Amitesh Grover’s The Last Poet
Supplementary body: Looking Back; The Team, the Process and the Virtual; Time and Domesticity; Myth, Memory, Witnessing; The Collective
Assembling in Isolation: The Politics of Virtual Performance in Amitesh Grover’s The Last Poet
Amitesh Grover in conversation with Trina Nileena Banerjee
In her essay “Save As… Knowledge and Transmission in the Age of Digital Technologies”, Diana Taylor writes: “…the embodied, the archival, and the digital overlap and work together and mutually construct each other. We have always lived in a ‘mixed reality.’” Amitesh Grover’s Cyber-Theatre production –The Last Poet – was commissioned by the Serendipity Arts Foundation in 2020. It premiered at the festival, which was held virtually because of the Covid-19 pandemic, in December of the same year. The ‘mixed reality’ that Taylor had signalled towards in pre-pandemic times had become even more complex and difficult to navigate in a world where suddenly, all public assembly was forbidden. It was not long ago that theorists like Judith Butler had reflected on the crucial role of performance and public assembly in contemporary politics the world over. Butler’s post-2011 essays examined the various ‘occupy’ movements that had shaken up the world since the ‘Arab Spring’. It was impossible to deny the role of the digital (especially social media sites) in providing the impetus for the concerted physical occupation of public spaces by masses of unorganized citizens in different cities across the world since 2011. However, Butler had also discerned a significant shift towards a new kind of corporeal politics in these movements, where traditionally gendered notions of public and private had begun to be broken down. Since 2014, India has seen several waves of such protests. These are movements that have involved the continuous and arguably spontaneous occupation of urban and semi-urban public spaces by large groups of people – students, workers, farmers and others – determined to place their critical political demands before a recalcitrant government. In late 2019 and early 2020, an as-yet unprecedented occupation of a public square was begun in Shaheen Bagh, located in a colony of Okhla in South Delhi. The occupiers were primarily Muslim women, protesting the unconstitutional imposition of the discriminatory and communal Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register for Citizens by the repressive central government. The women of Shaheen Bagh were joined by many others – activists, artists, students, intellectuals and ordinary citizens – men and women belonging to diverse religions and communities. Shaheen Bagh shook the nation out of its ennui, sparking similar gatherings of women across the nation. It was only with the sudden and unplanned lockdown following the beginning of the pandemic in India, that the government was able to entirely shut down these protests, while causing the uprooting, immiseration and death of numerous migrant workers across the country. The period after the lockdown also saw a series of targeted and draconian arrests of artists, activists and intellectuals across the country. With little recourse to public protests for citizens, many of these arbitrary incarcerations escaped the public accountability they may have otherwise had.
It is with these political events in the background and the Covid-19 pandemic raging through the country, in a situation where all live performances had effectively been discontinued, that Grover conceived his project The Last Poet. It came together, from the start, as a collaboration between a team of digital scenographers, programmers, creative technicians, actors and Grover’s dramaturg – writer and playwright Sarah Mariam. Consequently, the play reflects the precarity as well as the political and affective desperation that irredeemably marked these bleak times. As Mariam wrote the script, Grover encouraged her to add more stories to an ever-expanding and floating city of memories. More stories meant more characters: performers playing an ever-growing array of individuals, telling infinitely flowing tales, moving from one memory into another – like rivers that could begin and end anywhere. It was a universe of ‘multilogues’ – simultaneously live-streaming from several virtual rooms – stories of diverse crises, loves, intimacies, isolations and hopes. The introductory note to the play describes the project: “The Last Poet is a Cyber-Theatre production, featuring five actors. It is staged in a 3D Generative World integrated with multiple simultaneous live streams and interactive features. The experience is unique every time for each audience member taking them through different pathways and narratives via a real-time algorithm. It is a multi-layered art form with theatre, film, sound art, creative coding, digital scenography, and live performance. This work is an attempt to explore ideas of democratic theatre in cyber culture; it is a digital broadcast accessible to all. It is arguably India’s first genre-bending broadcast of theatre-on-the-internet.”
The Last Poet, from its first minute in performance, affectively reproduces the acute political despair and isolation of the terrible times from which it is born. Fear and suspicion rule this world. The spectator, like a player on a capricious journey in a dystopic virtual space, moves unpredictably from one dimly-lit room to another, encountering scenes where one man – a poet, a father, a loner, a lover, a teacher – is being remembered in many different ways. But is it truly one man who is being mourned, celebrated and loathed by turns? Or do we encounter a palimpsest of faces, voices and lives lived – of poets, rebels and artists in incarceration – emerging through these multiple acts of remembering, denouncing and memorialising? Do we hear an out-of-sync chorus of ghostly voices resonating and uncannily amplified against the state’s systematic and deliberate erasure of disturbing political realities? What are these realities? A tale about a mythical man? A lament mourning the disappearance of many exceptional artists who crafted language into agony in times of stifling repression? How do we remember those who were simply ruled out of existence in history? Such are the questions we encounter in this world.
From the very beginning of The Last Poet (and there are many simultaneous beginnings), the spectator is aware of her position as a voyeur much more acutely than in an ordinary performance space (gallery, proscenium or street). She is looking at faces she does not know in intimate proximity, hearing strange voices tell secret stories she does not immediately understand. This unfiltered nearness, in spite of the materiality of the mediating screen, is viscerally disturbing. By making one virtual choice or the other, blindly – much like in life, the spectator enters intimate spaces where she does not belong. She eavesdrops on stories of love, longing and desperation that she feels she is not meant to hear. In this world, people – citizens, lovers, daughters, friends, rivals, neighbours, students, journalists – have been imprisoned in their separate cubicles. A room is merely a video camera and a screen, the speeches delivered and the stories told are not conversations: they are only simulacra – reverberations – of a moment of listening and understanding that never actually took place. Each encounter feels like a secret rendezvous – at times ominous and claustrophobic, at others intimate and gut-wrenching. The characters whisper clandestine tales – private mythologies and long-buried confessions – sometimes regurgitating them breathlessly, without a pause, as if driven onward by some hidden compulsion (the game/the program/the algorithm?). Do the speakers see their anonymous listeners? Do the actors imagine an exchange of gazes, as they look at their own faces reflected back to them on their personal screens? Recounting stories to themselves in their private rooms, as we all often do, these storytellers are prodded by the spectral presence of invisible others – namely, us – to choose one qissa or intimate memory over another. The spectator casts her vote – “What would you like to hear about next: a wound, a butterfly, a photograph”? Does the performer move like an android at her command? Or does he resist? Does the story have a life of its own? How many anonymous others are there? Is this veiled intimacy a trick that hides the secret of a missed encounter? Having once been missed, how many times will this impossible meeting be replayed? Whose memories are really at stake?
The floating city is a hall of mirrors where another past is reflected: a past where people met at demonstrations, read poetry and sang together in intimate gatherings, or exchanged glances in the corridors of universities. This is no longer that world. The city of The Last Poet is elegiac, it is dislocated, it mourns and it despairs. The rooms are uprooted, the characters fearful and alone, and even in a futuristic dystopia, they are caught irrevocably in the past. They are many isolated feet walking the same roads alone while staying completely still. This is the paradox of the floating city: no one ever goes anywhere. Yet everything is forever in flux, desperately uncertain.
All the narrators, in their separate tooms, remember a poet they had once known. Are they the same poet? Or many different poets who were once incarcerated without cause or explication, guilty of crimes that no one was quite sure about? Who were they? What were the proper names that are never mentioned in the play? Lorca? Faiz Ahmad Faiz? Varavara Rao? Habib Jalib? We do not know. Yet, the poet’s invisible prison, a place we never see, is reflected in the prisons of all of these little rooms. The forced physical incarceration is also psychological imprisonment in the past – a life remembered in isolation, where the world was still robust and lives were lived fully in their ripe sensual plenitude. Yet, it is in this diseased and decaying world that we find ourselves materially imprisoned through the course of Grover’s play. It is a world that laments and licks at its wounds. The spectator has the choice of escaping, of exiting the game as it were. She may choose to release herself from a single room that gets too claustrophobic or the totalizing imprisonment offered by this performance altogether. Yet, she remains, morbidly mesmerised by the unfolding nightmare. The characters remind her of wounded animals: they are spectres whirling in a dislocated world – uprooted from cities of the past, unable to congregate or hear other voices, assembling in isolation the fragments of times gone by. In a way, they are just like her, confined as she is in her cubicle, imprisoned and transfixed by her own flat screen. If this is not an experience of shared corporeality, what is? How do we then understand the live and the virtual? We are in this now together, but are we here? In the same place? Where is that place, if our screens separate us materially and irrevocably?
The Last Poet, if anything, is a puzzle. It is also elegiac and claustrophobic. It is a strange glitch in our experience of time: a paradox. It desperately clings to the debris of the past, even as it hurls us into a nightmarish future. As spectators/players, we all have innumerable choices. But just as in a free market, we are all ultimately and effectively imprisoned.
What follows is an interview-based exploration of the themes, formal imperatives, techniques and political motivations that shape The Last Poet as an experiment in cyber-theatre. The conversation, which developed through a series of virtual meetings between myself and Grover in the months between late 2021 and early 2022, attempts to understand what really happens during a cyber performance. How do our bodies, as spectators, relate to the here and now? Where, if at all, is presence? What is the specificity of embodied experience in a digital performance? How do we understand the materiality of the screen? What does it do to our bodies as spectators and performers? Our conversation also explores the moulding and reshaping of space in such a performance, reflecting parallelly on the strange collapse of private and public spaces that the social experience of the pandemic has brought upon us. How do homes become theatres in a performance such as this? How do we socially experience space in the post-pandemic virtual world, where, according to Grover, ‘the private’ has almost entirely disappeared?
We will examine the processes that built the narratives and spaces in this performance: from the writing of the first scenarios to the making of the final scenographic decisions. What kind of audience was envisioned in this making, and what would be the nature of their collective experience? How might we reconfigure the ideas of democracy and public space in these circumstances? What are the political and ethical implications of spectatorship in such a scenario? Most crucially, however, the conversation will attempt to analyse, in collaboration with Grover, how the virus and its social implications have folded into the political reality of our times. Do the fragmentations we experience in our daily lives resonate with the physical desperation forced upon us by the pandemic? How do we now understand our monadic existence and the collective experience of our singular bodies on static screens? How might performance reimagine a political collective in such a world? How might we reassemble in virtual isolation to imagine a more robust political future for ourselves and our communities? How can we look for and find our disappeared poets in this floating city? In places, I have interspersed our conversation with my subsequent reflections (in italics), which can be read as notes on an evolving dialogue that has not yet come to a close. Or as a third voice that subtitles what is said by pushing it onwards towards other conjunctures: past and future. As Grover and I agreed at the end of our sessions, much like the floating city in The Last Poet, this is an ever-expanding exchange that promises to proliferate in directions beyond our immediate reach. Against finitude and closure then, this conversation on storytellers in an arrested city.
“Familiar though his name may be to us, the storyteller in his living immediacy is by no means a present force. He has already become something remote from us and something that is getting even more distant. […] It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.”
Trina: It’s been a year since the first show. The second wave of the pandemic has come and gone in India. We have seen much greater disaster – politically and otherwise. How do you feel about this work now? How do you see its future?
Amitesh: I don’t think I made The Last Poet with the view of a show that will last beyond the Serendipity festival. I made it at a time that was extremely distressing and quite confusing. We had no clue how the pandemic was going to pan out. Also, the increased authoritarianism and the hubris of the state that had become even more strengthened given that public assembly was disallowed. We couldn’t be out on the streets protecting each other, protecting our freedom of expression and also the right to dissent. It was an unprecedentedly troubling time. A lot of the work that came out of that time was a desperate artistic response to those months and to what was happening as we were making it, as this piece was being written.
I remember one day when the script was bound and stood finished before us. I remember asking myself if this script was going to stand the test of time, whether it will be relevant even beyond this year. I am quite surprised to see that it seems to be so. We have had shows running through this year. The show is also booked for another season in early 2022. I am already in conversation with a few festivals to run it for the fall in 2022. What I hear from everyone as we think about online theatre and performance is the fact that this kind of hybridity is going to be a part of making theatre, watching theatre, thinking about theatre in the future. This is not going to go. When we did the show for the first time it was watched by about 400 people. In the second round, it was watched by another 300 people. And very recently when we took it to the Tata Lit Live Festival, we crossed 400 plus tickets for just two shows. This is a kind of access and interest in theatre that I haven’t seen so far, doing ten years of theatre in Delhi. Yes, I have had houseful shows and people have come and widely written about the work but the access and sheer spread of this medium makes it possible for many more people to engage with.
I think that is a fact that is very encouraging for me as an artiste, the other is that the narrative and the script lives on. People do write to me very personally after watching each show. The echoes and the resonances and the similarities that they found in the piece with someone they know. Or with what they were reading at the time. Or with a layer of fear and censorship that pervades our present lives. That fear becomes quite palpable in the show. I think unfortunately that is the relevance of the show. The more claustrophobic and fearful our social environment becomes, the stronger the fascist regimes get, the more relevant this show will go on to become.
Trina: I wanted to know a little more from you about the process of making the script. How closed or finished was it when you began rehearsals?
Amitesh: The performers did not add a single word, actually, to the script. I was not looking for performers to add to the text in any way, but to do other things. The text is entirely the dramaturg’s. Sarah Mariam and I worked very, very closely on the script. She has been working with me for the last three years and has written for three of my pieces so far. We work incredibly exhaustively together when dramatizing a text or writing something afresh. A large part of the script of The Last Poet was, in fact, sourced from Sarah’s personal memories and associations. She writes very personally. We had long conversations where I told her what I have in mind and shared with her the research I was doing. For example, we spoke of what Manto had said in the court during his obscenity trial. What I highlighted there were his mannerisms, his presence in the court while his case was being heard. We also read about Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Bashir Badr’s cases. We read about how a writer was once picked up by the police from his house to be taken to jail and slowly the entire town began to follow the police jeep. By the time the jeep reached prison, the entire town was at the gate to say goodbye to the poet and to reassure him that they would be there when he was released. So, it was incidents like these that helped us to think about solidarity and about the relationship that readers have with writers. We also interviewed people who knew Sudha Bhardwaj, for example. We knew that the kind of writing she was doing annoyed the people in power. The speeches that were given at the gatherings she went to were interpreted in a certain way by the state. The false charges against her came thereafter. We did a lot of historical research and then some contemporary research. Varavara Rao, of course, was an inspiration. We got hold of the translations of his poems and read them together.
We started to base the figure of this poet on the accumulated inspiration from all the different writers that we were reading about – not just contemporary writers but also older writers and poets. We were seeing a pattern there. We were seeing how government after government, state after state was afraid of the word. The slapping of false charges was not just a speciality of the present government. It has actually learnt this from past governments. These incarcerations have been a way to discourage and threaten artistes and writers for at least the last one hundred years.
This kind of research gave us the perspective to zoom out of the extremely distressing time we were in last year and to then think about writing a sort of epic. A very small one, but an epic nonetheless, in which there were multiple, multiple characters. I was not interested in developing a scene-by-scene narrative of how an event unfolds. I was interested in imagining a dystopic, strange city in which the story of a person exists only in fragments, in shards. So, as you walk through the strange city like a foreigner, like a stranger you keep collecting bits and pieces from here and there. But you never actually come to a final, true story, but versions and versions. Some are truer than the others.
It was also about the way in which we were accessing the archives. We always access the archives with obedience, you know, with a kind of reverence. But it’s impossible to tell which part of the archive is truer than the other. I was very aware of this. For example, we read versions of the same incident that took place between Ismat Chughtai and Manto in Chughtai’s words and Manto’s words. And they were dramatically different. That, for me, was key. I sat down with Sarah one day I remember and I said: “Look, what if the whole piece is about the poet having disappeared? And we don’t know what has led to his disappearance!” So, when we enter this dramatic fiction, it has just been a few days since his disappearance and everybody is speculating. And they are speculating according to the information they have. The ex-wife speculates in one way, the student in another and the long-time friend speculates in another kind of way. They all imagine differently the kind of fate he might have met. And these characters never meet each other in the present. They have met each other in the past, they talk about each other. But now, they are arrested, just like our condition was last year: we were arrested.
[Listening to the interview later, I think a lot about the word ‘arrest’. I think about what the pandemic has done to that word and our relationship to it. I think of being arrested in the middle of a movement or a sentence: frozen, as it were, in time. A halt, a pause, a frozen screen, the Wi-Fi dropped. I am arrested in space. The screen grabs me, fixes me, I am in a frame. I think of incarceration. Self-isolation. House arrest. I am arrested in my room and have been for a while. I am disallowed from leaving, placed in isolation, having given consent to this arresting of the self by the self for the self.
I am in my house, arrested. The house arrests me.
Time and space are in pause. Nothing moves. Or everything moves very slowly.
I float from one day to the next.
News floats in that Stan Swamy has not been given a sipper in prison to drink his water. It is more than a year in prison for Umar Khalid.
This too shall pass.
But for now, we are arrested.]
Amitesh: The poet’s disappearance then became the central event or the anchor around which the whole piece started to develop. Every character that Sarah started writing with begin with the speculation on how he disappeared and then the relationship and its history would flow from there. We were trying to build a web of a narrative. Not so much a linear narrative that goes from point A to B, but a web. There is the sense that you are crawling horizontally across a narrative and not really progressing in time from one incident to another. So, this never gets completed.
[I think of tapestries and carpets where ballads-like tales get told endlessly, in a weave that moves bewilderingly, disallowing linear perception. You could begin and end anywhere, catch a glimpse but never the whole picture at one glance.
Totality eludes you.
I think of the life of the Buddha narrated in traditional Tibetan thanka paintings. It is hard to tell where to begin reading the chronicle in its visual form.
The legend spreads everywhere.
It is circular and endless.
I think of the miniaturist painters in Pamuk’s My Name is Red, who are allowed to paint only one section of a spectacular work of art at a time in order to avoid the wrath of the fundamentalists on rampage.]
Amitesh: I remember a time when Sarah was writing for about two months. We had about 20 or 22 different characters and stories. I told her: “We need to write more.” She asked me: “How much more?” I said: “Maybe we go up to 50.” She looked at me exasperated and said: “You must be kidding me.” And I said: “I am not, actually. We need to keep writing till we get so exhausted that we literally can’t write a single word more.” She went up to 30 or 32 pieces. It had then become like conducting an orchestra of characters where all these different characters were speaking in different voices. By the time it was finished, I was happy with the balance of this orchestra. That was when the whole script was given to the actors and I requested them to not change a single word, because it was written with so much care. But each actor was free to visualise and imagine the character that was speaking. All the characters that you see in the piece are actually developed by the actors themselves. Those characters – the way they appear to you visually are not necessarily written like that. It was only the text and the actors were free to develop it in any way they liked.
The Team, the Process, the ‘Virtual’
Trina: How did you decide on who was going to be performing, which actors, what the team would do?
Amitesh: I work with people with whom I share sensibilities. I don’t cast. I invite them to a chai or a coffee, and we just sit and talk. This time, of course, all of this was virtual. So, there were these virtual conversations that I had with everyone. We talked a little bit about why I was developing this piece, I wanted to know their views. I spoke to about 15 different performers, out of whom I chose these five. It matters to me that the team that I make, the people that I work with, believe in the same things that the piece is trying to say.
Trina: How do you rehearse when you don’t see each other at all? Not together, not even one to one? All the things that you spoke about – this understanding, having lived with particular beliefs, sharing a certain kind of view of the world – do these become even more important when you are working in conditions such as this? How did it work – putting it all together and not really seeing each other except virtually at all?
Amitesh: I don’t think for me being virtually connected is any less true than connected physically. It’s just a matter of different intensities really. My gut, my instinct works for virtual connections as well. I might go to their social media, or we might have a light-hearted conversation about other things, not just the work that we are doing. Being in theatre for over fifteen years now, it is not that difficult for me to tell if the person is really saying what they mean. Or is there some kind of posturing?
Trina: You get a sense? You can smell it, I guess.
Amitesh: Yes. This works virtually as well. I don’t think I belong to that generation which feels that there is a loss when one moves from the physical to the virtual.
Trina: Right, yes. I want to come back to that question. But I was talking now more in terms of the brass tacks, logistically as it were. How do you go about the rehearsals? Did you work first with one performer for a stretch and then move? Did they actually see each other in rehearsal as well?
Amitesh: We met collectively first. My first concern was, of course, whether these performers would like to expose a part of their private homes and where they live to strangers. We had quite a bit conversation on that. We needed to put in place some kind of safety and assurances, for everyone to feel confident that there wouldn’t be bare exposure of how they live and where they live as people, and that they would in some way be in control of this. So, then we started with very simple Zoom collective rehearsals, in which I had to literally invent virtual rehearsal exercises and methodologies. None of us was trained in this. How does one walk across the screen, for example? That’s it. The simple Peter Brook exercise. Does theatre happen if someone just walks across the screen and someone else is watching? And we realised that in some senses, it does actually. We had been watching so much of this kind of material with say in the genre of reality television like in Big Brother or Big Boss, with so many confessional serials on relationships etc., with Instagram culture where everybody seems to be live and broadcasting their life 24/7 and also the streaming platforms now that have millions of viewers. I realised that as audiences we have been primed for something as simple as someone walking across the screen and we thinking of it as performance.
That was the easy part, I think: to move our eye from the physical stage to the screen. But then came the difficult part: how do you begin to perform for the camera that is neither in the language of film or television, not does it conveniently transport the theatrical body of the stage to the webcam? I think I very soon realised that we were looking for a third language. We were looking for something that was essentially different. We did a lot of exercises with characters and speeches and non-verbal performances. And one day, it occurred to me that we should actually just get up and change clothes, very slowly. A very simple thing. So, one by one, that’s what each one of us did. We just looked into the camera, took off as many layers as we were comfortable with and then we put on another layer. And then that – the way each actor did it – revealed for me what the vocabulary of this piece was going to be. Finally, in the show, you will notice that each character is either putting on make up or taking off make up, or putting on a wig or taking off clothes or putting them on in front of the camera and that’s also part of the performance that they are doing. So, there was this multiple layering of the body – almost as if refusing to treat the camera as the kind of psychological device – that which can pierce through your psychology to tell the world what you are really thinking about. To deny it that permission. To say that the actor’s body here is going to be so layered, it was going to be like a palimpsest, so that you will never be able to actually see, the person who is the actor. You won’t know who this is. I think that denial of power of the camera, of the power to the camera was a ‘Eureka!’ moment for me when it happened in rehearsal. That was our first step towards discovering what this third language was about, when we found a direction into it. The second was something which flowed from here: I realised that in film and television, the camera subjects the actor to something. The camera is always objectifying the body, placing the body, framing the body and the voice, telling you how to look at it. Here, the actors were in control of their cameras. They were the ones who were placing the cameras, they were the ones who decided when to stay away or come close. There was no invisible hand behind the camera which was dictating how the actor must be viewed. Once the actors became comfortable with exercising their agency on the camera, on how they were being viewed was the moment when, for me, the cycle got completed. That was when I felt that the performers were ready to get into the text, start to imagine these characters and these scenes because now they understood the politics that always plays out between technology and the body.
Once that happened, I uploaded the entire script. With Sarah, we reserved a few stories for a few performers. We thought that this set of characters could be played by this actor and so on. We started trying them out. And mostly, it worked. The markers were very simple: we were working by age and other basic things like that. But also, there were these inventions that some actors were doing. Aswath, for example, created a trans character. He read a piece and he told Sarah that he had seen her. He said: “I have seen her on the road. This is exactly who she is.” Sarah said: “But I have not written it like that.” But he tried it once in rehearsal and it seemed to work. Some of these additions Sarah tried to rewrite into the text, just to close the text and say that this was final. The rehearsals were being done all over the place. The actors would sometimes take the cameras outdoors, they would do a scene from a park, from a street, from a crossing. It was really wonderful to see an actor embedded in a piece of fiction on a real street somewhere in India. I thought: “My god, will we be able to do this?” And it turns out that we couldn’t, because the signals were really unreliable and the internet kept getting cut etc. so we then decided against it. But the rehearsals opened out several other possibilities which will become part of my future projects.
Trina: The notion that the camera is a kind of a voyeur is by now a commonplace of film theory, especially feminist film theory. And true enough. Often, the camera does seem to have a kind of authoritative gaze that can both control and intrude. Here, however, the performer, who is creating the character, is in control of both revealing and refusing to reveal. This, in a sense, ties in with the fragmentary, anecdotal nature of the anti-narrative that the performance gives us. My question is that this must have been sensed and worked out in different ways by different performers. Did you make an attempt to hold or tie together what their relationship to the camera would be – for each individual person? Did you try to have a kind of overarching politics of this? Or did you just let things flower in the way they were naturally? Or did the different framings just find a resonance with each other?
Amitesh: Unlike the film camera which has weight and volume – it’s this black monster which is always present on set and you really can’t hide it – everybody was performing for the web-camera or the camera in their phones. The relationship with this small dot is very different to what we have with the traditional camera. Let’s say what would happen if right now, in the middle of our interview, there was a professional Sony S-3 camera that entered with boom mics etc. Suddenly, our bodies would change. I think I would become more conscious of myself. This kind of digital technology is less masculine in a sense, its presence is softer, it’s not that intrusive in the way in which the film camera is. I think that helped a lot. Besides, every body was using their own phones and laptops to stream this. And we already have a personal relationship with our devices, right? And this kind of a relationship with a device is not possible if it’s alien, if it’s on some higher plane. The way we are streaming ourselves today is markedly different from anything that has come before. Also, when we stream ourselves, we can watch ourselves, unlike when we are being shot. There is a feedback loop that is completed in that I can watch myself right now. I am in control of how much of my body I am revealing, what my background is like, how I am placing myself in the frame etc. Plus, the device I am streaming with is my personal device. So, you are in my personal space a little bit and vice versa. Part of me is right now in your room. This kind of streaming is very different to anything traditional film does. We have to understand this on entirely new terms and on a very different ground. Comparative analogies with film, in my view, will not be productive.
Digitality is layered. For example, when we rehearsed as a group, we always had the sense that the person who was improvising a scene and looking into the camera, was looking directly at me. But that was not true. This was an illusion, because that person was simultaneously on several screens and several people seemed to have the sense that they were being looked at by this person in a very intimate way. So, there is a multiplication that is happening: a single moment of intimacy is being multiplied across a network for hundreds and hundreds of viewers. I began to understand this as a kind of hyper-intimacy, which is a kind of absent presence. I can’t hold or touch or smell someone, and yet they are present. It’s the kind of presence we used to associate with ghosts: a kind of spectral presence where you always keep feeling that someone is around. When you see apparitions whom you never actually meet. Digitality is that kind of an apparition. It seems to be present all around you: in your pocket, in your hand, on your mobile phone in a very, very hyper-intimate way.
[ In speaking about Frida Kahlo’s paintings in her book When Was Modernism? Geeta Kapur compares the Kahlo’s self-representation to the iconography in the popular Mexican art of the ex-votos or the retablos. The retablos depicted martyred saints or the Virgin Mary on small strips of tin and wood in three tiers, including often a personal prayer that the devotee could carry with them at all times: in their hand, in a pocket or a bag. A ghostly, but intimate presence: both quotidian and deeply spiritual].
Amitesh: And yet it is built on extremely fragile underwater cables that are laid across the globe. Much more than just the relationship of the camera and the performer, it was this disseminated presence that I was thinking about a lot. As a director when I was watching these actors develop their pieces individually and collectively, I also had to imagine the conditions within which audiences will be watching them. The fact that it won’t be on the stage – in spotlight – where everything, the entire environment, is under the control of this created fiction and the audience sits in the dark. This was a performance that was going to take place in domestic spaces with much else happening around. That dictated a lot about the pace of the speech, the way the bodies would perform etc. For example, there are many times in The Last Poet when nothing happens. They just sit. Or they just get up and change a light or something. To most film directors, that is wasted footage.
[performance] iz trying to find an equation
for time saved/saving time
being/living etc. is all about
spending time. No equation or…
Suzan-Lori Parks (1995),
Quoted by Rebecca Schneider in her essay “Performance Remains”.]
Amitesh: They would say: “Why are you doing this? We need to keep hundred percent attention on the screen.” Whereas I kept imagining that my audience is only going to be partly attentive to the piece. I had the sense that the energy of this piece somehow needs to leak beyond the confines of the screen into other things around it. The audience might choose to look away and hear what’s going on. They might get thrown out, the internet connection might break and when they come back, they shouldn’t feel like they have lost something, missed something. They should be able to think of it as a wave that is taking place, rising and falling, over and over again. For me it was very important to slow time down … like really, really slow time down, to zoom in on the every-day, you know. How do you fold our clothes? How do we comb our hair? How do we apply an eyeliner or kajal or a lipstick? And to do it in a way that it is not preparation for something, but it is what it is. These small, non-verbal ways of being made the performance. It was important for every performer to understand that what they are doing in their isolation, in front of a small webcam is part of a larger imagination, this virtual set-up. We had shows in which each actor would step out of the show and just watch the show, for them to get a sense of what they were part of because it was difficult for them to visualise it. It’s also impossible for me to watch the entire show. I have never watched the entire show.
[ I wonder how incompleteness gets written into the very structure of this piece. Each spectator can access only a fragment. Totalities are forbidden. There is no ‘complete experience’, no satiation, no possibility of consuming every word, every body, every glance, every gesture. No totalizing perspective finds a place anywhere. No person is omniscient. There are always missed encounters. Or perhaps we could think of an infinite number of possibilities? Of meetings and hyper-intimacies waiting to happen? Then there is the algorithm to think of. What does it know that we do not?]
Amitesh: There are things that actors tell me after a show which I have no idea of. I don’t know that they happened. This is why I keep saying that this is not so much a relationship between the camera and the body, but the technology and the body. And that technology includes the idea of the entire sensorium that this network creates, of which the camera is but a small part. I would say that the show needs to be understood within the broader idea of this sensorium.
Time and Domesticity
Trina: But that resonates so much with what the pandemic had done to our lives anyway at this point! The one thing that has been almost universally commented upon is the slowing down of time. This happened for so many of us, at least those of us used to the pace of urban lives. Suddenly everything was, like you said, arrested: on hold, as it were. That was a very, very beautiful use of the word: because it was not just the control and authority of the state that was arresting citizens, but we ourselves were arrested in a certain way, in the middle of various kinds of motions. At least for middle-class lives, domesticity had become so dense. Being confined to the private space, the sheer banality of it, and the stretching out of these little domestic chores into eternity: was this also a comment on the texture of the time that we were living through, that everyone was living through?
Amitesh: I want to talk about this idea of banality in domesticity a bit. We did start with the everydayness of domesticity. But what began to happen was that the domestic spaces began to change in rehearsal. One performer got an entire background wall painted, another one fixed a shelf, a third one opened her wall cabinet, emptied it out, fitted herself into one of the shelves and shut it. So, what started to happen is that the domestic spaces became psychological spaces as well, or spaces of the heart and the mind, externalised in some sense. In a Gaston Bachelard kind of imagination of the house, the drawers, the chest, the cupboard, the attic are actually a take on the structure of the mind. That is how the memories and experiences of childhood, for example, get shaped by the kind of house you were born in and grew up in. At one point in the rehearsals, I was really interested in exploring the kind of domestic spaces that the actors had made available to the show. I wanted to see what possibilities are there for bookshelves and wall cabinets to become part of this fiction, to reveal things about the inner mind by just being furniture, being part of the house. I don’t know how successful we were but there was an attempt to see domesticity in a slightly skewed way, in a new light.
Myth, Memory, Witnessing
Trina: You know I was recently writing an essay on Ritwik Ghatak. I found that Ghatak’s own writings on his films, as well as that of his students like Kumar Shahani, seem to suggest that what the realist narrative does not allow you to do is to free the imagination from a single perspective. Ghatak’s work is, in contrast, driving the crisis of the modern nation towards a mythical imagination. You have narratives and storytelling, of course – but episodic structures, gaps and ellipses between events. There is always, repeatedly, the refusal to be contained in a coherent vision that might hold everything together with any sort of finality, unlike in Ray, for example. They always seem to be bursting at the seams, most of Ghatak’s films. Also, there is a sense in which you don’t encounter main event in its immediacy. The central wound in all of Ghatak’s films is the Partition, but the Partition never enters the frame per se. You don’t see what you see in other Partition films: you don’t see people crossing the border, people sitting by the roadsides, people losing homes or riots or anything like that. What you see is a kind of postmemory – this kind of residual trauma – that determines lives long after the central event has passed. So, in a way, the event is almost a myth. It is not a myth in that it is unreal, but in that it has tied lives in a loop, in a kind of circularity. I was wondering, given what you say of the narrative structure of The Last Poet, if you would like to comment on whether your work is approaching some sense of the mythical, while actually dealing with technology in the here and now? In the way that you are telling the story, especially?
Amitesh: (laughs) Oh I don’t know if I am deserving of that question! Ghatak has been such a huge inspiration. I do veer towards the mythic, magic realism, the epic. This goes back to my childhood, I think. My most cherished childhood memory is of being told stories by my nani during the summer. I would wait the whole year for the summer holidays to arrive, when I would go and live with her for two months. Every night, she would tell me a story. She would pick up a mythic episode from the Puranas, the Mahabharata or the Ramayana, then she would weave it into her own unique way of storytelling. I think that experience had a very lasting impact on me. It shaped how I grew up to read stories, to contemplate what they meant and also when I began to produce my own stories. Her stories would be unending, of course: there would never be an end or a beginning. She would always start in the middle somewhere and always end abruptly. But to me, they just somehow felt complete.
In The Last Poet too there is no definite beginning. It just begins with the telling of a myth. I am terribly interested in how epics are told. In that sense, Brecht is an inspiration and so is Ghatak. Instead of focusing on what is being told, they want to focus on how it’s being told. This is something that is of interest to me. Very often I just tell everyone what the show is about right at the beginning. You know, here it is: nothing more to this. But we just keep coming back to the story nonetheless. We take a huge detour and we return. There is an episode or a scene or a character that draws us back. A lot of my narratives are very circular, in that sense. They are not cascading or reaching a climax. I detest the idea of a climax. I can’t stand it. I can’t watch films that have a revelation at the end, because it’s just such a huge waste of time. What I do enjoy is watching those minute, little things that happen during a performance. I watch my performers sometimes very closely. After a whole scene, I could say: “I really like the way you sat back today at that moment. Just remember to do that. Everything else you can change.” But with the Zoom performance, because all rehearsals were recorded, they were able to go back and watch themselves again. As a result, they kept layering their understanding of what was happening with these recordings, one after another. So, each performer was witnessing themselves in performance, as much as I was witnessing them in rehearsal.
I do feel that what I am trying to produce through this kind of a format are witnesses, not spectators, to be honest. It is the kind of relationship that the ramayanis have with Ramlila. They are the witnesses of the gods, not the other way round. The gods are not the witnesses of the people. If the ramayanis are not ready, the gods can’t appear. You were talking earlier about darshan and the reciprocity of gazes. It is partly that and partly it is not. The fans of Rajnikanth would the stop the film in a cinema hall at his first entry, get up, dance, do their thing, sit down and then permit the film to go on. In that sense, it is this permission that the spectators give to a piece, that I really respect and appreciate. In Table Radica, for example, we do not begin the show until people have comfortably seated themselves. “You do not like your seat, find another. We wait. Take your time. Make yourselves comfortable.” In The Last Poet, as well, scenes do not begin until people have made their choices.
We had a show recently in the Canadian Biennale. Out of four shows one was in Hindustani and the rest were in English. Full houses for the English show, but the diasporic community they expected did not book tickets for the Hindi show. The house was empty. We started the show. There was no one, no one was choosing the scenes. So, the actors just sat for the whole show. For ninety minutes, they sat: having a drink of water, reading something. An hour into the show, an actor had made tea, another was reading poetry which was not even a part of the show. All sorts of things had started happening because there was no audience. For me, that was exhilarating. For me, that was the best show. This was not what I had imagined The Last Poet to be. What I was watching, in the name of The Last Poet, was a catastrophe. It was the grand betrayal of the audience: that they won’t come for one show. And then what would happen to that show? The actors didn’t like it, but for me that would have to be the best show that I have seen so far. So, if there are no witnesses, nothing happens, really. Nothing takes place. There are no people to recall. There are no people to give permission. For me, spectators are that presence that allows a performance to take place. Not in the sense of Boal, in that they actively decide specific, concrete things. But in a less pronounced way, they do decide what happens to the performance, like you said. They are connected to the piece at every level. And if they were to recede and withdraw, the piece doesn’t move forward.
A month later
[Amitesh and I have both had Covid in the interim, the third wave of the pandemic having hit both Kolkata and Delhi in the meantime.]
The Algorithm, the Code, the Audience
Trina: I listened yesterday again to our whole conversation, and there are certain words and phrases that have stuck to me. I want to ask you about them. But first perhaps we should talk about the algorithm – like you said, because we didn’t get a chance to talk about that last time.
Amitesh: I forgot to mention entirely about the algorithm. It was a two-month-long phase where we were developing the web portal and the entire software around it. I have been interested in the political understanding of algorithms and what a software or an interface does. A lot of it, of course, is out in the public realm now. We know that interfaces affect our behaviour in explicit ways and they drive us towards making certain kinds of choices. So, no interface is neutral or innocent, you know. Every interface that an artiste, or a digital company, builds is ridden with biases and prejudices, certain ways in which it makes people perform and interact with each other. That was a key concern while I was building this with the coders. The first thing was to try to understand the kind of code they were building, to at least get the contours and the general rules. In code language, there are two kinds of codes. One is the regular linear code. It performs a certain set of actions depending on how users interact with it. The other kind is non-linear: what is also called a generative code. When you are writing this kind of code, you are actually not designing an interface. You are just writing a set of rules that will keep generating its own universe, depending on how people behave in it. Very early on we decided to go with the generative code.
Trina: So, this is not predictable like linear code? It develops much more organically? Can we use that word in this case?
Amitesh: We let the code make decisions in the middle of the show. In that there is no human artiste or director or coder sitting there making the decisions or controlling the show while the show is going on. The code now has dozens and dozens of rules. It keeps referring to those rules to generate more code and in order to choreograph audience movement. I chose this for two reasons. One is that it is only in generative code that the performativity of the code is foregrounded. Every interface performs. This is something I have been terribly interested in. Digital code and digital interfaces often work through performance, actually. If we think of performance not just as an idea centred on the human body but in its more expanded field, this seems conceivable. We need to see that the key principles are there. For example, it is making decisions live i.e., in the here and now, many of its futures are unpredictable (we don’t know which way it will go) and it is in some way autonomous i.e., it is making its own decisions as it is going along. All interfaces have this. In fact, the biggest problem that Google and Facebook are facing with their algorithm is that they can’t seem to control it. I heard the testimony that Google gave at a court in Netherlands two years ago. They were asked if they could address the bias present in the Google search engine. Google claims that its predictive search is determined by the popular search options, which are often problematic. In predicting what you might be searching for, the interface is getting ahead of you and in doing so, also shaping the way you think or the way you might ask that question. Even if you didn’t want to ask the question in that way to begin with, it might push you in that direction. So, in the court in Netherlands, when Google was pulled up for this, they said that they don’t know how to remove the bias. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t because they don’t know how it is doing this. The algorithm in the software is so huge now and so many people are working on it, that it is impossible for us to tell you what Google will throw up in its search engine, in which part of the world at what time. And no one would believe it. The courts didn’t believe it. But it’s actually true. No one is in control of these massive interfaces anymore. So, we are living in a world where interfaces are already their own autonomous beings. It is impossible to intervene even on part of the companies that made them.
All these questions were coming to me when we were designing the code. How difficult or complex should we make this code? Should we make it simple enough so that we can keep intervening? Or should we keep on making it more complex and layered, and at one point completely lose control of it? We have been walking that tight rope. We are on the edge of losing control of the software because now it runs into thousands of lines of code. It is no longer possible to make any change in it, without affecting other things. So now it is properly its own beast. Anyhow, the first reason I chose generative software is that I wanted the performativity of the interface to be foregrounded. And I wanted every member of the audience to have a unique experience, depending on how long you stayed in a room, how did you move across etc. So, it will keep throwing different options at you. The other reason was that I wanted this interface to be very clearly democratic and I wanted to build those rules into the interface. One such rule was that the software would divide the audience equally across all performers at all times throughout the show. If one performer already had 20 people and the other performer had only 10, it would keep sending the audience to the room with that had a fewer number till the numbers were roundabout equal. Then it would choose another room. So, the interface is making these real time calculations in order to organise and distribute the audience equally across the rooms throughout the show so that everyone gets as diverse an experience as possible of the show.
Trina: This is interesting to me. As a spectator, I thought that I was making all the choices myself. That I was absolutely autonomous and this was all arbitrary. It was chance that was leading me through the space in a certain way. So, I wasn’t in fact making these choices all on my own?
Amitesh: No. You weren’t autonomous entirely. One is never autonomous when one is dealing with the internet. There are always a set of rules and codes that are in an invisible way governing and affecting our choices. So as a corollary to this first rule, you could imagine The Last Poet done in a physical space. Once the room fills up to its maximum capacity, in that case, you can’t enter that room. You are ushered into another room. The second rule was that the software, very subtly, performs two kinds of nudges. If an audience member is not moving at all and wants to watch only one performer doing several characters, not moving at all through the show, the software will start showing the option of leaving the room more frequently. If someone is moving from one room to the other too frequently, then it will try to nudge them into staying in the same room longer. So, it’s making a log – a secret log – of how every person in the audience is watching, how quickly they are moving or if they are not moving at all, and these logs are visible to us in the control centre we have built. This is interesting because I saw that audience behaviours changed. Some people tried to resist and not click on the ‘Leave’ button. With others, I could clearly their behaviour changing: they were slow in the beginning but they were going from one room to another fairly quickly towards the end. Then there were others who, having moved quite restlessly in the beginning, would select their room and then refuse to budge.
This made me realise that I could feel the audience. I could feel how they were moving, and I could feel their decisions. In some shows, the audience was enthusiastic and in others, they were a bit lazy. I have often been asked how I got a sense of the audience in a digital show. I have always said that there were these alternate ways in which I could feel them. In our post show discussions, we would find that the coders and the actors and everyone else has been able to feel the audience. This is something I was not expecting. This sense of the audience was transported to us through the code and through the logs, without us ever having seen any of the audience members. This also revealed to me the power of the interface. We talk so often about big data and how the big companies seem to know everything about us, they predict what we would like to buy next and where we would like to buy it from etc. I got a peek into how powerful this kind of data collection is by itself. That scares me a bit: if we could do this for a theatre show, what could these companies be doing with massive amounts of data and exponential quantities of intelligence, human resource and infrastructure? I often think critically about this: how much more could we have done?
Trina: Oddly enough, we have the sense of a certain kind of anonymity in the digital space. Even though we know that that’s not how it works, there is still a persistent sense that we are both anonymous and free. I felt, for example, in watching the play that I was unseen, my face and my identity were mine only, but all of the time, the interface was building an identity for me. I did have a history so far as the interface was concerned. This is interesting, because this was not the sense with which I watched the show. At least when you walk into a physical performance space you know that you are being seen. But here you have the clear and present sense that you are anonymous, but you are, in fact, not so.
Amitesh: I wouldn’t say that your anonymity is being diminished somehow, but you are certainly being tracked.
Trina: No, not in terms of your identity per se, but perhaps in the sense of things that might be more intimate: like the mood, your energy, whether you are conservative in your choices – you like to stay in one place, or are you restless? These might be, in certain circumstances, far more intimate questions than what your surname might be or what you might be wearing at that point of time. These are closer, right? So then how are these assessments about the audience, in your view, different from what you would have done in a physical show where you have proximity?
Amitesh: The actors keep seeing the viewers in terms of numbers. They know how the numbers are going up and down. If 20 comes down to 5, that has a really visceral impact on the performer. This kind of physical affect is coming from livestreaming cultures. Every performer who is on Twitch, for example, whether they are gaming performers or erotic performers, they are very aware that they are being watched and how many people are watching them. The chat section is even more revealing, in terms of what kinds of comments people are leaving behind. So, the physical and the digital are not in opposition anymore, where the physical has a heightened sense of the presence of others and how they are behaving, and the digital does not. I would say that they are far closer to each other today than they were, say, a decade back. There are ways in which code and different instruments help us translate the moves, the behaviours of people online into something that can be understood and felt on the other side.
Trina: But you see in a traditional performance, there is a way in which the audience members feed off each other’s reactions. A certain kind of a transient collective might emerge through that. Here, however, the claustrophobia and isolation expressed by the characters was reflected in the physical isolation of the spectators, as well as the shared isolation of the pandemic. You said quite specifically last time that there is no loss in a virtual meeting: there is intimacy as well, but in a different way. We don’t want to think of it as loss, sure, but if we were to think of the difference: the audience shaping, through the performance, as a collective in one case and in another, perhaps not forming a collective at all, what would you say about that?
Amitesh: You are right. The kind of collectivity that is possible in a physical setting is difficult to transfer to the digital in that specific way, which is why I tend to think of these two as entirely separate mediums. The strengths of one may not be found in the other. And that is also why, as an artiste, I don’t see the shift to the digital as loss, because the digital is offering me different tools and different ways of creating performance, that the physical does not. The physical proximity that then engenders a collective response or some kind of a collectivity by the end of the show is perhaps impossible, but also something I would not want in the digital medium. I am not an artiste who valorises this kind of collectivity in theatre. I do not think a critical distance from the collective is always a bad thing. I have seen several shows that have been destroyed by the collective response of an audience. For example, the performance does not deserve laughter but a small group starts to laugh and then everyone starts laughing. The play is destroyed. I would be very careful about valorising collectivity uncritically. I know we do that, especially in India, we do that a lot: talking about theatre being a communitarian experience and that being the power of theatre. I think, however, that the power of performance can also be felt in solitude, when I am not affected by others watching the show. When I am watching the show entirely on my own terms. And this is why, I think, I have never done shows which show to hundreds of spectators at the same time. Even in NSD when I direct the students, even if is an ensemble show, I try to keep the audience numbers low and even after that, I fragment them in the way I make them sit. So that there is no way in which this number of people can turn into a crowd at any point in the play. The thing is, as an artiste, I am afraid of crowds: really, really afraid of crowds. I am afraid of stadiums, I am afraid of massive political rallies, I am afraid to go to markets that have hundreds of people. This kind of an inner resistance to crowds that I have is part of my work as well. I don’t ever want people to ever come together in hoards to watch my shows. I would rather choose personal address and intensity over access. This is perhaps the reason why many of the formats that I have chosen to work with, even in the visual art field, are for solitary viewing or viewing with a small group of people. I want my work to create that moment of solitude, silence, slowness: in a way in which you can coexist and you do not need to worry about how many other people are watching this play.
Trina: I am with you on the thought that there is a tendency to valorise the collective, no matter what that collective is and we know that is dangerous because of the times we are living in. We know that the vast majority is not always right. That element of the crowd’s violence is, of course, very real and very scary. We have seen so much of this both in the physical and the virtual world: from trolling and cyber bullying to mob lynching as well as far more brutal forms. The withdrawal into another kind of intimacy might also nurture performance in a way that the crowd may not.
The Arrested Epic
Trina: I want to now move from this a little bit and pick up on two words you used in the interview the last time. I wanted to ask you to comment on them a little further. Towards the beginning you said: “I think about this production as an epic with many voices and many characters.” I want you to elaborate a little on why you say ‘epic’. You go on then to talk about how the play picks up at a point where the poet has just disappeared and the speculations begin thereafter. The epic, as we know, begins in the middle of the action. Is it a depiction of a linear set of events, then? Or does the epic involve a different imagination of time? That’s one question.
The other is also to do with time. You said at one point that: “We are all arrested”. You used that word today as well. It keeps coming back. At one level, it seems like word-play, because arrest also features in a different way in the narrative as well. Then, because of the pandemic, we are all arrested in our different cubicles. The experience of watching the piece is also another kind of arrest. Then again, time is arrested, oddly enough. This is not meant to be a scholarly or even analytical question. But just as an artiste who was building a world in making The Last Poet, if you could comment on these two words that you used and what their resonance is to you.
Amitesh: I am really happy that you brought these two words back. They feature in a very significant way. They kept coming back to me – both these words and ideas – throughout the making of The Last Poet and even afterwards. I remember describing my intentions to my dramaturg when she began writing it. I said: “Think of it as the writing of a very small epic.” She asked: “What does that mean?” I said: “It’s starts bang in the middle of something and it doesn’t have an ending.” I have been to Ramnagar ka Ramlila a couple of times and that left a significant impact on me. No theatre has ever been able to match that. It’s a thirty-day immersion in this performance. I don’t know if you have read Anuradha Kapur’s book on it…
Trina: I have.
Amitesh: So that thesis describes the Ramlila very accurately. It’s an immersion into a real town but the town changes because of the different scenes that are played there. What’s very interesting is that there is hardly any acting happening there. The whole epic is being performed but there are no actors, because all the actors who are playing godly characters are pre-teens. Once you hit puberty you are not allowed to play Ram or Laxman. It is impossible for these pre-teens to learn the verse. If they can’t learn the verse, they cannot act. Valmiki, one of the pundits, keeps his Ramayan always open and he keeps whispering the verse into their ears. And then they repeat it. That changed for me the whole idea of what theatre was, what performance was! This whole notion that the illusion must be built in the theatre for it to be effective etc., it all came crumbling down for me. When I came back from watching the Ramlila in Ramnagar for the first time, I decided that I wanted to keep working around it in my theatre. I don’t want to do realistic plays; I don’t want to do psychological plays. I just really want to understand the nature of this epic and the performance of this epic, which affected me so much. How can I search for it and keep looking for it in my work?
There are two or three things that The Last Poet was built on its terms of its dramaturgy and its structure. The first was that it did not have a beginning or an end. It could actually go on for two or three more hours. In the conceptual stage, even in my proposal, I wanted it to go on for a month without a break and I wanted to cast a hundred people. One set would start the work, then a second would take it on, then the first would go away. It would just be wave after wave after wave or performance that everybody could watch. The second thing is that the piece is infinitely expandable. At one point, my dramaturg just got exhausted and said: “I can’t write anymore characters.” I said: “Well, if you can’t write anymore characters, then that’s the border of this. Now this is our script.” But if she had written more there would have been more characters. It is like an expandable entity. The epic is not focused on a single narrative or a single character. It is expandable both in terms of its dramaturgy but also the world that it wants to talk about. The missing poet is a catalyst for as many people and voices to come into this world as possible. The third is, of course, the question of time. The epic is always happening in your time, unlike the theatre of illusions where you are transposed into the narrative’s time, for example, in period drama. Whereas the time of the epic performance is our contemporary time, which is why it needs to happen every year. The fact that it’s happening in my time is extremely powerful for me. The Last Poet doesn’t have any strong or visible period or era points in terms of costume etc.
Trina: No historical markers?
Amitesh: Yes. It can be played even 20 years from now, without it being seen as dated. That I think is the power of the epic: that every generation finds in it a new meaning, because it is extremely secular and open to all futures. In that sense, I am fascinated by the epic. In one of my lectures to a foreign audience, I said: “If you are looking for something Indian in my work, you will not find it anywhere but in this one thing: that it is based on understanding of the epic.” This affects the progression of time as well. There is nothing that comes before or after. Everything happens simultaneously. It is just in the way that you view it, which decides for the sequence. In the Ramnagar ka Ramlila, the prince inaugurates the performance on the first day. So, the gods take permission from the royalty to start the epic. Then, the next day the royalty come and touch the performers’ feet to take their blessings, because now the epic is on. Now we are all part of this. There is this strange idea of time and this role-play with the audience: “We understand that we are also playing a role while watching you. And we are very happy to put ourselves in that role. Because if we don’t play this role, then your performance doesn’t get completed. If I am not holding my Ramayan, you cannot perform. The Ramayanis, who form a section of the audience, hold their little books throughout the performance and chant from them. They never look at the performance. And it is the pace in which they are chanting that decides how swiftly or how slowly the acts unfold. So, the audience is really deciding how this will progress. This is very important to me in my work as well. Somehow the audience decides. Somehow the audience is complicit. Somehow, they take a decision in the middle of the performance, like in this piece they decide whether to stay or go, which scene to watch next, which word to vote for. This understanding of the audience comes to me from the performance of the epic because the audience of an epic understands that they too are playing a role in some way or the other. And their role is political. Their role also decides the fate of something. It is not forum theatre, but is deeply participatory. In the Chennai Photo Biennale work, the viewer has to imagine the photograph. There is no way that you can read the text and not imagine the photograph, even it is the wrong one. And often it is the wrong one in terms of the photograph I had in mind, but in terms of their own imagination and how they have interpreted the text, they are absolutely right. So, there are really multiple photographs. And that, for me, is where art is taking place. In this inter-relational space between the art and the spectator.
The other word – “arrest” – that defined the word 2020 for me. In terms of being arrested inside to friends and people I knew being arrested by the government, for having participated in protests just before the lockdown. To the research that Sarah and I did for the piece, where we discovered that poets across the subcontinent had historically suffered the same fate for what they wrote. There was a huge sense of gloom. Suddenly it was like I had awakened to a newfound history of writing and incarceration, which I had had no idea of before. From being physically arrested to being arrested in other ways, became a metaphor for me throughout the making of The Last Poet. It came to me in different ways.
Trina: Thank you. We have so much here.
In leafing through the material that I had gathered in preparation for writing this piece, I come upon a PDF file of a presentation about The Last Poet. I imagine that it might have been prepared in the initial days of the project’s conceptualisation for the Serendipity Arts Foundation, which had commissioned the project. In this file, I find a quote which I finally trace back to a book called Trickster City: Writings from the Belly of the Metropolis. It reads:
Finally, Shamsher offered his explanation: A place in ‘nishastgah’ is a place where the gaze has not yet been fixed and time has not yet been disciplined, where nobody has yet been described as a ‘vagabond’. When a place loses it’s ‘nishastgah’, it condenses into a ‘jagah’ (place). By then it has moved through its processes of working out what it wants to remember and what it wants to forget, who wants to keep in and who wants to keep out, which ways of being it finds acceptable and which are the ways it shuns or tries to stay away from.
These words set off some sparks in my beginners’-level-Farsi-learning brain. I dig out my Farsi-to-English dictionary. This is what I find. ‘Nishastgah’ is ‘sitting place’: a place where you can rest for a while, literally any place which will allow you to catch your breath and rest your behind. A moving horse’s back, a stone, a patch of grass on a field: anything could be ‘nishastgah’. A moment of stillness in the midst of long and thirsty journeys. Perhaps a place willing to let you rest without containing you or fixing you. Or imprisoning you within its boundaries. It is your sitting that made it a place; your moving would let it go. Your decision to rest that gave it its placeness. Your decision to walk away would immaterialise it.
Perhaps this is how we must imagine each room in The Last Poet: a resting place that disappears when your back is turned. Your presence completes it, your witnessing makes it material. It is in the reciprocal in-betweenness shared by the one seeking a rest between subsequent journeys and the storyteller who tells a tale in the interim that the nishastgah is created. No promise of fixity is advanced, no assurance of permanent habitation. You cannot live inside a story forever. A story is transient. It is also always being told anew, simultaneously, everywhere. It finds you, before you find it. Planning will not get you there. A story is a resting place, and that only for a moment, until you find another story, or another story finds you swimming in its middle.
Perhaps that is what all cities should be: homes that let you rest, without arresting you. May our cities be resting places for our lost poets and storytellers.