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

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Three Years Ago....

was re-reading this and thought it would be
interesting to re-present it here!

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 replyat 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. heconstantly compares what he sees with what he expects, and growls at the difference. the purist labels theatrical productions and ticks off thoseelements that do not appear to "fit in". which is why i spoke about giving theatre its due and judging "each production within its own uniqueframework". 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 onlyfor entertainments, extravaganzas, carnivals and melas and not for serious theatre." i can hardly think of a more sweeping, generalised andopinionated statement in a serious piece of criticism. it dismisses whole audiences and the uniqueness of theatre in a few words. it goes well withsimilar statements in the review: "The acting was tame, stereotypical and mediocre." you add: "we had not gone to the theatre to watch a templeevent, 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 theperformance 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 itin 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) toenjoy 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 inthe following extract from your review: "....The difference is that commercial cinema or theatre does not claim to be anything other than what it is, butin 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: "Isthat 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 hadonce written about the invasive nature of some films that erodes the participatory role of the audience. i was simply speaking of today's scenario inthe "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 hasopened a door. bringing a musician and trained dancers on stage "as enhancement" (my words) in a "glamorous dramatisation" (my words) iscertainly 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 reviewthe 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-nationalistfreedom struggle. So, you should look into what we have to say before you pass generalised remarks about anyone who criticises the play." you seemto 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 playwas "anti" anything. if the reason why "art criticism is not developing in this country" is solely because of "throw-away statements" and "sensationalistjournalistic 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

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