Tag Archives: drama

The Venus Flytrap: Unsentimental Fool

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Sometime last year, after a lifetime of oversensitivity and a positively medieval sense of the tragic, I thought I had finally become unsentimental. Which meant, in optimistic terms, that my days of weeping in restaurants might finally have been put behind me. I was quite relieved about this. I had spoiled a lot of mascara crying over spilt milk.

I thought I had become unsentimental about, for instance, Leonard Cohen, the artist formerly known as my downfall. So what was I doing at four in the morning, at the end of December, riffling through page after page of Agha Shahid Ali’s collected works to correctly source the poem from which the line that had haunted me all that day had come from – just so I could put it in a letter? And not even a real letter, the kind that sensible people write in order to communicate, but one of those hopelessly twee things I’ve called a postcard: a poem not even sent to its intended, but left in the open (because actual communication would be, you know, too much for the nervous system).

I thought I was over Cohen, but he was in my subliminal impulses, as every thing that ever crosses one’s way becomes. And there I was, having perfectly internalized his mythology, playing it out without a thought.

In any case, I could not find the line anywhere in the book. “I’ve seen how things/ that seek their way find their void instead”. I fell asleep to the realization it wasn’t at all from Ali, but from Federico Garcia Lorca, a hero both of mine and – incidentally – Cohen’s. Fitting, considering that my new year’s resolution is to fully inculcate my complete demonic self, demonic the way Lorca meant it, which is to say – not so much to consume with a mad passion, but to once again also let myself be consumed, be possessed, to stop standing in the way of life, and love, and ferocious intensity.

Which, as you might correctly surmise, might just be a noble way of saying “start crying again in restaurants, if you like”. But it goes a little further than that. What I’ve learnt from my period of emotional austerity is that yes, unsentimentality is a survival mechanism and its opposite (intensity) is a choice – but to choose to live deeply doesn’t mean to choose to live without discretion. Too much contrived emotion only results in not knowing the difference between god and chemical – every sensation inducible, and hence inauthentic.

Maybe you’ll find what I say next more diffident than demonic, but I’ll say it anyway. Today I bought a gramophone, an impulse acquisition, right off the side of a street. An unthinkably romantic purchase if there ever was one, and one I would never have made ever before. I have neither vinyl nor space for décor – and for the longest time, too much drama about anything resembling a symbolic commitment. I have, however, finally found the space in my life again for a little tenderness, a little twinkling; and enough lines in my head, and enough groove in my body, to provide the music and lyrics – but only the kind that comes of its own volition, not the kind that’s just blank noise interfering in a dense, deliciously loaded silence.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: The Unbirthday

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In January, I had a deep weep session – in anticipation of the end of July. The event I was dreading was an annual affair that I had never before not looked forward to, or celebrated, or otherwise been excited by. Yet there I was, seven months from it and already filled with an unprecedented sense of panic.

My unamused older friends thought this was way too much drama to turn, as one of them put it, one year older in puppy years. Only, through the runny mascara-streaked lenses of my anxiety and alarm, it was very clear to me that it was people years I was dealing with. And 25 in people years was an absolute shock.

Leos can’t help but announce their birthdays. Birthdays combine the best of the famously leonine generousity and the equally famous leonine narcissism: stroke my ego, and I shall smother you with really excellent cake. So I did announce it. Variously, I made passive-aggressive statements about aging disgracefully and how any visiting wise men were welcome to bringeth Stolichnaya from the East, Sampoerna from the East Indies and… something from Easter Island (the clever quip got quashed by the questionable lack of cheer). And just as I do every year, I bought myself way too many beautiful things, “for my birthday” – only this time I was simply channeling my distress into retail therapy, not just exploiting a damn good excuse to the fullest. Especially reproachable behaviour considering that since I spent the day itself holed up at home writing, and then indulged a most unglamourous KFC craving, none of those accouterments saw the light of (birth)day anyway.

But that’s okay. The only thing better than being the birthday girl is being the unbirthday girl.

An unbirthday party is where Alice met the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Dormouse in Wonderland. An unbirthday party was what I had, the first one a week ahead of the big day, when a couple of friends down the coastline whom I had definitely spent some time wandering in rabbit holes with called up one morning and said, “We’re half an hour to Mahabs. Have lunch with us.” You could say I am presently in the midst of an unbirthday series.

I could bore you at length about just why hitting 25 had me so stressed, but as I discovered between that curveball realization in January and my birthday, this was textbook quarter-life crisis behaviour. Only, being an overachiever, I ran smack into it five whole years before it was due. Many told me they’d experienced it themselves before turning thirty; it coincides with what in astrology is called the Saturn Return (yup, in Western astrology as in Tamil curses, Saturn is one and the same). Most also said that a sequence of Mad Tea Parties was the only known remedy.

Knowing all of this was right on track did make me feel a little better. I’m even quite cool about what is supposed to be the real bugaboo, the big three oh, considering that I seem to have mostly exhausted my quota of quarter-life angst. Besides, as one hedonist friend put it, if there’s any number that people who frequent Mad Tea Parties should worry about, it’s 27 (just ask Janis or Jimi). Which is… oh oh.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: In Defense Of The Open Mic

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In the late 90’s, the singer Jewel told a reporter that singing in a studio is “like faking an orgasm”. The quote came to mind a couple of months ago during what had been presented to me as a collaborative meeting with a theatre practitioner, who chose to take the opportunity to rip to shreds the work I do as a spoken word artist and organiser.

Let me explain. Spoken word is a performance genre that focuses predominantly but not exclusively on poetry. A related, sometimes interchangeable, term is “live literature”. Performers either read off the page, with a focus on strong vocal delivery, or recite from memory.

Why “spoken word” and not simply “readings”? Because spoken word is a legitimate genre of performance – not everybody is able to read, even their own work, with panache. Those gifted in their delivery, however, are able to have careers with or without the presence of a publishing history. Whereas poetry publishing is a difficult and drawn-out process, performance allows immediate, often intimate, access to an audience. Several professionals I know establish their names through tours, CDs and chapbooks (often self-published). A book, for some, is only icing on the cake.

I knew for a fact that the theatre practitioner I was speaking to had tried to bring poetry to the stage in the past, and planned to in future – only, I couldn’t remember what poetry that had been. I remembered the stage sets, spotlights and the general dramatics of proceedings. But I could not remember a single poem. The poetry itself had been drowned out by the production.

He claimed that his events had crowds of 200, to the dozen average mine have seen in the past six months. Strangely, these crowds seem to have evaporated. Forget my little efforts – where were they during the fortnight-long poetry festival last year that saw attendances of five and six? An audience whose imagination was genuinely captured would continue to be curious and supportive.

Most events I organise follow an open mic format, which allows anybody to read. I like its democratic nature, its value in uncovering hidden talents who may not otherwise have been given the chance to share their writing or their flair for delivery, and its spontaneity. In a city like Chennai, where curiously enough a successful English-centric poetry movement has never taken off, it is also a necessary format: very few people have the confidence or experience to be crowd-drawing professionals.

The bad taste left in my mouth from my exchange with the theatre practitioner was because of his remark that in eschewing rehearsals and encouraging spontaneity, I “disrespect the audience”. His way of doing it would be to select pieces, have selected people rehearse them, and then put on a show.

I’ve been on stage since I was four years old, first as a dancer, then an actor, and finally in the skin I wear the closest: as poet-performer. I’m a professional, just as the theatre practitioner is. Unlike him, however, I am committed to building community. My open mics are intended to seduce potential performers first, and then the audience. I do not believe in the elitism of the stage.

There is one more thing. Remember what Jewel said? I don’t put the Word in the hands and mouths of novices because I don’t see it as sacred. Rather, I do so because I, unequivocally, do. I love to watch it come alive, surprised into bloom, in the unlikeliest people as they tap into that immense power – what in flamenco is known as the duende. And no amount of theory or rehearsal can help you fake that convincingly.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

P.S. PLEASE SEE THE FOLLOWING POST ON TEMPORARY COMMENTING SHUTDOWN

A Show of Stupidity

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When I heard that The Vagina Monologues — most famously banned in 2004 when Eve Ensler herself was touring the country — was going to be performed in Chennai last week, I thought (like anyone with vaguely literary or liberal ideas) that it was a good step in the right direction. The much-celebrated play was being brought to the city as part of The Times of India‘s Chennai Festival, and a very excited friend grouped together a bunch of her galpals and planned a night out.

The trouble began with the difficulty in getting passes. The person trying to get hold of them was made to run from pillar to post — and it took two days to finally secure the 8 passes we wanted (among other obstacles was the fact that she was told that only one pass could be given per person; we later heard that they were distributing them indiscriminately because so few had been snapped up).

On the night of the play itself, we got to the auditorium early, and were made to queue up in what was thankfully an orderly fashion for about half an hour.

Then we were ushered into the auditorium, had our passes thoroughly checked, led to our seats, and kept from sitting in the front rows, ostensibly for VIPs.

And then we waited. For about forty minutes.

We had heard rumours while standing in line that the play had been cancelled, but were optimistic. All this tamasha and security checks — what excitement! It was bound to be worth it.

Then, two people (one of whom was, I think, the director) came onstage gagged, did something forgetful, and left. Still, we thought there might be hope yet.

And then a young man came on stage and tried to be funny.

He failed. “What play are you here to watch? Say it louder! Well, ladies and gentleman, that is not the show you are going to see tonight. Do you want to know why? Yes? Because the cow jumped over the moon and miscellaneousbullshitIdidn’tcatch.”

Then, almost as an antithesis to the poor dude who thought he was funny, came the man who thought he was leading a revolution.

Among the various things he said about “your great city” and “this great play” and “certain citizens of Chennai do not want a play about violence against women to be performed”, one phrase stands out. “In the spirit of Gandhian love”.

Seriously.

And then, a man took up the mic and… sang.

We left the auditorium as the second song began, and needless to say, we were furious.

But not at the police, not at the “concerned citizens”, and not because the play was banned. These serious questions of censorship, oppression and the silencing of voices against violence against women were not the ones that were asked.

No, the only people we were really pissed off with that night were the sanctimonious production company and the organizers who purported to have all the crusading courage in the world, but absolutely no respect for their audience. We were told somewhere during the speech that the organizers had known for 24 hours that the play had been cancelled.

Despite this, we had all been made to wait (and wait). Not one apology at the door. Not one poster, not one phone call. Not a single thing that showed even the slightest amount of respect for the audience. I live in the city and don’t have children. But what about the people who left work early, who found babysitters, or who commuted from the suburbs, that night?

Why did the organizers/production company take such pleasure in being rude to the audience?

We live in the times we live in. We are all bound by rules. It is how — and for what purpose — we bend or break them that matters.

I’ve directed and performed in a mini-production of The Vagina Monologues, and even at 17 I had enough common sense to do the obvious — substitute the word “vagina” with valenki (Russian for felt boots), thereby not just making a statement about the ridiculousness of censorship, but also letting the larger message of the play come across in spite of it. The Vagina Monologues evolves every year — from a one-woman show with the intention of reclaiming a taboo word, the play has come to be an ongoing international campaign against violence against women. I am aware that Chennai society may not be ready for the word “vagina”, even if it is essentially a medical term, and am not holier-than-thou enough in my feminism to force this issue. We may not be ready for the word, but this does not mean that we are not ready to listen to issues of violence and sexuality.

Or, the organizers could have had an invitee-only event, without publicity. Or a charity gala, with selected monologues performed. Let’s face it — there are only so many types of people in Chennai who would go to this play. Democratic space and free passes are all very nice in theory — but when holding an English play, that too about violence and sexuality, what difference is that honestly going to make?

I don’t know if the production company tried to do these things or anything else, but if they did, I would much rather have been told exactly how they tried to circumvent the censorship than been subjected to a speech about Gandhian love (call me unpatriotic, but did anyone else think of the Mahatma’s famous experiments at celibacy — i.e. naked women sharing his very chaste bed?)

And even if there was just no way around it, why handle the cancellation so selfishly and foolishly?

Ultimately, was the point actually to hold the play and spread its message, or to enjoy the notoriety?

For once, I found myself on the side that didn’t belong to the “artists and feminists”. The production company had a wonderful shot at really raising some issues here in Chennai, whether through their performance or because of the banning of it. They wasted it entirely with their unprofessionalism and myopic sense of the circumstances. I write this as a journalist — if I had been told at the door or through a courteous phone call earlier in the day that the play had been cancelled, I would have turned on my laptop as soon as I could and dedicated column space in support of them. Instead, they turned even their sympathizers away with what was quite frankly a completely stupid and insincere way of dealing with the cancellation. Boo — and please, let someone else do the encore!

Updated: Apparently, Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal, the director in question, has some kind of axe to grind against Chennai. See the comments.