रंगमंच तथा विभिन्न कला माध्यमों पर केंद्रित सांस्कृतिक दल "दस्तक" की ब्लॉग पत्रिका.

गुरुवार, 15 मार्च 2012

How Authentic is Authentic? - Deepan Sivaraman

Peer Gynt 2010 Deepan Sivaraman 
Tradition versos modernity

The last six decade’s following independence Indian theatre makers, cultural theorists and critics have debated and discussed the concept of ‘indigenous’ and ‘’alien’’ practices in performance making and play writing in India. The theatre of roots movement has critiqued urban realist theatre which stands for the modernity and cosmopolitism as a remnant of colonialism while the adherents of urban movement have critiqued the theatre of roots movement which stands for the ‘authenticity’ as a form of revivalism.
As an aftermath of this cultural and creative cold war the traditionalist Indian critique of westernized modernity has called for a rejection of alien theatrical forms planted in the urban locations by the colonisers and urged to restart the identity search from the indigenous theatre of rural India. This argument was initially developed and led by theatre scholars as Suresh Awasthi, Nemichandra Jain and Kapila Vatsyayanan which later practised by the directors as Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, B V Karnath, Habib Tanvir and Rathan Thiyam. Theatre historian Aparna Dharvadkar identifies, the proponents of theatre of roots movement ‘’dismissed the complex body of European influenced new social-realist, existentialist, absurdist, Brechtian contemporary urban theatre as ‘‘un-Indian’’ and argued that the only possibility of an authentic alternative modernity in Indian theatre is to going back to the aesthetics and representational principles of indigenous performance genres[1]’’.

It’s not my intention to bring back this mammoth old debate, ‘‘the authenticity of Indian theatre’’ to the podium when Indian theatre have already dropped it in the midway and moved much forward from it. But in recent years Kerala theatre is also witnessing a similar debate on the authenticity of contemporary theatre and a number of new generation theatre makers including myself have been criticised for making ‘‘European influenced theatre’’ in Kerala. The argument put forward is that the kind of theatre language explored by younger theatre generation is ‘’rootless’’, ‘’too modern’’ and ‘’too technological’’. In this context I think it’s valid to discuss this subject a little further. 

Death dream 2004 Deepan sivaraman 
My position

As an Indian theatre practitioner who grew up in post independent India exposed to predominantly western theatre training, it’s true that my theatre perspective has been highly influenced by western theatre tradition or western influenced modern Indian theatre. Though I was born and brought up in a small Kerala village I wasn’t exposed to the so called traditional rural based theatre forms such as Koodiyattom or Kathakali as I neither  belong to an upper caste Hindu family system nor has any family theatre back ground . So my theatre perspective started to form when I began amateur theatre activities in early 90s which further developed when I joined the School of Drama at Thrissur. However I must admit that as I grew up in a village I had the opportunity to engage with rituals and folk theatre forms which were always part of my social life. I think this mix of culture and knowledge is a very typical case for many of post independent Indian artists regardless of their region or field of work.  

My theatre language has often been criticised for not being “Indian enough” though my work is based on a research which explores the scenography of popular Indian theatre and deals with the very question of Indian identity challenging the supremacy of proscenium.  The argument is that my theatre is too modern and too technological which implies that contemporary India has nothing to do with either modernity or technology. Another criticism is that my recent works ‘Spinal Cord’ and ‘Peer Gynt’ lack the Kerala culture’’ as it is informed by the symbolism of ‘’foreign Christian culture’’. Yes, it’s true that both the plays are set in the back ground of Christian culture but the perception of considering Christian or Islam as alien to Indian culture is dangerous and it shouldn’t be entertained. For me the Hindu festival Thrissur pooram[2] and the Christian festival Pavaratti Perunnal[3] are equally Keralite. There is no equal to Viakkom Muhammad Bhasheer’s literature in Kerala which is partially because of his Islamic textured Malabarian Malayalam slang.
The argument, MT Vasudevan Nair’s Valluvanadan upper Caste Hindu slang is more Keralan than Bhasheer’s Islamic slang should be defeated. The great beauty of Keralite and Indian society is its vibrancy of multiculturalism. Hence the idea of being authentic Indian or Kerala is certainly problematic and questionable.

Historically the hostility towards modernity and technology is a feudal nature as the former offers equal opportunity based on one’s ability rather than the privilege gained by birth. Opposing ‘’edginess’’ in art by the conventionalists has always been a regular feature in the history of art and the present debate on ’cultural Identity’ in Indian/Kerala theatre should be read in this context.  

My position is simple. For me contemporary India is modern, secular, rational and technological and as a contemporary theatre maker I believe it’s my responsibility to respond to the socio political environment of present India which I think is the duty of any contemporary artist. Therefore I am not searching for the authenticity of Indian theatre but engaging in an ongoing debate on the language of Indian theatre through the perspective of a scenographer and director producing work that challenges the society which I inhabit.
Costume Design Sakunthalam-2006 Deepan Sivaraman 
The Issue of Indian Identity.

The concept of ‘’authenticity’’ as the issue of Indian identity is still a heated topic in India especially as it has always been the favourite subject of India’s right wing nationalist political parties.

I support the position of Anuradha Kapur the present director of National School of Drama who raised the question in her study of Ramlila: “Is there any authentic Indian tradition”?[4]“Authenticity,” is a complex term to define, especially in the context of India’s diverse cultural history.  The question is that, “If we start to do layer our cultural palimpsest then how far we can go?” 

For Kapur ‘‘Authenticity is a category of thought intrinsically linked to post colonial preoccupations with ‘identity’ and roots, which are themselves constrained within the polarities of East and West. By setting up our tradition as ‘true’ against the encroachments of a ‘foreign’ culture, we manufacture a history of tradition that is basically moulded by the West insofar as it is posited as its exact alterity’’[5].

In Aparna Bhargava Dharwadker’s opinion ‘’In order to reject modernity in theatre as an unacceptable Western legacy, one would logically also have to reject modernity in other forms of social and cultural organization’’. In this context Badal Sarkar the Bengali playwright-director who used theatre as a tool for social change regarded folk theatre not ‘’modern theatre’’, as alien to his urban and middle class-sensibility[6]’’.

Tughlaq Ebrahim Alkazi 
Problems behind the idea of being authentic. 

Going back to history, it was ‘’Theatre of roots movement’’ in late 1950s first alarmed the danger of cultural corruption of Indian theatre by the influence of colonialism. Rustom Bharucha (1993) gives a broader explanation of the ideology behind the movement of theatre of roots.  ‘’Theatre of roots movement was primarily an ideological set up against ‘Western realistic Theatre’, in order to turn modern Indian theatre back into its own ‘roots’. By doing this, they assumed that Indian artists can reverse the colonial course of contemporary theatre and put it back on the track of India’s great Natyashasthra tradition’’[7].  In other words, what mattered was, to establish a direct line with the Natyashsthara itself in order to construct an authentic Indian theatre lacks the overall understanding of the complex cultural history of India.
When We Dead Awaken. Ratan Thiyam. 
In order to understand the above mentioned cultural complexity let us take the example of the works of Rattan Thiyam the most vibrant ‘theatre of roots’ director in the country. Although Thiyam explored the alternative theatre spaces in the early stage of his career he mostly used the ‘colonial proscenium’ in order to make the true ‘authentic Indian theatre’ which is exactly what happened to both Panikkar and Karanth who were also the leaders of this  movement. The validity of this kind of ‘authenticity’ is what many of others have questioned. The complex reality is that Rathan Thiyam was a student of Ebrahim Alkazi who was a graduate of Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London and doubtlessly is one of the first sophisticated urban Indian theatre makers in modern India. It was the intention of Alkazi to develop a modern theatre school in India which National School of Drama, New Delhi, established in 1960s with the tradition of RADA aiming to professionalise Indian theatre. It’s true that Rathan Thiyam’s theatre has been strongly influenced by his exposure to the proscenium theatre, as represented to him by his mentor, Alkazi at the National School of Drama in Delhi. As a result Rathan Thiyam started to make theatre inspired by the visual language of Manipuri popular theatre forms as a front runner of theatre of roots movement but at the same time he simply used the possibilities of existing proscenium stage, a craft he probably learned from National School of Drama as an early student of Ibrahim Alkazi.      

The pardox

To conclude this note I would like to bring a piece of history which may shed more light to the complexity of Indian culture. 
At the midnight of August 15th, 1947 India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru addressed the nation. All India Radio broadcasted his historical speech live across the country. Millions of sleepless Indians gathered in every street corner, waited to hear about their destiny through the voice of their beloved leader. Paradoxically he chose to deliver his speech in ‘English’ the language of his colonisers which only a few percentages of urban middle class Indians could follow. The large majority of ordinary Indians who waited all night to hear the destiny of their new nation had to walk home without understanding a single word of what their beloved leader was speaking! Why did Nehru the man who fought all his life against the rule of English choose to speak in the language of his colonisers on that momentous night?

Answering this question would provide the key to an understanding of the nature of the impact of British colonialism on India. ‘‘The creation of a native elite in its own image was the most spectacular and enduring achievement of British colonialism in India’’. So, was Nehru one of them? May be he was and maybe not. What else could he have been as a man born and brought up in the British cross cultured India? It’s not my intention to prove Nehru’s passion towards English culture over Indian part which caused him to use English to deliver his historic speech. What important is the fact that Nehru’s speech sheds light on the complex nature of Indian culture and it explains why I call it a ‘’cultural palimpsest’’.

Vangoghs version of japanese Squall
 Hybridity of art. 

Coming back to the subject, the pertinent question is for whom we make theatre and how we do it? Shouldn’t it be focused on the present social realities of Kerala and shouldn’t it be speak the language of today.  Otherwise what is the point of calling today's theatre contemporary? I don’t understand the logic of considering a piece of theatre based on our epics Ramayanam or Mahabhartham more Indian or Kerala rather than the theatre that speak the language of today form wise and content wise which tells the story of our current society. How can we deny the relevance of present time where we are all live in? If we do deny the relevance of it, we are simply questioning the relevance of our own existence! How can we shoot our own feet?

The so called perception about “Indianness” surfaced from the concept that the past is truer than the present.  Whilst acknowledging that colonialism re-enforced the class divisions in India especially in theatre I argue that the search for an ‘’authentic Indian theatre’’ has no validity in the context of India’s complex cultural history.

The Constant Prince Jerzy Grotowski 
When we are always ready to engage with present modern India taking advantage of the technologies that developed from other part of the world to keep up our daily life I wonder why we are so hostile towards the usage of technologies in theatre because it may have originated some other part of the world? Both art and technology are knowledge not just discourse. If there was no invention of wheel the present world where we are all live in wouldn’t be in its current position. That tells us something which we can’t ignore. If we look into the history of art many artists have been influenced by other cultures and in fact these influences among various cultures are the fundamentals of the present world art. For example one of the most celebrated 19th century impressionist painters Vincent Vangogh was highly influenced by Japanese art. In theatre 20th century Polish director Grotowski’s works were greatly influenced by Indian theatre which he always openly admits and proud of talking about it. Needless to bring the list of Indian artists who have been influenced by foreign art as it might be a long list.  No one can close the doors and windows towards the world of art as it is knowledge and it should be accable to everyone. We can’t burn Shakespeare from libraries or Picasso’s paintings from our galleries because of the paranoia that ‘’our art may get corrupted by foreignness’’ of it.
To conclude this essay, I would like to bring back the point I made earlier that as a contemporary Indian theatre maker my position is, India is modern, secular, rational and technological therefore I believe it’s my responsibility to respond, provoke, challenge insinuate to the socio political environment of present India. ''Those who want to make art and theatre with the smell of Kerala / Indian soil, they can certainly do it, but for me I don’t eat soil I rather step on it''.


[1] Dharwadker, A B. (2005) Theatre of Independence- Drama, Theory and Urban Performance in India since 1947, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press
[2] Thrissur Pooram is a well known elephant festival celebrated in the city centre of Thrissur with the association of many temples around the town ship.The richly decorated elephant, as seen during the Thrissur pooram, is now globally recognized, and its association with Kerala. 
[3] The Pavaratti Perunnal is the feast of St. Joseph held every year on April 24 and 25 at the church in Pavaratti. The feast attracts thousands of devotees to the village from all over the state.
[4] Kapur, A. (2006) Actors, Pilgrims, Kings and Gods: The Ramlila of Ramnagar, London: Seagull Books.
[5] Kapur, A. (2006) Actors, Pilgrims, Kings and Gods: The Ramlila of Ramnagar, London: Seagull Books.
[6] Dharwadker, A B. (2005) Theatre of Independence- Drama, Theory and Urban Performance in India since 1947, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press
[7] Bharucha, R. (1993) Theatre and the World: Performance and Politics of the Culture, London: Routledge

Deepan is a scenographer and theatre director presently researches and teaches at Wimbledon college of art london. You can connect with deepan on csdeepan@yahoo.com.

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