Let lightning strike me : Charalnama's deconstruction of Tagorian haute 'culture'
The obscene cadence of lightning undoes that obscure object of bhakti/desire that is 'reified Tagore' in director Shahman Moishan's corrosive experiment, Prakriti, Chitra O Amaler Charalnama. Commissioned for the second edition of Kolkata-based platform, Happenings' Rabindra Utsab, the performance's charged reception demands a double, triple take.
Brought to life from a rehearsal period of only 21 days, Dhaka University's undergraduate troupe created more than a winter buzz in the capital. Spanning three venues from Dhaka's Nat Mandol to the Bengali cognoscenti's cultural 'Meccas' -- Bishva Bharati in Santiniketan and ICCR in Kolkata -- the performance flew in the face of mellow-dramatic euphemisms that pay homage to Rabindrik 'culture', stagnating art and literary currents on both sides of parched Bangaliana's tenuous, tense border.
In its epileptic, disorienting touch, postdramatic theatre is derangement, not destruction; here unravelling occurs through the lighting of a fragment, a trailing off of a lyric or a hieroglyphic, eroding borders – between spectator and spectacle, between the signified and the signifier as both multiply. Postdramatic theatre is the frustration of not just time and text but referentiality itself: a resonant field of short-circuited cries, staccato flights that end at the beginning, as of crows flailing at glass walls – amid ruins that revolve around no centripetal narrative; yet this is no mere postmodern wasteland, scraps of the nothing that is not/naught. 'Absolute destruction is impossible because making something turn into literally nothing is impossible. If you destroy a piece of paper by lighting it on fire you create ash,' intones the self-reflexive alter ego of the director himself, Roney Das, in the most unstable language there is – humour.
Between the epiphenomenal consciousness of the postdramatic and sociohistorical referents of post-Brechtian theatre, all the while deploying absurdist elements, Charalnama re-names what is consumed as ‘haute culture’. Here there is nothing 'new' about haute culture; it is simply 'high' (imposed from the top), as 'new'. Brandishing the thematic totem of Tagore's modernist-humanist elegies to 'freedom/bondage' source texts, Moishan's moving target is the very consumable culture – be that new or old.
The leitmotifs in the performance are 'take-offs' from themes that Bindu Puri identified as critique of varna and apparent rationalism which institutes moral tyranny via normative or rule-bound life in Tagore's dramatic repertoire. The ramifications of that oeuvre in the matrix of real-time submit themselves to Charalnama: the naming/typology of the untouchable. The term, coined by poet Shakhawat Tipu, refers to the Bhojpuri dialect spoken by a group of Chandals/untouchables, in Bangladesh's northern district, Dinajpur, where Chandal translates to Charal. It is the mechanism of Moishan's sleight of hand: the unzipping of the O-gape reverential mouth of those in the Dhaka culture scene, who, possibly even more than their Kolkata brothers, revolve in synchrony with Santiniketan's timelessness. The reification and deification of Tagore creates 'timeless classics.' Much like the naming of the savior throughout history, the naming of the charal throughout history, , Charalnama expects us to infer, permits possibly a movement in the other direction: the descent of such a 'God' in time, and the un-'thingification' of culture itself.
Veteran critic Ananda Lal called Charalnama the most creative of the renditions of Tagore staged by troupes from across South Asia, praising too the collective accomplishment of the ensemble. True a few members of the amateur entourage were intially habituated to realistic, expressionist, even ritualistic performance, and new to ironic non-drama, which was the most visible weakness of the first few runs of the production, but by the end they had merged into an 'ensemble,' – a fighting force that developed over repeat performances. At the same time, Lal's apprehension of the director's note as postmodern gibberish may well be reductive if it intends to subtly convey theoretical gobbledygook as a mainstay of the performance itself, whose vitality he himself commended. This is a language that created waves among non-thespians, thespians and quite a few stars from the industry. Granted the auteur may have not been the best advertiser of his own production: Moishan's 'true' director's notes are embedded in the performance itself and in notes to the actors, from which the eight-scene performance was improvised. His primary mode of derangement outside of language is via self-reflexive and trickster personae; characters Lal referred to as 'hieroglyphics'.
The climax – if there can be any in a performance with so many plateaus — is a monologue that closes the first half of the play: The lightning strikes Moishan, alias Roney Das.
The playwright/director's brilliant 'pun' is Roney Das, whose name is eponymous with the actor playing him, an invisible cue for the actor who must personify this borderless world. Inserted after three scenes which introduce the re-imagined, displaced characters from the two dance dramas, Chandalika and Chitrangada, the monologue is conceived as an impromptu aside and a plenitude of paradoxes. One emblematic, memorable line among many: 'The human mind has great possibilities. The human mind has beautiful limits. But right now, my mind has no limits, it has no possibilities.' This scene's aphoristic irony, poetic binaries and sardonic hilarity turns haywire the pretensions to 'non duality', transcendence, humanism, or any other aspiration/ethos that may be found within the plateaus of the texts themselves, in the culture that it produced, and the metaphysical superlatives that sublimate the mundane, life-and-death concerns of the Charal: the dialect of their oppression. Das's taut execution (tangible effect upon the audience) and the director's capacity to push his actors to their bodily and performative limits are laudable. Using an array of techniques from theatre games and physical theatre, the director facilitated ownership of the play in rehearsal. More than a few potent moments in the play were the result of spontaneous collaboration. For example, the pillar on which the Bhikku rose up in the first scene was the product of experimentation wherein he was imagined flying, bouncing, by the actors. If any single actor really carried the show it is the trickster Bhikkhu in the opening scene's 'fragment' off Chandalika, who appears in a different guise in sunglasses in Amal's scene, and re-enters in monk's robes as a run-on in other scenes; for he guarded the secret of the play, its rohoshya. This is better understood by first grounding him in the scaffolding from which he is hung and the pike, too; for this is an anti-theory play that is infused with theory; readably unreadable. Postdramatic theatre – a term that has come of age according to Hans Lehman – is politics by other means. Eschewing the dramatic theatre of representation– where the particular 'synecdochically' refers back to the many and the many to the particular, in David Barnet's terms -- it refers to society's construction rather than its 'reality'. Its corrosive edge lies in its mechanism. Thematic concern with social change or alienation is superfluous to the real 'rub’. Here come in post-structuralism and semiotics in theatre, and there a supra-language gravitates toward an unbeautiful, interrupting/disrupting aesthetics which runs rough-shod over the respectable border between stage, audience and real-time. No structuring of tensions through dialectic; something else, always; always, elsewhere. 'Shesh kothai…'/'Where does it end? …' sings Chandalika's transformed Bhikkhu – prophet-demagogue, trickster, emblem of hope and hopelessness—as he trails off in the penultimate scene, walking over the bent bodies of the many, the mass, those 'under', the (would be) killers, the unredeemed, whom we see in various guises throughout the play, alternatively the wretched and the cruel of the earth. This is the self-same thirsty Bhikkhu who hands boots and promises a soteriology of water in the opening scene to two 'Charal' men engaged in brotherly bondage, desperation. Rather than have Prakriti and her mother imitate the Tagorean text, these men encounter the Bhikkhu first in Moishan's rendering. His entrance is debilitating; he utters the well known lines from Chandalika, 'Jal Dao' (Give me water), and proceeds to salivate like a wizened dog on his knees; this disruptive, de-deifying act is swiftly followed by a diabolic presence. Entering Amal's scene, the chameleon Bhikkhu, in sunglasses as bearer of the redeeming 'Letter' puts on a marvelous coy smile as he says, 'She ghumacche' (He is sleeping). The reference to 'sleep' is a seam that can be picked up from the scene preceding it, when Das memorably enacts the one who could not 'wake up' in spite of the beloved, the awakener, sitting right next to them … right next to them! Yet question might arise, is Moishan referring to the text, or merely using signifiers that multiply paradoxes of bondage/salvation, impermanence/permanence, giving/taking, high/low?
Moishan traces seams and leitmotifs in Tagore's repertoire, but I would use a word rather than cross referencing as Lal has: there is a thematic inquisition; trailing and tailing of fragments that could be called 'intertextual' but for the fact that the text has been set on fire. Moishan theorizes his own process of 'becoming-minor', from what Barnett would call a non-privileged center, a vantage point that defamiliarizes Tagore's texts. In fragments of songs that seem to appear from outside himself, the Bhikku achieved a ghostly emanation, extending outward and backward. The vestige of Buddha's noble truths – in the Bhikkhu's yellow robed nakedness–is then hung on a stake, reversed, savaged, by the same two men who played Charal in the first scene. Here Tagore's metaphysics of transcendence and the infinite (via the compassion embodied in Prakriti's benediction by the Bhikkhu in Chandalika) meets the paradox of the endlessness of suffering. The romance and nostalgia in the culture that glorifies it meet the repetitive end… dot, dot, dot.
A window unto the middle class and elite consumption of Tagorean 'haute' culture, Charalnama uses techniques of distancing and defamiliarization, i.e forestaging behind-the-stage activity. As the enchanted ambiance in which Chitra and her beloved, Arjun, silently, erotically touch an elixir from a 'magically' depicted fount suddenly shifts from romance to the degeneration of silent splendor with just one question– 'Why the question'– a window unto the window of the play within the play is created with a sheepish voyeur who enters bearing what appears to be an aquarium with red and green balls in it. Forestage, he looks on at the scene. At one point, Chinese music interrupts the scene as a dancing pair enters, a girl twirling a rainbow-tinted umbrella; Chitra then comes with a burnt body hanging on her back. Here, the character truly has turned into a hieroglyphic, even as she insists on her 'dimensionalities': 'Ami kono shadharon romoni noi … noi kono devi, Ami Chitra – 'I am no ordinary maiden, nor am I a goddess; I am Chitra.' There is awkwardness in the image that rubs against the force of the lines, engendering a dis-ease that permits distancing, disruption. Self-consciously deploying techniques of de-dramatization, the play received varied responses, questions, not least from among its admirers: If revolutionary, why not more 'revolutionary' staging elements/props? If not realistic, why realistic make-up? Alas, the 'real' and 'realism' are not anathema to postdramatic performance in the same way, for it is co-emergent with real-time. There is no single 'signifier' for the revolutionary, or 'unreal' make up. Moishan uses bricolage in set design, visuals and acoustics. Lal makes a point well-taken in his review: costumes and make-up could have been more experimental (less 'realistic'). Yet, there is really no formula for the 'revolutionary' or the 'non-real'; Prakriti and her mother have 'ash' smeared on their face … does this visual render them realistic or caricatures of themselves? Certain props meanwhile added a dimension of queering, 'making-strange.' This includes the aquarium-like box that is brought on stage with red and green balls and the bucket of water, awkward props …Yet, is awkwardness any less deranging than some arbitrarily fixed 'revolutionary' color, prop, symbol?
The perceptible motto is affect less but effect more -- one that not all the pairs of chandal characters (two men, two women) were able to carry through equally. Roney Das's perfect overmeasures, derisive missives, apparent hyperventilating 'nonsense’, made much sense — embodying the connections that are established in a 'non-readable' performance; an epiphany of non-dual wisdom as much as entertainment. Laughter taps into the collective mirror, into Tagorean haute 'culture.' As Das says elsewhere, to uproarious laughter: 'The most socio political thing is girl loves boy and boy will do anything to have girl...' Roney Das's monologue changed ever so slightly with each venue. In the ICCR and Bishva Bharati, a few lines were nonchalantly inserted, gravely delivered to a full house (up to 500 spectators): 'The people of Bangladesh emulating Prakriti from Rabindranath's play Chandalika, are now pressing their demand to Indian people, “Give us water.”.' Here, the director insists, 'culture' can be viewed as the purveyor of 'inherent rights' between two states that share it, 'rights' conceived in Tagore's best vision of 'humanism', rather than the pretensions that perpetuate middle/upperclass consumption of platitudes.
As a (successful) experiment in hybrid theatrical language, Charalnama supersedes by many degrees Under Construction, a recent film based on Rakto Karabi. Construction, which, though not a standard rendition of Tagore, does not amount to more than an innovation in plot in a different genre. That said, Charalnama does retain an umbilical cord to 'texuality’, excerpting many chunks of dialogue directly, unable to relinquish the 'Father' altogether.
Two instances stand out as potential material for revision. One, the silent action of the sixth scene in which almost the entire entourage comes on stage, then, one at a time, kicks the mother-daughter pair from Tagore's Chandalika. The literalness of the scene seemed superfluous to the already established leitmotif of the changing signifier of oppression throughout history. Here, the scene does not quite hit the note about the final visual of the play, where almost all the actors provide the backdrop of backs turned to the pair, and then, slowly turn with sword in hand. In the latter, the audience revels under the eerie thrill of that black gaze. In other instances the director does deploy transparent symbols with some finesse, i.e. in the last scene where Prakriti and her mother gaze expectantly at a miniature 'sea' of boats in a box of water referring none too opaquely at refugee crises. The mother's macabre, classical dance heralding storm, boat and 'tomorrow' is well imagined and yet her death adds no more than dead weight. This contrasts with the choreographed motion of 'fairies' in Amal's scene, where the overmeasure of sweetness works in a sing-song lullaby of 'rupar kaathi, sonar kaathi' (the silver-sticks, the golden-sticks). In lovesick/sick Amal's drawn out scene of expecting 'The Letter', the nostalgic blue landscape alomg with its soporific memory of kites in villages is silently disrupted by the aforementioned 'dance', recreating a fairytale atmosphere that pulls the hood over the bedside story Amal seems to be telling himself. The explicit suggestion of 'child like behavior' is repeated in another scene where two groups of children fight with toy guns. This scene, in spite of its effectiveness in being an 'irritant', also seemed superfluous in an otherwise taut production that relies on rhythm over stylized choreography.
Charalnama interrogates two heavy weight dance dramas and one well known play in a mere eight scenes with the ease of one who is dealing with memories from a misshapen dream. The conceit of the art critic is undressed with equal finesse as the conceit of lover and of saint. Improvised dialogue, bits of lyric that trail, comedy that flails into absurdity and aphoristic wisdom at the highest riff, or nonchalant insertion of a serious- real-time bit of polemic to jolt the comforting sense of 'Bengali unity' through the 'symbol' of Tagore across the great national divide. Tragedy that walks on its head in a flatland of one-dimensional characters; overcrowded signifiers whose very eclecticism reverses the smooth lilting lullaby of a recorded Tagore song that opens the blue stage soon to be rent, not asunder, but imploded from within the reified object that is culture itself. Playwright, critic, director and poet Shahman Moishan caught the attention of Dhaka's theatre world early on in his career with Asheshkritto in 2008. With Charalnama, his language has come of age. One could even say it has created the terms by which new theatre will be negotiated here, against the mainstreaming of tradition, socio-politico-cultural gibberish and the smug consumption and genesis of more of the same.
- Bindu Puri, 'The Tagore-Gandhi debate on matters of truth and untruth: Of collective, caste, nation and varna.' Springer: Delhi, 2015.
- Denise Varney, 'Postdramatic Theatre, Hans Thies Lehmann, trans. Karen Jure Munby, New York and London: Routledge, 2006.