Category Archives: reviews

beyond belief – NYWIFT event at the little

NYWIFT or new york women in film and television’s rochester chapter opened last week with the screening of the documentary “beyond belief” at the little theatre. the film recreates the step by step progression in the story of two 9/11 widows (susan retik and patti quigley) who decide to help afghani women. there are some illuminating moments in the film – the very idea of turning hate into love, of forgiving in order to achieve “post-traumatic growth”, of realizing that we are all connected and that what happens in afghanistan affects us here at home, the concept that all the small, day-to-day decisions we make in our lives cumulatively define who we are in the world, and that our common humanity can transcend even the most striking socio-cultural differences. that’s powerful. the director beth murphy talks about compassion fatigue, a dulled sensitivity to crisis over time. viewers, when faced with a relentless barrage of snapshots showing human suffering all over the world, start to feel helpless and so disengage. this film puts the ball back in our court – instead of feeling overwhelmed by what’s going on around us, we are reminded that every action we take has a ripple effect and can change the course of the world in small but cumulatively potent ways.

as far as the overall documentary, i felt that 9/11 was the star of the film. the grief of the two widows is obviously real and palpable but as patti quigley says herself, she is ready to move beyond her role of 9/11 widow. much has happened since 9/11 – we have invaded afghanistan and killed more afghanis, we have invaded iraq and started a barbaric civil war (more than 655,000 iraqis have died along with thousands of american troops), we have legitimized torture and trampled on basic human rights all around the globe, we have reworked the laws of our country in order to curtain civil liberties, we have discovered that our government is far from being honest and that our media is far from holding it to account. with all the things that have gone horribly wrong since 9/11, shouldn’t we move beyond our role of wounded nation?

i wish that more time had been spent telling the stories of the afghan widows. we only see them as a one-dimensional horde of burqas on cnn. this film could have afforded us a rare glimpse into their lives and suffused them with some depth. there is a little bit of that but not enough. we cannot help but fall in love with some of the afghani women profiled in the film. they are honest and accessible, strong and dignified and possess a calm inner beauty. that’s a face not often seen in the media, a voice not often heard. beth murphy has made a laudable effort to show us another side, let’s hope this is just the beginning.

after watching “beyond belief” the writer june avignone sent me the link to this article she wrote called “the cure we wait for” (sun magazine, march 2003). she talks about 9/11 and compares it to her experience with cancer.

“i am not shocked at all. if anything, i am shocked about how many other people are shocked. i know that there will be a precious moment figurine about all this down the road, perhaps a cute little fireman followed by a sweet, gun-toting marine. and i know america will eat them up, unlike the truth that was there all along, the warnings ignored like a bad dream and hidden behind the correct purchases made at the mall.

and with their shock comes the talk of getting the bad guys; of killing some good to destroy the bad; of using cannons to get the thief who robbed us of innocent lives, and threatens us still; of hitting larger territories to get at the hidden problem and make it go away for good. and the language is so familiar I cannot bear it.

i do not know where all of it is going. i only know that we tell ourselves we have the cure, and we don’t. the thief is inside all of us. and part of the cure, at the very least, lies in knowing that.”

dov and ali

just saw this play reading at geva theatre. “dov and ali” was written by anna ziegler and describes the relationship between a precocious muslim student of pakistani descent and a jewish high school teacher. both are unduly burdened by their fathers’ religious dogmas and we witness some of their conflicted emotions. whereas dov reacts with lassitude by simply avoiding life’s big questions (and decisions), ali becomes a strident mouthpiece for his overbearing father. dov and ali are simultaneously drawn to each other and repelled by the recognition of their own fear and self-doubt in each other’s psychosis. ali is mortally afraid that the world might not be black and white, as his father says, and that the quran’s directives might not be enough. is being “right” more important than being “happy”? although he strikes dov as being sure of himself (and of everything else) we suspect that it’s self-hate that’s making him lash out. dov on the other hand professes that he has a mind of his own and chastises ali for being a fanatic, yet we sense that his own convictions are half-baked at best.

the dialogue between these two characters is sharp, funny and fast-paced. there are many references to william golding’s “lord of the flies” which serves to pit what’s good for the individual against what’s good for society.

the play’s turning point is based on ali’s relationship with his sister sameh. sameh acts both as the play’s narrator and one of its characters. in her asides she gently reproves ali for something he did, becoming more and more agitated as the play progresses. she also reveals her love affair with a liberal muslim boy mo (short for mohammed) and we are slowly led to think that it did not end well and that ali had something to do with it. she appears as a character in flashbacks and as a ghost-like apparition in ali’s dreams. ali finally confesses to dov that he led his father (and uncles and cousins) to sameh and mo and that she was packed off to pakistan as a result. this has been ali’s torment – his guilt and the loss of his sister have torn apart his family. the girl’s end is left unresolved. our only clue is that she now lives with an aunt in pakistan and all she does is pray – this led an audience member to think erroneously that she might have been sent to a convent. in fact, there is no concept of any types of convents in islam.

dov’s trajectory from traditional to modern is tracked through his relationship with a “blonde” (there is frequent mention of her hair color) white girl. she definitely believes in being happy above anything else – a symbol of western-style jettisoning of religious orthodoxy?

although i found the play interesting (more should be written about the interplay between different religions and cultures, especially in a country where we are proud to describe ourselves as a melting pot), much of it was hackneyed and one-dimensional. i liked the verbal sparring between dov and ali and the not-so-apparent similarities which are nevertheless explored. but did ziegler have to throw in something as corny as “israel should not exist – the jews stole it” and play into the already over-propagandized stereotype of the jew-hating muslim? maybe she was being facetious, but sometimes one has to wonder, do we always have to go there – the lowest common denominator of our so-called “free” mainstream media coverage which is sold in bulk and therefore cannot afford nuance or novelty. for some reason, in my unwaveringly idealistic mind, i hold artists to a higher standard. rather than pander to pre-existing stereotypes why not turn things around and present a topsy turvy picture of what people perceive as reality. in my opinion, that is true art.

stereotypes abound in this play – from the fanatical quran literalist, to the emotionally-distant orthodox rabbi, from the blonde blue-eyed voice of tolerant modernity, to edward said as a proponent of arab victimization in full view of palestinian suicide bombers. you will be happy to know that tossing the hijab is still very much the means to female empowerment and as a pakistani-american, i was interested to know that being sent to pakistan is the ultimate kiss of death.

all in all, it reminded me of your average story in the ny times with all its comforting clichés and facile generalizations. it’s no coincidence that ziegler’s writing process for this play started with newspaper clippings and the endeavor to write something “current”. this is why many audience members were confused about sameh’s destiny, thinking that she must have been killed because of “all the stories in the news”. five years after 9/11 and the ensuing media blitz which divided the world into those who were with us (and like us) and those who were against us (and different from us), it is time to get beyond our narrow view of what “others” are like. i think that american audiences are ready to undertake that journey.

the battle of algiers

gillo pontecorvo’s 1966 film is a perfect example of italian neorealism with its documentary-style veracity, on location casbah scenes, non-professional algerian arab actors and its undeniably socialist heart. the film is about the algerian war of independence against french colonial rule. it strives to be balanced in presenting such controversial (and currently relevant) issues as hubris and abuse of power on the part of the colonist, humiliation and revolt on the part of the colonised, the use of terrorism to advance a cause, the use of torture to elicit information, western empirialism, extrajudicial executions, racism, violence, and the role of the press in selling a military campaign. the making of the film is truly a coup de force. its message is thought provoking. by refusing to take sides or using a pre-conceived frame of reference, it gives viewers the ability to draw their own conclusions. i found the film to be an experience, an education. it is not easy to break the human spirit – even with the best military accoutrements in the world. the forcible repression of others creates a natural imbalance that can only last for so long, and it leads to nothing but tragedy for all those involved. but was it hegel who said that we learn from history that we do not learn from history…

the battle of algiers

volver

saw pedro almodóvar’s “volver”, a story about mothers, daughters and the indomitable female spirit. the film is beautifully shot and a perfect vehicle for penelope cruz’s talents. having worked with almodóvar before, the actress and director seem to have a unique bond. there is a level of trust and affection which makes it possible for cruz to blossom in front of our eyes into something strong and luminous. her charisma is greatly diminished by formula-driven, coldly procedural anglo-saxon films. here we see her as never before. she is in her element. the film is a mix of magic and realism, a supersaturated dreamscape. the colors are warm and vivid, the camerawork meticulous and obsessively focused on cruz. her performance is brought into relief by her beauty and fearlessness. with this film, almodóvar has perfected his craft and given us a visually luscious chef d’oeuvre that celebrates his love for women characters in all their splendor and complexity.

volver

manto’s masterpiece: toba tek singh

manto – a quick blurb: master of the urdu short story, controversial, wrote about sex, incest, prostitution, tried in pakistani courts for obscenity, died in penury of alcoholism at the age of 44. the force, unflinching honesty and hard-edged realism of his writing have warranted comparisons to d.h. lawrence.

here is “toba tek singh” a manto short story that encapsulates the horror and confusion of india’s partition in 1947. it has been translated in english by khushwant singh:

Two or three years after the 1947 Partition, it occurred to the governments of India and Pakistan to exchange their lunatics in the same manner as they had exchanged their criminals. The Muslim lunatics in India were to be sent over to Pakistan and the Hindu and Sikh lunatics in Pakistani asylums were to be handed over to India.

It was difficult to say whether the proposal made any sense or not. However, the decision had been taken at the topmost level on both sides. After high-level conferences were held a day was fixed for the exchange of the lunatics. It was agreed that those Muslims who had families in India would be permitted to stay back while the rest would be escorted to the border. Since almost all the Hindus and Sikhs had migrated from Pakistan, the question of retaining non-Muslim lunatics in Pakistan did not arise. All of them were to be taken to India.

Nobody knew what transpired in India, but so far as Pakistan was concerned this news created quite a stir in the lunatic asylum at Lahore, leading to all sorts of funny developments. A Muslim lunatic, a regular reader of the fiery Urdu daily Zamindar, when asked what Pakistan was, reflected for a while and then replied, “Don’t you know? A place in India known for manufacturing cut-throat razors.” Apparently satisfied, the friend asked no more questions.

Likewise, a Sikh lunatic asked another Sikh, “Sardarji, why are we being deported to India? We don’t even know their language.” The Sikh gave a knowing smile. “But I know the language of Hindostoras” he replied. “These bloody Indians, the way they strut about!”

One day while taking his bath, a Muslim lunatic yelled, “Pakistan Zindabad!” with such force that he slipped, fell down on the floor and was knocked unconscious.

Not all the inmates were insane. Quite a few were murderers. To escape the gallows, their relatives had gotten them in by bribing the officials. They had only a vague idea about the division of India or what Pakistan was. They were utterly ignorant of the present situation. Newspapers hardly ever gave the true picture and the asylum warders were illiterates from whose conversation they could not glean anything. All that these inmates knew was that there was a man by the name of Quaid-e-Azam who had set up a separate state for Muslims, called Pakistan. But they had no idea where Pakistan was. That was why they were all at a loss whether they were now in India or in Pakistan. If they were in India, then where was Pakistan? If they were in Pakistan, how come that only a short while ago they were in India? How could they be in India a short while ago and now suddenly in Pakistan?

One of the lunatics got so bewildered with this India-Pakistan-Pakistan-India rigmarole that one day while sweeping the floor he climbed up a tree, and sitting on a branch, harangued the people below for two hours on end about the delicate problems of India and Pakistan. When the guards asked him to come down he climbed up still higher and said, “I don’t want to live in India and Pakistan. I’m going to make my home right here on this tree.”

All this hubbub affected a radio engineer with an MSc degree, a Muslim, a quiet man who took long walks by himself. One day he stripped off all his clothes, gave them to a guard and ran in the garden stark naked.

Another Muslim inmate from Chiniot, an erstwhile adherent of the Muslim League who bathed fifteen or sixteen times a day, suddenly gave up bathing. As his name was Mohammed Ali, he one day proclaimed that he was none other than Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Taking a cue from him a Sikh announced that he was Master Tara Singh, the leader of the Sikhs. This could have led to open violence. But before any harm could be done the two lunatics were declared dangerous and locked up in separate cells.

Among the inmates of the asylum was a Hindu lawyer from Lahore who had gone mad because of unrequited love. He was deeply pained when he learnt that Amritsar, where the girl lived, would form part of India. He roundly abused all the Hindu and Muslim leaders who had conspired to divide India into two, thus making his beloved an Indian and him a Pakistani. When the talks on the exchange were finalized his mad friends asked him to take heart since now he could go to India. But the young lawyer did not want to leave Lahore, for he feared for his legal practice in Amritsar.

There were two Anglo-Indians in the European ward. When informed the British were leaving, they spent hours together discussing the problems they would be faced with: Would the European ward be abolished? Would they get breakfast? Instead of bread, would they have to make do with measly Indian chapattis?

There was a Sikh who had been admitted into the asylum fifteen years ago. Whenever he spoke it was the same mysterious gibberish: “Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhayana the mung the dal of the laltain.” The guards said that he had not slept a wink in all this time. He would not even lie down to rest. His feet were swollen with constant standing and his calves had puffed out in the middle, but in spite of this agony he never cared to lie down. He listened with rapt attention to all discussions about the exchange of lunatics between India and Pakistan. If someone asked his views on the subject he would reply in a grave tone: “Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhayana the mung the dal of the Government of Pakistan.” But later on he started substituting “the Government of Pakistan” with “Tobak Tek Singh,” which was his home town. Now he begun asking where Toba Tek Singh was to go. But nobody seemed to know where it was. Those who tried to explain themselves got bogged down in another enigma: Sialkot, which used to be in India, now was in Pakistan. At this rate, it seemed as if Lahore, which was now in Pakistan, would slide over to India. Perhaps the whole of India might become Pakistan. It was all so confusing! And who could say if both India and Pakistan might not entirely disappear from the face of the earth one day?

The hair on the Sikh lunatic’s head had thinned and his beard had matted, making him look wild and ferocious. But he was a harmless creature. In fifteen years he had not even once had a row with anyone. The older employees of the asylum knew that he had been a well-to-do fellow who had owned considerable land in Toba Tek Singh. Then he had suddenly gone mad. His family had brought him to the asylum in chains and left him there. They came to meet him once a month but ever since the communal riots had begun, his relatives had stopped visiting him.

His name was Bishan Singh but everybody called him Toba Tek Singh. He did not know what day it was, what month it was and how many years he had spent in the asylum. Yet as if by instinct he knew when his relatives were going to visit, and on that day he would take a long bath, scrub his body with soap, put oil in his hair, comb it and put on clean clothes. If his relatives asked him anything he would keep silent or burst out with “Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhayana the mung the dal of the laltain.”

When he had been brought to the asylum, he had left behind an infant daughter. She was now a comely and striking young girl of fifteen, who Bishan Singh failed to recognize. She would come to visit him, and not be able to hold back her tears.

When the India-Pakistan caboodle started Bishan Singh often asked the other inmates where Toba Tek Singh was. Nobody could tell him. Now even the visitors had stopped coming. Previously his sixth sense would tell him when the visitors were due to come. But not anymore. His inner voice seemed to have stilled. He missed his family, the gifts they used to bring and the concern with which they used to speak to him. He was sure they would have told him whether Toba Tek Singh was in India or Pakistan. He also had the feeling that they came from Toba Tek Singh, his old home.

One of the lunatics had declared himself God. One day Bishan Singh asked him where Toba Tek Singh was. As was his habit the man greeted Bishan Singh’s question with a loud laugh and then said, “It’s neither in India nor in Pakistan. In fact, it is nowhere because till now I have not taken any decision about its location.”

Bishan begged the man who called himself God to pass the necessary orders and solve the problem. But ‘God’ seemed to be very busy with other matters. At last Bishan Singh’s patience ran out and he cried out: “Uper the gur gur the annexe the mung the dal of Guruji da Khalsa and Guruji ki fateh jo boley so nihal sat sri akal.”

What he wanted to say was: “You don’t answer my prayers because you are a Muslim God. Had you been a Sikh God, you would have surely helped me out.”

A few days before the exchange was due to take place, a Muslim from Toba Tek Singh who happened to be a friend of Bishan Singh came to meet him. He had never visited him before. On seeing him, Bishan Singh tried to slink away, but the warder barred his way. “Don’t you recognize your friend Fazal Din?” he said. “He has come to meet you.” Bishan Singh looked furtively at Fazal Din, then started to mumble something. Fazal Din placed his hand on Bishan Singh’s shoulder. “I have been thinking of visiting you for a long time,” he said. “But I couldn’t get the time. Your family is well and has gone to India safely. I did what I could to help. As for your daughter, Roop Kaur” –he hesitated– “She is safe too in India.”

Bishan Singh kept quiet. Fazal Din continued: “Your family wanted me to make sure you were well. Soon you’ll be moving to India. Please give my salaam to bhai Balbir Singh and bhai Raghbir Singh and bahain Amrit Kaur. Tell Balbir that Fazal Din is well. The two brown buffaloes he left behind are well too. Both of them gave birth to calves, but, unfortunately, one of them died. Say I think of them often and to write to me if there is anything I can do.”

Then he added “Here, I’ve brought some plums for you.”

Bishan Singh took the gift from Fazal Din and handed it to the guard. “Where is Toba Tek Singh?” he asked.

“Where? Why, it is where it has always been.”

“In India or Pakistan?î

“In India no, in Pakistan.”

Without saying another word, Bishan Singh walked away, muttering “Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhyana the mung the dal of the Pakistan and India dur fittey moun.”

At long last the arrangements for the exchange were complete. The lists of lunatics who were to be sent over from either side were exchanged and the date fixed.

On a cold winter evening truckloads of Hindu and Sikh lunatics from the Lahore asylum were moved out to the Indian border under police escort. Senior officials went with them to ensure a smooth exchange. The two sides met at the Wagah border check-post, signed documents and the transfer got underway.

Getting the lunatics out of the trucks and handing them over to the opposite side proved to be a tough job. Some refused to get down from the trucks. Those who could be persuaded to do so began to run in all directions. Some were stark naked. As soon as they were dressed they tore off their clothes again. They swore, they sang, they fought with each other. Others wept. Female lunatics, who were also being exchanged, were even noisier. It was pure bedlam. Their teeth chattered in the bitter cold.

Most of the inmates appeared to be dead set against the entire operation. They simply could not understand why they were being forcibly removed to a strange place. Slogans of ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ and ‘Pakistan Murdabad’ were raised, and only timely intervention prevented serious clashes.

When Bishan Singh’s turn came to give his personal details to be recorded in the register, he asked the official “Where’s Toba Tek Singh? In India or Pakistan?”

The officer laughed loudly, “In Pakistan, of course.”

Hearing that Bishan Singh turned and ran back to join his companions. The Pakistani guards caught hold of him and tried to push him across the line to India. Bishan Singh wouldn’t move. “This is Toba Tek Singh,” he announced. “Uper the gur gur the annexe the be dyhana mung the dal of Toba Tek Singh and Pakistan.”

It was explained to him over and over again that Toba Tek Singh was in India, or very soon would be, but all this persuasion had no effect.

They even tried to drag him to the other side, but it was no use. There he stood on his swollen legs as if no power on earth could dislodge him. Soon, since he was a harmless old man, the officials left him alone for the time being and proceeded with the rest of the exchange.

Just before sunrise, Bishan Singh let out a horrible scream. As everybody rushed towards him, the man who had stood erect on his legs for fifteen years, now pitched face-forward on to the ground. On one side, behind barbed wire, stood together the lunatics of India and on the other side, behind more barbed wire, stood the lunatics of Pakistan. In between, on a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.

saadat hasan manto

you can read more about the partition of india in pankaj mishra’s book review in the new yorker. it’s called “exit wounds” – the legacy of indian partition.

india’s partition in film

last night i saw “garam hawa” (scorching winds) again. this film, based on an ismat chughtai short story, was released in 1973. it depicts the aftermath of india’s partition by focusing on the emotional and physical displacement of families. balraj sahni plays the lead role. he is an actor of immense stature. he was born in rawalpindi (now pakistan) and studied english literature at government college, lahore (just like both my parents, who graduated in 1964). government college lahore is the oldest college/university in pakistan. it was established in 1864 by the british and was affiliated with calcutta university. gottlieb wilhelm leitner (professor of arabic and mohammedan law at king’s college, london) was the college’s first principal.

sahni was unusually brilliant. he was an actor of great talent, an award-winning writer, a politically engaged man who believed in equality for all. in garam hawa he portrays an everyday muslim. salim mirza is a small shoe manufacturer living in his ancestral haveli (large mansion) along with his extended family. the time is post-partition, the place agra, india. one by one his family members leave for pakistan in the face of increasing discrimination and dwindling opportunities. salim sticks to his guns and refuses to get uprooted. however, things soon start to fall apart. he is evicted from the haveli, he is unable to obtain business credit, he is accused of being a spy, he is harrassed. the final straw is the suicide of his daughter, after she is abandoned by two successive suitors who move to pakistan. sahni imbues salim with much dignity. he is upright, honest to a fault and has the patience of a saint. his calm devotion to old-world principles, when that very world is disintegrating around him, is powerful and moving.

the film, made on a tiny budget, is shot cinéma vérité style. as bollywood films go, it is way ahead of its time. shot handheld for the most part, on location in a small neighborhood in agra and starring a slew of unknown actors (except for sahni of course), the film strives to be as realistic and authentic as possible. the script by kaifi azmi anchors that effort. surprisingly enough, garam hawa became a big commercial success. rather than take sides, it illuminates the hardship and pain of people being wrenched from their past, from their lives. it works at a very intimate level and is therefore much more effective in bringing people together by talking about their humanity.

the partition of india is an important and tragic chapter in human history. in india and pakistan, it triggered an explosion of literary and artistic works that tried to capture some of its anguish and trauma. more about that in my next post.

balraj sahni

pan’s labyrinth

only once in a while do you see a film with this level of artistry. pan’s labyrinth is dark, complex, beautiful, universal.

the film draws a parallel between the rule-bound simplicity of fairy tales and the brute force and finality of the real world. good is set against evil with the stark contrast of so many ombres chinoises. the film brings to life the horror and violence inherent in most fairy tales (a witch who eats children, a defenseless granny devoured by a wolf, a stepmother hiring an assassin to murder her daughter) in a way that shakes us out of our inurement. elements of a child’s fantasy are intermixed with recognizable reality – the ambiguity of war in the name of ideological certitude, operatic human cruelty, selfless sacrifice, revenge, loneliness, courage. this brew of what is beautiful and vile, innocent and grotesque, noble and bestial, magic and quotidian is unsettling yet irresistible. some of the scenes are shockingly graphic but one is compelled to watch, to be a participant in this perverse fable. the underlying musical theme is a haunting lullaby – again a collision between what’s deceptively comforting and child-like and the vicious adult world. it is a beautiful piece of music composed by javier navarrete – check it out:

john lennon

i’v been listening to the instant karma cds (part of amnesty intl’s campaign to save darfur) for a while now and i have fallen in love with john lennon, all over again. first of all kudos to the artists who participated in this project and produced some amazing music. i have to single out those who captured the spirit of the songs but also made them their own. to take songs that are as well-known, as well-loved and as meaningful to so many and be able to imbue them with one’s own brand of fire, one’s own musical vibe without compromising anything is huge.

U2’s “instant karma” is first on my list along with green day’s “working class hero”. the following are some of my other favorite john lennon song renditions: christina aguilera’s “mother” (she was perfect for this song – that ache in her voice), jake dylan and dhani harrison’s “gimme some truth” (brings back to life the passion of john lennon the activist), jackson browne’s “oh my love” (exquisite, tender, beautiful), youssou n’dour’s charming “jealous guy”, snow patrol’s “isolation” (haunting, very cool), regina spector’s excellent rendition of “real love”. this is truly a terrific assemblage of great songs performed by some very strong and stylistically diverse artists. you can now get the album for $16.99 from mtv.com. go for it!

john lennon

cafe colonial and the goog

while in nyc last february we had breakfast every morning at cafe colonial, 276 elizabeth st, at houston. the freshly squeezed orange juice, delicious omelets and fruit salads were a great start to the day. the decor is brazilian and the ambience very french. i highly recommned it.

we got a chance to see the “el greco to picasso” spanish painting exhibition at the goog. the guggenheim is stunning museum space. the exhibition was extraordinarily extensive and unique in how the artwork was displayed – rather than being chronological, the display was thematic and had no qualms about mixing up 5 centuries of spanish art. only when you see juan sanchez cotan’s classic “still life with fruits and vegetables” hanging right next to the modernist “still life with newspaper” by juan gris, that you begin to see the similarities. who would have thought that pablo picasso’s portraiture was somehow rooted in velasquez. it’s amazing how juxtaposition can lend a completely new meaning to art. it was the first time that we saw picasso not as a french painter but as an artist closely aligned with the spanish aesthetic.

velasquezpicasso

richard foreman

while in nyc, my friends and i went to see richard foreman’s “wake up mr sleepy! your unconscious mind is dead” at the ontological theater at st mark’s church. what an experience. first we were late (it took us a while to figure out how to navigate the nyc subway system). we literally ran out of our cab and rushed to the theater. after a couple of wrong turns and missed theater entrances, we finally got in. it was exactly 8pm. however, there had been a strong directive to arrive at least 15 minutes before the start of the play. as we tried to present our tickets, an old professorial-looking, bespectacled guy told us we were late and couldn’t get in. i tried to argue that it was 8pm sharp. he was adamant. we should have come earlier. one of my friend chose the “appeal to sympathy” approach and told him we had come all the way from rochester to see this play. finally he recanted. he told the usher to seat us on the narrow stairs, in between aisles. we were happy to sit anywhere. we later found out that our tormentor had been mr foreman himself.

the play was a multimedia, multi-layered work of art. my friend sarita likened the experience to stepping into an abstract painting.

in foreman’s own words: “will i be punished if i tell the truth about my motives? i want above all, to make a play that escapes what i see as the tunnel vision of unified subject matter – creating instead a play about ‘nothing’ except the evenly distributed grid of all things at once.

most plays are built with events, adventures, ideas. but i believe this focus has locked us all in a psychological/spiritual isolation chamber, fixated on the limited plateau of always inherited, second hand desire and experience.

i want instead –
TO MAKE A FASCINATING event that – through multilayered filigree of sound, image, light, verbal statement, gesture – makes that ‘texture’ be, all by itself, a new way of ‘being’ that creates or evokes a self no longer in need of the false ‘kick’ of events, no longer needing to latch onto focused intention. but a new self that can be energized in simply HOVERING over the field of total, evenly distributed ‘multi-possibility’.

does this sound like denying what has been the very basis of theater? so be it. but this is my aesthetic obsession, my love – to make ‘theater’ that spreads in the mind, spreads the mind itself, spreading evenly until there is… ‘nothing’? and yet one is thereby vibrating, and fulfilled.”

here’s the ny times review by ben brantley.

wake up mr sleepy!

wynton marsalis at the eastman theatre

just saw wynton marsalis, the jazz at lincoln center orchestra and ghanaian percussionist yacub addy’s nine member ensemble odadaa play their new composition “congo square”. during french colonial rule, congo square in new orleans, also called la place des negres, was where slaves were allowed to congregate on sundays. they could set up market and sing and dance. the more uptight english protestant states did not allow such unsupervised, “savage” freedom of expression. however, in new orleans congo square allowed slaves to create a community rich in african tradition. much of that music and dance tradition survives to this day. as marsalis explains: “any music with a rhythm section has roots in congo square. if it has a bass and drum together, the roots are in congo square”.

creating this bridge between african percussion-based music (including different drums and congas) and jazz as we know it today is what “congo square” strives to achieve. and how eloquently those ties are established in this jazz suite. the associations are strong yet complex, the transitions are clear yet elegant. marsalis credits bassist carlos henriquez for developing a sound rhythmic understructure that allows this effortless meshing of music.

all in all, the music was vigorous, the performances flawless, the atmosphere charged with energy. there were many standing ovations and much thunderous applause. wynton marsalis is the man!

congo square 1700s

untitled darfur play

talking of darfur, i was lucky to see “untitled darfur play” by winter miller as part of geva‘s hibernatus interruptus festival of new plays. that was oct 14th, 2006. this year in april the play made it to manhattan at the public theater. it is now titled “in darfur”. winter miller is a playwright as well as a research assistant to nicholas kristof, the pulitzer prize-winning ny times columnist. she has traveled to sudan with kristof. the play is an alejandro gonzalez innaritu-style pastiche of different stories that coalesce into a powerful whole. there is an american journalist trying to make a difference, an aid worker and a courageous darfuri woman. joanna settle directed the reading i went to. it was harrowing to experience a small slice of the violence being committed in darfur.

darfuri refugee in chad

working class hero

just saw the video by green day – it is arresting. the song is obviously john lennon gold. it’s part of an amnesty international campaign to stop the genocide in darfur. yoko ono donated all royalties from lennon’s song book to support this campaign. the resulting album, instant karma, has 20 john lennon covers by the likes of u2 and rem. you can buy it at amnesty’s website or by calling toll free 1-800-862-0411. check out green day’s powerful video: