Song of the Swan

Bringing in social change through theatre is not easy, though many theatre practitioners have made attempts to do just that. In my previous post I had talked about jatra as an old and still-practised Indian theatre art form which attempts to entertain its audience as well as raise audience consciousness through social, cultural and political messages. This practice of entertain-and-educate is not only true of India but for all cultures around the world. Some messages are embedded in the plays and are subtle; some are bold and ‘in your face’. Still, it’s tough to motivate a theatre audience into action through a performance.

I guess, the best that playwrights, theatre directors, actors and producers can hope for is a degree of understanding by the audience and a ‘pricking’ of their conscience in order to start conversations which gather momentum and lead to action at a later date. Theatre which leads directly to a revolution or an uprising is hard to come by, though theatre must have influenced – and must still be influencing – people to bring in changes in their lives, individually and collectively. Perhaps that’s because theatre relies more on storytelling than on a “go get ‘em” call to action that a great speech can invoke.

The director (extreme left) and cast of Song of the Swan

The director (extreme left) and cast of Song of the Swan

Nevertheless, theatre can move people to emotions and have its audience responding to it at a visceral level. Last evening, for instance, I was left breathless by Knot Theatre’s production of Song of the Swan – a play written by Asad Hussain and directed by Shubhrajyoti Barat – at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai. The play, based on a true story, recounted, mainly from a mother’s perspective, the life and later abduction and beheading by Kashmiri militants of a 27-year-old Norwegian named Hans Christian Ostro who had visited India (Kerala, Mumbai and Kashmir) in 1995.

Not only breathless, I felt helpless and angry at what had happened to Hans Christian Ostro. Many women in the audience had tears in their eyes by the time the play concluded. With Song of the Swan, I’d say Knot Theatre has been able to invoke what most theatre productions try to achieve.

Song of the Swan is a play in Hindi and English; currently being staged in Mumbai and definitely worth watching.

A review of Song of the Swan can be found here.

Jatra and social change

“Art has a way of getting into our subconscious in ways that we are not aware of.”
– Nandita Das, Indian actress, speaking at a Harvard South Asia Institute seminar in September 2014

Seminars, exhibitions, films and discussions on the role of arts in social change are not new. All over the world, there are millions of initiatives by universities and other learning centres, governments, NGOs, collaborations by people and private organisations, using various forms of art to bring in social change. Or, at least, make attempts in that direction.

More than discussions and films, for hundreds of years, Indian theatre, like theatre in other cultures, has used live performance to communicate, educate and encourage social change in villages as well as in cities. I’ve grown up with some of these initiatives in Bengal (India), and one particular performance art form – the jatra – comes to mind as having done commendable work in entering the people’s consciousness and bringing in social change.

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

Jatra in Bengali (also termed Yatra in Hindi) literally means ‘a journey’ and refers to the travelling theatre troupes which travel across Eastern India, including North-Eastern India and even Bangladesh across the border, performing plays with messages and morals, hoping to ignite minds in order to bring in social change through enactments of mythological tales or dissemination of messages that challenge oppressive rulers.

Primarily a form of folk theatre, jatra is full of songs, music, dance, colourful costumes, bold dialogues and lots of melodrama – making it the perfect entertainment for everyone in pre-television days. In its basic form, jatra is a procession of performers travelling along a street or lane, playing music, singing and dancing. A more sophisticated form of jatra is a play performed on an improvised stage with its audience gathered around it on all sides.

The narrative of the jatra is usually simple – as the rural audience, jatra’s predominant following, was, and still is, illiterate. Initially, the plots, dialogues and songs were passed on orally from performer to performer – generation to generation – carrying messages which were simple but instructive. Later, the narrative became a little bit complex as people began to write plays in the form of jatra, transforming it into a literary form as well.

Unfortunately, with the spread of urbanisation and pop culture in India, jatra’s popularity may have waned somewhat. But, it still remains an exciting performing art form, entertaining and entering the consciousness of the rural masses in India; encouraging social change amongst its audience with its simplicity and colourfulness.

[Citation: Art and social change, Harvard University South Asia Institute news article, 23 September 2014.]

A Call to Arts

A presentation and discussion titled Human Power: Arts for Social Change (organised by Avid Learning) in Mumbai last month left many of us in the audience wondering if the arts can actually foster social change as the title of the event suggested. A question of measurement was called for which, I feel, dampened the spirits a bit. No one felt comfortable with measuring social change, nor the arts. At least, not among the members of the audience gathered that evening. I mean, we know social change happens; and, if there is change, we know it can be measured… simply by tracking the ‘before’ and ‘after’ scenarios. All social sciences do that, though accurate measurements are sometimes difficult to determine.

The trouble, I feel, was with the inclusion of the term ‘the arts’. The arts have always been antithesis to science and, if they have not actually defied measurement over centuries, they have definitely challenged it. Hence, measuring social change as an outcome of arts projects or initiatives is always a difficult proposition. Yet, over centuries, individuals, groups, institutes of learning, associations and governments have continued their efforts and initiatives in employing the arts to bring in social change. For instance, schools and universities, by virtue of their being and their purpose, have transformed and improved our lives and societies. The question is, can the arts do the same?

Image courtesy  Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Image courtesy Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Recently, President Barack Obama of the United States organised A Call to Arts: The One Million Mentor Hours Pledge initiative which sought “to inspire tomorrow’s storytellers through programs, events and other mentorship opportunities — with a goal to reach one million hours of mentorship over the next three years.” According to a White House blog post and A Call to Arts website,

“The initiative is a partnership with AFI [American Film Institute] and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) that answers the president’s nationwide call to service to mentor aspiring storytellers who are pursuing careers in the cinematic arts. AFI and SAG-AFTRA will work with the Corporation for National and Community Service to help work toward the goal of one million mentor hours over the next three years.”

A Call to Arts: The One Million Mentor Hours Pledge, of course, is not the first initiative to employ the arts to foster social change in the world in some magnitude which is worth considering. There have been thousands and thousands of such initiatives and projects over centuries, many of them in India. Although I’m not sure if any of them have been measured in any scientific manner to declare fostering social change in a sizeable magnitude, some of them, I’m sure, have been and still are exemplary. This would mean that these initiatives have not only fostered social change for a while at a certain point in history, but have actually sustained their efforts to transform our lives for ever.

The interesting thing is that the A Call to Arts initiative has set a specific goal and is talking numbers similar to a marketing plan: “Through A Call to Arts, more than 160,000 SAG-AFTRA members and 300 elected leaders in 25 localities across the nation are being asked to mentor aspiring creative artists during the next three years.”  Not to mention The One Million Mentor Hours Pledge.” Once such specific goals are set for a ‘the arts for social change’ initiative/project, it’s a lot easier to measure the initiative’s/project’s performance against those goals and document its achievements. If the initiative’s/project’s performance can be measured, then there’s a strong likelihood that the social change as an outcome of the initiative/project can be measured as well.

The first art galleries

Life was hard in those Paleolithic (i.e. Old Stone Age) days. The average life span of prehistoric man is estimated (by today’s scientific measures) to have been less than 30 years. Hunting was a preoccupation, with animals providing our ancestors their main meals. Yet, there was something sacred about this, and early cave art tells us that our ancestors considered relationships between humans and animals to be important.

Cave art – i.e. paintings by prehistoric man found on the walls and ceilings of caves – came into public attention when the first cave paintings were found, accidentally by a little girl, in Altamira, northern Spain in 1879. Since then, thousands of similar paintings have been discovered in caves across the world, the earliest dating back some 40,000 years ago. The interesting thing is, no matter where on Earth cave art is discovered, the similarities between them, in terms of subject matter and style, are amazing.

The paintings look like line drawings of animals (later versions are filled in with colours), mostly depicting hunting scenes, and humans in stick-like forms or stencilled hands. A few show women and children, such as the one of a woman carrying a load on her head, dated 8,000 years ago, found in the Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh, India. It seems charcoal was the main ingredient in the black paint used in many of these cave paintings. Some of the paintings are indeed beautiful.

By today’s standards of fine arts, prehistoric cave art is childish, even clumsy. Yet, these collections of cave paintings represent what would be the first art galleries in human history. Even today, they are an enigma to historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and sociologists. In some caves, according to dating measures, paintings were discontinued and resumed thousands of years later. Why, no one knows for sure.

Records suggest that cave art continued for 20,000 years or so, and came to an end when the hunters’ precarious way of life disappeared. This happened, slowly, as early man began to rely more on grains and vegetables for his food, and moved to plain open spaces which allowed cultivation. By this time, of course, human populations had increased, making it difficult for larger groups of people to stay in or near caves.

Can art be criticised?

“…the quality of an artist is measured by his ability to loyally represent his unique language to us. The smaller the distance between the original experience (the emotion of the artist) and its external representation – the more prominent the artist.”
– Dr Sam Vaknin in his article The Basic Dilemma of the Artist

Some say that art is the representation – albeit an external representation – of the artist’s experience. It’s the representation of the artist’s original emotion in a communicable form for all to see, hear, feel, sense, etc. Which would mean, the quality of a work of art ought to be a measure of the artist’s ability to loyally represent his/her unique emotion or experience to us.

Yet, we like some art; we criticise and throw away others. What gives us this authority to do so? If the origin – the source – of the art is an emotion or experience unique to the artist, and we have no access to it, how can we even judge a work of art? This, in fact, takes us to another question: If we can’t judge art, who can? Who can determine who is a good artist and who is not?

Image courtesy and Tomislav Georgiev

Image courtesy and Tomislav Georgiev

According to Dr Sam Vaknin’s article (from his website), The Basic Dilemma of the Artist, traditionally, artists have used their own reference groups – their audience, so to speak – to measure their art. This audience is a defining part of the artist’s creation – the work of art itself – and inseparable from the artist’s reputation. This reference group, this audience, is expected to have in its possession some sort of a universal guidebook – a source of knowledge – which can be used to interpret the artist’s emotion and experience from his/her art. This reference group can aptly judge the representation for what it is.

If this is true, then the concept is unique in its challenge. For, if the artist happens to be too emotionally involved with his/her art, the reference group has a privileged status. This group is the only one which can judge art – or, has the capacity to pass judgement on art. For, only this group can interpret what transpired in the artist’s mind.

I admit this is not ‘the real thing’ – the creation called art from the artist’s original emotion or experience – but it’s a pretty good substitute. While we sit back making assumptions – guesswork really – about what the artist may have felt in creating a work of art, this reference group happily goes about voicing its views, advice and criticism.

Of course, there is an outside chance that these views, advice and criticism of the reference group may not be loyal – or even close – to the artist’s original emotion or experience. After all, the emotion, the experience, the creation all belong to the artist, who is the only person who can refute these. But then, the artist is too emotionally involved with his/her art to make a logical representation.