Sunday, July 26, 2015

"The Past, Presently" - THE GOAN: I'm Not Here (26 July 2015)

On a recent visit to Singapore, I was reminded that the Portuguese had forayed into the region some years after their Malaccan encounter in the sixteenth century. In 1587, the Portuguese, led by Paulo de Lima Pereira, destroyed Johor Lama, the royal administrative centre of Temasek or Singapura, as it was then known. Returning to the present, 2015 is the year that the city-state of Singapore celebrates its 50th anniversary as a modern nation, giving rise to many cultural programmes. Among them is the Singapore International Festival of Arts which will take place in August, and as a precursor to its main exhibition, the organisers hosted “The Open Participate Engage Negotiate” (O.P.E.N.) programme from 16 June to 4 July. According to the event brochure, since art festivals are so fleeting, the planners created O.P.E.N. to serve “as a popular academy … to transform attitudes, mindsets, knowledge and emotions…” To this end, the pre-festival included the work of Bangalore-based visual artist Pushpamala N. Using José Veloso Salgado’s 1898 painting “Vasco da Gama perante o Samorim” as her inspiration, Pushpamala N. recreates the orientalist canvas depicting the Portuguese navigator’s first meeting with the Zamorin of Calicut, in 1498, as a photograph. While nearly identical to Salgado’s portrayal of the historic moment, Pushpamala N.’s remake, titled “The Arrival of Vasco da Gama”, departs significantly in that not only are all the figures in her image, including the Portuguese, ‘played’ by South Asians, but also in that it is a self-portrait. The artist herself occupies the role of da Gama.

Painted four centuries after da Gama’s audience with the Zamorin, Salgado’s painting conveys the significance of the incident, not least because of the Portuguese discovery of the sea route to the Indies. Yet, rendered at a point in history when Portuguese colonial power had rapidly been declining, Salgado’s representation of the legendary episode was meant to function nostalgically as a reminder of past glory. In so doing, the picture also reimagines the past, for the Zamorin is said to have been less than impressed with the goods da Gama brought along for the purposes of trade. As for Pushpamala N.’s recasting of Salgado’s depiction, the artist’s use of South Asian bodies, including her own, to people the tableau, strives to centre the colonised, postcolonially. By cross-dressing as da Gama, Pushpamala N. deliberately genders the colonial past, and asks how women, while absent from Salgado’s memorialisation of historical events, might be returned to the scene. Replacing da Gama’s body with her own, Pushpamala N. enquires into the impact colonisation had on those subjects who were part of the milieu in which Salgado’s painting is set, even as their presence is erased.

However, in noting the “feminist commentary” Pushpamala N. offers through her photograph, critic Mayo Martin remains wary of how successful the artist is at dismantling “the original painting’s politics”, given that “[w]hile an Indian cast … take on the roles of the ‘Portuguese’, the ‘Indians’ are, well, still Indians. And it’s still a face-off” (Today, 26 June, 2015). What Martin zeroes in on is an excess of identity in the artwork – an overdetermined ‘Indianness'. But it is precisely because the Indianness in the tableau still settles into a dichotomy that one must question why this is so. A postcolonial rendition of an allegedly successful endeavour, as put on display at a programme hosted in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of a nation, Pushpamala N.’s meta-image at O.P.E.N. links oceanic histories and places nationalism in tandem with historical fiction. Nevertheless, how effective is the piece in deconstructing the replication of power hierarchies even when the coloniser is removed from the picture?

To answer this query, I turn to the Indian politician Shashi Tharoor's speech last week at the Oxford Union. In it, Tharoor, who hails from Kerala – coincidentally the coast upon which da Gama met the Zamorin – argued that Britain owed India reparations for having impoverished the region which, prior to the arrival of the English, had been on the rise economically. Apart from retroactively imagining a precolonial Indian ‘nation’, Tharoor, much like Salgado's painting, conjures up a mythical past worthy of celebration. For Tharoor, therefore, the problem is solely colonisation, with no mind paid to such matters as caste divisions that not only predated the colonial era, but also continued on and still exist even after the exit of the Europeans. The parallel with Pushpamala N.’s installation, then, and its inability to erase difference in postcolonially representing oppression, is that both Tharoor and the artist fail to see how Indianness is quite capable of sustaining its own hierarchies with little to no assistance from elsewhere. Colonisation may have added other shades of oppression, but the canvas of the past was never pristine to begin with.

From The Goan.

Monday, July 13, 2015

"He Plays Herself" - THE GOAN: I'm Not Here (12 July 2015)

On seeing the billboards for Francis de Tuem’s Reporter, one would be forgiven for thinking that the title character of the currently running tiatr was meant to be a man, or the writer-director himself. Indeed, de Tuem and several other men feature prominently on the advertising materials. This notwithstanding, it is women who play the most important roles in the play that pulls no punches in remarking on present-day politics in Goa. One could make the obvious comment about gender hierarchies and portrayals in the genre and, undoubtedly, Reporter does participate in the usual relegation of women to traditional roles, especially “in the context of the construction of community identity,” as Rowena Robinson observes in “Interrogating Modernity, Gendering ‘Tradition’: Teatr Tales from Goa” (2009: 508). Yet, de Tuem’s tiatr employs gender in other ways, too, as I shall point out.

A political satirist, de Tuem is no stranger to controversy. In August 2009, the tiatrist found himself to be the subject of political drama, offstage, when he was arrested following a complaint lodged against him by MLA Francis ‘Mickky’ Pacheco. That the artist shares a name with the politician is the least of the coincidences as echoed in that oft-repeated adage about life, art, and imitation, one made even more curious by the fact that Pacheco is himself now in prison. Focusing on the machinations of a political family headed by a wily matriarch, de Tuem’s Reporter mines the recent political histories of Goa and India to deliver a drama that brings to mind the Churchill and Nehru-Gandhi dynasties among others. It is not only within the main plot that incumbent politicians find themselves parodied, but they are also directly skewered in several sub-plots and cantaram or songs, which make up the episodic nature of the tiatr form. The counterpart to Aplonia Rodrigues, the conniving matriarchal politician, is the reporter Anita – the chief protagonist whose foremost commitment is to journalistic integrity.

Even so, it is no stretch to say that the character of Anita is under conceived, for she has no developmental arc within the play and often comes across as being a bit one-note in her professional ardour, even as Anita, the actress playing the eponymous role, acquits herself marvellously. Instead, it is the director himself who takes centre stage. His many appearances between scenes to deliver politically observant cantaram about caste, the beef-ban, the ghar wapsi debacle, and various other current issues, serve as a transgression of the fourth wall and bear testimony to the astuteness of the vibrant Konkani art form in engaging with all things au courant. Considering the asides as part of the larger performance, and the use of contemporary phenomena as fodder for the play’s script and songs, de Tuem evidently stages himself as a reporter commenting on politics in Goa. Therein, the otherwise underdeveloped character of the female reporter functions as an extension of the performative writer-director himself, and the motif of the reporter bridges the asides with the main plot by emphasising political commentary as theatrical subject matter. 
 Despite this transgender continuity through reportage, there is no doubt that while sometimes disrupting traditional gender roles, Reporter perpetuates patriarchy. If de Tuem locates himself more prominently than his female complement, Anita’s characterisation as an independent professional woman is at odds, for example, with a song about live-in relationships where an unmarried woman is chastised for living immorally with her boyfriend. As Robinson notes, tiatr regards women as the lynchpin to “[t]he familial domain [which] is perceived as the only anchor in an unstable world …, [primarily] in the face of the disturbing forces of the modern” (535).

But if the title character is female and I read de Tuem as one side of her, am I merely suggesting his feminisation? While much more could be said about the gender-queer elements of tiatr, the larger discussion to be had about such possibilities is in how de Tuem’s own theatrical gendering serves to represent the status of Goan Catholics in society today. As the late Pramod Kale argues in his study of tiatr, “[i]t is a form which is rooted in the working class and lower middle class Goan Catholic[s] …, expressing their trials and tribulations, hopes and aspirations” (1986: 2054). If Robinson detects how tiatr positions women traditionally as the counterbalance to modernity’s onslaught, then de Tuem’s play meditates on the othering of a minority community in relation to the masculinist Hindu nationalist state as signified by its policing of morality and dietary practices among other restrictive legislations. As Reporter reveals, the very audience it caters to is the vote bank that is patronised even as other agendas play out behind the scenes. That the political family around which the tiatr revolves is a Catholic one headed by a woman only further demonstrates how nationalist and familial patriarchy metamorphose to suit circumstance. Similarly, Reporter’s ostensible use of a female lead who is overshadowed by her director is no less emblematic of patriarchy’s persistence, even as it offers a critique of the domineering state. 

From The Goan.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

"States of Suspended Animation" - THE GOAN: I'm Not Here (28 June 2015)

A key of gold unearthed from a pregnant woman’s grave; another pregnant woman hacked to death; and an exhumed corpse discovered to be as fresh as on the day it was buried. These are the strangely wondrous elements of Johny Miranda’s novella Requiem for the Living (2013), translated by Sajai Jose from the original in Malayalam, Jeevichirikkunnavarkku Vendiyulla Oppees (2004). That the title and the aforementioned moments from the narrative reveal its obsession with death and thwarted reproductivity is apparent. At the book’s centre, however, is a man whose youth is meant to symbolise futurity. Osha/Josy Pereira’s Portuguese name evidences his identity as a Paranki. Descendants of the Eurasian encounter between Iberians and natives of the Malabar coast, they were speakers of the once thriving Cochin-Creole language. Despite the potential of his youth, Osha’s quest to find the lock to which the golden key is the counterpart serves as a metaphor for his impotence; an ineffectualness that is itself a metaphor for the condition of his community. And herein lie the parallels that can be drawn between the religious minority around which Miranda’s magical realist story revolves and Catholic Goa. 

The most obvious linkage between the two is their shared religious and colonial heritage. All too often, because the Malabar came to be seen as a Dutch colony, its historical intersections with the Konkan have been obscured. Of the influences that make up the historical, cultural, and linguistic background of the Parankis, J. Devika notes in the introduction to the novella that it is just as important to consider the Eastern influences that Portuguese colonisation would have brought along with it to the Malabar. Cautioning against binaristic notions of miscegeny and other forms of cultural mixing, Devika catalogues “elements from South-east Asia, especially Java and Malacca, which were prominent centres of Dutch and Portuguese trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” as also being part of the Paranki experience. Clearly, Devika cites the need for an understanding of colonialism that is not only beyond the usual Anglo-centrism of the field, but also of the nexus between colonial powers, and the trans-colonial trajectories of subaltern groups. Similarly, in Goa, one might ask how coloniality can be understood as a local experience marked by the multiculturality of early modern and later coastal interactions that were Arab, African, European, and South Asian on the one hand, but also intra-Asian and inter-coastal on the other. 

Though these cultural crossings on both coasts may ostensibly represent an openness, as Devika points out, “foreigners and foreign ideas were welcomed only insofar as they were willing to be integrated within the terms of the highly iniquitous hierarchy of caste…” Within this twisted notion of cosmopolitanism, what becomes of the Parankis – a community whose very miscegenation and religion renders them impure? Relegating their Eurasianness to the mists of time, Devika chronicles how the 1931 Census decreed that Parankis – a term derived from the Malayalam word for Portuguese – “no [longer had an] admixture of foreign blood”, but also that “[t]hey differ[ed] very little from Indian Christians”. This official redesignation of Paranki identity not only signifies a crisis over concerns of racial purity, but also the primacy of caste-Hinduism in the nationalist conception of proper Indian subjectivity and its resulting religious hierarchies. As suggested earlier, Miranda’s Parankis may well be seen as occupying a similar strata in contemporary Indian society as their coastal cousins, the Goan Catholics.

It is no surprise, then, that Osha, Requiem’s protagonist, lives in a state of suspended animation. This is proven by his reluctance to consummate his marriage and his impossible pursuit of a lock that can be opened by a key he found in a pregnant woman’s grave. That the dead woman’s own future was cut short is amplified in that she was pregnant, her unborn child symbolising the lost hopes of a new Paranki generation. The requiem, or oppees, of the book’s title refers to a prayer offered in memoriam for the dead, but in this case it is a dirge for those whose impending demise is in sight, while the ultimate horror resides in the realisation that even this self-awareness cannot ward of the inevitable. Though Devika argues that Miranda’s book is a prayer for the imminent loss of a community whose unique set of ritualistic practices and cultural expressions are being swallowed up by Roman Catholicism, this critique of institutionality must also be extended to the State which has marked the Parankis as other to itself.  For even though cosmopolitanness is prized as a signifier of Indian modernity, Parankiness is difference for all the wrong reasons. Yet, Requiem is not a tale of hopelessness. Reminiscent of the relic of St. Francis Xavier, the unearthing of the unblemished corpse of Osha’s grandmother – a female village elder – represents a cultural remnant that lingers despite efforts to bury it away.

From The Goan.