Sharmistha Saha

Creative Encounters and Artistic Practices

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The relationship of art to practice is not a result of an after thought. Rather art has its originary principle based in practice or to skillful practice to be more precise. This is what the etymology of the word art borrowed from early thirteenth century French suggests. However today when we think of the word art, it appears to us as that which has some kind of material manifestation. It is hence not the process or the practice but preempts a material being. The relationship of people then to art becomes that of consumption rather than a participatory play that emerges into possibilities. Here consumption presupposes a producer who is somewhat alienated from the consumer and the result is the artistic product. However, if we look at artistic practices as processes then we do not run the danger of this threefold alienation, which is that between the artist, the spectator and the artwork. The artwork results then out of an encounter within a volatile space. What do I mean by encounter here? Encounter is essentially a ‘non-necessary chance’ (Althusser), it is the randomness of origins from which the world keeps being born. It is hence a self-renewing process of those involved in such a ‘chance’. Here, what I am getting at is a ‘non-necessary chance’ that art opens up to. It would therefore be contradictory to look at the artwork as something that is a product or manufactured since that defeats the definition of art itself. We can call this kind of an encounter that involves artistic processes as ‘creative encounters’. Creative encounters are able to compose new bodies without manufacturing them. These compositions are opportunities (Hardt) for those engaged in the process of the artistic practice that involves both the artist and the spectator to re-new and enable the formation of new bodies i.e. new collectives or ‘publics’. The ‘publics’ are once again based within the in-between position as it encounters the artistic process that opens up the possibility for the transformation of each participating member. Within this transformation lies self-renewal, individually as also collectively. However such a self-renewal is a possibility not an imperative. Now how do we map such an aleatory process of the ‘creative encounter’? Let us look at an example from the past.

Swadeshi jatra that emerged in the early twentieth century is a good case in hand. The origin of jatra is traced back to 15th century Bengal and Odisha region in India. The word jatra in Bengali essentially means a journey. It is usually used in the context of the journey of devotees who are believers of a certain cult i.e. bhaktas afflicted by the love for their venerated god. As is self-evident, the journey is from one place to the other that included dancing, singing, chanting etc.; a processional march and return to the deity, the embodiment of the revered one, symbolically manifesting a journey of divine rendevouz as it were. Such journeys are said to have their origins in the Vedic society (Ghosh). In the later period dialogues were also incorporated into the form. We are here not concerned with the form jatra and its historical evolution as such but the transformation that jatra goes through at a certain historical juncture given the kind of ‘creative encounter’ we are discussing here.

Early twentieth century political climate of Bengal was highly influenced by the swadeshi movement popularised by Mahatma Gandhi. He had called for commitment of the people of colonial India to its own nation’s natural resources and systems that lay in the villages. At the heart of the movement lay the desire to fight the influx of foreign goods that was increasingly making trade and manufacturing for Indian artisans and manufacturers difficult. In 1903 the partition of Bengal presidency was declared by the British colonial government in order to stop consolidation of communities against the British although the government argued that it was because the Bengal presidency was huge that it required dividing it. The proposed Bengal partition saw a huge upsurge against it. Ashwini Kumar Dutta, a member of the Indian National Congress, at Barisal in present day Bangladesh and the founder of the Brojomohan School had initiated the singing of swadeshi songs to instil patriotic ideals amongst the students. Joggeshwar Dey, later to be known as Charankobi Mukundadas was highly influenced by the pariotic teachings of the school. In fact it was believed by several swadeshi movement activists that there was a fundamental need to reach the larger masses through their own cultural forms. Joggeshwar Dey’s keen interest in kirtaniya (a form of improvised singing and dancing usually by bhaktas for their revered God) and the teachings of Ashwini Kumar Dutta were going to be a huge influence in his work as a jatra performer. He converted to Vaishnavism (bhaktas of the god Vishnu) and came to be known as Mukundadas so as to become a successful kirtan singer given the relation kirtan had to Vaishnavism. He later converted to Saivism given that Saivism had a huge influence on the Hindu nationalist movement of the period. In 1906 he started working on what came to be known as Swadeshi jatra. Several other jatra parties or groups sprang up across Eastern Bengal. Mukundadas’ performances were some of the most impactful amongst the people.

It requires to be highlighted here that most of these performances before they became political tools for mobilising people, were manifestations of bhakti amongst the people who were believers of a certain cult. Bhakti, which is also known as bhakti rasa (aesthetic affliction or emotion), is an aesthetic experience that does not necessarily, have any relationship to religious devotedness. It is only with the work of Chaitanya in the sixteenth century that bhakti came to be related to the ‘desire’ for god. A shift within Indian aesthetic theory happens during this period where it was understood that it is the devotees who feel the rasa. The works of Rupa Gosvamin and his nephew Jiva Gosvamin of sixteenth century Bengal were able to theorise aesthetic experience in a mundane sense of everyday life transfigured by religious passion (in this case for Krishna). Talking about this transfiguration Sheldon Pollock writes –

‘Religious consciousness, previously exiled from the world of rasa, eventually succeeded in exiling secular literature itself, which now became a matter of “worms, feces, and ash,” according to one later thinker, and no longer deemed capable of producing rasa.’ (53)

Therefore jatra like many other performance forms were meant to evoke theological inclination amongst those who experienced such performances. It evoked an aesthetic experience that had religious implications and derived its force from the ‘desire’ for god. During the performances of jatra it was not very unusual for spectator-bhaktas to bend down their head, or cry etc. feeling a sense of connectedness/one-ness as a result of bhakti-bodh i.e. the feeling of bhakti, an aesthetic experience that as was elaborated belonged in the devotees. As a result, when the Dramatic Performances Act was instituted in 1876, a censorship law, it was decided to keep jatra out of the purview of this act. While formulating the Bill for the Act, keeping in mind the consequences of 1857 mutiny, it was opened for debate. It was admitted in the record of the Legislative Council Proceedings that a section of Indian opinion was against the Bill. One such opposition or rather suggestion was from Raja Narendra Krishna who proposed amongst other things that jatra, not only on religious occasions but on other occasions as well be excluded from the purview of the Bill. However, with swadeshi movement, we see one more transfiguration that opened up bhakti for non-religious experiences. And this time within the context of the socio-political situation of Bengal, jatra as a form encountered its own transfiguration creatively.

In 1910, L.F. Morshead, Inspector General of Police, Lower Provinces asked for an elaboration of jatra from his Indian subordinates in a letter dated 15 September. He wrote –

‘The question has arisen, as you know, as to whether steps should be taken to prevent them spreading sedition, but I find myself hampered in considering it for want of a clear definition… They seems to me to have a great potentiality for spreading sedition but there does not appear to be much evidence for saying that they are actually so used.’

His subordinates clarified –

‘Jatra is an informal dramatic performance, usually quite harmless, without any scenes or a stage. These jatras are usually held on occasions of Pujahs (Hindu religious ceremonies) in the quadrangles of gentlemen for the amusements of guests. It is also held in the open air, when sections of bazar people in Calcutta and elsewhere celebrate their ‘Barwaris’ or common Pujahs. The subjects are usually religious or mythological. The jatrawallas, who are usually very poor people, sometimes introduce comical farces, usually at the end of the jatra, to amuse chiefly children and boys, the subjects being quarrels between two ghosts or between co-wives or between some drunken people etc.’ (Chattopadhyay, iv-v)

However, the attitude of the government had already shifted regarding jatra which is evident from a circular deemed ‘secret’ from the Chief Secretary to the Government of Eastern Bengal and Assam to The Commissioners of Dacca, Chittagong, Rajshahi and Surma Valley Divisions dated 28th July, 1910. The circular, which is a series of directives regarding seditious performances, goes –

‘It has been suggested that the provisions of the Dramatic Performances Act 1876, may be utilised to prevent the performance of dramatic plays with a seditious tendency by theatrical companies and jatra parties… The provisions of the Dramatic Performances Act, 1876, although they may be applied in the case of certain towns in the manner indicated in the first portion of this paragraphs, are not, it is feared, suitable for application in mofussil areas, since the Lieutenant-Governor is advised that jatra parties do not perform in ordinary circumstances in places which are public places within the meaning of section 3, or places of public entertainment within the meaning of section 10 of the Act. Such entertainment usually takes place in the local Kalibari, in some private house, or possibly in an enclosed space open to all. A further difficulty arises from the application of section 12 of the Act, as almost all jatra parties in the mofussil are given during or in connection with religious festivals.’ (Chattopadhyay, 125-126)

As is evident from the above ‘difficulties’ that the colonial government officials had to face in dealing with jatra that ‘creative encounters’ opened up a volatile space such that its contours begin to take shape during this period.

So, from here we derive our first proposition that ‘creative encounters’ open up the possibility of adjustments that may be manifested in its reflection on socio-political life in distinct ways and in this case with law. This conflict led to a vigilant administration that took note of any such performances in unconventional spaces that were of suspicious nature. For example, in a letter written to the Chief Secretary by one R. Nathan on 28th December 1908, we come to know that Mukundadas’ jatra performance Matripuja or ‘Prayer to the mother’ had come under notice. Furthermore from these records we come to know that on 30th December 1908 was highlighted that a note was to be sent to Magistrates and Superintendents of Police and also to Commissioners with an introductory note, which said –

“Recent reports indicate that one of the most effective means of promoting seditious feelings lies in the representation of jatras, songs, and dramatic pieces. The reports also show that among the most popular and at the same time most objectionable of these compositions is one entitled Matripuja which, though its representation in different places presents various features, seems on the whole to be essentially the same…” (Chattopadhyay, 6)

In another record (File No. 410 of 1909) we see that there was investigation to know the ‘history of the Jatra parties’, and at least two performances, Matripuja (being played since the partition) and Danabdalan or ‘House of the devil’ (being already played since eight years) were of concern. In the same record we come across the Court order from Mymensingh, a verdict of the case between the King-Emperor versus Gangan Chandra Sutradhar and Nabin Chandra De who created the jatra performance Danabdalan in which they were to show cause as to why they would not be fined for performing Matripuja and Danabdalan respectively. It elaborates on the story of Matripuja that it “describes a contest between the gods and demons in heaven, in which the demons (Asuras) are represented as rulers and the gods (Debagan) as the persons ruled. Owing to the oppression of the demons, the gods ultimately rise against them and drive them out…” (Chattopadhyay, 13)

 

Names of political figures such as Surendra Nath Banarji and Ashwini Kumar Dutta were also mentioned. Ashwini Kumar becomes a physician in heaven in the performance. Similarly the name of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee who composed the song Vande Mataram made popular by the Swadeshi movement is also used. As Bankim Chandra means a moon in a bending attitude, his name becomes an epithet for the god Krishna who apparently ‘composed a sweet song in honour of the Mother’. (Chattopadhyay, 19-20) At the same time the performance spoke about bideshi or foreign made goods that needed to be discarded. The note concludes that “The appearance of this new form of jatra in these days of agitation has some political significance. At least the people generally understand it to be so, though the story is based on a very old book of Hindu mythology and apparently there is nothing wrong in the play.”(Chattopadhyay, 24)

Nabin Chandra De was discharged, as Danabdalan did not carry such overtones of political matters. However the British administration became cautious about any cultural text that was called Matripuja because of the seditious sentiment that any document with such a name might spread. Hence when Mukundadas’ Matripuja was being performed there was enough vigilance about it. His Matripuja deviated from Gangan Chandra Sutradhar’s version. In fact it did not take the route of the mythological at all. In Mukundadas the story is about Deputy Magistrate who eventually leaves the slavery and drudgery for the British and wants to join the swadeshi movement. His wife tells him to stop serving the British government but he throws his wife out of the house. He later comes across a fortuneteller, a fallen woman and a few cloth sellers who tell their stories of how they got converted to the swadeshi doctrine. Influenced by these meetings, the Deputy changes his mind and converts to the swadeshi doctrine. This shift from the mythological to a secular narrative, I would argue, becomes possible because of the opening up within the mythological, whereby entry of socio-political themes and debates become possible within the aesthetic experience of bhakti. The bhakta-spectator’s devotion for god in case of bhakti is absolute, therefore the interjections of the mythologicals with narratives from contextual political situation was made accesible for the bhakta-spectator, although of course with some aesthetic negotiations. As a result with time what opened up was the narrative itself that could now only concern itself with the socio-political without the support of mythological characters. Hence a shift from bhakti for god to bhakti for country or ‘desh-bhakti’ transpires without much difficulty for the bhakta-spectators who were now concerned about socio-political issues. This led to the British colonial government’s discomfort. Thus from here I come to my second proposition, which is that ‘creative encounters’ bring about subjective transformation within the spectator that allows for newer possibilities of affections and concerns. This is possible not through any calculative campaign but due to affectations that creative encounters open up. What as a result of such creative affectations are often formed are communities of affliction. These communities unlike the bhakta communities are not absolute but are ephemeral beings or bodies. Victor Turner interestingly has called them the communitas. But the formation of the communitas does not gaurantee the formation of absolute bhakti. In the case of Swadeshi jatra, creative encounters opened up possibilities of the formation of the communitas but it was also the transgression of individual being everytime such an encounter happened, a transformative power (Fischer-Lichte) of the encounter that worked on the spectators repetitively i (in the Deleuzian sense) that from a theological bhakta-community, a nationalist bhakta-community of deshbhakt-s arose. This would not have been possible if the transformation was not at a subjective level. (This also suggests that bhakti as an aesthetic feeling is absolute yet it not without possibilities of transgression. Here, it is not the concern of this paper.)

From this second proposition one could come to a third one. After violent opposition from the people of Bengal the decision of the partition of Bengal by the colonial British government had to be rolled back. The significant contribution of the swadeshi cultural movement at this point cannot be denied. Mukundadas, who by now had come to be known as the swadeshi minstrel had collected around thirty-seven injunctions that aimed at stopping his performances. (Chattopadhyay, 33) Finally it was on the basis of four songs out of fifty-three songs of Matripuja that were published that a charge sheet was prepared against him, which were considered of seditious nature. About him the detective department in its compilation of facts wrote –”He…became a jatrawalla, and toured the country with his company of strolling singers. In 1909 he was convicted and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment for publishing a book of seditious songs and to two years at a separate trial, for singing seditious songs in public; his appeal against these convictions was dismissed by the Session Judge of Bakarganj in March.” (Chanda, 37)

The impact that Mukundadas’ jatra performances had is evident from the fact that the British government left no stone unturned to have him convicted and finally he was released in 1911 by when the decision of partition was already rolled back. The third proposition is this that as a result of subjective transformations a re-assembling of existing bodies of people, the community of spectators becomes possible creating volatile assemblages as a result of ‘creative encounters’. Borrowing from Christian L. Novetzke I propose that a ‘public’ is created within the context of bhakti. Novetzke critiques Jürgen Habermas’ argument that the construction of the public sphere often relies upon at least the technologies of modernity or as according to Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge’s study of public culture that it remains limited within the interstices of modern life. He rather uses the definition by Michael Warner which is that of ‘a public (that) enables a reflexivity in the circulation of texts among strangers who become, by virtue of their reflexively circulating discourse, a social entity’ wherein the object of belief of the public is a fiction or ‘not a physically demonstrable thing, like a state, village, township, or other polity; nor does it exist in a carefully constructed discourse, like a judiciary, a set of laws, or a dogma. A public relies as much on the imagination of each individual as on a collective agreement as its existence. People must believe they are part of a public, and this gives it both its strength and its ephemeral quality’ (261). The ‘public’ is distinct from the popular since it makes utilitarian appeal to a majority or it is distinct from the word communal, where the individual is subordinated to the whole, it ‘implies a measure of resistance to homogenous social entities that cause the erasure of the individual’ (261). Novetzke argues that this public, in its experiences or portrayal or being part of the sense of bhakti, is neither ruled by dogma nor coercion but made cohesive by a social agreement where participation is suggested by the ‘embodiment’ of bhakti as a prerequisite for its practice. That is to say it needs bodies or entities of collective being, which is the epicentre of all happening. According to him it is this symbiotic equation between bhakti and its embodied performance within the confluence of which the public is created. He equates it to love and asks if love can be called a social movement and argues that it is ‘a locus for the creation of publics, not the formation of a single social or literary movement’ (261). And this power of a creation can both hold a negativity or positivity as bhakti remains an ‘empty vessel’ However I would like to further his argument for the case of all artistic practices that does not treat the artwork as a product but rather as a process, one that happens to be initiated by the artist and that which involves the spectators. In the case of artworks or performances that are not means to an end but are pure means such a ‘public’ is created. Swadeshi jatra therefore, I suggest although aimed at mobilising a certain people to meet political ends but any simplistic argument about successful performances or merely contextual readings of the people, who watched such performances, does not fully explain why this people would become an afflicted group, which I have borrowing from Novetzke called the ‘public’. Here what is definitely required to be taken into consideration is the making and unmaking of publics, subjectivities and socio-political and legal environments that are constantly moving within the volatile spaces that ‘creative encounters’ leave open for us.

i. Repetition for Gilles Deleuze along with difference is metaphysically and logically prior to the formation of an identity. It is contrary to any representation even as mediation but rather a movement that is evidently free and is the task of freedom which is what also makes it a novelty.

Bibliography

Althusser, Louis. Philosophy of the Encounter: later writings, 1978- 87; London, New York: Verso; 2006.

Chanda, Pulak. Jagaroner charan Mukunda Das o tar rachanashamagra; Kolkata: Dey’s Publishing; 2011.

Chattopadhyay, Basudeb. Folk Theatre and the Raj: selection from confidential records; West Bengal State Archives; Higher Education Department; Govt. of West Bengal; 2008.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. The Transformative Power of Performance: a New Aesthetics; Taylor & Francis, London, 2008.

Ghosh, Ajit Kumar. Bangiya Lokosanskriti Kosh (Encyclopedia of Bengali folklore); ed. Barunkumar Chakraborty; Kolkata: Aparna Book Distributers; 2007

Pollock, Sheldon. A Rasa Reader: Classical Indian Aesthetics. New York: Columbia U. Press, 2016.

Sarkar, Sumit. Swadeshi Movement in Bengal 1903-1908; Kolkata: People’s Publishing House (P) Ltd; 1973.

 

Novetzke, Chritian Lee. Bhakti and its public. International Journal of Hindu Studies; Vol.11; No. 3 (December 2007), pp. 255-272.

Websites

Hardt, Michael. ‘Creative maintainance: an interview with Michael Hardt’. http://artseverywhere.ca/2017/06/05/creative-maintenance-michael-hardt/. Acessed on 19th September, 2017.

Sharmistha Saha is a theatre practitioner and researcher based in Mumbai. Currently, Saha is a faculty member at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai.

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