Rapport från AICT-IATC:s möte i Indien

Sedan flera år är Margareta Sörenson styrelsemedlem i AICT-IATC:s internationella styrelse. Denna har just haft sammanträde i Indien i delstaten Gujarat. De indiska teaterforskarnas årliga konferens hade bjudit in AICT till Sardar Patel University i Vallabh Vidyanagar.

Temat för konferensen var teaterkritik ur alla tänkbara perspektiv och att detta kunde ske just nu och i just Indien beror på att det sedan något år finns en teaterkritikerförening i Indien, detta jätteland.

Styrelsen beslöt bland annat att tema för nästa kongress för AICT blir ”Femininity in Today’s Theatre”. Kongressen hålls i Jerevan i Armenien i juni i år.

Här är Margareta Sörensons bidrag till konferensen i Gujarat: ”From Orientalism to Gobalisation”, ett föredrag som handlar om hur publik och kritik sett på indisk dans och kinesisk teater i Sverige under 1900-talet.

Lite mer som Margareta skrev från Indien kan man läsa på Scenbloggen på Expressen.

Indian and other Asian art in Sweden
Text: Margareta Sörenson

Since medieval times Europeans brought back from distant travels glimpses from the treasures of Asian cultures. Even in more ancient times traces of an exchange are visible, as the beautiful ornamental figures on the ”runic” stones in Scandinavia, where the richest and most dignfied vikings let their excitings lives and travels be engraved on huge, verticular stones marking their death.

Gold, jewlery, silk and spices as well as precious know-how of handicraft work and other skills were brought back – Asia served as an enormous treasure box for European cultural life in a wide sense already centuries before colonialism. Once the colonial pattern began to establish, Asian goods as china and silk became highest fashion among Europeans of some wealth, and it will be almost trivial to remind this conference of the frequent prooves of oriental influence in culture and art such as Mozart’s operas in the 18th century or in ballets of romanticism in the 19th century. The shift between the 19th and 20th centuries saw once again a revival for orientalism in the arts, in dance, in stage design, theatre and in fashion, and waves of fascination over the oriental heritage had repeatedeley rolled over Europe as the hype in the 1970’s with the Beatles going to India, the 1980´s with Ariane Mnouchkine staging Shakespeare in Asian inspiration and Peter Brook to investigate in Mahabharata as a theatre performance in France. 

As a European and Swedish the necessity to reflect over colonialism as well as over post-colonialism is evident; guilt, responsability and future tell us to do so. India was one of the first Asian colonies to gain independece, others where to follow. During my lifetime the world has been reorganised and this was not a gift generously presented by the former mother colonial countries and their allied. On the contrary. The price for freedom and independence was high, in all aspects. And still is. The world still lives through post-colonial conflicts, racism, intolerance, xenofobia and climate unbalance between richer and poorer countries dominate political life, puzzle the observer and is needed to be confronted one way or the other.  Yet, the last decade has thrown us all into the arms of the internet era, and borders seem to become ancient constructions of human minds. Globalisation is the name we use for our experience of the earth conceived as one globe, possible to reach for all its inhabitants. Globalisation is creating new patterns of exchange and influence between cultures and does not always seem to put us in front of new risks.  

Did globalisation change attitudes towards other cultures and traditions? I will try to analyse some exemples of how the Swedish attitude towards other cultures changed over the second half of the 20th century. Sweden is a far-away-land from an international perspective. Also within Europe Sweden is situated in the peripheria, and in the Swedish tradition culture always was an importation goods, from other European countries. The Asian influence was normally transported through the medias of France, Italy,  Germany, Holland, England when coming to Sweden.

After the second world war, there was a thirst and a longing for travelling in Europe. Within theatre and dance networking had been cut off by the war, and young artists hurried to travel to Paris for training in disciplines of performing arts as well as arts and literature. New possibilities to recieve guest artists from abroad reopened old doors shut. In Sweden, a society for promoting dance, Dansfrämjandet, was formed, an organisation producing dance classes as well as guest performances. The first big success of the association’s work was the Swedish tour of Indian dancer Ram Gopal and his dance company, visiting Stockholm and touring in Sweden in 1949. 

Ram Gopal, who already toured in Europe during the 1930’s, and his tour and performances were as praised as Uday Shankar’s had been. Gopal came back to Europe and Scandinavia after WWII, and was once again admired and praised by large audiences and critics. While touring in Europe Kay Ambrose, the artist that followed Gopal through the years and caught his dance in her sketches, stressed ”the unearthly beauty” of the performance. In New Statesman a journalist praised his dance ”as unearthely physical control”. Ann David, British and a specialist in Indian dance, analysis in an interesting survey 50 years later, ”Ram Gopal: A Challenge to Orientalism” in the Indian yearly dance magazin Attendance 2001, how the words and the language chosen in the descriptions and comments tend to ”transform himself into the mythological goods that he was portraying” in his dance. Referring to Ania Loomba, Ann David claims that ”just as knowledge is never innocent, neither is language in the realm of colonialist and Orientalist thought”. (In the case of Uday Shankar and his European tours he was deeply admired, but his dance and the company was described like ”native” or ”Hindu” even if the main female dancer was French and the director of the music was Muslim.) David refers to Edward Said who stated (1995) that ”the Orient has been ”Orientalised”, that is, created as a Western reality. In modern times these generalisations are no longer acceptable and dance is named by its particular country of origin.” 

In his first European tour Ram Gopal basically showed Kathak and Kathakali dances, during WWII he stayed in India and trained Bharata Natyam. Coming back touring in 1949 the program of the Ram Gopal company performed a spread of variations of Indian dances, Kathak, Kathakali, Bharata Natyam, Orissi in what could be called a showcase for Indian dance. Ann David also pointes out that Ram Gopal had a clear ”strategy of translation”, where his program had ”enough variety but not making them over-long, was considered with both his Indian and Western audiences in mind”. Thus his two most famous pieces, Garuda, the Golden Eagle, and Shiva’s Dance of the Setting Sun, where excerpts or re-compositions from the Kathakali tradition and served in a way that could be recieved also by an ”ignorant” audience. 

One of the dancers in the Ram Gopal troupe, Lilavati, stayed in Sweden after the 1949 tour and married the Swedish manager of the association promoting dance, Dansfrämjandet, Mr. Bengt Häger. As Mrs. Lilavati Häger, she took on a mission, together with her husband, to inform and show Indian classical dance in many different Swedish communities. You could say, that a piece of the Ram Gopal Indian showcase, stayed in Sweden and continued the work started on her own. Together with her husband, at the time also intendent at the Dance Museum of Sweden, she started to organise an Indian collection and made an Indian exposition. 

This all happened few years after the independence of India, and Sweden was at the time since long a country with a social democratic government who lively took part in the post-war internationalism and built up relations with the countries of what was called at the time the third world as well as in the United Nations, where a Swede, Dag Hammarskiöld, became the president 1953. The new independent countries, finally liberated from the colonial structures and systems, were embrased by the Swedish government, a policy even more intensively fullfilled later during the time of Olof Palme as Swedish prime minister. The Swedish neutrality, both critized and praised during WWII, served as a platform for a comparitively open-minded international policy.

Dance and other performing arts was true ambassadors of the countries from this new out of Western-world. I have the privilege to know Mr. Bengt Häger, now 93 years old, who a decade later also became the president of UNESCO’s Dance Committy. According to Bengt Häger, dance during the 1950’s and 60’s was a true political matter. Newly created nations in Africa formed national dance troups touring in the Western world and the pan-african cultural festivals, as in Senegal 1966 or Nigeria 1977, were of great importance in shaping national identities and national self-respect. The approach was very often to restore and preserve old, classical or folklore art forms and ’protect’ them from modern, western influences. Half a century later it is easy to understand and sympathize with the attitude, but already when restoring art forms, they start to leave the tradition and the pattern of free and wild growth that is typical for art forms without control from schools, institutions, show routines, managers, politicians, political programs and so on.

Still, even if the Swedish society and large audiences, were receptive, curious and interested in art forms from other continents and the new nations of the post-war world, the reception ot the theatre critics did not easily slip out from a perspective we today would call colonial. Swedish researcher Christina Nygren wrote in 1996 a study of the first guesting troup of Jingju, (earlier called Peking Opera), from the new People’s Republic of China in 1955, with eleven performances in Stockholm, Uppsala and Göteborg. The interest was considerable in Sweden, the Chinese inspiration in theatre was important above all in relation to Brecht’s plays. This Jingju troup performed in Paris before coming to Stockholm, and some critics saw the show already in Paris, and reported in Swedish papers. One critic wrote that to ”describe the classical chinese theatre is as delicate as to touch finest china or silk, even our words and language would feel too clumpsy….this is a synthesis of acrobatics, dance, song, speach and music in an artistic form where a finger might express the whole universe or the emotions of an entire people.” On the other hand, a distinguished music critic writes arrogantly that ”this is not opera in the true sense, but a strange put-together of chinese theatre forms….the singing reminded us sometimes of a cat mewing in falsetto, sometimes getting closer to a slowly sliding baby’s cry, however, with a pledging tone.”  Some critics were also referring to Brecht’s theatre or the French so called ”total” theatre of the time. Christina Nygren notes, that more political questions totally are left aside, and no one examines, or has the knowledge to do so, the texts (translated to Swedish) to the performances, which clearly shows how the new Chinese cultural politics has started to adopt the plays to new political needs which will me more clear under the coming cultural revolution.

Nygren, who for decades worked with research in dance and theatre in Asia (Japan, China, India, Bangalore) and the last five years directed an exchange program in theatre for young audiences between Sweden and China, Vietnam, Laos and Bangladesh, concludes that even today the tendency is that ”intercultural perspectives are based on an euro-american way of perceiving and rather would underline differences, hegemonism and exotism than opening for an exchange.”

She also discusses the ”inter-cultural persepctive” of our own time and the tendence to be a kind of ”cultural tourism”. Referring to the Indian scholar Rustom Bharucha and an Indian perspective, she quotes Bharuchas polemic against Richard Schechner, well-known to the Western world for an open-minded analysis of contemporary theatre and cross-over performing arts. Bharucha writes:

”Apart from decontextualizing ’ritual actions’ from their larger structures (and thereby, neutralizing their meanings) Schechner seems more eager to synthesize underlying patterns of structure/process in differing performance traditions rather than to confront their individual histories. This ecclecticism is almost as problamtic as his advocacy of ’cultural tourism’ which tends to be examined on a purely technical level as a generator of new performances, rather than as an instance of the cultural exploitation of now-western people”.  

Nygren also refers to Bharucha’s critic of Patrice Pavis for constructing a ”’one-way street’ in which the sources of ’other cultures’ are reduced to materials used stratically by ’receptor-adapters’ of the ’target culture’ for their specific purposes.” 

Globalization and the rapid media changes with internet seem to have changed both our perspectives of different art forms and the freqency, not to say normality in using and enjoying the world’s culture forms. Japanese Manga is loved by young people of the Western world, and you could clearly see their impact in comic strip and animated films from any place on the globe. Fifty years ago Indian dance was presented, for instance in Sweden, as an artefact, as a jewellry – beautiful to watch, too delicate to touch. Today Bollywood films, watched not only in India,  present Indian dance traditions but in a structure close to American film dramaturgy of dance films several generations after Fred Astaire.

From an attitude of ”watch – admire – but do not touch” the approach tend to be ”get inspired – consume/enjoy – and use it! according to your own needs and taste”. Individualism, for the better and the worse, is a key word for understanding our era, after the collapse of 20th century’s dominating ideologies. Thus the personal interpretation of any art or art form is to our mind interesting; we look for the personal print in a piece of art work, such as dance or theatre.

In the case with Lilavati in Sweden, this wise woman drew conclusions of her life long mission being ambassador of Indian dance in Scandinavia, and in this way contributed to mutual understanding. Late in her life, she saw and asked a young dancer Rani Nair to take over the solo piece, Dixit Dominus, that Kurt Jooss created for Lilavati decades earlier. Rani Nair is Swedish with one Swedish and one Indian parent. Although she has some classical indian training, she is a dancer and a choreographer of contemporary dance. My conclusion is, that Lilavati, herself with a part of her childhood in England, saw the quickly changing world and the fact that a population in any country in Europe, like Sweden, has around the millenium shift some 20% immigrants. Someone that have double root systems can not possibly be accused of cultural tourism, it is just as natural to have access to two cultures as it might look strange to only refer to one. A more famous example is, of course, Akram Khan, dancer from UK with two parents from Bangladesh, and a trained kathak dancer before he became one of the most important contemporary choreographers in Europe.

Kurt Jooss’s piece Dixit Dominus was created as a solo for Lilavati. Clearly her Indian based technique inspired Jooss, and the rapid foot stamping is associated with Kathak. But the red overall costume and the expressive attack has German expressionist roots, obvious to discover in Rani Nairs young and powerful interpretation. Now in her early thirties she has a carrier mainly as a choreographer of perfomance-like works, also close to stand ups. Her piece Gingerbread Land (Pepparkakeland) is a critical analysis of the new racism and xenophobia that is creating dark shadows over most European countries and Sweden as well. Having a skin coloured like a ”gingerbread” is taking a risk of being harassed by neonazis, rascists and more and more ”normal” Swedes or Europeans who will put the guilt of all domestic problems in immigration.

The last two years Rani Nair collaborated with a Norvegian dancer, Mia Haugland Habib,  choreograph and a dancer and sound artist Jassem Hindi with a background in philosophy. Together the trio travelled with the work ”We Insist” and performed in Mexico, Damascus, Paris, Stockholm and other places, re-adopting the piece for the context and the space in question in these different locations. The multi-cultural team seem to have a skill of sensitivity towards different cultural contexts and the piece was reshaped according to the conditions. The sound artist, placed on stage worked with his technichal equipment and the many cables were used in the performance – in one sequence they were tied to one of the dancers and the reference to Abu Graib was clear.

The critics of performing arts are used to interpretate signs and pictorial elements at stage and did so. The piece ”We insist” seems to have been read as contemporary dance in a globalized word, without special notes on the national background of the performers. The decodification of a piece of contemporary dance is as non-national or global as is contemporary dance today.

On the other hand, Swedish buto artist SU-EN, always must expect that the theatre or dance critics feel alienated towards the buto tradition and investigate half of their texts in explaining what buto is. SU-EN is a native Swede who worked with dance, studied buto and classical female dance jiuta-mai, returned to Sweden and left her private name, Susanna Åkerlund off-stage, and became SU-EN.

– Already the fact that I am Swedish will have an impact on whatever I am doing, even if it is buto, says SU-EN herself. By and by the resistance and hesitation towards buto in Sweden has faded, but the reception in art galleries has been far more enthousiastic that in theatrical or dance stages and venues, according to SU-EN. Also Japanalogy and universities with teaching of sinological languages are interested in her work, but in the world of theatre stages it is not always easy to accept that the working process of buto the artist is not only a dancer, but an creating artist responsable for the totality of what could be seen at stage.

SU-EN work with a small circle of dancers/actors and has to defend herself against the claims of the majorities in Swedish cultural life. ”We are a mini-minority”, says SU-EN. ”Is it positive or not?”

SU-EN represents a small and unusal form of globalization, and evidently the theatre critics seem to move in the slowest speed in the world of arts and cultures. It is impossible to draw an exact line between a healthy skepticism of the critic and pure conservatism and narrow-mindness. But as the critics complained of the ”mewing” in the Chinese Jinju guest performance in the 1950’s, the theatre and dance critics of today have diffficulties to handle the already global art life in a globalized way.

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