Tiatr and the Goan Public Sphere

The emergence and evolution of the Goan public sphere has received very sparse attention, despite its potential to nuance the larger debate over public sphere, owing to the multicultural stratifications that are observed in the Goan polity. The Goan public sphere was being conceptualized not only from Goa but from colonial Bombay too. These attempts started consolidating towards the end of nineteenth century and early twentieth century owing to the resurgence of print. But print was not the only medium through which these publics were being consolidated. Often, studies on public sphere base their analysis on the emergence of print culture. As Janelle Reinelt has argued, in her article Rethinking Public Sphere for the Global Age (2011), studies on public sphere focused mainly on print cultures run the risk of eliding the presence of multiple channels of communication that employ aurality and visuality.

Nancy Fraser, in her essay ‘Rethinking Public Sphere’ (1990), has put forth the idea of a subaltern counterpublic. Subaltern counterpublics are parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, ie the discourse that challenge the dominant discourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs. Subaltern counterpublics have a dual character. On the one hand, they function as spaces of withdrawal and regroupment; on the other hand, they also function as bases for agitational activities directed toward wider publics. It is precisely in the relationship between these two functions that their emancipatory potential resides. This dialectic enables subaltern counterpublics partially to intervene the unjust participatory privileges enjoyed by members of dominant social groups in stratified societies.

Tiatr has been a mode to disseminate counterdiscourse, that challenge the dominant discourses originating from mainstream public spheres populated largely by socially dominant groups. Thus, tiatr has been influential in consolidating a subaltern counterpublic. In colonial Bombay, tiatr was a mode of contesting the shaming of the bahujan Goan Catholic communities by the Goan Catholic elites. The attempt was to build a positive identity through tiatr. In post-colonial Goa, the major function that tiatr has played is to create discourse asserting the differences of the Goan Catholic communities as a Catholic populace in a polity that is majorly dominated and governed by Hindus. Let me elaborate.

Francis de Tuem’s kantar in his tiatr Reporter (2015) begins with eulogizing Mother Teresa for her charity work and ends with a critique of ‘Ghar Wapsi’. Tuem’s kantar was in response to the statements made by Mohan Bhagwat in June 2015 where Bhagwat had said that Mother Teresa’s work was motivated by a desire to convert Indians to Christianity. This statement by Bhagwat was made around the same time that  ‘Ghar Wapsi’, a series of religious conversion activities were being carried by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in various part of India. The prime objective of ‘Ghar Wapsi’ was to convert Dalits and Muslim Dalits into Hinduism and had become a topic for emotionally charged public debate. Tuem begins his kantar elaborating the work that Mother Teresa has done for the orphans, refuting charges of ulterior motive laid on her by them.  To the RSS and VHP, who sought to convert non-Hindus to Hinduism, Tuem asks, ‘we are Kunbi Catholics! Will you convert us to Bamon Hindus? The Bamons do not allow lower caste Hindus to enter their temples, will you allow us [the Catholics] in your temples?’ He ends the kantar on a note that says ‘my forefather might have been converted by Portuguese but I have become a Catholic by my own choice. I guarantee that all Catholics in Goa will die but as Catholics’.

This is a very crucial counter that Tuem poses to the narrative of ‘Ghar Wapasi’. It emanates from the daily shaming of the Goan Catholic communities as ‘living under a colonial hangover’ or as ‘anti-nationals’ by those who claim affinity to Hindu nationalist rhetoric. The presence of Catholics in Goa is always seen through the frame of religious conversions that were carried out in late 16th and 17th century. What needs to be highlighted here is that the conversions are predominantly believed to be ‘forced’ onto the natives by the Portuguese missionaries. However, there is enough evidence to contest such rhetoric by exploring other possible reasons that initiated the native residents to convert to Catholicism. Tuem’s kantar not only reclaims agency from a lower caste Catholic identity, but also refutes the narrative that essentially renders Catholic communities as disenfranchised population in Goa.

These counterdiscourses that make their way into the public imagination through tiatr operate at a scale where they have the potential to make or break governments and mobilise mass support to influence policy decisions. Tiatr does not merely act a mediator between the state and the public but also as a ombudsman. Thus, there have been attempts to stifle the tiatr artists for their sharp and incisive critique on the state. Reinelt argues that counterpublics change the face of the socio-political representation of the nation and its citizens and therefore create new sites for democratic struggle. Tiatr exemplifies creation of such ‘sites’ for a consistent struggle, and perhaps embodies the promise of a true democracy.

Cantaram as political dissent

Earlier this month, Goa Government’s Department of Information and Publicity held a ‘Konkani Kantaram Utsav’, a cantaram singing competition in which the participants were asked to sing about the achievements of the current Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government. This competition attracted a lot of criticism, noticeably from the tiatr community, questioning the government’s intentions behind organizing such a competition. Cantaram competitions are usually held without any pre-decided themes and certainly not with a rule that prohibits participants from criticizing the government. On the contrary, one of the several requirements of a cantar and cantorist is that of political sharpness. Cantoristsranging from Conception-Nelson-Anthony (famously known as the Trio kings) and William de Curtorim in the past, to the current sensation Francis de Tuem, have been famous for their radical political positions.Cantaram carry a huge affective magnitude for the Goan Catholic communities and it has played a key role in influencing public opinion at various historical junctures in post-colonial Goa.  The concerned department, in its official press release, stated that “[s]ong and drama is one of the medium used to propagating various policies, programmes and the schemes of the Government [sic]”. While using traditional cultural practices to propagate government schemes is not unheard of, there is more to the said cantaram competition than meets the eye.

11754510_905717512811034_6447163134040975280_oCantaram are an indispensable part of the tiatr, a theatre form that is popular largely among the bahujan Catholic communities in Goa. Audio CDs of cantars have brisk sales across Goa and is one of the most consumed form of Konkani music. In digital space too, acantar shared on YouTube would have an average of 25,000-30,000hits, a popularity that no other Goan cultural form enjoys. But the potency of cantar form lies in how, over the years, it has become a medium of formulating a discourse about the Catholic communities in Goa, wherein they retain their own agency.Cantaram, beyond its appeal as a form of entertainment, are employed to narrate and remember Goa’s history from the perspective of bahujan Goan Catholics. For instance, it would be helpful to look at two Goan political leaders, Dr. Jack Sequeira and Dayanand Bandodkar and their respective portrayal in cantaramand popular history. The popular narrative of Goan history escalates Bandodkar as a leader of masses while Sequeira’s role in Goan politics is inadequately discussed. But in cantaram, one finds an inversion of this narrative where Sequeira is celebrated for his definitive role during the Opinion Poll in 1967 while Bandodkar is subjected to sharp criticism for wanting to merge Goa with Maharashtra.

Such popular commentary on the state of Goa, emerging from a marginalized community poses a significant discursive threat to the regimes in power. Almost a year ago, the current BJP led government was exploring possibilities of setting up a censor board on tiatrs. However, the popularity that tiatrenjoys in Goa is far too powerful for the censors. Following a backlash over this move, the BJP government had to retract its decision. Having burnt their fingers once, this time the BJP led government saw it fit to organize a cantaram competition, with a clause that no adverse remarks could be made on the government, effectively imposing the censorship.

While the BJP draws its support largely from its anti-minority rhetoric in rest of the India, such stance hasn’t proven to be a success in Goa. In fact, any political outfit in Goa cannot afford to neglect the bahujan Catholic voters that until recently, could make or break governments. This is not to reduce the bahujan Catholic communities in Goa merely to a vote bank but to point to their acute political awareness, which marks them distinctly from the rest of the Goan population. The manner in which the Indian state has been rendering the Goan Catholic communities as dispossessed citizens, for example, by the denial of official recognition to Romi Konkani or the recent uproar over state grants to English medium primary school, makes them confront the state machinery in a manner which often proves to be litmus tests of Indian democracy in Goa. Cantaram and tiatr are central to the production and distribution of the discourse that makes this political awareness among the bahujan Catholic communities possible. By organizing the Cantaram Utsav, the BJP government precisely wanted to seek control of that discourse.

However, the tiatr community almost boycotted this event as a mark of protest. A collective that identifies itself as “Musical Warriors” gave a clarion call to Tiatrist and cantorists to gather outside the competition venue for a parallel cantar singing competition. This competition aimed at bringing forth the truth about the last four years of BJP governance and their anti-people policies and schemes. Singers Francis de Tuem, Lawry Travasso, Marcus Vaz among others, gathered outside the competition venue and singing critiques of the BJP-led Goa government in a sharply satirical cantar titled ‘Acche Din Aane Waale Hai’. This performative protest was sheer brilliance on the part of these singers to indicate that they will not compromise their political position for state patronage. While one fears that cantaramwould lose its radical potential owing to attempts of appropriation by the state such as the said Kantaram Utsav, the tiatr community, through this protest kept alive the tradition of political dissent.

Theatre, Spectacle and Politics of “Indian” imagination

Attempts to rewrite, and often overwrite, historical narratives have to be always critically examined. This critical examination is especially important in times when people learn their history through mediums which are motivated by agendas of various hues and colours. In light of this context, Vande Mataram, a play that was recently staged in Goa must necessarily be understood in the context of the India’s current socio-political environment.

Vande Mataram, a play performed by Goa based cultural outfit Krutarth, claims to celebrate the revolutionaries who resorted to arms for India’s independence movement, since school textbooks and dominant historical discourses have been allegedly unjust to them. There is good reason to believe that the desire to stage a play having dangerous nationalist tones is not innocent given the antecedents of this group. Some years back, the same set of people under a different banner, were instrumental in staging a performance of the play Jaanata Raja. This latter play written by the Pune based writer Babasaheb Purandare, achieved notoriety for positing Shivaji, an iconic historical figure, as a reincarnation of Shiva and a saviour of the Hindu religion. Jaanata Raja was unmistakably a project to appropriate Shivaji by the Hindu Right. Hence, there is good reason to be critical when the same set of people stage a play championing the militants who formed part of India’s anti-colonial struggle. Also, like Jaanata Raja, Vande Mataram too is not an ordinary proscenium play but a spectacle that employs huge sets, stage gimmicks, large mobs etc. used as theatrical devices to create an impact on the audience. Spectacle performance was a genre that was heavily used by Fascist regimes in inter-war Europe. A number of scholarly works have pointed out that the effect of the spectacular is that it creates conditions that make reason subservient to passion. It is for this reason that one should always be alert to the use of the spectacular.

The play begins with showcasing how ‘Indian’ society was content and free before the arrival of British. The narrative suggests that it was only after the East India Company pitched their tent in Calcutta that the people of the land were deprived of their freedom. This assumption is fundamentally flawed as it totally neglects the modes of oppression existent in pre-colonial India, predominantly the caste system. Those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy were treated and discriminated in most heinous ways and deprived of their basic needs such as water and food. Knowledge acquisition and economic avenues were concentrated in the hands of a few dominant castes. As the English songwriter Billy Bragg famously said, “Freedom is merely a privilege extended, unless enjoyed by one and all”, freedom was indeed a privilege available to only a chosen few in pre-colonial India. Sadly it is only those chosen few who have had tools and avenues to write about the “history” of India’s freedom struggle.

Interestingly, the play does mention caste system as one of the evils that affected the Indian society. Somewhere in the middle of the play, actors portraying Mahatma Phule and Savitribai hurriedly make an entry on stage to eradicate caste along with other evils such as Sati, female illiteracy and widow tonsure. The list of reformers who tried to eradicate these social evils during British India is read out which includes Phule, Shahu, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Annie Besant. Conveniently ‘forgotten’ in that list is the name of Dr. Ambedkar. Perhaps Dr. Ambedkar would have been partly happy not to find his name alongside that of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Annie Besant for their problematic views on caste, especially the ways they both imagined to eradicate caste discrimination. However, it is surely a sacrilege to not mention him in a historical narrative that claims to be concerned with India’s Independence movement. The conscious semiotic choices made by the makers of the performance, for example, having a Muslim character appear in mobs at regular intervals,  to not come across as a propagandist Hindu narrative of Indian independence falls flat with this careful exclusion of Ambedkar.

The aversion towards recognising the role of Dalits in the Indian Independence movement is not a new phenomenon. The revolutionaries that the performance mentions have always been part of dominant historical narratives. Names like Mangal Pandey, Anant Kanhere, Vasudev Phadke find a mention in text books because the writers of these same books have never been unjust to upper caste revolutionaries. It is names like Jhalkaribai, Gangu Baba, and Avanti Bai that never find a mention in mainstream historical discourses. Ambedkar is not just an individual but exemplifies the entire Dalit consciousness that launched a strong rebellion against the Indian society that was infested with the rot of caste system. That he chose thoughts as his weapons makes him no less a revolutionary. But then, failing to mention him shouldn’t be surprising. Brahmins sunk in their Hindutva arrogance would never even utter Ambedkar’s name, let alone give him his due credit for an inclusive imagination of India.

The play celebrates those who resorted to armed struggle for achieving independence and at various junctures shows an apparent revulsion towards people like Gandhi who resorted to non-violent means to achieve freedom. That it essentially celebrates violence is as problematic as its reductive positioning of armed struggle vis-à-vis non-violence. Also, this positioning could be further complicated in the contemporary times when the people of Kashmir and the North Eastern regions of the country have resorted to armed struggle to separate themselves from the hegemonic Indian state and its army. If violence against the colonial state is celebrated, how is it, then, that people who take part in these “freedom” struggles against a state that they see as colonial are judged terrorists and not patriots?

The answer to this question is that the dominant imagination in the country sees India as the land of Hindus. Any individual or a movement trying to disrupt this imagination is labelled anti national, maoist, naxalite or terrorist. As and when this Hindu imagination is disturbed, discourses are manufactured and theories are spun to normalise this imagination through various networks. Performances like Vande Mataram are part of these normalisation scheme that want to restore this imagination by carefully side-lining contributions of people and systematically erasing discourses that essentially challenge this very imagination.

(This article was first published in Round Table India, dated 3rd April 2015)

Rituals and Emotions: Notes from the Muharram procession at Kashmere Gate

As the first semester draws to a close, I was taking a stock of events and experiences that I’ve had since I first moved to the city of Delhi in August. The one striking experience that had me moved and thinking was when I attended the Muharram procession, just across our university campus on Hamilton Road, as a part of our history and historiography course. The question that was posed to us by our teacher and which still continues to bother me is how do we approach writing about rituals like Ashura? This one question has opened up some more questions and possibilities and in this essay I will try to address some of them.


Muharram processions is not an easy sight to be a part of. The self-flagellating Shia men and kids injuring their bodies and unescapable sight of blood is an uncomforting spectacle. Also, one would find herself or himself between those gathered to participate the procession, often weeping and crying as they mourn the death of Hussain and martyrs of the battle of Karbala.

There is no one particular way of approaching & engaging with rituals like Muharram. There are various nodes which can be picked up as an entry point of engagement. One could look at bodies, spectatorship, emotions, temporality and elements of the ritual such as space, time, aural and visual features. I will particularly focus on the element of emotion in Muharram as my point of departure and its connection with the aural and visual elements of the procession as well as the problem of temporality and history. The underlying line of inquiry in this exercise is to locate the factors that prompt the emotional display during Muharram.

History of Muharram and Ashura

Muharram commemorates the pitched battle (680 C.E.) of Karbala, in present day Iraq, which many now understand to have been a struggle over the political and spiritual leadership of Islam. […] To simplify, Husain, grandson of the Prophet, was slain by the henchmen of the Ummayad ruler Yazid, who’s [..] lavish and imperialist style of governance was, in the opinion of Husain and his followers, contrary to the egalitarian spirit of Islam. Shi’ahs dwell on the tragic martyrdom of a number of characters in their redactions of the story, including Ali Asghar and Ali Akbar, Husain’s sons; Abbas, Husain’s half-brother; Hur, who defected from the Ummayad army; and Qasim, son of Husain’s brother Hasan. Many believe that the Imams (spiritual leaders and successors to Muhammad) and martyrs of Karbala are present during Muharram and, like Sufi saints, intervene on behalf of the devout. Part of the ambivalence over Muharram stems from the fact that Husain’s martyrdom is considered a moral victory. Thus, for Shi’as Muslims, both mourning and celebration are deeply embedded in Muharram’s emotional fabric. (Wolf, 2000)

To show their allegiance to the slain martyrs, and to the principle of success ship that Hussain embodied, Shi’as retell the story of Husain’s martyrdom. They recall scenes from the battle using a variety of dramatic verbal genres, and participate in processions, carrying battle standards, tomb replicas and other icons of the Karbala story. (Wolf, 2003)

At the Muharram procession we were witness to, we saw three different groups, mourning the martyrdom in different styles. The first group involved middle aged men and some kids hitting their backs with sharp tools like blades, chains and knives. The second group had men hitting their forehead and loudly thumping their chest. The third group was a community of Shi’a students from Ladakh based in Delhi. They mourned by beating their chest and singing Nohas in chorus. Nohas are melancholic poems written to commemorate the martyrdom and valour of Hussain ibn Ali and his comrades of the Karbala.

Performing the pain

Self Flagellating men as a part of mourning on Muharram Muharram (Kashmere Gate, Delhi 2014)
Self Flagellating men as a part of mourning on Muharram Muharram (Kashmere Gate, Delhi 2014)

Men and women of all ages wept and cried to mourn the deaths of martyrs of the battle. The grief was apparent on the faces of men participating in the mourning display as well as those who had gathered to watch the procession. Observing this, one is confronted with a question what factors are stimulating these emotions? Weeping or crying is believed to be a very personal emotion and usually displayed in public. Also, crying for someone’s death also implies a personal connect between the person who is weeping and the deceased, perhaps shared time and space. But apart from a spiritual connect to Hussain, the ones present there had no direct connection in terms of shared time and space with him. How then the spectators could so profoundly express an emotion in memory of a figure whom they haven’t shared physical time and space or about an incident to which they themselves were not part of? It is not to say that it is impossible to cry or weep thinking about a person you have never met. In case of Muharram, the mediated affect could manifest through the aural and visual ambiance as well its temporal transcend and historical specificity which I shall discuss it later in this paper.

As I was interacting with a Shia friend of mine about the Muharram, she mentioned one important thing about the Shia community that the sentiment of mourning is much central to the Shia discourse for its historical significance. The identity of the Shia community is much strongly linked to the battle of Karbala and the events thereafter. All Shias believe that they are direct descendants of Husain and hence of Prophet Muhammad. Considering this, it almost becomes dutiful for devout Shias to express their grief during Muharram. It is with this sense of “duty” the performative aspect of mourning seeps in. But as discussed earlier, weeping would also need a personal stimulus. At this juncture, one is confronted with the idea of emotions during Ritual and ritualised emotions. In a paper titled “Performative tears– Emotions in Ritual and Ritualised emotions” by Axel Michaels, he distinguishes between the ritual crying and crying during the ritual.

[Crying during ritual] is perhaps evoked by rituals or given space within them as weeping is very often emotionally contagious, but remains subject to the individual’s choice or psychic disposition whether it happens or not. The ritual crying, on the other hand, […] follows […] five criteria of rituals; it is dependent on causal change (the death), it is stipulated, performed or staged in a prescribed form, publicly performed and staged, irrevocably marking the loss of the deceased. [..] [T]he weeping is not a spontaneous reaction to death and subject to individual feelings. It is a must and part of a symbolic performance in which solidarity is expressed. (Michaels, 2010)

But in a ritual like Muharram, it is hardly possible to differentiate whether the tears are real or not because often ritualised weeping may end in “real” weeping due to the stimulating effect of the situation. In spite of this fluid nature of emotional display, Michaels argues that the distinction between real tears and performative tears is not useless. He mentions

[R]itualized tears are as real as tears shed as an emotional response to an event. Assuming that they are not “real” presupposes a Western individualism and emotionalism that places individual and spontaneous emotions higher than formalised and ritualised emotions. […] [A] ritual is framed by the intentio solemnis (formally marking the beginning and end of emotional display) and other formal criteria. Tears within this frame are performative tears since their “intention” or cause is laid down or prearranged. They can be formally […] allowed by the community [and] nobody will then ask why a participant starts crying if tears are a “normal reaction” in this part of the ritual (Michaels, 2010).

Thus it can be hypothesised that though the tears are shed in the name of Hussain, there is a varying level of personal engagement and subjectivity involved within the participants of this ritual. This subjectivity can emerge from various points. To understand this subjective position in collective outburst of emotions, we could invoke Schechner’s idea of ritual where he says

Rituals are collective memories encoded into actions. Rituals help people deal with difficult transitions, ambivalent relationships, hierarchies, and desires that trouble, exceed, or violate the norms of daily life.

In the context of Shia community, the fact that being a minority sect within Islam could also have possibly resulted in some bitter experiences they might have had in finding space for their sectarian pride in larger discourse of Islam. Especially in a country like India, where Muslim population itself is in minority, being a minority within a larger minority would mean being confronted with the added insecurities of the minority community. Mourning at Muharram could then as well can be looked at as a ritual in which these collective memories, experiences and insecurities get encoded into action i.e. mourning and act as a sort of catharsis for the Shia followers.

Affect during Ashura Procession

The affect infliction in Ashura procession happens through the aural and visual elements of the Ashura ritual. These elements of the performance are equally important to invoke the grief within the participants. By aural and visual elements, I am referring to the Nohas that are sung by the chorus, the sound produced by thumping the chest, the flagellated, weeping and bleeding bodies, the presence of blood etc. These could be considered as agencies that create the mediated affect as mentioned earlier.

Nohas, poetry of lament describe the aftermaths of battle of Karbala and different episodes about it. Written in soulful Urdu, Nohas are set to mournful tunes and sung in a metronome like beat produced by loudly beating on chest, which is called maatam. A large chorus singing Nohas to this beat does sound haunting. This way of mourning i.e. beating the chest is interesting in the sense that the meaning generation in this form is embodied and converges in, on and through the body. It happens through performing the chest beating in conjunction with poetic recitation of Nohas and its virtual aestheticization to the point of becoming an art form. Maatam embodies the rhythmic character of the lament poetry and translates verbal performance into a type of a movement (Wolf, 2000).

The men inflicting injuries upon themselves could be looked at as devices used to invoke the motif of blood that was shed at the battle of Karbala. This could have deeper impact on the subconscious of the spectator and could be considered as one of the stimulus that is imperative to invoke grief. But this is a very primary hypothesis and the performance should be looked at in more focused to put forth some solid evidence for the same. 

Performing History and temporality

The commemorations of Muharram begin on day one of Muharram and culminate on the tenth day which is known as Ashura. During this time, pious Shias observe mourning practices, dress and behave sombrely, and attend during gatherings at which the history of the Battle of Karbala is retold, often in conjunction with sermons teaching lessons to be learned from this history. Tenth day commemorations may include a passion play, processions, and various forms of lamentation, such as self-flagellation, the singing of nohas, the recitation of marsiyas and a ritualized form of mourning ie Maatam.

Though I have limited my observations to the processions on the tenth day ie Ashura, one needs to also look at the events that happen for the first nine days and lead up to the day of Ashura. These gatherings are called Majalis where the narrators reciteMarsiyas. Marsiya is form of prose poetry which is recited (as opposed to Noha which are usually sung, though both are forms of elegiac poetry) to narrate incidents about Karbala battle. They are narrated in a heightened manner to make the attendees feel the pain and suffering that the martyrs of Karbala and their families went through.

The affect on the audience parallels the shifts in tone of the reciter, with the lamentation rituals evoking intense crying and weeping. While all majalis include the lamentative narration of the […] the tragic events of Karbala, reciters […] will include as much detail of suffering as possible in this narration, to elicit maximum levels of emotion from the audience. (Deeb, 2005)

This sort of performance and invoking of history makes the Muharram as a site where the participants could experience temporality in terms of time. When the audience assumes an active role in enhancing the emotional feeling through collective mourning, a transcendence towards regret takes place. When participants are placed simultaneously in the performance of Ashura as well as on the plains of Karbala many centuries ago, an altered sense of temporality is experienced; the present is merged with the past in a unified moment of intensity.


The central point in my inquiry of Muharram has been to locate the source or the stimulus of emotions that the Shia attendees go through during the mourning phase of Muharram. It can be only deduced that there isn’t one source but various factor collectively responsible for the display of emotions. Lara Deeb mentions that the emotions surrounding Ashura commemorated express both grief and regret. Tears shed for the martyrs of Karbala are tears that are religiously commendable. It is believed that both evoking these tears and shedding them are acts that bring divine reward and that may increase one’s chances of entering heaven. Blood spilled in memory of the events of Karbala is similarly an embodied demonstration of grief and an empathetic expression of solidarity with the Imam’s pain and sorrow. It can also be an expression of regret or remorse. Some of those who perform the traditional style of maatamexplain that this demonstrates their regret for not being at Karbala with the Imam—a reference to those Shias who originally called on the Imam to come and lead their revolution, but who then failed to arrive at Karbala in time to either protect the Imam or stand and die with him (Deeb, 2005).

The fact that the mourning still continues in various forms and embodiment also highlights the relevance of the ritual for the community in contemporary times. Noted Islamic scholar Hamid Dabashi has argued that the central thematic of these mourning performances is the notion of Mazlummiyat. Mazlummiyat refers to the absence of justice towards Shias that signals the necessity of its presence. He writes

Shi’ism is a religion of protest. It can never succeed politically without failing morally. As a cosmic carnival of a constitutional injustice, taziyeh is the mourning of a loss that must always fail in its stated objective if it is to be successful. No mourning could or should ever be successful. The success of mourning is its failure. Mourning is successful only to the degree that it fails, acknowledging the enormity of the loss, the incomprehensible dimensions of the tragedy. The success of mourning means the eradication of the central trauma that has caused it, and no such eradication of a trauma definitive to a culture is possible-without nullifying that very culture. Shi’is are condemned/blessed forever to remember the central trauma of their history, but never so fully that they can then forget it. The act of remembrance will have to remain always incomplete-like a dream that keeps haunting a people, forcing them to try to remember it, but never successfully. In commemorating the death of a martyr, Shias are seeking to identify with absolute Otherness; with saintliness in the midst of sin and death at the moment of living; with dual, absolutely incongruent, Otherness; with the face and the body, miasmatic memory and creative incantation, of the saintly and the deceased. In that impossibility, mourning choreographed and staged, taziyeh is made possible (Dabashi, 2005).

We need to remember that Dabashi’s argument is rooted in the context of socio-political history of Iran and other Shia countries in Middle East such as Iraq & Lebanon. In Indian context, Shias being the minority within a minority could as well be looked at as a possible reason for denial of justice in an already congested and contested religious space. While Muharram becomes the remembrance of the events of Karbala, the thematic of Mazlummiyat also reflects the binary of oppressed and oppressor. The importance of commemorating it every year is better articulated by a woman Deeb interviewed in Lebanon. She said

In every era there is an oppressor and an oppressed. And this history always repeats itself, throughout all eras. Ashura reminds us of this, so we will never forget that there is a Yazid and a Husayn in every time, in every nation, in every government, and people should always have the spirit of revolution against oppression, in all its faces, no matter what its identity (Deeb, 2008)

Thus, as per the Shi’ite belief, the commemoration of Muharram is not just about mourning and remembrance but that of solidarity and an embodiment of spirit to fight against injustice.

Selected Bibliography

  • Wolf, Richard K. 2000. Embodiment and ambivalence: Emotion in South Asian Muharram drumming. Yearbook for Traditional Music 32: 81-116
  • Wolf, Richard Kent. “Return to Tears: Musical Mourning, Emotion, and Religious Reform in Two South Asian Minority Communities.” (2003).
  • Deeb, Lara. “Emulating and/or embodying the ideal: The gendering of temporal frameworks and Islamic role models in Shi ‘i Lebanon.” American Ethnologist 36.2 (2009): 242-257.
  • Deeb, Lara. “Living Ashura in Lebanon: mourning transformed to sacrifice.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 25.1 (2005): 122-137.
  • Dabashi, Hamid. “Taziyeh as theatre of protest.” TDR/The Drama Review 49.4 (2005): 91-99.
  • Norton, Augustus Richard. “Ritual, Blood, and Shiite Identity: Ashura in Nabatiyya, Lebanon.” TDR/The Drama Review 49.4 (2005): 140-155.
  • Chelkowski, Peter J., ed. Eternal Performance: Taʻziyeh and Other Shiite Rituals. Seagull, 2010.

Notes on Bruce McConachie’s Evolutionary perspective on Play, Performance and Ritual

The paper by Bruce McConachie titled “An Evolutionary perspective on Play, Performance and Ritual” attempts to give how these three categories might have evolved out of each other. As McConachie claims “this evolutionary perspective on play, performance, and ritual rests on a recent synthesis of evidence from anthropology, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and other empirically based disciplines”. He also attempts to articulate new definitions of these key terms ie Play, Performance and Ritual in this paper. As a response to this text, I would like to highlight the concept of Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device (HADD) that McConachie elaborates in the Religious Ritual and Performance section.

10600626_1506632282949986_3011552146061300276_nAnthropologists like Guthrie, Lanman, Whitehouse and Barrett emphasise on the importance of HADD in the minds of hominid and later Homo Sapien as primary reason for our species’ creation and worship of gods. Many psychological experiments have demonstrated that people often claim that they have detected animate agency in images, natural events, and accidents where none really exists. For example, people believe they can see the face of a deity in the embers of a fire, for example, or are able to perceive the workings of the gods in a thunderstorm. This is referred as HADD. According to these four anthropologists, HADD, initially an evolutionary adaptation that sensitized our ancestors to the possibility of dangerous agency, led to the secondary cognitive effect of helping them to invent and perpetuate religion. HADD facilitated the extension of performance into religious ritual.

Having been a witness to ritualistic performances like Muharram and Guru Purab recently, I’ve been curious to understand how and why people ascribe their beliefs to a mythic figure and participate in these rituals while often putting their bodies at stake in memory of it. Be it self-flagellating men in Muharram processions or young Sikh men displaying sword fights to invoke a sense of grief and pride respectively, what is the force that drives these men to do these acts? For instance, in Muharram procession, while the men are hurting their body, the spectators beat their chest and weep. What is it that is embodied in these performances which invokes a sense of grief into people who are witnessing it?

Self Flagellating men as a part of mourning on Muharram Muharram (Kashmere Gate, Delhi 2014)
Self Flagellating men as a part of mourning on Muharram Muharram (Kashmere Gate, Delhi 2014)

Scott Atran (whom McConachie quotes in this paper) in his book In Gods We Trust: Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, seems to confirm the crucial role of HADD in religion. According to Atran,

“Most primitive religious rituals rehearsed situations of danger, stress, pain, and occasional death to enable humans to process traumatic experiences in their lives that have no logical or probable explanation or outcome. Such events played a much larger part in human history 50 thousand years ago than they do today, when disease, starvation, and violent death were more frequent occurrences. Despite appearances, sacrifice, mutilation, and similar ritual practices sanctioned by religious belief helped Homo sapiens to deal with life-threatening events and to bind individuals more tightly to their group.”

I am not sure if HADD is the answer to the questions that were raised after watching the Muharram procession but it seems to hint at it.


Notes on Draupadi – a performance by Kalakshetra (Manipur)

It has been a while since I’ve been wanting to watch Draupadi by Kalakshetra Manipur and glad that finally could manage to watch it at India Habitat Centre. Based on a short story by Mahashweta Devi, Draupadi went on to become a major performance in the discourse of political theatre in India. Mahashweta Devi had based her story in the context of naxalite revolution in Bengal while theatre director H. Kanhailal contextualises the same story within the political scenario of Manipur. The common thread in both, story and performance, is the protagonist’s fight against the oppressive state that wants to suppress insurgent movement by locals. The play ends on a high note where Draupadi, after being repeatedly raped by army officials, disrobes herself as an act of protest.

Talking about the performance, I didn’t find it engaging enough and that feeling has very less to do with my inability to understand language. Apart from H. Savitri, who is a brilliant stage actress and surely amongst the best that I have seen, the performers lacked coherence in their share of being on stage. Kanhailal is known for his skills to make actors speak through their bodies but this performance was put at risk with being textually dominating in nature. Also, the technicalities of sound projection and background music were major hindrances in receiving the performance. Performing such an intense play in an open air setting too might have been responsible to have diluted the impact of the performance.

But a play like Draupadi should not be dismissed under the pretext of poor performance because its significance to political theatre in India is undisputable. After Pebet, where Kanhailal cleverly transforms a Meitei folk tale into a performance that makes a strong political comment against the cultural and social indoctrination of Manipur by the Indian state, Draupadi too gives an insight into the larger political debate around Manipur that Kanhailal wants to trigger within his audience. Manipur has been one of the centre of insurgency against Indian state to free itself and form a sovereign nation and thus has been put under the barbaric and inhuman rule of Armed Force Special Powers Act or better known as AFSPA.  Kanhailal, through this play, attempts to touch upon various topics that concern his surrounding, the most striking one being the brutal torture of locals by the Indian army, especially rapes of local women, thanks to the callous AFSPA.

The climax scene where Savitri disrobes herself as an act of protest also triggers many questions about nudity and body on stage and in public life. When the performance first premiered in 2000, it was heavily criticised for having shown nudity on stage. But when a group of Meitei women staged a naked protest in Imphal against the rape and murder of Manorama Devi by Indian Army in 2004, the performance got a revived meaning. It is in all these contexts that Draupadi becomes a performance with a great significance in the broader narrative of political theatre in India.