T r e a d Softly... YOU MIGHT TRIP ON TEXT

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

This one's about an article I wrote in the Sunday Express on March 26th, a day before World Theatre Day. I read the piece in print when I was in Bangalore. Returning to Chennai I found the following email in my inbox:
Sreekumar/Sushila Ravindranath:Sreekumar, I read your article entitled "Giving purists a decentburial". I give below my impressions/queries on the same..1. Could you please give me a definition of the word "purist" as usedin your article?2. I question your sentence " Now all that we imaginecan actuallytake place on stage - we simply sit back and take it all in." Is thatthe function of a truly discerning theatre viewer, theatre lover ortheatre critic? If one were to theoretically pose experience asgreater than understanding when viewing an art form, I do agree. But,this does not mean that we do not critically examine all that we seeon stage or on the walls. The primary function of a critic is tocritically analyse and review a production.3. You seem to imply that "rural phantasy" is an innovation inasmuchas it has used music and dance. Is that so? Madras Players have usedit in thearly fifties in their production of Hayavadana. Why go thatfar? This year this technique has been used in the productions of"Nagamandala" and "Hayavadana" by late Bhagyam and Yamuna. The pointis not using music and dance or video clippings (like Brecht'smontagetechnique) which is important. How you use it and how far ithasbeen integrated into theatre. In this respect, "Rural phantasy", inmy opinion has failed.4, If you mean by the word "purists" traditionalists" or "classicists"who have frowned upon the two productions you have mentioned in yourarticle, you are sadly mistaken. It is traditionalists and those whodo not know much about modern dance who have respectively endorsedboth productions. So, please do not be under the false impression thatit is modernists or innovators who have criticised these productions.The criticism is not about the techniques used, but how they have beenused.5. Apart from everything else "Rural Phantasy" has been criticisedfrom an ideological point of view and not merely a technical point ofview. Some of us have found the subliminal messages of the playreactionary, revisionary, anti-female, anti-male, anti-village,anti-nationalist freedom struggle. So, you should look into what wehave to say before you pass generalised remarks about anyone whocriticises the play.6. It is very easy, Sreekumar, to churn out sensationalistjournalistic articles without substantiating your points or enteringinto a dialogue about the same. These throw-away statements on the eveof the World Theatre Day make me wonder why we celebrate such days atall. I realise why criticism and that too art criticism is notdeveloping in this country. We seem to have equated "criticism" or"review" with "eulogy" , haphazard crowd pulling techniques withinnovation and experimentation, and unquestioning acceptance as thehallmark of dignity and intellectuality.I feel that these kind of articles give a wrong kind of impression toreaders and hence this email. I do realise that serious and insightfulcriticism is out of place in the modern scenario of performing arts.However, i thought I cannot leave this article unquestioned, hencethis email. Kind regards vasanthi

For those who know, Vasanthi is a blunt and passionate reviewer and critic.
Since I had to have my say as well, here's the response I sent her:
dear vasanthi, i was in bangalore for some days and found your email on my return. i thought i would finish some pending work and then sit down to reply
at leisure. which was when someone pointed out your review of "rural phantasy" on a website. it provides a point of reference for my response. by "purist", i do not mean traditionalist or classicist as you suggest. i mean the theatre-goer who brings baggage along with him. he
constantly compares what he sees with what he expects, and growls at the difference. the purist labels theatrical productions and ticks off those
elements that do not appear to "fit in". which is why i spoke about giving theatre its due and judging "each production within its own unique
framework". otherwise, innovation would always have to gather strength from its struggles against claustrophobic criticism. critics watching a performance with the backing of their potential reviews imagine they are interpreting it for the benefit of their readers,
including future audiences. they believe they are informing the audience. when this leads to the idea of a classroom of theatre-goers and a lofty critic,
the seriousness and significance of criticism is lost. you write in your review: "The reception that the play received also proves to me that Chennai for all its cultural pretensions, is ready only
for entertainments, extravaganzas, carnivals and melas and not for serious theatre." i can hardly think of a more sweeping, generalised and
opinionated statement in a serious piece of criticism. it dismisses whole audiences and the uniqueness of theatre in a few words. it goes well with
similar statements in the review: "The acting was tame, stereotypical and mediocre." you add: "we had not gone to the theatre to watch a temple
event, but a contemporary theatre production." it would be easier, wouldn't it, to go to a restaurant and chose your preferences from a menu. in my opinion--and it is a personal one--when the critic watches a play with his baggage firmly in hand, he is alienating himself from the
performance and already sitting in judgment. the role of the critic is to watch a play within its own terms of reference, and then go back and analyse it
in the light of what he has learnt and experienced of theatre. thus this role ideally consists of two parts: watching the play within its own framework,
and then holding it up against the light of expertise. which is also a good way to avoid knee-jerk reactions. in the case of the play being discussed, i remember the playwright/ director telling people (i think it was during a televised interview) to
enjoy themselves. later, they could go back home and try to think of the issues involved. I do not, therefore, see the "pretension" that you mention in
the following extract from your review: "....The difference is that commercial cinema or theatre does not claim to be anything other than what it is, but
in this case there is a pretension of good and even contemporary theatre couched under the entertaining and even seducing elements such as music,
dance, satire, seemingly progressive ideas etc." you quote from my article ("Now all that we imagine can actually take place on stage - we simply sit back and take it all in.") and ask: "Is
that the function of a truly discerning theatre viewer, theatre lover or theatre critic?" i didn't say it was. in fact, in my column in the same paper, i had
once written about the invasive nature of some films that erodes the participatory role of the audience. i was simply speaking of today's scenario in
the "purist" article, and not blindly endorsing its validity. next. "You seem to imply that 'rural phantasy' is an innovation inasmuch as it has used music and dance." i do think that the play has
opened a door. bringing a musician and trained dancers on stage "as enhancement" (my words) in a "glamorous dramatisation" (my words) is
certainly something that has been tried for the first time in english theatre as far as i know, and it paves the way for future possibilities. i didn't review
the plays i mentioned, i merely placed them in the context of where theatre is headed. "Some of us have found the subliminal messages of the play reactionary, revisionary, anti-female, anti-male, anti-village, anti-nationalist
freedom struggle. So, you should look into what we have to say before you pass generalised remarks about anyone who criticises the play." you seem
to think that i was referring to your review in my article. i only read your review when someone mentioned it after i received your email. i was, in fact,
referring to remarks from some members of the audiences of both plays i referred to. if i have to "look into" what you have to say, you will, i hope,
afford me the same privilege before passing judgment on what i "seem to imply". for the record, and voicing my own thoughts, i did not think the play
was "anti" anything. if the reason why "art criticism is not developing in this country" is solely because of "throw-away statements" and "sensationalist
journalistic articles" such as the one i wrote for the sunday express, we should begin worrying about such art criticism, shouldn't we? i trust this finds you well. love & regards, shreekumar

Monday, March 20, 2006

Coming up is World Theatre Day, and things are hotting up for those who want theatre to be able to celebrate. For those who celebrate theatre, however, every new activity is just that. I find veterans are being given honurs and asked to give messages, and all sorts of issues are being taken up to be hosted with theatre.
I've been asked to do a piece for the New Indian Express Sunday magazine. It will appear the day before the Day. I guess the only thing to celebrate is that all types of theatre are welcome nowadays, from the pure to the complicatedly mixed. I saw a modern dance peformance a couple of days ago where theatrical elements are used to create minimal effects that are, nevertheless, stunning at times. I guess everything becomes or forms or is moulded into theatre.
An expression that is communicated and caught becomes theatre. That's why the range is tremendous, right from the spare serious monologue to the hare-brained extravaganza that manages to fit in everything. Nothing is not theatre if you can get an audience to watch.
That's the tragedy and joy of theatre. So on that Day, let's not split hairs, let's welcome the fact that people are interested (compared to some years ago), people are experimenting, and there is the possibility that an audience can be fired up to watch right through that range. Interest is all, and it percolates from the performers to the audience.
I have to be wooed to watch, and then I'm on my own. And the more I contribute to the experience while watching---in terms of deductions, assimilations and conclusions--- the more theatre has triumphed.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Talking about not having much to write---here's a deluge. I now have to write five articles, each with its own dealine, and all of them before I leave town in the middle of next week. It's fun to read when you're asked to write. And vice-versa.
To sit down and get down to some really serious work is beyond me at the moment. When I have the articles in front of me (several Word windows tucked accusingly on the bottom of the screen), I feel like closing all of them and working on a new play or on one of my three novels in progress. Or the book I have to write (the publisher tucked accusingly on the bottom of my consciousness). Somehow, like before, they will write themselves and things will be resolved before the next deluge.
Those photographs. It's strange, these are among the only pictures I have of my plays. The earlier two plays have no reminders except in my mind.
Those photos down there are from my play Platform which was directed by Yamuna and staged by The Madras Players to kickstart their 50th year. It's more than nostalgic, because Platform was one of the last plays that Bhagyam (Bhagirathi Narayanan) acted in, and she did a tremendous job with three characters in alternate scenes. She acted earlier too in my Bow Of Rama which was again staged by MP ten years ago. Which brings up a thought--each of my staged three plays had an interval of ten years between them. When the seed is ready but the earth waits, such things are bound to happen. The question is not, what next, but when next!

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Friday, March 17, 2006

I started my first serious (that is, with the serious intention of sticking with it and not letting it fade away) blog last night (or was it today) at 1 a.m. This is the next day, 3 p.m. Once a blog gets going, it becomes an addiction, I've seen people sitting around doing nothing else, so along with my other writing, I guess this is going to be a major preoccupation as well. My fingers may fall off typing, but I'm going to stick with it.