The Games they play
- Shanta Serbjeet Singh, New Delhi

October 14, 2010

Today is the final day of the 19th Commonwealth Games. Yes, the Games which have dogged the lives of Delhiites' for months and which have dominated the national mindscape for weeks. The closing ceremony this evening will, no doubt, provide enough glitz and colour, especially for television watchers who are not required to walk miles through dust and rubble, from far away shuttle drop off points, to get to their seats and who, once they get into them, can last five to six hours without water and other facilities!

Let us not forget that the magic, such as will unfold this evening, will come from the battery of more than 600 hi-tech cameras that have been brought into action by the British Company, SIS. This is one, outsourced job that can be called successful. And it is this simultaneous play of hundreds of cameras that will focus on just the right, sanitized nuances, on and off field that will help create the images that will make us forget hardships. DD, which has the exclusive rights of telecast has already been ordered today to take all ad promos off the two hour live ceremony. While this will make the sponsors cry foul, the home watcher can sit back in his/her armchair and enjoy!

One who did make the physical journey for the opening ceremony, Rajiv Sethi, came back seriously disenchanted and disturbed. Now Rajiv is not just any rasika. From Aditi, the first major Festival of India event in 1982 at the Barbican in London, to the Golden Eye, the Apna Utsavs and many, many global mega expositions of Indian traditional arts, Rajiv has been at the core centre of cultural activity since the 80s.

I spoke to Rajiv about what were his impressions of where we had arrived in these 30 years. He based his comments on the opening ceremony, widely hailed as "spectacular." And he said: "Of late, modern 'tamashas' have been unfolding, camouflaged in the tokenism of tradition. Whether it be Republic Day floats and pageantry, folk dance festivals or art/crafts in the metros or mini-cultural forays in foreign countries, there is an increasing power play of patronage from those who know less and less to those who are more and more in the public eye."

He called the October 3rd show "the mother of all opening nights," something likely to "become the trend-setter for legitimate promos of Brand India for at least until the next shift and shove of paradigm occurs." He recalled his journey to this new cultural site, set up by those who know "less and less and are more and more in the public eye" beginning from the beginning. Allow me to add here that occasionally I have been unable to resist putting in my comments. But they are in parenthesis and easily spottable and of course, Rajiv is not to be blamed for them! This is what he had to say:

"The ticket for the opening - marked 'Complimentary' with 'Rs. 50,000' written boldly and "void if sold" in small type - came to me from friends on request. I managed to get to the Fortress geared up in the tensile design of Frie Ottos' Munich Stadia vintage 1972 in a swish bus for athletes. After being shuttled from gate to gate by clueless volunteers, I found myself seated in a block far away from the royal box, choc-a-bloc with a zillion people, also waving the Rs. 50,000 tickets!

The show started with the star of the evening, the helium balloon with a golden hemline and polka dotted belly – 100 per cent imported and like all foreign models the ultimate show-stopper. Foreign it remained, barely used to its inherent potential. The mirror discs constituting the underbelly didn't perform and I am told will turn into a disco for the closing event. The burgeoning balloon's surface became the potent seed of a robust banyan bursting at its seams with images. Clearly a great device for New Delhi where unlike the stadium at Beijing, the structure lent no defined surface to project the moving image and no hanger mid-arena to lift or hang much else.

First, the Rajasthani kathputli rose into the air manipulated by people on the ground, with pullies anchored on the balloon. Then came the Tree of Life lifted from a pit shaped like a havana kund in a massive stage dressed like a yantra (all evocative and impressionable stuff, but don't look for more meaning). The tree (made by a bevy of swish designers like Madhu Jain and company) looked sadly like a trunk made of ribbons – drab, formless, lacking a craft. The videos on the balloon did not complement the vast vocabulary of a 'Shajar-E-Hayat' with evocative cross-cultural iconography on interdependence animating it with diverse forms of knowledge.

Then emerging from the pit rose a lit-up yogi in padmasan, as a contoured shell within which a row of chakras rose kundalini-like. WOW! Thereafter a banner dropped with Gandhiji depicted in a rude rendition of Imtiaz Dharkar's linear and minimal sketch marking his spectacles and bald head. Weak, but accompanied on the balloon with an animation of Bapu being led by a child, created by shifting sand; those dexterous fingers of Oriya artists making waves on India's Got Talent season. What was projected on the balloon and what transpired on the ground was another matter. Sometimes it came together and linked beautifully. At other times it fell apart while layering imagination with inappropriate graphic design talent.

On the ground, the act that took my breath away was executed by school kids and conceived by the Britisher, Bryms, who used it in Beijing to create magical calligraphy. I loved the open palms with mehndi emerging like a welcoming rangoli. Low-tech, least intimidating and glamorous. Did the closed circuit videos on the balloon show the kids on the ground painting on "the sky stretched over their heads"? If so, M.F. Husain would definitely have smiled had he seen it. The Yoga on the ground with sweaty youth in Lycra fabric was a little foolish, but the videos on the balloon were as beautiful as the contoured yogi. (I found those costumes unacceptable).

The train sequence was a great plus but only as an idea since it was executed with a tacky sense of contemporary Indian scenography. The white Ambassador car laden with loud speakers and khadi clad politicians was delicious, the Dhobi Ghat was lost in execution, the kids on a bicycle pile reminded me of rickshaws seized by the municipality and dumped on the Yamuna Ghat. The turban tableaux on the rickshaw were limp. The rickshaw cracker display was fun, but pretty much all else was inept. More particularly, the jazzed-up handloom float paying lip service to the poor weavers of India looked as doomed as their disappearing livelihood. The take-off on labourers carrying bricks on their heads running helter-skelter was in poor taste. Remember, they were the true heroes who slogged to build the stadia."

What about the sequence with six classical dances, supervised by Gurus Singhajit Singh and Charu Mathur, for Manipuri, Sonal Mansingh, Odissi, Birju Maharaj, Kathak, Raja and Radha Reddy, Kuchipudi and Bharati Shivaji, Mohiniattam. One dancer who remained out of the limelight but was hugely responsible for putting discipline back into this segment was the co-convenor of the OC's Art & Culture Committee, Prathibha Prahlad. Rajiv Sethi's comment:

"The classical dance forms got a teaser as a visual metaphor. Sonal Mansingh says she has had SMSs since the opening from parents wanting their kids to learn! But are we not devaluing the most venerable and time-honoured forms thematically, stylistically, and choreographically by clubbing them together as an assembly line presentation? The melting potpourri syndrome of mega shows hard pressed for time can get away with murder. I think we need to be as careful as the West is about its classic forms. No opera and ballet can be trivialised or messed around with. Nor did we at the opening, but our great masters may need a crash course on economies of scale and visibility if they have to be a part of mega shows. This sector, I feel, lacked the eloquence of silence – desperately needed – perhaps it should have been paced with the quiet grace of a solo performer commanding a grand presence. Video-links on the balloon could have helped etch elusive details but were absent on nuances such as for abhinaya or the expression of an ustad tuning in.

Modernity? Please spare us the LEDs on ply-board sitars and tablas. What, then, constitutes New India? I believe the evergreen spontaneity of our ancient people, re-inventing, adapting, moving on with dignity while acquiring an original edge. The knowledge economy has myopically ignored their capacity to create non-imitative content.

Do the Theyyam dancers of Kerala, as part of their profound ritual performance, feel comfortable when pulled out of context and used as mere props for colourful pageantry? Do they get a better sense of themselves being part of the whole we call India? The popular so-called "folk artists," de rigueur in such hold-all bistar bandh productions, are being increasingly exploited as fillers (whenever in doubt, put a drummer in feathers). The Siddi Goma of African descent who used to dance in white costumes as part of a ritual celebrating trance, are no exceptions. It is another matter that they have chosen (with a little prompting from an official in the Apna Utsavs of 25 years ago) to dress up as Bollywood Hubshies complete with peacock feathers doing a Zhinga Lala, Zhinga Lala number just to be noticed. But 30 years later does this become their routine for recognition? Another dance form introduced? Perhaps, but little else.

These proud people do not need to be so appallingly regimented and belittled with urban choreographers starved of exposure to India's diversity. Rural artists are more than mere visual fodder to be structured ridiculously. Of course, if they want to be a part of your national mainstream, do ask the artists and performers themselves about how they feel about being a part of extravaganzas. Take your cameras to them and they will tell who they think they really are and how they are used and abused to fill stage or screen space.

And so I came out after four hours, ready to walk to my car parked miles away, high on the spirit of an evening…well …delivered. The cat went on a pilgrimage after devouring nine mice. The glitz will blind everyone and no one will notice the lapses in the way we played with our Games."


Shanta Serbjeet Singh, for twenty-five years, columnist, critic and media analyst for The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Times of India, India's most important mainstream English dailies, is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the premier Government cultural institution of India in 2000 and the same from Delhi Govt.'s Sahitya Kala Parishad in 2003 for her contribution to the field of culture.

She is on the Central Audition Board of Doordarshan, India's national television, as well as the selection committees of several prestigious government bodies involved in culture such as The Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Department of Culture. She was a member of the Tenth Five Year Plan Committee for Cultural Policy and of the First National Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

Singh has authored several best selling books on Indian arts such as 'Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor,' 'The 50th Milestone: A Feminine Critique,' 'Nanak, The Guru' and 'America and You' (22 editions).

As elected Chairperson of APPAN (The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network) for the past nine years, she has individually organized and helped her team of eminent artistes to organize eight international symposiums and festivals in several Asian countries and in the United States. APPAN, set up in 1999 by UNESCO, has, with the collaboration of UNESCO, pioneered the concept of delivering stress therapy, in particular in disaster-prone situations such as the tsunami and earthquake victims. The pilot project of this series was done under her leadership in four Asian countries after the tsunami of 2005 and another for the cyclone affected of Myanmar in 2008. Singh is the founder-Secretary of The World Culture Forum -India and Director of WCF-India's first Global WCF to be held in New Delhi in 2011.