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

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Notes on ‘Notes on Chai’

 

(Published in Aainanagar, May 2016)

“‘…It’s always six o’ clock now.’
A bright idea came into Alice’s head. ‘Is that why so many tea-things are put out here?’ she asked.
‘Yes, that’s it’ said the Hatter with a sigh, ‘it’s always tea-time, and we’ve no time to wash the things between whiles.’
‘Then you keep moving round I suppose?’ said Alice.
‘Exactly so,’ said the Hatter, ‘as the things get used up.’
‘But what happens when you come to the beginning again?’ Alice ventured to ask.
‘Suppose we change the subject,’ the March Hare interrupted, yawning, ‘I’m getting tired of this. I vote the young lady tells us a story.’”

And then the dormouse tells the tale of the three little sisters who lived at the bottom of a well, living on treacle, and were very, very ill all the bloody time.

In fact, something similar happens in actor/writer Jyoti Dogra’s ‘Notes on Chai’.

d3

It is not a coincidence that since April 8th, 2016, when I watched this one-woman act created and performed by Jyoti Dogra at Max Mueller Bhavan, Chennai, I have been encountering the word ‘Chai’ or ‘Tea’ more frequently than before. Dogra loosely weaves a bunch of narratives together through their relationship with tea. The angst and salvation, sin and medicine, love and hate that the mimicked voices of the protagonists of these narratives pour into their cups of tea are bound to make one look differently at her everyday-life revolving around tea—making tea, drinking tea, watching others making or drinking tea, thinking of tea, not thinking of tea, not thinking of others thinking of tea and so on. These voices—very well-observed by Dogra, thus perfectly catching and exaggerating their characteristic nuances—are political in nature. This very politics is also one of the selling-points of her work as this is what makes it something larger than simple mimicry. The Alices, Mad Hatters, March Hares, Dormice and Little Girls living at the bottom of wells that Dogra draws on the stage, strike many a tragicomic chord in the hearts of the audience. But as her work becomes an overt political statement in certain matters, it remains politically blind to certain others.

Tea, in general, can be interesting to an Indian audience for many reasons—being not just a culinary but more of a social ritual in Indian households at every occasion of laughter and sorrow, get-togethers and getting-away, being a symbol of orientalism, representing status statements, style statements, brand names, art, skill, serving as nutrient, laxative, addiction, anti-depressant, being a source of hundreds of roles and professions distinguished by class, caste and gender, being one of the deeply influential colonial residuals, being one of the most important exported goods and last but not the least being one of the biggest Indian industries possessing one of the most unfair labour policies. These are ‘tea-matters’ that affect our lives—sometimes in remote ways—irrespective of whether we acknowledge them or not. But contrary to what the name of the piece suggests, ‘Notes on Chai’ remains blissfully ignorant of most of these, making the title almost a misnomer. Nonetheless, it is a beautifully done piece. Therefore, I may (and I do) stand up for Dogra at the end of the often-mesmerizing 1 hour and 40 minutes, clap, hoot, cheer, appreciate and exclaim, but cannot totally evade some of the questions that comes to my mind—questions to Dogra as a creator and a performer, to fellow audience-members, but most importantly to myself—as a thinking being, as a woman, as Indian, as an addicted, certified, hopelessly devoted tea-drinker.

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Travelogue 02 – Cinderella, a ballet

Date-26.04.2012

Genre-Dance review

Evaluation-Way to go

State-Hungry

About-Fairies.

When I was small, that must be some fifteen-twenty years ago from now, there used to be some awesome translations available of fairy tales from foreign lands. Grimm, Hans Anderson, cheap Russian folklore with original gray-scale sketches of wicked kings, walking axes, clever soldiers, Baba Yagas and her shack on a solitary chicken leg, brave princes and dumb princesses. Most of the stories had an appeal beyond nationality (we Indians already possess brilliant mines of fairy tales -a combination of history, myth and bed-time-stories, and I am goddamned proud of them). There was no reason to discriminate our feelings towards Aliyoshka, doomed underwater with a stone tied to her neck by her stepmother, till the handsome prince rescues her, and our very own Prince Dalim Kumar, doomed inside a pomegranate as a victim of the same evil stepmother’s conspiracy, till the brave, pretty princess saves his neck. It is difficult for my usual low level of concentration at one topic, to resist the temptation of a diversion at this point and make a comparative study of feminism between Indian and Russian fairy tales, but I have been accused repetitively of digressing and unnecessarily lengthening my travelogues (which, some of my usually unwilling or unsuspecting readers have even refused to recognize as travelogues, I wonder why!) and also of using long sentences (I wonder where! Because anyone who has ever been able to read two (many have been lured into reading one but were encouraged to be left at that) of my articles, know that I have a clever way of breaking down my sentences in small pieces and organizing them in nested brackets with appropriate commas…) and moreover of some sort of xenophobia to the point of harshly judging the other, while showing whatever I have considered as my own, in apparently often undeservingly fabricated positive light (as one can see here how baseless that is!). However I shall henceforth keep my travelogues short and to the point, starting with the very first para, which is usually the introduction of the topic of my essay, unless I get a bit carried away (as I am consciously not, today), consisting of precise sentences and trite comments.

Okay may be one has a point in evaluating my writing as something narcissistically spiral. Because what I wanted to write about was this ballet performance I saw today evening, weirdly enough, sitting with a hall-ful of foreigners (when I say foreigners I mean Germans and it is quite unfair on them because I am not one, though it so happens that it is me who is in Germany, watching a German ballet), thus if somebody has to be called as foreigner, it is me, not them). But foreigners is a favourite abuse-word in my vocabulary, specially since they were all dressed up smartly or decoratively where as I was wearing the same old jacket (stinking of smoke and guiltily consumed meat) I have been wearing for past two weeks, the T-shirt that I have not changed for past three days, the underwear that…what I mean to say is that I was shabby and smelly and feeling quite out of the place (one of my harsh critics will frown at this point and call me girly, but iamwhatiam.yetanotherutopian). Besides it was raining outside, the same old drizzle that the German sky has been wearing for past ten days, and thus when I entered the hall outside the auditorium, brightly lit, walls covered with mirrors, I could clearly see that my mustache was showing even more darkly than it usually does, under my rough cold nose.

I can see that I still have not been able to reach the principal topic. Now I have started understanding the point of view of people who found it difficult to go through my blog (to the point of hinting that as a parallel of Joyce’s stream of consciousness, mine is a stream of something much more vile, and yellow). So without further ado, let me take a plunge right into it.

I have a vague notion of having said something wrong up there!

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