Saturday, 29 October 2011

Desh Diaries III: Water and Honey

One life-sustaining and quiet; the other, a celebration, a blessing and an explosion of taste: I have been lucky; I had both at the London premiere of Akram Khan's Desh at Sadler's Wells.

My strongest, most tender, most gratifying recollections – apart from the piece itself, which has become so much more than the sum of its parts: magical and moving and sprightly  – came just after the show: first honey, then water.

So there we were, just after the performance, Polar Bear and I, still a little stunned by it all – Akram’s tour de force of a performance, the completeness of the oneiric world that had unfolded before our eyes – and, for my part, a little dizzy for physical, less enchanting reasons.

There we were, in one of those little inner bubbles of almost-solitude and stillness you sometimes find in a crowd, especially a crowd pouring pell-mell out of a theatre. When suddenly we were submerged in a spate of voices: exuberant, joyous, tearful, nostalgic, generous, in English and Bangla…

There they were, Akram’s mother and father, shining with pride and emotion, and with them, more than a dozen of their relatives and friends, all peers from the Bangladeshi community in London. Mr. and Mrs. Khan introduced me, with much warmth and affection, as "the scriptwriter of the piece, the person who told our stories.” I clutched at Polar Bear, introducing him in turn — we had written the entire Jui narrative in marathon sessions, then finessed and rewritten many of the stories, stories that Akram and I had imagined, together and separately, earlier.

It was a happy, unforgettable blur of introductions, and burbling of questions and comments and reminiscences – precise and knowing and unhesitant and curious in a very familiar way, the way of my parents and brood of uncles and aunts – recognising, and demanding to know more of, the things I had kept subterranean all through the last year and more. All of them, the veiled, determined lady doctor; the spunky, bejewelled teacher; the teary-eyed aunt and the men-folk tagging behind, all fresh with their memories and triumphs and sorrows tumbling willy-nilly from the shelves and safes they are placed in, for the sake of everyday…

How did you know our stories?
These are things I lived through!
You are not Bangla but you know our memories. You are too young to have been there, so how?
(And to Polar Bear) You are not even Asian but you wanted to write about us, thank you. Thank you so much.

Thank you for remembering!
How did you hear of Noor?
How did you know this is how we felt?
Do you speak Bangla? How did you write those things then?
Who told you about the war?
And Bonbibi, how did you know about Bonbibi and Dakkhin Rai?

I had to tell them.
I had to tell them why Bangladesh mattered and what it had meant – even though I am not sure I know, really. Why it was so present all through childhood and early teenage, why it had been an early, inadvertent lesson in self-determination, in the games countries play, in what Arundhati Roy once famously called Big History and Little History – especially in the latter.
Tell them, in quick words, what we had never discussed during the entire year of Desh.
What I had never really evoked, except in the strands and directions certain stories took, insistently, sometimes to Akram’s surprise, like my early clamouring for a political slant to Desh. Because, as the piece progressed, it seemed important not to let my inherited memories impinge on his very natural need to own the stories that he would embody in Desh.
But their colours are there, strands of them, and that is what these people were trying to trace. Cartography again.

When I did tell them, hesitantly, in one sentence, they understood. More than I do, probably. And the response was overwhelming: Tell your father thank you. Thank him for fighting for us.

Achan would be moved, if he heard that. I still haven’t told him. It’s not the sort of thing you mention casually over the phone, across 10,000 kilometres. But I hope to muster up the courage to, next time we are in the same room. To say, Achan, your stories, your worldview from forty years ago, the things you told me, later, after I was born, more when I was 8 and 9 and then, in sober tones, at 12 and 13, when you wanted to teach me how unglamorous war was, and how there were seldom righteous victories, how spurious borders can be, impenetrable and permeable all at once … they matter, they shaped who I am, and they went, quietly, into this piece, it’s the only way I can thank you and say, I think I know what you meant then. Though you won’t remember telling me this so long ago, especially when you may believe in different things today. But the you that you were, the you who made a lot of the me I am, I hope I’ve carried that voice through. And not many viewers will feel that voice, nor the press, but these people – the ones who lived through it all, the ones who are like you in many ways – they did, they felt it, not the words but beliefs and emotions, and it mattered enough to them to trace the voice to its source. And they greet you as a brother.

I don’t know, though, if I will. Sometimes, you just don’t. Tell the most important people in your lives exactly why and how they matter. And how much they have shaped you. Teenage rebellions cast long shadows, stupidly.

But back to the moment: there was a clamour for snapshots and Polar Bear and I found ourselves in the middle of the bustling, celebratory group, two errant husbands with mobile phones/cameras located, and made to photograph us.

Then, these lovely, direct people blessed us, in that time-honoured sub-continental fashion spanning all religions, telling us roundly that we were going to be very famous, that they were sure of it, and that we must never forget they were the first to tell us so!

Just as the dizziness raised its head again, threatening a pretty bad night of pain, I got rescued. And rewarded. By one of my favourite people, someone who had been bombarded across fourteen months with thoughts, ideas, words, doubts and hopes – as bouncing board for all of the above, usually even before they were submitted to the Desh team; someone whose opinion  on dance and writing, and more  matters immensely. “I would give that 10 stars!” And then, life-savingly, prosaically, “Shall we go eat?”

Water. Doubly blessed I am.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Desh Diaries II: cartography

Desh is done. It is time to say goodbye.

For me, that is. For Akram Khan and the Akram Khan Company, it has just been birthed, after a long and eventful gestation. And it will – we all firmly believe, audience and critics, programmers and producers – go on to grow and flourish and soar for many years to come. It has a sense of timelessness, this piece.

But the rest of the creative associates have returned to our own worlds; after having inhabited this one across 14 months, 15 cities, 6 time zones, 3576 emails, 196 phone calls, hundreds of sketches and videos and compositions and lighting simulations (and these, just the ones I sent/received and remember - there are doubtless hundreds more!). And for the writers, after thousands of words of which not more than a hundred can actually be heard on stage: the rest, all the stories, the narrative connections, the leitmotifs, have morphed alchemically into animation, calligraphy, chants and music, and – most breathtakingly, unforgettably of all – into movement. Akram’s movement, which has never been less than spectacular, is absolutely riveting here.

It is also time to say goodbye to a team of almost preternaturally gifted people, the kind one does not come across everyday. Brilliance – a word very easily bandied about today – is a rare enough quality but brilliance that is so generous, so ready to be at the service of another artist’s aspiration is something one meets seldom in life. And that people so hugely gifted and deeply sensitive to the main artist should all converge on one project – across continents and languages and disciplines – still seems just a whisker away from a miracle. That is the pretty cynical, battle-hardened producer in me talking, used to seventeen different kinds of madness on collaborative projects, me-the-producer disarmed this time – in this new role as writer – by the suppleness everyone shared.

Akram, the fountainhead behind this intensely creative – and, finally, inevitably personal – journey through time and place; through history, memory and imagination; springboarding on desire and duty and doubt and transcending them all, surpassing even our expectations with his mastery and virtuosity.

Tim Yip, who imagined a lush, phantasmagorical visual world where dream, reality and recollections flow into each other like all the tributaries into the Jamuna. And Irene Lu, his costume manager and assistant, who was there at every step, ideating, coordinating, encouraging.

Michael Hulls, with lights that conjure up a glorious palette of thunderous skies and sunlit rivers and winter haze… the ephemera that swathes so much of Bangladesh.

Jocelyn Pook, whose score, whose soundscape, is the most inventive yet faithful testimony I have heard: to the strident, energetic streets of Dhaka; to the ferocity of human desire for freedom; to the longing for land and belonging; to the muted jostling of trees and waves in Gopalgonj on a quiet evening.

Polar Bear. Polar Bear. Writing and rewriting and editing with Polar Bear – something I will dwell on in delight and detail – was easily among the most blithe part of Desh days for me. The crispness of the Jui dialogues owes so much to the shared sense of fun found in those marathon writing sessions, and to his amazing ear for poetry and balance.

Ruth Little, the dramaturge, she of the gentle wisdom and patience which saw us through the making of the piece, through all the whimsical notions and initial profusion of ideas into sifting and selecting the truest ones.

YeastCulture, the animators who brought The Boy, the Bees and Bonbibi – my story woven through Akram’s imaginary niece’s refusal to learn Bangla into a reworked legend of the Sundarbans – to glorious life, with verve and puckishness, which completely resonates with my vision of Shonu, the little boy Akram embodies.

Farooq Chaudhry, Akram’s producer nonpareil, whose vision and courage and determination are, in so many ways, the fuel behind Desh. There is so much I learnt from Farooq in the course of the year; it was no less than a master class in –  well,  much more than production and management – in artistic accompaniment.

Fabiana Piccioli, AKC’s technical director, who translated Tim’s and Akram’s ideas into reality and put this whole complex, polyphonic world together on stage. And continues to, night after night.

And the others, sometimes less visible ones who matter so much, whose touch often had a magic-wand effect that got critics and audience enthusing about such-and-such element.

Damien Jalet, who devised the painted head sequence with Akram. Each time I see that, I see Damien’s extraordinary capacity to take the simplest of elements and create strangeness and otherness with it, to upend our habitual ways of perceiving the dancing body. Each time I see that, I am also amazed by Akram’s capacity to seize the kernel of the idea and build from it, weave the narrative into it, so the body is the story.

Leesa Gazi, actress and activist, who came in to record some of the early tales and stayed on to vindicate our choices to highlight a very political, vocal Bangladesh, one that fought and keeps fighting against all the ills that plague the land. Leesa also brought in her little daughter Shreya, whose voice is heard as Akram’s imaginary niece Eeshita, who – as Akram says – really steals the show!

Linda Kapetanea & Jozef Frucek of Rootless Roots, who workshopped with Akram, especially on The Boy, the Bees and Bonbibi sequence: Akram’s and Linda’s improvisation (especially the riffs on David and Lady Gaga) added so much more life to the tale!

Zoë Anderson and her actors came for two weeks to record the initial scenes we had written (clumsily, speedily) as prototypes to allow Akram to devise the staging of the stories. Only tendrils of those stories are seen, and none through voices, but the two weeks were invaluable in gauging when and how speech worked with dance.

Sander Loonen, who had the sets built and the handled the videos and was unfailingly cheerful and resourceful through our long, long days of early voice recordings.

Jose Agudo, Akram's rehearsal director and a very talented dancer.

Most of the team at AKC, a superbly-oiled machine for logistic organisation, especially JiaXuan Hon, who singlehandedly tour-managed our whirlwind trip to Bangladesh, and managed to get us all the appointments we (okay, mea culpa, I) kept clamouring for at the eleventh hour. And Marek Pomocki who set up the Desh cloud and suddenly made sharing unwieldy video and music files and thousands of photographs as easy as hello.
And many more souls.

It sounds like a bit of a variation on “It takes a village to raise a child” but the truism does really hold true here. It took a bit of a global village, lots of heart and lots of conviction, beyond all the material resources and talent, and I delight in having encountered it at such close quarters. 

So goodbye will perforce be accompanied by lots of vignettes. Ruth told us – at the beginning of this journey  - about an anecdote she'd heard from director Anne Bogart, of a nomadic desert poet in Senegal who had described the poet as the one who remembers where the water holes are.

This, then, is what I am going to be doing over the next few posts. Charting out the water holes of Desh. At least, the moments that linger on for me, full of water — and honey. 

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Desh Diaries I: memories, borrowed and imagined

Bangladesh: voices

Programme notes written for Akram Khan Company and Sadler’s Wells
These are some of the Desh backstories: a summary of our leitmotifs, borrowed and extended memories and fictionalised narratives in choreographer Akram Khan’s new solo.

Khulna, 1971
They came again today. Our soldiers. Only, they are not our soldiers anymore. You don’t want to be Pakistani any more. You want to have a new land: Bangladesh. You want to stand on your own feet? And then, they brought out the bayonets.

It is all changing.
The names we give ourselves, the names we give others. The roles they play; the shape of our land, the curves of its borders.
It is all changing, again. Bangladesh, India, Pakistan. Friend, enemy, brother, neighbour.
I was seven when it first happened. We were playing after school, Tapan and I. Tapan lived next door, he had always lived there. Suddenly, people thronged the streets, shouting, singing. No more British rule. We rule our land now. Three nights later, Tapan’s house burst into flames. I never saw him again, never heard if they fled or died. The two cousins who had survived the massacre in Calcutta rebuilt Tapan’s house and moved in.

It was like that, 1947. The year of independence, newspapers had announced. The year of the wandering dead, my mother called it: a million murdered, six million homeless. 

It's that time again.

South Wimbledon, 1982
We left Bangladesh seven years ago, just after the first military coup.
Sometimes it feels like yesterday: I can still hear Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s voice thundering across the Ramna Race Course in Dhaka. This time the struggle is for our freedom. We had stood there in that swelling crowd, glowing with pride and hope.
Sometimes it feels like we have been here forever. Like all I have known is these long winters, the measured sunshine and the clean, even sounds of this language, English, which I teach all day.

In the evenings, I try to teach Akram Bangla. But it can’t be a real language, he says sometimes: it is not taught in school and none of his friends speak it. My mother cried when she heard that. What did your brothers die for?
But Bangla should not be a language of martyrs and tears for Akram. So I tell him stories from the magic kingdom where honeybees light up the earth by night and demon tigers save mangrove forests.
I tell him the password to enter this kingdom is in Bangla, and it will be lost forever if no one learns Bangla.

Dhaka, 1987
No, Amma, I am not being reckless. There will be thousands of us on the streets today. We need to act. How long can things go on this way?

It’s not just for the politicians, the professors. It’s up to me, too. All we are asking is fresh, fair elections and a neutral, caretaker government. Military rule was not meant to last.
It isn’t enough that your brothers fought for this country sixteen years ago; we have to do it again today.

Don’t say that, Amma. It does matter.
We live in fear everyday. Everyday you wonder whether Abba will reach home. Everyday you wake up scared of arrests.

It shouldn’t be that way, Amma.
Fear should not be the language you speak. Not in your land, the land you helped build.
Look around, Amma. It is a time for beginnings. Look: around us earth rises again, green and ripe and firm.
The Buriganga becomes younger; all the rivers return, tame – the monsoon is over. Even the flowers dare to bloom. It is autumn, Amma. In our country, autumn belongs to the youth.

We will win. If not tomorrow, soon.
Now, go home before the protests begin. Allah Hafiz.

Lyon, 1999
The rivers. That’s what I miss most. I lived there for two years, and I am happy to be back, don’t get me wrong. When did you go last? Yeah, I was there for work. But the rivers, mate. The Jamuna, Padma, Buriganga… They blew me away. At first, it was just water, right. Everywhere. I’d go for field trips to Porabori and there was a fisherman there, Jibenda, who’d row me across the Jamuna? He used to talk to her, yeah, to the river. Weird, huh? Thing is, my granddad was a fisherman in Finistère, he liked to talk to the sea, and suddenly, Bangladesh got closer home? Jibenda showed me amazing stuff. Like how the rivers are like gods, they can do anything. Rewrite maps. Swallow land and spit it out. Tear away acres of fields and bang! you get a new island or settlement a hundred miles down. Nothing ever stays the same, no straight lines, no stops, no rules. But the people, mate, the people just adapt. They build their homes and when their land goes under, they move to another patch and just rebuild. They’re survivors, mate. They’ll be here even after we’ve nuked ourselves to kingdom come.

Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), 2009
There’s this guy calling our Tech Support hotline these days. He doesn’t know nuts about configuring the planner on his phone and claims that’s totally messed up his life. He introduced himself as British-Bangladeshi, so I said I was Bangladeshi too. He suddenly went ballistic about syncing. Yelled and swore and said do you know who I am? I am world famous. I dance at the Sydney Opera House. Who cares? It’s not like he’s Lady Gaga!

Anyway, I fixed his life. He called back to thank me. In Bangla. I just froze him. Imagine speaking in Bangla to me, to a Jumma? Dork. But it turned out he didn’t even know about Jumma! Nothing, not about the minority communities, the massacres in CHT, not even about other languages in Bangladesh. His uncles had fought to free Bangladesh, he said, way back. Cool, I replied, mine are still fighting for Bangladesh. Not all of us are free yet, to speak our language or till our land or visit our gods.

How on earth do they get to be so rich and powerful when they know so little?  

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Birds of paper and clay and memory: Tareque Masud (1956-2011)

About two weeks ago, Bangladeshi film director Tareque Masud died in a head-on collision on the Dhaka-Aricha highway. He and his team were on their way back to Dhaka from Manikganj where they had gone to check a location for his next film, Kagojer Phool (Paper Flowers), a film he had waited long to make, say his friends. But I only learnt of his tragic – and very untimely – demise last week. Ashfaque 'Mishuk' Munier, noted cameraman and media professional, was also killed in the accident. Catherine Masud, Tareque’s wife, producer, co-writer and editor for more than two decades, was seriously injured.

I only met him once, in November 2010. But Tareque Masud entered our cinephile worlds long back, in the summer of 2002, when his feature film Matir Moyna (Clay Bird) appeared on screens all over France, bearing with quiet grace the laurels of the International Critics’ Prize (Fipresci) it had won at the Cannes Film Festival. It repositioned Bangladesh – and, to some extent, the Subcontinent – on the global cinema map, at least in France, at least that year.

Critics spoke of it with surprised awe, fellow artists from Bangladesh rejoiced and the larger diasporic community glowed with vicarious pride that cinema from the Subcontinent would not be labelled solely as the “all-singing, all-dancing spectacle” of the Bollywood behemoth. This, if I remember right, was also the year Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas had fulgurated in the non-competitive section at Cannes: no two films could have been more different.

Matir Moyna, like many other films by Tareque Masud, did initially face problems with the censor board in Bangladesh: it dealt with the still-polemical story of the build-up to the Liberation War, the polarisation between a culturally vibrant, secular Bangladeshi society and religious extremism that was a growing political tool. All of it told through the memory of one child, who loses his greatest joys as his father’s orthodoxy grows to parallel that of the larger powers; a child whose sense of identity is jostled even over his name, the Hindu-ish undertones of “Anu” being repellent to the orthodox imam in his madrasah.

What I remember most about Matir Moyna is the truthfulness one felt in the voice of Anu and my complete and immediate immersion in his world. The voice of the film – soft but unafraid, polychromatic and so rich in musical and visual detail it felt like multiple, complementary canvasses for ears and eyes – was, I found later, very much a reflection of the personality of its director.

For meet him, we did: the entire creative team of Desh. It was our last night in Dhaka, and early next morning – very early, to avoid being caught in the predicted violence of the hartaal Khalida Zia and her BNP had threatened the country with –  we were all to fly out of Bangladesh after an intensive 10-day stint in the country. Tareque Masud was someone a few of us had wanted to meet. Thanks to an introduction from Eeshita Azad, our wonderful liaison at the British Council in Dhaka, JiaXuan, the enterprising Akram Khan Company tour manager, managed to speak to Tareque just as he returned from his ancestral village. Tareque immediately invited us over, and offered to organise a private screening of his new, unreleased film, Runway. We shot across to their house in the quieter suburbs of Dhaka, tired as we were.

In those ten whirlwind days of travel by plane/van/car/boat/foot across a good part of the country, we had met many a soul whose art, sustained action and commitment moved and humbled us profoundly – photographer Shahidul Alam (founder of Drik, the country’s premier photo library and agency), textile curator Ruby Ghuznavi (founder of Aranya, which has revived almost-defunct indigenous dyeing/ weaving techniques), musicians and actors, journalists, otter fishermen in Gopalgonj, potters in Khulna, and shipmakers in Saderghat, among so many others. For the equivocal citizens many of us are, this sense of rootedness, of engagement was quite an eye-opener.

There could have been no sweeter nor more fitting end to our trip than that evening spent with Tareque Masud. Watching a film with its director is a wonderful experience, one I had taken for granted during childhood but cherish now, and, sure enough, we piled question after question on Tareque, about Runway, his new film, “the most accessible one” they had made, he told us. Runway is a mild but telling exploration into the rise of contemporary extremism, and the links between unemployment, corruption, violence, religious fundamentalism and the accompanying loss of democracy, women’s rights and music. There was the same gentleness in dealing with the full spectrum of characters, even the archetypal bad guys; the same refusal to be ponderous. Runway was also, perhaps, much more hopeful; perhaps unbelievably so. But heaven knows we could all do with some hope.

We wouldn’t be able to meet Catherine, he told us regretfully, for she had stayed on in his parents' village with Nishad, their infant son, their “personal miracle”. But cinema was their other, older child whom we did meet. That evening, he was full of pride and joy, because they had got permission to organize public screenings of Runway, and make it accessible to people all over the country, remote villages, distant towns et al – even in places without cinema halls. What I remembered, will remember most is just that: his passion for cinema, his love for the stories of Bangladesh, his eagerness to link both together, cinema and Bangladesh.

My thoughts are with Catherine and Nishad Masud, like those of so many of his well-wishers and friends. He touched my life very fleetingly, lightly like the paper flowers he wanted to talk of next. But his memory will remain, and his films will continue to tell his stories, their stories. Which, for so many reasons, are also our stories. 

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Cruellest Month

T.S. Eliot had it all wrong, you mutter indignantly. April is not the cruellest month: at least, not in Paris. It is August.

Your favourite bakery/pastry shop shuts down; actually, all your favourite bakeries shut down. Most restaurants – good, bad and gourmet – are of a similar mind, except the ones in the heart of the tourist’s trajectory. The grocer follows suit.

The local bank begins to implement “summer hours”. So does the neighbourhood pharmacy – if you are lucky enough to have one that remains open all through the month.

Machines at the laundrette are out of order and there is nobody to come and repair them.

Technically, all these essential services are supposed to follow a rota system that would leave at least one open at any time of the month in every neighbourhood; but this policy seems to have met the fate of most technical manuals — at the bottom of tottering piles.

Buses and metros decide to ply at almost half the usual frequency — during peak hours.

News bulletins are filled with chartbusters from 1949 for want of current material. And when news there is, it is usually a litany of gory murders, kidnappings and arson in every other village in the country leading you to wonder if you should flee to safer environs, like atop the Anak Krakatoa.

All your doctors take off on vacation and the locum gets the heebie-jeebies at the thought of a disorder he can’t spell. Worse still, the doctor’s stand-in secretary has just stepped out from another dimension (possibly the one harbouring socks vanished by washing machines): she announces that since she cannot identify you on her database, you cannot possibly exist. Would you like an appointment on November 30th, she enquires.

The Internet/telephony service-provider you hired for the office at a very steep price responds to a crisis from his deckchair in Croatia: oh, it is a hardware problem, he confirms, impossible to solve long-distance. Could we wait until the 27th of August?

If the house agent has also taken off for a month – along with the concierge and every other housing union representative – leaving only the Great Grey Spirit of the Seine to come to your aid when domestic calamities like possessed plumbing or crashing range hoods seize the day, there is strong immediate threat to continued sanity.

Then, as the rant – usually made to another, fervently nodding Parisian – reaches fevered pitch, you stop abruptly as the other interjects, almost despite himself, “But it is so nice to see the city almost deserted, isn’t it?” Deserted? A fly on the wall might ask. Deserted, with hordes of tourists from every cardinal point thronging the city, for once transforming Paris overnight into a polyglot capital where you are almost as likely to trip over tendrils of Japanese, Bangla and Flemish as run into thickets of French? But, yes, deserted. Because Paris without Parisians – however populated it may be with denizens of other climes – feels deserted. Gorgeously shorn of our collective high-octane irascibility, of the unrelenting sense of hurtling through time towards yet another deadline and of the need to withdraw into oneself lest you tread on an inch of someone else’s space.

A strange thing happens to the remaining Parisians, the ones who choose to spend August here. Whether from indigence or ill health or indolence or overwork is immaterial: you opted to remain here, and the consequences will be palpable.

You expand: take up more space on earth. Breathe outwards. Smile enviously, later indulgently, at tourists. Drop the near permanent half-scowl or the equally mandatory blank gaze donned in the metro and the street. Dare to ask your formidable postman if he enjoyed his vacation. Stop at Gare du Nord to watch a newlywed Japanese couple have their photo session in front of Thalys trains coming from Cologne, Amsterdam and Brussels. You respond to the casual speculation of a fellow Parisian – also unused to this strange new skin of voyeur and flaneur – on why that couple would celebrate their new life at a railway station. You catch yourself saying softly, because it is a place where journeys begin, refuting her unconvinced suggestion – a last-ditch attempt to retrieve the Parisian cynic’s garb – that it must be a photo shoot for an ad campaign. No, you respond, they are too jubilant for that, too indifferent to perfection.

And despite all the attendant discomforts and dangers of absent bakers, plumbers, pharmacists, electricians and doctors; despite exasperation at unreliable metros, a part of you is content and grateful. Deeply grateful to generations of workers and activists and politicians who – against the received wisdom of the day (and of today) – fought long and hard to make compulsory paid holidays a reality for the entire working population. Content to live in a corner of the world where the right to leisure is recognised and defended for all sections of society, although the murmurs against it, especially in the corporate sector, are crescendoing along with complaints that this kind of image diminishes the country’s credibility in the international arena. It may not behove Parisians to be overtly appreciative of their benefits, but, in this, you just cannot keep the carapace on.

You wake early, and watch the sky shed layers of night, patch by uneven patch. You recognize day shivering inside, still a little tender, and you feel something close to kinship? You are resigned about the weather, not unhappily so. Facebook statuses are no longer a tirade about the cold. Instead you post a lost and found notice in the hope that the prodigal will come home. Lost: a summer. Prematurely born, small but sprightly. Blithe and noisy. Blue, white and green with a few streaks of amber. Finder will be well rewarded.

Yes, Paris in August can be a rare and wonderful beast. More faun than unicorn, though: it tries you and teases you and then, in small and imperceptible ways, transforms you.

More on that later: you still need to scour the city for an electrician.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Through the Looking Glass

June-July have a certain solidness about them, usually, that is quite comforting. There’s travel on the cards, usually to new destinations; the weather, while predictably unpredictable, still fits into a certain graph (I mean, you are never snowed in!), oscillating between a throbbing, fevered heat and unremitting rain and, sometimes, touching Gräfenberg spots of liquid sunshine and endless skies.

It tends to be a tough time at work because the theatre/performance season is ending and there are mere weeks left to scramble for co-producers and book tours and find extra funding. It is often the “Oh, I want an elephant on stage” moment when your dearly cherished artist can spring surprises on you, surprises of the 150 000-euro variety. Electric. That’s how it feels. Yet, with a lovely undercurrent of anticipation: the team put up with extra pressure because in a few weeks, we won’t see each other again (well, not for another two to three weeks), and, for once, travel will not involve looking after other people’s visas and ensuring they have functional alarms or vegan/halaal/no-carb meals on transcontinental flights. Besides, that piece with the “elephant on stage” – you know it has all the potential to be extraordinary, the artist is passionate about it, and his vision becomes yours.

That’s usually: this year, time slipped on some sunshine and slush, and regained its footing a little gracelessly – with one foot in the past and another in the future. And place, after having smirked at that little rough-and-tumble, crumbled at the edges, had its midsection vaporised and then reappeared with some grafted parts. Served it right for being so superior. But, what about me?

I went off the radar. Not just the blog-radar (very new, still unfamiliar: prose!) but the writing radar. And tried to figure some of it out. What else do you do when time and place feel like primeval ooze … oh, not because they are savage or fearsome but because they were porous and phantasmagorical and shapeshift with a panache even Mystique would envy.

I. The Red Queen
One evening, Paris – after eleven years of being more home than any spot on the globe, despite (or because of - scary thought, that!) the inordinate boisterousness, the strikes, the elusive plumbers and the lack of saffron-flavoured rasmalai* – turned stranger. No, actually, it mutated into a scarily recognisable celluloid borough, straight from Thomas Harris.

I got stalked.

Of course it is fatuous to imagine that one lives in a haven of peace and sanity when statistics clearly declare otherwise, when newspapers and radio stations shout out with graphic precision the levels of violence and perversion rising each day. Not just in distant, deserted hamlets or behind the postcard-pretty copses. But just here - in a neighbouring district, or on a street you frequent. And, yes, to people like you and me. Without “provocation”. Without notice too.

But it tends to be too dramatic, too – well, cinematic – to believe in. Unlike being mugged or accosted by drunks or desperate drug-addicts – all of which we navigate in a metropolis with enough regularity to acknowledge and beware. But stalked. Huh-huh. I guess that is just that tiny bit beyond our ceilings of imagination. Until it happens.

There’s something inexpressibly eerie about being the focus of concentrated attention. Venomous, unblinking attention. Maybe because you are looking madness in the eye, maybe the instinctive knowledge that rules of rationality don’t operate for the stalker, or the brain going on overdrive, looking for all options of escape. Tube exits, street corners, shops with twin doors, cabs. In, out. Up, down. The mental running, even as you force yourself to maintain a steady pace. The running out of options.

There is the memory of hate: steady, unswerving hate that is directed at you. Random hate. Its aftertaste lingers. Like malaria, I suspect it won’t leave: it can rise up when you least expect, in places you felt thoughtlessly secure before. I look over my shoulder now. In supermarkets. On the street. In restaurants. And I can finally grasp why espousing the right-wing security overdrive must be such a temptation.

This is still my city. But I can see how swiftly it can morph into another being. Like everything else, you could say.

II. White kNight
There is this land called safe. Oh, this safe is on another continent, an intangible one, unconnected to stalkers or muggers or snarling immigration officials or stamping, jostling crowds in buses on rush hour. For two entire decades, the first two ones of my life, it was the El Dorado I had sought. By my late teens, after eighteen times in surgery, the place I felt safest was hospital, so, with infallible adolescent optimism, I thought: wouldn’t it be just dandy if I could chose a career that would unfold within the hospital premises? Anything – occupational therapist, counsellor, babysitter, hair dresser for chronic patients – would be fine, preferably, with accommodation on campus.

My surgeon blanched when I shared that insight with him. Maybe the Buddha’s father had done the same. He muttered something to the effect that life would be unhealthily lopsided, which sounded totally illogical to me: life had always been lopsided and unhealthy: this might actually even things out a bit. Empower me to volitionally enter a place I’d dreaded the first 16 years of my life and that I considered a refuge since, so alien did the outside world seem then.

It must have been just after the time they wheeled me into the wrong operation theatre (my roommate, born with a limp, was to have her left leg extended; I had to have an oesophageal dilation) that I decided that hmmmm, no, hypothetical safety was not a priority anymore as my very real leg took precedence, and while I didn’t – and don’t – enjoy being just an inch or two away from midgetism, surgically lengthening my limbs had never been a desired solution. My roommate arrived at a similar conclusion about having endoscopes and balloon dilators thrust down her chest, incidentally.

It’s an odd thing, safety. We find it in the funniest of places and times. The last time it arrived and belatedly settled down for the night, just before daybreak, was during a really bad bout of spasms, far away, in a city where I have not really had a medical safety net after kindergarten. It was a bad episode, the kind where breathing, staying halfway-conscious becomes such an effort that letting go – choking, throwing up, blacking out – looks deceptively attractive, even if some tiny watchman on a rampart of the brain knows otherwise. The kind where all medication seems held up somewhere else, maybe in some other dimension, quite indifferent and ineffectual, like a stage manager I’d once met in a Mediterranean theatre who kept extending his broom over the same square foot of stage, and flicking it from time to time. Why are you even here, I’d wanted to ask him, and it was what I kept screaming inside my head to the vast quantity of chemicals in my system.

Yes, odd, then, that a steady, unswerving gaze can keep you alive when nothing else is working. That a pair of hands can coax breath back.  That a voice can tether you to an earlier, and later, world with some semblance of normality. That even in the midst of brain-numbing pain, knowing someone is there – even if there is little he can do other than prevent you from knocking your head on the wall – and breathing with you, actually retrieves sanity. Pain can quite literally drive you out of your mind.

The saddest, oddest thing, though, is just how incapable I am of finding the right words to say just what it meant to be safe. Momentary as it was. Thank you would be so inadequate. How do you thank a part of yourself, almost your lungs or thought? Would you say, thank you, dear breath? Or attempt to explain it doesn't matter that the safety wasn’t physical or real since it removed none of the dysfunction; what matters is it was immediate, vital, with the meaning the French give to the latter word: literally, generating life. How do I say that in the worst moments to come, I will go back and hold that fleeting sense of safety, of rootedness, in the palm of my hand. And when life ends, even though that safety won’t be there, its memory will. There is no bigger gift you could give me.

III. The Hatter
On a flight from Delhi to Trivandrum, I slipped out of my 38-year-old skin and the confines of Indigo’s gelid aircraft (whose attendants are doing a fine job in saving the planet by scrimping on heating) to meet my 13-year-old self in Shillong, a much-loved city in my childhood, the only place – out of roughly a dozen – I wanted to put down roots and live forever. It was a time when forever was a believable notion, much like Narnia a few years earlier.

The time machine that powered this journey was Anjum Hasan’s remarkable collection, Street on the Hill, which I had been gifted a few days before. I read it on the five-hour flight. And then reread it, poem after poem. Over and above the precision and quiet, very quiet, beauty of the poems, what struck me most was their fidelity to a specific, usually indescribable, time and place; their ability to capture a certain wabi-sabi with just a throwaway phrase, which wasn't throwaway at all, but poised and agile: balletic.

Anjum Hasan returned part of my childhood: the best bit, the Shillong years, with the noodles and music shops and the "hills in our blood" and the oak doors and the endless array of windows with white veils and awakenings – and, most of all, one of my favourite schools. I do not know whether the school she refers to in some of her poems, in particular, in Coming of Age in a Convent School, is actually the one I went to, or if there were other schools in Shillong that experienced similar, perhaps parallel realities but the resemblances with names and memories were startling. Much of that evocative, effortlessly memorable poem sang to me. I remembered the sex education class with the films in the library that she weaves into the poem. I remembered also Sister Monica, whose verve and forthrightness had been such an impetus. And the end, the end of the poem, marking the advent of adolescence, made me smile through the icicles in my teeth; it was the only thing which had irked me about that lovely convent, after a lifetime of attending co-ed schools and growing up with a handful of male cousins constantly around the house:

“This is the year I realize there are only,
only women in the entire school building,
and am astonished at the thought.”

* there is a much longer list of "becauses" for Paris being home, which one day - when I can keep it short, simple and coherent - will be divulged on this blog. Walking across the Villette at midnight in summer is one of them, perhaps the most inexplicable one.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Save the arts

Meanwhile, there are initiatives that have spring up to defend the arts, to spread awareness among people about the need to support art education and outreach programmes, to demystify a popular right-wing rant that the arts are nothing but a drain on tax-payers' money.

This video on False Economy, for instance: which explains simple facts about public debt and debt management.

The website Lost Arts which fellow-blogger Swarup B.R. on One for the Road shared with me. Lost Arts catalogues "all the projects, events, initiatives, performances and organisations" lost to the UK due to reduced funding between now and 2015. It makes for a chilling read.

My personal favourite is this ludic and convincing film made by David Shrigley for Save the Arts. I love the way David Shrigley uses the familiar and identifiable device of a parent-child conversation and a working day environment to explain some lamentably hidden aspects of the benefits of art - in terms that someone who is not in the field nor directly affected can connect to. In terms that would make sense to an accountant, or a finance ministry official (I am deploying caricatures this time!)

Save the Arts is a campaign launched by Turning Point, a consortium of more than 2000 arts organisations and artists from all over the UK. They are encouraging people to sign a petition to be sent to the British Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. The petition points out "it has taken 50 years to create a vibrant arts culture in Britain that is the envy of the world and appeals to the government not to slash arts funding and risk destroying this long-term achievement and the social and economic benefits it brings to all."

And some images which are worth a few thousand words:
The Angel of the North - as a symbol of arts tomorrow (Cornelia Parker)
Mark Wallinger's Reckless

Hmmmm, I need to see what is happening in France. I've been in and out of the country for too long!

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Odds and ends ... some frightening ends

Back home after a whirlwind trip to Amsterdam for Het Ballet Nationale’s double bill featuring two full-length pieces – Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Labyrinth and David Dawson’s timelapse/ (Mnemosyne) – as well as for reunions, production meetings galore and one writing session – all packed into roughly forty hours.

The premiere went off splendidly, with hardly any technical glitches (and dancers cheerfully tackling the few that happened in their stride, so if I hadn't seen the dress rehearsal I would not even have guessed). I won’t dwell much on the pieces themselves though Labyrinth still plays on in my mind, over and over again, nocturnal, luminous and elemental in so many ways. It was a storyteller’s delight with fables and parables woven in and out, but– exceptionally for Cherkaoui – without even a shadow of text. This piece was also striking in its use of ensembles – it was heartwarming to see the corps de ballet given such prominence. But I cannot claim any objectivity here.

Timelapse/(Mnemosyne) was more in the purely balletic vein, but all electronic thunder and lightning (most of it psychedelic) and special effects refracting the spirit of Greek myths through very snazzy dance-club sets. I staggered out like a habitual wallflower after her first night on the disco floor, head spinning a little from the onslaught of sound and lights, the choreography and performance – admirable as they both were – unfortunately being relegated to second place by the excess of other elements.  

What prompted this post, however, were neither the performances themselves nor the joys and woes of racing around a deluged Amsterdam nor the unspeakably divine chocolates at Puccini (reserved for another post, another day), nor the refurbished Thalys interiors (Eurostar, could you please borrow a page out of the former’s book?). This post  was triggered by the announcement on the funding cuts in arts by the Dutch government.

The U.K. saw much consternation earlier in the year after the Arts Councils decisions were announced. In France, structural subsidies for performing arts have been decreasing to favour an event-driven programming. In Italy, the mood has been one of despair for some time now, though they are resisting valiantly.

The petition launched in the Netherlands explains it far better than I could:

As the post title says, there are ends in view. There is change in the air, a change that is being made in the name of larger interest and economy, but those are really debatable points. Larger interest is a term that shields many abuses and omissions. In Europe we are very fortunate to have funding for arts – there are many parts of the world where not only is there no funding, but artists and art professionals have to struggle to present their work, and are even in danger of their lives. But no civilization has advanced by suppressing or discouraging artistic expression. Funding of art is such a sign of social and cultural progress – one obtained after much struggle and reflection. Reneging on cultural policy might make sense in a short-term, profit-and-loss approach – just as cutting down on social security seems to make sense to more and more governments – but a society deprived of non-commercial art is a frightening prospect.

One day soon, then, the plush Muziektheater might only play host to conventions or a 500-euro-per-head gig. One day soon, there might be nobody to support Candoco Dance Company  in its mission of bringing together able-bodied and disabled dancers, of giving them a stage to share their strengths and weaknesses with us. No place to tour Rachid Ouramdane's and Gregory Maqoma's coruscating explorations on colonists rewriting our memories and our tongues.  No audience, then, for Pina Bausch’s colossal, savagely beautiful Rite of Spring.

It might be sooner than we think.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

I Am The Wind by Jon Fosse/Patrice Chéreau. Of you and me, life and death

A few stray thoughts about the play I Am The Wind, which I saw last week and found very, very compelling. Luckily, I hadn't read any of those scathing, superior reactions in English newspapers beforehand or I might have screamed in pain during the performance. After I came home, quite in the grip of those powerful, poignant performances, and a staging and text I found hauntingly effective, I decided to check the earlier reviews (by default, all from the English press since the world premiere had been at the Young Vic and the French ones would only come out later in the week, during the Théâtre de la Ville run). They were almost unfailingly severe, coming down on all the elements I had loved most about the piece. Even The Guardian's reviewer was half-apologetic about liking it (but he did accord it four stars, hurrah!), "whatever it may mean, there is no denying the production's visual bravura." Michael Billington's review

That was one of the rare exceptions, by the way.

Why did they have to be so, so derisive about the writing? Call me an ingenue but I liked it. Like is an anaemic word, it does not reflect the sea of emotions the piece stirs up. I was shaken by the writing (and that includes the translation by Simon Stephens) and Richard Peduzzi's set design (entirely at the service of the story, no vain grandiloquence here) and the staging. The actors, Tom Brooke and Jack Laskey as The One and The Other, were tremendous. Their words and delivery, hesitant in one, urgent in the other, and the archetypes they portrayed, stayed in my head for days. But actors - like many other artistes - are seldom tremendous all by themselves, they seek direction. And Patrice Chéreau is an outstanding actors' director. Think Intimacy with its excoriating performances, think Son Frère (His Brother) with the microscopic examination of the descent into helplessness, the struggle with the pretzel called fraternity. But few of these reviews accorded him any credit for directing the actors.

Great art gives you clues into the labyrinth of one's own universe, and this one did, vastly different though mine is from the sea-raft-anchor reality of the Northern hemisphere Fosse inhabits. The elliptical beast that is time moves with no feet, in unending, repeated orbit.  Perhaps I needed another friend's thoughts on the piece to reveal why Laskey and Brooke felt like such familiar figures. They could be life and death in us. Action and curious despair. Nurture and abandon. The lure of the lightness there will be in an end and a fear of the weight of living. The need for words. The damnable need for words, words, words when they never really signify that thing. That thing you need, that thing you dread....

Only a week later, the landscape has changed considerable. The French media, in the usual magic mirror trick that the two cultures/medias (British/French) indulge in, are more than positive: they are almost reverential. Okay, that's just an aside. What anyone else, expert or otherwise, thought of the piece does not change the impact it had on me: one of illumination. Northern Lights.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Of Jo Shapcott and Mutability

One of the poetry collections that invaded my head for the longest time ever this year (with a rearguard action still going on) was Jo Shapcott's Of Mutability. Here is a link to Hairless, read by the poet:

Hairless - from Poetry Archives