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


Krishna Kumar said...

Dear Shri... Vas if you ever drop by on to this...

as involved party let me tell you that there is truth in both your statements regarding the view from the other side of the stage. but let me also tell you, knowing fully well the insurance dictum that the injured party always exaggerates, that i cannot aver with your quote about the director telling the audience in a television interview (doordarshan preview of the play) to sit back and enjoy and go home and chew the subtext. If you don't make the subtext the focal point how would one analyse later?

Like you said in the post, the problem with these so-called purists is that they come to compare. A lot of people who saw Magic Lantern's Ponniyin Selvan (by Kalki again) were not fully impressed, again because they have this iconic image of what and who should look how vis-a-vis their favourite work. Similarly here, if you noticed the show would not have filled the auditorium seats all 4 shows if you took out the Kalki-abhimaanis out of Museum Theatre.

The commercial success of the show owes itself to the above-mentioned, the die-hard Madras Players traditionalists, the TM Krishna enthusiasts and supporters of Carnatic music and Classical Dance. So, how does it qualify to be a theatre. A spectacle may be it was. A production hallaballooed for the wrong reasons. But then again, these were the things that the sales strategy focussed on right from the beginning. Who cares about the cast? We were incidentally there! That is not to say I am grumbling. It's just a different learning curve as an actor for me.

Thinkopotamus said...

i agree with you, as i agreed with the spirit of vasanthi's criticism. but theatre is different from "theatre", at least for me. there is theatre that encompasses all, including the spectacle. and there is an element of theatre which is "theatre" as you define it. in my opinion, that is. and about the television interview. i do remember something like that being said, trusting my memory which isn't what it used to be. and that isn't about text & subtext, it's about wading in and then drawing back. (maybe stooping to conquer? or acknowledging to critique) anyway, happy ugadi.

Abhinav said...

first of all, really like your article in sunday express, i like your point that purists can go take a hike - that's essentially what you're saying right? And i'm with you one that.
i do feel that vasanthi makes a valid point, that art criticism isn't going to develop if everyone is going to eulogise theatre all the time. one writer - whose name i won't mention - is celebrated, and has been for many years, by all the theatre people i meet as a really good one. but all she does is eulogise - so how can theatre develop if there isn't any constructive criticism?
on the other hand, some critics get a bit smartass and criticise just for the heck of it. how does one strike a balance? sometimes its as hard being a critic as it is being a performer!

Thinkopotamus said...

you're right, abhinav, it's hard being a critic. you leave behind friendships and the need to be "sympathetic" for the moment, and say it like it is. or, rather, like you feel it is. but, first, you see a play for what it is and what it claims to be. then you use your critical yardstick. you have to be well-informed and perceptive. my article wasn't a review. if it had been, i'd probably have been more critical. what i "eulogised" was the attempt, which was---well, great.

Abhinav said...

first of all, i don't knwo why, but i was under the impression that i was commenting on vinay's blog, but then i just realised that this is his dad! i cant blv i made such a stupid mistake, i remember vaguely being surprised that he writes for express too, but thats me, i'm very vague.
anyway, i bring this up to apologise if my tone seemed a bit casual in my comment, i've been blog-corresponding with vinay for a while, so i took that liberty...
for what its worth, i really enjoyed your article.. though the ensuing discussion on theatre frankly went over my head. I didn't understand much of vasanti's exception to rural phantasy, but hey, thats just my opinion, and maybe i'm just a little bit biased :-)

Thinkopotamus said...

no problem. vinay(ak) or me, it's the same. no need to be less casual!