India Travel News

Window on India
September 7, 2006

By Vidyadhar Date

Indians once they study, work and research in the West they transform themselves. They do much better. Some of them are doing significant academic work.

Anurdha Mathur, associate professor in the department of landscape architecture in the university of Pennsylvania, knows more about the Katrina disaster than many others. August 29 marked the first anniversary of the disaster which she says was man-made, not a natural disaster.

Similarly, Aromar Revi, an IIT graduate and senior adviser to government ministries, argues that the recently Surat floods were man-made. So poor is our planning and industrial location that the industrial belt near Surat including the big unit of the Ambanis is situated right in the flood zone. Now, the the industry guys complain that no one told them about the flood threat earlier. Villagers knew better.

In the case of future floods, which are likely to be even more massive, the whole industrial belt will go down under while several villages will remain above water. This is because villagers, whom the urbanites would arrogantly dismiss as bumpkins, are more respectful of nature. They have built villages at a higher level and are protected.

The presence of the two speakers in Mumbai in August along with that of architect Dilip da Cunha, a colleague of Anuradha, was very timely. They were in the city for the third annual lecture of Pukar on `Nature and the future of cities : reflections on Mumbai, Bangalore and New Orleans. Pukar is a leading cultural and research organization which sees Mumbai as a laboratory for cross-disciplinary research projects. This again is headed by a prominent NRI academic Mr Arjun Appadurai, noted expert in sociology, urban studies and provost of the prestigious New School New York City, vice-president for academic studies and director of the centre for cities and globalisation at Yale university.

Anuradha Mathur said there is nothing like a natural disaster. But there is certainly something like a design disaster caused by the designing, planning of cities. The Katrina disaster, she said, was caused by engineering of the Mississippi river and interference with its natural course.

Embankments narrowed the flow of the river with inevitable repercussions. The river is now seen as the enemy number one of the U.S. government. The level of the river has been rising due to sedimentation. What engineers forget is that there has to be a proper relationship between land and water, they cannot be compartmentalized, treated as separate entities.

Surat was a great city, Bandari Khoobsurat, it was called a few centuries ago when there was a thriving trade with other countries and Surat was the main port for Haj pilgrims, pointed out Aromar Revi. Blunders caused the recent floods. The authorities in Surat were taken unawares. They merely monitored the rainfall in Surat ignoring the heavy rainfall that was taking up upstream in the Ukai dam catchment area in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

Revi felt that some aspects have been overlooked with regard to Mumbai. Its progress is mainly due to its human capital, the tremendous resilience of the people. We should also not forget that we depend so much on Nature despite all the scientific advance. Cities cannot survive in the most technically advanced times without respecting Nature.

For centuries people have lived in harmony with Nature. Revi felt humbled by the technological innovation and progress in tune with nature in the ancient excavated site of Dholaveera in Gujarat. It belonged to some 2500 B.C. but had a sewerage system which still exists and he actually walked through it.

Old Goa is a world heritage site. The area had a flourishing trade and the township was larger than London or Lisbon. But the Portugese did read the landscape, the pollution they caused through sewage was so much the area had to be evacuated. Surat was once a great city. Now, it is the flood capital of the country.

Noted architect and designer Rahul Mehtrotra deplores the MMRDA commissioner T Chandrashekhars statement that the Mumbai floods were a natural phenomenon about which little could be done.

Americans and people of Indian origin living there can look forward to the visit next month of of a prestigious group from Manipur headed by noted director Ratan Thiyam which will do shows in various cities.. Ratan Thiyams play from Manipur `Nine Hills and One Valley marked a spectacular end to the Nehru Centre national theatre festival last week . Thiyam is obviously very talented and clever. He seems to profit tremendously from the globalisation era through his offerings which are like export quality theatre. It has a mix of local Manipuri culture,music, costumes etc. suited to foreign audiences.

No wonder he is widely known in theatre circles abroad , though not as much in India, at least not among the common people. It is curious that someone coming from a far-off, poor north-eastern state should be doing such high-tech theatre. His theatre depends heavily on big grants, lots of money, sophisticated lighting, dazzling costumes, lots of properties, a big cast, mystic atmosphere and what not. . Without these externalities it will just collapse. Serious theatre should stand on its own. During Shakespeare times there were no sets, the intended scenery, atmosphere were created by words in the play itself.

The theatre done by Kanhailal from Manipur is far more committed and it is so simple and yet highly meaningful.. But Kanhailal does not belong to the globalising crowd. I saw his play Dopdi done at Prithvi theatre a few years ago and it was in every way far superior to the sort of theatre Thiyam does. Kanhailals theatre is highly effective, it also has an intensely dramatic, visual quality but it does not resort to spectacle in the sense that Thiyam does.

His play based on a story by Mahashveta Devi shows the pain of a woman raped by the security forces. The role played by his wife Savitri will always remain in my memory. She really shook and stirred your conscience, she touched your soul. . The play took on the establishment headlong. I found out later that the man sitting next to me and taking down notes was from army intelligence unit. Thiyam creates no such problems for the ruling establishment.

Many people in the audience at Thiyams play were suitably impressed, even bowled over. But few seemed to have got the foggiest idea about what the play was about. Thiyam is right to insist on the use of the local language Meiti just as Satyajit Rai and other stalwarts insist on using the regional language in their films. But in the films you have the sub-titles. Here there are problems galore. The play is amorphous, it does not have a regular kind of script either . Thiyam ends up mystifying the play rather than demystifying.

Ghashiram Kotwal, directed by Jabbar Patel and written by Vijay Tendulkar, is also highly spectacular. But it speaks for itself. Its action flows very very naturally. The characters are far more real, lively. It was nothing if not specific and local in its setting and it is also very global in its theme . But not in the way Thiyams play is. Thiyam has dazzled some critics in the West but his play comes nowhere near Ghashiram.

The Westerners want something exotic, something spectacular,escapist.. The theatre that would be much more meaningful than Thiyams but without his special effects and air of fantasy would not be invited. The tour of the production to the U.S. is partly funded by the Ford Foundation. This theatre export has a catch.. This sort of thing can have a negative impact, tempting theatre practitioners to work for the export potential rather than a theatre that reaches the masses in our country , that handles their problems and works on a low budget.

Those who looked for the content of the Thiyam work rather than the spectacle were disappointed. The performance certainly did not reach whatever meaning was claimed or intended. The only clue given to the audience about the play before the start of the play was a little announcement that the play showed how common peoples lives are disturbed by the powers that be.

There were a few scenes to that effect but all the time one was left trying to figuring out what was happening. What he did probably succeed in doing was in making a spectacle of peoples suffering under violence in such a way that you watch in wonder, you do not think crtically.. There is little ideological insight. That suits the Westerners very well. Reputed critic Rustom Bharucha has written with insight on this tendency to use rituals for creating the effect of spectacle and steering clear of real issues.

The only words that could have been accessible easily to the audience at Nehru Centre were the headlines from English newspapers about blast taking place in one country after another including the recent ones in Mumbai. The trouble is even these were not quite accessible because of the way they were pronounced. Moreover, Thiyam looks at the terrorism in isolation. Just a little image of President Bush could have given much more meaning to the play than all those visually pleasing scenes. But that would interfere with his whole approach.