TellTale

 

From time immemorial, human beings have communicated through stories. Cavemen drew symbols and images on the walls of the caves in the form of a narrative to communicate with each other. When a child is born, the very first form of communication that follows the gibberish talk of the initial months, between the mother and the child, is more often than not through stories. Story-telling is an ancient art form, a cultural totem, a powerful medium of communication, communion, and sometimes of propaganda; political and religious.

In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a witty satire by the master raconteur, Salman Rushdie, Haroun is a young boy who embarks on a fascinating journey to save a story-telling world from speechlessness and intellectual darkness. There is a passage where Khattam-shud, the arch-enemy of stories in the novel says, ” Your world, my world, all worlds…they are all there to be Ruled. And inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story world, that I cannot rule at all.”

The infinite power of the story or the story-form has been harvested through generations for the purpose of interactions between peoples and cultures. The emergence, dissipation, distribution, and popularity of fairy tales and musical narratives, across cultures and continents, and especially the modification and exchange of tales in the same, goes on to show that the primary mode of cross-cultural interactions was stories. These stories traveled across seas, accumulating local elements and characters, to create innumerable renditions and versions of the same narrative.

When I say, the art of story-telling, I do not mean story-telling in fiction or on celluloid. I am talking about story-telling as a performative art. It is quite surprising to see that story-telling as a performance is hardly talked about or discussed in social or academic circles. So while on my way to college, when I stumbled upon a poster of The Cape Clear Island Storytelling Festival, the Haroun in me lept in joy! Sadly, I had missed the show dates because it was an old poster but it opened my eyes to the presence of a few practitioners who are still trying to keep this dying art alive.

Local artists such as Niall de Búrca, Liz Weir, Paddy O’ Brian, Diarmuid O Drisceoil, among others, had performed in this year’s September leg of the festival in Ireland, bringing their unique styles and narratives to the audience. These are professional story-tellers, who have dedicated themselves to the preservation of this art form. Such story-telling festivals are rare to find. The general ignorance among people regarding the art form and its promotion could be attributed to a lack of knowledge about these events. It is also likely, that the people, who would have found these festivals interesting, the kids and the young adults, have more glamorous and popular substitutes in music concerts and stage shows, to really give these festivals a try. Apart from U.K., Ireland, and the USA, the few countries that still host such festivals as The Cape Clear Island Storytelling Festival in Cork or The Lough Gur Storytelling Festival in East Ireland or the National Storytelling Festival in Jonsborough in Tennesse, storytelling as a performative art has hardly succeeded in grabbing the limelight that it deserves in any other part of the world. Even in these countries, barring Ireland, these festivals are few and far between.

As we stand at the threshold of tough and tumultuous times, with widespread hatred and intolerance and the impending threat of war and strife, we need to summon the story-teller more than ever. Our youth must be encouraged to participate in and be a partaker of these exchanges, that can not only fuel their imagination but also broaden their emotional and intellectual horizons.

In the words of Philip Pullman, ” After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the things we need most in the world.”

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Shutu Stays with You

Trigger warning: suicide, sexual violence

As a seven-year-old, one of the poems I loved reading and performing at elocution competitions was Rabindranath Tagore’s Puratan Vritto (The Old Slave). I do not know why it felt so easy to remember it, maybe because I realized irrespective of all the mechanical readings for the sake of memorizing, every time I reached the end of the poem, I had tears in my eyes and the process never felt monotonous or cumbersome. It felt cathartic. My mother would be surprised to see that the poem touched such a chord with me, and she would say, “You are a sensitive kid.”

The poem is about this old senile slave, who would not leave the master, even after repeated attempts of both the master and the mistress to drive him out of the house. Every time the master threw him out, he would return the next morning, with a smile on his face and a hookah for the master. Eventually, they give up and the master plans a pilgrimage to Vrindavan ( a small district in India), invariably with the old slave in tow. The mistress is doubtful about this arrangement, afraid that the old slave will not be able to take good care of the master, but the master convinces her otherwise. On reaching Vrindavan, the master contracts chicken pox ( the poem was written in the 19th century when chicken pox had no cure in India), and is forsaken by all his friends who had been traveling along; all except one, his old slave. He brings his master back to life, with his love, care, and affection, but contracts the contagious disease from his master, and succumbs to it. The master confides in the audience that after all the repeated attempts to get rid of him, he finally succeeds and how…

As Konkana Sen Sharma’s directorial debut, A Death in the Gunj ends, I had the same feeling I would have while reading the last two lines of Puratan Vritto. If you have ever felt unwanted, unloved, invisible, or small you will know what I mean.

Growing up, I was a fat kid, a fat sensitive kid. From facing ostracization in school, being laughed at and ridiculed for my thinning hair which someone equated with a lizard’s tail in our neighborhood to having this horrific experience of going on a trip with my mom’s colleagues and being bullied and dragooned by their kids, the Shutu in me was howling inside my head as I watched the character on screen brought to life by the brilliant lead actor, Vikrant Massey.

58960940.cms

A Death in the Gunj tells a story in each frame. The first scene sets the tone of the movie as we see two men stowing a dead body in the boot of a blue ambassador that they are driving to Calcutta. Then the story unfolds in the flashback when we see Nandu, Bonnie, Mimi, and Tani, arrive at McCluskieganj in erstwhile Bihar to spend the New Years at their family home where O.P. and Anupama Bakshi, Nandu’s parents live. There is one other person who accompanies them, Shutu, Nandu’s maternal cousin, but from the very onset he is treated as the ‘other’ in the narrative. The family greets and hugs each other, while Shutu, a young, lanky shy boy, is asked to unload the boot and bring all the luggage inside.

The narrative establishes Shutu as this reticent, sensitive almost to the point of being vulnerable, young boy, still trying to cope with his father’s untimely demise, whose favorite words are eulogy, esoteric, and eclectic, and the only person he can relate to is Nandu and Bonnie Bakshi’s young daughter, Tani.

The director beautifully juxtaposes his shyness with the machismo of Vikram, Nandu’s friend, who is seen as someone continuously making fun of Shutu, challenge his masculinity, and belittle him on account of his physical weakness and emotional vulnerability. There is a scene in the movie where a friendly game of Kabbadi, a contact team sport,  in the backyard of the Bakshi’s, ends into an unequal scuffle between Vikram and Shutu, as Vikram mercilessly starts kicking and strangling Shutu to win the game.

Vikram as the quintessential alpha male, who is physically superior, who has a sexual relationship with the ‘foreigner’ Mimi but chooses to marry a Khasi girl from a wealthy royal family because women like Mimi, the ‘fallen women,’ are only meant to be made love to and not loved, as Anupama Bakshi opines in one of the scenes, establishes a world of scary polarities in the filmic narrative.

And to all these people, Shutu is the punching bag, the subject of their blames and disappointments, failures and shortcomings. This is beautifully captured in the scene where one day Tani goes missing and the entire family blames Shutu for the episode, because Tani usually follows him every where. But when they go searching for Tani in the forests, Shutu falls into a ditch, and Nandu leaves him behind in the wilderness and returns home without even, so much as sparing a thought for Shutu. I will never forget the look on Shutu’s face as he returns home that night, having rescued by the Bakshi’s servant, stands at the door of the Bakshi residence and looks at the rejoicing family having dinner inside, without him, having reunited with their daughter.

Perhaps it is Mimi, who drives Shutu towards the final resolution of the drama, as she ‘rapes’ the ‘girly’ Shutu (She tells him in one of the scenes that he is pretty like a girl), and leaves him to his fate.

The scene where, Shutu, filled with passion for Mimi, leaves Tani behind, asking her to keep searching for her lost puppy so that he could go riding with the seductive and misleading Mimi, establishes a brilliant dynamics between the puppy, Tani, and Shutu. The puppy sits dejected on the balcony as Tani forsakes him to run after her beloved Shutuda, and see him ride off with another woman, having tricked her. Heartbroken, she stands there with tears rolling down her eyes. The re-imagining of the age-old love triangle bears the testimony to a moving masterstroke from the director-artist.

That is the moment Shutu looses all, even himself.

That Shutu is a brilliant student, that he might be physically weaker than Nandu but every time beats him at chess, that he is so full of compassion, that irrespective of all their neglect, jibes, condescension, Shutu runs errands for them with a smile, that all he wants, needs, and desires is a little love and understanding from the world, runs as an undercurrent throughout the film.

There is a scene where Tani and Shutu are playing in the garden, and Tani notices that all the names, that of her mom, dad, Mimi, Vikram, are inscribed on several tree trunks populating their garden, but not that of Shutu’s, establishing the fact that they were childhood friends, and although Shutu belonged to the same group albeit he was the inconspicuous and ‘othered’ part of it.

The final scene has such a relaxed banality about it that the end comes as a surprise. O.P Bakshi is busy cleaning his old gun when Shutu expresses his desire to just learn how to hold it. The gun runs as a motif in the film, it appears in many a frame and also in one of Shutu’s nightmares. As O.P. Bakshi reluctantly tries to teach Shutu how to use it, he overpowers the old man and snatches it away from him. Meanwhile the entire family comes running to the spot and Shutu points the gun at Vikram, his biggest nemesis in the movie, soon realizing that probably he himself is his most formidable adversary, at least that is what years of neglect and ignominy in the hands of his own people, drives him to believe, something that he realizes he is too weak to resist. So he holds the barrel of the gun right under his chin and shoots himself.

The blood splatters on the nearest tree forming a sinister pattern.

Shutu finally does inscribe his name on a tree trunk.

Shutu says little in the movie but every fold on his forehead, every look in his eyes, every twitch of his body seems like an entry out of Sylvia Plath’s journal,

“Can you understand? Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little? For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.”

 

Auxochrome-Chromophore

Do you believe in a love that informs, enriches, and encourages creativity? What is the purpose of love, if not to uplift us, becalm us, and embalm our broken spirits? We do not want to be crippled and asphyxiated in love, we must be able to soar; our spirits must be free.

Two women, two artists, and two lovers from two disparate corners of the world decided to redefine love. Their love for their respective partners was so great that they were ready to efface themselves. What is so uncanny is that they lived, loved, and worked in two very different time periods. One was born in the 19th century and the other in the 20th. One in England, the other in Mexico. Despite their different births, different cultures, and different sensibilities,  their lives followed quite identical trajectories.

Born as the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Liverpool, Dora Carrington, was essentially a free spirit. She always felt stifled at home, owing to the domineering nature of her mother. Her father was old and passive and completely at her mother’s mercy. The motherly lessons of morality and propriety were too much for Dora to bear. So when she earned herself a scholarship at the prestigious Slade School of Art at University College, London, she happily set foot on a journey that would change her life forever. Her decision to break away from the bourgeois roots and strike new ones into the fertile expanses of the creative and intellectual bohemia of the 20th century London helped her realize what she truly wanted: Lytton Strachey. Lytton was thirteen years her senior and a homosexual. But that never deterred Dora from loving him more than anything or anyone, even herself. So great was her love for Lytton that she even married his lover Ralph Partridge to enjoy the sustained proximity of her beloved. The three of them, Dora, Lytton, and Ralph lived together in the same house, and Dora continued to devote all her love and attention to Lytton. He was a key member of the celebrated Bloomsbury Group of London that constituted of such luminaries as E.M.Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf etc. He was a man of letters, and his brilliance and erudition so awed Dora that she could hardly ever speak in his presence. Even though she was in her own right and by her own merit a painter par brilliance, she chose to carry on with her life as Lytton’s shadow; a mere sidekick or not even that. Many of her artwork bear testimony to this facet of her psyche, because she too was an autobiographical painter just like my next artist, Frida Kahlo.It is strange that these two women would live such identical lives.

Frida Kahlo, born to Guillermo Kahlo, a Mexican of German origin and Matilde, of mixed Spanish and Mexican ancestry, in the outskirts of Mexico, was always a sickly child. Polio had rendered one of her legs thinner and shorter than the other, giving rise to her lifelong discomfort with her own physicality. Then at the age of eighteen, she suffered a terrible near death bus accident, leading to a broken spinal cord, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder. In addition, an iron handrail from the bus had pierced her abdomen and her uterus, compromising her reproductive capabilities. Gerry Souter in his biography of Kahlo writes, “The scene of the accident was gruesome. Somehow the collision tore off Frida’s clothes, dumping her nude onto the shattered floor of the bus. Seated near Frida had been a painter or an artisan carrying a paper packet of gold gilt powder. It burst, showering her naked body.” She lay there like a vision in gold. That is how she continued to be, a striking beauty in the face of the most extreme affliction, anguish, and physical discomfiture. She was such a resolute and strong woman that she overcame her physical limitations; her broken body, her damaged leg, her degenerative neurological disease; getting back on her feet, doing what she loved best, paint, and love like no other women could have. She fell in love with the famous muralist, Diego Rivera, who had been commissioned to paint the walls in her school. Diego Rivera was a fubsy old man, much married, a communist, and a celebrated lady killer. Frida married him knowing well enough that this man would never be faithful to her. That it is his work and his perversions that were going to take precedence in their lives and she would have to be content with playing the part of the doting wife.

Both Dora and Frida were great artists, who lived a bohemian life. They were bisexual. They had innumerable affairs and liaisons with people of both the sexes. They were both critical of their own work and never believed in the value of their art. They were both bruised in love and yet their love was way beyond any form of self-love. They were happy with their place in the periphery, willingly pushing their more successful lovers into the center stage.  They both believed that their love for their partners was the source of all their creative energy, yet their partners hardly ever played such a motivational role in their lives.  Probably that is why these women are known to the world, more for their personalities, lifestyle, and love lives, than for the oeuvre of their artwork. Whereas Frida’s works were mainly canvas painting in the Retablo mold, Dora had dabbled in a lot of other forms of artwork, such as furniture painting, glass painting, woodwork and so on. Her trompe l’oeil artwork has been considered as some of her most masterful creations. Dora was very secretive about her work and never wanted to display it to the public. In that respect, after her divorce from Rivera, Frida had finally been able to overcome her fear of showing her work to the people. Before that, she would only circulate her stuff among friends just like Dora.

Frida and Dora were always in touch with their feminine as well as their masculine sides. They cut their hair short and experimented with androgynous dressing. The images below bear testimony to that:

 

 

 

The portraits of friends and acquaintances by Dora and Frida share a likelihood in terms of the honest depiction, sense of melancholia, and profundity of emotions depicted in the same.

 

Although Frida’s self-portraits are often allegorical and quite sinister unlike those of Dora’s, they are alike in their brilliant detailing and use of colors.

 

 

It is quite surprising that separated by a decade, in two different parts of the world, two women would think, feel, and paint so alike. That they would be riddled with the same questions of birth and identity, use their work as a personal blog, love someone with an ardor rare to find, happy to glow in the light of their more successful partners, and eventually die an unnatural death.

It is well known that Dora shot herself in the head following the untimely demise of Lytton Strachey. It is said Frida died of heart attack, but it is widely believed that she died of a self-induced overdose of drugs.

Both of them were also known for having written quite a number of letters in their lifetime. Letters that give us a glimpse into their complex psyche, their love, their pain, and their desires. Written in lucid words, overflowing with passion, and creativity (Dora used to doodle in her letters) these written testimonials are a mirror to their unique spirits.

In a letter, Frida writes:

“My Diego:

Mirror of the night

Your eyes green swords inside my flesh. waves between our hands.

All of you in a space full of sounds — in the shade and in the light. You were called AUXOCHROME— the one who captures color. I CHROMOPHORE — the one who gives color.

You are all the combinations of numbers. life. My wish is to understand lines form shades movement. You fulfill and I receive. Your word travels the entirety of space and reaches my cells which are my stars then goes to yours which are [sic] my light.”

So much for love.

My love inspires me to speak my mind, to pen down all those words jostling in my head in search of an articulation. It is not just an Auxochrome, it is a Chromophore too. Shouldn’t love be a Chromophore too? I wish it were for Dora and Frida because they are way too close to my heart now that I have looked into their beautiful souls and realized how lucky I am.

Did you enjoy this article? Thanks! Support our writers by subscribing to TERSE. for as little as $1 a month: https://www.patreon.com/TERSE