True Artistic Force – Review: Satyagraha, ENO

Bengalis don’t tend to like Gandhi all that much. Feminists aren’t particularly on board with him either1. More than that, the current surge in Right-Wing, conservative Hindu nationalism in India has seen a rise in overt and systematic oppression of minorities. Anybody who is different – Muslim, queer, transgender, you name it – historically and presently they have all been scarred by discourses of Indian (read: Hindu) nationalism, and it’s very difficult to strike a balance between celebrating the freedom and independence of the country we love and reinforcing these essentially violent ways of thinking the Nation. In brief, as a Bengali Feminist whose work is dedicated to queer, intersectional feminist movements in India, I was extremely nervous about going to see an Opera about Gandhi. I left overwhelmed, and proud, both of my favourite art form and my heritage. This is not (thankfully, in my view) an opera glorifying Gandhi. It is an opera about an idea, about philosophy, and about the will to truth and social justice.

The focus of Glass’s work is on the message of satyagraha, a sanskritic term Gandhi coined to describe his ideology of ‘non-violent’ resistance to the oppressions of the colonial Raj. The costuming was sensitive, both honouring Indian tradition and resisting the temptation to essentialise and exoticise the Indian subjects. I particularly appreciated the imaginative and powerful representation of Krishna, with long dark hair in a blue suit, marked on his forehead but entirely focussed on delivering his message, undistracted by temptingly glamorous peacock feathers, gold and conches that are usually part of his symbolism, at least in India religious art. The set and production design reflected and augmented Glass’s music, without stereotyping either India’s history or present reality, as is more often than not seen in representations of one of the west’s favourite oriental subjects.

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Image Source: English National Opera

Phelim McDermott (director) has an unfathomable gift for translating the abstract auditory to the (sometimes no less abstract) visual. I can never forget the stunning juggling work in his production of Glass’s Akhnaten, which mirrored and enhanced that work’s rhythmic drive. Here was a different approach entirely. There was such confidence in the stillness and slowness of the blocking, allowing the music and core ideas of the work just to be, without requiring the actors to move for the sake of movement. Newspapers featured throughout as a design motif, used in many ways as props, projection backgrounds and puppets, reflecting both the motivic nature of the music and acknowledging the huge historical and political significance of newspapers in the Indian Independence movement2.

Perhaps most astounding were the enormous puppets that rose up throughout the work. Filling the entire width and height of the Coliseum’s stage, crocodiles, cows and battling Pandavas appeared almost inexplicably out of baskets, brooms and papier maché (more newspaper), dramatising background themes but also putting me to mind of the Indian folk tradition of travelling puppet theatre. The fantastical foe to Arjuna in act one was instantly recognisable to my inner Indian child, evoking and reimagining Indian artistic representations of demons that are both physical and ideological. I gasped when the likeness of Rabindranath Tagore appeared on stage. It was moving and terrifying, seeing such a major cultural and identity icon seemingly incarnated before me.

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Image Source: English National Opera

Satyagraha stirred me as an opera-lover and as an Indian. This is unfortunately almost never my experience of operatic representations of Indianness, be that culture, clothing or romance. In fact usually I find myself stifling feelings of offence. This sensitive and honest production has much to be proud for, with cultural sensitivity being up there with its artistic excellence.

Satyagraha does not feel the need to explain itself too much. It is a viscerally meditative experience, an opportunity to be overwhelmed by the music, the visuals, but most of all by an idea, rather than a structured narrative. Thank you, Glass, Improbable, ENO. I can’t wait for Einstein on the Beach.

 


1 Here’s a good introductory summary why. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/jan/27/mohandas-gandhi-women-india

2 Cf http://www.thehansindia.com/posts/index/2015-03-12/Role-of-the-press-in-freedom-struggle-136832

https://www.slideshare.net/Amaljithravi/role-of-newspaper-in-indian-freedom-movement

3 Featured Image Source: GScene.com

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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.

Toilet film
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.