Re-viewing Activism and Art via SPACE Theater Ensemble (STE)

 

(Published in Indie Art Zine, August, 2016)

Looking into the possibilities of art-activism symbiosis

STE is a branch of SPACE—The Society for Promoting the Arts, Culture and Education, based in Goa. It functions as a travelling theater troupe offering workshops and performances, featuring a varying number of young energetic artists. Content-wise, their areas of interest also fit into the category of cultural activism. One finds that intriguing, because activism and art do not always go well hand in hand. Although both involves, in their own ways, means to reach out to people—the more the merrier. At various levels they need each other too.

A direct information-feed provided by an external agent—in particular an activist propaganda— may sound like a dictation or a sermon if it lacks a physical, emotional and intellectual involvement of the audience. Because it becomes either decontextualized and uninteresting due to lack of exposure of the audience to the corresponding history (hence their lack of identification with the underlying issue), or a drag due to lack of articulation skill on the agent’s part. Whereas an indirect representation of the same information through art may appear more approachable, and thus may be able to propagate that same information to the same audience through an abstract ‘masking’ of the feed. Thus the audience who were at the receiving end of the information turn into an active interpreter of the information and hence an insider—an ‘activist collaborator’. The skill of a good political orator, for example, or even of a teacher is comparable to that of a performance artist.

Artistic representations sometimes may also be able to provide a succinct, self-sufficient background of the context (e.g. through skits or songs or infographics), which then may be perceived by the audience as an abbreviated version of the larger scenario and generate interest in the latter.

On the other hand, art is essentially a faction of semantics—creating meaningful signs that the artist uses to express observations and opinions. Moreover, art too often aspires to talk about socio-political-economic issues in some form or the other through its various tools (forms and techniques) of ‘masking’, and needs to be seen—in order to become worthy of exploration—not merely as whims of individual agents, but a channel of development of communication among growing number of people. In this perspective, art may and does become a parallel documentation of not only culture but history and sociology, economic and political theories.

This is why it is important to understand for every artist where her art comes from. Not just the brain and the soul, but in terms of sources of inspiration, intent, target audience and last but not the least funding. It is equally important for every active member of the audience to demand to probe into the process as much as the product which is being presented to her through art, in particular performances. And this is also why it is vital for the artist to differentiate whether to perceive her creation as a commodity or an expression. Because, even when it comes to commodity products, the audience (or the buyer) is some sort of an insider within the producer-seller-consumer chain. But that is not the same as the ideal of comradery among the activist collaborators.

Speaking about sources of inspiration—it is indeed a performance by STE that inspired me to write this essay. It was not so-to-say a perfect show, nor was it an embodiment of absolutely everything that I would hover on here. But it gave me a very strong starting point to start this discussion. As I try to express in the title, it is not just about reviewing that one particular performance by STE. It is more about some of the above-mentioned aspects in the case of performing arts and activism, in terms of my own understanding revisited through that performance. Nonetheless, I am grateful to the STE performance for representing images and processes of this kind of activist collaboration that has haunted me for a long time.

Par Larsson

STE (Photo: Par Larsson)

Activist collaboration in art via STE

STE practices various collaborations. There is of course the collaboration of theater, poetry, music and protests—in particular regarding environmental issues specially in Goa, but also other issues, elsewhere. They work with poets and jazz artists. But they also work extensively with children and young adults, introducing them to not only their own performance forms but also painting, sculpting, planting trees, trekking and most importantly to certain views that they align themselves with. When it comes to performances, they collaborate with people in different ways. They do not demand any particular artistic background from those who want to perform along, thus there is already a collaboration of different sets of skills and minds. They are also keen on engaging with the audience which is yet another form of collaboration. Their manner is easy, their stances are clear and they are generously chatty!

Be it two humans or two collectives, two ideas or two forms, one of the tricky matters in any kind of collaboration is the risk of appropriation of one by the other. How can one perceive this when it comes to art and activism? For that matter what precisely could be considered activism in art? A straightforward answer would be a plot pointing towards the necessity of questioning and if possible changing certain norms. This—even in the most classical terms of poetics and dramaturgy—is done through an imitation of actions that would encourage the audience to recognize patterns of the corresponding problem, or what the performer/presenter would like to pose as a problem, or in other words plant as a problem in the audience’s mind.

More precisely, one could look at activist art as raising questions in the audience’s mind about a relevant contemporary issue. This requires the skill of being able to ask the right question to oneself, and to have a close understanding of the underlying issue. Thus, not losing touch with the ground while demonstrating or questioning certain realities have to be part of activist art practice as well. At the same time, respecting the origin of the borrowed content as well as respecting the intelligence of the audience is important in order to create an open space for a three-way conversation (the artist, the subject and the audience).

Besides, an activist artist, who is honest about her art and her activism, has to be continuously alert about being true to both, which adds an extra layer of difficulty, which is physical, emotional and cerebral at the same time.

For example, an excess of explicit activist concern may tend to distract the audience as well as the artist from paying attention to the technical qualities of the performance—techniques that actually make the performance reach out to the crowd. Sometimes the preoccupation with idealism may even become a hindrance to a critical appreciation of the content, as every propaganda is prone to be.

On the flip side, if too much of the conscious thought and emotion of the ‘creator-performer’ are obsessively invested in channeling her own body and mind into and only into ‘technically correct’ ways, it may tend solipsistic—advertising one’s personal cause instead of showing a potential to deal with a larger cause. It becomes too safe a game then—being in the well-charted waters within oneself and even many highly talented performers tend to fall into this trap. In a way, it is understandable; it is already such a taxing thing to be up in front of a pack of unfamiliar eyes and share yourself! The amount of conviction one needs to let that happen successfully, comes from the faith and interest of the artist in what she wants to present. And what usually interests us more than ourselves? Thus performances always run the risk of becoming self-obsessed.

But it is the moments when the personal and the ideal as well as the physical technique and the thoughts join hands, when the performer’s self somehow manages to truly identify with a larger cause, a magic happens. It drags the audience in, subtly carving an ideal in their mind without actually preaching it.

It is a pleasantly surprising moment every time something close to a synthesis of activism and performance takes place in a show. It was one such moment when I, after watching the STE performance for about twenty minutes, realized that I had stopped feeling mildly irritated with the often conscientious verses thrown by the performers down at the audience. I had not kept track at which precise instance my mind stopped criticizing the technical aspects of the show and started dancing along the hissing, snake-like movements created by the artists on stage in plain, loose, black attires, unruly hair and two pairs of dramatically expressive, passionate, bright eyes.

Mukta Joshi

Photo: Mukta Joshi

A short history of STE

The artists mentioned just above—Andrea Pereira and Katheeja Talha—joined the ensemble at different points of its journey. Andrea—a student of History and Literature and a trained photographer from Goa—was pulled into the group in 2009 and Katheeja—an Architecture student from Chennai—joined three years later. Now they perform together almost as a single entity, continuously complementing each other as smoothly as two hands of a person. The group has a continuously varying number of members and that in fact is its inherent nature—the strength currently being at one of its lowest—consisting of Andrea, Katheeja and one of the founder members of STE—Hartman de Souza. Hartman is an artist based in Goa, involved with theater since the sixties. He founded STE along with his old friend Lisa Dias-Noronha and other associates in 2008, when he was first invited by what would later become the core group of STE, to work as the artistic director for the company. Currently the administrative team of the group contains Ashwin Tombat, Prajal Sakhardande, Lisa, Hartman and Andrea.

The vision of the founding core group was, on one hand, breathing in theater with a focus on environment and nature—concerning mining, water scarcity and pollution—issues deeply affecting Goa for decades now. The process involved not just incorporating these matters into the content of the art-work, but also taking theater out of the proscenium into the open air—into nature itself. On the other hand, it was about creating a viable self-sustaining survival system for the artists based on financial equality within the group. In return, the group demanded an equal contribution from its members. The effect of this process is visible in the quality of the performance even today. It is more like watching a group of friends trying out things simply engaging into a chat or a game, rather than a team of colleagues efficiently working on a prim and pro project. The performers are conversational with the audience and each other—far from a formal professional decorum. Could it be due to the absence of the feudal hierarchy rather common to professional troupes of artists?

However, as a result of this informal approach, at moments their performance looks almost amateurish and way too literal. But what comes across, through this informal literalism, is a welcoming view into their process, their concerns—if one may use the word—their beliefs.

There is one more thing that becomes visible through their casual pattering—a mutual affectionate irreverence of the group-members towards one another—a patch of their world where they live, share, have fun and do what they feel passionate about on terms of equality—be it jazz, poetry, resistance or freedom—the words that form the subtext of the title of their ensemble.

Strolling further into poetry and narratives: gods and demons, anger and grief…

My own presence in the STE performance at the main auditorium of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai on May 4th, 2016 was a chance visit—one of those half-heartedly-strolling-into-the-space kind.

It was a choral and physical performance by Andrea and Katheeja, sometimes accompanied by Hartman, of ten to fifteen poems written by various poets including some of the artists themselves. They had mesmerizing voices—all three of them—and an intriguing way of reciting, which was at moments casual and endearing, but grave and deep at the next, and yes, technically sound and well-practiced in the most traditional sense. The movements initially looked repetitive and even boring at time, the expressions exaggerated. But gradually the performers started to deviate from positioning the two bodies at the center of the stage and started experimenting more with the space—in an aggressive but comic manner. One such hilarious moment was when at the beginning of Ross Coggins’s poem ‘The Development Set’, Hartman took over and started giving a potentially long academic discourse about the malfunctioning NGOs and the two girls cut him across—starting to recite the poem while jumping around in the exaggerated manner of the ‘sympathetically inclined’ society-women and men, giggling shrilly:

Excuse me, friends, I must catch my jet –
I’m off to join the Development Set;
My bags are packed, and I’ve had all my shots,
I have travellers’ cheques and pills for the trots.

The Development Set is bright and noble,
Our thoughts are deep and our vision global;
Although we move with the better classes,
Our thoughts are always with the masses.

In Sheraton hotels in scattered nations,
We damn multinational corporations;
Injustice seems so easy to protest,
In such seething hotbeds of social rest…

It was a bit stereotypical, yes, but it worked well thanks to the infallible energy of Andrea and Katheeja—the energy that complemented the dawdling, dry cynicism (or the performance of it) from Hartman. The same could be said about their performance of Uma Narayan’s poem ‘They Said’. The text lacked complexity, depicting how a woman was criticized since childhood within her domestic periphery for simply wanting to read. It was a binary text—glorifying reading as an alternate to domesticity. But Andrea and Katheeja made it interesting by performing it with rounded eyes and colloquial hand gestures—the way juicy family-gossips spread from vein to vein within families. They pulled it off simply by their narrating abilities—roaming around the stage like rural road-side story-tellers from one or two centuries back. In their presentation of that particular poem, ‘reading’ became a symbol of doing anything out of the way of patriarchal norms.

The poem in which the static central positioning of the bodies and the exaggerated facial and physical expressions certainly worked was ‘Paikdev Curses’—one of Hartman’s own. He wrote it at the end of his book that got published recently—‘Eat Dust: Mining and greed in Goa’. While reciting this poem, the two performers as if turned into an old tree—the limbs and the skin of the ancient stem bawling, cursing at the human race that took away the forest, the water, the life:

Know that I was born before your mothers spread their legs and seeded squealing children in the grime of birthing, washed in my waters to bring their young tender skins gleaming to life…

Know that without me all of you will only be as strong as the thickest of the branches that trembled before the whirring, gleaming axe-heads of your machines that cut through them like a hot knife through butter…”

Know that when you hack the trees and bury the bodies under a hill of mining waste that you think no one will ever find; when you level the hills and bring monsters to dig a road deep into my heart, ripping out the mud to haul it away, sucking my waters like a leech greedily drawing blood, pumping out my sweetness mixed with dead mud to dry in the sun clogged with the dirt of life about to die; or driven away, friendless, out to the sea, never to return…

javed iqbal

Photo: Javed Iqbal

While reading about STE, I came across some of Hartman’s older articles on mining. In one of those—published in Hard News under the title ‘Earth Day: Chronicles of a Death Foretold’—Hartman wrote about an Adivasi village woman in South Goa, who was part of a road blockade in an effort to stop illegal mining traffic. In fact, such strong, prophetic women come frequently as agents of protest and satire in Hartman’s writing. His poem on Paikdev reminded me of her:

She calmly masticated her tobacco and betel nut furrowing a brow and creating a juice; then leant forward on her haunches, spitting the residue in a sharp splatter, each gob hitting the red mud at the side of the road like a bullet, making it explode with dust.

She wiped her mouth with her pallu but not the sneer. “People who get their water from a tap will only know what we are going through when one day they open their taps and all that comes out is red mud.””

Isn’t it as if the helpless vengeful god himself spoke through her?

There is always the possibility that however strong one’s feelings are regarding a certain socio-political issue, her role is—at best—of yet another screw in that same ‘Development Set’. Thus I do not think, and I doubt even STE thinks so, that their performance offers a solution or an alternate or even a coherent source of information regarding the issues that it deals with. And they deal with a lot—not just environment but also caste, education, gender and so on. Besides as I said earlier, their choice and interpretation of texts are sometimes so literal that time-to-time the performance becomes repetitive and starts to rely heavily and solely on the quality of the text.

But still, they speak out not with victimized sentimentality but with unabashed anger, which is rare among the intellectually and physically suave, politically over-correct urban contemporary performers. They take stance on the stage in their own terms, which are at the same time personal and political. They do not leave it to the inclination, sensitiveness or imagination of the audience regarding where their faith lies. The text of each poem, which could have been personal in nature while confined in a book engaging in a one-to-one correspondence with the reader, turns into slogans through their performance. This way the text complements the collective actions that happened and might happen in future around the content of the text. The inert ‘poetic function’ of the text turns into ‘referential’ codes. They evoke in the audience first emotional responses, then inclination to decode and finally memories, references, implementations. At the end of the performance, it ceases to matter who the performers are as individuals, only the boldly but craftily asked questions remain as afterthoughts. Their choice of form works as John Berger said it would:

Every authentic poem contributes to the labor of poetry… to bring together what life has separated or violence has torn apart… Poetry can repair no loss, but it defies the space which separates. And it does this by its continual labor of reassembling what has been scattered.

The fact that they use story-telling as one of their principal forms is coherent with their performance that represents the voices of Adivasis, women, Dalits and other discriminated communities of people, who are denied the rights to include their versions of mythologies and histories into the mainstream documentation and are thus forced to rely on the oral sagas within the community. The sincere borrowing of the verses and the presentation of those verses with genuine love by STE allow the audience to have a relaxed space to reverberate with them, to figure things out, instead of preaching/performing predetermined inflexible interpretations reeking of generic emotionalism.

On a personal note, I feel that they have plunged into something which is today more important than ‘subtle’ discourses on technique and content of art. Not only they are deeply involved in sharing their art with children, which in my opinion is already working at the grassroots level, but more importantly they spread narratives, informing people and making them think about issues they were not really aware of earlier, even if their understandings and paths may vary widely from what STE declares as theirs. STE does this through blending poetry and classical story-telling methods with contemporary context. As part of their content, they talk about forgotten myths using strong emotional references churned from their own lives. Thus, with their zealous collaboration of performance and activism, they make a celebration out of resistance and protest, which I find irresistibly beautiful and at the same time useful to the real political activism behind these issues.

javed-iqbal3

Photo: Javed Iqbal

Information on the STE process

  • A frank invitation

Once the show was over, I was influenced enough to hope to have a small chat with the troupe; at the same time inspired enough to actually think of working with them for a few months! They, of course, seemed open to both. That is how casually STE works—welcoming everyone and anyone (“18 to 35 or older”, according to the leaflets) remotely interested in art, performance or activism—especially the young generation. In fact, one of their workshops for 12-16 years old was called ‘Catch Them Young’, and they proudly announced:

The Space Theater Ensemble invites young actors to join them at a residency […]. They are particularly interested in young students who have finished their class 12 and want to take a gap year. Students who may have failed their exams at school or college level are also welcome. They will be taught the basics of theater and performance. They will be encouraged to share the pleasures and drudgery of living in a nomadic commune. The ensemble will ensure that the students devote time to study every day as well.

It sounds funny and sensational but also endearing and exciting in a caustic way. And what I love about it the most is, what it offers has got no boasting regarding social activism. Rather, it simply offers an artistic ideal of living a life beyond the reach of the hierarchy, pressure and obligation of making a useful product out of every person. And how is that life?

Modest lodging and excellent food”—they mention in their leaflet. In bit more detail, this is what sounds like a summary: waking up early, having a hearty breakfast (often cooked by Hartman, who takes pride in being a great chef without a shred of humbleness), working in the gardens or the fields—ploughing, digging, planting, which are considered to be part of rehearsing (body training). The work also includes learning improvisation techniques, to react to other bodies in proximity, to let yourself go as well as voice training, reading, writing, painting, sculpting, discussing and planning for workshops and performances till the day rolls over to a hearty dinner and a deep slumber.

Interestingly, this is the first time I saw ‘food’ being mentioned in an invitation to a creative process!

  • Why this form of physical and choral recitation?

In their own words:

“We take the poem but treat it as both a musical score that will help us reinvent the idea of a chorus with our own take on the use of harmonies and dissonance, and as a text that suggests an abstraction of bodily movement that compels us to develop a powerful grammar for this.

We tend to be conscious of our breathing cycles because we have to move as smoothly as dancers, speak as well as accomplished actors and be able to chant, keep time, and harmonize – while yet doing this as an ensemble.

In essence we are like a moving chorus – although, more aptly, like a tight, but wild quintet made up of double bass, piano, tenor sax, alto sax and trumpet […] with the larger intention of focusing on choreography and the discipline needed to be a smoothly functioning group rather than just a group of talented individuals.”

This makes sense, given the emphasis on economic equality within the group and the basic infrastructure of democracy that they claim they maintain in their work. This makes even more sense when it comes to the matter of sustainability of the ensemble. A bunch of ‘talented individuals’ without a strong sense of togetherness is at the end useless in the process of development of a collective.

  • Their performance pieces

The first ‘poetry-performance’ they performed as an ensemble was called ‘For Mother Earth’ (2008), based on eight villanelles written by Uma Narayan—US based philosopher/teacher. Next came ‘Creatures of the Earth’ (2009), based on mining and its effect on a spring—a topic that had haunted Hartman since 2006. The latter developed into a live performance with score set by Jazz musician Steve Siqueira. The performance that I saw was called ‘Voice from the Belly’, which in my understanding not only addresses the innards of the earth that speaks out against the brutal human invasion but also refers to the deep-throated recitation techniques. Other than these they have also created satires, short plays and have conducted many workshops and performances in schools, colleges and institutes in Goa, Bangalore, Pune, Mussoorie, Dehradun, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Thiruvannamalai, Delhi, Saharanpur, Odisha, Chattisgarh, Jahrkhand and Surat.

Re-viewing abstraction in the STE process through an evening’s chat

Speaking of their process, one finds it intriguing that STE does not explore forms of abstraction—at least not directly, whereas in the field of urban alternate art, it is a popular tendency to be delving into researches on abstraction and mystification. In fact, they almost on principle abhors stylized abstraction of content, though they indeed use it in certain forms that I would like to point out here. But that comes after a friend and I meet them at the Elliot’s Beach in Chennai, couple of days after the performance day.

For me, working with them was a far-off plan, but a chat was not. Therefore, soon Sushmita—my friend and a fellow audience—and I were sitting at the city-side hem of the beach with Hartman and Katheeja. The pre-prepared questionnaire drowned in the couple of hours’ convoluted chat that went all over the place from food to pollution to gender to smoke to art to what not. It moved at its halting own pace and deliciously so.

What was theater to them?

John Machan

Photo: John Machan

Theater meant three things—the body, the voice and the space. As for dealing with the theatricality, it certainly worked better when there were more performers—five, usually. The choreography also changed then. It was still static but the energy rose. Besides, they rarely performed on stage, since the whole point was to bring theater out in the open. They did perform in rooms though, where the audience sat much closer to the performers. When the number of performers increased the performance also became multilingual—English, Tamil, Hindi—picking up nuances of each of those languages because the expressions and the metaphors changed with the usage of the same content in different tongues—creating different images for the same text. However, their principal performance-language is still English, which is in a way a barrier created by the politics and commercialization of language itself and their own urban training and existence. I would be eager to see another performance by STE, possibly with more artists on stage together, where this particular barrier would be dealt with.

Moreover, when the audience was close by, the level of interaction changed. It somehow became less static. Suddenly there was a lot more eye contact. They expected their shows to be like a movie in the sense that the memory of a movie audience consisted of flashes of memorable images. For STE, it was very important to create images—hence the exaggerated expressions, the obvious sensationalism—in order to engrave certain questions/statements in the audience’s mind as well as memory.

Another tool that pulled the audience in was conversation. At some shows, the post-performance conversation became a part of the show and those were the more successful shows in their minds. It always happened unexpectedly—one never knew which space would work out and which would not. Katheeja reminisced about the Dyal Singh College in Delhi—in a sense a notorious institution—informally known as the ‘gunda college’. Although the artists were initially slightly apprehensive about performing there, at the end of the show the students became so deeply engrossed in the discussion that it rolled over to the canteen and continued for hours. For them, it is like an improvisation technique working out successfully on particular days. They have had adverse experiences too. Not violent ones, fortunately no. But there were days when the audience just offered a blank stare, or the lack of communication hung in the air like a heavy stone, sometimes the audience had an aura of too much rationalization, too much cleverness, were too guarded, draining the performers out.

We asked them if it felt so in the institute-auditorium as well, where we saw them performing couple of days back. They laughed—no, it wasn’t that bad. But the stage, “you know…it’s too far away from the people”. They felt that the distance was a hindrance to a successful blend of art and activism, or rather, art and the people.

After all, let us remember that it is all about reaching out to the people. That is why they chose ‘poetry’ instead of regular plays. Poems caught people off-guard, Katheeja said, it cut through their defenses somehow—it was more than what dialogue could do, because within the setup of regular dialogues, the performers were still speaking the same language as the audience. But poems—they did something unexpected. They intrigued the audience by being something new; they gave the audience a feeling that it wasn’t just a bunch of sentences plucked out of the social media trying to update them about how bad things are happening all over the world.

Javed Iqbal2

Photo: Javed Iqbal

What it really did was to add a formal layer of abstraction to the content. But this was not to create a puzzle by layering itself on top of the content, but rather by supporting it from the bottom. Thus the audience was not being bullied by indecipherable cerebral puzzles built by a bunch of performing intellectuals. Instead, they were taking part in a live interaction—a continuous decoding of messages, meant to be understood through words and conscious emotions.

At some point above I had used the word ‘subtle’ to denote objectivity and mystification of content in art—a practice that urban contemporary artists often engage into. But the intertwining of the two apparently contradictory element—literary verses and the underlying raw protest—is in my understanding no less ‘subtle’ because it holds the potential of attacking the audience’s emotions in exceptional ways. It almost keeps them suspended between two magnets—finding meanings, contemplating about rights and wrongs, roles and stances.

Two of the important uses of abstraction are in generalization and compression of information in a way so that the sap of the information is not lost. In classical dramaturgical terms, performers play with ‘recognition’ and ‘reversal of situation’ while presenting a tragedy, and that is already working with levels of generalization and compression of emotional signals that would reach out to the audience who are coming with their own personal references containing multiple versions of the same emotions. Contemporary art does, as it must, debate over comparative discourses of such levels and their corresponding techniques. But slogan-like performances like STE’s tend to cut abstraction to the most basic minimal and call out for physical and not just intellectual actions. They continuously tell stories through and in between the poems and expect the audience to pick up and nurture the messages lying visibly and amply all over. The moments of ‘recognition’ in their presentation are first and foremost of urgently perilous facts regarding the human society, as against individualistic human follies as in classical tragedies. But at the same time, they also refer to the latter in a twisted way as we, the audience of their shows, are either blissfully unaware of or more frequently in spite of being aware of never identify with, unless they really strike home. So the information that STE brings to us in poetic shells also provides food for thought about how they affect our own secured lives through ripple effects—as if their performances are an embodiment of the prophetic curses of those tribal gods and women.

What I mean to say here is, if finding means of abstraction is a trait of contemporary art, then collectives like STE deal with it in their own fashion. After all, violence and violation are abstract subtle concepts which are harder to perceive and even harder to resist than one thinks.

Joining links: welcoming emotionality

Coming back to our beach-side rendezvous, one of the online media reviews had labeled STE’s work as ‘drama with a conscience’. When I mentioned it to them, they smiled shyly. No, media reports did not really matter that much, they said, but well, maybe they are conscientious, who knows! It was ‘joining links’ that was important, not pushing an agenda, articulated Katheeja.

We asked her about an experience during her work with STE that really moved her and became a life-changing experience. She thought about it for a while and finally told us about a workshop they conducted in Salem, in a nursing school. They were performing Ujwala Samarth’s ‘Woman River’, based on the trauma of communal violence faced by women during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. One of the students in the audience started crying during the performance. She told the story of a female infanticide that she knew of. First, she spoke of it in a distant manner, and after a while, she confessed that the victim was her own sister. After this, more women from the audience started opening up. Salem had had an extremely high rate of female infanticide over a long period of time. Once the wound was open, emotions flew easily.

This was what ‘joining link’ meant to STE. And this made perfect sense too in terms of what STE set out to do. This too was a sort of indulgence into emotionalizing, but these emotions were not alienating or commodifying. It was the emotion of the people, who were not part of the performers’ troupe but without whom there could never be a performance of this kind.

The above anecdote reminded me of ‘Lamentation’—a Martha Graham choreography, in context of which Graham talked about one of the very important moments in her performer’s life. Once, after one of her shows of this particular piece, a lady came up to her with obvious signs of crying on her face and said, “You will never know what you have done for me tonight. Thank you.” It later turned out that she had seen her nine years old child die in front of her, being crushed by a truck, but in spite of every possible effort she was unable to cry. After seeing ‘Lamentation’, she felt that “grief was honorable, that it was universal and that she need not be ashamed for crying for her son”. Graham said, this incident made her realize, “There is always one person to whom you speak in the audience.”

I suppose, there might be another side of it. Maybe, if you often consider yourself to be part of a variety of audiences, then there would be one or two performers who would speak to you someday. In that way, what was STE telling me, other than the promise of a home-made dinner cooked by Hartman if I could fit a free evening into my jammed schedule during their stay in Chennai? Could it be that it was telling me to stop trying to continuously patch up between art and everyday life? To take a break and feel free to choose one over another, at least for a time being?

Memories of pseudo-activist performing art

Let me digress from the STE story and put my thoughts more in context related to STE’s work and my own—if slightly enhanced—reading of it. I have been concentrating on performing arts not only because it is more relevant to the context of STE but also because being associated with dance over decades, performing arts is a broad discipline in which I have a keen subjective interest. Thus I have had my own share of experiencing activism or the appropriation of it in performing art.

I grew up in Kolkata during the eighties and the nineties. It was a time when the left-liberal cultural journey that started with the Bengal front of IPTA in the forties was taking its last few steps. Thus one can give numerous examples of performers who were active during that period of time and who based their work on contemporary socio-political issues. These two decades also happened to be a time when I was personally going through inevitable phases of blissfully ignorant childhood to grumpy adolescence to youth full of utopian, romantic, generic ideals—not to speak of the whirlpools of questions and confusions about my own body and mind as a woman as well as a human being. Since I was involved in performances from a very young age, this process of growing up drew inspirations and understandings from many of those performers whom I witnessed onstage as well as through digital and other media. As I just mentioned, most of these sources of inspiration and understanding indeed carried a certain sense of ‘social awareness’ incorporated within art and its performance, which I then perceived as ‘activism’ since they addressed social issues. I must admit that this sort of a background indeed made me eventually establish a subjective relationship with activist collaboration in performing arts. Being an active member of such artistic endeavors made certain questions pertinent to my personal studies and observations. What really activism in performing art is, is one such question that came as part of a bigger question—why create/perform at all?

After all, not all of those so-called socially aware performances really made sense. It did take a while to start seeing a large faction of such performances as neoliberal processes of rampant sentimentalism or victimization, blindly apolitical and uncritical, utopian feel-good solutions and finally to recognize the underlying commercialization that worked as a pedestal of it all. It also took time to struggle against first the sense of exoticism and then the sense of alienation that an artist experiences, as she allows the market to determine her audience, content, form and finally her artistic curiosities. But then, these are not truth-evaluable matters. The journey here is not towards finding a readymade working solution, but a continuous search for art/performances that touch a chord—providing reasons and renewed faith in the power of creativity.

To support some of the complaints above, I would like to illustrate through couple of examples not what activist performing art is, but rather what it is not. For example, today one might choose to not call an artistic work on, say violence on women, if it is embellished with self-victimizing lamentations and the traditional tools of showcasing the beauty of the dancer’s body—devoid of complexities. To be more precise, let us take the case of a regular rendition of Draupadi’s molestation—a popular performance theme—complete with the tears, the heaves and the huffs. Questions which are neglected in this context might be of the form: Who is Draupadi representing here? Are all women the same when it comes to vulnerability to violence? If not, then who are more vulnerable? Why? Or let us consider another popular theme: a tableau on forest preservation by showing a bunch of decontextualized (visually close to tribal or working-class male characters) villain-ish woodcutters cutting off trees. The trees are represented by sweetly smiling children/women in green costumes. One could again ask questions like who is cutting the trees? What else does the image represent? Why are they cutting trees? What other means could they have for their living? If a woodcutter is shown as a villain in the piece, which community is he from? Did somebody order him to cut the trees? etc. Such performances have no real sense of protest in them—just an imitation of it. The rest is more often than not unadulterated melodrama.

Social issues are much more widely exploited in performing art than political or economic ones since it is usually comparatively easier and safer to scratch their surfaces. It is an easy path to create easily glorified, globally applauded ‘activist’ identities. The clearest mark of this kind of appropriation is within the approach of speaking ‘for’ the oppressed as against allowing the oppressed to speak. In these cases, the performance enacting the ‘problem’ becomes problematic itself—like a bad translation, or like a lawsuit gone bad thanks to the lawyer gone corrupt.

Why and how is STE any different? I have already spoken extensively about their ideals and process. Let me now conclude with a note on their direct involvement in at least one form of activism, which in my opinion makes their case stronger when it comes to the kind of activist collaboration that I am talking about here.

Possible role of real-life involvement in protest as well as art

If art is about making the audience feel, then they have my respect thanks to the powerful texts and the simplicity of the presentation, which actually enhances the text in the case of certain poems as against mystifying them with, say, visual metaphors. This approach of directness on the STE’s part, might be due to the fact that many of them have been directly felt the urgency behind the texts—being involved in at least one of the movements based on the underlying agenda of the poems.

The fight against mining in Goa is the movement that all three performers have been personally part of at various levels. ‘The Development Set’ and ‘Paikdev Curses’—both poems, say, are related to this issue. Notably, these are the kind of poems that they also perform more frequently and in some sense better than some others.

For example, they efficiently sent a chill through the audience’s spine, as they recited on behalf of the spring-god Paikdev:

Know then that I will return in vengeance, my smile twisted, my eyes inspiring hate, my open mouth giving birth to heat, my tongue a cruel blade of fire…

 Know that I will laugh in a terrible howl when you fall on your knees and pray and beg, when each one of you is the last alive, forced to watch with a terrible rage, but feeble and helpless, when your families and your children plead for water in hoarse voices even as I dry their spittle and burn their faces to spare them the shame of digging into the earth with bloodied fingernails for my waters…

My waters that you just took away…

In Goa, for geographical reasons, most of the local gods are connected to water. Their mythology is full of stories related to springs and waterbodies. Hartman, during the performance, told us such a sad little piece of story about the same Paikdev’s spring in the village Maina. He narrated how Paikdev, to appease a lone villager’s grief at losing his whole family to the cruel nature, channeled three fourth of the water of the spring away from Maina.

But whatever adversities people have been facing from nature cannot be compared to the magnanimous dimension of disaster that our corporatized profit-oriented blindness causes to our living—a million times more powerful devastation than what a lone man’s sorrow or a tribal god’s anger ever could instigate. It is no more about a village losing three quarters of its water. It is now about the whole state of Goa losing all of its water to construction and mining work. Ironically, not only the mines are named after the same gods who now lost the battle to human greed, but even the palanquin bearers of these gods perform the holy task of bathing the deity in none other than the mining tanks that symbolize the demolition that this greed caused to nature and human life.

These are open facts, like open wounds. And it happens not just in Goa, but everywhere. Still, learning about it in that one evening through poetry and discussions gave me something of value in a very personal way. It almost felt like I was revisiting a long-lasting battle within myself between my roots in art and the process of unlearning them. The roots encouraged to speak against discriminations with confidence, while the process of unlearning built a shield of hesitation and paranoia that stopped one from doing exactly that. This hesitation was instigated by my own disillusion with the sentimentalized, patronizing fake political art as well as long technical trainings that either denied or mystified political questions as creative content. At this particular juncture of my own understanding of art and its politics, it felt good watching the STE perform, as if there were glimpses of some kind of a cease-battle within myself.

The artist’s obligation

The following is yet another poem— ‘Poet’s Obligation’ by Pablo Neruda—that STE performed. Since STE’s show was such a lot about poetry, it seems like a good idea to end this note with one. It also seems appropriate for summarizing what STE possibly would not mind standing for:

So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea’s lamenting in my awareness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the autumn’s castigation,
I may be there with an errant wave,
I may move, passing through windows,
and hearing me, eyes will glance upward
saying ‘How can I reach the sea?’
And I shall broadcast, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing,
the grey cry of the sea-birds on the coast.

So, though me, freedom and the sea
will call in answer to the shrouded heart.

 

***

 

Acknowledgment: Special thanks to Katheeja and Hartman for their infinite patience. Thanks to Sushmita for being with me during the conversation, the walk back and also for presenting me Hartman’s book. Thanks to Varuni for letting us know about STE and this particular performance. Thanks to Nandini for discussions that helped to shape this article.

 

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