Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Failing at Epic Episode Scale, and the Epiphanies Therein

A recent experience brought to mind the first half of the title of JK Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech of 2008: “The Fringe Benefits of Failure….” But I think I feel this way because of my proclivity to drama. For neither did I encounter failure, not were the benefits so fringe.

Some of you might have heard about a performance piece I have been working on for a few months now.  Some of you were there the first time I performed it as a work in progress in March 2011 at Madras-Chennai Local’s event, “Dancers – Separate and Together,” a video of which was taken and uploaded by friends at www.archive.org/details/Brihannala.  Some among those some were even kind enough to watch it again, when I performed it for the Justice Rocks fundraiser for campaigns working with pollution-impacted communities, on 5 June 2011. This second performance of the short version of Brihannala, which is developing into a longer and more fully fledged performance piece and taking me to exciting places (speaking both figuratively as well as literally), brought with it a staggering moment of insight and humility.

For those of you who have not watched the performance or the video: the piece is in the form of a self-narrative by an actor who plays Brihannala repeatedly as part of a theatre tradition. He maps his gender non-conformity and same-sex desires onto the character of Brihannala, an ephemeral persona in the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. Brihannala, is, in fact, Arjuna, one of the heroes of the epic, spending the last year of his exile with his brothers and wife, as a eunuch.

An obviousness that could perhaps use some stating here is that a big part of this work is also autobiographical: if not the specific details, at least the essence of the desires and dilemmas spoken about are. In thinking about the kind of inner resources that Arjuna dug into in being Brihannala, in the work, I wonder where he found the  energy within himself, what he was sublimating in thus castrating, almost literally, himself, one of the most celebrated heroes of Hindu mythology, possessor of a sort of an iconic masculinity even. Reflecting on his own repeated performance of Brihannala and his love for the character Arjuna as well as the actor who plays the part, the speaking subject, which is me, says that he knows how he keeps his sanity, what he sublimates in his performances. I had ended the script and the first performance of it with the lines “I think I know” repeated over drumbeats and some mad stomping of feet.

This moment and the kind of certainty of knowing something that it offered me were, I had assumed, pivotal to the piece as well as my current reading of my compass of desires. In the second performance of this piece, however, the rug was pulled from under my feet. When I came to the moment where I compensate for my lack of clue about Arjuna's psyche as Brihannala with an admission of my knowledge of my own mechanisms of forbidden desires, self-sublimation and sanity, I froze momentarily. Right there, while performing in front of a hundred people, I was presented with the recognition that this time around, I was not so sure I knew what I sublimated in my performance of genders, what I did to keep myself sane. There I stood, deprived of the impressive sense of sure-footedness with which I had ended my script, which I had assumed I could just stick to for any number of performances. There I was, a mere few months after the scripting and the first performance, having lost that certainty.

But I could worry about those later. What was more urgent was to decide what had to be done right then, while faced with this realization that ran completely counter to the script. Someone said epiphanies happen outside time. Wasn’t it James Joyce? Virginia Woolf had a remarkable phrase: “a moment of being.” I chose to be truthful. And the performance ended with my saying, “I am not sure. I thought I knew. I thought I knew.”

The insight was not only that I did not know whatever it was that I thought I knew. It also had something to do with a question: what do I do with such knowledge, albeit knowledge of an ignorance, while I am in the middle of giving an account of myself, even when that exercise is in the form of a performance. Not that I have resolved this question forever in favour of a candid disclosure, simply because I managed to do it once. All I know is that I did it once somehow trusting that the universe and the audience present that day wouldn’t laugh at me even if the performance capsized under the weakness of the moment. I do not know what I will do next time. Well, I do not know what will happen next time!

Why did I refer to JK Rowling’s speech about the fringe benefits of failure? Well, without being too harsh on myself, I can say that I did fail a little that day as a performer in not being able to deliver a power-packed performance that is rock steady in its course. But at a personal level, I am immensely grateful for this experience. In thus admitting aloud my not knowing some things, in recognizing that some of my answers are makeshift, I was able to get updated about myself. It is generally good to catch up with one’s truths at least once in a while, I guess. It could keep the effects of self-delusions at check, if not entirely at bay.

1 comment:

Shruthi said...

So, this character-performer crossover... there is a malayalam movie - Vaanaprastham - that talks about this and the character in question is also Arjuna.

I don't know how it relates to this, but I do think that in some way that character is similarly tracing a journey through love via his character Arjuna...

This also reminds me of Tagore's Chitra...