Motherland carries a long article on performances in Tamil funerals, specifically focused on two oppari singers from Ayodhyakuppam, Chennai, and the self-styled subculture star Marana Gana Viji. Read it here.
In Gnosis, the first production by The Akram Khan Company to be performed in India in eleven years, the eponymous principal dancer appears in two distinct incarnations: Akram Khan as purveyor of beauty, and Akram Khan as perpetrator of violence. In each mode, he exudes power in completely different, but equally riveting, ways.
We are introduced to the former incarnation during the first half of the show, consisting of three pieces: Polaroid Feet, Tarana and Unplugged. Here, the choreography doesn’t stray far from Khan’s kathak roots; it is the music that modernizes. His movements are informed and counterparted by cello and western percussion in addition to tabla and classical vocals. The result is extraordinary, so stunning a sonic and visual experience that dichotomized ideas of tradition versus experimentation lose their relevance. The synthesis is so perfect as to allow their being forgotten.
In Unplugged, an improvisational section, Khan has a certain ease in the shoulders and a wordless amity with his musicians that give one the impression that above all, he is having fun – like someone in a club, who can’t help but groove. His feet, meanwhile, could be instruments of evisceration in their precision.
In the show’s latter segment, consisting only of the titular Gnosis, he takes off his ghugroos and joins Fang-Yi Sheu in a piece that takes its ethos from the contemporary and its sense of drama from the classical. Here, Gandhari and Duryodhana – who in literal or figurative ways chose darkness – are the crux of this exploration of greed, violence and transformation. A powerful dancer, Sheu has a deadly, almost martial, presence juxtaposed with the vulnerability of blindness. Together, the duo evinces a chilling performance.
Pure evil emerges in one surprising moment. Sheu is at centrestage. A pinpoint of white emerges in the darkness behind her, grows larger and larger, until Khan himself steps forward – that eerie looming light was the one reflected off his bald head. If the body in dance is inseparable from narrative, this innovative detail – the use of even the top of the dancer’s head to create mood – strikes an extraordinary note.
In the final minutes, Sheu’s mastery of technique is evidenced in a sequence in which she appears to lose control. Here there are no cheap ruses emulating chaos. Her body behaves as though it has been possessed, as though she is a doll being manipulated. The effect is astounding.
Something inexplicably seamless exists between the kathak-based and contemporary segments of this show, and it’s difficult to place one’s finger on what that is. Perhaps it is a lack of pretension. The emphasis is not on philosophy but on sheer performance. Gnosis is spellbinding: a feast that stirs. Don’t think. Just watch.
An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.
This may be the most challenging reading I’ll be doing in years. Full details here.
Sharanya Manivannan’s first book of poetry, Witchcraft, was released in 2008. It was acclaimed in The Straits Times as “sensuous and spiritual, delicate and dangerous and as full as the moon reflected in a knife”. Since then, Sharanya has been working on two different manuscripts of poems. Bulletproof Offering, explores the impossible loves of Sita and Lucifer, the earth and the earthbound angel. Cadaver Exquisito takes as its central motifs dismemberment, grief and the sights, smells and scenes of the city of Chennai.
While some of the poems in these manuscripts have found homes in journals including Drunken Boat, Pratilipi, Dark Sky Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown and Superstition Review, many are yet unpublished — and most have never been shared with an audience.
You are warmly invited to an intimate evening of listening to new poems by Sharanya Manivannan.
When Vidur Kapur emerges from behind the curtain at Museum Theatre in his silver-studded Louboutin sneakers, the audience’s unruffled response seems to unnerve him. He attempts a second entrance, and this one goes a little better – still, the New York-based, Delhi-raised openly gay comedian doesn’t disguise his apprehension. He tests the waters with a couple of tepidly polite Tambrahm jokes, and gingerly eases his way into an oeuvre of material revolving mostly around his sexuality, family and ethnicity… and warms up when he realises that contrary to what he had been led to expect, in Chennai, the audience was already on his side.
In conversation the day after the show, he admits that Chennai surprised him: “I was actually quite impressed with the openness here because everybody was like ‘Chennai’s so conservative, Chennai’s so conservative’. I realized the moment I got on stage that this audience was cold, I wouldn’t hit the ground running with them. They were reserved – ‘let’s see how you’re going to win us over’. But even the really edgy jokes got an enormous response. They were willing to go with it if it was funny.” Furthermore – in the audience were numerous members of the LGBT community, and the evening concluded with a special fashion show by transgendered models. This was also the only Indian city (Kapur has toured Delhi, Hyderabad and Kolkata in the past few weeks as part of The Park’s New Festival) in which members of the audience responded in the affirmative when he asked if anyone gay was present.
His amazement is understandable, given his difficult history with this country. Kapur’s honours now include a nomination for a “NewNowNext” award from MTV networks, being named one of India Tribune’s “Top 31 Personalities of Indian Americans”, and appearances in a variety of major American TV networks, including NBC, FOX, MTV and VH1. But when he first left India to pursue tertiary studies, he did so having been deeply traumatised by his experience of being a gay teenager in India. “When I began to comprehend my sexuality, it had a horribly depressing effect on me. I communicated it to my parents and they were very disapproving. I was extremely flamboyant in school and it created a lot of hostility and hatred toward me. So when I got a scholarship to go to Wales, I left very battered, and at that young age, I made the decision to never never return to India.”
He survived at least two suicide attempts during this time.
Still, moving to the West did not solve all his problems. “Because of my experience in India, I decided to go back into the closet, and buried myself in academia so as to get all the approval that I had been denied while growing up,” he continues. He went to LSE and the University of Chicago, then threw himself into the corporate world for many years, again suffering a series of emotional breakdowns. “You have people who are closeted artists and photographers and so on,” he says. For this reason, he sees “coming-out” not as a one-time thing, but as a process by which one emerges as an individual, regardless of sexual orientation. In his case, this meant acceptance of himself first as a gay man, and then as a performer.
The turning point came for Kapur when he saw famed comedian Margaret Cho’s show, I’m The One That I Want. Cho, like him, struggled with various issues, including her sexuality, body dysmorphia and being from a racial minority in America. “It was really about her owning who she is and reclaiming herself as a person,” says Kapur of his inspiration. “It moved me. It was what made me want to do stand-up comedy. It was funny but it was also more.”
Almost in pattern with the pain out of which his individuality emerged, his career also began on a double-edged note. The first comedy class he took was on the day before 9/11 – “and there was this strange experience of New York being in shambles and nobody being able to laugh the next day”.
But this surreal scenario dovetails quite perfectly into Kapur’s life story, for this a comedian who isn’t afraid to be very serious in person, who doesn’t mind letting an audience see his trepidation, and whose own path has been marked with severe depression, about which he is unblinkingly open. Regardless of how one takes his comedy routine – which has its highs and lows, and a fluctuating energy – it’s difficult not to admire his courage.
Kapur’s experiences of alienation, struggle and eventual success seemed tailor-made for sex columnist Dan Savage’s new “It Gets Better” campaign, which endeavours to reach despairing gay teens lacking support within their own communities via the wonders of Youtube. Young people are also one of his primary audience demographics – he is one of the most popular comedians on the American college circuit, and has performed at over 150 campuses around the USA. Asked what he would say if he was a contributor to Savage’s campaign, he acknowledged, “It definitely is true that it gets better. As you get older, you realize that nothing is permanent. Rejection from family and from friends is not permanent. You can get past it. You have the power to create your own life.”
“I was born in India as one of the ‘haves’,” admits Kapur. “So I had the luxury to go abroad. Those who don’t have the wherewithal to do that will have a much harder struggle. But if you hang in there and have hope and faith you can get through it. Pain and joy are a part of life. But there is also joy, and great things to be attained.”
Now happily settled in New York City with his longtime partner, fully ensconced in an entertainment career that takes him all over the world, Vidur Kapur is not just one face of a changing diaspora – a diaspora that has permeated the American media in such a way as to also give us the likes of Russell Peters, Mindy Kaling, Vijai Nathan and Kal Penn – but also a reflection of a changing India. The teenaged Kapur might never have been able to imagine the laughs and warm reception that his performance in Chennai received last week, but the fact that it did is both evidence of our increasingly more open hearts and minds, and a portent of hope for all the closeted people out there – gay or otherwise.
An edited version appeared in today’s Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express.
There is only one video of me in the entire universe that I like. It was shot, handheld and without me noticing it, in April 2007 at No Black Tie, Kuala Lumpur. Some people lose count of their lovers — I lose count of the places I’ve read at, but count I did recently, and realised that in the past eight years or so, I have read at an approximate fifty venues. No Black Tie remains the one closest to my heart.
Now, in the years of the drought — I feel like a jaded thing, but once, I read in jazz bars. I could only afford rhinestones, but there were stars in my eyes.
(About the poem – here.)
Some of you know that I lost my grandmother last October. Fewer of you, I think, know what kind of rocky ride the almost-year since has been. What you’ve probably noticed either way is that I no longer blog unless it’s to archive my journalism work, link to press about me or to poems published, or to publicize my (very few) events. I’m not going to go into my disengagement with the online life any further right now, except to say that today I came across that most rare thing: something that makes me want to blog, that I simply must share.
I’d never heard of Mayda del Valle before, but I won’t forget her name now. Here she is at the White House with a searingly powerful performance of a poem that made me cry both times I watched it, for reasons too private and too sacred to discuss now.
If you’d like to read the poem, it’s here.
In the late 90′s, the singer Jewel told a reporter that singing in a studio is “like faking an orgasm”. The quote came to mind a couple of months ago during what had been presented to me as a collaborative meeting with a theatre practitioner, who chose to take the opportunity to rip to shreds the work I do as a spoken word artist and organiser.
Let me explain. Spoken word is a performance genre that focuses predominantly but not exclusively on poetry. A related, sometimes interchangeable, term is “live literature”. Performers either read off the page, with a focus on strong vocal delivery, or recite from memory.
Why “spoken word” and not simply “readings”? Because spoken word is a legitimate genre of performance – not everybody is able to read, even their own work, with panache. Those gifted in their delivery, however, are able to have careers with or without the presence of a publishing history. Whereas poetry publishing is a difficult and drawn-out process, performance allows immediate, often intimate, access to an audience. Several professionals I know establish their names through tours, CDs and chapbooks (often self-published). A book, for some, is only icing on the cake.
I knew for a fact that the theatre practitioner I was speaking to had tried to bring poetry to the stage in the past, and planned to in future – only, I couldn’t remember what poetry that had been. I remembered the stage sets, spotlights and the general dramatics of proceedings. But I could not remember a single poem. The poetry itself had been drowned out by the production.
He claimed that his events had crowds of 200, to the dozen average mine have seen in the past six months. Strangely, these crowds seem to have evaporated. Forget my little efforts – where were they during the fortnight-long poetry festival last year that saw attendances of five and six? An audience whose imagination was genuinely captured would continue to be curious and supportive.
Most events I organise follow an open mic format, which allows anybody to read. I like its democratic nature, its value in uncovering hidden talents who may not otherwise have been given the chance to share their writing or their flair for delivery, and its spontaneity. In a city like Chennai, where curiously enough a successful English-centric poetry movement has never taken off, it is also a necessary format: very few people have the confidence or experience to be crowd-drawing professionals.
The bad taste left in my mouth from my exchange with the theatre practitioner was because of his remark that in eschewing rehearsals and encouraging spontaneity, I “disrespect the audience”. His way of doing it would be to select pieces, have selected people rehearse them, and then put on a show.
I’ve been on stage since I was four years old, first as a dancer, then an actor, and finally in the skin I wear the closest: as poet-performer. I’m a professional, just as the theatre practitioner is. Unlike him, however, I am committed to building community. My open mics are intended to seduce potential performers first, and then the audience. I do not believe in the elitism of the stage.
There is one more thing. Remember what Jewel said? I don’t put the Word in the hands and mouths of novices because I don’t see it as sacred. Rather, I do so because I, unequivocally, do. I love to watch it come alive, surprised into bloom, in the unlikeliest people as they tap into that immense power – what in flamenco is known as the duende. And no amount of theory or rehearsal can help you fake that convincingly.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.
P.S. PLEASE SEE THE FOLLOWING POST ON TEMPORARY COMMENTING SHUTDOWN
When I heard that The Vagina Monologues — most famously banned in 2004 when Eve Ensler herself was touring the country — was going to be performed in Chennai last week, I thought (like anyone with vaguely literary or liberal ideas) that it was a good step in the right direction. The much-celebrated play was being brought to the city as part of The Times of India‘s Chennai Festival, and a very excited friend grouped together a bunch of her galpals and planned a night out.
The trouble began with the difficulty in getting passes. The person trying to get hold of them was made to run from pillar to post — and it took two days to finally secure the 8 passes we wanted (among other obstacles was the fact that she was told that only one pass could be given per person; we later heard that they were distributing them indiscriminately because so few had been snapped up).
On the night of the play itself, we got to the auditorium early, and were made to queue up in what was thankfully an orderly fashion for about half an hour.
Then we were ushered into the auditorium, had our passes thoroughly checked, led to our seats, and kept from sitting in the front rows, ostensibly for VIPs.
And then we waited. For about forty minutes.
We had heard rumours while standing in line that the play had been cancelled, but were optimistic. All this tamasha and security checks — what excitement! It was bound to be worth it.
Then, two people (one of whom was, I think, the director) came onstage gagged, did something forgetful, and left. Still, we thought there might be hope yet.
And then a young man came on stage and tried to be funny.
He failed. “What play are you here to watch? Say it louder! Well, ladies and gentleman, that is not the show you are going to see tonight. Do you want to know why? Yes? Because the cow jumped over the moon and miscellaneousbullshitIdidn’tcatch.”
Then, almost as an antithesis to the poor dude who thought he was funny, came the man who thought he was leading a revolution.
Among the various things he said about “your great city” and “this great play” and “certain citizens of Chennai do not want a play about violence against women to be performed”, one phrase stands out. “In the spirit of Gandhian love”.
And then, a man took up the mic and… sang.
We left the auditorium as the second song began, and needless to say, we were furious.
But not at the police, not at the “concerned citizens”, and not because the play was banned. These serious questions of censorship, oppression and the silencing of voices against violence against women were not the ones that were asked.
No, the only people we were really pissed off with that night were the sanctimonious production company and the organizers who purported to have all the crusading courage in the world, but absolutely no respect for their audience. We were told somewhere during the speech that the organizers had known for 24 hours that the play had been cancelled.
Despite this, we had all been made to wait (and wait). Not one apology at the door. Not one poster, not one phone call. Not a single thing that showed even the slightest amount of respect for the audience. I live in the city and don’t have children. But what about the people who left work early, who found babysitters, or who commuted from the suburbs, that night?
Why did the organizers/production company take such pleasure in being rude to the audience?
We live in the times we live in. We are all bound by rules. It is how — and for what purpose — we bend or break them that matters.
I’ve directed and performed in a mini-production of The Vagina Monologues, and even at 17 I had enough common sense to do the obvious — substitute the word “vagina” with valenki (Russian for felt boots), thereby not just making a statement about the ridiculousness of censorship, but also letting the larger message of the play come across in spite of it. The Vagina Monologues evolves every year — from a one-woman show with the intention of reclaiming a taboo word, the play has come to be an ongoing international campaign against violence against women. I am aware that Chennai society may not be ready for the word “vagina”, even if it is essentially a medical term, and am not holier-than-thou enough in my feminism to force this issue. We may not be ready for the word, but this does not mean that we are not ready to listen to issues of violence and sexuality.
Or, the organizers could have had an invitee-only event, without publicity. Or a charity gala, with selected monologues performed. Let’s face it — there are only so many types of people in Chennai who would go to this play. Democratic space and free passes are all very nice in theory — but when holding an English play, that too about violence and sexuality, what difference is that honestly going to make?
I don’t know if the production company tried to do these things or anything else, but if they did, I would much rather have been told exactly how they tried to circumvent the censorship than been subjected to a speech about Gandhian love (call me unpatriotic, but did anyone else think of the Mahatma’s famous experiments at celibacy — i.e. naked women sharing his very chaste bed?)
And even if there was just no way around it, why handle the cancellation so selfishly and foolishly?
Ultimately, was the point actually to hold the play and spread its message, or to enjoy the notoriety?
For once, I found myself on the side that didn’t belong to the “artists and feminists”. The production company had a wonderful shot at really raising some issues here in Chennai, whether through their performance or because of the banning of it. They wasted it entirely with their unprofessionalism and myopic sense of the circumstances. I write this as a journalist — if I had been told at the door or through a courteous phone call earlier in the day that the play had been cancelled, I would have turned on my laptop as soon as I could and dedicated column space in support of them. Instead, they turned even their sympathizers away with what was quite frankly a completely stupid and insincere way of dealing with the cancellation. Boo — and please, let someone else do the encore!
Updated: Apparently, Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal, the director in question, has some kind of axe to grind against Chennai. See the comments.
A full page in today’s Expresso! Knock aside the food listing and the film ad, and you have an article apiece about “The Sea Story” and the readings on the first night, the theme for which was Cities+Pride.
Five more nights to go! Yesterday’s was Cities+Envy, which went splendidly in spite of the rain and the delay caused by the rain, and tonight’s is Cities+Wrath.
You can check out our full page spread at the e-paper here (available only for today — hopefully I can scan it up by tomorrow). Expresso section, page 6 (Madras Week feature).
No connection between the two (although I would be thrilled to bits if I could be the Mae West of Madras). It’s just that it was Mae West’s birthday today, and you should check out this interview of her. She was 83 at the time it was filmed (about four years before she died)! I love Mae West for many many things, and outliving the bad-girl-tragic-short-life archetype is one of them.
Speaking of bad girl writers, Thursday Love is pretty good. You throw a stone in the blogosphere, you inevitably hit a Carrie Sadshaw. But she’s different — not only does she actually write well and entertainingly, but I know her in real life and she’s one of the rare few who actually walk the walk more than they talk the talk.
And lastly and mostest mostest importantly, Madras Week starts tomorrow. TOMORROW!!! Hope to see some of you delurking. Remember that the open mics are open to all AND I am quite happy to read or find someone else to read any theme-appropriate pieces you email in to me, if you can’t make it.
We put up the exhibit today, and as I type this, some folks are still at Vanilla Place getting things ready. A few of my photos are also on sale, and if anyone actually buys them, please let me know. I’d like to know who the person behind such poor taste is. :)
Celebrate Madras/Chennai city’s 369th birthday with seven evenings of photography, folksongs and poetry! Seven nights of still life, song and sinful spoken word, saluting our city by the sea.
August 18 2008 – August 24 2008
MADRAS WEEK EVENTS AT VANILLA PLACE, MYLAPORE
CURATED BY CHANDRACHOODAN GOPALAKRISHNAN
AND SHARANYA MANIVANNAN,
WITH THE PARTICIPATION OF THE WORLD STORYTELLING INSTITUTE.
PHOTO EXHIBITION AND SALE
Opening night: August 18 2008
From August 18 to August 24 , organised by Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan and The Chennai Photowalk. Photos are of Chennai, as seen through the eyes of the photographers who participated in the first nine photowalks. All photos exhibited are available for purchase.
The Chennai Photowalk is a movement of the residents of Chennai to preserve the city’s heritage in the form of photos. Young and old, professional and the hobbyist, photographers of all description meet, walk and capture a view of the city mostly overlooked.
“THE SEA STORY”: A SPECIAL PERFORMANCE ON OPENING NIGHT
A special storytelling drama with folksongs by the Nochikuppam seafishing community, facilitated by the World Storytelling Institute and hosted by Eric Miller.
“The Sea Story” summary: One evening, a mother sings a lullaby to a child (Thalattu pattu). That night, some men go in a kattumaram to fish in the sea (Rowing pattu).
One man is lost in a storm, and some women on shore lament for the lost man (Oppari pattu). Finally, the lost man re-appears – he was rescued by a sea-turtle! – and the community members are filled with joy (Celebration pattu).
SPOKEN WORD READINGS AND OPEN MICS
From August 18 to August 24 at 8pm every night, hosted by Sharanya Manivannan.
August 18 – “Cities+Pride” (Opening Night)
August 19 – “Cities+Envy”
August 20 – “Cities+Wrath”
August 21 – “Cities+Sloth”
August 22 – “Cities+Greed”
August 23 – “Cities+Gluttony”
August 24 – “Cities+Lust”
Local poets both famous and soon-to-be-famous explore the idea of cities as hubs of sins from different angles. Debauchery or divine redemption? A bit of both is promised each night, along with poetry and prose both original and admired. Performers include Kuttirevathi, Vivek Narayanan, Deesh Mariwala and Sharanya Manivannan.
Open mic readings are open to all. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the organisers
Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan is a writer (of prose, poetry and carefully worded commercial fiction) and a photographer (of people, places and the occasional abstract) from Chennai. His great-grandfather was an epigraphist, translator and the first Tamil novelist. These genes, always unpredictable, waited three generations to surface in Chandrachoodan, causing him to take a great interest in his city and its heritage. Which in turn took form as a monthly photowalk.
As a spoken word artist, Sharanya Manivannan has performed to critical and popular acclaim at dozens of venues, including an abandoned pier, a cemetery and the 11th century Borobudur Temple, as well as more conventional locations. Her book of poems, Witchcraft, will be published this year, and carries a foreword from celebrated Sri Lankan-American poet Indran Amirthanayagam that describes it as “bloody, sexy, beguiling as in a dance with veils… a glorious, chilling and sensual debut”. Sharanya is committed to the creation of a spoken word scene in Chennai, and regularly co-organises and hosts events that encourage the open mic format, in which anyone willing to share their work is welcome.
The World Storytelling Institute was founded by Eric Miller and Jeeva Raghunath in Chennai, in December 2007. Mr. Eric is the director of the WSI; Ms. Jeeva is the director of its section on storytelling for/by/with children. The WSI’s mission is to facilitate training in, performance of, and discussion about, forms of storytelling. In Tamil Nadu, three traditional styles of storytelling are 1) Kathaiyum Pattum (Story and Song); 2) Villupattu (Bow Song); and 3) Katha Kalak Chebam, also known as Harikatha (God Story). In cultures around the world, there are similar styles. We seek to help these styles be meaningful and useful in the modern world. Eric is Assistant Professor of Story and Storytelling at the Image College of Art, Animation, and Technology (Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad), which trains students in the design of 3D Animation, Cinema Visual Effects, and Computer-video-Internet games. He is near completion of a PhD in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia): his dissertation concerns the use of videoconferencing for educational and performance applications. Originally from New York City, Eric has settled in Chennai. He is married to Chennai native Magdalene Jeyarathnam, the founder-director of Chennai’s Center for Counseling, and they have a daughter.
Vanilla Place, No. 8/57, 1st Street Luz Avenue, near Nageswara Park, Mylapore.
All events are free and open to the public.
For further details, please contact Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan – 9884467463
When the props are better than the performance and the only remotely entertaining thing in the play is an inside joke that only three people in the audience can get, well… Glad we got the cheap seats.