Tag Archives: arts

The Venus Flytrap: To Whom The Song Belongs

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Every time I hear the original “Masakali”, I think of the first time I heard it. A friend had sent me a video in which the melody was overlaid on a black and white clip of slapstick comedians Laurel and Hardy dancing. Something had upset me, and he’d sent it to lighten my mood. I’ve long forgotten what I was miserable about, but I’ve never been able to listen to that song without thinking of him.

Many popular works of art have such a mnemonic effect on us, conjuring everything from teenage summers, indelible loves, special trips and more. “Masakali” must mean a lot of things, to a lot of people. So, how many seconds of “Masakali 2.0” did it take for you to recognise that the remix was a dud?

The song’s composer A.R. Rahman criticised the rendition on social media, in a departure from his congenial public image. Playback singer Mohit Chauhan, who recorded the original, also expressed his dismay. All this is not just drama fodder. It reveals the seedy underside of being an art-maker within capitalism.

Shortly afterwards, playback singer Neha Kakkar spoke up about being insufficiently compensated for her work in cinema; she said that concerts provided better income. It bears remembering that the iconic Leonard Cohen was forced to resume touring in his 70s to evade bankruptcy.

Many of us are guilty of falling for the notion that music, or any art, is free. It’s nice to think that a beautiful song belongs to everyone; and in a sense, it could. It’s just that someone made that song. More than one someone, sometimes. To create a thing of beauty or meaning and to give it away is very different from losing it, or losing one’s claim over it – or never being paid enough for it, literally.

In 1974, Dolly Parton turned down the chance to have Elvis Presley record a song she wrote, “I Will Always Love You”, giving up the potential for it to be even more popular and lucrative. Presley’s manager had demanded half the publishing rights to the song, and Parton made the painful decision to reject the deal. This was a brave choice, but such a choice isn’t always available to every creator. Especially when one needs the money, needs the door to open, or knows they may not get another opportunity.

The Covid-19 lockdowns have made TV shows, films, music and books an integral part of how people (with the privilege of access) are managing the situation, especially from the perspective of emotional well-being. Most people really are grateful for these entertainment and enrichment materials, no longer taking them for granted. However, this gratitude can be made more meaningful by sparing a thought for what will likely happen to the creators of the same artforms in the near future, economically speaking. This will impact what gets produced, promoted or published at all. Whether as artists or as consumers, we must become invested in dismantling capitalism as it exists today and reassembling better systems – systems which ensure that no one goes hungry, regardless of their profession or background, and also recognise the arts as essentials.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 16th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Vicariously Voyeuristic

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Photographs of actor Jennifer Aniston, looking radiant as she greeted her ex-husband Brad Pitt backstage at the 2020 SAG Awards, capture vividly the micro-reactions within an encounter which video shows lasted barely a few seconds. Thrilled to see each other but moving in different directions, they touched as they pass. The affection shared between them sent ripples of delight across the world. It was a beautiful set of moments, but best understood as self-contained.

In 2010, the performance artist Marina Abramovic held a major show at New York’s MoMA, “The Artist Is Present”, in which she sat silently and essentially “gave darshan”. People who queued for hours to have her briefly look into their eyes reported epiphanic experiences, including cathartic tears. Among them was her former collaborator and ex-partner Ulay. There’s footage of her beginning to cry when she sees him, his own wordless communication, and her finally leaning across the table to take his hands. The crowd applauds. In the context of what Abramovic’s show tapped into – esoteric concepts of human connection, and of seeing and being seen – it was all very poignant. Still, he sued her to the tune of €250,000 a few years later (and won). Then he appeared for another public reunion at another event of hers (performance artists!). Now, they’re rumoured to be working on a book together.

Their true dynamic is between them. Our projections on the same belong to us, and show us insights into ourselves. Aniston and Pitt’s amiable encounter serves the same hunger in us for stories of reconciliation as the Abramovic-Ulay one did.

We do know that the end of their marriage was bitter, and that Aniston has been painted ever since as an icon of personal disappointment. They’ve been divorced for 15 years, during which Pitt created a family with actor Angelina Jolie. That marriage ended with child abuse and substance abuse allegations against him. How revealing of gender politics that he could make light of his chequered life onstage at the awards show, whereas Aniston never stopped being skewered in the press for having been abandoned. In the tabloid-fueled collective imagination, rekindling things with Pitt is supposed to be Aniston’s happily ever after. But would we really wish that on anyone?

The extremely, uncomfortably public lives of two others – and the decision they’ve made to protect themselves – are relevant here. The actor Meghan Markle and the gentleman formerly known as Prince Harry announced this month that they would be formally leaving the British monarchy in the hope of receiving less scrutiny and harassment. Their choice challenges both the institutions of monarchy and of family, which desperately need either dismantling or reconfiguration. Surely that’s more interesting that focusing on the individuals.

The “public eye” is not always so public. It may include neighbours, extended family, friend circles, strangers on social media. All of us are under pressure to conform to a narrative that’s acceptable, even attractive – even while vicious narratives may be imposed on us. It’s cyclic: we can’t tear our eyes away from other people’s lives, either. Since we are all constantly cross-watching, perhaps it’s prudent to ask – what are we being shown?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 23rd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Do Not Be Daunted

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All around the world, political currents which seemed to some to only be undulating, just mildly threateningly, on the horizon have not-so-suddenly arrived onshore. Those who warned about what could come or tried to stop it were not able to keep bigotries, anti-democratic actions and sectarianism at bay. If this moment is historical, it is not only because people in the future (if humanity has a future, although climate change experts predict otherwise) will speak of it and trawl through records of it, but also because it has happened many times already. Such times – in which vast tides of populations turned towards destructive ideologies – are a part of known history, both recent and distant. In such times, Bertolt Brecht – who lived in exile away from Germany when the Nazis were in power – wrote, we will have to “keep singing”. To quote: “In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing About the dark times.”

This could be read as a moral imperative – that there must be singing, so to speak, no matter how bleak the larger reality we live in. We can understand “singing” as including all manner of arts, all modes of study, and all acts of creation, including abstractly the raising of children, the tending of plants and self-care. But that final line – “About the dark times” – holds a standard for that imperative. Again, everywhere, the question arises of what the artist’s, teacher’s (or in our particular time, influencer’s) responsibility is in bringing awareness to injustice, helping galvanise change, or recording events.

Many hold this responsibility incredibly seriously, which we need. But to chastise those who don’t is correct only when it comes to those who refuse to, who support the status quo and prefer the different forms of denial that allow it. For there are those who create joy as neither denial nor distraction, but as salve and reviving agent. Beauty and sweetness are powerful healers. We cannot give in to the idea that there can only be grimness in “the dark times”; we must not lose our sense of melody, and of the many ways to strike a chord.

The Talmud – a legal compilation sacred to Jews, who were persecuted by the Nazis (our modern benchmark for democratically-elected evildoers) – offers possible instructions in the form of these beautiful instructions: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” The last line is the most resonant. It’s simply not going to be possible to be a torchbearer, a teller-of-truth-to-power, at all times. Exhaustion, personal circumstances, self-doubt, reasonable fear and difficulty will happen to even the best among us. Perhaps one more way to interpret that directive, and use it well, is to understand that it’s not necessary to be hopeful, or imagine that we must behave as beacons of hope, but when hope comes, we must honour it. In this way, little by little, we will still do what we can to resist, record – and rise above.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 19th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: All Scene, No Art?

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I tried not to judge, but wouldn’t you roll your eyes at the words “colouring book workshop for adults”? Then came the real kicker – the fee. It was the cost of a nice 3-course meal for two at any midscale restaurant. And if that restaurant happens to be family-friendly, you’d probably get table mats to not just colour, but also do crosswords and matching puzzles on. Totally complimentary.

Of course, other people’s time and money are not my concern. The off-putting feeling was really about what passes for leisure-cultural activity in Chennai. “But this is interactive” is no defense: when listening to an orchestra, doesn’t one participate right down to the goosebumps on one’s arms?

Some time ago, at the launch of a very good book, I looked around at the meagre audience and felt deeply annoyed. Just a couple of days prior, there had been another reading by aspirant writers, and their absence meant a conspicuous lack of support for someone who had stayed the course and worked hard to gain their current success. I’ve noted this often, over the years: the desire to be read, heard, watched, admired, applauded – but a reluctance to offer the same.

So many burn out because they fuel only their ambition, not their sense of awe. Whenever I discourage someone from self-publishing a collection before sending even a single poem to a poetry journal, or chide them for not reading enough, it’s because I’ve seen a little farther down the path than they have. I speak from just the distance I have come so far, but this I know:  the journey is full of disappointment, rife with treachery, and one keeps on it through tenacity, humility and something I can only name as grace. If you demand an audience while refusing to be in one, you become the proverbial frog under the coconut shell. And so does the art you make.

But when I was asked when I’d last been to an arts event not directly related to my own field, i.e. literature, I couldn’t pinpoint one within the last three months. I posed the same question to other Chennai-based artists – when had they last had a cultural experience outside their turf? A musician was unsure – there’d been a photo exhibit in the last month but he couldn’t recall its name. A dancer knew distinctly that at least a year had passed since catching Ponniyan Selvan onstage. A theatre practitioner had attended a concert early this year. The person who’d asked me the question, also a musician, couldn’t remember. My own answer had been a cheat: I’d visited two heritage monuments in Karnataka.

This highlights the next level of the problem: professionals who don’t frequently cross-pollinate locally. Even if most of us privately, compulsively, consume culture through books, films and music, this doesn’t necessarily influence our collective milieu. As tempting as it is to blame Chennai’s sparse arts scene (with a few concentrated festivals a year, not a continuous buzz) I’d prefer to turn the onus on us: those in, and who want to be in, the arts. Let’s colour outside the boxes a little more, shall we?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 7th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Tribute To Veenapani Chawla

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One night many years ago, I stood in Veenapani Chawla’s kitchen and tried to tell her what it meant for me to be there. So I told her about how in the time since I had first started visiting her home, the Adishakti Theatre outside Auroville, I had been writing poems about my engagement with the space (at once tranquil and terrifyingly charged), my friendships in it, and the Ramayana studies and performances I’d been exposed to there. I remember how, at one moment, she looked me in the eyes and asked if I was happy, and that I weighed myself and said honestly, “Happier.”

As we were speaking, someone came in looking for a knife. VP, as she was known, would not pass it by hand. “I don’t want us to fight”, she said, smilingly. I admired her so deeply, and so simply, that I adopted the superstition immediately.

VP died on November 30th 2014, at 67 years old. She was an artistic pioneer who immersed herself in everything from chhau, kalaripayattu and koodiyattam to western dramaturgy, and dispersed equal energy into developing new work, questing, teaching, and creating and maintaining the magical Adishakti campus. “There is no one like Veenapani Chawla in Indian theatre. There is no other group like her Adishakti – certainly there hasn’t been any since what we call ‘Modern Indian Theatre’ began,” wrote Girish Karnad a few months before her passing. I met many who envied her. But I met so many more who loved her. She was extraordinarily powerful, and equally kind. I had come into her orbit by chance, and stayed in it because of her generosity.

The first time I went to Adishakti, I stayed for a month. I would take my slippers off and dig my feet into the cool earth as though I could shoot out roots, and weep. It was a primal connection. This was where I came to understand intimately that what society calls a fringe is what the psyche knows as a frontier. It was not until a few years later that I found out that my paternal ancestral temple was only twenty minutes away. It had not been an imagined bond between my blood, my bones, those pepper vines, that soil.

I am not a theatre artist. I was not trained in the pedagogy for which Adishakti is famous, developed over decades of intensive research and dedication, and given away to all who wanted to learn it. I never studied performance under VP. I never even learnt how to swim from her – an offer she made me each time I saw her going for her laps in the huge, mineralised pool built on the campus a few years ago. Most of what I learnt from her, though, was intangible – both in its transmission and its nature. Veenapani Chawla was a singular influence on me. Meeting her permanently changed the trajectory of my life. I am who I am at 30 only because I met her at 23. Why I still live in India, why I never married, why I gravitate toward grace and quietude over militancy and glitz – the answers to all of these questions are linked to having known Adishakti and its founder, and having been indelibly transformed by both.

How could so much transpire on the basis of one soft-spoken woman and her home of red earth and verdure? Simple. Above all, knowing Veenapani Chawla taught me that another way, another paradigm, is possible. That one can live a life with devotion at its core: to art, to divinity, and to community.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 30th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.