Saturday, December 29, 2012

"When the Curtain Falls" - THE GOAN: Goa Vision 2020 (Goa - 29 December 2012)

I’ve just returned from watching Sandals on the Doorstep, the 25th anniversary production of Goa’s longest-lived English theatre group, The Mustard Seed Art Company (TMSAC). It is true that I was amongst a small audience at Kala Academy on this December evening. Indeed, while full houses have never been a hallmark of TMSAC’s history, it is arguable that this is not necessarily the group’s aim or indicative of its ongoing popularity. The Seeds have built a durable fan base and for several years have drawn initiates from successive generations of playgoers and even the progeny of former cast members. In short, TMSAC have created a self-sustaining community. Doubtless, the group’s longevity is remarkable, and bespeaks a legacy in the limited but noteworthy arena of Goan theatre in a language other than Konkanni or Marathi. This, particularly because of the Seeds’ staging of original material that focuses primarily on contemporary Goa. In coincidence with their anniversary, TMSAC have released Frescoes in the Womb, a collection of plays by their director and playwright Isabel Santa Rita Vás. While no discussion of Goan theatre in English would be complete without acknowledging TMSAC, what I pay attention to here is the purpose and futurity of the art form itself. Despite its limitations of scope, I wish to demonstrate that theatre in English reflects “Goanity” not only as a body of knowledge, but also as discourse. What I consider here is the ambit of English theatre beyond the stage and how this labour takes on a future life once the curtain falls.

It would be too simplistic to suggest that Goan theatre in English is unviable because of a language barrier. Not only does performance allow for non-linguistic communication within the realm of the spoken word, but English as it is spoken and used performatively in Goa bears its own cultural resonance. In much the same way that Brazilian Portuguese differs from the European variety, forms of Indian English vary from and have even influenced British English, as is evidenced by the worldwide usage of words like “pyjama” and “shampoo.” That oft-maligned term “Konglish” comes to mind in the context of Goan language hybridity, but rather than thinking of this as a bastardized form of English, what if it was instead thought of as an archive of cultural adaptation? In a region known historically for transience because of colonialism, tourism, as well as emigration and return, how has language been affected by the many entrances and exits of worldwide actors? The implication for theatrical performance, then, is not only to potentially mirror linguistic modalities, but also the kinds of code-switching that occur in a multilingual locale. A play performed in multiple languages, for instance, would not be experimental but allude to how people in Goa negotiate the differences between and within home and public spheres. Each may require specific language competencies, but even communication in dialects of the same language itself, revealing negotiations of class, caste, religious, generational, gendered, and regional differences. Thus, theatre in English can self-reflexively “speak” to and about audience diversity in Goa. 

Because theatre has played a role traditionally as a barometer of social and political change and also impacted such transformation, what this necessitates is the study of performance itself. The burgeoning academic discipline of Performance Studies calls for a multifarious approach to the analysis of theatricality, incorporating literary and cultural studies, theories of the performing arts, and the social sciences, among others. What particularities are attendant to the Goan case in this regard? Tellingly, in the fifty years since its decolonization, Goa has no disciplinary field dedicated to the study of its own art and culture. Plays do not need a theatre-going audience alone, for theatre is not only watched – it continues to have an afterlife once the curtain falls. Theatre is read, reviewed, and reacted to, making these processes encores of the dramatic. In pondering the future of Goan theatre in English, the stakes are less in issues of its expansiveness than they are in how taste can be expanded to reposition the Goan as informed arbiter of his and her own culture.

For the print version of this piece, please visit here.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

"Empire Shaken, Not Stirred" - THE GOAN: I'm Not Here (Goa - 24 November 2012)

In a short film that played during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, Queen Elizabeth II performs her real life role as symbolic leader of the United Kingdom alongside the fictional character James Bond. Transferring from the filmic to a live performance, these two British icons appear to leap out of a plane, allowing the Queen to make a dramatic appearance at a global event hosted by her nation. Falling from the sky like bombs, not only did the performance act as an advertisement for Skyfall (2012), but it also assisted in the Windsors’ ongoing attempt to rebrand. After last year’s Royal Wedding, the Queen’s Jubilee this year has continued to give the archaic institution of monarchy purpose in the postcolonial era. Like her namesake Elizabeth I who presided over a country about to turn into a kingdom at the dawn of colonization, England’s current monarch watched as nations, several among them that once made up her family’s empire, marched past in democratic fashion. And, yet, even as the Queen continues to perform a vestigial role, her persistent masquerade is emblematic of both a history of conquest and ongoing formations of empire.   

At the risk of giving away the plot of Skyfall, I turn to a brief analysis of the film which serves as an allegory of neoliberal empire. Where for the Olympics, Daniel Craig played 007 to the real life monarch, in the movie he is James Bond again to Judi Dench’s M. That Dench has herself played a British monarch – Queen Elizabeth I, no less, in Shakespeare in Love (1998) – strengthens the case that can be made for seeing her role in the movie as that of a hegemon. She is M: Monarch and Matriarch. At the crux of the film is the competition between two agents, Bond and Silva, whose brotherly rivalry stems from their fraught relationship with M, who stands in for mother and mother country. Intertwining with the oedipal relationship with M and the queer association between the two agents is their own symbolic representation of national and colonial histories. If Silva, played by Spanish actor Javier Bardem, is to be seen as an agent of Iberian origin whose country was bested at the colonial game by the British, then Bond - who in Ian Fleming’s novels is described as being Scottish and Swiss - occupies an ambivalent position in relation to the English nation. He is of it, but not quite: semi-autonomous and, when suitable, neutral. In other words, the perfect agent for hire. 

Fleming’s own involvement in World War II intelligence in the colonial Caribbean influenced his crafting of Bond as a “thug in a Saville Row suit.” Where the terrain of diplomacy might have been clearer in the colonial era, the same cannot be said in a time of neoliberalism where it is not the homeland that requires protection but corporate interests. At “Skyfall,” Bond’s family estate in Scotland to which he has brought M for safekeeping, it is not home and hearth or even nation that is being protected. “I never liked the place anyway,” Bond reveals of the erstwhile domain as the weakened M draws close to her end. It is, instead, only the veneer of tradition that the film reveals to be in necessity of defence, for that which it allows a mantle for – profit, war, and expansionism – is what is truly king. 

Find the original appearance of this piece here.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

"The Sacred and the Subversive" - THE GOAN: Semana da Cultura (Goa - 20 October 2012)

As a child, I was told a story by a relative about the frescoes and statues that adorn those Goan churches of the Portuguese colonial era. Commissioned by the Church, these earthly renditions of heaven on high, I was informed, were meant to appear ethereal, radiant, and sacred. Instead, they looked Indian. The Indian workers employed to make manifest the European-tinted iconography of a Semitic-originated Christianity, could only interpret the divine in a corporeality they were familiar with. Their depictions of the godly looked less like the colonizers, who cast themselves as purveyors of the faith, and more like themselves, the colonial commoner.

I share this, perhaps, apocryphal tale from my childhood not to centre the role of sacred Christian art in the legacy of Portuguese influence in colonial and postcolonial Goa but, rather, to consider how art functions as a measure of such culture. Art, like other cultural production, encodes the impact of its time, both as the weight of authority and resistance to it. In this vein, I consider here the capacity of art, often deemed the purview of the elite, to evoke its originary circumstances and, thus, put into relief the everyday, the mundane, and its importance.

For example, as Savia Viegas points out, when Angelo da Fonseca (1902-1967) attempted “to give a new ‘visual lexicon’ to Christian art” in India, his “attempt to root Christian imagery in local culture and art traditions” was met with “[t]he Roman Catholic Church [taking] umbrage against his renderings of a brown-skinned Madonna and various saints ... Moreover, for the [Goan] Catholics, the classical Mary was a source of identity that connected [them] with ‘white society,’ and da Fonseca’s work was deemed threatening.”[1] So much for the egalitarian idea of being made in God’s image... 

What Viegas points to is not only the elitist intertwining of the charade of faith with Eurocentrism and phenotypic bias, but also the polarized deification of the figure of Mary. Robert Newman notes that “[a]lthough modern Europe has only pale memories of Greek, Scandinavian, and Celtic goddesses behind their patriarch-dominated religion imported from the Middle East, it was not always so,” implying the gendered difference between Semitic religious traditions, such as Christianity, and their counterparts which tend to revere a Mother Goddess figure rather than only a paternal icon.[2] In the missionising process of colonial Christianity in South Asia, “[m]any sites that had been sacred to the worship of goddesses ... were re-sacralized by making them important to the Virgin Mary,” Newman opines. He also adds that “[t]he Indian goddess ... is not an intercessor, like the [Europeanised] Virgin Mary, between people and a masculine deity, but a power in her own right.” In her Indianisation, Mary, like other South Asian Mother Goddesses is a deity unto herself – an independent manifestation of female divinity. Hence, while the Goan elite may have taken offence to da Fonseca’s brown Madonna because this had disconnected her from them, he had actually portrayed an icon who in appearance was closer to the masses that had adopted her as their own.

While artistic expressions of religious iconography speak to the identificatory processes of a people grappling with colonial legacies in their everyday lives, it is even in mundane objects that such historical influences reveal themselves. Known as kawandi, quilts created by Karnataka’s Siddi women are of import to an understanding of Indo-Portuguese history and its extant traces. These quilters are descended from Africans enslaved by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century and brought to Goa. Fleeing most notably during the Inquisition (1560-1812), the runaway slaves set up free communities in nearby Karnataka which still exist. Kawandi are not primarily created as art. Instead, pieced together from older garments, the use of brightly-coloured fabrics purposefully functions to brighten rural living spaces with little light. The recognition of the artistic talents of Siddi women has drawn attention to the community’s history where the quilts themselves bear hints of the past.[3]  Kawandi may contain crescent-shaped ornamentation to signify the maker as a Muslim while the works of Catholics utilize cross motifs, bearing testament to conversion. Common to all kawandi is a mark of completion in the form of a corner embellishment made of layered triangular pieces. These are called phula, which in Konkanni – spoken in Goa and Karnataka – means flowers. The adornment, incorporating the linguistic with the artistic, recalls the Siddi community’s past in Goa. In delivering the legacy of quilting from one generation to the next, Siddi women maintain cultural traditions, and also the community’s history as African Indians who defied colonial Portuguese authority to liberate themselves.

Fabric as art also evokes the Portuguese legacy in Goa beyond India’s borders. At the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, California, John Nava’s “Communion of Saints” is a tapestry that features among its subjects a Goan missionary. The Blessed Joseph Vaz (1651-1711), an Indian priest with a Portuguese name, blends in with the tapestry’s other multicultural figures which also consists of unnamed people. This mélange represents the indecipherability between the holiness of everyday folk and the anointed. At the same time, Vaz’s inclusion in the artistic composition as one beatified, but not yet canonised, raises the question of what role race plays in the recognition of venerability. Again, what this summons is art’s interrogation of the complexities of cultural legacies. These legacies are represented in the sacred and the mundane and as a record of authority and resistance, where Portuguese and Goan heritage are imbricated in the complementary and clashing hues of art that does not simply choose to please the eye.

A version of this article appears in print as a supplement to The Goan and can be viewed online.

[1] Savia Viegas, “Painting the Madonna Brown” in Himal Southasian (August 2010).
[2] Robert S. Newman, Of Umbrellas, Goddesses and Dreams: Essays on Goan Culture and Society (Mapusa: Other India Press, 2001).
[3] An organization called the Siddi Women’s Quilting Cooperative promotes and sells the quilters’ creations.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

"To Hope Again" - THE GOAN: I'm Not Here (Goa - 20 October 2012)

The website of the American embassy in London informs me that I can deposit my absentee ballot with them ahead of the upcoming election. However, I am anxious to make it back to the United States in time to vote with everyone else. Despite my enthusiasm for the democratic exercise, I continue to be ambivalent about the idea of having national belonging to any country, because of my family’s diasporic history as well as my own transnational circumstances. So why is it so important for me to be present at or feel the strong need to cast my vote in the impending U.S. election?

When she left Goa, it likely did not cross my grandmother’s mind that she would be laid to rest in another country, one far away from her own native land. My grandmother probably did not think of the children she would have, leave alone the grandchildren, who would journey even farther afield than British East Africa where she settled. Her youngest daughter, my mother, emigrated to the United States from the Arabian Gulf, along with her family, under an African quota. I was to enter the new country of my residence because of Kenya, a place I had never known. In 2008, it finally became untenable for me to continue to hold on to my original nationality – the citizenship of a country I was not born in. That year, I voted in my first U.S. election, bringing to power a man of part-Kenyan origin, America’s first black president.

Just before the historic election, I had the opportunity to visit Kisumu, where the Obama family is from. The 44th U.S. President’s Kenyan origins had, until recently, been the reason why there was so much suspicion about his birthright to that office. I also visited the sites of my family’s own history in Kenya, including my grandmother’s last resting place in Mombasa. Since living in the United States, I have not been to Kuwait where I was born an Indian national due to the citizenship restrictions of my birthplace. My last time there was during a transit stop on our voyage as immigrants to California, which was to become our new domicile. Northern California and North London see most of my time currently, though I routinely visit my parents who now live in Goa. Given my past, to this day, and maybe forever, there is a question that will always confuse me: “Where are you from?” Is there solace in knowing that even the President of the United States has himself been repeatedly asked that question?

While Obama evokes my family’s history in so many ways, when I vote for him again this year, it will be with all the doubts I have about his political record, and with particular misgivings about his handling of foreign affairs. Nor is my vote in promotion of the ideals of multiculturalism as a form of American exceptionalism. Rather, it is a vote for the importance of difference within and outside borders. If in 2008 I voted for how that idea crystallizes in Obama, my vote this time is for the belief that difference inspires even beyond the limits of that which symbolizes it. I vote to hope that things can and will be different. 

The online version of this article may be accessed here.