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?