Outdoor theatre, commercialism in art and a bit about football

10 June/ Purulia
This morning is all about the Maoists here in the West of Bengal.
They were the ones behind the dreadful train bombing a couple of weeks ago. And the reason that the train was much better guarded than usual this morning. Yesterday they announced that they would renew their campaign and so things are a little tense here in Purulia. Even to the point that when we got lost this morning on the way to a Chou theatre village and started asking directions from the car my Bengali travelling partner shouted at the driver to stop telling people where we had come from. It was clear that some were interested in who we were and where we were going back to of an evening. A favourite trick of the Maoists is to snatch westerners for ransom. All of this has meant that things are a little strained on our trip- with some people telling us not to worry it’s all fine, and others telling us of an increasing list of dangers. Even my explanation here of the Maoist situation is only one of many that I have been told and one that I have decided makes sense and I can live with and I am quite happy to believe that there are other realities, sides and narratives that I don’t know about and won’t be told about.

All of this is the contrary background to our visit today to a Chou Theatre company based in a little tiny village in the middle of nowhere. Chou is a dance form combining music, dance and martial arts. It is used to tell stories, the great stories of a community, myths of Gods and heroes, of how the world came about and who destroyed the Demon King. This group increasingly is also using their form for the telling of other communities’ stories; an adaptation of a Tagore poem, Macbeth and working on Othello.
This relatively recent decision to tell other stories has been met with some opposition in the nearby villages but allowed a new appreciation for the group in the major Indian cities and abroad. Surrounding a large patch of clear ground beneath two trees stood 250-300 people. Separated in two parties roughly along gender lines the audience stood patiently for an hour or so whilst an idiotic brit and his Bengali friend were an hour late because their car had got lost. The audience had not been invited- they had just heard it was happening and turned up to the Chou performance. The show was held whilst we found the place, was served lunch, had tea and then took our seats. I felt like a right idiot.
The show opened with a performance by the youth company. No lessons or organised workshops- they learnt their show by watching the adults do rehearsals. I have posted the curtain call of their piece. It strikes me that there is little to add to that video. Brilliant, healthandsafety-less insane youth theatre.

The company proper performed two pieces; the first a classic Hindu tale about the death of the Demon King; and followed it with a new rendition of a Tagore poem.
In a very similar way to the Baul performance there was something about sitting in the blazing heat, surrounded by a crowd of curious young children watching these wonderfully brave performers throw themselves about with total abandon whilst wearing ornate, brilliant and heavy costumes. I was allowed to attend a rehearsal of a Chou company the next day.
The parallels between behaviour and personalities in a British rehearsal room and this hot field in Purulia region were unbelievable: the same warm up, the same personalities, the same tone from the director, the same problems, the same exercises.

I asked what the actors were thinking during the performance; “The Actors are thinking nothing. The characters are doing all the thinking”. I keep asking stupid questions and people keep being patient enough to answer them.

More than all that the most interesting thing for me about Chou Theatre is the way these people- without apology and with utter commitment- performed outlandish acts, full of grotesqueness and melodrama in the middle of the day in the middle of their village. And what’s more- it works. It’s effective. And it’s the main way of sharing these collective epic narratives. The idea that theatre can play that central story telling role in a community.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role, status and justification for art whilst I’ve been here. India is a different world- here people can live relatively comfortably on 2000 I/R a month (?67) in some places, in other places people live on literally no money. It would be a disingenuous act to start using things seen here to draw conclusions on the British funding system or the financial rewards or the position of British artists.

However I have been thinking about the purpose of these performance forms I’ve seen, or why they’re done, or why the artists say they are doing it. Or rather how the art is justified- even to the artists themselves. Of course the EU are here and they will talk about Tourist income generation and a load of other things that we recognise from our funding system. But the communities, the artists see their role, whether singing or performing or dancing, as one of telling stories- stories that explain, heal or remind. Yes to entertain but more than that. And to do that more through telling stories.

All this talk of livelihood, of international engagement is important. But as important if not more so has been this vivid, generous, often difficult and always hot, reminder of the importance- more than importance- the need- for stories to be told. People with nothing, or next to nothing, will still give what they have, to accomplish this. They will use their own bodies, their own voices, they will use whatever resources they have, they will learn new skills, rediscover old ones, go without, be brave, ignore those who mock, they will enlist their family, invite their neighbours, imagine new worlds and self organise- all because they recognise the desire and need to tell stories.
I tread carefully here because all the people I have met have been good to me, I certainly make no claims to a greater level of accomplishment and this statement perhaps needs more finessing to avoid condescension than I am capable of but- That people in the most difficult of positions are willing to give so much up from the so little that they start with in order to tell stories is the most powerful realisation I have found on my trip so far.

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Finishing our couple of days in Purulia we visited a group of Patachitra artists. Patachitra artists tell stories by painting panelled scrolls: like graphic novels that can be rolled out. Once they have finished the painting, the artist then composes a song to accompany the scroll, again detailing the story selected. Traditionally these stories would be religious stories from the religions of the region.

However Patachitra is, of all the art forms I have been shown, most aware of the market place. Thanks to the scheme that blanglanatak.com has implemented they have seen their monthly income go from 400 I/R to 15,000 I/R in just 6 years (?6.50 to ?250). A major part of their business is commissions: customers go to a Patachitra and say I would like you to tell the story of my wedding or this story from the Bible. In recent years they have been commissioned to do 9-11, Tsunami, The French Revolution and similar.

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But the issue comes, for example, when artist A is commissioned to do 911 (above), they don’t know much about 911 so the customer explains the story and they do the painting and compose the song. But then artist b sees the 9-11 drawing and thinks, that looks like it might appeal to foreign customers and starts to do their own. But they have not been told about 911, they just draw what they remember from the original drawing. And so on and so on. So the drawings and songs of 911 drift further and further from the story. And of course the artist drifts further and further away from their original art form.

They’ve stopped telling the story. The chase for new commissions, sales to foreigners is reducing the quality of much of the work and hugely increasing the number of artists practicing. It’s only natural- 6 years ago they were the poorest artistic community now they are the wealthiest. It is a problem banglanatak.com recognises and is working towards engaging with. It was hugely interesting to meet these artists- I was immediately cast in the role of customer- after my experience with the Fakirs and Chou Theatre. The most telling thing was that of all the many artists I was introduced to many chose to display and sing the same story- even though they could hear what the previous artist had sung. It was the story of the fish wedding that sells the most consistently. They’ve stopped telling stories and started making merchandise.

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At time of writing this bit, the World Cup has just started and the hotel we are staying in, whilst not having many other useful facilities, does gloriously have ESPN. So as I speak Sepp Blatt has just announced that CocaCola and Mastercard have saved Africa. Or something.

I am actually hugely emotional about the whole opening- partly because I’m tired, hot and a long way from home but also because I naturally have a huge soft spot for new South Africa- full of enough hope and without enough cynicism to call themselves the Rainbow Nation, a people who have courageously set their narrative out full bloodied before the world and are now pursuing it with equal measure of failure and success. But still pursuing. I am going straight to South Africa from India in three days to do Extra-Ordinary; the dance piece with Dave Toole and Lucy Hind. Well that’s happening if you allow “straight” to mean back to Dubai, to Manchester, sleeping a night in Leeds and flying to Jo-Burg from Heathrow. But I think I sound better organised and more successful as a human being if I say “straight”.

Anyway the reason I mention all this is because India hasn’t got to the World Cup. Kolkata is potty for football but the rest of India is less so and their national team is a bit bobbins. But the entire country has always been (what with India’s national team never being in contention) Brazil crazy. Absolutely mad for Brazil. But after a while some people thought this was bad form- just jumping on the bandwagon, like the kid from North London who supports Man United because he knows they’re better than everyone else. Anyway all this people who didn’t want to follow the crowd, didn’t want to run with the pack, all these people chose as their go-nuts-about team… Argentina.
The concept of the underdog does not exist in this mind set. So you don’t see any England shirts.

This is Africa… Wave your flag.

Purulia.

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