Thinking about art and community in Bangalore
My father told me that in Madanapalle, the small town in Andhra Pradhesh, that he lived in as a child, there was a story of a ghost walking around and knocking on people’s doors at midnight. So people would write with chalk on their doors - Reyapu-ra which in Telegu means - Come tomorrow, O, Ghost.
It was a strange afternoon in early August 2016. We were staying in a house at 626 Angelus Plaza in Venice, Los Angeles, a short distance from the Oakwood Recreational Centre. Venice has always had resonance for us, recalling impoverished years of living in LA, schlepping across from Hollywood to the beach on the weekends, eating boardwalk hotdogs at Jody Maroni’s. So when my brother rented a house there for a few days, our sun set perfectly. That evening, we were going across to Oakwood rec to watch the final rehearsal of Cornerstone Theatre Company’s community collaboration with Venice – Ghost Town. This was on the invitation of old friends from the Los Angeles Theatre Centre, Shishir Kurup and Page Leong. I was so looking forward to seeing them, I didn’t do much reading up on the play besides that it had to do with real estate developers and community.
Around 4pm that day, the helicopters and police car sounds began. These are ubiquitous sounds in LA, tearing through heart and imagination but pretty soon it was clear that this time they were very near, relentless and something was up. Minutes later it was on the local news and twitterfeeds. A man was dead in a deliberate shooting at 7th and Brooks, the shooter was still at loose, running around Venice in a Star Wars mask. Interestingly, the report didn’t specify which character so it could have been anything from Darth Vader to R2D2.
An important detail of geography: Oakwood Recreational Centre is on 7th and California Ave, so almost exactly where the shooting had taken place, give or take a few 100 meters. The Oakwood area of Venice is historically African-American. At first, Oakwood was a settlement area for segregated workers from the oil fields (yes, oil was discovered on Washington Street in the late ‘20’s and the boom lasted into the 70’s) – so predominantly black. Then the San Diego freeway opened and brought in a Chicano immigrant community. It was only in the 70’s that white Americans thought to populate Venice, thanks to the counter-culture movement. Oakwood is also known as Ghost Town.
It’s easy to see chronological change, like the layers of a cake – black, Chicano, white. Essentially Oakwood provides a park and games facilities for a middle class community of workers and artists who feel embedded in the area. Over the years, two street gangs, the Mexicano Venice 13 and the black Shoreline Crips have added to Venice legend. The Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (MEChA or, Chicano Student’s Movement of Azatlan) calls Oakwood the last beachside community of colour in California. Hold onto this thought for what comes next.
We thought for sure the play would be cancelled given the location of the shooting and the fact that the shooter was still at large. Texted Shishir, no response, so figured he was busy with production and guessed that nothing was stopping Cornerstone Theatre. So we trudged off to the venue and snuggled into the blankets provided on the grass.
Ghost Town, the play, could have been about Bangalore. Take an old community of people confronted with rapid change, gentrification and money, the only possible outcome is a love affair between politicians and developers. Sort of like the Burning Man of cities. Start with an “anarcho-hippie fire ritual in San Francisco and end into a pricey end-of-summer romp for 65,000 people. With growth comes the controversy around the impact of big money.” Begin with something ineffable and end with money. Exactly like Bangalore.
There are several Bangalore groups on Facebook dedicated to memorializing old Bangalore. They post pictures of homes, street names, restaurants long gone, with a wistful eye on the past. We miss our milestones, these posts seem to say, Hotel Victoria, India Coffee House, the MG Road promenade. There is a sense that emotional moorings and spatial bearings are being lost. But development cares nothing for these ghosts, contrarily it works at erasure. Erase everything, monkey tops, tiles roofs et al, and build Singapore in its place or ironically, Venice. Sentiment and emotion are handed short shrift where change is concerned.
Cornerstone Theatre, on the other hand, worked with living residents of Venice. Through story circles and dramaturgical research, they collected oral histories, perceptions and yes, even dreams. Dreams of houses once lived in. Dreams of love experienced in these. Immigrant dreams, desegregation dreams. The geography of Venice was traced by residents – the route to school, work, home, park, market. In serendipitous casting, Venice old timer Ernestine Anderson plays iconic community activist Jataun Valentine (who is her real life friend). In more serendipity, the role of the young Jataun is played by Valentine’s real-life, great, great grand-niece, 6-year-old Jolie Brasile. Using this harvest of bounties, Cornerstone devised Ghost Town.
Tracing the intentions of tobacco millionaire, Abbot Kinney (Valentine’s grandfather had worked for him) who in the early 1900’s developed Venice as a seaside resort town complete with pier and roller coasters through the downslide of county neglect and gang warfare, the halcyon 60’s and finally the present day familiar crisis of soaring real estate and developers getting old timers out in order to gentrify and welcome a new generation of hipsters with money. You’ll recognise this tribe, wanting to fly their freak flag, but with decent coffee.
For the sake of my argument, I won’t go into details of playwright Juliette Carrillo’s script, the tenderness shown by director Rebecca Novickot or the solidarity of mission of the large and diverse cast and crew. Rather, let me draw your attention to the connection between community and art making practises. In the contemporary context, how does one go further than mere audience development (for that is about just getting bums on seats), how does one actually involve people on multiple levels and engage with the community around? How do we find a new aesthetic that holds people’s participation in as high regard as skill or commerce? It is an issue of democracy.
Back to the shooting. By now news feeds say the shooting had to do with real estate and rampant development around Venice. It was not random, it was targeted against one person and that person was dead. No news on whether he was a resident or a developer. Either way, you get the picture.
Transpose this idea of Ghost Town, of community generated theatre to Bangalore. Imagine a theatre process that puts together residents of a community, say, Whitefield, as this is one community that has been desecrated beyond recognition by IT and the developers who followed in its wake. Imagine a play that brings together old timer Anglo Indians, Kannada and Telegu speaking residents of Ramgondanahalli and Varthur and the new IT crowd. Imagine them all sitting down together and talking about what they feel about community and what they envision for Whitefield. Imagine making a play about Whitefield with these people as the actors. Unimaginable, right?
But Cornerstone Theatre has been doing exactly this, negotiating with people who cannot agree and creating inter-community work for 30 years. Their foundations are laid on “the conviction that artistic expression is civic engagement and that access to a creative forum is essential to the wellness and health of every individual and community.” Their play cycles – The Faith Cycle, for instance, had them engaging with communities of faith – Muslim, Hindu, Unitarian, Jewish, Methodist and Catholic. The question asked through 21 plays and other theatrical offerings, such as a Jewish Walking Tour of LA, is - How does faith divide us, how does it unite us?
Globally and even historically, all theatre exist in ecosystems with sometimes conflicting, sometimes colluding influencing factors such as economies, venues, vie et les temps, aesthetic trends, ethical values etc At this moment in time in Bangalore, were we to examine our ecosystem we would all be agreed on the paucity of good, affordable theatres as an influencing factor. We’d also agree on the traffic and competition with other events for ticket sales. Where we probably wouldn’t agree is why we each make art. And so it should be. But that shouldn’t stop us from asking the question.
We live in post-democratic times, where the power of vox populi is fundamental to our understanding of society and politics. High culture is critiqued as elitist. Sub and counter-cultures are appropriated from the people as and when the moolah calls it (in the case of pop music) or it sees fit (in the appropriation of Bharath Natyam from lower caste to upper caste). We are inundated with entertainment and information choices. Mario Vargas Llosa writes in his essay How Global Entertainment Killed Culture “It is very likely that never in human history have there been as many treatises, essays, theories and analyses focused on culture as there are today. This fact is even more surprising given that culture, in the meaning traditionally ascribed to the term, is now on the point of disappearing.”
In the same essay Vargas Llosa explores ideas proposed by others on the subject of art-making. TS Eliot, for instance sees “a culture (as) made up of three “senses” of the term: the individual, the group or class, and the whole society. While there is some interaction between these three areas, each maintains a certain autonomy and develops in a state of constant tension with the others, within an order that allows the whole of society to prosper and maintain its cohesiveness.” Agreed. He goes on to link all of western culture to religion, namely, Christianity. Hmmm. In 1971, George Steiner objected to Eliot’s essay because he felt that it was disingenuous or worse, anti-Semitic, to write of culture post World War II with no mention of the Holocaust. You see? Whatever the point of view, there is no separating art from society. The question is what values we will hold on to while forging the link. Will we hold art up to the challenge of transcending time, offering spiritual sublimity or be satisfied if it meets market demands? Vargas Llosa, in closing: “What this new culture needs is mass industrial production and commercial success. The difference between price and value has disappeared; they are now the same thing, where price has absorbed and cancelled out value.”
Therefore, for our survival, let alone the health of the larger community, we need to consider new ways to bring people in both emotionally and physically and to provoke questions unceasingly through our theatre-making. Why should we be certain of our endings? Why obsess with the tried and tested? Instead, why not return to the community, reveal our fears and ask them for help and collaboration. “Any theater that has a result in mind is not having a conversation.” says Michael John Garcés, artistic director of Cornerstone Theatre, therein lies a credo to create by.
Finally , as cities go and as ghosts move in, I wonder about the way forward for my city, Bangalore. It seems to point towards dialogue and generosity. The Armageddon is never a good time for survivalists. It’s heroes we need, ghostbusters, who can say with strength of conviction, we’re here for you. So, reyapu-ra.