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Marcus Rediker

September 2007

This year and the next mark an important historical anniversary: Two centuries ago, both the United States and Great Britain abolished the African slave trade.

 

By the time they did, the trade had carried 9 million Africans to New World plantations, where they would live under the lash and produce the largest planned accumulation of wealth the world had yet seen. Abolition followed a long and determined campaign waged by antislavery activists on both sides of the Atlantic.

 

But who really brought the slave trade to an end?

 

In popular history, the people who abolished the slave trade are seen virtually as saints. They were somber, often dressed in black; they were devout, earnest, and good; they were the very embodiment of Christian virtue. In New England, many were descended from Puritans and reflected their austere and humorless ways. In England they were epitomized by the aristocratic evangelical William Wilberforce, the voice of abolition in Parliament. The recent movie Amazing Grace portrays him as a selfless, somewhat sickly angel who loved animals, servants, Africans and God. Piety has long been seen as the hallmark of abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic.

A Human History by Marcus Rediker

Slave Ship: A Human History by Marcus Rediker

 

If that were the full story, though, it would be exploded by this document. While working in the special collections library of Bristol University in England on a book on 18th-century slave ships, I found an almost completely unknown broadside entitled “The Petition of the Sharks of Africa.” It looked like any other printed petition, elegant in its composition, suitable for presentation, addressed “To the Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of Great Britain, in Parliament assembled.”

 

 

It was, however, a vivid and harsh piece of satire. In fact it claimed to have been written by the “Sharks of Africa,” who declared themselves to be a numerous and flourishing group thanks to the many slave ships that visited the coast of West Africa. From these vessels, they explained, they got “large quantities of their most favourite food – human flesh.”

 

 

When the dead were thrown overboard, the sharks devoured the corpses. Sometimes they got live flesh, when African rebels who preferred death to slavery jumped overboard. When slave ships were “dashed on the rocks and shoals” of the region, throwing “hundreds of human beings, both black and white” into the water, it was a feast.

 

 

The sharks were writing to the British Parliament kindly asking them not to end the slave trade. Taking a sensible conservative view, the sharks denounced the abolitionists’ “wild ravings of fanaticism,” confident that their benevolent lordships would not let His Majesty’s loyal shark subjects starve. The petitioners were sure that they could count on “the wisdom and fellow-feeling” of the House of Lords. Sharks should stick together, after all.

 

 

Nothing I had read had prepared me for such a document. Here, unexpectedly, was a dark and daring kind of humor I had never known to exist among abolitionists.

 

 

Further research revealed that it had been republished widely, in Edinburgh, Philadelphia, New York, and Salem. I concluded that “The Petition of the Sharks of Africa” had been written by a Scot named James Tytler, who was a physician, poet, composer, an editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Britain’s first hot-air balloonist. For his radicalism, he was eventually arrested and charged with sedition, only to flee into exile in 1793, first to Ireland, then to Salem. His contribution has never figured in the histories of abolition – partly, I am convinced, because it does not fit the enduring image of abolitionists.

 

 

The document joins a long string of new findings that have changed our understanding of who the abolitionists were. Working-class men and women protested the trade through boycotts; sailors smuggled pamphlets and told their horror stories to activists ashore. The front line of the war against human bondage was occupied by the enslaved themselves, whose resistance sent shock waves around the world, terrifying many and inspiring some. Their names may be lost to the history books, but they anchored a complex and diverse social movement.

 

 

Why do we need to know this today? First, it is important to understand that the abolition of the slave trade, and of slavery itself, was not a gift from on high. William Wilberforce did not abolish the slave trade, as Amazing Grace might make it seem, just as a lone Abraham Lincoln did not free the slaves. It will no longer do to pretend that a “great man” did things that are more accurately described as a result of a complex historical situation and a many-sided resistance.

 

 

Second, it is important to people demanding justice and reparations today – whoever and wherever they may be – to know that their forebears played an important role in bringing the slave trade and indeed the entire institution of slavery to an end. We owe the abolition of the nefarious trade not just to aristocrats and Puritans, but to enslaved rebels, to factory workers and sailors, and to at least one irreverent Scottish daredevil.

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By Priyanka Roy

Photographs by Saptarshi Chakraborty

 

 

Walking into his house on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, I was greeted by a rather sullen Amyt’da – unshaven, dressed in a pale tee-shirt, his voice sounding hoarse and worn-down, and his eyes slightly unfocused. He had evidently not been keeping well, because the Amyt’da we students and hundreds of fans are used to know is a man who can make your day simply with the uncontainable energy in his voice and the animated twinkle in his eye. However, Amyt’da agreed to keep his promise of granting me this unique interview, and here’s your scoop of the “boy” in Mr. Amyt Dutta, who has much more to him than meets the eyes or ears!

 

 

The first time you met the guitar:

(Squints, thinks hard) It was when I was only 13 years of age, back in the 1970s. I still remember exploring this really old and dusty Hawaiian guitar that just happened to be lying around the house. I knew it was an instrument alright, but wasn’t too sure of how one played it. It was a mix of curiosity and anxiety that pushed me towards it, and I pulled the fourth string gingerly, and WOW! That one sound told me right away that I just had to learn to play this thing!

 

 

Your first guitar lessons were taken from:

I guess the first lessons kicked off with friends of my older brothers. But they were mostly on the Hawaiian guitar.

 

 

The first guitar you owned:

Oh yes, I remember that one! It was local Rs.300 guitar, electric that too! (laughs)

 

 

Your first guitar idol:

Ritchie Blackmore.

 

 

Your first gig on stage:

Well it wasn’t a professional gig of any sort – it was more of a casual performance at school (Don Bosco School, Park Circus, Calcutta) back in Class Seven, if I remember right.

 

 

The first time you were whacked at home for paying more attention to music than academics:

Oh hell, never! In fact my mother, who is from a family of musicians, always prodded me to rehearse more with every passing day. She made me aware of the spiritual side of music-making and has supported me in my work to this day. I am truly lucky and blessed as far as a supportive family is concerned.  

 

 

 

Your first band:

Umm, it was this trio where Kochu (his cousin Monojit Dutta, a member of the bands Orient Express and Los Amigos) and I along with a friend played, it was called Moonbeams. But New Blues Connection was probably the first professional outfit I played with. People really got to know us since.

 

 

Your first feel-good moment on stage:

The biggest feel-good moment was in Bangalore I think – it was a good gig and I really enjoyed myself there. By the end of the gig I saw the whole crowd bowing down! I hold it close to my heart to this day. That moment gave me the biggest joy of my life!

 

But the very first feel-good moment has got to be the time when my first band and I worked out a song right and played it well. It wasn’t a gig, not even a professional band (it was with one of our bedroom-makeshift bands), but yea, that is probably my earliest feel-good memory.

 

 

Your first terrible moment on stage:

Breaking a string on the stage! It was terrible! I was playing a classical piece on a Hawaiian guitar at a performance in school, and at the concluding bit, a string tore off! It felt like I broke up inside! I couldn’t continue and had to leave stage right then. Damn! That felt terrible, in every sense of the word.

 

 

First very embarrassing moment on stage:

Oh yes of course! When we were in the Ninth Grade, there was this band competition at the La Martiniere Schools called Beatstock. Lots of city bands participated and Gyan, Jeff and Jayashree (Gyan Singh, Jeffrey Rikh and Jayashree Singh, his current Skinny Alley band mates) were there too, but as parts of another band. Various others who participated played covers. Kids that we were, barely aware of what a guitar “pedal” is, we went along as Moonbeams, which only played originals! These were simple songs we had written and thought of trying them out on stage. It was a two-day long competition and all bands had to play both days. Well, on the first day we took stage, played our songs but were sorely booed off stage! We gathered only enough courage to go back up on stage the next day and as soon as we came on, the crowd jeered again! We couldn’t play. What was worse, Kochu and I suffered from “embarrassment fever” for the next five days! For the following months we avoided anyone spotted in tight jeans and leather jackets, assuming that he might have been part of the “hip” audience at the competition!

 

 

Your first “flop” show:

Oh, many! (laughs) But I think it’s the corporate gigs that dampen you spirits. As a matter of fact any show where people don’t listen to you is a “flop.” However it’s heartening to know that though most people at a pub or a corporate gig are socializing, there is a handful that’s attentive and respects your music.

 

 

Students you have particularly enjoyed teaching:

Taj (Tajdar Junaid of Span and Band Aid) and Bodhi (Bodhisattwa Ghosh of Insomnia and Crystal Grass).

 

 

The first lesson in music according to you:

If at all you are fortunate to enjoy any interaction with music, then it is you who must go to it, instead of expecting it to come to you. Music is too great to do that. If you are keen, you must try to find your way to music. If you are passionate, you get there someday.

 

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By Saptarshi Chakraborty

Rajnandini Ghosh, 21, looks a little lost as she stands waiting with a host of unknown faces in front of the New Empire Cinema, Calcutta. This is going to be the first time she will be a part of a something called a Blank Noise intervention. Yes, she believes ‘eve-teasing’ is a crime. But can she possibly make a difference? Looking around, she sees smiling faces bubbling with enthusiasm. There’s Dana Roy, young theatre person and activist, trying to explain to the group a possible mode of action. This is a part of an all-India intervention that is happening in all major cities of India on the occasion of Women’s Day. There are opinion poll posters, stamp pads, colour pens, glue bottles, tapes, cameras and stickers that say ‘I NEVER ASK FOR IT’.

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It’s 5:15 in the afternoon, the date is March 8, 2008, and the crowd of New Market hoppers gets thicker by the minute. Rajnandini feels the excitement building up.

In the late ’90s, Jasmeen Patheja was a student of La Martiniere for Girls’ in Calcutta – always travelling by car, never really having to avail of the public transport, and with caring parents to guide her through. When at age 19, however, she shifted to Bangalore to attend the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, she found a different kind of unpleasant reality waiting to welcome her. “I enjoyed wandering around the city with my camera and taking photographs. I did not necessarily walk in the company of my peers,” recalls Jasmeen, adding that very soon, “I realized that I had a new wardrobe – clothes I considered ‘modest’, a new attitude on the street ‘ fierce and aggressive’. I had encounters such as being followed for 15 kilometers by a stalker who wanted to ‘ask me out for coffee’; or being groped by a male stranger and when I called for help, there were several spectators but none willing to come forward in assistance. The threat of being sexually harassed every time I was out of home and then labeling this invasion of my privacy with such an innocuous term as ‘eve-teasing’ made me realize that this is an offence that has often been ignored or trivialized.”

Staying alone in a new city made her feel more vulnerable to the situation where there was no ‘home’ to run back to. But what bothered Jasmeen the most was the attitude of nonchalance displayed towards street sexual harassment. “When I would discuss it with my peers, there was a normalcy attached to it. Reactions varied between ‘Yes, it happens everyday’ or ‘It’s normal’, and complete denial, like asking, ‘how come this happens only to you?’” she recounts, “but I knew it was never just my problem.”

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As a student of the arts, Jasmeen was always interested in artistic practice that could be inclusive and could heal. The first step towards a plan she had in mind was taken in August 2003, when she did an exercise of asking a group of over 60 girls from Srishti to make a mind map with the words public-space. In less than 10 minutes, the blackboard was covered with negative associations such as “fear”, “vulnerable”, “invasion”, “anonymity” and “feeling sick inwards”. This provided Jasmeen the basis to a college project she proposed, dealing with street sexual harassment.

Once again, the response to the idea was not positive. Only nine women agreed to participate in the project. The rest felt it was “normal” or that “not a big deal” – almost as if street sexual abuse is so expected that it should be accepted as well. The immediate denial towards eve teasing as an issue fired Jasmeen even more to go ahead with the project.

Under her facilitation, a 3-month-long process of workshop began.


It’s 5:15 in the afternoon and almost all the volunteers have arrived. Dibyajyoti Ghosh and Dhruva Ghosh are scouring for spots in the busy shopping street to put up the opinion poll posters. The ink pads are to go with the posters. Blue and red stamp pads. Each woman volunteer carries a bunch of letters, each neatly folded,

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bearing her testimonial to one incident of street sexual harassment she has faced. The volunteers gather in a circle and finalize the last-moment details and instructions. The stickers go up on their clothes – ‘I NEVER ASK FOR IT’. They are already drawing attention from curious bystanders and shoppers who come up with questions. An initial dialogue starts.


“I was a bit taken aback by the initial reactions of denial, but I gradually came to learn that this was precisely the biggest issue about street sexual harassment – the normalcy and acceptance given to it,” explains Jasmeen.

The first phase of the Blank Noise Project, therefore, had to with victim-hood. Jasmeen began with a series of workshops, exploring the public and private identities of the nine women she was working with. The collective participatory experience evolved into an installation that included video, sound and photographs.

The next phase involved public confrontation. With a grant from Sarai and support from Srishti, Jasmeen envisioned Blank Noise as a participatory, public art project where she could take the issue to the streets.

How was Blank Noise the art school project different from Blank Noise the public project? There was no fixed strategy, says Jasmeen, going on to explain, “The school project was a start – where I was trying to understand the issue through me and nine others. It started as a participatory art project and has evolved to becoming more inclusive – public and participatory. I started blogging in 2005. Blank Noise gradually started becoming a place for people to initiate conversation about street sexual harassment. This was the first step. This meant more people, testimonials, realities, stories, exchange. The scale keeps changing, growing and bringing in a diverse set of realities.”

At present Blank Noise has members from various walks of life – including college students, performance artists, researchers and young professionals – who contribute to different aspects of the project. There are working chapters in a number of Indian cities like Bangalore, Calcutta, Chennai, Delhi and Hyderabad and Mumbai. The interest keeps growing, as several people from Patna, Indore, Lucknow, Chandigarh and even across the border from Lahore have offered to volunteer and started spreading the word, creating a group that can initiate a Blank Noise chapter for their city. The members of each city chapter meet regularly and debate on the issue of street sexual harassment through role-plays, counter questionings and “questioning the very question”, as Calcutta member Anuj Dasgupta puts it.

Speaking from Lahore, volunteer Mina Malik Hussain, talks about why she chose to be a part of Blank Noise, “What I like is that it (Blank Noise) is dynamic, evolving and open to ideas. It’s very creative and real – it’s honest and deals with something so important and essential in a non-offensive way.’
Malik continues with her experiences on starting a Blank Noise chapter in her city. ‘It’s begun on a tiny, tiny level, with me. I had a meeting where only one person showed up, but I’ve spoken to people who are interested… the clothes project is particularly doable. I am very keen that it takes off – maybe a travelling clothes project?’

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The “clothes project” Malik is talking about is a part of the ongoing I Did Not Ask for It campaign of Blank Noise, one that involves the collection of clothes that women got harassed in and putting up installations of the collected clothes at crucial public spots in each city – an attempt to drive home the point that to be eve-teased, a woman does not necessarily have to be “dressed to provoke.”

As the clock strikes 5:30, the women volunteers start slowly dispersing in different directions and taking their positions. They stand silently, away from one another in the growing crowd, each holding a bunch of testimonial letters. The intervention has begun.

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The passers-by look on, sometimes stopping to ask questions. Some of them are given a testimonial. The opinion poll posters are already up with the inkpads next to them. The parking lot regulars, some of whom have already been briefed by the volunteers, take their turns to explain to curious bystanders about what is going on. The small family on a Sunday evening outing stops to talk to one of the volunteers. The boyfriend taking his girlfriend out on a movie date slows down to accept a folded piece of paper reached out towards them by a lady smiling at both of them. Reactions on reading the testimonials are varied and complex – they range from amusement, embarrassment to outright expressions of shock and anger. Every stare is returned with a smile, friendly but held firmly in position. Why would a woman flinch to smile at a general crowd of strangers at a public place?


After Bangalore, Delhi was the second city to have its own Blank Noise chapter. How did the first strangers come to Blank Noise? The process started with bloggers, says Jasmeen. Sometimes there were people responding from group mailing lists. Once the press started covering the project, it also reached a non-blogging audience. But Blank Noise would not have been possible without the vast scope of networking provided by the internet, agrees Jasmeen.

“There were friends too”, she adds, ‘People like Smriti Chanchani and Umang Bhattacharya who would show up at Blank Noise events – performing or helping with documentation. The faculty at Srishti has also been very supportive, sending in interested students from the foundation year!’

Abigail Crisman, one of the active members of the Blank Noise Project (BNP) in Delhi, currently based in Bloomington, Indiana, got to know about Blank Noise when Jasmeen and the author Annie Zaidi did a presentation at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Journalist Hemangini Gupta, another key member of BNP Delhi, got involved with the project when she once covered a BNP intervention for The Hindu in 2005.

What attracted them to Blank Noise? ‘It is unusual in its approach. It’s technique appealed to me and worked for me as I did the Y R U LOOKING AT ME intervention. It was a way to get involved with a larger issue in a way that wasn’t traditionally “activist”’, points out Hemangini.

Annie Zaidi, renowned author and member of BNP Mumbai, says, ‘I like that it is personally empowering too, not just working towards a larger, abstract social goal. I like that it takes the problem of the streets to the streets. I like that it uses art, photographic and graphic and performative and sound, and that it is all mixed up and taken into public spaces. I am especially drawn to it because it involves my head too and forces me to think and rethink positions.”

Poorna Banerjee, young professional and a member of BNP Calcutta puts it very aptly, “I like it because it does not intimidate and yet makes a statement.”


A few of the passers-by come forward to join the ongoing intervention. One by one the participants walk up to the opinion poll posters, stopping to put their thumb impressions at the appropriate slots. They are followed by others, and some more. More curious questions. More reactions. More people joining in.

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Rajnandini is in full charge of the situation now. You could not miss the glow in her face. “I had been to the busy corners of New Market endless times before, always cautious of not bumping into people, avoiding deliberate nudges and wishing of not being stared at,” she confesses later, on the way of recounting her experiences of the evening. “But 8th March was my day. As I stood there giving out testimonials and pamphlets, as I walked with so many like me, blowing the whistle, I almost felt I was the queen of the street. It was my street and I could be whatever I wanted.”


A resounding “Yes!” comes from Jasmeen if asked whether Blank Noise plans to become an NGO in the future. She goes on to elaborate on her stand, “Blank Noise collects testimonials and then shares them. This hearing of testimonials brings people together. To be more effective now we are looking at some backend administrative tasks while also continuing to create debates in public.

“We don’t believe that one policy change, one street intervention, or one media report can change the world. We have to address the issue from multiple avenues over a period of time. Eve-teasing is a societal issue, has its roots in patriarchy, and reflects in films and our popular culture.

“Blank Noise is interventionist, and critically reflective of the issue of street sexual harassment. It seeks to confront, and create communities through public art. Blank Noise works with people through performance, blogging, and street interventions.
This is a public art project seeking to address eve teasing. There are several ways to address an issue and we choose the language of public and community art.

“We are proposing to initiate a transformation, start the dialogue, through recurring public events, public participation and collaborations. We are looking at communicating through participation, and with policy-makers as well.”

The clock strikes 6:30. The intervention comes to an end with participants blowing whistles to signal the closing. The opinion poll posters are now polka-dotted with blue and red thumb prints – thumb prints that bear testimony to the fact that street sexual harassment exists. It happens everywhere, to everyone, and in every form. The participants gather at a nearby café to discuss the day’s events and share their experiences. An important part of every intervention is documentation of the events and the criticism/feedback. The one-and-a-half-year-old son of Sunayana Roy, affectionately called the Bhablet, is arguably the youngest member present at this meeting, listening intently as the adults start on their discussion. There are fun moments where everyone laughs. There are heated debates. But the experiences linger. Each intervention is a revelation to the self. A challenge more to oneself than to the world outside.

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“Street sexual harassment is something that has always been there. Maybe I thought nothing would ever change it. I even had a discussion about how difficult it is to change the mindset of people more than anything else. But that day gave me a new reason to think again.”

“I held my head high that evening. I stared back at people who stared at me. It felt so very liberating. As I walked back home that day I wanted to go back and live those moments again”, concluded Rajnandini, smiling.

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The Blank Noise Project can be reached at its website http://blog.blanknoise.org/

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By Reeti Roy

What kind of books did you read as a child?
I read comic books, mainly the American ones, Goldkey, Marvel – the ones that involved superheroes. Ritchie Rich and Tintin were absolutely favourites. When I started school at Cathedral (Bombay) I knew only Bengali, because it was the only language that my mother and I conversed in, at home. When I started school, the headmistress suggested that I read Ladybird books, so I could learn English. My first introduction to the English language came through comic books and the Ladybird books. After that, I went on to read books by Enid Blyton.

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? Did it happen all of a sudden or did you know that this was something that you absolutely had to do?
I had always wanted to write and I enjoyed reading. I suppose I always knew that I might have been different temperamentally, and that I was always attracted to certain things. The things were neighbourhoods, streets, street life and also the sense of the foreign in the familiar. I wrote poetry in school but nobody really knew that as it was looked down on. Also, the attraction to the romance of being a writer was something that made me want to write. To discover that it was the street, rather than the character, that it was the neighbourhood rather than the plot that I wanted to write about made me want to write even more. I was determined that I wanted to be a writer, so ever since I was in school I would send my writings to England and America and get rejection slips. That didn’t deter me, though. I was convinced of my literary genius (laughs).

Despite being a Bengali, why did you choose to write in English?
I was brought up in Bombay and I learnt Bengali because my mother spoke to me in Bengali. English was the language that I was most comfortable talking in. The reason that I wanted to write was inextricably linked to the fact that as I was learning the language, I was also growing more and more curious about the language and its development and that’s how I began to write in the English language.

Did you have to struggle as a writer?
I didn’t starve, if that’s what you mean (smiles). I began writing A Strange and Sublime Address after I had finished doing my Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University College, London. I decided to take a year off after that and begin working on a novel. I decided that I wanted to write a story based on my uncle. And I wanted to write a novel about the room overlooking the street. Now these are hardly plots for a novel. But I realised that in order to be true to myself, that that was what I was going to write about, because this was what interested me the most. When in Oxford, I wrote a chapter and when I re-wrote it, I snipped off bits and pieces. To use filmmakers’ jargon, much of it was achieved from the editing table.

Is a writer being self-indulgent when he is true to himself?
A writer has to be creatively opportunistic in order to allow himself to grow. He doesn’t necessarily need to be self-indulgent, but it often happens in the process of creative satisfaction.

Would you want your works to be translated in Bengali?
They have been translated in other languages but I am immediately warned that the translations don’t quite capture the language. If there is someone who can translate my works, without marring its essence, then I have no problems with it.

Would you ever want your works to be on celluloid? If so, which one?
Well, my writing is like tightrope walking. It would take a certain kind of filmmaker to make this kind of a film. And this filmmaker would have to be adept at creating a momentum out of images rather than a narrative. A lot of people suggested that my first book A Strange and Sublime Address could be made into a film. But I think I would pick Portrait of an Artist. Mrinal Sen thought that The Old Masters would make a good film. I think that that is because there is a great deal of life and the vicissitudes of life in The Old Masters.

A lot of critics have pointed out that Indian writers in English have a tendency of catering to the West and that it has to do with Orientalism and exoticization, because of which a lot of writers writing in the regional languages get left out. What is your opinion of that?
Well, there is a certain justification to the first part of the complaint. There are absolutely wonderful things that exist and have been done and are still being done, although perhaps not as hugely productive as it was in the 20th century. But some writers, by default, fall into this “exoticization”. Perhaps they should know about a lot of things that go on in terms of writings in the regional languages and certain cultural aspects, but the fact is that they don’t. We must remember to question and ask ourselves what the roles of the exotic and the unfamiliar are in literary works, and we should try not to confuse the two.
With modernity and the advent of the free market, one must come to terms with the changing face of the realities that make India what it is, today. I believe that the Indian Intelligentsia still hasn’t come to terms with Indian modernity and still doesn’t know how to define Modernism in an Indian context.

You said somewhere that “I wish Indian writing were less triumphant”. What exactly did you mean by that?
You’ve been checking me up on the web (laughs). When I talk of triumphalism, I mean the Indian’s place in the world stage. Literature and the literary seems to have become an adjunct of this. Writing and daydreaming seems to be an ambivalent disreputable affair. One must understand that being a writer is not the same as being an activist or doing social work .They are different realms and each has its own place in the larger scheme of things.
Despite all its post-colonial Resistance, I believe that the Indian intelligentsia cannot think of Freud and Foucault in the same way that they think of Indian thinkers and philosophers. Freud and Foucault are like constellations in the sky. This is reflecting in the pedagogy and this is possibly the reason for the lack of first-rate critics and first-rate philosophers in our country.

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By Monidipa Mondal
Photographs by Saptarshi Chakraborty
  
**Click on thumbnails for a larger view of the images**

If there is a theatre director at the moment who can afford to be proud, it has to be Tim Supple. Yet moving around the second-floor balcony of Kala Mandir on a sunny winter afternoon, as the crowds mill in after another show of his much-acclaimed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the tall, agile man from London is incredibly polite and patient, receiving congratulations, answering questions from enthralled students who throng around him, signing notepads and posing for photographs, that obliging smile never disappearing from his face. Throughout the show he has shuffled around the auditorium, getting a firsthand feel of the audience reaction. And Tim Supple looks like a happy man.  

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So how is does it feel to return to India with his play, after having done more than 150 shows at different prestigious locations abroad? His production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has travelled to the UK and Italy and is all set to take on Australia, the US, Canada and Europe, but as Supple emphasizes, ‘This is where we first rehearsed and performed the play, this is its home. It’s difficult and involves a lot of work and money, but it’s very important and extremely special to bring it back to India.’ Since the last time, the play has moved from outdoors to the proscenium, and the “innocence” of being a nascent production has been replaced by a higher level of confidence and stronger formation. The proscenium lacks the wonderful naturalness of atmosphere offered by the outdoors, rues Supple, but also adds that it gives the play greater aural and visual focus, making it more controlled, which is an advantage.  

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a product of a long and passionate involvement with India on the part of Tim Supple. He arrived in the country in 2005, invited by the British Council to do a play with Indian actors. He agreed to accept this offer, he says, because he was interested in Indian performance and the history of theatre in India. ‘It was new to me, I didn’t know it; so it was an adventure for me to come to India,’ he says, adding, ‘And I was looking for something different in my life and work.’ The British Council offer gave him liberty to choose the kind of play he would like to do, so Supple decided to travel through the country first, exploring various types of performances. And a wise decision it turned out to be, because his assumption of creating a play in English was soon dispelled by the variety and range of performances he came across and “was immediately and immensely struck by”, as he puts it, many of which he realized would not work in English because they were folk forms, classical forms and forms of regional theatre. By the end of his first trip, he says, he was already resolved to experiment and include performers who would not work in English.   

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During his second trip when Supple started auditioning, he had young Indian directors and producers assisting him in different cities (he mentions Ananda Lal in Calcutta, Roysten Abel in Delhi and Atul Kumar in the South) as he selected from both actors who worked in English and actors who did not, with whom he conducted the initial workshops. ‘It was very important for me to have in that room many different people,’ recounts Supple. ‘We were all working on Shakespeare, but some people would work in English and some in Bengali or other regional languages. Some could read the script and others would work from a kind of summary. We did the same sessions around the country in Calcutta,  Mumbai, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Delhi, Manipur and so on. I would always ask the people to use whatever language they felt comfortable acting in, and by the end of that second trip it was clear that the production would be multi-lingual.’  

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His third trip to India involved selecting sixty actors from these workshops, who were taken to Mumbai and went through another week of workshops, out of which twenty-three actors were chosen for the final play. Three more months of further workshop followed, where people spent many hours understanding the essence of play together, performers from different theatrical traditions worked, watched, respected and learnt from each other’s performance and reached the seamless harmony that the final play seems to radiate. ‘The play is the cement,’ remarks the contented director, grinning.

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Choosing A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the play to put up with this interesting assimilation of performers was entirely an intellectual decision, says Supple. It was a play he had wanted to do for years, but he could especially feel it working with the diversity and multi-linguality of the Indian cast. He believed the collision of languages would “animate” the play and liberate its text, and that it would represent the multi-lingual nature of India and also, more importantly, the imaginary world created by Shakespeare in the play itself. ‘Shakespeare gives us a strange Athens,’ he explains, ‘which is partly based on myth, partly on Elizabethan customs, partly on Roman romances – in Shakespeare you always find this wonderful mess of raw material onstage, which is the great thing about him.’ Supple feels his English-speaking Helena and Hermia fit perfectly into the image of women in the aristocracy, just as his mechanicals, who keep switching between English and vernacular, represent the language of working class men like themselves quite accurately. The worst thing one can do to Shakespeare, says Supple, is to preserve him as a neat and precise classical art form, and mentions that performing Shakespeare in his way, he has never been told that the play does not work in an intellectual basis.

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The veteran director seems slightly jarred if asked whether it was difficult to communicate with actors speaking different languages. ‘Everybody asks that question as if it is a problem, but why? Why in life are we so stuck with language?’ he retorts. ‘Language is important and I’d find it very hard to have a close friendship or love affair with someone who spoke a different language, but you never know. Why should we restrict our communication to only languages we know? Of course it helps, but it’s not necessary. Theatre is the magic, it’s the magic of communication.’

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Neither does he accept that the incomprehensibility of many languages is one of the reasons why much of the play depends heavily on physical acting. The fact that the question even arises, says Supple, indicates how much modern theatre has moved away from physicality. ‘I would have always done A Midsummer Night’s Dream like this, even if I did it in English,’ says he, and goes on to illustrate how the actual acting in his play depends much less on active physical expression than a viewer seems to remember having seen it once: ‘The first and the last scenes are very long and with minimum physical action. And the mechanicals just sit around in a semicircle, I’ve never seen the mechanicals done like that.’ The physical acting is chiefly seen in the forest scenes, and Supple agrees, saying that it’s natural, because the forest is about sex, violence, danger and unseen animals. ‘ For me it’s not physical acting, it’s just acting’ he justifies. ‘It has nothing to do with language and I wouldn’t want to do it in any other way.’

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However, Supple does acknowledge that British actors would possibly not be able to perform the play as well as their Indian counterparts, as they are less accustomed to creatively using their bodies. He blames it on a steady process of loss of attachment to theatrical forms in the West ever since the 16th century, as writers and the script gained more and more importance. In India traditional forms of art are learnt, practised and sustained, he observes, while in the Western cultures each generation of artists tries to tear up the previous generation’s achievements and move on. As a result, he says about the current generation of theatre actors in England, ‘Realistic acting is all they can do.’

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Supple is full of interesting anecdotes about the audience reaction to his play. The Indian audience in general seems to be more anxious about the “purity” of Shakespeare than the British, he notes with some amusement. The British audience doesn’t flinch about the sexual content of the play, and their reaction is intellectually much simpler while in India, says Supple, there is more critical awareness about the content of the play and more discussion and detailed feedback. But while the Indian audience can identify the different performances and languages more readily, Supple is surprised to notice in them what he calls a “snobbery about language” – for example, sitting in the audience during a performance in Calcutta, he had found his neighbour, a gentleman in his 70s, completely annoyed by the excessive usage of what he referred to as the “Southern languages.”  However, says Supple, in India he found the audience in Mumbai the most conservative; and while the audience in Calcutta almost baffled him into despair by not laughing enough at the funny scenes and sitting down during the song at the end of the play, they made up for the lack of exuberance with engaging comments and feedback, post-show.

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Also, as A Midsummer Night’s Dream sets itself to tour the world as a play performed in the proscenium, Supple is heavily nostalgic about the outdoor performances. He speaks with unmistakeable fondness about the intimate, three-sided Elizabethan stage of the Swan Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon, the enormous Roman amphitheatre-like performance space in Verona, the large horse-shoe shaped stage at the Roundhouse in London, and in India, the Ranga Shankara in Bangalore. He also recollects his earlier trip to Calcutta when the play was performed outdoors in the grounds of the Tolly Club. Things like constructing the performance space from scratch, a little village-like structure that was gradually formed, exposure to the elements and even the cries of the jackals in the background, he says, added a distinct natural atmosphere to the play that is impossible to imitate in the proscenium. The reasons for the shift were chiefly economic, explains the director – the costs for production are high, and since prosceniums theatres in cities in Europe and America have a steady business and audience, it was necessary to fit the play into that pre-existing structure, as he remarks, ‘The decision to go to proscenium was so that the play can have a life.’ However, people watching the play for the first time in the proscenium do not find anything wanting, assures Supple. The proscenium, moreover, helps the actors to gain more focus and mutual coordination, he adds.

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And before the ethereal strains of A Midsummer Night’s Dream fade from our memory, Tim Supple is already working on his next project, a unique adaptation of J. M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan. He says he hasn’t made concrete plans yet but he has been travelling, planning the script and auditioning actors in India, China, South America and Europe. Would this production be along the same lines as A Midsummer Night’s Dream? ‘That depends on what you mean by same. If you mean there would be a mixture of languages and mixture of performances, probably,’ says the director. And we can only wait and speculate what other magic he plans to unravel next.

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Rimi B. Chatterjee 

There was once a god, and he had three sons. The eldest son was a farmer, and tended the land. The second was a warrior, and kept the land safe. The third sat around making up stuff and clowning, and everyone called him a lazy brute.

The three sons were to be married off, as per usual, and so suitable brides had to be found for them. As sons of a god they couldn’t have just anyone. Real goddesses, their father swore, were the only beings worthy of his sons. Everyone thought that was a tall order, but he persevered. It got so even the birds flew away when they spotted him coming and the mosquitoes dived for cover, terrified. At last the sons grew impatient, and the first one said, ‘Father, enough of this nonsense. I want someone to help me plough the land.’

‘Son, you will be fortunate for a thousand eons,’ said his father, ‘for I have found just the bride for you.’ And he married his eldest son to a pretty spotted heifer who was grazing in the fields nearby. This caused a certain amount of comment, since some unimaginative people couldn’t see how exactly she fulfilled the criteria, but the god merely huffed and said, ‘Goddess: doesn’t talk back, gives generously, does as told, is useful about the house. What more?’ And indeed, put like that, they had to see his point. 

Then the second son said one day. ‘Father, we are very happy with bari bahu, but now I too am lonely. Give me a bride who will help me fight.’ So his father wrote to an Arab god he knew and a horse swift as the wind came and took the seven steps around the fire with the second son. And the warrior was as happy as the eldest son. By this time the wedding guests knew enough to open their mouths only to guzzle the excellent food, and the only person who got smited was a little assistant to the priest who stepped in a horse-apple and said a bad word. The god whacked him with a thunderbolt but took pity on him and put him back together with the head of a freshwater crayfish. He had a thing about zoomorphs.

‘Well then,’ said the father to the last son. ‘That’s two thirds of my duty done. There’s just you left. Would you like a nice pig? Or maybe a goat would suit you?’‘I don’t want to get married, father,’ said the youngest son, but a goat was found for him and a goat became his wife. Few people came to the ceremony, because by then everyone had had quite enough. The son and his goat were married with a small length of string and a Zippo lighter, and the priest took home a bunch of bananas as compensation for having his dhoti chewed by the bride. 

Youngest son settled down and played his flute to the goat, who baa-ed softly and nibbled his chest hair. This was very nice, but he wasn’t sure that it constituted artistic appreciation. Also she never laughed at his jokes, only cocked an ear and looked quizzical. He was aware that in expecting such behaviour he was transgressing the law, and he felt bad at tempting his bride to be naughty, and kind of glad that she didn’t give in. So after much soul-searching he sidled up to his father and said, ‘Father, I’m not happy. I think we might have made a mistake.’

His father glowered. Mistakes didn’t happen in his universe, but he had learned from experience that arguing with his youngest son about anything tended to give him indigestion. So he belched titanically, hoping his son would get discouraged and wander off. But the boy swallowed nervously and went on, ‘The goat is all right, but I think I would like to marry a woman.’

‘Marry a woman!’ the god exploded. ‘Whoever heard of us marrying women?’
‘Well, why not? They’re much more like us than our brides ever could be.’
‘Silence, you scamp! Your bahus are obedient, useful, and above all silent — well, most of the time. What more do you want in a wife?’
‘Well, I would like her to be a bit more like me.’
‘What! Talk, read the newspaper, wear sandals?’
‘Why not?’
‘You’re out of your mind!’

But the youngest son insisted, and so the god had to make enquiries, even though everyone laughed at him and said they wouldn’t let a woman walk into their house, let alone be their bahu. No one asked the youngest bahu what she thought of it all. So after much arguing and belching the old god stumped down to the post office to send an advertisement that would come out in all the papers. ‘Wanted: a woman to be second wife of third son of well-settled god of best family, must be fair, homely, and traditional with broadminded outlook.’ The youngest son fretted, the elder two shook their heads, the god fumed and in all the commotion no one noticed when the goat went missing. The youngest son wore himself out going to inquire about the post every day, so when he went to bed he always fell immediately asleep and didn’t notice the empty space beside him at all. After a while the old god noticed the place smelt a little less fetid than usual, but he put that down to the clearing up of his indigestion.

Some time later an odd creature presented itself at the door. She wore simple, practical clothes and a neat woollen waistcoast; she had shiny shoes and a cloth bag full of books. ‘I’ve come in answer to your ad,’ she said brightly to the god. He looked her slowly up and down. ‘And you are…?’

‘A woman, of course. In fact I have a BA in agrarian recycling.’

There was a silence, filled with divine incomprehension. She beamed at him. Then she looked past his shoulder and clapped her hands in glee. ‘Why, you must be Kapila!’ The heifer, having wandered round the corner, looked up in surprise. ‘How lovely to see you. You’re not still wearing that old nosering, are you? Let me have a look…oops! What a butterfingers I am. Never mind, you look nicer without it, and I think a diamond stud would suit you so much better. And Vadavi!’ The horse sidled shyly into the courtyard, whickering. ‘Let me have a look at you. Those blinkers are so stylish…oh dear. Never mind, I’m sure you’ll see much better without them.’

‘Youngest son!’ roared the god. ‘Look what a mischief you’ve conjured out of the air. Throw it out, by heaven, or there’ll be thunderbolts and smitings before the day’s done.’
Youngest son came running, then stopped so short the other brothers almost ran into him.

‘Who’s this?’

‘This,’ said the god with towering scorn, ‘is a woman.’

‘Have you been drinking, father? That’s my wife.’

‘What?’ the god rubbed his eyes. The smoke from the ritual fires got into them all the time and to tell the truth he had always been a bit shortsighted. He squinted at the woman with her woolly waistcoat. She twinkled back at him with beady eyes. Her bouncy hair curled inward at each of her temples, just as if it were a little horn. There was something indescribably frisky about her. ‘Well, I’ll be damned. How is this possible?’

‘Correspondence courses,’ she said smugly. ‘Taken while I was working for an NGO dealing with animal rights. It’s amazing what a little education and a new wardrobe will do. Aren’t you glad I’m back?’

The god noticed his son’s jaw had dropped and used a gnarled forefinger to prop it up again, hissing, ‘Don’t you know it’s immoral to stare at women?’

‘But she’s my wife!’

‘Nevertheless, you should not raise your eyes and look a woman in the face. It’s all right to talk to them if you only look as far as their…their…’ He let go of his son’s chin and harrumphed very loudly. His annoyance was mounting dangerously, and his fingers were itching. ‘Ask her, where was she all these days? Is it right and proper for a wife to wander off and take correspondence courses? Who saw her? Where did she live? And why is she dressed like a woman of the city? Chhi!’

‘That’s because I am a woman of the city, now. I thought you knew. Didn’t you get the note I left in Kapila’s manger? I wrote it on a stale chapatti.’

‘You left a note in her food?’

‘Well, there wasn’t anything else to write on. You aren’t a very literate household, you know. Anyway, I’ve decided I like it in the city, and as it isn’t proper for a young woman to live alone there, I’ve come to ask my husband to accompany me back.’

‘My son is not going anywhere!’ roared the god.

‘Oh dear, then I’ll have to find someone else to share my flat. One must observe the proprieties, of course. Is that your final word?’

‘No, no,’ squawked the youngest son. He vaulted over the table and took her by the hand. ‘I’m coming with you. Just let me pack my flute…’

‘I don’t think there’ll be time,’ said the goat, as she watched her father-in-law slowly turning purple. ‘In fact, I think we should leave now.’

‘Oh,’ said middle bahu, ‘Why don’t you get on my back then? I’ve always wanted to do that thing where the lovers run away on horseback with the savage raiders in hot pursuit. My mane will look lovely in the wind. Oooooh! Come on then.’

The middle son howled. ‘But there are men to kill before dinnertime! How can I be a war god without a horse?’ However, Vadavi had already disappeared in a cloud of dust with her sister-and-brother-in-law waving gaily from her back. The eldest son sprang up to stop them, but to his surprise he took leave of the earth on the points of two very sharp horns.

‘Wow,’ said Kapila. ‘That felt good. Let’s do it again!’ She pawed the ground for effect and lowered her head. Her husband scrambled up and ran for it, holding his backside with both hands, while her father-in-law danced in rage and yelled, ‘There are fields to plough before nightfall! Your neck goes back in the yoke!’ So she tossed him instead, and watched in amazement as he disappeared over the roof of their house at the end of a long descending wail.

‘Awesome,’ she mooed, and trotted off to find some sweet grass.

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