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)

Countering hatred

Past few days have been really busy as our new Marathi play, Jatharaanal, enters final leg of rehearsals. A satirical critic of totalitarian state where the king turns into a cannibal, this play is an exciting project to work on since it is a musical we are doing after a very long time. There is a qawwali that has been written which echoes the protagonist’s dilemma to choose between knife and alcohol while the lyrics plays on some interesting pun on the word “Suraa” which means both, knife and alcohol, in Marathi. Towards the end of it, the Qawwal urges everyone to choose “Sur” (Music) over both the “Suraa” as that has a bigger capacity to heal.

The attack on the school in Peshawar has numbed everyone beyond limits. While people wrote very emotional messages on Facebook (and even diplomatic advices to Pakistan), I didn’t feel the urgency to respond to it mainly because I was not able to articulate my feelings. I just felt scared and incapable. The emotional outpour is more because it is children who were killed. What bothers me is this killing and wiping off innocence from our lives while we are living in times when we need it the most. Children seem to embody that innocence that we all yearn for and we must hold onto it as much as we can.

There is some apparent connection I am trying to find between the qawwali from the play and my concern with incidents like Peshawar. I think Music, like innocence, is one answer to counter hatred and we need more of it. Because as Bard said, Music is the food of love and we must play on.

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.

Ghashiram Kotwal never dies

This whole elevation of Amit Shah reminds me of Ghashiram Kotwal all over again. When Modi became PM, I had tweeted that Modi is RSS’ Ghashiram. Now the way Amit Shah has rose to the position, can’t help but to say that Shah is Modi’s Ghashiram. The sheer thought of it is very scary. And the possibilities are endless. All I can do is to revere Vijay Tendulkar for articulating this phenomenon of creating political puppets to serve a larger interest by those in power in his classic play, Ghashiram Kotwal. It’s not about Thakre or Saddam Hussain anymore, we have Nanas and Ghashirams around us even today.

Also read Rana Ayyub’s piece on Amit Shah here

जब आदमी मर जाता है

जब आदमी मर जाता है तब उसका क्या रह जाता है? बस एक यादगारी….

काही पुस्तकं वाचून संपली तरी हातावेगळी करता येत नाही. “रारंग ढांग” हि अशीच एक कादंबरी एका बैठकीत वाचून मी संपवली पण तिची नशा अजून उतरलेली नाही. किंबहुना कालांतराने ती चढतच राहील. निसर्गापुढे आपलं अस्तित्व खुजं पण तरिही आपल्या जिद्दीच्या बळावर त्या आकाशात घुसलेल्या हिमालयीन पहाडावर कोणाच्याही नजरेत भरावी एवढी एक स्पष्ट रेघ मारणाऱ्या विश्वनाथची हि एक विलक्षणीय कथा गेली तीन दशके मराठी साहित्यात निर्विवादपणे एका अढळपदावरच बसली आहे.

ह्याच कादंबरीवर आधारित “पाण्याखालचं बेट” हे माझ्या वडिलांनी लिहीलेलं नाटक २९ जानेवारी २०१३ रोजी कला अकादमीच्या “अ” गट नाट्यस्पर्धेत “हंस संगीत नाट्य मंडळा”तर्फ़े सादर होणार आहे. जरुर या!