Toilet: Feminist when Convenient only.

Toilet is a love story, but it’s also a film with an agenda – raising awareness about sanitation needs in India. This is an agenda absolutely worthy of praise, but as Mayuri Bhattacharjee wrote yesterday on Feminism in India, Toilet portrays at least as many problematic behaviours and ideals as progressive ones. In particular, the film unquestioningly romanticises behaviour that can only be described as stalking.

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Image Source: http://www.lehren.com

The storyline runs something like this. Boy (Keshav) meets girl (Jaya), they fall in love, marry, and when Jaya discovers there’s no toilet in her new husband’s family home the main storyline (about the struggles of building toilets and establishing sanitation) begins. For angles on the sanitation aspect, see Bhattacherjee’s article. However by this point in the movie I, like many others, had already been turned off by the portrayal of Keshav and Jaya’s developing romance.

Keshav first catches sight of Jaya in a public place. His eyes pop out of his and he bothers her by physically getting in her way and spouting tired pick-up lines while he’s at it. He then proceeds to follow Jaya everywhere, secretly taking photographs of her without her permission, even going so far as to use one of her pictures in a public advertisement for his cycle shop. When Jaya comes to his office to ask him what the hell he thinks he’s doing, he steals her phone number and start to harass her that way as well. After being told ‘no’ a few more times that should be necessary (i.e. once), Keshav desists, at which point Jaya develops Stockholm Syndrome, misses his attention, and starts chasing him instead.

Stalking is a tired and frustrating trope in an absurdly large number of Bollywood movies. In my opinion, what makes these attitudes even more prominent in Toilet is their juxtaposition with condemnations of eve-teasing and several positive assertions of women’s rights. The film’s opening, for example, shows Jaya throwing a coconut at a man who is sexually harassing women in the street and him falling into a pile of manure. In other places the conservative custom of women having to cover their heads before elders is rejected, and much is made of Jaya being a ‘topper’ in her class. The fact she’s brainy is posited as one of the major reasons she is attractive. However this positive attitude towards women’s rights in certain contexts is undermined not just by the normalisation of harassment, but also a wider failure to recognise and challenge assumptions about women and femininity that result in a sustained, systematic disempowerment of women.

I was struck that only the women in the film are shown as having major problems with going to the toilet outside. The discomfort of Jaya is the main source of change, and the justification of her position is ultimately supported by a rebellion of the village women and an episode relating to Keshav’s aging grandmother (perhaps the only women Keshav’s hyper-religious father would need to ‘respect’). Whilst it is true that women are more likely to face problems such as sexual harassment when defecating outside this is due to underlying attitudes in society, as is the fact that women in rural India are forced to walk long distances and hide to relieve themselves whilst men (as is shown in the film) may squat quite openly nearer to the house or even in the view of others. This inequality, both in representation and in real life experience, is linked to notions of shame surrounding women’s bodies and bodily functions. By not raising the issue of whether men experience discomfort or are exposed to health risks more prevalently in the film I feel this aspect, which structurally underlies much of the problem, has also been allowed to slide. Whilst biological plumbing may make urination a less messy affair for men than women, I find it difficult to believe that anything other than social attitudes makes men more ‘comfortable’ with defecating in a bush than women.

The apparent contradiction and hypocrisy found in Toilet’s representations of women is in fact significant and instructive. Many individual members of society (Indian or otherwise) unconsciously live out these kinds of hypocrisies every day of their lives. A large number of well-meaning people actively profess liberal, progressive ideas about women’s rights and gender equality, but can be found to maintain patriarchal and gender-biased social scripts at other times when it suits them. Very often such people are not aware of the contradiction, and do not consider themselves to be behaving hypocritically. It’s about where they are in their personal journey. Toilet’s split-personality approach to women’s freedoms reminds us that not only is it possible to hold contradictory beliefs, but also that old habits (including thinking habits) die hard. We need to continue to resist the normalised everyday assumptions about women and women’s behaviour without complacency, because progress isn’t like flipping a switch or a one-time, holistic realisation that changes a person completely. Progress is a fractured, patchwork process, and we have to be prepared to tackle attitudes and behaviours (within society, with others, and even with ourselves) one idea at a time.

Homecoming

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I have never been able to identify the component parts of that distinctive smell that hits you when you step out of the plane into the arms of Kolkata. The humidity is part of it, and it creeps over your skin in a sensual caress of petrol fumes and dust and all the other unidentified particles of the Kolkata air. The moment it hits me something inside me changes, something as unidentifiable as the smell itself. I confess to being disappointed as I settled into one of the city’s new white and blue ‘AC Taxis’. I watched with nostalgic envy as the people before and after me stepped into rattling yellow ambassadors which, in legions, fill Kolkata’s highways like cheerful golden beetles carrying on through the day and the night.

This time it had been a particularly horrible journey. I came alone, having packed up my room and my job in London, not yet knowing where I will live when I start my PhD in an unfamiliar city on my return. Fate (or human frailty) added an extra helping of unexpected personal heartbreak to the precarious inbetweenness of things which, exacerbated by a less than judicious choice of plane literature, had me sobbing like a madwoman all the way. For the first time in my life I felt I have ‘run away’ to Kolkata. But then, where else should I run?

 

As a number of anthropologists who have gone before me have noticed1, the peoples, locations and social phenomena individual researchers end up working on are not arbitrarily linked to our own needs and life experiences as human beings. It is probably not an accident that my first full dissertation on my research in India revolved around complex notions and experiences of ‘home’, of ‘amar jayga’ [my place], and the peculiar predicament of those who, for whatever reason, don’t feel they can be entirely ‘themselves’ in the place in which they live. It is also no accident, on reflection, that I work with groups of people for whom different aspects of their personal identity compete and conflict, sometimes jarring (or seen to by other people) with Indianness, Indian womanhood or Bengaliness, whatever these things are purported to mean. In England, the country of my birth, I’m exoticised. In India, the country of my cultural heritage, I’m occidentalised. In each place I am called upon to demonstrate the veracity of my claimed identity. Everybody demands to know where I belong. Nobody would like to know that more than me.

 

Home is a funny concept. It’s tied up with different trappings wherever you go. A typical Euro-American interpretation might conjure up a private, personal space, a safe place where one’s identity can be explored and expressed fully, a relief from the rules of the outside social world. There are other factors. Family. People who are like you. Perhaps, people who you have chosen, and who you have played a part in creating. I still don’t have the answers.

 

My Kaku and Kakima2 opened the door with as little fuss or surprise as if I’d rolled back home from a day’s work. It’s a mystery to me how, standing in the centre of my uncle’s little flat, I feel comforted by the faded pink and yellow walls that now surround me. Those emotions of despair, uncertainty, pain, stress and pressure are tenderly replaced with a feeling of peace across the breadth and depth of my chest. Here is safety and continuity. My black and white grandparents gaze solemnly at me from their elevated position near our household Hindu shrine. We drink thick, sweet tea around the red lacquered dinner table and live out within a day our familiar patterns of provoking and enjoying each other. Nothing is demanded of me here. My Kaku accepts my scolding him about salt and tobacco consumption as I accept Kakima’s gentle observation that, despite my protests, I need to catch up on forgotten sleep. They know the hesitations in my Bengali speech will disappear with the weekend, and there’s no need to blame it on Englishness. Rather it is to be blamed on being away from here for so long.

There isn’t an exact word for ‘home’ in Bengali. Use of the possessive pronoun amar indicates that sentiment of belonging through ownership. In a few days I’ll be itching for a piano, missing Western Classical Music, and fawning for the ones that I love who aren’t with me. I fill that hole in my arms with my bolster pillow at night. However here my heart steadies me, and as I press my face to the pillow Kolkata’s air slips its arms about me, kisses my hair and holds me tight.

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Notes

  1. Navaro-Yashin, Y., 2012. The Make-Believe Space. Affective Geography in a Postwar Polity, Duke, Londres.
    Thiranagama, S., 2011. In my mother’s house: Civil war in Sri Lanka. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  2. Kaku – Father’s younger brother; Kakima – Kaku’s wife

Sukanya : A Review of Ravi Shankar’s only Opera

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Opera is one of the great loves of my life, and yet it is an art from which I feel sometimes helplessly absent. It is, by its nature as a Western European art form, largely written by white ‘Western’ composers using the languages and symbolisms of these cultures. Symbols like white weddings and black funerals, symbols that are so hegemonically ingrained that most of the world don’t perceive them as symbols, systems of meaning, iconographic worlds that stir some folk more deeply than others. Other folk have different ways of loving, of being, of making meaning of out life.

Though born in Yorkshire, in many ways I am and I feel myself one of those ‘others’. Of course what I love most about Opera is that, through music, it transcends these worldly differences and aims (often) to tackle the heart of something that is above all divisions, to explore those things that are universally human – love, death, hate, dilemma, identity. Yet  the anthropologist in me wants to remind you that all human experience, even these universals, are expressed in culturally specific, meaningful ways. In this sense, in opera, I am (as a young British South Asian woman of mixed heritage) utterly unrepresented.

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Image Source : The Guardian

There was a lot riding on Ravi Shankar’s Sukanya for me. After seeing Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers at ENO last year I was so set back by the sense of disenfranchisement I felt from two hours of inaccurate, reductionist and (to me) frankly offensive Orientalism was so acute that I couldn’t even bring myself to write about it. I’ve dreamed for myself about what an opera bringing the two parts of me together would look like. I was simultaneously afraid and excited to experience Sukanya. If anybody could achieve a sure representation of Indianness through Opera, surely it would be Pandit Ravi Shankar. Ten minutes into the opera I was weeping like I wept at the end of Der Rosenkavalier – I felt real. I was seeing something of myself, something true about my life, in operatic art for the first time.

Sukanya will touch and stir people from diverse backgrounds (as it did last night), if through nothing other than the unspeakable beauty and elegance of its music. The music is, in its own right, thrilling. Between the vision of Ravi Shankar and the dedication of arranger and conductor David Murphy there is an imaginative fusion of Indian and Western Classical styles, forms and principles that is simultaneously true and authentic to both traditions in their vast complexity, without reducing or compromising either one. Indian instruments play alongside Western Orchestra. The arias and choruses make use of konnakol (spoken Indian rhythmic patterns) and improvisations on ragas, and the libretto travels through English story-telling to the words of Hindi prayers and shamelessly Bengali declarations of love.

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Image Source : The Guardian

The expression and Anglicised pronunciations of the Indian elements is curiously insignificant, even adding to the charm and the sense of art rising above divisions. The two traditions were full, supple, and unified, complementing one another, even elevating one another in new and jarringly peculiar ways. The singers were every one of them exceptional, and their bravery and skill in working between Western art music and raga-based improvisation effective and impressive. It was a joy also to see such an ethnically diverse cast – I have never seen so many different backgrounds represented on an ‘opera’ stage.

Akash Odedra’s company of dancers punctuated and enhanced the story through a fantastical fusion of Indian classical dance styles (which lend themselves to story-telling) and contemporary interpretation. Although semi-staged, this production was fully absorbing, and the dancers can take a large degree of credit for generating and cementing this effect.

 

For me personally this Opera was the most tender, affirming and terrifying work I’ve seen. After a lifetime of craving a way to bring together the two inseparable sides of myself – British and Indian, always neither, always both – now there is an Opera that communicates what that is like, what it looks like and sounds like and sings like, to the world. I wondered whether my response might be biased – but I know that if after all this time somebody had staged something so intimate as an operatic love scene in Bengali and missed the mark even a little it would have hurt me ten times more than the Orientalism of The Pearl Fishers and its ilk. This is a very special piece of work, musically groundbreaking and wonderfully crafted, and I look forward to its staging in a long-term run sometime soon.

Review: The Exterminating Angel – ROH

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There has been a lot of build-up to this UK premiere production of Adès’ latest opera. Pushed by the Opera House and trailered enthusiastically on BBC Radio 3, my expectations were high from the outset. I can’t say I was entirely disappointed.

I enjoyed Adès’ music. The work was cohesive as an opera and enjoyable – extremely funny. Both the libretto and the score were littered with muso jokes, most of which I and those like me in the audience (most of the audience) found much more hilarious than my musically-appreciative-but-not-quite-a-muso Opera Buddy. Audrey Luna was mind-blowing as Leticia, the opera singer, whose vocal part makes the Queen of the Night aria look like it was written for a contralto. The tone, resonance and range of expression she achieved well above top C is freakish and wonderful. In fact the entire cast is phenomenal – musically irreproachable – except that a few days down the line I’ve forgotten most of what they sang and the score that went underneath it. I don’t feel like that’s the point of going to an opera.

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Image Source : http://www.operanews.com

Maybe it’s because I’ve not seen the film, but I concluded that my interest petered because there’s a distinct lack of character and plot development which makes the situation difficult to sustain over such a long time. I appreciate that the point is partly boredom of the bourgeouisie – but is it too much to ask that I can do this by being entertained by a representation of bored bourgeoisie instead of feeling like one myself? The general message was about the descent into a Hobbesian state of nature, and being trapped in the worlds we create for ourselves. Granted. For me personally however the point was made in a rather unexplosive way. Perhaps that was also the point, but I doubt it.

I enjoyed The Exterminating Angel. I would recommend it to go and see once, but I don’t think I’d be moved to go see it again. It was enjoyable, funny, I laughed out loud, and in the event I was engaged most of the time. It’s a good night out, and it will keep you in the room for three acts – but I doubt it will change your life.

Tinder eat your heart out – Review: ENO – Partenope

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This review is published after the production has closed – and for that I apologise. However I couldn’t miss the chance to discuss this smart, glittering and self-consciously tongue-in-cheek performance.

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Image Source : ENO

To my frustration I arrived 15 minutes late, and watched the first act relayed by screen. However the relay was relatively high quality in sound and visuals, and was located in the quiet downstairs area so I could still enjoy the production (Covent Garden, take note).

Sarah Tynan was phenomenal, a jewel in a fantastic cast. This production restyled Queen Partenope as a ‘Queen Bee’, surrounded by an array of clumsy suitors as she hosts an all night Scott-Fitzgerald style party. The story maps very well, and is believable and funny by virtue of becoming somewhat less serious than the original setting.

This was clearly not the easiest of Handel’s operas to stage convincingly as a piece of theatre. It is full of many extended, intricate and virtuosic arias that lend themselves better to a declamatory recital-style. Here however arias were delivered whilst falling off staircases, arranging nude photograph exhibitions, straddling bewildered love interests and, when there was no other option, whilst drawing attention to the awkwardness of the fit between aria and stagecraft with mime, Charleston and pastiches of 1920’s dance moves.

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Image Source : bachtrack.com

The production was engaging throughout and laugh-out loud funny, with wittiness that showed ENO very close to its best. It left me wishing that this company could be more consistent in the quality of its productions, and play to its fundamental strengths. From my point of view these are the casting of top class, well-acclaimed singers, and well-executed productions that support but do not draw attention away from (or as with Don Giovanni, entirely change) the plot. Of course this is more easily said than done – but it’s still worth saying.

More like Partenope, please!

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Image Source : thestage.co.uk

Opera Republic(?) – Review: English Touring Opera – Tosca

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On Thursday 9th March I took ten Music GCSE student to see their first opera at Hackney Empire. To say these students are from a deprived social and educational context is an understatement – they live in a working-class area of London, and the demographic of their school shows that students available for Free School Meals, Pupil Premium is well above the national average (in fact 3-4 times the national average), whilst the number of students with English as a Foreign Language, Special Educational Needs and Disabilities is at a similar rate. I’ve had the absolute pleasure this year of leading their GCSE studies, and have found them to be absurdly talented in music. They are no less capable than students who will have many more opportunities than they have – one of the Y11s, for instance, has secured a scholarship to the Royal College of Music Saturday school.

I wanted to share my love of Opera with these students because I feel that Opera at its best stretches the musical and theatrical art forms to its limits. I wanted them to experience something that would be unlike anything they’d seen, and find out what their reaction was as much as anything else. From the outset I felt that this would be make or break. If their first experience was a bad one they wouldn’t come back a second time. I felt that top quality performance had to be combined with accessible prices and venue, and for that the English Touring Opera was the obvious choice. It also had to be something that could in some way give a reasonably meaningful flavour of this vast and diverse genre.

 

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Image Source : exeternorthcott.co.uk

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The production for ETO’s Tosca was relatively simple (this is to be expected of a touring company for practical reasons). The stage was divided into levels which was sometimes effective, and at other times distracting. The smaller stage size (compared with other opera venues) did sometimes feel inhibiting in terms of action. There was less opportunity for movement and use of space during the deliver of arias, resulting in a somewhat more ‘recital’-esque feel, with less sense of integration between the theatrical/acting component of the opera and its musical presentation.

The singing was utterly top class, especially from Tosca herself. As there is a split cast and I didn’t manage to get my hands on a programme that evening I can’t be entirely sure, but I think we had the pleasure of Laura Mitchell. Her expression and the scope of her sound were exquisite. The set really came into its own for Tosca’s final fall, with the extreme height created producing an even more compelling ending than usual, although it wasn’t apparent why the guards would stand at the foot of a ladder and make no attempt to prevent her jump for a good number of minutes before it actually occurred.

The relationship between Tosca and Cavaradossi was youthful, playful and exciting. It was very accessible to the young audience I brought with me, being very much alive and believable rather than formal or scripted as can sometimes be the case in Opera. Scarpia’s coldness made good sense of his chilling behaviour, and at times his gestures were shockingly, blackly humourous.

For people who enjoy opera this is a production well worth going to. Moreover, for those who are new to Opera it is also an excellent introduction.

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Image Source : http://www.englishtouringopera.org.uk

Going to the Opera with these students and seeing it through their eyes opened mine to what Opera can be like in an entirely new way. I had to make an number of decisions about how to prepare them and how much. I decided, against much popular advice, to prepare them minimally. I wanted the music and the genre to speak for itself, and I was conscious not to over-hype the experience or make the students feel in any way that they couldn’t be totally honest with me about how they found it, especially if they genuinely didn’t enjoy it.

Since the story of Tosca is such a rollercoaster I told the students how it goes up to the arrest only, and left the ending for them to discover as Puccini intended it. For other operas I probably would have given them the whole story, but it was a great feeling to watch 16-year-old boys jump out of their seats in horror when La Tosca grabbed the knife in the middle of Act II!

The students did all find Act I very confusing and a little boring, which is not surprising as Tosca Act I is largely ‘scene-setting’. I had to explain it to them a little more in the interval, but this shows how the sometimes overly-complicated plots and backstories of opera can be a genuine barrier. Act II re-engaged the students through its fast pace and action, and by Act III they were visibly overwhelmed by the music.

I sensed a mixed response at the end. Some students were uncharacteristically quiet and reflective. Others were excited simply by looking into the pit and seeing Double Basses and Tubular Bells for the first time, whilst a number of students commented with awe on how “loud” the singing and orchestra were. They couldn’t believe it had been achieved without microphones. After this my colleagues reported that they students were buzzing around school for a good week afterwards, telling their friends about the Opera. On the night a few of the students asked me how and where they could find cheap opera tickets, and if they were allowed to go on their own!

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Image Source : englishtouringopera.org.uk

Much of the students’ ability to access and engage with this production was a direct result of the involvement of the English Touring Opera Education department. ETO puts on a large number of free pre-show talks and runs schemes for local singers, schools and children to get involved with opera as they move across the country. I cheekily contacted Education and Community Coordinator, Daniel Coelho, who went above and beyond for our students, even arranging for two members of the cast to speak to them ahead of their experience. Although unfortunately due to a traffic incident we were unable to attend this company’s dedication to opening the opera experience to all is at a level unrivalled by any scheme I have seen, not least because it reaches across the nation rather than being anchored to a specific opera house or theatre. The students arrived in time for the public pre-show talk and I am grateful to Director Blanche McIntyre for avoiding spoilers throughout! I asked her to advise our students how to cope if they were finding the opera difficult. Her response was kind and authentic. She reflected that people often make opera out to be more difficult than it actually is, and emphasised the importance of the story and emotions. Overall, she encouraged them to sit back and listen to the music, especially if everything else became ‘too much’.

I am thoroughly grateful to English Touring Opera for their commitment to high quality opera, low prices and their genuine ethos of outreach and education. Other companies, larger and wealthier and better recognised, could learn a great deal from them.

Review: The Grand Macabre – A Short Review

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Image Source: http://www.barbican.com

Opera, anti-opera, or anti-anti-opera? Whichever it is, Le Grand Macabre is Ligeti’s only one, and it’s very exciting to have the opportunity to hear this work performed. With Simon Rattle heading up the LSO and a cast of top-class singers the musical realisation presented here is wonderful, as to be expected. The percussion section of the LSO dominated the stage (spatially and metaphorically) throughout with calm virtuosity. Musical and comic timing combined to send up the absurdity of modern life through the infamous car-horn fanfares and masterful execution of Ligeti’s challenging and diverse score.

Every member of the cast was impressive vocally. Ligeti makes huge demands on his singers, writing across and beyond conventional ranges to require sopranos to rattle more than a fifth below middle C, and basses to soar above their soprano duettists’ familiar tessitura. Frode Olsen as Astradamors merits special praise for particularly amazing acrobatics, stretching the lower ends of our pitch perception with solid, shuddering bass notes that beggared belief contrasted with tender and emotive tone in what would generally be considered high tenor or alto range.

The only peculiarity of this presentation is the ambiguity of its staging. As the LSO fills the Barbican stage, the dramatis personae have limited space in which to deliver the action. Physical movement is limited and props are minimal, not always to best effect. Sellars has chosen to use Ligeti’s intended burlesque-like “flea-market” into a sterile and slightly contrived nuclear emergency situation. The lack of set and the disembodiment of the action resulting from sharing the stage with the orchestra is compensated for by video projections. However I found these to be distracting, confusing and surplus to requirements, especially in the first half. A particularly awkward and random montage appeared to show international leaders shaking hands, with this short slice of action looped several times. Bearing no relation to the action in Ligeti’s work and not portraying any of the main characters, it was a confusing and frankly unwelcome distraction from the music and action onstage. There were some effective moments with videography in the second half, including projections of onstage characters and chilling maps of nuclear explosions driving home the apocalyptic and political messages of The Grand Macabre. On the whole I would have preferred this to have been dropped. Humour, intensity and the quality of relationships were lost, particularly between Mescalina and Astradamors as their BDSM interactions were awkwardly transposed to the context of a web exchange. Despite sensual and emotionally charged singing from Watts and Miller, removing physical interaction from the equation of Amando and Amanda’s relationship would make sense only in a concert-style presentation of the music.

The stars of this presentation were the LSO and the voices. Surround-sound use of the concert-hall space was extremely effective, with the voice of Venus (solo and chorus) swelling from the uppermost balconies and the powerful London Symphony Chorus swelling in the aisles of the stalls as the people of Breughelland. The music penetrated the listener’s being – much of this is, of course, Ligeti’s genius. I was pleased to have the opportunity to experience it, and look forward to experiencing a full and perhaps more faithful staging before too long.