'Creating the opposite dream’
Syed Jamil Ahmed's singular contribution to the politics of performance in South and Southeast Asia
Invoking the entire diapason of the theoretical octave within his enviable range, multidisciplinary scholar and legendary theatre director Syed Jamil Ahmed's monograph on eight Buddhist performances in South and Southeast Asia constitutes a performance itself of no vacuous virtuosity. The readings, metamorphosing from his field notes on selected performances in the region, extend over the festival of Indra Jatra in Kathmandu Valley, the Vajyarana dance of Carya Nrtya in Nepal, the Tibetan diaspora opera, Lhamo, the Pangtoed Cham ritual in Sikkim, the Bhutanese festival of Paro Tsechu, the Devol Maduva in Sri Lanka, the codified Yoke Thay puppet theatre in Burma and the Bauddha Kirtan in Bangladesh. It spans the research of several years and the insight of a lifetime of engaged theatre praxis. Jamil Ahmed describes this volume as an effort to communicate his experience of Buddhism as transience, one we glean through what he calls 'multiple and resistant readings' of re-presences/representations of performances. Mobilizing the politics of performance, Ahmed takes off where the The Twentieth Century Performances Reader trailed off, wryly noting the near-absence of 'Eastern' performance in the fifty performances analyzed in that seminal volume. It is against this ingrained perspective, where 'modern' performance purports to be a 19th and 20th century European singularity that Ahmed directs his collected articles.
Ironically, it is largely by activating the poststructuralist theories of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, the semiotics and mythologies of Barthes and other familiar effervescences from the postcolonial canon that he flexes the well-worn muscles of the European corpus, to new and unchartered effects in the deterritorialized and reterritorialized 'Orient'. Derrida, Turner and Richard Schechner, among others, are enlisted in the formidable assemblage. Pre-empting his own potentially 'orientalizing' gesture – the 'grand sweep' that comes with such a scope, as Kathy Foley acknowledged in her 2010 review – Ahmed takes on both master and mistress (shadow yin to that imperial sun/yang).
Fearing slippage into the role of the colonizing subject, the royal couple reflected in the mirror of Diego Velasquez' Las Meninas, who gaze knowingly at an Orient produced both materially and in the imaginary by that very gaze, he locates his postcolonial dislocation in that line of flight beyond the binary – the frozen axioms of molar/minor, colonizer/colonized – where the Buddhist notion of becoming meets Deleuze and Guattari's poststructuralist idiom. Summoning the Buddhist concepts of the void, empty categories and the absence of unitary rational consciousness, he affirms a 'concrete, contingent world that exceeds the ideal categories by insisting we are always both more and less than that which names and divides us.' The subterranean pathways thus opened flow in hitherto unimagined directions.
In lieu of a taxonomy Ahmed performs a vivisection of performances: what unfolds are dramas of power struggles, strains of myths and entwined ('legend-bearing') strands of history embedded in these performances. The performances themselves are not tortured animals under the scalpel, however, for the readings are seen as a precession of simulacra, where the 're-presented, the signified' is infinitely delayed. In full cognizance of the 'paradoxical nature of the encoding-decoding process,' we are invited to trace a map that is a composite of tatters, heterogeneous ethnicities and homogenizing masternarratives vying for authenticity, where myths come undone in the familiar postcolonial-colonial fugue of Barthes, Said, and co. It is, nonetheless, the self-colonizing orient, rather than a mere pseudo-stable colonized subjectivity, which we come face to face with, again and again, in the shared mirror of the multiple 'minorities' of the region.
Jamil Ahmed's compass in this hyper-real stage of re-presentations inhabited by what he, in Baudrillardian terms, describes as 'the precession of simulacra that precedes a territory' is steady. He does not succumb to the ludic fallacy of mistaking the model for reality. One may even carry the allusion further to suggest that his is not a simulated map, a projected model – but a hand-drawn map, constantly re-drawn and re-shaped to return to the question 'how do I mobilize my politics in this desolate frontier?' A frontier, as it were, crowded with 'pretended referents without origin.' It would be useful to recall Andrew Johnson’s dictum that the 'signified of connotative myths is "hidden", since it can't be reconstructed through the language or images used to carry it,' and it is towards this impossible disclosure Ahmed gestures repeatedly.
The trajectory begins in the Himalayan city of Kathmandu Valley, where Jamil Ahmed recovers genealogies of the urban performance ritual of Indra Jatra. He unfolds legends that complicate the understanding of this performance system as a Newari Buddhist festival that was practiced in the Malla Kingdom and that continues to be performed in the upper caste Hindu kingdom of Nepal. In his own words, this is an effort to disentangle strands inscribed with legends of Indian and tribal myth, myths of Vishnu, Indra Bhairva and the living goddess Kumari, a manifestation of Durga. Unravelling a genealogy that covers over seventeen hundred years of Newar rule as well as the effects of accretion after its end, he walks us through the city streets (untouched by the devastation of the recent earthquake) detailing the week-long components of the festival. In a structure that repeats throughout the book, the present (or current form of the festival) then opens up, its crust disclosing what seeks to remain 'concealed' in the form of myth, a seemingly congealed outer surface with layers of sedimentation, to reveal a molten, liquid, perilous zone.
As Andrew Johnson reminds us in his definition of myth as a second-order semiotic system, 'It takes an already constituted sign and turns it into a signifier.' Ahmed describes how the state of Nepal under the Shah of the Mallas used a first order sign and re-mobilized the concept, to then show the Hindu deity Vishnu and the state as a mandala of the cosmos. By appropriating the legends surrounding the indigenous, shamanistic harvest festival of farmers,'the myth of the earlier performances are emptied, then recharged. This corresponds rather perfectly with the Barthesian concept of myth as a metalanguage that turns language into a means to talk about itself. As Johnson further qualifies, '
There is a constant rotation of mythical images and significations. Myth functions like a turnstile which constantly offers up signs and their mythical meaning… The sign is emptied so that it can present a meaning (the concept) which is absent but full.' This 'filling' is a recharging of myth and serves a political strategy. If we are reading Ahmed correctly, it is through 'dialectical flow', through readings of the instability of power, that such hegemonic tendencies can be resisted.
The dance of Yogini Mandala.
In the esoteric Vajyarana (tantric) dances of Carya Nrtya, the Arya Tara, Yogini Mandala and Vajravira Mahakala, Ahmed not only examines performance as an embodiment of Buddhist non-duality and quintessence of void in the danced trance of 'becoming', but posits it against the Hindu philosophy of union through dance, or merging with the Absolute/Atman. Viewing Carya Nrtya as an example of the Hindu worldview of the microcosm and macrocosm would be an essentialist temptation typical of the orientalist construction of ‘Indianness.’ Rather, Ahmed persuades us, the signified is infinitely delayed, as the dancer dons the mask then becomes a mirror to the void; the dance itself is the liminal phase of the ritual, which is a transformative 'shadhona' through engagement with a deity. Visualization and embodiment of the self-as-void on the part of the dancer (shadhok) destroys the boundaries between the world on the stage and the world in the performance through 'perceptual play, obliteration of confusion and dialectical flow.' In the Pangtoed Cham of Sikkim, where Ahmed interweaves analysis with personal reminiscence, a delicate mist envelopes the writing as we enter a different kind of mirror in Sikkim: the heterotopias and utopias under which people feel reflected.
In the struggles of power that are inscribed, in his words, in the interlinking of ethnic identities and spatial strategies in Sikkim, Ahmed shows 'how ideological practices bind people to particular identities, and to the political, practical consequences they entail' (129). Once again, we are in the realm of the particular and liminal, rather than the stable and general. But power's hegemonic surge, to unify and homogenize into sameness, remains a constant. The effort to forget and remember the power struggles of the various ethnicities in relation to the Indian state is seen to reveal how a changing political context and social demographics lead performance towards constructed memories. Ahmed further postulates: 'Ideological space is created through a collective belief in common origins, transforming the ritual and its space into a culturally meaningful space.' Rather than the 'floating memories' of borrowed language, this is a forceful occupation.
The naturalization of history in Tibet's travelling folk opera is a similar political articulation of tradition, a similar wish to be reflected in the utopia of a single ethnicity, an ideological imposition that may not reflect the heterogeneity and displacements of diaspora. It is as though the oppositional identity creates an empty echo, a unified identity that resonates only in an imaginary homeland/utopia, a timeless, essentialized Tibet.
Ahmed does rather re-iterate the construction of Buddhist performance through its 'other', Hindu performance, since several of the performances take place in India and Bangladesh. Even where Islam is the majoritarian religion, in Bangladesh, he finds that the Bauddha Kirtan exists as a Buddhist performance only in relation to its other, the Lila Kirtan of the Vaisanavites of Bangladesh and West Bengal, making it 'a minor treatment of becoming-minor of the major language.' In this final reading, 'Halfway 'Becoming' on the Interface of Trisna and Desire,' Ahmed tests Deleuzian criterion of minor literature on the Bauddha Kirtan performance of the Baruas of Bangladesh and finds it incomplete as an attempt of 'becoming-minor.'
The latter is best understood in the Deleuzian terms of deterritorialization, where a line of escape from the molar/majoritarian is forged, by forming another sensibility or consciousness. Borrowing the theatrical language of Lila Kirtan, affirms Ahmed, transforms Bauddha Kirtan into a 'nomad and an immigrant and a gypsy' (205).' But it does not create 'the opposite dream.' An example is in the application of rasa: although Bauddha Kirtan abandons the use of the four rasa scheme of Lila Kirtan, Ahmed finds that the use of karuna rasa evokes heightened emotions rather than santa (tranquil) ones. He considers this reaction in the spectator from the perspective of 'normalizing, historicizing, integrating' consciousness, enclosing it in suffering, the very quality of existence that Buddhism, as a becoming-minor experience, sought and seeks to evade. Then again, in the disruptive scenes of Siddharta's uncertainties before the four presences of suffering, Ahmed sees the possibility of a contestation of 'the terror of unified identities.' Here Bauddha Kirtan does open up lines of possible deterritorialization, to escape the aforementioned frozen axioms and the opposition of molar/minor, but falls short, from taking flight along those lines. Ahmed finds that at the last instance, the performance is reterritorialized in terms of molar axiomatics. The becoming is only half-way as it succumbs to molar norms, complete neither as a 'Buddhist' performance or a 'minor' one. The gypsy, immigrant and nomad do wander, yet this constitutes a meander, not a flight. A further example Ahmed observes of this 'half-way becoming' lies in the inability to transcend the patriarchal (and consequently non-Buddhist in its egoic 'I' formation) consciousness that imbues the drama in its representations of women. Feminine consciousness, however, has had similarly fixed representations in performances even where Buddhism is not the 'minor' identity, elsewhere in the region. Thus, one may question whether this line of critique is an attempt at opening up channels for dialectical flow in Buddhist performance in general, rather than in this one instance.
Ahmed applies an interestingly personal twist at this conjuncture of his journey, the last stop on the way out. Perhaps as a gesture to his own origins, he treats the politics of freedom for the Baruas of Bangladesh almost as a potential project for his readers, analyzing the problematic of conformity and compromise with the Islamic hegemonic narrative of the state, as a partial strategy of resisting identity formation in relation to its primary other, the main religious minority of Bangladesh, the Hindus. Ahmed's problematization of majoritarian tendencies, appreciably, extends to Buddhist Dharma in the Devol Madura of the Buddhist state of Sri Lanka, where the 'dialectics of pacifism and violence' is drawn out after a similar reckoning.
This reviewer has tried to avoid delving further into this and other remaining readings of the volume, for each performance deserves equal treatment, as Ahmed has accorded. Suffice to re-iterate, whether in the 'Interface between “Standing for” and “Acting for” in the Paro Tsecho of Bhutan' or 'The Dance of the Ontological Paradox as Trope of the Human Condition' in the Yoke Thay puppet theatre of Burma, the author does a meticulous job of showing that the relationships of power and strategies of struggle, mutually unstable, are, in fact, 'reciprocal in appeal and perpetually linked' (331). In the latter, Ahmed aptly uses the analogy of the viral matrice to describe performances that are 'reiterable', whether translated into a Western theatrical language, or, (dis)placed onto a different context. Like Derrida, the puppet theatre of Burma, Yoke Thay, is seen as able to create endless endgames: the paradox lies in the viral virtuosity of the text, performance and the puppets themselves, as tropes of human egolessness and non-being, constantly able to self-replicate because the self itself is not. On the very lightly critical side, one has to plough through quite a lot of minute documentation, and while the extensive tables and diagrams constitute wealth itself, the very richness of the volume is also its most vulnerable point. If one attempts to plumb the volume in one, drawn-out breath, one is bound to feel lost at times as to where the hand-drawn map is taking us, whether we are still in Nepal or maybe Sikkim… we are in deep waters and need to be pulled up to the surface for air, again and again. The journey is best taken in segments, where the ephemeris that is performance can evaporate languidly, as we savor the gossamer chimera of its chrysalis, before it sighs outward once again. The book's contribution to theory on performance in the region is almost as invaluable as its opening up of such lines of force, lines of potential flight. The bibliography and endnotes are enriching in themselves and could be supplemented in the future with more references to books such as this one, singular as it is, in its position between performance/theater studies, South Asian studies and cultural studies. In this act of deciphering reality, as he calls it, Syed Jamil Ahmed surpasses himself in the construction of a field where the politics of performance can be mobilized; or, to use his words, it is by exposing such 'lines of force as lines of fragility,' that one may appropriate possible points of attack. As such, this volume is no dull tool.
- Andrew Johnson. Ceasefire. A Critical Theory of Myths. 2011.
- Kathy Foley. Review. Asian Theatre Journal. 2010.