27 November 2009

The Way of the World

What is happening to the world! I mean, like heck! What the hell is wrong with things?

Okay, calm down! You want to know what went wrong, right? Like heck you do! Bless me poor soul, like heck I do too! Things fall apart, that’s what it has been!

It all started with M. M who for long had nursed passion for C. He’d told her some time back, yes, but basically it started with him. There we were, G and I, waiting for him by the ramp: at peace with the world, innocently denouncing some hapless teacher. Suddenly the discussion turned to him. To M. To his lamentable case. His fall. The very remarkable nature of this self-same fall. Of other falls. Of my fall. G’s fall. His shady past as he put it. ‘I can’t believe what I said! I’m like ashamed to even own up!’ Yes, quite shady; G talking about it to me of all people- shady indeed! Do all of us have some shades of grey to our past, some mushy cupids in our ivory cupboards?

It seems we do.

For what else am I to believe after old B’s tale? B who of all humanity I thought incapable of such concealment! It was she who bore it, so perfectly hidden from all eyes as to not exist at all! She, so open and trusty, her life such an open book, she put it deep down, so deep as to almost be out of reach for her own self! Such passion, such suffering, all disguised behind that varnished fa├žade of easy familiarity! The more I listened, the more I thought; the more I thought, the more I pitied. I could sympathise with her, yes, but more- I could understand her pain, feel it through that old severed bond. A sad tale, yes, but with hope…

Alas no! I thought I was done for the day, done with the quota of shocks, surprises and falls. Not so, not so!

I came back home and got talking to M. We discussed C; he told me all about it- how, when, where, all of it. Then, talking of falls, he told me of P.

Good heavens! Even P! P, that sturdy, stoic rock of sense and solitude! That lofty personage, so aloof from the base passions of life, so a man on his own, an institution unto himself! P too had fallen, and long too had it been since the fall- long days, long weeks, long months, a long year perhaps…P fell, but not alone. As last man standing he took with him a whole system, an entire way of life: of affection, of camaraderie, of friendship.

Indeed, of friendship. For B apart, we four formed that old-fashioned type of gentlemanly friendship- all good chums, each for the other a fine chap. We lived on discussions, talks and debates, an exclusive life of ideas, ideals and ideologies. We talked of the world; the glories of civilisation, the follies of man, art and culture and all that is noble and high and true!

No more. The group lies broken, the loyalties dissolved. To each his secret heart, the call of love, the cry of desire. What of the world now? The world looses its charms when all your world gets condensed in a single person…

Does it always have to be this way though? Is there no escape? I used to think Sherlock Holmes the epitome of pure reason; pure objectivity untrammelled by the subjective fallacies of common humanity. Aloof, above, beyond- the unflinching rational man of world. But even he had a blind spot. There was always ‘the woman’, Irene Adler of ‘dubious and questionable memory’- she whose one photo he treasured above all gifts and rewards; she whose memory, perhaps, inspired so many of those mournful violin originals. Yes, there was a chink even in his armour, a fault line beneath even his own surface...

Yet, imagine…what if a person could really be out of the structure? Agreed, not as Bohemian as Holmes, not as misanthropic as Timon: somebody gentle, genial and wise, somewhat like the good Doctor without the wife. Someone above the lures of love and its manifold traps, in that calm, undisturbed serenity of perfect harmony. Not ascetic mind you! No, rather someone in and yet out of the system. Understanding love but unaffected by it: a heart not closed but open, so wide open as to remove all possibility of love. Affectionate, yet not desirous; caring, yet not covetous…

Not unless you’re god. Perfection.

And that we humans cannot be. It’s the only consistently human trait we’ve got, perfecting imperfection, loving desire, want, need…it’s a good thing perhaps. Certainly has been very nice for me! We cannot stop loving; even hatred stems from love. Love is universal.

And that is the way of the world.

13 November 2009

Death of Theatre

It has been in the air for some time now. A decade or so at the least. Theatre, widely acknowledged by its own dwindling proponents as a dying art, is on its last legs.

It can be traced back to the 1950s when television and cinema came in a big way all over the world. As their appeal intensified over the years and more and more televisions and movie halls found their way into homes and communities, the importance of theatre steadily declined to the point that today it is no longer significant in our social life.

Indeed, for all its functions have been successfully taken over by these two mediums. Where earlier theatre served as an accessible medium of mass entertainment, diffusing societal tensions and propagating ideologies as it made people laugh and cry, now television and cinema act as carriers of culture and propaganda.

Of course, it was television much more than cinema which really struck the fatal blow to theatre. It stripped it of the mass popularity which it once enjoyed before its advent, and by thus usurping its vital role as the propagator of popular culture it pushed it further onto the margins of the entertainment industry. Television was cheap, widely accessible and convenient, providing all that drama right in your living room without the hassles of going to the playhouse. No wonder general interest in theatre declined as the reach of television increased.

No wonder too that an increasing amount of plays produced from the 1950s onwards were shown on T.V. For all their dedication to the institution the producers could not resist tapping the immense potential of this wide-reaching medium. Yet, even as it opened avenues it narrowed them down so that while the producers made greater profits the people got another incentive to stay at home glued to the box. A move meant to bring theatre back to the masses ultimately succeeded in furthering it from them.

Deprived of its primeval foundation, its watching audience, all theatre today is, to a great extent, redundant. What purpose remains to a communal art which fails to attract people to it? One can read plays, yes, but that essence of communality so integral to any dramatic performance is lost in any easy-chair appraisal. To feel theatre, to be moved fully by its power, to even strip that illusionary power, one must see the action unfold before one’s eyes. The binary is quite simple: no audience, no theatre.

Though it was not just this pervasive disinterest which brought theatre to such a pass. The death of theatre has also been precipitated by the death of its two distinctive genres, tragedy and comedy.

It was Modernism which took its toll on the genres. Before the reductive, unifying pressures of a modernity which laughed at all things great and grand and which sought to locate the source of life, its very greatness, in the routine life of normal, everyday subjects these primary distinctions had to fail and fall into each other. It became imperative to recognise comedy in tragedy and tragedy in comedy and so came about the genre of tragicomedy, an in-between form which best reflected the absurd realities and tensions of everyday life. What came about was the Theatre of the Absurd.

Which, as can be guessed, was not spectacularly popular with the masses. Critically acclaimed as the movement was, it was typically urban and drew only a small section of that population towards it. The middle and working classes remained more or less isolated from it, caring as little for it as the movement cared for them and their tastes. Once initiated, this process of alienation of the art form from the masses only picked up speed and though in the late 1960s and early 1970s Agit-prop and the Theatre of the Oppressed brought it momentarily close to the people the old days of regular, popular theatre were over.

Indeed, for what has emerged is basically a queer, eclectic residue of the Absurdist and Agit-prop, a brand of theatre which adapts, modifies and re-enacts. Theatre today is more or less black, satirical tragicomedy, reflecting a bleak worldview running short of hope and despairing of change. Most new plays are adaptations of established classics, attuned to (post) modern sensibilities by changes in language and costumes. Some of these are comic, ridiculing the older tragic works through mock-heroic imitations. Others, loaded with sarcasm and generally cynical, are openly political and critique society through juxtaposition of an essentialised past and present- a tried and tested dramatic trope wherein a figure from the past miraculously appears in the present and laments about existing social evils. Others still present tormented subjects trying to bring change but failing in face of the overwhelming social superstructure.

Be that as it may, it is these types of productions which have further contributed to theatre’s alienation from the general public. Whether justifiably or not, theatre is widely perceived to be an elitist institution, the refuge of be-cigeratted khadi and jhola clad (pseudo?) intellectuals: subversive malcontents who wish things to change but have nowhere else to go and no one else to listen. It has gone back into a niche, an exclusivity reminiscent of the isolation which Restoration Drama enjoyed, though, of course, the seclusion here is much in the manner of an irrevocable exile than a voluntary migration. Consequently, it has again become a predominantly urban middle-class art so that only those connected with theatre through familial ties or attracted by extraordinary curiosity find their way into playhouses.

The abiding irony of this situation is, therefore, that while on one hand theatre screams to be listened it gets only the converted as an audience. Talking about poverty, safe sex, unemployment, caste, communal and regional politics, female foeticide, corruption, dowry and so on to a section which deliberately maintains a distance from governance, is educated enough to generally have nothing to do with these social evils and does, on and off, try through civil institutions to bring change is ultimately redundant. When theatre should actually be diversifying and reaching out to the masses our self-appointed messiahs remain stuck in the comfortable campuses of the Universities and the NSD, so much so that even street plays-nukkar natak-are usually organised in air-conditioned halls in posh localities.

Consequently, theatre has become an easy and convenient way for naturalising the society’s dramatically-inclined malcontents, for by giving them an exclusive space for expression the State on one hand effects a sort of cumulative catharsis and on the other furthers their marginalisation. Indeed, as far as the State is concerned, nothing can be more beneficial than this sort of hermetic containment which ostensibly encourages the form but in the long run only works towards its ultimate doom. As it becomes more and more a part of a system whose ideologies it takes pains to oppose, theatre will only loose its importance and become gradually redundant.

It has already started. We’ve come to the last act; the curtains are about to draw- we near an end.

The end.

The end of theatre.