past, if you take it back 3000 years we can take it back 5000 years. And so on. There was a very interesting moment when a ceratin set of paradigms were constructed but we understand those paradigms because they were constructed in the heat of a National movement.
Sadanand: A nation in search of an identity, a nation in need of responding and replying back to a colonial oppresser. At that time the Mohenjodaro-Harappa excavations happened, and all sorts of interesting elements came up including a little statuette which was conveniently called the Mohenjodaro dancer because she was standing in a Tribhangi and that became the moment for reinventing a new dance called Bharatnatyam, which is actually a modern dance.
Sadanand: This worked interestingly and with a ceratin energy till independence. But post-independence you find a reversal happening where that little reinventive trick that was played was then valorised as the past. And today I found even Jaychandran make the extraordinary remark that dance began in the temples. This is something that has got ingrained in the mind of the Indian artiste or performer that dance began in the temple. For heavan's sake, dance began in a material culture, in fields and forests and work and habitat kind of a situations. So to locate it right in the beginning into a very culturally charged space, very ideologically charged space, is a problematic, which I have to find a way of getting out of. So its an amazing trap. So the moment you do it, and I have myself experienced this moment, when the Khajuraho festival was started way back in 1981, when it was announced from the podium that this was an attempt to take the dance back to the temple.
Sadanand: It is that kind of a spacious logic within which many of these things begin to operate and then concepts around it also begin to feed into it. This is not to deny the fact that the temple was a great source of conceptual wealth. The Agamas and Manasaras are full of amazing principles of life and building and habitat. This is of the very fact that you are constructing all these very old structures, based on the principles of the body, on the measurement of the body. Everything is basd on the human scale and its proportions. These are concepts that are valid even for today, but we need to revist them with a non-mystical attitude. It needs to be recaptured as something that is going to empower everybody today, and not just one set of people or one caste or one community, or one religion. That seems to me an issue that unfortunately perorming artistes have not engaged with for too long and they have severe limitations on that front.
Sadanand: So I find that this spacious logic been repeated everytime and at every forum and we don't seem to be getting out of it. So this was the reason why I felt uncomfortable with the kind of presentation yesterday, with a series of presentations because they were taking us back to an old paradigm which has its validity. I mean no one is denying the amazing charge of the Indian concepts of something like the debates around form and formlessness, which are very much a part of the artistes material on stage. How do you create the form, how do you dissolve the form, how do you come back to the form. This has been in a strange way, you see it in certain middle-class conversations, anything you talk about - Oh our ancients have thought about it past. Ya, ofcourse our ancients have thought about it in the past, but how do you bring it back in a live way in our present, becomes a serious question. And it is that seriousness that I am seeking and wanting the artistes to connect with.
Sadanand: It is not just an aesthetic or artistic task but I think it is a political task, a cultural politics. There was a moment in the 1930's when the cutural derival happened, it also led to a reaction, it led to the political resistence to that sort of a Nationalisation of culture, through for example the IPTA, The Progressive Writers Association, the Indian Peoples Theatre Association which actually knocked down those kinds of constructs. They went to the peoples farms, they went to the fields, they went to the forests, they talked to the tribal communities, they talked to all sorts of marginal forms that were happening and going around and it worked. A new dynamic emerged in cultural practice
Sadanand: Its a different history that it did not last. But then we find post-independence, other history of a very false concept of 'back to the roots' proposition happening and the distortions it led to. So there is a history to this and I am particularly disturded when I see these young, and I use this word in a hesitant way, as I don't want to make a distinction between young and old, but new entrants into cultural work not connecting to this history. An this is not old history, one is not saying go back 5000 years back, one is saying just go back 50 years. Just study that history, see how these things have moved in time and how these concepts have come in, have been engaged with, have been rejected, have been amplified, have been taken forward, have been transformed, and so on. I think we need to create that context and without that context, many of these things become esoteric-
Manu: False valorisation.
Sadanand: ...very false valorisation and I find it loses its own life and it becomes a parody of itself. And I don't think many of those old concepts can be parodied that easily, they are very strong concepts. You can't parody them. Its also particularly disturbing to me because I have worked with someone like Chandralekha, who believed in... who kept saying, lets pull the traditions out, lets hold it up to the light of the sun, let's see what it reflects now. And the need to find that reflective surface in traditions is very important. And to completely not let the... like Romy was saying in the morning, 'kattar' forces from taking it away and enabling the more progressive forces to work with it.
Manu: But Sadanand, I have noticed a strange phenomenon which I would call a paradox. Now you see, these are about traditional structures. But let me turn to, for instance, the Dalit world, since we are moving away from these so called sacred tradition spaces. There is something that we need to come to terms with. In an attempt to confront, to come face to face with these false valorisations, especially in Dalit writing, and ofcourse you can notice it in other Dalit forms, or in other folk forms. There is an attempt as part of cultural politics to counter these false valorisations through a juxtaposition; the juxtaposition coming from Dalit cosmologies, mythologies. Not that is different kind of cultural politics. But activists from within the Dalit world begin to see this as revivalistic, reactionary. So on one hand, very important writers, and it has happened for quite some time, going back to Ramayana, the Mahabharata, especially the Vali episode or the shudra-tapasvi episode. But in today's context there are many Dalit writers who go back to Dalit cosmologies, Dalit mythologies, the Dalit religious imaginations. And then that is attcked as being revivalist, as being very reactionary, that these writers are taking the Dalit imagination back to a very oppressive past.
Manu: So there is a very interesting tension here. But these writers who believe that such false valorisations can be contested only through a juxtaposition with other kinds of mythologies that challenge these. But they get stuck when they are charged with revivalism. So the aesthetic political component even among the oppressed, marginalised section runs into trouble. Even when the writers see it as a great political challenge, of cultural politics, it runs into trouble. So what do we do with the politics of this aesthetics?
Sadanand: Actually its not at all easy, particularly in the context of India where we have so many religions, so many regions and so many languages and so many mythologies, which are all fascinating and great narratives. Its not very easy for someone who wants to work with the narrative. If there is a counter to it, it is a counter-narrative. Or to move away from the narrative, to a different world of abstraction which may even be mistaken as post-modernist, but the fact is we do have the traditions for abstraction as much and as deep in our history as the traditions of the narrative.
Sadanand: However one strategy probabaly could be like what Prof. Ganesh Devy has started in Gujarat with the tribals, reviving their own naratives and their own interpretations of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. I have read this fascinating volume 'Bhilon ka Bharat', Mahabharata stories related by the Bhil community. Just in that one (?) religion, there are 12 different Bhil narratves of the Mahabharata. Each small sub-group has their own Mahabharata story. And they are amazing narratives of the Naga king Vasuki running away with Draupadi and tying Arjuna to a cot and and beating him up and winning the Mahabharata war ultimately, etc.
Manu: And even Karna is powerless in that narrative.
Sadanand: Yes, exactly. So while on one hand it is dangerous to pit mythology against mythology. Meaning, I think the mythological structure is in itself a mythological structure and one needs to able to move away from it. Because the power of it we see even in our Amar Chitra Katha comic or a television serialisation of the Mahabharat. It is very powerful no matter how kitchily done, how vulgarly done, how unaesthetically done, it comes to haunt you. And its not easy to move away from the grip of that. So maybe one has to make a deliberate attempt to distance oneself from the narrative telling process of the form, which means study, which means research, which means a new... a different kind of energy in working with these forms.
Sadanand: But a simpler way could be countering the mythology with the mythology, meaning if you say that is your Mahabharata then we have this other Mahabharata. However these are small subaltern voices, they will not get mainstream space. So it might be valid or worthwhile for artistes working in mainstream spaces to try using these scripts and narratives. But I don't see that happening. We hear this constant lament that Indian theatre is in crisis because we don't have enough playwrights and enough scriptwriters and so on and where are the new texts coming. The point is that new texts can be found in some of these old texts. They have the value of resistence, they have the value of subversion, they have the value of some sort of internal cultural mockery and one needs to able to tap into that.
Sadanand: But I don't think it will... the resistence within the Dalit movement as well as for that matter, in the feminist movement to work with forms like Durga or Kali is the same thing - that there is a certain critique of it, there is resistence to it. Even though I think there is a tremendous potential power in it. If one is able to work witth it, evoking that power and being able to release that power, then you are already halfway to creating a new narrative.
Manu: Sadanand, let's also turn to another area which has captured the imagination of even those who take up ideological positions, but do not endorse singular ideological positions. For instance let's even look at the socialist imaginations, so to say. Socialist bordering on the Marxist. The problem is, and I would like you to dwell on this a bit, the socialist imagination when it gets trapped, because you were also making a reference to Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities... But when it gets trapped in the context of a Nation, nation state where the issues of nationality, nationalism come out. Now if you have the tyranny, the oppression of traditional spaces, now in the modern context, perhaps the more opprssive is the modern state, the tyranny. In fact in the last two months, I have watched many films from the East Europe, from China, where in the name of revolution of the progressive, of being socialist, the tyranny unleashed on artistes, for eg, I can't name the film (I forget it) but there is the story of this young ballet dancer from China. Now moving back to traditional patterns - ballet - But he is called counter revolutionary, antisocial amd he is deported. He migrates to America. But that is a different story.
Manu: And ofcourse we know what happened in East Europe. So now what are the possibilities, I would like you to reflect on the possibilities of using body, space, time of the creative process itself. When we begin to see the politics of the aesthetic, the ideology of aesthetics in the context of a nation state which is perhaps more oppressive with all its institutional missionaries. So how would you reflect on the nature of aesthetics, even if one should adopt the very rational, modern, ideological positions. This is a problem that many artistes are trying to come to terms with. What would your reflections be? How would the artiste negotiate with this?
Sadanad: Again this is not an easy question. There can't be a prescriptive kind of discussion around this as each artistic search is different.
Manu: I ask you this question because you have done a lot of work with contempory artistes, and have written quite extensively. So where does the artiste position himself or herself? The context of a very brutalising, oppressive nation state. The problem of nationalism, national identity.
Sadanand: No I completely understand what you are saying and one also sees the artiste faced with this predicament and I mean this in the general sense across disciplines. It is not just the nation state that seems to have overridden everything, but its also a kind of... ideology of the spactacle that comes with the larger nation states, where you convert everything into a spectacle, including politics.
Sadanand: And the idea of process goes out. In the face to face with spectacle which can be multiplied twenty-four times a second by the electronic media, the artiste faces this tremendous crisis of context in location. Whom am I speaking to? What am I speaking to? Is what I am saying and doing and working with, going to have any impact on an audience that is already bombarded with super-spectacles, super-visual frameworks and artistic meaning seems to get reduced to some very small marginalised places. And increasingly getting aesthetisized and unable to tackle this large spectacular bombardment that is happening. In that sense we are in a historic time today where probably the artiste is on the retreat. And we need to be able to problematise this with some more rigour but one can sense that even though artistic production has increased, there is more art in the market in circulation; I think artistic content itself is on the retreat. And to me this is a very specific contemporary predicament.
Sadanand: In this, obviously there cannot be any easy solutions, except to generally say that, I mean someone like Hal Foster, the great artist historian recently said, that the most artistic thing that is being produced in the world today is the shopping mall. And the most aesthetic thing you can do is to go and shop. So we have come to that kind of a position. So within this... if you see, the artistes are contributing to it. The architects build the mall, the artistes and designers contribute to the products that come out of there.
Sadanand: Just three days ago, a very big art summit began in Chennai, called Art Chennai and five of India's most interesting young artistes who are also 'radical' installation artistes, are exhibiting in India's biggest shopping mall there, Express Avenue. So one wonders what this is co-option - is it co-option? Are you supporting that space, or are you being absorbed by that space, or what is happening? We don't know. So that predicament will stay for sometime, until... One can't even speak of the artiste community anymore. I think this moment of 150 odd practitioners, from various disciplines, assembling under one roof, at Ninasam, is such a rare, odd moment. This use to happen so often in the 1960's and 1970's. But now its become a rare moment. And I think one can't have an artificial solution to this, without simultaneous political engagement with the predicament.
Sadanand: We know that its also a moment of retreat for the left movement. It has now somewhere been pushed to the margins and not only India but globally there is a retreat of the left. The trade unions are under retreat. Now this moment of retreat could become a moment of rethinking, could become a moment of reinvigorating, if we know where to get that energy from.
Manu: And also reinventing.
Sadanand: Reinventing, certainly. Without a doubt we need new energy. We need a new inspiration with which to surge ahead. For that I am convinced that the solutions would lie somewhere in the past. You don't need to look to the future. I think there have been enough moments which we can learn from. But learn from in a creative and challenging way. Not a reactionary way, not the nostalgia way, but in a more dynamic, recirculating sort of way. So I think the artiste will have to, obviously engage with the market, yes, but also with these new processes that are required for making the artistic productions relevent. Otherwise there is a very real danger of either getting co-opted or being marginalised.
Manu: Sadanand, we watched quite a few video clippings. Whatever label, term one would use to describe them, post-modernistic, or whatever, that doesn't bother me. But you see many of those presentations and visual narratives, tend to become metaphorical, so to say. That they seem to capture the spirit of the narrative in a metaphorical manner. Now there is a problem of this metaphor, even the modern metaphors, that they suspend reality and they freeze reality in space and time. Which means that it could become politically neutral, ahistorical and also escape the burdens of contemporary history. There is a problem with metaphorical representation.
Manu: Now if we can freeze traditional frames, if we can make them freeze, create them as frozen spaces, not moving to history, contemporary works can also be frozen in the present moment. How would you react to this that they have moved into contemporary spaces, that they are coming up with contemporary expressions. But if I should say that the metaphorical expression is a frozen one, that you're comtemporary, fine, that your body is contemporary, you are using contemporary space and time, but you are still frozen. And to that extent, in the modern world, you are still outside history. Now if I read it, because that has been my reading of many visual narratives. What is your take on this?
Sadanand: I think you have said it very well, so I would like you to elaborate this a little more. What do you think the frozenness of it is?
Manu: Okay. I will draw an example. Literature, as a student of literature, the creation of Africa for instance,... you can go to Hegel you will see it, you'll see it in Marx writing on Africa - that you make a metaphor of real time and space. Now that is the Eurocentric representation. But here when I look at a contemporary artiste dealing with the contemporary world of using forms, of using structures, of using styles that are contemporary in their own sense as they would describe it. But then you begin to see that they do not really represent the burdens, the conflicts, the pressures of contemporary times. To that extent that the contemporaneity of it is still outside the framework of modern history, of the conflicts of the tensions. So if one can charge traditional spaces with being rather neutral, the neutral space towards conflicts, so can contemporary art also distance itself from contemporary tensions, moden tensions. I am not writing a thesis on that, but I'm only trying to say that there is a problem with the aesthetics of what some might want to call post-modern. You were talking of being incorporated, of being appropriated. These could also be appropriated, could also be appropriated expressions of a consumerist advanced capitslistic society. If that is the argument, how would you react or respond to such a position?
Sadanand: I completely endorse or agree with what you're saying. The fact that at any moment you could be in a trap is very real in our times. The fact that the publishing house like Penguins, came up and became a super publishing house, the way it has become post World War 2, just based on publishing Marxist literature. They capitalised on that Marxist literature, they brought it back into circulation, and became a super corporate house and later abandoned the Marx project completely. So today you won't get those volumes any more, and so on, there's many examples like that. You see some of our most radical singers and poets of the 60's and 70's, from Bob Dylan downwards, everybody became multimillionaires overnight. Even if they reject their own wealth and their own position, the fact they have got integrated into... not just vertically but also horizontally into a market system, becomes a problematic of a particualr kind.
Sadanand: So the artiste is constantly faced with this day to day predicament - Which line do I cross, which line is the line that provokes and can create a disturbance which can lead either to an attack on me or to an attempt to co-opt me. Both are happening. Its a two-side strategy that the contempory state is employing - one is direct attack and many artistes today who have tried to speak out a little bit have been -
Sadanand: - given a taste of that and have been gagged and so on. And that becomes a form in itself and then even if you are not particularly dangerous you can be gagged. And the gagging itself becomes a strategy that they employ. The other being simply absorb the person. So what kind of art continues to remain challenging, provoking etc becomes a good question mark. It provokes someone like Umberto Eco to articulate that famous line that 'we need today to have a continuous guerilla war at the borders of meanings', because meanings are getting co-opted so fast, I say 'revolution' and hey presto, 'revolution' is being used in some advertisement. I say 'subversion' and hey presto 'subversion' has gone into some comic strip.
Sadanand: So it is a very interesting process through which this neutralisation is happening. And much more than anybody else the artiste needs to have that, we have a lovely word in South Indian languages - 'TEMBAL' - the inner strength, you need to have that inner strength to be able to go on, resist this, be yourself and not... to also be aware of when you are getting either attacked or co-opted and how much more you need to go on and resist.
Sadanand: Probably this is something which this discussion around spaces needs to evoke that what is the kind of space that can eventually make the artiste feel free. And that has nothing to do with rules and regulations and restrictions of don't put on the light, don't open the window. One is not talking about all that, but the space where your mind can be free. And you work with that freedom, you work with a certain sense of abandonment, where you are not afraid of being restricted by social demands. And that kind of artistic space. It is not enough to build that beautiful space. It is also necessary to create that culture of freedom, because in a culture of subservience it is very clear that we cannot be producing artistic work.