There is no need for us to worry about Tiatr. The now century old tradition is alive and kicking and shows no sign of slowing down. If there is one thing that needs to be addressed, however, it is the practice of shaming that Tiatr is often subject to. Too often, Tiatr is compared to Indian drama forms that were formed in the course of the anti-imperial nationalist movement in British India. These drama forms took a good amount of inspiration from Western European traditions and sought to articulate similar plays in vernacular mediums. A part of this process was to also ‘purify’ vernacular dramatic traditions. Thus, art forms like Bhavai in Gujarat, Tamasha in Maharashtra were sought to be made ‘respectable’. What is often not discussed, however, is that both the nationalist movement as well as these attempts in the theatrical world were often made by upper-caste persons. Their attempt was to assert upper-caste control over the art form and determine what was acceptable and what not. In this process, the subaltern caste groups who had birthed these art forms were excluded on the basis of their lack of aesthetic refinement and ‘vulgarity’. Where these subaltern groups did not submit meekly to upper-caste assertions, these performers were shamed most vigorously and systematically. This is also true of Tiatr. Indeed, a critical reading of the history of Tiatr would suggest that the form was born from the attempt to clean up the Khell that were being performed by migrant Goan groups in Bombay. Fortunately, however, once the form of the Tiatr was set up, the subaltern Goan groups reasserted their control over the art form. This reassertion is at the root of the constant criticism that Tiatr draws; that it is lacking in standard.
In recent times it has become somewhat commonsensical to lay the blame for this shaming at the doorstep of the proponents of Nagari Konkani. While this may be politically expedient, this is not the whole truth. Tiatr is often shamed by its own proponents, largely because they have internalised the criticisms levelled by persons from the broader Indian nationalist theatrical traditions. Take, for instance, an anecdote about the tiatrist Prem Kumar that is often recounted by Tiatr activists. The story goes that Prem Kumar once took Vasant Joglekar, a significant name from the world of Marathi theatre to watch a tiatr at P.T. Bhangwadi. The tiatr apparently had a scene where the home of a landlord was shown against the backdrop of a jungle. Joglekar must have responded derisively to this juxtaposition of a landlord’s home against a jungle because Prem Kumar is reported to have been ‘put to shame’ by Joglekar’s reaction which initiated Prem Kumar’s lifelong quest to ‘uplift’ the Konkani stage.
What is tragic in this scenario is that Joglekar’s sensibilities were seen as beyond question, rather than limited by his own agendas and cultural background. Unfortunately confined by brahmanical sensibilities and nationalist anxieties perhaps he missed crucial clues in the backdrop?
I recently had the opportunity to view Mario Meneze’s Suicide at a Tiatr festival in Velsão-Pale and was struck by the backdrops that were used in the course of the Tiatr. The curtain that was used when the Cantarist came on was of a scene of the city of London with the famous Tower Bridge as the centre. Curiously, it was marked by a very Goan balustrade that framed the lower length of the curtain. The second interesting background, used to indicate the environment outside of the house of the protagonist was of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Now one could, like Tendulkar scoff at these backdrops. For example, why London? And if London, why that Goan balustrade in the scene? Can they not be realistic in their depiction? Worse still, Menezes is writing a play about Goa, and allows for a scene from Berlin to depict the Goan village space? Does he have no sense of geography? Alternatively, one could put aside one’s prejudices, and look at these backdrops anew and realise that they are testament to the cosmopolitan world that the Goan lives in.
Realism in theatre is highly over-rated. Theatre is not real life; it is a representation of reality, and as such, relies profoundly on symbols. I would like to read the curtains used at the staging of Suicide as the example of the sophisticated use of symbols. The Goan balustrade running through the bottom of that first curtain was not a mistake. On the contrary it symbolised the Goan’s view on the world. For close to two centuries now Goans have been migrant workers going beyond the subcontinent to the world at large. Indeed, so wide is the diaspora that London now stands in for what Bombay represented earlier; a second home for Goans. In such a scenario, that balustrade symbolises Goan ownership of that London vista. It tells to the audience that the migrant Goan may be out of Goa, working in London, but she or he is still firmly rooted within Goa. They inhabit both worlds.
Similarly the Brandenburg gate. To read the backdrop literally would be to miss the wider point that theatre is capable of making. Given that this curtain was used to denote the outside of the home, it made a very nuanced point. Berlin is indeed a part of the Goan outside. But once again, it is an outside that is still sensible to a Goan audience many of whom have friends and family who are widely travelled.
These symbols are often lost on those who are concerned about the lack of standard in Tiatr. The loss is largely because the audience of the Tiatr is itself not respected. They are seen as lacking in sophistication and needing to be taught high culture. What the crusaders for the uplift of Tiatr’s standard don’t seem to recognise, however, is that in their zeal to emulate the theatre forms inspired by Indian nationalism they are limiting their own perspectives. They fail to see that the cultural realm of the Goan is not limited to Goa or to India. It encompasses the world. This world is not simply placed up on a stage and worshipped. Rather, it is consumed, digested and then regurgitated so that like the Tower Bridge and the Brandenburg gate, they seem to be the most natural thing in a village in South Goa.
(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 23 May 2014)