Monday, June 23, 2008

TRIBUTE TO Salim al-Deen: A Great Contemporary Theatre Personality of Bangladesh

Good-bye my friend, it’s hard to die – Syed Jamil Ahmed Once again I am reminded of the Mahabharata. Dharma quizzed a thirsty Yudhisthira on the bank of a lake, at the price of his life: “What is the greatest marvel?” All four of his brothers already lay dead, having failed to answer Dharma’s riddled questions. Yudhisthira, an exile in the forest, replied unhesitatingly: “Each day, death strikes and we live as though we were immortal. This is what is the greatest marvel” (Carriere 1987: 105). As I write this, Salim al-Deen lies buried in Jahangir Nagar University campus. I did not pay my last respect as he lay at Shaheed Minar nor visit his grave.

There is something uncanny about a dead person. It is not the pallor but the unnerving stillness. Now Freud (1998: 156) admonishes me with a smile: “everything is unheimlich [uncanny] that ought to have remained secret but has come to light.” It is then that Salim al-Deen’s face melts into the lake from where issues once again Dharma’s question. I can see my face reflected in the dead. Suddenly, the eyes open. They stare back unblinkingly. I forget my thirst for life. I run away – exiled in the forest – for life – I have not known Salim al-Deen for a lifetime. It has only been thirty-four years. This‘knowing’ is spread over designing two of his most renowned plays that are now considered landmark productions in Bangladesh theatre – Kittan-khola and Keramat-mangal; directing one of his play named Chaka thrice – in the USA, India and Bangladesh; and arguing with him on innumerable occasions with all my passion – because of – what appeared to me to be – his follies, slips and flawed lines of reason.

Now, I can only look back in anger for having missed my chances of unsaying the said and saying the unsaid. Yet, if I did have a second chance, what would I say? A few months back, he rang me up suddenly one night. It was a telephone call out of the blue. Salim al-Deen was depressed. His work had not reached the world, hardly anyone read himbeyond Bangladesh and West Bengal.

Life, he repeatedly said, remained unfulfilled. He seemed sure that he would die soon. I laughed – scoffed him for his infantile death instinct. “You are the greatest playwright in Bangladesh,” I said. “I value your work more than Tagore’s. Don’t hanker after publicity and acclaim of the press, Salim Bhai. Keep writing. I translated Chaka and will translate other plays, soon. I will publish them with a critical introduction on post-colonial theatre Bangladesh.” He spoke for sometime and before hanging up, said, “Maybe I needed to hear what you have said –.” This was the last time I encountered him. Uncharacteristically, we did not argue or fight. It is as though all our accounts were already settled.

I did not realize that it was the time to say adieu. But was it adieu – “I commend you to God” – and not au revoir – good-bye till we meet again?The signifieds endlessly slide under the signifiers, the presence of the word implies the absence of the Real, and we all are obliged to live in language – to endure the impossibility of presence of any object or person of desire. We are always-already living with/in absence – even with those who are ‘present’ – those not yet ‘dead’. Perhaps it is in this impossible dream that theatre exists: of conjuring the ‘present’ – the ‘here and now’ – as a lived moment, ‘making believe’ that presence sips not from cupped palms as we witness the weaving of a phantasmal rhythm of life from here to eternity.

It is here, in this evanescence of theatre that I can hope to weave my performance of Salim al-Deen – or perhaps perform my Salim al-Deen – yet again – and again – for ever – till death do us apart – I perform Salim al-Deen in the kaleidoscope of a rural fair of Kittan-khola enveloped in winter mist and fog. Tread softly. There, not far from you is Shonai – a marginal farmer in his 30s who will soon be landless because the rising bourgeoisie of Bangladesh can make better use of his fragmented plots. He will kill the man who is out to grab his land, leave behind the haunting memory of his dead wife and seek a new life with a woman of an itinerant snake-charming community. A key event that sets the transformation in motion is a performance of Shamsal Bayati (scene 4), where he describes the mythical phoenix burning itself on a pyre and the rising of another phoenix from the ashes. As Shonai watches the performance, it connects a high-voltage chord in his unconscious and he swoons. When he recovers, he asks Shamsal Bayati : “Then which is the truth – life or death?” Shamsal Bayati replies, “It is an ongoing struggle of metamorphosis, my child. No form is ever-lasting.” : If life is the truth, why have I never attained happiness in living?” : Why do you seek happiness?: Because there is. : My child, life is a great joy – sparkling with unbound vivacity. This you will realize at the hour of your death (Kittan-khola, scene 7, al-Deen 1994: 863-864). What was your realization – Salim al-Deen – at the hour of your death?

As you lay unconscious, propped up with life support system at the ICU of a hospital, as a few hundred theatre practitioners gathered outside waiting and hoping against hope for you to revive, even as I told Nasiruddin Yousuff, your most-loving friend, that you cannot die – that it is impossible that you will die now – that your life instinct is far stronger that all the wishes of Azrael – did you not remember the great joy – sparkling with unbound vivacity? But perhaps you had other plans. Perhaps, you had met Peer Gynt’s Button Moulder, and so had already decided to engage the grave-diggers?See there, death-defying Sindabad rises again in Hat Hadai set against the waters ofcoastal Bangladesh. Having sailed across the Seven Seas in sixty-four years of his life, the ancient mariner Anar Bhandari now lives like an aged whale marooned on an island near the coast of the Bay of Bengal. Death instinct overtakes him and he decides to engage a gravedigger to scrape up his last resting place. In the distant horizon, the glowing sunset sizzles softly in steamy vapors of mist. A group of people of the island has gathered around the spot where the grave is being dug. They are struck silent with fear, apprehension and grief. They realize that the use of spades and spuds in digging graves are similar everywhere. The spuds are necessary for the steep walls of the grave and the spades for lifting the earth.

In the vast landscape of the alluvial soil and sand of the island, the earth will yield the volume equivalent to a human body. In its place will descend the dead. All the memories of passion and amorous delight traced on the body for a lifetime will be clasped frozen within the binds of a white shroud. As they reflect, the eyes of the spectators are trapped in the sparkling mica of the thick-grained sand. They shiver as each of those sparkling particles dance in fading sunlight and transform with the rising mist into tears of the earth. Thus you wrote in Hat-hadai (episode 14, al-Deen 1997: 140). And yet, I have no tears for you. I refuse to yield you as a corpse and let you descend into your newly dug grave and rot. I refuse because I remember how Anar Bhandari renounced death and sought life in the pleasures of amorous delight with Angkuri and voyaged yet again across the Seven Seas. I could scream – "Arise, Salim al-Deen, if only as Anar Bhandari. I will marry you to Angkuri and watch you sail across the sky of this chilly winter night. I will erase Orion and in his place trace your body with stars as Adam Surat –“ At this point, the telephone rings. I pick up the receiver. It is the voice a reporter, asking me to comment on the death of Salim al-Deen. “I cannot comment,” I say. “No comments –“ Aren’t comments invariably trapped in unashamed crudity as they attempt to sum up all that is to be said in one puny little sentence, failing even to notice the sliding of the signifieds?One such crude comment was made by a theatre pundit at a conference in Islamabad, after I had related for his benefit a synopsis of Chaka. “Oh yes, I understand – it’s the wheel and life and the wheel of life.
Bit it is so clichéd an image!” But, when I tried to explain that Chaka is a valuable example to prove the point that a play can be written without dramatic conflict – in contradistinction to the much-esteemed theory of Hegel, Brunetière, Archer and company – the pundit, along with the circle of luminaries surrounding him, stared back with a blank gaze, utterly flabbergasted. No comments this time! For such skeptics as these, the only answer can be a performance of Chaka – such as the one we had created in Delhi – which again is not to claim that it too would silence them. Nevertheless, most of them gasped when they saw the ‘stage.’

It was our macabre joke to sit the spectators on stage and perform the play in the auditorium. And where the spectators would sit, rather where their heads would rest, we put up white masks – all uniformly staring back at the spectators in uncanny silence. In the midst of these death-masks, in a vast space a hundred feet deep and sixty feet wide that was doubled many times over by skillful lighting, the cart-driver of Chaka, along with an old man and a youth, embarked on a journey to deliver a corpse of an anonymous man. They are all poor migrant workers who had set out to seek work at a marshland where summer crops are being harvested.

One never learns who the dead man was or how he died, although the corpse is the central character of the play around which the action is woven. As the living trio travel with the dead through rural landscape, each small detail emerges with compelling clarity, melting in phantasmal memories and fantasies of the three, engulfing themwith a touch of the uncanny. Even though the presence of the word implies the absence of the Real, and even though we all endure the impossibility of presence of any person of desire, the trio begins to ‘touch’ the ‘dead’ in a manner that defies the absence of the Real. The body decomposes, rots, stinks – eyes bulge out – ants attack the flesh – yet the three cannot find its ‘home.’ The villagers of the address given to them refuse to acknowledge it and redirect him to another village. There, the corpse-bearing cart arrives late at night at a homestead which is more like a blazing vision of a frozen moment of life: the loud-speaker screams a marriage song, the celebrants have dozed off to sleep after a day of hectic labour, and only the bride with her friends – not a Sleeping Beauty – greet them with fearful eyes. Thus driven away from all human destinations, the driver and his two companions bury their dead on a dry riverbed. By that time, the dead has already arisen in of each of them. Thus burying and yet refusing to bury the dead, the three continue for their destination. Thus as I perform Salim al-Deen, as I try to piece together a meaning of this man who was called Salim al-Deen, I ask myself, do I really value his work more than Tagore? Would not Buddhadeva Bose (cited in Chakrabarti 2001) glare back at me and scoff that “modern Bengali culture -- if such a thing exists, and I believe it does -- is based on Tagore"? Salim al-Deen would not argue against Bose’s opinion.

But consider Raktakarabi, which is about a king who has trapped himself behind the iron curtains of a kleptocratic system that extends its vast network of tentacles even within the private life of the workers and seeks single-mindedly to extract the last iota of wealth with ruthless precision and mechanical efficiency. Tagore sets up a Nandini to rally the king and the common people to destroy the system of subjugation. My post-colonial location – a discursive product woven by discontinuous fragments of colonial history, now integrated into a totalizing globalizing society through commodity exchange – generates intense skepticism in the comprehension of the world produced in plays such as this.

The symbols are so obvious and characters such as Nandini and the King are so blatantly reductive that at no point one reads the world anew with Tagore’s lenses. In contradistinction with him, I would insist with Foucault (1977: 138) that “the subject (and its substitutes) must be stripped of its creative role and analyzed as a complex and variable function of discourse.” A subject (including this ‘author’) is “not the speaking consciousness, not the author of the formulation, but a position that may be filled in certain condition by various individuals” (Foucault 2002: 129). Subjectivity is formed by discursive practices; it is historically constituted within relations of power. Intrinsic to social life, ubiquitous and multiple, power is that which constitutes and differentiates competing interests and “manifests itself in forms of struggle at the political level.

These struggles make subjects what they are” (Edgar and Sedgwick 2002: 74). This is not to argue that Salim al-Deen takes a Foucauldian position in his plays. Indeed he does not and that was one of my points of contention with him. Nevertheless, Salim al-Deen also does not project a monolithic Tagorian Truth of Nature, Beauty and Humanist human subjects. His characters are fissured, contradictory and fragmented, and are literally woven with gossamer, in a manner that captures the most remarkable trait with briefest strokes. It is thus that he threatens the superficialities of ‘life’ and unmasks the fathomless depths of a magical reality. Despite his neo-romanticist and symbolist streaks, the characters – most evidently in Nimajjan – succeed in disintegrating perception, subverting deep-seated assumptions of life and projecting humans as discursive subjects. As the characters of his plays transform endlessly, they depart radically from the conventional categories of realism or romance, and hover over expressionist and surrealist landscape but, at the same time, refuse to abandon “a sharply etched realism in representing ordinary events and descriptive details” (Abrams, 1993:135). The refusal results in, as Abrams (1993: 135) would say, a tendency of interweaving in an ever-shifting pattern the realism in details “with fantastic and dreamlike elements, as well as with materials derived frommyth and fairy tales.” In performing Salim al-Deen, we have in theatre what Scholes (1979) recognizes ‘as ‘fabulation’ characterized by allegory, romance, a self-reflexive tendency encouraged by the writer’s critical skepticism, and “a sense of pleasure in form” (1979: 2) for its own sake.

FromKittan-khola to Hat Hadai, one witnesses al-Deen breaking away from norms, abandoning dramatic conflict, dialogue and even a linear cause-to-effect relationship in the development of the action in the plot; instead, he embraces the narrative whole-heartedly as in the indigenous theatre of Bangladesh and infuses his prose with an inbuilt poetic inflexion that situates itself in the interstices of the two categories. He succeeds in what Tagore sought but never could accomplish: breaking completely away from Euro-centric models that had largely taken hold of urban theatre of Bangladesh and West Bengal. It is here that Salim al-Deen, in spite of his admiration for Tagore, transcends him many times over. It is here that Salim al-Deen is unquestionably post-colonial – borrowing a convenient sign-post from Gilbert (2001: 1) that nevertheless recognizes a contentious terrain – in that his work exhibits “a strong urge to recuperate local histories and local performance traditions, not only as a means of cultural decolonisation but also as a challenge to the implicit representational biases of Western theatre.” And to this Salim al-Deen, I bid good-bye – adieu – till we meet again – not in life after death but in the sounds of silence when the spectators have all departed, when I sit alone in the empty auditorium enveloped in its cozy and uncanny stillness, when I am confronted once again with the question from the lake, when I realize that the lake melts into your face – I know you will swagger across the stillness with your characteristic gait, smile and ask, “Where has Peer Gynt been since the last time we met?” (Ibsen 1966:222) At that instant, I should ask you in return, “Where was I? Myself – complete and whole?” (Ibsen 1966:222) But, in the presence of the word that implies the absence of the Real, with the ‘self’ discursively woven by discontinuous fragments, ‘I’ will surely miss my cue. Precisely then, I know you will quote Tagore (1971: 108), as though to tease me, and say, “There is sorrow, there is death, and the pain of separation sears Still bliss, happiness, and the eternity emerge endlessly within us.” This is the greatest marvel – References7Al-Deen, Salim (1994) Kittan-khola in Shatabarsher Natak (Bengali Plays of 1400 B.S.) Vol. 2, Dhaka: BanglaAcademy.

Al-Deen, Salim (1994) Kittan-khola in Shatabarsher Natak (Bengali Plays of 1400 B.S.) Vol. 2, Dhaka: BanglaAcademy. Al-Deen, Salim (1997) Hat Hadai, Dhaka: Bangla Academy.Al-Deen, Salim (2004) Nimajjan, Dhaka: Krantik. Abrams, M. H. (1993) A Glossary of Literary Terms, Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College. Carriere, Jean-Claude (1987) The Mahabharata: A Play, London: Methuen. Chakrabarti, Indrani (2001) A People’s Poet or a Literary Deity accessed on 18 January 2008. Edgar, Andrew and Peter Sedgwick 2002 Cultural Theory: The Key Thinkers. London: Routledge. Foucault, Michel (1977) “What is an Author?” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, edited with an introduction by Donald F. Bouchard, translated from the French by Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Foucault, Michel (2002) The Archaeology of Knowledge, translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith. London: Routledge. Freud, S. (1998) ‘The Uncanny,’ in Literary Theory: An Anthology (Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan ed), pp. 154-167. Malden, Mass: Blackwell. Gilbert, Helen (2001) General Introduction, Postcolonial Pays: An anthology, Helen Gilbert (ed.), London:Routledge. Ibsen, H. (1966) Peer Gynt: A dramatic poem, Peter Watts (tr. And intro), Harmondsworth: Penguin.Scholes, Robert (1979) Fabulation and Metafiction, Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Tagore, Rabindranath (1971) Geetabitan, Ajit Kumar Guha (Ed.), Dhaka: Kathakali.

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