Smriti Daniel

Gob Squad: Strangers in Slave Island

In Actors, Filmmakers on February 18, 2014 at 6:17 am

There are strangers in Slave Island tonight and they are, well, acting strange. As we walk toward Rio Cinema, we see a woman running the opposite way. She appears to be talking furiously to herself until you see a camera, perched on a contraption supported by a band around her waist. She is past us and down the street in a blink of an eye. A few feet away is another foreigner perched on the pavement; dressed in sequins, she is discussing romantic comedies with a young local. A third man rushes into a kade, he has what looks like a picture in his hand which he waves urgently at the people inside. We do not know this, but somewhere close by, there is a fourth, dressed in a suit and rabbit mask. When we do finally meet him, he will only be wearing his underwear. The scene is set.

As a part of Colomboscope 2014, the British-German collective Gob Squad were invited to stage ‘Super Night Shot’ in Slave Island. The Rio Cinema (complete with risqué posters that advertise adult films like ‘Bang! I Want You’) is actually a beautiful old theatre, perfectly suited to an unconventional show like this one. It begins with the organisers asking the audience to form two long lines, a passageway from the entrance of the cinema to the doors of the theatre itself. We’re handed confetti and sparklers, and when the performers come back into the theatre, they’re greeted with hollering and bright lights. They’re still filming as they go past us, ducking under a banner that reads ‘The End.’ A few minutes wait and then we follow them in.

The show itself is the film shot by these four actors, screened simultaneously and edited in real time. At different points we hear different actors speak, and music is mixed and played through the Rio’s speakers, creating a soundtrack. At the very start, when they set their watches, they tell us they are engaged in a ‘war on anonymity’: “Each of us is just one in a million, easy to replace and easy to forget in a city that doesn’t really need us. But don’t worry. We’re going to change all that. We’ve got a plan. This city will need us and this film will be our witness.”

We know by this point that this version of ‘Super Night Shot’ was made in the hour preceding this screening, which is why every night, it’s a different film. The scaffolding of the performance is simple enough – of the four performers, one is a hero (Bastian Trost), the second is his location scout (Johanna Freiburg), the third his publicist (Mat Hand) and the fourth a kind of casting director (Berit Stumpf), in hot pursuit of a new star for their production. Each has their own task: the hero’s is to go out and find a problem and solve it. He also declares that by the end of the night, he will kiss a complete stranger.

One of the most interesting things about ‘Super Night Shot’ for audiences in Colombo is the cultural sub-text that the actors themselves may not necessarily have been aware of. There’s a language barrier but it’s still somewhat ironic to have everyone on the street tell the hero they have “no problems” (of course, Bastion may have found their problems beyond him, even if they had admitted to them.) In an email, Mat later explains: “the history of the area and the buildings that we were working in are of course very present but Gob Squad’s interaction with the area during Super Night Shot is more concerned with the here and now and less concerned with the past.”

Taken with that caveat in mind, the performance is cleverly timed, weird and wonderful in equal measure. It’s there in the premeditated moments of clarity, where even though they’ve long lost sight of each other, the actors will suddenly break into a dance at the same time or strip down to reveal the elaborate evening wear under their overalls or individually write a single word (on a pavement, under a lamp, on an auto, on a gunny sack) that turns into a sentence across the four frames. It’s in the moments that they couldn’t have planned for: when one waiter begs another to get Bastion to stop bothering him, when a group of children appear to take on the mantle of the hero, when a young man allows himself to be tenderly kissed in the middle of a traffic island by a man wearing a rabbit mask.

What Gob Squad does is interesting: each performance is unique, guided by collective design rather than directorial authority. Players parachute in to a city and while much depends on context, much else is predetermined. Does the performance really succeed in its stated purpose? Did Colombo need them? I can imagine that Super Night Shot may have had more meaningful outings and perhaps what is worth considering is what we, the host city, bring to the performance. That night, Colombo was a mix of the curious and the amused; the bewildered, the bored and the belligerent all made appearances. At least one of us was brave (their guest star took the final bow with the cast) – and in the end, for better or for worse, we got only what we gave.

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 16 February, 2014. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Gob Squad.

Sharni Jayawardena and Malathi de Alwis: Invoking Pattini-Kannaki

In Academics, Anthropologists, Photographers, Researchers, Writers on February 17, 2014 at 2:36 am

There is a time in the wake of her great rage – after she has torn her left breast out, after she has called fire down on the city of Madurai – when a widowed Kannaki finds a moment of quiet by the banks of a river. Across from her boys are tussling, engaged in a tug of war. Among their number is Lord Krishna himself and the triumphant side claims their victory with dance and song. The sight recalls Kannaki to herself. Remembering the tug of war she won against her husband Kovalan and their pleasure in their play, her anger begins to drain away. The moment is made immortal in ritual. To this day, the ceremony of horn play, with its exactingly prepared instruments, its vattandi or ritual attendants, its earnest players and the accompanying ribaldry and competitiveness, is staged to ‘cool’ the goddess down.

In photographer Sharni Jayawardena’s and anthropologist Malathi de Alwis’s extraordinary new exhibition ‘Invoking the Goddess’,we see how the worship of Pattini-Kannaki takes inspiration from the stories of her life. As a bride dressed in dozens of gorgeously coloured sarees, she unites the community in celebration. She is praised for her chastity and her faithfulness. When she is widowed, her husband wrongfully executed, they mourn with her and echo her unrelenting cries for justice. They comfort her and calm her in the wake of her terrible retribution and welcome her into their homes with elaborately decorated altars as a restorer of fertility and protector of their young. (Interestingly though, as Sumathy Sivamohan notes, they do not name their daughters after her.)

Sharni, who has become increasingly well known for her insightful and striking work in documentary photography, first became interested in Pattini-Kannaki several years ago. As part of Theertha artist collective’s Sethusamudram project, she began studying this goddess who bound both Hindus and Buddhists together in shared belief. (Tamil Hindus know her as Kannaki and Sinhala Buddhists as Pattini.) Malathi shared her interest from the beginning, bringing an anthropologist’s perspective to documenting the various ways in which Pattini-Kannaki was honoured across the island.This is Malathi’s first professional foray into religion – “this has really been a big shift,” she admits. She has previously focused on politics, studying the Mothers’ Front movement for her Ph.D thesis. She recalls even then the fascination of watching the mothers and wives of the disappeared visit the local temple to call down curses on the perpetrators.

Malathi and Sharni. Pic by Indika Handuwala

Already, the duo have devoted years of travel, documentation and study to this project. Returning to the same site to observe the ritual being played out in consecutive years, they’ve merged into the heat and throng around the Goddess, capturing vivid, colourful expressions of heady faith, documenting shifting alliances in the communities that worship her and the resurgence in the numbers of her devotees – all this despite being women. It turns out that while the goddess may be honoured, that respect is seldom extended to her female devotees.

In the exhibition, there is at least one blank space where you’d expect a photograph to be. In the case of the horn play ritual – ankeliya in Sinhala and kombuvilaiyadu in Tamil – the black square covers the first week of koluan, when the young men experiment with horn pulling. The next five days are reserved for the experienced men and the process of testing the horns can lead to heated exchanges. Women are banned from participating or even viewing the contest. Issues of pollution – menstruating women for instance are most unwelcome – also dog the rituals. “What does it mean for women today, in a post-feminist age, to find everything is controlled by male priests?” asks Malathi, explaining that there are very few priestesses, the vast majority of whom are marginalised or whose authority never extends beyond the humble shrines in their own homes.

For the two women it presented a bit of a logistical challenge but they chose to meet it by making the most of the events to which they were given access, spending many hours on the ground (thanks to which, Sharni quickly became known as ‘ape madame’ to the villagers.) Photographs taken on previous visits earned their subjects’ trust and enthusiastic cooperation as did conversations with village elders and priests.

Travelling between communities of different faiths, both Sharni and Malathi were fascinated by how a significant number of Sri Lankans didn’t know that Pattini-Kannaki was a “shared deity”, noting that this ignorance was ‘perhaps an indication of the extent to which the two main ethnic communities on our small island have become alienated.’ Many Buddhists for instance remain unaware of Kannaki’s literary credentials as the brave protagonist of the South Indian epic ‘Silappadikaram’ (The Tale of an Anklet). Married to Kovalan, Kannaki is neglected by her husband who chooses instead to consort with another woman, Madhavi. When he falls out with his mistress, he returns to his wife, ashamed but also now impoverished. She offers him her anklets to sell, a way for them to begin afresh. Unfortunately he is mistaken for a thief and wrongfully executed by the king. In her steely determination to claim justice for him, Kannaki sets alight an entire city.

“Everyone has taken off from the ‘Silappadikaram’,” says Malathi. She explains that they have encountered fascinating ways in which it has been localised (everything from caste distinctions to tales of sea battles inserted into the story) or transformed (as in the case of the ‘Kovalan’ told from the perspective of the husband or ‘SilambuKadhai’ or the ‘Story of the Anklet’). Buddhists even shower on her additional births where Pattini is said to be born of a dewdrop or a mango. “They take that story and make it their own,” says Malathi. It’s not surprising then that one of the main challenges of this project has been to capture this incredible and still evolving canon of belief and ritual.

Now, when the two women sit down for an interview with the Sunday Times, they are full of exciting news: The exhibition launch is coming up on the 21st. They will then move it to Jaffna and Batticaloa for longer stints – at the former a conference has been organised to coincide with the opening of the exhibition. Later in the year, they will be hosted in Delhi and New York with the dates yet to be confirmed. Sharni is particularly pleased that anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere, who wrote the classic work ‘The Cult of the Goddess Pattini’, has promised to attend the launch. After all, when they first considered embarking on this project, Malathi’s first response was that Gananath had already written the definitive work. What could they possibly add to it?

Their answer to that question has taken the form of a trilingual website and a less academic tone paired with lots of stunning photographs. However, most importantly it has been in the attention they’ve paid to the most recent evolutions in the worship of Kannaki-Pattini. While Hindu reformers in pre-war years had sought to scrub out non-agamic traditions like the worship of the mother goddesses, there has been a resurgence in such activity. “There is still a strong belief; because of the war, those kind of goddesses have also returned,” says Malathi. Writing in her introduction to the exhibition she notes as “a sorrowing yet resilient woman who punishes but also offers succour to multitudes, Kannaki-Pattini is a symbol of hope to the many war widows and women-headed households now constituting a large percentage of the population”. Some rituals rely on reading out entire sections of the Silappadikaram– sometimes over a period of 15 days! – in which Kannaki calls for justice. “It’s clear, she means different things for different people,” says Malathi. In the end, it’s worth celebrating that despite her conflicted past, or perhaps because of it, this all too human goddess has kept her devotees’ trust.

(‘Invoking the Goddess’ will open on February 21, 2014 and continue until February 23, 2014 at the Harold Peiris Gallery at the Lionel Wendt Art Centre, Colombo. The website – http://www.invokingthegoddess.lk – will also become active on the 21st. The project was supported by the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development.)

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 16 February, 2014. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Sharni Jayawardena.

Vikram Seth: On Section 377 and writing ‘A Suitable Girl’

In Poets, Writers on February 3, 2014 at 12:16 pm

What do you say to a man who has kept you waiting for five years? Before us stands author and poet Vikram Seth; shirt open to the waist, hair tousled by hands and breeze, he’s uncertain of who we are and why we have come to intrude on him. I’m wet from the hips down, having waded through the waters that encircle the little island of Taprobane, but my recorder is dry and my notebook is open. I know enough not to take this interview for granted – the last time Vikram was in Sri Lanka for the Galle Literary Festival it was 2008 and he wasn’t speaking to journalists. This time he says he will spare me 5 minutes – I negotiate for 10 and eventually receive 13:45 – but there is still some material from a reading and short conversation to be mined and in the end, it is just enough.

Just over a month ago, Vikram was on the cover of the magazine India Today, holding a board that said: ‘I am not a criminal.’ Inside, in a brief, yet deeply moving essay, he argued against the now notorious Section 377 of India’s penal code and for everyone’s right to love – regardless of caste, creed or sexual preference. It was a rare political statement from a writer who seldom invests his clout in popular causes. Now, he responds to a compliment on it with: “Thank you, well, I didn’t quite throw the weight of my influence behind it, rather it was the weight of my feeling. While I do my work, so to speak, through my books, I do feel a writer is also a citizen and just like anyone else has views on various subjects. If I feel strongly enough, I express those views.” It’s just that when Vikram Seth has something to say, the world takes notice.

In person, Vikram is small made and wild-haired, he smiles readily and is courteous in the way few famous people are – he asks and then remembers my name and speaks easily to the small group of fans gathered at the Serendipity Coast Festival’s ‘mini-literary festival.’ Vikram’s friend, Geoffrey Dobbs, is our host and moderator. Ostensibly, we are here to talk about the author’s new book. The much anticipated sequel to his most famous novel, ‘A Suitable Girl’ has already been making headlines though fans won’t see it for at least another two years.

Published in 1993, ‘A Suitable Boy’ opens with a memorable summary of the book: “‘You too will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs. Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.” In between this beginning at the wedding of Lata’s elder sister Savita and the end, where Lata celebrates her own nuptials, Vikram covered an extraordinary amount of ground. He staged a madly ambitious portrait of post-colonial India on the brink of its first general election. With no common enemy to spur them on, an entire subcontinent was engaged in the fraught, messy business of knitting together a national identity out of a multiplicity of religions, languages and ethnicities. The novel took for its subject matter the politics of a great man and the manoeuvring of a matriarch; becoming an epic narrative that weighed equally the account of India’s infancy and the angst of a young girl in love. At 1349 pages, it was famously the longest ever written in the English language. Not surprisingly, writing it consumed nearly a decade of the author’s life.

Now, 60 years down, Lata is in her eighties. “She’s looking back on a full life, with all its ups and down, and also 60 years in the life of a country. She’s also looking forward, life doesn’t end at 80,” he says, “you can face in both directions.” Vikram will not reveal anything more specific – his characters he says, are shy, even recalcitrant. He is more willing to talk context and setting. To write ‘A Suitable Boy’ Vikram spent a great deal of time interviewing, travelling and researching the period in order to get the minutest of details right – for instance, where did people leave their shoes when they visited a courtesan or how often All India Radio broadcast bulletins in a day.

His research for this novel will be of a different order altogether: “it is complicated by the fact that ‘A Suitable Girl’ is set in the present and so in sense, everything that is happening around me is at the risk of being grist – even this interview,” he says, adding “you have to get your facts right. If you don’t, people stop believing in the book, in a funny way.” The writing of this book too is slow going. Vikram is likely to collect all his research and then write in one continuous stretch, a single arc; revising it only upon completion of a first draft.

In fact, we’re lucky to see him at all – in the throes of a writing jag he’s said to become conspicuously reclusive. After all, a significant chunk of his thirties were spent locked up in his parents’ home in Delhi, writing furiously and seeing few people as ‘A Suitable Boy’ took shape. (His mother, India’s first female Chief Justice, says she saw his father, a successful entrepreneur dubbed ‘Mr. Shoe’ after his product, in the character of Lata’s suitor Haresh.) With his £250,000 advance for that book, Vikram promised to keep his father stocked in whiskey – their choice of nightcap through those years. Unfortunately, his advance for ‘A Suitable Girl’ – a princely $1.7 million – was not destined to be spent as pleasurably.

When the author failed to conform to his publisher’s schedule (which would have had the sequel in bookstores last year to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the book) they demanded their money back. Dismissing it as a “glitch,” Vikram says “books take their time. The publisher wanted me to deliver – chop, chop – on the date.” Where publishing that first book was risk, the hoopla surrounding this novel guarantees sales. Still, Vikram says the prospect of publishing it remains daunting. “You can submit any bullshit, and people will publish it now. You have to have an inbuilt detector to judge its quality…one has to go not by sales but whether the book is worth killing trees for.” Wrapping up our interview he says he will spend the coming months engaged in fierce activism on the Section 377 issue while he travels about the sub-continent – the latter, he feels, he “owes to the Girl.”

Such is Vikram’s fame that one often forgets he’s only ever written 3 other novels. Many of his most dedicated fans obsess not over Vikram’s prose but his poetry. He hasn’t released a new collection in 14 years – but promises that there may be one within a year or two from now. Who can be certain though what form it will take? Here is a man whose oeuvre of 13 publications includes a travelogue about hitchhiking through Tibet (‘From Heaven Lake’); a critically acclaimed novel in verse about San Francisco written while completing a PhD in economics at Stanford (‘The Golden Gate’); a collection of 10 hilarious fables in verse for children (‘Beastly Tales’) and a collection, published a year later of Tang poetry from Wang Wei, Li Bai and Du Fu, translated from Mandarin into English (‘Three Chinese Poets’). Most recently, Vikram penned a libretti composed of 4 texts inspired variously by the Chinese, the European and the Indian civilisations and the elements in nature (‘The Rivered Earth’).

“My publishers tell me what I suffer from is brand disintegration,” he says later as his session is underway. Pointing to the likes of Agatha Christie or Dick Francis, he says, “People know what kind of stuff you’re going to write and then you produce it for them and they’re happy and your publisher is happy and presumably you’re happy, but the muse, ah, the muse may not be happy. The muse is not amused,” wincing at the joke, he blames it on his arrack sour. (The cocktail is clearly a hit. As part of his reading, he shares an acrostic written in honour of Taprobane in which it features prominently: ‘The sunset hour/an arrack sour/ pours peace on pain,/ringed by the lights/of a full moon night,/books wax and wane,/as from afar/no unkind star/eyes Taprobane.’)

His other choice of readings that evening are taken from ‘The Rivered Earth’ and inspired by his new home – a rectory in Salisbury that once belonged to the 17th-century metaphysical poet George Herbert. In his elegant tones, he recites from memory Herbert’s poem ‘Love (III)’ – “Love bade me welcome …” – before responding with, ‘Host,’ his poem in which he thanks the poet for standing ‘just out of mind and sight, / that I may sit and write.’

Such is the intimacy Vikram has shared with his readers through the years that his reading immediately brings to mind an old, favoured poem. In ‘Homeless,’ the author spoke of envying those ‘who have a house of their own,/ who can say their feet/ rest on what is theirs alone.’ A request and he is willing to recite it once more for a crowd that bursts into applause as he, eyes closed, brings the session to a finish. It is difficult to explain that sense of having celebrated the blessings in a stranger’s life but perhaps, dear reader, you understand anyway. As Vikram stands up, he is immediately surrounded by people wishing for a word with him. However unlikely it may seem, we feel we know him well. And in that moment, he reciprocates the sentiment, and stands chatting for longer than he must.

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 2 February, 2014. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pictures by M.A Pushpa Kumara.  

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