Friday, May 23, 2014

Tiatr and the world

There is no need for us to worry about Tiatr. The now century old tradition is alive and kicking and shows no sign of slowing down. If there is one thing that needs to be addressed, however, it is the practice of shaming that Tiatr is often subject to. Too often, Tiatr is compared to Indian drama forms that were formed in the course of the anti-imperial nationalist movement in British India. These drama forms took a good amount of inspiration from Western European traditions and sought to articulate similar plays in vernacular mediums. A part of this process was to also ‘purify’ vernacular dramatic traditions. Thus, art forms like Bhavai in Gujarat, Tamasha in Maharashtra were sought to be made ‘respectable’. What is often not discussed, however, is that both the nationalist movement as well as these attempts in the theatrical world were often made by upper-caste persons. Their attempt was to assert upper-caste control over the art form and determine what was acceptable and what not. In this process, the subaltern caste groups who had birthed these art forms were excluded on the basis of their lack of aesthetic refinement and ‘vulgarity’. Where these subaltern groups did not submit meekly to upper-caste assertions, these performers were shamed most vigorously and systematically. This is also true of Tiatr. Indeed, a critical reading of the history of Tiatr would suggest that the form was born from the attempt to clean up the Khell that were being performed by migrant Goan groups in Bombay. Fortunately, however, once the form of the Tiatr was set up, the subaltern Goan groups reasserted their control over the art form. This reassertion is at the root of the constant criticism that Tiatr draws; that it is lacking in standard.

In recent times it has become somewhat commonsensical to lay the blame for this shaming at the doorstep of the proponents of Nagari Konkani. While this may be politically expedient, this is not the whole truth. Tiatr is often shamed by its own proponents, largely because they have internalised the criticisms levelled by persons from the broader Indian nationalist theatrical traditions. Take, for instance, an anecdote about the tiatrist Prem Kumar that is often recounted by Tiatr activists. The story goes that Prem Kumar once took Vasant Joglekar, a significant name from the world of Marathi theatre to watch a tiatr at P.T. Bhangwadi. The tiatr apparently had a scene where the home of a landlord was shown against the backdrop of a jungle. Joglekar must have responded derisively to this juxtaposition of a landlord’s home against a jungle because Prem Kumar is reported to have been ‘put to shame’ by Joglekar’s reaction which initiated Prem Kumar’s lifelong quest to ‘uplift’ the Konkani stage.

What is tragic in this scenario is that Joglekar’s sensibilities were seen as beyond question, rather than limited by his own agendas and cultural background. Unfortunately confined by brahmanical sensibilities and nationalist anxieties perhaps he missed crucial clues in the backdrop?

I recently had the opportunity to view Mario Meneze’s Suicide at a Tiatr festival in Velsão-Pale and was struck by the backdrops that were used in the course of the Tiatr. The curtain that was used when the Cantarist came on was of a scene of the city of London with the famous Tower Bridge as the centre. Curiously, it was marked by a very Goan balustrade that framed the lower length of the curtain. The second interesting background, used to indicate the environment outside of the house of the protagonist was of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Now one could, like Tendulkar scoff at these backdrops. For example, why London? And if London, why that Goan balustrade in the scene? Can they not be realistic in their depiction? Worse still, Menezes is writing a play about Goa, and allows for a scene from Berlin to depict the Goan village space? Does he have no sense of geography? Alternatively, one could put aside one’s prejudices, and look at these backdrops anew and realise that they are testament to the cosmopolitan world that the Goan lives in.

Realism in theatre is highly over-rated. Theatre is not real life; it is a representation of reality, and as such, relies profoundly on symbols. I would like to read the curtains used at the staging of Suicide as the example of the sophisticated use of symbols. The Goan balustrade running through the bottom of that first curtain was not a mistake. On the contrary it symbolised the Goan’s view on the world. For close to two centuries now Goans have been migrant workers going beyond the subcontinent to the world at large. Indeed, so wide is the diaspora that London now stands in for what Bombay represented earlier; a second home for Goans. In such a scenario, that balustrade symbolises Goan ownership of that London vista. It tells to the audience that the migrant Goan may be out of Goa, working in London, but she or he is still firmly rooted within Goa. They inhabit both worlds.

Similarly the Brandenburg gate. To read the backdrop literally would be to miss the wider point that theatre is capable of making. Given that this curtain was used to denote the outside of the home, it made a very nuanced point. Berlin is indeed a part of the Goan outside. But once again, it is an outside that is still sensible to a Goan audience many of whom have friends and family who are widely travelled.

These symbols are often lost on those who are concerned about the lack of standard in Tiatr. The loss is largely because the audience of the Tiatr is itself not respected. They are seen as lacking in sophistication and needing to be taught high culture. What the crusaders for the uplift of Tiatr’s standard don’t seem to recognise, however, is that in their zeal to emulate the theatre forms inspired by Indian nationalism they are limiting their own perspectives. They fail to see that the cultural realm of the Goan is not limited to Goa or to India. It encompasses the world. This world is not simply placed up on a stage and worshipped. Rather, it is consumed, digested and then regurgitated so that like the Tower Bridge and the Brandenburg gate, they seem to be the most natural thing in a village in South Goa.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 23 May 2014)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Beyond Nostalgia: The Prescriptions of Maria Aurora Couto

There are some who would charge the works of Maria Aurora Couto of being guilty of the sin of nostalgia. This charge would be extended to her latest book Filomena’s Journeys. While nostalgia trips are often been celebrated for reason of the bitter sweet memories of the past that they deliver, this emotion has for some time now come under critical attack. Nostalgia is attacked because all too often it is an unabashed reminiscing about the past engaged in by former elites who mourn the existence of more egalitarian present. More recently, however, literary critics have pointed out that nostalgia can also be engaged in by persons who were oppressed in the past, and their nostalgia should be read, not as a validation of the past, but as the critique of the present, where they continue to be the butt of oppression.

I believe the charge of nostalgia that is leveled against Couto’s books was very effectively dealt by Ranjit Hoskote, the art critic and literary theorist. Speaking at the release of Filomena’s Journeys Hoskote suggested that Couto’s books were not in fact about nostalgia but were in fact of a prescriptive nature. The books were prescribing a route for the future of Goan society. Couto’s response was sadly disappointing given that she brushed off the suggestion, perhaps embarrassed by the idea that she was presuming to prescribe for Goa. Hoskote, however, may have been on to something.

There is an edge along which Filomena’s Journey walks. On the one hand it does indulge in an exercise that one may call nostalgic. There is a loving detailing of the lives of the bhatcar class and a lament for the loss of this past. At some point, one gets the feeling that Couto is engaging in that fond exercise of the South Asian upper caste, of asserting that the well born are never poor, they have only fallen onto bad days. Left to itself this nostalgia and what Dale Luis Menezes calls “The Lament for ‘Bhatcarponn’” is definitely problematic. On the other hand, however, given that she is speaking about the alcoholism of her father and the way it impinged on the otherwise privileged background of his wife, his children and himself, this personal narrative is definitely not engaging in a nostalgic romp into the past. It is seeking to figure out what went wrong and brings out into the open the fact that the lives of Goa’s elite were not merely charming stories. This text points out that the bhatcar was not necessarily the personification of benevolence. Indeed, it suggests that this benevolence may have been the exception rather than the rule.

The question before us, then, is how do we read this edge along which Couto’s narrative travels? I believe that Hoskote’s suggestion that this book is a prescription for the Goan future is an ideal way to interpret her narrative. In exploring the dark side of her family’s history Couto is laying bare the problems that underlay Goan society. She may not be evaluating the story entirely, and indeed there is no need for her to do so. In collecting the narrative from various members of her family and the segment of society that she belongs to, she is offering a personal memory for public scrutiny. Future scholars of Goan society will be able to read her text and offer the kind of reading that her proximity to the narrative and her social location prevent her from offering. They will be able to ask if the problems that underlay this family, that is representative of other families that have not had a similar courage to come out, was not the result of living a life of leisure sustained by the hard labours of others. And it is on this question that Couto’s questions have relevance for even though Goa’s bhatcarial system has become a thing of the past, the rentier lifestyles of the Goan elite continue.  The youth from this background in particular are happy to merely live off the income from the family name and assets, and whether we like it or not, the bhatcar seems to be a cultural model for most upwardly mobile Goans.

The Dr. Francisco Luis Gomes District Library, Margão

It is to the pernicious effect of this lifestyle that Couto offers prescription, especially in her earlier book Goa: A Daughter’s Story. One of the aspects of Goan society that Couto does seek to lionize is the impact of the intellectuals from the very same bhatcar class on Goan society.  The point she seeks to make is that these men were able to impact on the political lives and imaginations of all Goans precisely because they used their incomes to read. In so doing, they engaged with a larger world and lived, what she calls, “a life of the mind”. If there is one call that resounds through both books, then it is the call to Goan society to live the life of the mind. Where libraries in Goa were once available only to a privileged few, the public library is an asset available to every growing numbers of Goans. Couto’s silent prescription is to call for more Goans to exploit these resources, expand the boundaries of what we think is possible, and increase the list of social relations that we think are unacceptable. Couto’s book, therefore, is not merely about her father’s ailment and the consequent suffering of her family. It is also a tale about the value of an investment in education and the support that social networks can provide.  It is a suggestion as to the manner in which the material wealth generated can be spent. To this extent the narrative pays equal attention to both the individual as well as to society. One is only as strong as the other and asks that we turn towards investment in the social not merely on the conspicuous consumption that marks our days.

In sum then, Filomena’s Journey is a cautionary tale to Goans of the present. This is a tale of caution that is not directed merely to the Goan upper castes and traditional elite groups. It contains a warning to a society that has amassed a sizable amount of material wealth, but has not as yet begun investing in a robust life of the mind. It suggests that should we not learn from the bitter memories of our immediate past, we may well be forced to repeat them.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 9 May 2014)