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Midweek Review

Theatre in the Apocalypse

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The “Triumph of Death” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted around 1562. Photo credit: Museo Nacional del Prado / Wikimedia

by Dr Saumya Liyanage

Prologue

During the first wave of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, one of the active and innovative English theatre groups, Mind Adventures, led by theatre director Tracy Holsinger and a brilliant actor Lihan Mendis invited me to talk about how live theatre could survive in the wake of a pandemic. A series of discussions with local and international theatre artistes and organisations have been conducted and many ideas and experiences shared with thousands of spectators through Zoom conferences. In my discussion with Tracy Holsinger, I wanted to emphasise that theatre would survive the COVID-19 pandemic. My key argument was that even in the history of theatre, there had been many upheavals and drawbacks. Hence, in this article, I would like to discuss further how theatre could survive hard times. Further, I will assume that theatre artistes will find new ways of making theatre in this era. We have think of theatre not as a practical and entertaining business but as an existential and ontological subject.

 

Theatre and Disease

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for plague was used to depict the meaning of ‘touch’. The pictographic symbol of the word plague is written with three symbols: eye, leg, and sprout. If we read this Hebrew pictograph from right to left, the sprouting seed designates the spreading and disseminative nature of the plague. The leg signifies carrying or walking and eye indicates the seeing, or knowledge (Cooke, J., 2009, p. 4). Hence the ‘plague’ is the ‘touch from God’ and therefore it is destructive and disseminative.

Stanton Garner in his journal paper titled, ‘Artaud, Germ Theory, and the Theatre of Contagion’ explains the history of theatre and its relationship with disease. It is a phenomenon dating back to antiquity. The Oedipus Rex opens on a landscape where a plague strikes on nature and human beings living in Thebes. In the 15th Century in Great Britain, the Government imposed restrictions in limiting people to gather in theatres. Followed by the 15th Century plague, in 1603 and 1604, when there was a prolonged lockdown preventing people from gathering and watching plays. These restrictions lasted for more than 12 months (Garner 2006, P.3). Therefore, according to the Hebrew connotation, plague and other epidemics have been understood as a rage or a touch of God. Since 1563, there have been many instances in which theatre spaces have been closed due to its evil spirit for many months and years.

In the history of disease, it is clear that the authorities have excluded religious and political congregations but theatre ‘was morally liable to pestilential visitation’ (Garner 2006, P. 3). This argument indicates that rulers are more conscious about spaces like theatre rather than other congregations because it is believed that theatre is more ‘pestilential’ than religious or political gatherings. Theatergoers are becoming passive observers and they have unconsciously been subordinated to military and intelligence surveillances. The medical procedures are being transformed into a war against evil by othering the corona affected individuals.

 

Artaud and Plague

I remember an important article written by Antonin Artaud. It is titled, ‘Theatre and the Plague’. This article appears in the collection of essays, The Theatre and Its Double (1964). Artaud uses metaphorical language to write the parallel meanings of a plague and theatre. Artaud sees his contemporary theatre as a crisis and this theatre of crisis should be resolved either by death or cure. What exactly did Artaud talk about the crisis of theatre at the time he lives? As I have written elsewhere, Artaud was very much discontent with his contemporary theatre which was dominated by the realistic acting and dialogic conversations. Artaud believed that theatre was a unique form of art that solely depends on the actor and his/her spatiality. Theatrical extravaganza and the psychological manifestation of acting were rejected. He wanted his audience to experience the similar corporeal sense that a serpent feels when the vibration is infiltrating its skin through the floor; the actor should be able to vibrate the corporeality of the audience member and transform her psychophysically through the performance (Antonin Artaud and Corti, 2014 p. 58). Therefore, it is important for us to see how Artaud juxtaposes theatre and plague as an interrelated metaphor. Artaud writes: ‘Like the plague, theatre is a crisis, resolved either by death or cure. The plague is a superior disease because it is an absolute crisis after which there is nothing left except death or drastic purification. In the same way, theatre is a disease because it is a final balance that cannot be obtained without destruction. It urges the mind on to delirium which intensifies its energy’ (Antonin Artaud and Corti, 2014 p. 21). As this quotation indicates, Artaud wants us to see how theatre could be useful to reveal our lies, meanness, and expose further fake masks that we have put on to hide the true nature of human beings.

 

Immediate and Mediate

The major theoretical concern about theatre today amidst corona pandemic is whether the lived experience would be still a reality in the current pandemic situation. Many theatre artistes in Sri Lanka and elsewhere have been discussing how ‘liveness’ of the theatre declines when other alternative mediatised theatre practices are introduced to replace the direct contact with the living audience. For the last few months, major theatre companies and especially National theatres in the UK, Australia, Berlin, and Bolshoi Theatre in Russia and elsewhere have podcast live recordings of their theatre productions.

Theatre artistes who are attached to live events are shocked because the pandemic has us to ask whether the live theatre could survive.

Philosopher Peggy Phelan for instance stands for the intrinsic nature of theatre which favours the lived experience. This engagement is known as the autopoietic feedback loop. In this live theatre, the actor-audience co-presence is vital for the lived experience (Fischer-Lichte, 2014). However, Phillip Auslander opposing Phelan and argues that there is no hierarchical distinction between liveness and mediatized performance. In general, there is a conception that liveness is always priori and primal and more immediate than a mediatized performance. Auslander denies this premise and argues that mediatized performance ‘is just as much a human experience as the live’ (Meyer-Dinkgräfe, 2015). Hence the ‘liveness’ is not an ontological category of human experience but a historically defined and molded against the technological advancement of theatre. The binary oppositions of immediate and mediate are interdependent phenomena and an abstract idea of ‘liveness’ cannot be existed without the idea of mediatization.

 

Primal questions

Today, theatre artistes in Colombo, New Delhi, Melbourne, New York and elsewhere are experiencing the impact of restrictions on public gatherings and events. There are no more live performances. However, the contemporary theatre artists are the worst affected because they are dependent on the commercial theatre that solely relies on theatergoers and their physical presence.

This apocalyptic time calls for a rethink of our theatre practice, the way we do theatre and engage with our theatergoers. This situation has made us reflect what we have been doing in the name of theatre. The history has given us a moment to revisit our theatres, question the ways that we perceive our practices and imagine alternative ways of doing theatre amidst this human crisis because as Artaud argues, theatre is similar to a plague – both are destructive and generative. Now, it is time for us to go back to the primal questions that theatre has always been interested to explore.

Theatre has always been exploring questions related to human nature and the primal questions that have never been properly answered. Corona pandemic has driven us to question the ideas related to human survival, illness and death, health and wellbeing, being old and vulnerable, governance, democracy, suppression, and freedom. Similarly, theatre itself is a tool with which we try to find answers to those primal questions of human beings and our civilization. Today, again we are being confronted with these hard questions.

So, theatre is always about trying to grapple with existential quests!

Pragmatic philosophy

Daniel Johnston in his PhD thesis argues how actors represent practical metaphysics. In a simple way actors demonstrate philosophical concerns of human being and their practical engagement in the world through performance works (Johnston D., 2007). In line with this, let’s think about the role of the actor. What is actor and what does she do? In our contemporary and apocalyptic societies, the actor is a person who makes her living through performing characters in films, soap operas, and so on. The most recent and contemporary meanings of the notion of actor is very much related to the theatre and film business.

But the idea of actor has got many other connotations and meanings. And it has always never been limited to a single meaning of a person who is impersonating a character. But the idea of the actor/performer for us today is very much attached to the entertainment business and we never see other connotations or other alternative practices within which this idea of the actor could be enriched.

For instance, Grotowski did not believe that the actor should impersonate a character and perform. It is a self-revelation and self-exploration where the actor and the director both reveal their innate selves. Likewise, today, we may need to think about redefining the role of the actor. It is not all about performing every night at the Lionel wendt. It is about trying to grapple with some of the toughest questions in the world through the actor’s body and reveal them in the theatre.

 

Epilogue

Now, the question is whether contemporary theatre could survive if the corona measures are going to be continued for months. Without its audience members how could the theatre be a sustainable practice? What is the current situation of theatre artistes, practitioners, technicians who are making a living out of theatre? How do small theatre ensembles survive without its support of audience?

It is a hard time for professionals who depend on theatre to make a living. My sympathy is with them. When we talk about theatre, it connotes certain meanings within the context of contemporary life and society. In an extreme situation, for some people, theatre means tele dramas. For others, theatre means a particular building, a place where people gather, buy tickets, and sit in the darkness to watch an event happening on stage. This is a limited understanding about the notion of theatre. Now the problem is that we are lamenting about the declining of theatre. We think that this proscenium theatre is going to be ceased because of the corona outbreak. But theatre in its broader sense is not limited to theatre as an architectural structure. With this new world order, as it were, theatre will be flourished with novel modes of practice and reception.

 

References

Antonin Artaud and Corti, V. (2014). The theatre and its double. London: Alma Classics.

Auslander, P. (2011). Liveness : performance in a mediatized culture. London ; New York: Routledge.

Auslander, P., 2012. Digital Liveness: A Historico-Philosophical Perspective. PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 34(3), pp.3-11.

Cooke, J. (2009). Legacies of plague in literature, theory and film. Houndmills England ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Davis, T., 2009. The Cambridge Companion To Performance Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fischer-Lichte, E. (2014). The Routledge introduction to theatre and performance studies. London: Routledge.

Garner, S., 2006. Artaud, Germ Theory, and the Theatre of Contagion. Theatre Journal, 58(1), pp.1-14.

Garner, S., 2006. Artaud, Germ Theory, and the Theatre of Contagion. Theatre Journal, 58(1), pp.1-14.

Johnston, D. (2007). Active Metaphysics: Acting as Manual Philosophy or Phenomenological Interpretations of Acting Theory. University of Sydney, Australia.

Meyer-Dinkgräfe, D., 2015. Liveness: Phelan, Auslander, and After. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 29(2), pp.69-79.

MUNRO, I. (2000). The City and Its Double: Plague Time in Early Modern London. English Literary Renaissance, 30(2), pp.241–26

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Midweek Review

A philosopher emperor

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by Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

 

The titles of books can be misleading. I recall the surprise of a colleague when she saw me carrying a work titled ‘Why is Sex Fun?’ In that book, biologist Jared Diamond explores why human sexual behaviour is so very different from that of animals, even though we are descended from them and still retain some of their behavioural characteristics. The book’s subtitle is ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’. The title of Professor Ronald Dworkin’s work, ‘Religion Without God’ (Harvard University Press), seems to be a contradiction, if not an absurdity. Can an atheistic doctrine (the negating particle ‘a’ + theo) be called a religion? But then atheist Einstein said he was religious: “To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty … this knowledge, this feeling, is at the centre of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.” Some have argued that in true Buddhism, that is, as it was preached, there are no gods; even that Buddhism is not a religion but a set of moral precepts and wise, compassionate guidance. So much depends on our definition and concept of terms.

The title of the work that occupies us here, ‘How to Think like a Roman Emperor’ by Donald Robertson (New York, 2019), can initially be misleading. Did all Roman emperors think alike? Not being a Roman emperor, how can I possibly think like one? Again, the book’s subtitle clarifies: ‘The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius’. This brings us to Aurelius (121 – 180 CE) and to Stoicism. Admittedly, I have long admired Marcus Aurelius and, to alter words from Ben Jonson, have honoured him “this side of idolatry”. As a note has it, “Marcus Aurelius was the first prominent example of a philosopher king. His Stoic tome ‘Meditations’, written in Greek while on campaign between 170 and 180, is still revered as a literary monument to a philosophy of service and duty, describing how to find and preserve equanimity in the midst of conflict by following nature as a source of guidance and inspiration.”

Socrates, at his trial at which he chose death, said that an unexamined life was not worth living. Aurelius began each morning by thinking about, planning and preparing for the day. The second phase was when he, as emperor, had to act. Finally, at night he reviewed the day and his conduct during it. The ‘Meditations’ was not written for others: it was a kind of “stock taking” of himself, his reactions and behaviour. Aurelius warns himself not to become a Caesar, that is, a dictator. He tried, as far as custom and circumstances permitted, to reduce the pomp which surrounded him (Pope Francis comes to mind) preferring a simple, unpretentious life. As the Greeks knew, we can never see our own face, except by reflection in a mirror. A true friend can act as a mirror, showing us as we really are. Aurelius, therefore, welcomed criticism. Severe on himself, he was patient and kind towards others. As history shows, this extended even to those who had rebelled against him. I wonder if Forster’s comment in his novel, ‘A Passage to India’, that truth is not truth unless spoken gently, derives from the words and example of Marcus Aurelius. Truth, if spoken unkindly, serves only to alienate and antagonise. It may silence the other but does not convince or persuade. In his ‘Meditations’, Aurelius records and rebukes himself when he falls short of the standards he has set himself. The emperor wondered how he could estimate the worth of an individual, and decided it was by seeing to what things that person gave value. In modern terms, it doesn’t mean we must not take an interest in cricket, fashion or food but how much importance and value do we place on such things? Aurelius as emperor couldn’t retreat to his library but had to act. When war broke out on the frontier, he left the safety and comfort of Rome and placed himself at the front with his soldiers. Nor was he solemn and humourless. He is reported to have been good-humoured, affectionate, and close to his family and friends. Before age and responsibilities burdened him, he had hobbies and, as was expected of Roman youths and young men, was active in sports.

At the end, knowing that he was dying; that doctors and medicines couldn’t help, the Emperor calmly and courageously declined food and drink so as not to engage in a futile prolongation of the inevitable. Such an attitude and action are the result of long and serious thought, and preparation: in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ (Act 1, Scene 4) it’s said of a man that he faced his own execution as one who had “studied” how to die. Aurelius must have known the Latin saying that someone who is not afraid of death cannot be enslaved. Changing time and place, John Donne in a sonnet that begins “Death be not proud” argues that since a person can die only once, having killed him, it’s Death that dies. And in Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ (Act 2, Scene 2) Caesar says: “Cowards die many times before their deaths”. As he was dying, Seamus Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, managed to send a text message to his wife in the language he loved, Latin. It consisted of two words: Noli timere (Don’t fear).

Though I am in no way a specialist in either, I am struck by important similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism. For a start, the cornerstone of both is rationality. The Buddha lived from 563 – 483 BCE and Zeno, credited with being the founder of Stoicism, from 334 – 262 BCE. And long before Alexander the Great reached India in 326 BCE, there were links between India and the West. Did Asian Buddhism play a role in the development of Western Stoicism? If research has been done in this area, it has not received publicity: the most effective way of “sinking” a book is to ignore it. Take, for example, Martin Bernal’s thesis in his ‘Black Athena’ that the roots of Western Classical civilization were Afro-Asian. So too, many a male must have been outraged by Martin Stone when he argued in ‘When God was a Woman’ that the first divinities before whom we bowed our heads or prostrated ourselves were female, particularly the ‘mother goddess’. In Sri Lanka, that lucid and refreshing, if radical, work by Dr K S Palihakkara, ‘Buddhism Sans Myths & Miracles’ (Stamford Lake publishers, Pannipitiya) has not excited much, if any, public discussion. Dr Palihakkara’s declared effort was to rescue and cleanse Buddhism from the accretion over time of “myths and miracles and metaphysics”: these took away what was unique to Buddhism, making it more like other religions.

So much of our attitude to life and death depends on our eschatology, our ideas and beliefs about death and the afterlife. The Stoics were atheists believing that at death we disintegrate into and merge with the material, a material which is itself constantly changing. Whether there’s a similarity here with Buddhism, I leave to the reader. The cardinal virtues of Greek philosophy, as of Buddhism, include wisdom (the product of reason and thought), moderation and justice. With Buddhism, it’s not mere verbal and public protestation but actual practice, and so it was with the Stoics. Stoicism was a way of life, assiduously trained in; exemplified by character and conduct.

While in Islam representations of the Prophet are forbidden, Christianity has many paintings and sculptures of Jesus; Jesus with different expression, including pain, even agony. In contrast, the Buddha is almost invariably depicted as being serene. When we lived in Bonn, I used to admire the swans on the Rhine, their sedateness and dignity but, looking more carefully, one saw that these were the result of their feet working constantly, often against the current. So too, the serenity of the Buddha is the result of thought and effort: as is the calm associated with the Stoic.

Anger is temporary madness. Because a deranged person is not controlled by reason, it follows that someone who is angry, someone whose anger is not under control is, for the duration, mad. True Buddhists and Stoics do not give in to anger; they remain detached; free and above this “madness”.

Stoic calmness, the result of mental control, must not be mistaken for emotionlessness. To feel pain and sorrow is human: what counts is our reaction to them. The operative word here is “acceptance”. Sorrow, while it has its impact on us, must be met with wisdom; pain, with acceptance. (Related to acceptance is the key term and concept of relinquishment.) Thorns hurt, and the Bible advises us not to increase the pain by kicking against them. The Stoic image was of a dog tied to a cart: the dog can either walk along or make things worse for itself by struggling, futilely and painfully. A 20th century philosopher asked for the courage to change those things which can be changed; the serenity to accept what can’t be altered, and the wisdom to know the difference. Donald Robertson, a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, brings in modern terms and concepts to an understanding of Marcus Aurelius, among them the Stoic reserve-clause. Our expectations are ‘reserved’ for what is within our sphere of control: the rest is up to chance or, as believers would say, “Deo volente” or “Deo gratis”. (When I asked a friend why he often said “Inshallah” though he had never been a Muslim and was in fact a thorough atheist, he replied that it was in a philosophical and not in a religious sense: “If my effort and chance will it”.) As with emotions, so with our desires: of importance to the Stoics was (a) what we desired; (b) to what degree, and (c) how we set about achieving these desires.

Central to Buddhism and Stoicism is an awareness of transience, known in the former as “Anicca”. Heraclitus (500 BCE) famously declared that all is flux. We cannot step into the same river twice because fresh waters are ever flowing in. For better or worse, we are not the same as we were several, or even a few, years ago. We change, others change, relationships change, the world around us changes. All is flux. And as T S Eliot, borrowing from Hinduism, writes in ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, only a fool fixed in his folly thinks he can turn the wheel on which he turns.

I read that there’s a tribe which mourns birth and celebrates death, and Shakespeare in his major tragedy ‘King Lear’ suggests with ironic wit that all infants cry when they are born because they have come to this world! Freud suggested that in as much as we have an instinct for preservation and survival, there can also be a wish for death, for a return to a previous state of non-existence: see terms such as ‘Todestriebe’ and ‘Thanatos’. James Thomson in his poem, ‘City of Dreadful Night’ writes:

This little life is all we must endure,

The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,

We fall asleep and never wake again;

Nothing is of us but the mouldering flesh,

Whose elements dissolve and merge afresh…

 

 

“And the cessation / of life’s peacock scream / will be relief” (Liebetraut Sarvan).

In Book 1 of his ‘Histories’, Herodotus relates the story of a mother who, full of love for and pride in her two sons, prays in the evening to the goddess Hera that she bestows on them “the greatest blessing” that can fall on mortals. The goddess answers the prayer, and the young men are found in the morning – dead. Diagones (412 – 323 BCE) who had a sharp sense of ‘humour’ requested that his dead body be thrown over the city walls so that the wild animals could have a meal: no longer having consciousness, what was done to his body didn’t matter. Respect for a corpse; gravestones and monuments; memorial services, prayers and rituals are for the living, and not for the dead. Buddhist nirvana means the final deliverance from suffering and sorrow: an escape into freedom effected by ceasing to be.

Given these conceptions of life and death, it is not surprising that suicide (not on impulse; not in despair or in a state of temporary madness) was accepted; indeed, in certain situations it was admired and highly honoured. Shakespeare’s Hamlet contemplating suicide and the “sleep” that follows it, saw death as a “consummation” devoutly to be wished for. Each individual must decide, with utmost clarity and calmness “whether the time is come to take leave of life” (‘Meditations’, Book 3). Or as Aurelius expresses it elsewhere, the chimney smokes and I leave the room (Book 5). To the Stoics, lamentation at death was for the loss that the living experienced, and not for the departed:

 

No motion has she now, no force

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course With rocks, and stones, and trees

(William Wordsworth)

 

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) wrote: “I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world.” And so I return to the serenity of the Buddha and to the calm of Stoicism: the aim of both was (through rational thought and conscious, controlled, behaviour) to minimise pain and to increase peace and happiness. Both Buddhism and Stoicism are positive and life-enhancing.

Addendum.

I draw attention to what I wrote in ‘Colombo Telegraph’ (1 February 2018) under the caption ‘Religious doctrine and religion’. If we say that Christianity is a gentle, or Buddhism a compassionate, religion what we mean is these faiths as they were taught – most certainly, not as they are practiced in private and public life. I suggested a distinction between religious doctrine and religion with its rituals, paraphernalia, hierarchy, myths and superstitions. Religious doctrine has a divine or semi-divine origin or is from an exalted, exceptional, individual. Simplifying, one could say: “Religious doctrine is ‘divine’ but religion is a human construct”.

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Midweek Review

Heisnam Kanhailal (1941-2016): Remembering a Theatrical Legacy

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Sabitri demonstrates walking upstream during an actor training workshop at NSD, 2010. Photo credit Saumya Liyanage.

 

by Dr Saumya Liyanage

Victor Thoudam, one of my closest friends, was a student at the National School of Drama (NSD) New Delhi, India; he was about to launch his latest performance in Imphal, Manipur amidst Covid-19 pandemic. I contacted Victor to congratulate him on his work. During our conversation, I asked him about Kanhailal, a visionary director and writer I met in 2010 in New Delhi. He said, “Kanhailal is no more with us”. I was saddened and felt lost while remembering my short but worthy conversation I had had with Kanhailal in the early winter days of 2010 at the NSD. I have associated with Indian theatre directors from the northeastern region, and I had fruitful conversations with three of them during my visits to NSD. One was theatre and film actor Adil Hussain. Other two were theatre directors and writers Heisnam Kanhailal and Ratan Thiyam. Since 2010, I have had spoken with my Indian colleagues and nobody informed me that Kanhailal has passed away. Then I asked Victor about Ratan Thiyam, and he said, “He is getting old but is still active in theatre”.

 

NSD Years

It was winter in New Delhi and the chilly wind was unbearable when travelling at night in a trishaw for a play or a movie. But Bharath Rang Mahothsav (BRM), the International Theatre Festival, organised by the NSD, provided warmth and the motivation for me to witness regional and global theatre trends. The International theatre festival was on at several theatres around the school, including Abhimunch; theatre productions from all over the world and every part of India were being staged in the evening. There were also dance experimentations and other happenings in various non-conventional performance spaces in the school premises.

After watching plays at night, students, teachers, actors, and directors would gather around a bonfire outside the school premises, sipping milk tea, eating samosas and discussing what they have seen. On such an occasion, my colleagues at NSD, Prof. Robindas, and Adil Hussain got me to watch a play from the Manipur region. The Director was Heisnam Kanhailal. During my breakfast at the crowded canteen of the NSD, students also insisted that I see Kanhailal’s production and Ratan Thiyam’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken. NSD staff was generous enough to provide me free tickets to watch all the plays during the festival.

Ratan Thiyam

It was the first time I saw Ratan Thiyam’s theatre work. The hall was packed with students, theatergoers, critics, and laymen. Some spectators were even sitting on the floor. Ratan Thiyam was very famous in Delhi. I was mesmerized by Ratan Thiyam’s theatrical approach to Ibsen’s play. It was adapted and produced in a Manipoorian style with mind blowing sets and costumes. Ratan’s actors, their rigor in performing on stage, are unforgettable. But critics like Rustom Bharucha argue that Ratan’s theatre is more festival centric and elaborate colours and sets which overpowers the real essence of his theatre. As Bharucha further emphasizes, Ratan Thiyam creates a theatrical extravaganza or an ‘invented tradition’ through which an imagined ‘Manipooriness’ and indigeneity is created for the cultural centers such as New Delhi and elsewhere.

Kanhailal and Indigenous Theatre

The theatre has stunned me twice so far. The first one is the play titled Othello in Black and White directed by Royston Abel. It was staged at the BRM festival before 2010. cannot remember the exact date. My colleague Adil Hussain played the key role in it. His performance as Othello was fantastic. The second was the Manipur play, adapted from a folk tale, and directed by Heisnam Kanhailal. It was very simple and minimalistic. The key role was played by a matured actress. Later I found that she was the collaborator and lifelong partner of Kanhailal’s plays, Sabitri. Today, I vaguely remember the play as I saw this production way back in 2010.

When Artaud writes how an actor should impact upon the audience member and should vibrate her body similar to a serpent feeling the vibration of the floor, Sabitri’s lyrical body and stylized movements directly communicated with me. Rejecting the mundane theatre conventions, Kanhailal’s actors used human voice in its fullest capacity and tonal variations, and the lyrical body movements to convey the meanings of a human story. This masterpiece exceeded my generic understanding of proscenium theatre and was a vibratory theatrical experience with a minimum effort of extraordinary theatre effects.

After watching this play, I was eagerly waiting to have a discussion with Kanhailal. My friend Victor came, the following day, with a photocopied book. It was about Kanhailal’s theatre practice written by Prof. Rustom Bharucha. It was The Theatre of Kanhailal: Pebet & Memoirs of Africa (1992). Because it was out of print. It was a precious present for me as I started reading Kanhailal’s theatre career and his practice. With the support of NSD staff, I managed to get an appointment from Khaneilal to meet him for a discussion. I met him at the NSD with his wife Sabitri and had a long discussion on his theatre, his beliefs, his practice, and training regime of actors in Kalakshetra, theatre ensemble located in Imphal, Manipur.

Third Theatre

For Bharucha, Kanhailal’s ‘poor theatre’ (meaning the avoidance of excessive theatre technology or other auxiliary material) is a powerful political idiom which captures the indigenous sentiment and oppression of people live in Imphal, Manipur. Writing about Kanhailal ’s famous theatre work, Pebet (1975), Bharucha contends that as a theatre director, Kanhailal questions the idea of janmabhumi, the patriotic ideology created by the dominants, used as an oppressive tool to suppress the marginalised communities (Bharucha 1992). In this play, mother Pebet (a small extinct bird) is disgracefully attacked by her own children after being manipulated by her opponents. When this play was first performed, it was considered not only as anti-Hindu production but also a theatre work promoting anti-Indian sentiment.

Kanhailal and Sabitri conducted several actor training sessions for graduate students during my stay at the NSD. These sessions consisted of learning from nature and working with various natural metaphors to create imaginative bodily movements. Most of the time, Kanhailal appeared as a guru, discussing and explaining things to students while Sabitri demonstrated all the exercises they discussed in class. One of the exciting acting exercises that I observed was walking upstream in a river. Sabitri’s body was a flexible tool although she was in her later fifties at the time. She started showing students how to imagine a shallow river and wade it. Students were then asked to imitate Sabitri and her body movements. Workshop went for two hours followed by a discussion.

Similar to other theatre practitioners in the new era of Indian theatre, Kanhailal has been inspired by European Avant Guards such as Grotowski’s corporeal theatre and also Badal Sirkar’s approaches to communal theatre coined as ‘third theatre’ in India (Nair, 2007, Hirsch and Brustein, 1970, Brahma Prakash, 2010). While his contemporary theatre director Ratan Thiyam’s theatre was criticized as ‘reinvention of tradition’ and meant to please for the cultural centres in India, Kanhailal’s theatre is minimalistic and dominates non-verbal theatricalities opposed to established proscenium, middle class theatres. However, Bharucha is critical of being non-verbal and the domination and overemphasis of pre-expressivity of Kanhailal’s theatre. As he argues ‘Kanhailal seems to have overstressed non-verbalism and the physicality of his actor’s training at the expense of confronting the spoken word […] The instincts and reflexes of Kanhailal’s actors are extremely sharp, but their minds have been somewhat numbed by their essentially dream-like response to performance.’ (Bharucha, 1992, p. 19). Kanhailal’s theatre is unique in that he borrows most of his materials from his inherent Meitei tradition and its folklore. Yet, these folk tales and fables are transformed into political idioms through lyrical and corporeal works of actors. As a theatre producer, Kanhailal rejects elaborate sets, costumes, music, stage props, make-up, or stage light. His theatre can be performed either on conventional proscenium theatre or any space where people can gather. This simplistic and minimalistic nature lays emphasis on actors’ contribution, their mannerisms, and vocal capacity to impress the audience more than anything else. Hence, Kanhailal creates a powerful and unique theatre mode through which our senses are filled with a novel theatrical experience.

Conclusion

Kanhailal’s theatre and Sabitri’s performances have been well received by many critics, theatre scholars in India and abroad. Kanhailal received the Padma Sri Civilian Award in 2004 and later in 2016 he received the highest Padma Bhushan Civilian Award from the Government of India. Kanhailal and his collaborative partner Sabitri have created over 20 productions during their theatre career. Most of these productions have been performed in major cities in India and at international theatre festivals. Sabitri as an actresss has received many awards and accolades including Best Actress awards at Cairo International Theatre Festival, Natya Rathna and other state wards such as Padma Sri and Sangeeth Natak Academy Award.

Working and dedicating one’s life and energy to sustaining a community-based theatre is a difficult exercise. Kanhilal and Sabitri have both succeeded in their endeavour. Many students who graduate from the NSD are attracted to more popular entertainment industries such as television and cinema. But theatre artists such as Ratan Thiyam or Kanhailal were not drawn towards those popular expressions. Instead, they dedicated their lives to creating a form of ephemeral arts, whose original quality cannot be preserved in another form.

(The author wishes to thank Himansi Dehigama for assistance in preparing this article.)

Reference

Bharucha, R. (1992). The Indigenous Theatre of Kanhailal. New Theatre Quarterly, 8(29), pp.10–22.

Brahma Prakash (2010). Theatre of Roots: Redirecting the Modern Indian Stage (review). Asian Theatre Journal, 27(1), pp.175–179.

Hirsch, F. and Brustein, R. (1970). The Third Theatre. Educational Theatre Journal, 22(1), p.113.

Kothari, S. and Panchal, G. (1984). The Rising Importance of Indigenous Theatre in India. Asian Theatre Journal, 1(1), p.112.

Nair, Sreenath. (2007). Poetics, Plays, and Performance: The Politics of Modern Indian Theatre (review). Asian Theatre Journal, 25(1), pp.165–168.

Rustom Bharucha (1992). The theatre of Kanhailal: Pebet & Memoirs of Africa. Calcutta: Seagull Books.

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The rise of the Bonapartists:

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A political history of post-1977 Sri Lanka (Part I)

By Uditha Devapriya

Viewed in retrospect, the yahapalanaya regime seems almost a bad memory now, best forgotten. This is not to underrate its achievements, for the UNP-SLFP Unity Government did achieve certain things, like the Right to Information Act. It soon found out, however, that it couldn’t shield itself from its own reforms; that’s how 2015 led to 2019. Despite its laudable commitment to democratic rule, the yahapalanists reckoned without the popularity of the man they ousted at the ballot box. November 2019, in that sense, was a classic example of a populist resurrection, unparalleled in South Asia, though not in Asia: a government touting a neoliberal line giving way to a centre-right populist-personalist.

What went wrong with the yahapalanist experiment? Its fundamental error was its inability to think straight: the moment Maithripala Sirisena reinforced his power by wresting control of the SLFP from Mahinda Rajapaksa, he ceded space to the Joint Opposition.

Roughly, the same thing happened to the C. P. de Silva faction in 1970: after five years in power, it yielded to the same forces it had overthrown from its own party. The lesson de Silva learnt and the yahapalanists so far haven’t was that no progressive centre-left party can jettison its leftist faction while getting into a coalition with a rightwing monolith without having its credentials questioned at the ballot box. When voters responded by electing the leftist faction in 1970, the leader of the rightwing coalition, the UNP, faced electoral defeat. Dudley Senanayake had to step down, just as Ranil Wickremesinghe had to.

Deceptively conclusive as comparisons between 1970 and 2020 may be, however, there is an important distinction to make. The rightwing ideology the UNP under Dudley Senanayake, adhered to was qualitatively different to the rightwing ideology Senanayake’s successor J. R. Jayewardene embraced. The two Senanayakes, Jayewardene, and John Kotelawala lived and had been brought up in the shadow of the British Empire. Upon coming to power they oversaw a shift in their party ideology from Whitehall to Washington; this process reached its climax in the McCarthyist Kotelawala administration.

Jayewardene was the last of the Old Right leaders whose fortunes were tied directly to the plantation economy and whose ideology cohered with the Bretton Woods Keynesian Right of Richard Nixon and Ted Heath. The paradox at the heart of his presidency, and the shift to populism at the hands of his successors, has much to do with the transition from this Old Right to a New Right. I begin my two-part essay with that transition.

The New Right, or the neoliberal Right, came into prominence via the election of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher on either side of the Atlantic. These two figures eschewed not only the leftist opposition, but also predecessors from their own parties; Ted Heath remained to the Left of Thatcher, for instance, while Gerald Ford criticised certain parts of Reagan’s reform programme (though eventually he extended his support).

In the industrialised economies of the West, to put it succinctly, the Old Right adhered as much to price controls, quantitative easing, and economic stimulus as did their rivals on the Left. By contrast, the New Right preferred low inflation even at the cost of full employment, the elimination of subsidies, and privatisation. Readers’ Digest called David Stockman “David the Budget Killer.” The epithet was not unjustified: at the Office of Management and Budget where he served as President during the first Reagan administration, Stockman oversaw the biggest rollback of the US state since the New Deal. Nixon famously claimed that we were all Keynesians, but Reagan enthroned monetarism. So did Thatcher.

How did that spill over to underdeveloped economies, particularly non-industrialised ones such as Sri Lanka’s? In the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, much of the Non-Aligned non-West suffered a full decade of unprecedented calamity in the form of famines, shortages, and inefficient, unresponsive bureaucracies. The governments of many of these countries opted for state-led industrialisation, which coupled with stagflation and incomplete land reforms at home failed to deliver on what it pledged and promised.

Indeed, laudable as Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s reforms were, they became mired in their own contradictions: as S. B. D. de Silva observed, they entrenched a class of intermediaries who benefited from the regime’s economic programme. “Nothing came out of [its] attempt to industrialise,” he recounted in his last interview in 2017, “because the industrialisation was really foreign exchange driven.” In other words, embedded in it were the seeds of its own electoral destruction, a fate accelerated by the jettisoning of the Left in 1975.

The transition from the Old to the New Right in the West led to the growth of finance capital, the deindustrialisation of Western economies and the shift to Free Trade Zones in the global periphery, and the enforcement of structural adjustment vis-à-vis the IMF, the latter revolving around four principles: economic stabilisation, liberalisation, deregulation, and privatisation (Thomson, Kentikelenis, and Stubbs 2017).

Between 1970 and 1980, debt levels in Latin America alone rose by over a thousand percent. Structural adjustment, at the time lacking the kind of critique evolved by the likes of Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty later, promised a way out of indebtedness which would lead to growth, development, low inflation, and free trade. The flip-side to these benefits, which its champions left out of the discussion, was widespread poverty, a widening income gap, high unemployment, and trade practices slanted and tilted heavily to the West.

Not unlike the World Bank prescription that preceded it, structural adjustment favoured the dismantling of local industry. But where the World Bank had prescribed the establishment of small cottage industries and continued emphasis on agriculture, the IMF recommended the privatisation of local industry AND agriculture to multinational corporations. This was in keeping with the new monetarist philosophy: reduce the money supply, lower marginal tax rates, maintain a minimal social safety net, and welcome the robber barons.

The East Asian economies grew against a different backdrop. Multinational companies until then were largely, if at all, limited to Central and Latin America: the United Fruit economies. In essence, the IMF and World Bank repackaged the United Fruit model and introduced it to countries newly embracing neoliberalism. Among these was Sri Lanka.

In a critique of Mangala Samaraweera’s maiden Budget Speech in 2017, Dayan Jayatilleka pointed out that inasmuch as the J. R. Jayewardene administration enacted open economic reforms, it did so within the framework of a centralised state. Therein lies a paradox I earlier alluded to of the Jayewardene presidency and, to an extent, of the Premadasa presidency: the dismantling of the economy did not follow from a dismantling of the state.

Yet this differed very little from what was happening in other countries enacting structural adjustment packages: economic liberalisation took place under the watch of a centralised, authoritarian state. Much of the reason for this has to do with the contradiction at the heart of structural adjustment itself: while it freed the economy, it shackled the majority, and to keep them from rising up in protest, it had to shackle dissent too.

It’s no cause for wonder, then, that many of the leaders of countries who would oversee the transition from state-led industrialisation to “export-oriented” MNC driven growth hailed from the Old Right. Jayewardene was no exception: an eloquent, shrewd populist, he made overtures to a virtuous society while entrenching a merchant class of robber barons.

Meanwhile, the rise of a civil society posing as an alternative to the private and the public sectors, but in reality aligned with the private sector, made it no longer possible for radical scholars, educated in the West, to get involved in policy implementation with the state. As Vinod Moonesinghe has noted in a paper on relations between civil society and government (“Civil society – government relations in Sri Lanka”), after 1983 there came about a steep rise in NGO numbers. Susantha Goonetilake (Recolonisation) has argued that the structures and relationships of power within and the activities of these enclaves came to reflect those of a private organisation more than of an institution affiliated to civil society.

In stark contrast to its earlier position of engagement with the public sector, civil society stood apart and aloof from the latter, inadvertently breaking away from its historical task of getting involved at the grassroots level in policy formulation and implementation. Ironically this served to speed up the government’s delinking from civil society: enmeshed in the private sector, NGOs ended up spouting postmodernist and post-Marxist rhetoric, offering no viable alternative to the UNP’s development paradigm.

Even more ironically, what that led to was a situation where, at the height of the second JVP insurrection, their most ubiquitous representatives took the side of the government over the rebels while taking the side of Tamil separatists over the government: a paradox, given that both groups were fighting the state over class as much as over ethnicity. The NGOs’ selective treatment of the JVP and the LTTE justifies the view that in the 1980s, ethnicity replaced class as the dominant topic of discussion by social scientists.

All this undoubtedly contributed to the separation of the state from the public sphere: a prerequisite of structural adjustment and economic liberalisation. Yet paradoxically, while that process of separation went ahead, it required as a lever an autocrat who could, and would, crack down on trade unions, appease a growing petty bourgeoisie and middle class, and in contradiction to the principles of nonalignment, ally with the West. This meant couching everything domestic in Cold War terms and slanting it to an anti-Marxist position: not for no reason, after all, did Jayewardene refer to the LTTE as a group of rebels fighting to establish a Marxist state in a BBC interview. Appeasing the middle-class with these methods was easy because the middle-class faced a dilemma: while it bemoaned the government’s authoritarianism, it was in no mood to revert to the autarkyism of the Bandaranaike era. It wanted more representation, while keeping the economy open.

At the heart of middle-class support for the Jayewardene presidencies, however, lay a fatal time bomb: its Buddhist constituency. When Jayewardene, in 1982, authorised the writing of a continuation of the Mahavamsa, he reaffirmed his regime’s commitment to a Buddhist polity. In an essay on the Jathika Chintanaya, Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri argued that while in one way 1977 appeared to be “a symbolic marker of a new epoch”, in another it betrayed “a loss of something that is Sinhala Buddhist.” Supplementing this was the rift at the heart of J. R.’s reforms: political authoritarianism versus economic liberalisation. Both were viewed as betrayals of Buddhism, quoting Stanley Tambiah’s book; dharmista samajayak, after all, was as much the winning promise of Jayewardene’s campaign as it was the title of Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s critique of his regime’s breach of that promise.

The suburban Sinhala middle bourgeoisie of artists, artisans, and professionals responded lukewarmly to Jayewardene. The results of the 1989 election confirmed the scepticism with which they viewed the achievements and failures of his administration: more than 46% of the UNP’s votes came from a third of the country’s electorate, none of which comprised Colombo’s suburbs (except for the city and the Catholic belt to the north of Colombo), while 38% of the SLFP’s votes came from, inter alia, those suburbs. The new UNP candidate they viewed cynically; “they were not convinced that Premadasa represented adequate change” (Samarasinghe 1989). The SLFP’s popularity among state employees, in particular, showed when it won 49.5% of the postal vote. A crucial litmus test for Premadasa would therefore be how his presidency would be viewed by the Sinhala Buddhist middle-class.

To be continued next week…

 

(The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com)

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