The CWG Opening Ticket marked ‘Complimentary’ with ‘Rs. 50,000’ written boldly and “void if sold” in small type came to my friend Rajeev Sethi and he sends me the first hand report...aankho delha haal...
Wanted to share this interesting piece with you all.......
The Games We Play
by Rajeev Sethi
The Sportifs aren’t at the finishing line and my prayers continue. May India come out a winner, despite bureaucratic bungling, political ineptitude, greedy opportunism and the vagaries of weather. Time and again I have been privileged to serve the cause of the Arts in big public events like the Festivals of India, Apna Utsavs etc. in the last century and in the last decade smaller theatrical happenings or relatively large manifestations like the Anniversary of 1857 and Sanjha Safar celebrating Federalism. Each time I have tried to position traditional artists at the centre within the context of who they are and what they do. How they feel about being presented or the politics of re-presentation has been the tenacious anchor for creative endeavours I have chosen to align with.
Of late, however, I have been watching from a distance the unfolding of modern day “tamashas” camouflaged in tokenism of tradition with a degree of concern and some detached amusement. Whether it be the Annual Republic day floats and pageantry, folk dance festivals at one end or Art and Crafts in the Metro and mini cultural forays in foreign countries, there is an increasing power play of patronage from those who know less and less to those who are more and more in the public eye.
Each high official in the Government has become a curator and every politico a patron. Hold out a post or purse for a public office or event and a multitude of whiz kids impresarios, aging gurus, event managers and such like will swoop in, swarm like, to grab. Not bad for a country where culture after all is still a cosmetic affair and not even considered a creative Industry ! But on that front I have a 1200 - page treatise that has been entombed as a Report, gathering dust in the tomb of all tombs – the Planning Commission.
For now I was egged on by the sound byte-bitten media, that barely lets one to complete a sentence, write about the mother of all opening events for the CWG that portends to become the trend setter for legitimate promos of Brand India for at least till when the next shift and shove of paradigm occurs.
The CWG Opening Ticket marked ‘Complimentary’ with ‘Rs. 50,000’ written boldly and “void if sold” in small type came to me from friends on my request. I managed to get to the Fortress geared up in the tensile design of Frie Ottos’ Munich Stadia vintage 1972 in a swish bus for athletes. After being shuttled from Gate to Gate by ‘not-a-clue’ volunteers I found myself seated in a block far away from the royal box, chock-a-bloc with a zillion people in between, also waving the ubiquitous complimentary Rs. 50,000 ticket ! No wonder the organizing committee went broke !!
The show started with doubtlessly the Biggest Star of the evening the helium balloon with a golden hemline and polka dotted belly – 100% imported and like all foreign models the ultimate show stopper. Foreign it remained, barely used to its inherent potential. The mirror discs constituting the underbelly didn’t perform and I am told will turn into a Disco for the closing event. The burgeoning balloon’s surface became the potent seed of a robust banyan bursting at its seams with images. Clearly a great device for New Delhi where unlike the stadium at Beijing, the structure lent no defined surface to project the moving image and no hanger mid-arena for lifting or hanging much else.
First the Rajasthani kathputli arose into the air manipulated by people on the ground, with pullies anchored on the balloon. WOW, but what else ? Then came the Tree of Life lifted from a pit shaped like a Havana kund in a massive stage dressed like a yantra, (all evocative impressionable stuff – don’t look for more meaning.) The tree looked sadly like a trunk made of ribbons – drab in colour, formless, lacking a craft. The videos on the balloon did not complement the vast vocabulary of a ‘Shajar-E-Hayat’ with evocative cross-cultural iconography on interdependence animating it with all diverse forms of knowledge. No Show.
Then emerging from the pit rose a lit up Yogi in padmasan, as a contoured shell within which a pixilated row of chakras rose kundalini like – quite Fabulous ! Thereafter a banner dropped with Gandhi ji depicted in a rude rendition of Imtiaz Dharkar’s linear and minimal sketch marking his spectacles and bald head. Weak, but accompanied on the balloon with an animation of Bapu being led by a child, created by shifting sand ; those brilliantly dexterous fingers of Oriya artists making waves on India’s Got Talent Season II.
What came next ? Actually I can’t remember – and that’s the problem ! The eye couldn’t take it all and the mind refused to retain.
What was projected on the balloon and what transpired on the ground was another matter. Sometimes it came together and linked beautifully and at other times it fell apart while layering imagination with inappropriate graphic design talent.
On the ground the act that took my breath away was executed by school kids and conceived by the Britisher called Bryms who used it in Beijing to create magical calligraphy. I loved the open palms with mehndi emerging like a welcoming Rangoli. Totally low tech…least intimidating and glamorous !! Did the close circuit videos on the balloon show the kids on the ground painting on “the sky stretched over their heads” ? If so, Hussain M F would definitely have smiled had he seen it. The Yoga on the ground with sweaty youth in lycra fabric was a little foolish but the videos on the balloon were as beautiful as the contoured yogi.
The train sequence was a great plus but only as an idea since it was executed with a tacky sense of contemporary Indian scenography. The white Ambassador car laden with loud speakers and Khadi Clad politicians was delicious, the Dhobi ghat lost in execution, the kids on a bicycle pile reminded me of rickshaws seized by the Municipality and dumped on the Yamuna Ghat. The turban tableaux on the rickshaw were limp…err not potent. The rickshaw cracker display was fun, but pretty much all else was inept. More particularly the jazzed up handloom float paying lip service to the poor weavers of India, looked as doomed as their disappearing livelihood. The take off on labourers carrying bricks on their heads running helter-skelter was in poor taste. Remember they were the true heroes who slogged to build the stadia.
The classical dance forms of India – hugely ignored by Indian media and pedagogues alike got a teaser as a visual metaphor. Sonal Mansingh says she has had SMS’s since the opening from parents wanting their kids to learn! But are we not de-valuing the most venerable time honoured forms thematically, stylistically and choreographically by clubbing them together as an assembly line presentation? The melting pot puree syndrome of mega shows hard pressed for time can get away with murky murder.
I think we need to be as careful as the West is about their classic forms. No Opera and Ballet can be trivialized or messed around with. Nor did we at the opening, but our great masters may need a crash course on economy of scale and visibility if they have to be a part of Mega Shows. This sector, I feel lacked the eloquence of silence – desperately needed – perhaps it should have been paced with the quiet grace of a solo performer commanding a grand presence. Video links on the balloon could have helped to etch elusive details but were totally absent on nuances such as for ‘Abhinay’ or the expression of an ustad tuning in. I still recall the sole presence of a ‘Nayak’ from a village in Gujarat singing from on top of the Eiffel Tower mesmerizing million in Paris at the opening of the French Festival of India.
Modernity ? Oh please …spare us the Neon LED’s on ply board sitars and tablas ! What then constitutes New India ? I believe the evergreen spontaneity of our ancient people, reinventing, adapting, moving on with dignity while acquiring an original edge. The knowledge economy has myopically ignored their capacity to create non-imitative content.
Do the Theyyam Masked dancers of Kerala - as part of their profound ritual performance feel comfortable when pulled out of context and used as mere props for colourful pageantry ? Do they get a better sense of themselves being part of the whole we call India ?
The popular so called “Folk Artists”, derigour in such ‘hold all’ ‘bistar bandh’ productions, are being increasingly exploited as mere fillers (when ever in doubt – put a drummer in feathers!) The Siddi Goma, of African descent who used to dance in white costumes as part of a ritual celebrating trance are no exceptions. It is another matter that they have chosen (with a little prompting from an over zealous official in the Apna Utsavs of 25 years ago) to dress up as Bollywood Hubshies complete with peacock feathers doing a Zhinga Lala, Zhinga Lala number just to be noticed. But 30 years later does this become their routine for recognition ? Another dance form introduced ? Perhaps, but little else.
In my experience this token Tribal component is a No No. These proud people don’t need to be so appallingly regimented and belittled with urban choreographers starved of exposure to India’s diversity. Rural Artists are more than mere visual fodder to be structured ridiculously like a school PT drill or Soviet style promo. If of-course they want to be a part of your National mainstream – do ask the artists and performers themselves about how they feel about being a part of extravaganzas. Take your cameras to them and they will tell who they think they really are and how they are used and abused to fill stage or screen space. Talk to telecasters if they really understand the meaning of “our ancient civilization” and could we also orient Doordarshan with the huge responsibility of communicating on the subtitles of ‘Pehchaan’ for an uninitiated audience ready to accept a lot.
I have seen too many obnoxious pre-recorded shows requiring lip synching from folk singers who grow with improvisations and audience participation. Drummers become an animated medley of actors, ‘playing’ on card board drums to pre-recorded beats far away from seminal rhythms acquired in the womb. Ask the ‘Shankh Vadaks’, who navigate intricate reverberations blowing on conches, whether their entry and exit in the grand show of CWG was even seen or heard. A few casualties in an overall triumph ?
The part that left me cold like many others was the Athletes March Past, that had the potential for the largest emotional impact and infotainment outreach. Country delegations led by glitzy girls in ritzy saris, was a lack lustre parade without the signage on the balloon engaging us with meaningful information on the countries participating. A little homework through cleverly edited videos on the balloon would have helped more with more than one hour of the production made tiresome with monotonously repetitive soundtrack and display of flags.
The audience response to the parade however, was spontaneous and hugely revealing but typical of what we know about the world and from where we get to know about it. Our South Asian neighbours were applauded warmly and that made me feel very proud. Small countries slipped into oblivion – Sadly.
And so I came out after four hours, ready to walk to my car parked miles away, high on the spirit of an evening … well … delivered. I didn’t foresee writing a piece till I heard someone say “Nau chuhey kha ke billi Haj ko challi”. The glitz will blind everyone and no one will notice the lapses in the way we played with our games.