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On Baul and Ballet
Through these two artforms I try to investigate what does it mean to be an audience today?
Fran Lebowitz, the American writer and New York evangelist, did not go to the ballet for almost a decade after her friend, the ballet choreographer Jerome Robbins died in 1998. When, after the decade long absence she came back to the theater, she was shocked at how bad it all was — and not just the dance, but the audience. They clapped for everything, even before the perched dancer began to dance.
The audience of her time was “discerning, knowledgeable, critical.” They fixated on small things like the unwelcome crinkle of a nose. This loss of a discerning audience, she argues was perhaps a consequence of the AIDS pandemic that wiped away New York, among other places. Most of the people who went to the ballet had died, (“a culture that punched a hole in itself… a culture with no sense of continuous history”, as the interviewer Nick Mauss notes) and all the knowledge they had, which usually passed through from older to younger, experienced to amateur, was stemmed in its step.
A gaping hole developed, which today is filled by those who see within ballet a classical art form that elevates social status by mere association. It’s a Veblen good, now more than ever — something whose demand increases as its ticket prices soar. The import of the culture of money, which probably existed before as well, now takes center stage. Lebowitz notes how this all worked to the detriment of who we have becomes, as consumers of art, any art really.
When I was young… it was not really very stylish to have money, so [people I knew who had money] pretended they didn’t. We mostly didn’t go to each other’s apartments, unless you had sex with them. We mostly lived in public. Actual currency had no currency among people I knew.
Now, there are no competing values to money. None. So of course things are different now. Even if these people had not died, things would have been different… Now, people make money all the time, and talk about money all the time, and it interferes with, you know, life! It is the opposite of life.
Keeping the critique of money aside, this all leads to two questions — What does it take to be a discerning audience member today?
(When I say ‘today’, I mean both the 21st Century, and also the COVID19-verse. Vinson Cunningham while writing about theater in the lockdown for the New Yorker noted how going to the theater was not just an act of seeing, but also of being seen. And so, when all of us are indoors, watching films on laptops, it is the act of being seen that is lost. We don’t have to worry about how we look, fear about our phone ringing loudly, or the crunch of our popcorn distracting the hot stranger sitting next to us. I learned, early on in the lockdown, that patience was a virtue I pretended to have more than I actually had, sitting through awful films in theaters that I just cannot sit through at home. Of course this patience also has to do with the payment made at the ticket counter — payment for one film to watch once, and not an annual subscription to an entire catalogue that houses the masters and the mediocre. I also noticed the fungibility of art — and how it is competing with an infinite scroll option on Twitter and Instagram, a click of a tab away. And how these physical spaces, like theaters, are an act of destroying the competition, by regulating the use of anything that exists outside of the theater, including outside food.)
I had noted in a previous post, how writing about films sometimes makes me feel like a dermatologist at a birthday party. People often wonder if taking your eyes out of the screen to look down and take note of a dialogue to quote in the review dilutes the “viewing experience”.
This brings me to the second question: What is the “viewing experience”?
To watch something with rapt attention, to take in all the details, all the colour, the character names, eyes glued to the screen, only to, years later, forget having ever seen it?
Or to watch something with rapt attention, to not just take in, but note as many details, and to then write about it, and then years later, forgotten having ever seen it, to chance upon your review that refreshes the memory?
Or to write about all the details right after, but now finding new meaning in the act of writing that you did not notice in the act of viewing?
These questions I tried to answer conveniently, if not capaciously as follows. It's a rationalization, so of course it's raw and reverse engineered argument.
To experience art in-the-moment. To then talk or write about having experienced the art, finding new nuances. To then remember, years later, about having experienced art, but with a filtered veneer of memory. All three cumulatively become part of the “viewing experience” — each adding and editing around the edges of the first time you laid your eyes on something. (It's all a matter of semantics anyways, but I just find it weird that when someone asks me an opinion about a film, I am not sure if that opinion came while watching, while writing, or while looking back at it with nostalgia. This just axes that worry by not caring about when you felt what you felt. That you felt it, is enough.)
It must be noted that one often happens at the cost of the other. Is sitting down with a notepad (or even taking mental notes) creating a disjointed viewing experience? Absolutely. But does it make sure you will always, as long as your notes exist, remember the film and your feelings for it? That too, absolutely. In that sense the job of a theater or film critic is to pick a side in this trade-off. There are critics who refuse to take notes as the reel runs, and those who staunchly adhere to the notes, even taking small lamps to the theater with them.
But to fixate a little bit on the first part — laying eyes on the work of art for the first time.
When I realized last year, that watching The Trial Of Chicago 7 was the first time post-lockdown that I sat through an entire film in one sitting, without pauses, I recognized something broken that I had inserted into viewing. I was not just looking away from the screen to note something, I was looking away from it for absolutely no reason.
So I was a bit nervous when I signed up for the annual Joydeb Baul Utsav (happening online this year due to COVID19), where Bauls, wandering minstrels in Bengal, congregate under the haze of hashish and music to sing by the banks of a river. The Bauls are peripatetic, infusing Sufi abandon into Bhakti devotion. Their music and fierce love has moved people from Bob Dylan, Rabindranath Tagore, and Kazi Nazrul Islam, to Japanese tourists who ended up leaving everything behind to stay and learn here, and writers who followed singers and wrote books from the countryside.
It was a two day event, each day had a 90 minute pre-recorded presentation of songs, explanations, and introductions. The songs are entirely in the service of God, strung to the lutes (ektara and dotara), drums (duggi), cymbals (kartar), and anklets (gungroo). The first we see of the ektara, the singer notes that the musical instrument is parched and dips it in the flowing river. Draped in orange, often the Baul singers play one instrument on each hand, with the anklets stamping with the feet, while swirling like dervishes, but slowly, more cautiously. Perhaps it's the arthritic age, perhaps it's all the instruments strung about them.
O! Why did I follow the tune? My heart got trapped as I drifted away lost in the Raga.
A lot of their songs, written by the 12th Century Bhakti poet Jayadeva, were about the human being as a temple, a house with 9 doors (the 9 orifices I assume) and infinite windows “for the one who searches”. The search for the God within is the spiritual and literary quest, “Dwelling in the house I have not been introduced to its master yet.”
Often the male singers pose as women while singing, fusing devotion and desire, male and female. On the second day there were female Baul singers, with long untrimmed, untied hair. The singers would soar in pitch, often hovering around the threshold where one's vocal range seems to end. It was sublime musically, with lyrics meant to stain only the hands of the believers. My atheism was unmoved.
(I kept trying to square Bhanuj Kappal’s frustration at not understanding the Bengali lyrics of Baul music when he went to the fair last year, with my perfect, subtitled understanding of the music, watching it pre-recorded and edited on the small screen of my phone, while he was immersed in a thatched, crowded hut in a haze of marijuana. Which viewing experience was “better” — one more immersive, one more comprehensible?)
Kappal, while reporting on the Bauls noted the undercurrent of sadness he was seeing being that of loss. And not just the loss of loved ones — older Baul singers who passed away — but a more existential loss. The loss of an artform. It was easy to note the lack of young Baul singers in their midst. Writing about it was simultaneously reportage and eulogizing.
But loss, as dramatic or debilitating, is routine. Things always slip through the cracks and holes of time. It’s the way life moves on, and part of the tragedy is wanting to hold on to what is lost, while also being both anxious and excited for what lay ahead, knowing fully well, that to experience this future, we must cut out that past, or worse, store it in a museum.
However, the loss often comes with a realisation. With ballet it is about being an audience member that need not be discerning as much as supportive. With Baul it is about being an audience member that is also, in some sense, an archivist. With regular art, it is about being an audience member that is patient — the one who despite not being seen, sees.