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THEATRE EXPERIENCES IN BOROTALPADA
FABRIQUE DE L’ART n°5, Calcutta, Trimukhi Platform, 2022, p. 110-113.
I believe it’s enough for you to have followed this round table on our respective experiences in Borotalpada village to get an idea of the bizarreness of the person who conceived it and who also prevails in Borotalpada. Of course I mean my neighbour, Jean-Frédéric Chevallier. What did he do? He asked a photographer to talk about philosophical concepts, a philosopher to describe theatre dynamics, and a theatre specialist to speak about art in general and thought in particular… In other words, he placed each of us in a situation in which we can’t rely on the mastery of our skills. And this, I think, is a characteristic of what happens in Borotalpada village: people are unleashed. This is also something that has really interested me about this experience: there’s no mediation. We speak a great deal about “mediation” in cultural milieux. There’s a practical, and now, even theoretical enhancement that goes with the idea of “mediation”. Think of all those “mediators” that you see in museums these days. But one of the things that I’ve found very interesting in Borotalpada, and I think that can be sensed when reading texts in Fabrique de l’art issues, one thing that is also related to Jean-Frédéric Chevallier’s idea of theatre, the “theatre of presentation” as he says, and not representation, is precisely that there is no mediation. There is a search for something direct – without it being the belief in some encounter with an authenticity of reality that has supposedly been there waiting for us for all eternity, and even less so, an encounter with an authenticity of the “subject”. No, it’s more a technique of stripping people of their bearings, to dispossess them of their own coordinates, if only a little. Quite simply, it’s a way to open up movements in directions as varied as there are starting points, in other words, persons. Instead of guiding you to a point thought out for you, an experience is set up, a connection, and we see what more or less aberrant movements unfold in this situation. This, for me, is closely linked to Borotalpada – this place where precisely no one stays in his or her own place.
So imagine the situation in which I found myself – and I think that my experience is similar to that of most of the people who went along there. I’ve often been invited to give lectures, namely during Nights of Philosophy, Nights of Ideas, and also nothing-at-all nights that were nonetheless excellent evenings. I’ve done this sort of thing in New York, London, Casablanca, Athens, Tokyo, etc. Then, one day, the department in charge of exporting French culture to the world called me to say, “Fantastic, this year, for the Night of Ideas, we don’t want you to go to Los Angeles but Borotalpada.”
– “Bo-ro-tal-pa-da. You don’t know where it is but that’s normal. It’s a Santhal village in the middle of Bengal, a few hundred kilometres from Calcutta. You have to travel four hours on a track to get there. We thought it was the place for you…”
– “Oh, really!?”
I admit: I’d never heard of Santhals. Even though we’re talking about a population of more than eight million inhabitants, in other words roughly the size of Belgium. It’s one of those populations that the Indian administration classifies as “Tribal”, outside the caste system and apparently originating from the indigenous populations invaded thousands of years ago by Aryans. In short, they’re Indian Indians, if I can put it that way. Now, as the culture department has its sources, they knew that I’m interested in anthropology. Not that I’m an anthropologist, but I’m interested in anthropology as a philosopher. And what interests me in anthropology, is precisely the endeavour to make diversity the operator of a knowledge. So, I was very interested to see what this theatre and philosophy experience in a Santhal village – that is, among an “autochthon” people (as we say these days) in a big country from the “fringes” or the “peripheries” (as we used to say) – could be about. It interested me because it was clear that the phenomenon of “culture” in such an experience couldn’t be a direct expression of the place, according to a type of ever-individualising folklorism, nor the expansion of some universal truth of art, according to a type of necessarily colonial universalism. I said to myself, “Hang on, over there they must be inventing something that exists nowhere else.” And this something that exists nowhere else is something that I’ve long been striving to create in my work – it’s something that only the world makes, the world on the scale of our differences, a world that is no longer composed like a pie chart consisting of slices and wholes, but a multiplicity of entangled becomings doomed to overlap with one another on the same Earth…
So I said “yes”. Then I arrived at the village. I’d like to describe this experience as it was really quite unique, leaving such a strong impression on me. We call Borotalpada a “village”. But my own idea of a village was more based on the villages in Burgundy or Normandy in France. See what I mean? You have to forget these associations. Here, it’s a dirt road with enclosures on either side surrounding pretty mud houses with smooth brown walls. Plus, we soon realise that these enclosures don’t necessarily correspond to single properties, that several houses share the one enclosure, and that it’s not that easy to know what “property” means here. Anyway, there are what we can call yards. Here and there, on the side of the road, a well. Which means no running water. When we say that we were “houseguests”, don’t imagine that we’re talking about a guest room. There’s no guest room. In fact, there’s no bed. Most of the time, these houses hold no more than a single room and mats are taken out at night to sleep on the veranda created by the thatch roof jutting out a bit over the wall. On the other hand, you are hosted with a kindness that is simply matter of fact; you get the impression that everything has been decided in advance. If you like, you can break the silence and embark on a conversation with your hosts, a conversation of the sort one tends to have when there is no common language; that is, a conversation made up of gestures, laughters and Santhali lessons. So this is where the world-famous “Borotalpada Cultural Centre” is found. In fact it’s a house like the others, just at the end of the road, near a large banyan tree that casts a pleasant shade. Inside, two rooms. In front, a stage consisting of an earthen platform, in the same ochre earth from which the houses are made. You ask yourself: “Is that the stage?” That’s right, that’s the stage, but also the tree branches surrounding it, the path that leads to the lake, the lake itself, because the performance – this is one of the most striking things – takes place a little bit everywhere. At one moment, the tree is lit up, something happens in its foliage. Then it’s in the prairie behind, you have to go there. I belong to a generation – perhaps it can be put this way – that was deeply impressed by productions by Romeo Castellucci or Rodrigo Garcia, by what is known as théâtre de plateau (theatre made from the stage, not from the book). I had come to accept this, in the previous ten or so years, as the height of chic as far as theatre was concerned. But then, I see something like this, except that it’s in a Santhal village, and produced by village people, largely for them, with them, in other words, with coordinates that aren’t those of the art market widely speaking. The question that strikes me straight away is this: who is all this addressed to? Who is summoned to this performance and around it?
Right, good question: who is there on the spot? Well, there are people like me, in short, invited guests. They come from all over the world: there are French people, Canadians, Mexicans, Germans, Japanese… There are also, of course, many village locals, if not perhaps the whole village: it’s a village festival. There are also people from a nearby Bengali town: they’re not Santhals, they’re not part of the village or even the Santhal community, but they’ve come for the entertainment – I imagine that for some it’s a yearly outing. And there are people who have been brought over from Calcutta by bus and train. Those are the only ones who register in advance and pay their entry. They are “spectators” in the full sense of the term, in other words the only spectators probably rightly speaking, among this dense audience. What interested me right away was that the performance fabricated a public that is completely unique in the world, a public with no shared language, no shared cultural references, and yet that manages to find, through these performances, for the time of an evening, something in common, without having any common codes, which allows them to univocally decipher this something. From this, and in a strange encounter with possibly the most radical research in 20th century theatre, we can only be dealing with a performance free from recognition of any type – recognition of a stage, of a story, of characters. All this is impossible as we don’t share a prior knowledge that the performance could let us to recognise. Hence what Jean-Frédéric calls “theatre of presentation” or “theatre of presenting.” We don’t really know if the actors are playing a role or if they’re playing themselves. Sometimes it’s a role, sometimes it’s themselves. Sometimes there’s dance, sometimes all sorts of rituals. Sometimes it seems to be a game: the young actors and actresses smile at one another. Then, like in Try Me Under Water, there are videos projected, an entire scenography fills the landscape. One of the most beautiful things in Borotalpada is the way videos take up space: we’re never sure where they might appear. There are also several languages: English, French, Santhal, perhaps Bengali. Fragments of existing langages that different people can capture but that no-one, or almost no-one, can fully grasp. And from all this emerge types of narrative motifs, embryos of narratives, like ghost stories that never reach full individuation, but that, through this, even acquire a greater resonance. For example, in 2017, in Essay on Seasonal Variation in Santhal Society, there was something about a young woman, apparently from the village, who committed suicide. The story couldn’t be fully understood, but we sensed that it had the dimension of a local tragedy, a village tragedy. And that’s when I strongly felt this: that it wasn’t just a performance addressed at “us”, spectators from far away or from Calcutta, but that at the same time, we were witnesses of something that the people were addressing to themselves – as if what was happening here was what our studies told us theatre should be: a conversation that a group has with itself.
And of course, I wasn’t just a spectator, but also an actor. In 2017, it was only during a type of round table organised between moments of the real performance. But in 2018, I embarked on the whirlwind of performance myself. And it was the same sort of idea: the way you get caught in the mise-en-scène is in no way mediated.You’re delivered to the stage. Men and Women performed Santhal dances while I was supposed to proclaim a text that I was asked to write beforehand on “what are your flows of intensity?”(in fact, it started off with this somewhat abstract question, later rectified into: “tell us what makes you get up from bed each morning”). So there I am declaiming this text which is immediately translated into Santhali by one of my hosts, to whom I more or less pass the megaphone. What can we rely on to carry out such a performance? Well basically, the rhythm, and nothing else. So I got the feeling that the situation where the philosophical text I had prepared was proclaimed, brought out something from within it, something which could still get through even when the meaning wasn’t understood: a rhythm. This, doubtless, is a general truth about what happens in Borotalpada: it’s an encounter experience where every party must learn to rely on rhythms. I feel that what makes these performances work, what lends them their type of consistency, is a rhythmic consistency. The different media, the different languages, the different people will have, for a fleeting yet adequate moment, one or several shared rhythms. I don’t just mean the stage elements. I’m talking about everything, about all of us there, and perhaps even the trees and the stars passing by too, the sputters of motorbikes coming and going, and the movements of the crowd, gathering and dispersing in the night to go from one place to another. Attention to the performance also becomes a matter of rhythm. Perhaps one of the most striking moments in 2018, for me, was the choreographic performances by Japanese dancer Ikue Nakagawa: her solo Nakami and then Aboard which Jean-Frédéric directed for her. At that moment, everyone, absolutely everyone, turned their attention to what she was doing, and I’d say that almost all paid the same degree of attention. This is not always the case for the performances that don’t demand it. Those others allow more or less fluttering attention: they grab you, they let you relax, we move from one spot to another, some stop in front of a type of stage in a shrub, others keep going, etc. But around Ikue’s performances, we really were all together, in rhythm.
So there you have a few elements to recreate the experience, or the staging, or the arrangement in space, in which conceptual production and theoretical discourse were taken as one of the material fragments that were brought together in an ensemble of rhythms.
This, in Borotalpada, is what I wanted to say I witnessed.
WHAT GLOBAL ART MIGHT LOOK LIKE
FABRIQUE DE L’ART n°3/4, Calcutta, Trimukhi Platform, 2017-2018, p. 100-103.
I didn’t expect what I found in Borotalpada Santhal village during Night of Theatre 9 • La Nuit des Idées. And surprise is the true sign of an experience. Trimukhi Platform is not simply a theatre company; it is the set up for a total experience. It constantly interrogate those who go through it about what they are actually attending to. On the one hand, what I saw in Borotalpada in January 2017 – more specifically the two parts performance Essay on Seasonal Variation in Santhal Society and Try Me Under Water – was very much like what I can see today in Paris best theater places, like the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris or other national venues: it was contemporary theater at its best, which means not the live adaptation of a text, but rather a kind of choreography of live audiovisual effects in a real space, using all the elements by which a scene can be produced today, video, sound, performances, voice, sing, lights, etc. What I saw in this small village of West Bengal sustains very well the comparison with performances staged by world famous directors like Castelucci, Marthaler, Pommerat, or Rodrigo Garcia.
There were, however, a few differences. First, it was not staged in a theater room, but at the edge of a village. There is a stage, built by the company, in front of Trimukhi Cultural Centre, but the performance constantly overflows its supposed limits. At one time it appears on the side, and it goes behind the spectators, and then again we have to follow it down to the nearby lake where a screen waited for us in the water. It was impossible to distinguish, eventually, whether small events were or not part of the show. The entire night started playing for us, with us.
But there another, more significant difference. Those young men and women who perform here are not professional actors. They are delegated by the villagers to give this performance. This performance is not aimed at an external audience: it is something people do for themselves. Therefore I wondered: is this theater? Is this theater in the sense I understand it when I’m in Paris. Is not Trimukhi Platform a very subtle machine aimed at producing misunderstandings. Misundersandings in the sense that of course we can all share this experience in its beauty and power. But the place for that experience in our world is not the same. This is not simply a show; it is life continued. And the way it is played confirmed this intuition. Performers don’t try to play at being anyone else; they are exactly what they give us to see. They are young Santhali villagers and true contemporary artists. They belong to (at least) two worlds at the same time, two worlds that precisely communicate at the moment of this performance. In the very confusion in which we all find ourselves at this moment, a common place is cleared. This common place is not the end of everything. It is only the beginning. Starting from this experience, the very question of our differences can now be raised. Those differences don’t preexist to this experience. They only exist as far as we are ready to go in the exploration of this savvy misunderstanding. What is at stake here is the very sense it makes to do theater – and even more generally to experience “art”. The problematic nature of this experience comes to the fore in the question whether we share exactly in the same experience, we, that is: the performers and me, but also the villagers who are here to attend to the performance and who contribute to it if only by welcoming me and the other invitees, but also the people from the nearby town who have come to attend to the show too as well as the spectators who came from Kolkata by bus. This unlikely “we” only exist because of the show. And each part of this “we” now has to redefine itself by the particular way it belongs to this we. No one comes back unaltered from Borotalpada.
Trimukhi Platform is made for that: so that differences be not anymore given borders between already existing groups, but lines of fault that traverse each one of us. In a globalised world, Trimukhi represents an alternative to the standardized devastation of the world. Not because it vindicates the purity of each particularity; Trimukhi does not bother with authentic ethnicity and what it offers, as I have said, could very well exist in Avignon or Wuppertal. But it creates a common ground that is not preempted by one interpretation. For this reason we can say it is “global”. The global is not one and the same reality for everyone. The global is what we have to share and that in which we have to replay our differences. I think I have witnessed maybe for the first time in my life, in the small village of Borotalpada, in West Bengal, what global art of the future might look like.
A LIGHT IN THE DARK
THE TELEGRAPH, Calcutta, 17/01/2018, p. 100-103.
It is so utterly dark that you need to reassure yourself that you possess a right hand by reaching out and touching it with your left. The others who are gathered with you are absent presences – they cannot be called ‘shadowy presences’, for there are no shadows here, only varying degrees of darkness. Then something happens — maybe a sound begins taking on something approaching articulate shape somewhere to your left, or perhaps a beam of light from a torch illuminates the figure of a woman a hundred metres away carrying something on her head, or then again it might be a bunch of strange luminous caterpillar-like objects flying up into the air and falling back again into what seems the illimitable earth. Or, maybe it is all three at once. You remind yourself that this is not some kind of bizarre psychedelic dream but a performance you are watching, over 200 kilometres from your city home, on the edge of a remote Santhal village in Paschim Medinipur, with no ambient electric light interfering with your peripheral vision and the broad, star-burst sky spread out above you. It’s close to midnight and you’ve been travelling and sitting, and watching, and listening, and talking since eleven in the morning – thirteen hours gone and you are still struggling to take it all in. But it is a struggle that you engage in willingly for this is something that you have never experienced before. Unexpected and strange in a myriad ways, but also reassuringly familiar and intimate, rather like an extended adda with newly-acquired friends.
This, more or less, is part of the experience of anyone who attends one of Trimukhi Platform’s “Nights of Theatre” – a night-long celebration of the human spirit through performance and laughter and joyous conviviality that leads to thinking (and thinking through) some aspects of life and living that one does not often encounter in a performance. It happens every winter, around Pous Sankranti, and this year it is scheduled to take place on January 27.
The three facets of Trimukhi Platform’s work invoke “artistic creation, thought generation and social action” — a triumvirate that Jean-Frédéric Chevallier, Trimukhi’s artistic director, stresses must not be separated, but seen as three sides of an integrated whole. Chevallier, a Frenchman who has lived in India for the past decade (and is married to a Bengali), is a trained philosopher, with a doctoral degree from the Sorbonne, Paris, and a decade’s experience as a university teacher, first at the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris and then for seven years at the National University of Mexico. He turned his back on the safety of his cushy job in Mexico to come and work in a place that does not even register as peripheral to us city-folk.
When introduced to Jean-Frédéric nearly a decade ago by Ananda Lal, professor of English at Jadavpur University, a man who has forgotten more about theatre than I will ever know, I was immediately suspicious – what was this White man with the aristocratic surname ( chevalier = knight, in French), and a doctorate from Paris, doing in some back-of-beyond tribal village in distant Paschim Medinipur? Was he some kind of neo-Orientalist evangelist, who had come to our backwater to ‘civilize the savage’? Was he out to stake claim to uncharted (for Western academics) territory in hope of future fame? Talking to the polite and graceful young(ish) man allayed my suspicions somewhat. It seemed all he wanted was to know if he could put up a performance at Jadavpur University which seemed innocent enough. But when I began to ask him what his requirements were, my suspicions were aroused again. What kind of auditorium did his team need? No need for an auditorium, said Chevallier. What about lights, sound, and so on? Nothing. Nothing at all. What kind of theatre was this, I wondered? Could it be called theatre at all?
What we saw on January 24, 2009, was an astonishing performance that took place in the ground-floor corridors of the UG Arts Building of Jadavpur University, with hand-held torches doing the illuminating, unamplified human voices speaking (or singing), and a marvellously evocative poetic presentation that was unlike anything I had seen before. I still have the note Jean-Frédéric sent me before that performance, nine years ago: “Why not think about theatre as an act of presentation that brings into play movement, energy? Then, attention is drawn to the relationship created between the stage space and the spectator space. What comes out of this in-between space – what is produced by the creation of an in-between space – can be viewed as symbolic, not in the common sense of the expression (‘this symbolizes that’) but rather in its etymological sense: ‘this (the symbol) relates that (the actor) with that (the spectator)’.”
It was this that prompted Jean-Frédéric to suggest to fifteen people from Borotalpada that they collectively produce an experimental stage work, which finally took form and shape as Monsoon Night Dream. It had no characters, no story to speak of, no conflict, merely an invitation to contemplate, in a simple, direct fashion, the presence of seven women, three men and four musicians who, sometimes, performed quotidian actions from their daily lives, sometimes parts of dances, or sometimes just stood there, looking straight at the audience. Intriguingly, this very non-dramatic-ness created its own narrative/s, with each member of the audience taking away from the performance his/her own personalized story. In the process, Trimukhi Platform not only successfully built a bridge between two very different sets of cultures and peoples but it also became a means to enjoy, celebrate and partake of the diversity of our part of the world.
In the nine years since then, Trimukhi’s performances have often been followed by sessions of intense sharing of thoughts, ideas, opinions, from members of the audience and between them and the performers. More remarkably, their productions are no longer the brain children of Jean-Frédéric or Sukla; several pieces have been created by members of Trimukhi Platform, with or without inputs from their director, making their works truly collaborative creations.
Naturally, this has piqued interest from others working within (both ‘with’ and ‘in’) diverse performative traditions and forms – the Nights of Theatre have seen contributions from across the globe, with dancers, musicians, sound-artists, philosophers and theatre practitioners spending time at Borotalpada with members of Trimukhi Platform, and their extended village ‘family’, to create innovative forms of expression. Nights of Theatre are now followed soon after by Nights of Ideas, both possessing a certain graceful, non-confrontational charm that made the French philosopher, Patrice Maniglier, ask, after last year’s Night of Theatre, “I wondered: is this theatre… in the sense I understand it when I’m in Paris? Is not Trimukhi Platform a very subtle machine aimed at producing misunderstandings? Misunderstandings in the sense that of course we can all share this experience in its beauty and power. But the place for that experience in our world is not the same. This is not simply a show; it is life continued. And the way it is played confirmed this intuition. Performers don’t try to play at being anyone else; they are exactly what they give us to see. They are young Santhali villagers and true contemporary artists. They belong to (at least) two worlds at the same time, two worlds that precisely communicate at the moment of this performance. In the very confusion in which we all find ourselves at this moment, a common place is cleared. This common place is not the end of everything. It is only the beginning. Starting from this experience, the very question of our differences can now be raised.”
It is time now perhaps for those closer to Paschim Medinipur to subject Trimukhi Platform’s work to similar critical scrutiny.
MY DISCOVERY OF TRIMUKHI PLATFORM
for the launch of FABRIQUE DE L’ART n°3/4 at Ashoka University, 01/02/2019.
What I experienced with Trimukhi Platform was completely unexpected and actually threw almost every received notion I had about art and performance into question. At one level there was the sophistication and the beauty of the performance which had me engrossed and enthralled throughout its duration. At another level there was the post-performance shock as it suddenly dawned upon me that I had never entertained the thought that this particular type of performance-generated beauty could/would come from a rural group of people living and working in a rural environment. I must admit that ever since then I have been feverishly wondering about accepted ideas of education, aesthetics, social justice, welfare, etc. both in a larger sense as well as in connection with my own arts-related activities.
For the students at Ashoka University also, the experience was a mild jolt to say the least. The post-performance discussion saw a very eager and well-meaning professor trying to box Trimukhi Platform into a series of seductively conceptual rubrics, but Jean-Frédéric Chevallier and the other members of the group consistently refused to be boxed in — and this too with big smiles all around!
I heartily endorse the truly innovative work Trimukhi is engaged in doing. The stimulating, challenging course they follow opens up human communication in both simple and sophisticated ways. And the coupling of the twin powers of philosophy and performance is particularly potent and stimulating with Trimukhi.