Kool Kush and the Old School Hip Hop Jam

June 17, 2011

I’d met Kushan a few times socially and didn’t realise until he called me up asking me to record a few tracks for his album that he was a rapper. I was about to go on holiday for a week and he needed the tracks recoded before he left for Canada a few weeks after that. We would record two days after I got back from my trip. I had a deadline, and deadlines are good for me. What I also had were titles to the tracks, which was also a great help as I tend to be lazy about finding material. It’s not that I don’t care about things enough to write about them, it’s just that I’m usually a bit lazy to root through material or to find a unique angle on what it is I want to write about.

The first two tracks were obvious enough. One, Congo Patrol, immediately had me thinking of the colonial era and the Heart of Darkness – even though the track was apparently named after the instrument – there were live congos in the percussion line. It was a nice coincidence for me and in no time my verses for Congo Patrol were written. (There are early recordings of the tracks on my spoken word page. I’ll be adding the recent versions as soon as I get my hands on them.)

The second, Showbiz, was far lighter and I soon had a few satirical verses about the current Hollywood absurdities.

Material for the third track, Super Drummer, was less obvious for me. Nothing sprang from the title and I ended up drawing on my own current frustrations to fuel me. I was at the time in a destructive relationship with a highly hypocritical “religious” Bangladeshi man who was enjoying trying to take my liberties from me in terms of dress.

While on a little private boat floating through the Sundarbans we’d gone for a swim and I’d emerged damp but fully clothed. As I toweled myself dry the trousers I was wearing had apparently become see-through and though I was wearing a long kurta my companion deemed them immodest. He angrily railed at me as I refused to cover myself further, asserting that my “lack of modesty and basic shame” didn’t suit me. The track I wrote in response however, I feel suits me just fine.

On return from the trip I had a day to get in order then suddenly found myself in a studio for about the second time in my life, recording material I’d only just written and never rehearsed. The result is, to my mind, a little rushed and I’m often behind the beat. Some words aren’t audible at all and as I often think when listening to live rap, the words need to be brilliantly articulated if people are to understand. In my writing I hadn’t allowed myself much time to breathe so we ended up cutting short phrases together instead of taking the whole rhyme in one. The results were passable but I wished I’d had more time to prepare.

A year passed and I didn’t think much more about it but when Kushan came back to Bangladesh and decided to put on a live show I was excited to be involved. The aforementioned relationship with the crazy hypocrite had finally come to an end so I was hightailing it back to England in order to get on with my own life. My visa expired on the 14th June and I didn’t intend to stick around a day longer. The show was set for the 16th and 17th though, so after a little research into the fine points of overstaying the expiry of one’s visa in Bangladesh I decided to stay. It would be a great way to go out and something solid to concentrate on in the final days there when otherwise I would simply have been packing bags and tying up ends.

I was somewhat nervous at the first rehearsal – I still have the feeling that as a non-professional musician in these scenarios I will get “found out” or disgrace myself in some way. But rehearsals were great fun as we worked our way through each of the songs and Pandu White created beats for them on his laptop. The gig was to be performed with a full band, but the musicians were not always available and it proved easier to create beats with just the two rappers and the laptop, with tunes being passed on to the musicians later in the week when we knew exactly what we needed.

One evening at home after a rehearsal I started trying on clothes to figure out what I might wear – I didn’t have a very varied wardrobe as most of what I had with me was “modest” Bangladeshi-style kurtas and scarves. These are adaptable however, and a scarf makes a good top if you play around.

As time went on my confidence grew and whenever a new track came up I would see ways of integrating other pieces I’d written, or coming in with new rhymes that came to me as I heard the music. The week went quickly though, and even my insistence on daily rehearsals left me feeling under-prepared. I had little time to spare between rehearsals as I was doing a course in Reiki, editing footage of all the work I’d done over my 2 years there and arranging packing and shipping everything home. Rickshaw and CNG rides became line-learning time and I walked the streets or sat in cafes rhyming to myself. Gradually the words sank in and it began to feel like I could make it through a show without too much error.

Two other rappers guested at the show and had written rhymes to the instrumentals of the Jay-Z song “Feelin’ It”. I was to sing the hook and write a 16-bar rhyme for it. I knew immediately that I’d write something about The Hypocrite as it was what was foremost on my mind and I felt a little disclosure would help me deal with my feelings of betrayal. I kept it kind and didn’t reveal too much – but I feel there are other verses to be added before I’m done with it altogether.

We also found space for a rhyme I’d written some months previously when contemplating my view of the spiritual. I’m not a religious person but certainly feel guided by some energetic pull. The words in the rhyme are some of the various names by which I would call that energy.

Initially I only had a first verse and Pandu suggested writing a second as I was repeating it at different speeds. The last time round it should be new words, he said. That night I went home and was reading a journal entry from earlier in the year where I had started writing about my perception of this energy – and I came across a list of just enough words to make another verse. Each word I came across I thought – that must be in there already – but it wasn’t. Every single word was obvious – as if it needed to be included – but new. The verse was there already written, just waiting to be found, and the very moment I was in need it revealed itself to me. It was a happily received gift.

The first show was a little like a rehearsal. There were few people in the audience, and in a way that was good. We had a second gig the next night when many more people attended, and it felt like we were only then ready for the show. I was much more relaxed and could connect much better with the audience and the music.

Just before the first show we’d agreed for a film crew to come in and shoot some footage of us rehearsing. Shot against a green screen the footage was later to be used as part of a music video with animated backdrops. I have no idea how the footage will turn out, but it was a lesson, if nothing else, never to try to shoot a music video an hour before a live show.


Humayoun Shadhu

May 28, 2011

The first time I met Humayoun Shadhu I was struck by the beauty of the man, inner and outer. It was at a festival and he was constantly surrounded by people so I had no conversation with him but I sat near him for almost a whole day. People came to pay their respects to him, gave him fruit, incense and the like, touched his feet, spent some time listening to the songs being sung, and went on their way.

The most noticeable group who came to pay their respects were several women dressed in long white robes and with their heads covered. They almost seemed to throw themselves at his feet and his response to this was incredibly moving. He held their heads as they touched their heads to his feet, then as they raised their bodies again he held their hands and looked deeply into them with his huge, sadly smiling eyes.

It was his eyes that really drew me to him. He would fix your gaze and just keep on staring, never looking away. There was such overwhelming kindness in those eyes. I felt that of all the shadhus one saw around the place, he had to be something special. That day I resolved to try to spend more time with him, whenever I got the chance.

Since the event was not long after the baul concert where I first met the shadhus who had invited me here, I was carrying my berimbau. They had made it very clear that I should bring it with me when I come. So there I was, one of only two or three foreigners there the whole day, sitting with this huge instrument. It was inevitable that at some point I would be asked to play it. Initially I just played along with their songs but finally Humayoun Shadhu asked me if I could sing a song from my country. I explained that I could sing but the songs would be Brasilian not English. This was fine.

Looking around me at the assembled crowd, I was petrified. There were hundreds of people crowded into the small space, many of them dressed in the white robes of the sufis. To sing in front of them, people of such deep truth, felt like I would be opening up my soul for them to see. But I didn’t have a choice. I got the impression that if Humayoun Shadhu asks you to do something, you do it. And so I began to sing.

I sang a song that became a staple of mine in Bangladesh, especially when I was carrying my berimbau with me. It was Clara Nunes’ stupendously powerful song Canta das Tres Racas. I had learned it a year or so previously to sing at a Brasilian-themed cabaret I had put on. The situation could not have been more different. But I closed my eyes and a beat began around me and I sang. And perhaps the surroundings did something for me, because I sang more openly than I felt I had ever sung before. The people seemed struck – something to do with the strangeness of this funny foreign girl with her bizarre instrument singing in such an incongruous environment I have no doubt. But I had found myself a certain respect among these people, that much was clear. They wanted more, and I sang a few capoeira songs, then they went back to singing their songs. Humayoun Shadhu leant across to me. “You will learn to sing Lalon” he said. It was more of a statement than a request. It was simply something I would do.

I felt a strange kind of a high for the rest of the day. I realized I had discovered something and that it might stay with me for some time.

The next time I saw him was more than a year later at the Shadhu Shongo described here. I was rather taken aback to see how he had changed. He looked much older, kind of crumpled, and the light in his eyes, though still strong, seemed to have faded. He sang, which I had not heard before, but his voice was slight. Late at night over at the smaller tent I found him standing by the entrance, holding onto the side of the tent and struggling for breath. His whole body arced with the effort it required for him to take a breath and the wheezing sound was painful to hear.

In the morning after we had eaten and not long before we would have to leave, I sought him out, just to sit with him for a while. I took him a big bottle of water and shosha, a kind of fat stumpy cucumber, sliced long-ways into quarters and sprinkled with salt and chili, the most refreshing street snack. He took some and smiled. We sat and listened to the music for a while and eventually I had to leave. I moved over to him, touched his feet and told him we were leaving. “Tui ashbi amar okhane” he proclaimed, “You will come and visit me”. Again it was a statement not a request. And again I felt that I probably would.

So in the weeks leading up to my time for leaving Bangladesh I made arrangements to go and visit him with a friend. Ali is from Kushtia, the place where Lalon Shah lived most of his life and where a lot of the shadhus come from. I had worked with Ali at the BBC and on other projects since then and he seemed to me to get straight to the reality of the bauls. He doesn’t stand for any of the commercialization of them and their music that has become so popular in Dhaka. He himself is on the lookout for a “real” shadhu who really deserves his respect. He also has a Tascam recorder, with which he can get high-quality recordings of music in any setting, and he loves to record the bauls. He was the perfect person to take me there.

We planned to take a train but were scuppered by timetabling so ended up getting a bus which is guaranteed to be a much less comfortable, more hair-raising kind of journey. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, took a tempo the final 20 minutes or so to the village and were soon deposited, simultaneously stiffened by the ride and relaxed by being plunged into the depths of the country. It is always such a vast pleasure to leave Dhaka and its madding crowds.

The home is a large square building with open sides, high rafters and a raised platform in the centre where the higher-status shadhus and visitors sit, smoke, play, eat, sing and sleep. Visitors from local villages sit around the edges and comprise a sort of chillum-building factory. The chillum is the highly phallic clay pipe that shadhus in both Bangladesh and India use to smoke their ganja. In India it is usually charras, the dark brown hash rubbed from the leaves of marijuana plants high in the Himalayas. In Bangladesh it is usually rough green weed, which comes in varying strengths but is much less fragrant than charras.

The factory was something to behold. I think the only time people stopped building chillums was when they ate or slept. Otherwise throughout the day small groups of men sit around the required instruments: a small square wooden block with a pit hollowed out in the middle by much cutting, a hook-like knife used to cut the tightly rolled balls of weed which are wrapped in a square cut from a tobacco leaf, cut, re-wrapped and cut again so that it is fine before it is plugged into the hole in the chillum. The industry is quite impressive; there are always plenty of chillums to go around, and the place was at most times full with between 20 and 30 men.

I say men specifically. The women of the family – sisters, cousins and aunts – kept to the home itself, a smaller, more closed building next to the shadhu’s space. We only saw them when they came in to bring food or to sweep the floors. This realisation was my first disillusionment of the visit. In all I had learned from the bauls I had understood that they treated women as equals who were to be worshipped as their Mother, closely affiliated with the idea of a Goddess. But here I saw with my own eyes the way they live. The women are not invited to sing, they do not play instruments, they do not join in and smoke – they are simply expected to come and go, cooking and cleaning, much as they are in the more traditional Bangladeshi homes.

They did make wonderful food though, and I very much enjoyed eating it. Wonderful fresh ingredients, mostly vegetables with some fish and always followed by fresh mangoes or other fruit that we and other visitors had brought.

Much of the time was filled with singing, both theirs and mine, as they insisted that I sing some of the songs that I had learned by this time. I think I got away without completely embarrassing myself, although several times I had to be reminded of the words and my nervousness had me galloping away at a ridiculous speed so I hardly had time to take a breath. They had me sing four songs in the evening and again the next day – it seems they thought I needed practice.

After singing the first night they also persuaded me to smoke a little with them. It’s not that I don’t smoke normally, but often my Bangla gets a little ropey after smoking so I wanted to protect it somewhat so as to be able to communicate as well as possible. This didn’t happen however, and in the end I opened up to Humayoun Shadhu more than I might have done otherwise. I asked him some of the questions that I wanted to find answers to. How can one really follow one’s own heart? Meditation he said. Pure and simple.

I also asked, when we are all individual beings, how can we see one another as part of the same being? His answer was beautiful. The idea is that we all share one soul. This soul moves between us as freely as breath. We do not see breath as our own, so why should we with soul? There is not one soul each which is attached to our bodies, there is one freely moving and morphing soul that we all have responsibility to look after.

This idea seemed particularly apt to me as it fit in with an idea I had been forming over some time – that there is a finite amount of life energy in the world and that it is shared between us all. So as humans multiply the energy gets thinner as it is shared between all of us – or perhaps the way we are destroying the natural world is like the way of balancing this. The life energy is shared with animals and plants as well, so animals and plants necessarily die off in order to keep enough energy for our rapidly expanding species.

By tying this idea in with that of soul you also face the responsibility of looking after the universal soul in order to look after oneself. So if we harm other people we are actually harming ourselves, and if we wish to take care of ourselves we have to take responsibility for those around us. There is of course nothing new in this thinking, but it somehow makes the concept more concrete.

This was where my second disillusionment came. Having seen how sick Humayoun Shadhu was, the way he struggles for breath, is constantly coughing and hacking, I did not expect that he would be smoking to keep up with the rest of the men. I was not aware of the ritual element where every chillum that is made is first taken by him before it is passed to anyone else. So in fact he was smoking as much as if not more than anyone else. Through the course of the 24 hours that we were there he looked constantly exhausted. He frequently fell asleep as he was sitting, his head nodding and his body crumpling beneath his exhaustion. He kept a kind of spittoon beside him where he coughed up phlegm before, during and after his frequent coughing fits.

I could not help thinking that as a man who is supposedly a spiritual guide and an example to those that choose to take him as their guru, he has a responsibility, as with the idea of soul, to take more care of his physical body. When I questioned him on this he insisted that it is part and parcel of being who he is, even if he is sick and might not live as long if he continues to live like this.

I: Are you sick?
HS: Yes, I suppose I am.
I: You don’t seem to be able to breathe very well. Is smoking good for you?
HS: Maybe not. But I have to smoke, if I don’t I will not achieve the same state of purity.
I: You know you can eat hash, don’t you, and it also has a very good effect?
HS: Yes you can but it is not the same as inhaling, you do not reach the same state.

I was certainly glad to have gone to visit him, so that I did not leave with an elevated expectation of an individual who is actually just mortal like the rest of us. He might have some powerful teachings but he also has his failings and I suppose it is for all of us to find our own of each.

Mohammad Fakir’s Shadhu Shongo

May 3, 2011

In early April this year a group of Islamic hardliners turned up at Mohammad Fakir’s Shadhu Shongo in Pangsha, a village in rural Bangladesh. A Shadhu Shongo is a yearly meet of shadhus, the mystic bauls of Bengal. The bauls sing devotional songs which outline their philosophy of religious freedom. Allah, Krishna, God and Buddha are all one they say, and there should be no bitterness or rivalries between members of the religions surrounding them.

Mohammad Fakir photographed by Syedtawhiduzzaman Jaki

This message and the lifestyle of the bauls has long riled extremists of both Muslim and Hindu faiths and this was demonstrated by the actions of the uninvited group of visitors to the Shadhu Shongo. They round up a group of over 20 bauls, all of them over 60 years of age, and took them to a local mosque where they insulted them, forcibly cut their hair and made them say prayers of contrition. There was some media attention given to the event, and a few weeks later a second Shadhu Shongo was planned by Anusheh, the musician I have mentioned in earlier posts. This second event was much larger than the first, with shadhus from all over the country being invited, and cameras from national news stations and papers.

I got involved with fundraising and managed to secure a couple of donations. We were looking for a total of 3-4 lakh takas, equivalent to 3-4000 GBP, a huge amount to find in a couple of days. As I called around asking for donations however I began to question myself on the importance of spending so much money on this event. The organizers planned to fly bauls in from West Bengal; they built toilets and were going to be supplying food for the thousands they expected to attend. It occurred to me that perhaps left to his own devices Mohammad Fakir, the shadhu who had called the first event and in whose name this second was being held, might not have wished to make such a show of things if left to his own devices. However, as Anusheh said, if I were subjected to the kind of treatment these men were subjected to perhaps I would be more inclined to stand up and make a fuss.

There were rumours floating around that some of the shadhus themselves were out to cause trouble – which is essentially against their nature but understandable given the circumstances – so I was at times apprehensive about going there myself. Not because of a fear of getting caught up in violence – I was sure that any anger would not be aimed at someone so peripheral to the issues – but more because of how difficult it would be to see these peaceful and loving men being driven to violence. But in the end I feel it is always best to see the whole truth, so I decided to go.

In the end there was no violence of any kind. It was a peaceful, joyful event and I was very pleased to be a part of it.

The journey was fun. I travelled with a bunch of other young people, one of them very young – only 3 months old. Their parents were a couple from Italy who’d heard of the event on facebook and hired a mini-bus to travel there with friends – 2 from Spain, one from Chile, one from Canada and 4 Bangladeshis. The Canadian girl and I had worked together in the Vagina Monologues and I took up the last place in the car. It was my first experience of travelling the country with other foreigners and it was entertaining to stop over for lunch in a little local café and to gague the astonishment of the owners. I popped into their kitchen to take some photographs and was rewarded with a free bowl of fresh dal. It was scalding and delicious.

We arrived at around 7pm when it was already dark and were glad for the late advice to buy some torches. We picked them up in the last village on the road and it turned out to have been essential. We walked an hour along a rough muddy track to reach the village. A couple of people lost shoes along the way and there were plenty of precarious moments, so without torches we would most certainly have been lost.

When we finally made it to the camp it was just about time to serve dinner to the shadhus. It was an intricately planned affair and I got roped in immediately serving out big bowls of food onto banana leaves for the few hundred shadhus who were present. Eating is a ritual to them with all attendant rules and matters to respect. One must not touch the food and must only serve it with the right hand. Once the food is on the plate it shouldn’t be touched by the serving spoon. It’s all quite tricky with large dollops of gloopy rice. They say a blessing and eat in silence. We kept going round with offers of more rice and vegetables, carefully picking a route through the plates and trying to keep our heads lower than theirs – also tricky as they were all sitting on the floor.

Not long after food was served the music began. The main marquee had at least a thousand people inside and maybe the same again crushed around the edges. I immediately picked my way through the throng to find my teacher, the man who had been teaching me baul songs over the previous few months. I found him and he said to stay close – if he called me I was to sing. This felt like a crazy challenge. All of the most respected shadhus of the country were there and I, a hapless white girl who knows so little of all their philosophies, was to stand in front of them and sing their songs. As it happened the moment never came, but as the night wore on and more songs were sung I felt as though I would have been able to do it. The atmosphere was so warm, so accepting of whatever happened, that there would have been nothing but appreciation for a foreigner who was interested in learning their music.

One of the Shadhus photographed by Syedtawhiduzzaman Jaki

One by one the shadhus were called up to sing. The stream of songs was nearly unending from 9 in the evening until they took a break for the first azan (Muslim call to prayer) of the day at around 4.30 am. Though I know some of the songs I don’t even begin to understand the majority of them. The atmosphere kept me awake though and as the beat pulsed through me I never began to feel tired. The celebratory warmth of the songs and their singers are always enough to keep me grinning and bobbing.

The one slightly incongruous thing was the press. They’d been invited to highlight the issue of the humiliation of the bauls at the previous event so there were several TV channels present. The cameras didn’t necessarily intrude, they just made it feel more like a performance than the unself-conscious celebration it might otherwise have been.

In another smaller tent set aside for discussions the music went on until after dawn when people began to walk around and get tea from the stalls around the village. Not long later breakfast was served and again I began to learn a set of rules associated with the ritual of their food. The rice, made sweet with spices and raisins, is prepared and left in lots of large bowls until everything is prepared. While it sits waiting it needs to be fanned to stop flies from settling on it. Then there is fresh buffalo milk to be poured over the rice and dry puffed rice to add to the mix. As I fanned the bowls I looked away to speak to one of the shadhus and managed to bash the rice with the fan. This is a massive no-no as the rice is sacred and is not to be touched once it is prepared. My private little clown show had begun.

We carried the rice above our heads (because it is higher than ourselves) across the field to the tent where the shadhus were sitting in long lines waiting, with their banana leaves laid out on the floor in front of them. I soon realized that all the other people carrying the rice were men. Should I give it to a man, I asked? Yes. So I went off to get some milk. It was in a big jug and I was to pour the milk onto the rice which had already been served. The men made little holes in the rice with their fingers for the milk to be poured into. At least this gave me an idea of how much to give. But I was pouring it from a height and the milk sploshed everywhere, until someone pointed out I should be using a cup to pour it with.

So I found a cup and carried the jug in my stronger right hand, leaving the left free for the cup. It took a while for someone to politely point out that I should be pouring it out with my right hand – so I swapped. At one point a man pointed out that I’d touched the food on his plate with the jug I was pouring from – another massive no-no. Not long after this a local woman came over and took the jug and cup from me; “if you’re going to take that long about it I might as well do it myself”, or words to that effect. I’d been firmly put in my place and went off to eat some of the delicious sweet rice myself.

The rest of the morning was taken up with more songs. I went around the site and visited some of the shadhus that I knew. Many of them invited me to visit them in their homes dotted around the country and I made resolutions to visit a few of them that I really respected. I also managed to have conversations with some of the wives of the shadhus. It’s often easier to converse with women here than men, partly because of the external perceptions, but also because even with shadhus I often found myself questioning the motives of men who were keen to engage a woman in conversation. It’s not really “done” and I didn’t want to slip into the stereotype of the loose white woman.

The women were fascinated and fascinating. They clearly supported their husbands unreservedly and didn’t seem to appreciate my comment that “there should be more women singing”. I suppose they are happy to fulfill their role and don’t see anything wrong with occupying a more supporting role. I can’t help feeling that’s to be expected given generations of women being encouraged to feel that’s their place.

Despite my not having sung the night before word had got around that I knew how to sing some baul songs and I was asked several times if I would sing. The atmosphere was different in the daytime however and I was feeling doubtful after a long night of no rest. My teacher had already left to go back to Dhaka and I felt it would have been disrespectful to sing without him there. So this time around I didn’t sing at all. In a way as I left I was kicking myself – what a great experience it would have been, and I always try to Do, rather than Not to Do. But also I felt that it was not my time. This was an event for the bauls and I didn’t want to step on stage and take attention from them and their message. There would be other times for me to sing.

The awesome Anusheh, who organised the event, with the help of many minions. Photograph by Syedtawhiduzzaman Jaki

The Vagina Monologues in Dhaka

April 16, 2011

On V-Day 2010 one of my best friends was visiting me in Dhaka. She is also an actress so I was on the lookout for shows to see while she was in town. So when I heard that the Vagina Monologues was being presented in Dhaka for the first time I booked immediately. I’d seen the show some years previously in Delhi and was interested to see it again in Bangladesh.

The show was glorious. None of the women were actresses and they were definitely lacking direction, but their enjoyment of being on stage and the energy in the writing made it a hugely enjoyable show.

Nearly a year later I had met socially a lot of the women in the group and was thrilled when they called me to invite me to take part. As soon as I agreed to perform one of the monologues I also volunteered my time as director for any women who were interested in working on their monologues with me.

This offer was taken up enthusiastically. The previous year they too had felt the absence of a director, and all of the cast members that I met were hugely receptive to the ideas I brought to help them develop their performances. We worked on vocal production, grounding, physicality and character and it was fascinating to look at each different performer and work out what it was they needed in terms of direction and encouragement. Some performers were very much at ease in their roles, others much more nervous as many of them had not performed before. My role was a lot about helping them with confidence and helping each woman work with her strengths as an individual.

Rehearsals were a very casual affair with sumptuous teas taking precedence over work on the show. We usually spent about half the evening actually working and the rest eating cake and discussing either production issues or issues related to the title of the play. We remarked to each other several times over the course of the production the ease with which we were all referring to the vagina. In a city like Dhaka where even the mention of the word would normally attract raised eyebrows at the very least, it was nice to be part of this renewed liberation.

Unexpected circumstances led me to be absent for much of the time leading up to the show but I had one (my first) online rehearsal that will always stay with me. I was back in the UK with my family and set up a skype meeting with one of the actresses who had been away while I was been in Dhaka. She had volunteered to take over the monologue I was supposed to perform, “I was in the room”, a piece about a woman who experiences a friend giving birth.

Shekufeh, the actress, gave a very sensitive reading if the piece and I had little to say apart from to draw her attention to a few of the details in the writing. There is a description of the way the vagina changes during the birth from a “sacred vessel, a venetian canal” to “a deep well with a tiny stuck child inside”. I was asking her why she thought each metaphor had been used and how their significance would affect her reading of the lines. She seemed astonished that she had not thought of these details before and was suddenly effusively thankful to me for pointing them out. Later she said that it was not only the directing she had enjoyed but that it made her think differently in her everyday life. It drew her attention to details elsewhere. It was a very rewarding moment, learning that even from far away one can bring these little changes about for people who feel they need them.

Due to restrictions in place from the V-Day organization who own the rights to the piece there were only two shows. The first show at a large auditorium in ISD, the International School Dhaka, was a terrible scramble as the sound operators and mics finally turned up only half an hour before the show was scheduled to start. We should have planned on it but there is little you can do. I have never known sound crew to turn up on time for either plays or gigs, and it is therefore common for sound to be a huge problem in shows. As we started a cursory sound check the audience began to bang on the doors where they were being held by a small but obliging team of volunteers. We barely finished checking each performer’s mic before the curtain was lowered, the doors opened and we had a brief pep talk – there was no time for a proper warm-up – before taking our positions for the top of the show. The sound was predictably rough with lapel mics not being properly balanced and finally being abandoned in favour of the couple of hand-held mics that were then shared between the actresses for the rest of the show.

After the sound problems were surmounted the actresses’ energy took over and they completely charmed the audience. The response was overwhelming and feedback after the show was hugely enthusiastic. I finally met for the first time Catherine Masud who is one of the foremost filmmakers in the country. She declared her enthusiasm for the piece and offered any help we needed in our proposal to take the show around the country. It meant a lot to have her support for the project.

The second show was in a much more intimate venue for an audience of only women. In Bangladesh there are a lot of women who would not be comfortable seeing such a show in front of men and the choice to keep one show exclusively for women is an important one. The atmosphere was at once lighter and more serious. People seemed to be listening more clearly and reacting more deeply to the issues being discussed.

After the shows were over a discussion ensued as to the validity of performing the show elsewhere in the country. Initially I had thought that translating into Bangla would be enough to make it accessible but after further thought it became clear that the subject matter of several of the monologues – “My Short Skirt”, thong underwear, the expectation of women to remove their pubic hair etc – would not be relevant in the rural areas. Another possibility was to write a new show through a series of discussions and workshops with women throughout the country. Perhaps the allotted two shows a year will suffice for Bangladesh for the time being, but I hope that the idea will be taken further so as to allow women all over the country the freedom to discuss the issues at hand in the way that those of us in the show did – and hopefully continue to do.

Whatever happens in the future we made around 5000 pounds for a charity that takes in women and abandoned children. This is a huge amount in Dhaka and will go a long way. There are already discussions underway as to how the show will be improved next year, and whether I am around to be involved or not I wish them very well indeed. If any of the V-Sisters are in need of a skype rehearsal, they know where I will be.

Acting in TV Natoks in Bangladesh

February 28, 2011

The first time I was asked to act in a TV commercial in Bangladesh I was entertained by the idea of getting on a set and seeing how it’s really done. I’d recently finished working for 9 months at the BBC World Service Trust in Dhaka and knew from my experience of visiting local sets that things here were done very differently indeed.

The first set I went to was one of the big TV dramas, or natoks as they are known. It was in a “shooting house” in Gulshan. These houses have a rotation of dramas shot in them and they don’t have time between set ups to do much more than change the pictures on the wall and the arrangement of the furniture to differentiate one set from another. If you watch enough natoks you see the same sets in rotation over and over again. The traffic noise from outside is, as everywhere in Dhaka, overwhelming. Sometimes they might stop for a really loud series of horn blasts, sometimes they might just carry on. As a result sound is choppy, with differently recorded tracks often being used for each character in any given scene.

I’ll always remember the image of a light man gripping a bunch of wires and ramming them into an open socket in order to get the lights operating. He then stood on them to stop them from falling out during a take and simply pulled them out again when they called cut. He replaced them with the wires of a large noisy fan to keep people cool until the next shot. During a take an elderly man shuffled around in big rubber flip-flops collecting peoples empty tea cups. His feet made such a lot of noise I expected someone was going to shush him, but no one seemed to notice and there was so much noise coming from outside that it probably wouldn’t be audible anyway.

The scene was a highly dramatic number between a poor-little-rich-girl type whose face is caked with amazing amounts of makeup. She’s just had some bad news from her drug-dealing boyfriend and she’s sobbing on the sofa. At the end of a take the director calls “hold!” and the camera man does a series of swift pans to and from her face. They will no doubt be used in the familiar melodramatic style favoured at these moments where the camera veers to and from the unfortunate heroine’s tear-stained face as the music thumps in matching rhythm.

My first time in front of the camera there was a little different. I was working for a maverick film and ad maker, Amitabh Reza. He shoots on film and when I walked on set he was lying on the ground, virtually pinned down by his camera, setting up my shot. The director generally does everything in Bangladeshi cinema. I couldn’t see if there was actually a cinematographer on set but Amitabh Bhai certainly didn’t use him if there was.

I was casually led to a white swing seat with two pairs of live white doves wired to the corners of it by their feet. There were a few chickens clucking around and being chivvied into position by assistants. Probably the gaffer and sound guy. I was told that the scene was to be high melodrama, that a man comes tumbling into my garden after being chased by a dog, the chickens go flying (one of them actually hit me in the face as it tried to take off in one shot) and I calmly pull out a bottle of Frutika mango juice (our product) and advise him to drink some. Clad in a delightful pink and mint green saree with ruffled blouse I was feeling ridiculous enough. But when the mugging began it took things to a whole new level. They seemed pleased enough and I was out of there in about 3 shots. Not bad for a night’s work.

It wasn’t until I saw the ad some months later that I realised they’d dubbed over my funny foreign voice with something even more absurd sounding. Clearly I wasn’t nearly hammy enough for them…

The next TV job I got involved with I spent most of the shoot wishing I had not. I was called one day by one of the actors we had cast in Bishaash, the BBC job. He’s a huge actor in the country, very well known and renowned for his tardiness and lack of inclination to learn lines. This is not a peculiar trait however. Many actors prefer to either improvise around the theme or to have their script clutched somewhere just off frame and to take subtle peeks at it during the scene. He had given us a run for our money on Bishaash so I should have known what I was up against.

Nothing prepared me for the first day of shoot however. I’d diligently spent a whole week cramming my lines. The whole script was in Bangla so I had initially spent hours transliterating it to make it easier to read whereupon I discovered the brilliance of some of the English lines: “Iu shud be praud ob your citizenship ob German“, and other such gems. Learning the long speeches in Bangla was tough for me and I was somewhat nervous about getting through them without stumbling. Due to the tight schedule (we were shooting an entire ½ hour episode in 2 days – not unusual given the budgets these teams work on) I was aware that even if I stumbled on lines we might not be given a retake so the only way to ensure I did not look a complete idiot was to make sure they were completely fluent which was tough as a lot of what I was saying was in really complex Bangla.

You have to supply your own wardrobe for TV shoots in Bangladesh as there are no wardrobe departments or even designers. I’d fought to be given money to buy clothes as they wanted me in “western dress” which was not something I had much of. I had built my entire wardrobe around what was acceptable to most people – long shirts with a big scarf draped around the shoulders, salwar kameez-style. I turned up in the shirt I had bought and was told it was not good enough. Not bright enough. I had been going for subtle. Subtle was clearly not appreciated around these parts. Off I went to the local shopping centre with the director where he searched for something suitably loud. I refused many of his choices point blank and we settled for something pale purple and largely inoffensive.

So there I was, sometime later, in my delightful purple shirt, freshly made up (by me, sitting in hot sun in the grubby unit van which bulged with camera equipment as it sat in a layby of the main highway with trucks whizzing by), running through the lines in my head. I was given some breakfast (cake… ? ….) and told to be comfortable until my co-star arrived. I was still being told the same thing nearly five hours later when, after some calls to friends in the industry to check I was not being out of order, I decided I had had enough and was going to leave.

AD: But madam he is on his way!
I: He’s been on his way for the last 2 hours (for the first three he was simply unreachable)
AD: He was running a fever (hangover) but he is well now (he finally woke up) and will be here in a few minutes.
I: I’m sorry but I’m not in the mood anymore (actually acceptable as a complaint. Actors will often walk off set quoting “mood off” as a good enough reason for the whole unit to wait for them while they go smoke a fag/ take a shit/ read a newspaper/ all three simultaneously). I’ve waited half a day for him to come. If I see him I might slap him but I certainly don’t want to act with him.
AD: But madam we will waste a whole day’s shooting!
I: Well we’ve already wasted half a day. Better to start again another day when we’re all fresh. I’m off now.

And I attempted my getaway, which is not easy in Dhaka when you don’t have a vehicle of your own. I waited by the side of the road pathetically waving at auto rickshaws that passed, but of course none of them stopped. Eventually the director acquiesced and, sensing that he wasn’t getting anything from me that day said I could use his car to go home. I thanked him, saying that when we fixed a date for the reshoot he should call me when the other actor was already in his car on the way to the shoot, and not before. And that they would be paying me for the half day. Cowed, but not without some argument, he finally agreed.

When we eventually did manage the shoot it was the usual fare.

Director: Madam, your reaction shot please
(We shoot the reaction shot)
D: But madam you are not giving any reaction.
I: Yes I am.
D: But I cannot see it. It must be more like this (he gurns and rolls his eyes in horror. I begin to realise there is actually no way I can prevent myself from looking like the complete idiot I had feared)
I: Very well.
(We shoot again. I give him 5% more)
D: Well I suppose that is a little better. It could have been more… (he gurns. I stare at him, stony-faced)… Yes well never mind.

We were beginning to lose light as we reached the final location of the day, Rayer Bazar, where there is an immense monument to the intellectuals, artists and other imminent professionals who were tortured and then slaughtered at the hands of the Pakistani army in ’71. It is simply a great big brick wall with unfinished edges and an immense empty square taken out of it in the middle. In front of it stands a tall wide black plinth, and in front of that a pole for the Bangladeshi flag. Just the sight of it brought tears to my eyes and the hairs all over my arms and neck rose. This was the very site where the massacre took place. It is legendary, I had heard so much about it and finally I was standing on the spot where it actually happened. I was quite overcome.

The place was milling with people, families taking photographs in front of the structure, kids playing, couples strolling together. As soon as we were spotted, with our camera and a couple of small flood lights, the crowd turned and we were surrounded. Of course we needed the shot to be as empty as possible and everyone, but everyone, was in our way. The light was fading fast and the crew were trying limply to get people to move. I felt that they were not nearly committed enough to this job. The director began flapping about waving his arms and trying to get angry. People sniggered at him. I decided to take matters into my own hands and rushed at them, screaming at the top of my voice.

I: Please move from here just a few steps back, that’s it, now a few more, yes! Brilliant thank you so much and another step, and another, yes! That’s it. Thank you!

They were all absolutely taken aback by the sight of this funny foreigner rushing at them like this and suddenly became very obedient. The shot was quickly set up and we were about to do a take. It took a moment for me to regain my composure and the emotion of the place. This is why they normally have someone to do the job of crowd control instead of leaving it to the actors, I think. But we manage to crack out a couple of shots before it is completely dark. I had given my camera to one of the drivers and he was obliging enough to take a couple of blurry shots for me. This was a moment I didn’t want to be able to forget.

The next day we shot again, this time out in the country. They had tried to shoot far too much in one day so the scene where my husband (recalcitrant late actor) is showing me the countryside on the way to his village is all shot in pitch darkness. The dialogue was tweaked slightly for the adjustment but still sounded faintly absurd: “There was a tree here that we always used to sit around. Where is that tree? Oh what a shame it must have been cut down (or perhaps we just can’t see it because it’s the dead of night)” etc. But it passed without much further incident and by about 3am I was in the car back to Dhaka sitting next to the wormy director. He is a bank manager who dabbles in film-making in his time off.

D: This drama has been a losing concern.

I think he expected me to turn around and say “Oh well in that case, here, take my fee back. I didn’t really need it anyway”. But this was not the kind of shoot I was in for the love, or for the learning experience – although I did learn about some fairly amazing human behaviours – and I held on tightly to my little wad of cash.

I acted in one other drama which was less eventful and a lot more fun. Directed by a drama teacher from one of the two big universities, the crew and actors were all people who knew what they were doing and also how to have a good time. This time I even got my makeup done for me – which turns out to be something I would never allow to happen again. I am more orange in that footage than Jordan when she’s done her makeup after having a few too many drinks. This was a comedy so I hammed my way through it, and in the last scene had the pleasure of making them have to reshoot a shot several times because I had made my fellow actor and several crew members collapse in fits of laughter.

After the shoot there was talk of the director making a vehicle for me and my co-star, who is the country’s best-loved comedian. It hasn’t happened yet, and I would be wary of making a name there as being the “funny white girl on the telly” as I have other serious projects I care more about. But for a day’s work it was a lot of fun and as with all these projects, it was just good to be in front of the camera again.

Visiting Kushtia

February 12, 2011

Having not had any food before I left home it seemed like a good idea to search out snacks for the journey to Kushtia, around a 6 hour bus journey from Dhaka. The “healthiest” thing I could find was dim paratha, a fried bread folded over and stuffed with egg. Fried food on the street is always a dangerous affair as the oil can have been sitting around and reused over a period of weeks. Even so it can sometimes prove irresistible. The people in the joint I bought it from were pretty irresistible too, pouring praise on my spoken Bangla, which, as always, gave me an immense amount of pleasure. One of my greatest pleasure during all my time in Bangladesh was the ecstatic reactions I got when I spoke Bangla. The reception (translated) usually went something like this:

Bangali: Madam where are you from?
I: England.
B: How long have you been in Bangladesh?
I: About a year and a half.
B: Really? No! That’s not possible! Such good Bangla in a year and a half? Do you have Bangladeshi family?
I: No, no.
B: And how have you learned Bangla?
I: Just by speaking.
B: Did you study the language before you came here?
I: No. I was in Calcutta for a while where I started learning but…
B: Amazing. So you are very intelligent then.
I: Very intelligent.
B: Ha ha very funny as well. Thank you. Thank you for learning our language.
I: No, thank you! It’s a very beautiful language.
B: Ahhh yes. It’s a very beautiful language. You must come and visit me at my home. Come and visit me and my wife. Will you come?
I: Certainly! Thank you. One day. Insh’Allah. (God willing).
B: Ahhhh yes. Thank you. Thank you very much indeed. Two years. Only two years. Ha ha ha (mutter mutter mutter)

So off I go with my broad smile and my glowing middle and feel happy and blessed that I have been able to learn this beautiful language and that I am able to have so many joyous exchanges with so many warm and wonderful people.

We arrive in Kushtia quite late, in just enough time to find a hotel and go to sleep. We are going to get up very early in the morning so that Gilles, who I am travelling with, can start shooting as soon as it’s light. He works with Akram Khan and is here to shoot a short documentary/ art film about modern Bangladesh. He’s been staying with the wonderful Anusheh Anadil, the woman who has pretty much single-handedly brought baul music into the popular domain, and she entrusted me with him while she was away and asked me to show him some of the country.

He selected these few days to visit Kushtia, the home of Lalon while he was living, and still the home of many of the bauls. These men, for they are mostly men, are Bengali mystics who sing devotional songs which relay their philosophy of love, unity and secular faith. We came here to film and speak to them. I was supposed to be able to translate a fair amount for Gilles, but was in doubt as to how far my Bangla would serve us in this context. At the least I figured I could get us around, get us fed and tease out some smiles along the way.

First we took a rickshaw cart to the mazar, or shrine of Lalon Shah. The last time I had been was at the Lalon Mela, a huge festival marking the death anniversary of the great baul. At that time there were hundreds of people crowded around the shrine, singing, paying their respects and happily smoking chillums in circles made under trees with conspicuous signs marked “neshar mukto eleka” or “drug free zone”. This time there were markedly fewer people, just a few visitors to the shrine and devotees. We were informed that the shadhus would be gathering later in the day to sing, and this was the footage that Gilles wanted to capture so we decided to take a turn around the town.

We were expected at a little art camp run by Reza Bhai, one of the bauls notorious in Dhaka. Art students come and spend time here making sculptures, paintings and mobiles that still hang from the branches of the trees. Over a wide lake there is what looks like a levitating shadhu in white plaster. It is only after looking long and hard that one notices the poles and wires that are supporting him. Music ensues with a small crowd of men gathered on a bamboo dias dappled in early sunlight, and the camera starts to roll.

Soon we must make a move and we are asked to sign/ doodle in a big sketch pad before we leave. I can’t remember exactly what I drew but I do remember that it had a serpent in it somewhere, inspired by the sculpture of an immense shadhu head with a serpent rising from his long hair, and it made me painfully aware of the fact that I’m really not an artist.

We walked away up the road, half looking out for a ride but enjoying the walk in the meantime, past a large sign, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, calling out “Dhonnobad!” or thank you. We asked ourselves what we had done to deserve such thanks and carried on our ways, entertained as ever by the massively overloaded trucks and carts that passed us on the road.

We had been bidden to the home of Bojlu Shah, one of the shadhus who had sung in Baul and Beyond, the concert I had taken part in nearly a year before. The last time I came to Kushtia for the Lalon Mela I had also visited his home and had the most amazing reception with long chats in their old farmhouse and amazing fresh food cooked for us, inevitably, by his wonderful wife and daughter-in-law. I was looking forward hugely to seeing them again.

We walked there from the mazar, a lovely warm meandering walk through the village on the edge of the town, with fields and paddies to the left and houses to the right of the path. The houses are mostly either tin or mud and are sometimes partitioned from each other and the path with bamboo screens. The path was lined with kids who came out to wave at us, and followed us along the way, holding our hands, chatting to me excitedly and prodding at Gilles and his big camera. We passed some women weaving gamchas on the side of the path and Gilles stopped to take close up shots of the bright thread whirring around the rickety wooden wheel.

Gamchas are an integral and entirely unique part of Bengali culture. Brightly coloured pieces of tartan cloth, they are used as everything from a towel (the primary function) to a head wrap, cloth, belt, bag or scarf. In a way they are particularly associated with the shadhus who often wear long white robes with a gamcha tied as a turban or draped over the shoulder. There is something very striking about the bright red, yellow, green or blue cloth emblazoned against plain crisp white.

We soon arrived at Bojlu Bhai’s house, which, being bigger and markedly grander than those in the village around it, is walled off with a high concrete wall and iron gate. The homestead inside is a haven, brick and wood buildings covered with lau, the long curling vines which carry large green marrow-like fruits. We sit for a while in a lean-to type building, with walls only on three sides, the front open to the courtyard around which stand the other buildings. They are all single story with mud floors running right out onto the courtyard. At the open kitchen shed on the far side we could already see the women gathered around the fire cooking something. They came and went bringing ingredients, chasing away hens and stirring whatever was in the pot on the fire.

Gilles began to interview Bojlu Bhai who beckoned his wife to come and stand beside him during his interview. It was a nice gesture but she didn’t say a word the whole time. Points-of-view are mens’ business, clearly. On arrival we were given tea, biscuits and fruit, and after the interview was finished we were offered lunch. It didn’t seem to be long since we’d eaten a hearty breakfast of eggs, vegetable curry and breads, but when you are offered food around here it’s not actually an offer, it’s more of a contract. You come into my home, you eat. It’s that simple. We were also aware that we were supposed to be eating lunch at the home of Rob Fakir, another of the bauls I knew from Dhaka, but they were not to be persuaded. We asked for just a little, only a taste, but our plates were heaped with rice and we were helped to generous servings of vegetables, dal, fish and egg. Part of the trouble was the food itself. It was simply delicious. Fresh and beautifully spiced, it was hard to say no even though we knew we would have to eat again soon.

After more talk we went on our way. It was hard to leave even though we knew we’d see Bojlu Bhai again in the evening when the music began over at the mazar. The women were sad when we left. We weren’t sure if or when we’d see them again.

We took a tempo over to Rob Bhai’s place, a smaller property over on the other side of the town, nearer the river and surrounded by wide open fields. As we arrived we were ushered into a small bedroom with a television, and Rob Bhai’s son who had come out to meet us showed us the dotara he had carved and made from wood. The dotara is a small guitar-like instrument, plucked with a wooden pick which is usually attached by a string from the base of the instrument, while the fret end is carved in dark wood, often (or perhaps always, I haven’t seen enough of them to know) in the shape of a bird’s head.

Shortly we went out to sit in the courtyard where Rob Bhai’s son was scaling a tree to cut down a large grapefruit-like fruit. The little pods within each segment are thicker than in a grapefruit so they are able to separate them all into gorgeous pink flakes. Seasoned with chili and salt it was sour and sharp, a tangy refreshing taste. Perfect and perfectly enough, but followed surely by large plates of rice, more fish, dal and vegetables, and the same strong insistencies to eat. We did so, slowly but surely, and managed to get through enough so as not to cause offence. As we finished and I began to worry that I would not be able to stay awake in the heat of the day, but Rob Bhai’s daughter-in-law invited me to go out with her and we headed out to walk in the fields.

A man was climbing up a date tree just as we stepped out of the house and I was foolish enough to express an interest in what was going on. He had a terracotta jar strung around the trunk of the tree and was hacking a piece out of one side of the trunk. Slowly juice began to drip into the jar and he moved up to remove one that had clearly been there for some time. The girl called to him to give me some juice. I had never tasted kejur rosh, the juice produced, and had heard it is amazing when fresh. But I was seriously so full that the idea of slurping down syrupy juice was almost enough to make me turn and run. But again, when faced with such smiling generosity and a crowd of curious faces it was impossible to refuse. Drinking it was a feat but it was worth it. This stuff tastes like nectar.

We walked (I waddled) off into the fields and I was shown all the crops. There are fields of sugarcane, recently harvested, rice and vegetables. We chatted about the usual things – marriage, mostly.

Girl: Are you married?
I: No. No I’m not. Happily unmarried.
G: (look of concern) How old are you?
I: Very old. 34.
G: Very old!
I: Are you married?
G: Yes! Of course! (laughs) I have three children.
I: How old are you?
G: 23.
I: Bloody hell.
G: Sorry?
I: Nothing.

Soon enough I realised that Gilles has been calling us for some time, trying to get our attention, and we headed back to the homestead, collected Rob Bhai and headed back into town for the evening of music at the mazar. I’m still not sure if the music was put on for Gilles to film or if they regularly have such long and intense gatherings, but I’m absolutely certain the kind of concert we had that evening is not something that you are likely to experience many times in a lifetime.

We were taken to a room behind the mazar where one of the bauls sits. I was informed that through industry he has made a vast amount of money. This must be why the room was relatively grand, with big heavy furniture and glossy tiled walls. It seemed to contradict what the bauls are all about as they supposedly denounce material wealth. But I’ve heard plenty of stories about bauls with garments factories. It seemed kind of incongruous but there is nothing to say one cannot be devoted while running a successful business. There are various levels of devotion I suppose, and my knowledge about requirements of the faith is pitiful so I cannot begin to make assumptions.

Soon the music began. The room was misted with smoke from the chillums and there was an air of secrecy to their smoking this time. Though they normally do so openly they don’t like to be filmed smoking – because of the conclusions they fear people may jump to, I suppose – and expressly asked Gilles not to film them while they smoked. It was tricky for him not to though, as there was constantly a chillum being passed around.

It’s hard to describe the atmosphere in the room that night. It’s the same whenever I hear baul music. I get lifted. I feel exhilarated and simply cannot stop grinning. At times when there is a particularly moving song I am close to tears, but then can be laughing again at the joy with which the men sing. At times I became aware that I was the only woman in the place and desiring to be inconspicuous I covered my head but people were not really interested. They too were wrapped in the power of the songs.

There was one man who I had seen before and who simply exudes power and a bearlike charm. Hugely tall and well built he has totally white hair. It flows long and ragged and with his arms outstretched he looks like a kind of aboriginal messiah, his slightly crossed eyes always glinting with a smile. He clearly takes immense pleasure in bellowing out his songs. Apparently he was a muktojuddha, a freedom fighter in the ’71 Liberation War. One of his fingers has a chunk taken out of it and I wonder if that happened during the war. Here is a man who has lived and who loves to live.

The songs went on for three, four hours. My behind was aching and my knees seized up. My shoulders began to feel hunched and my neck was begging me to lie down. But the music flowed on and on, the rhythm kept me awake and over and over again I was lifted by the emotion of the singing. Gilles was consumed by his filming and I sometimes wondered if they minded him ramming his lens up their noses, but they didn’t even seem to notice and I felt sure he was getting some amazing shots.

Over six months later I am still impatient to see the footage he has shot. Apparently there is a hold-up with funding. Selfishly I will the donors to sort themselves out. I want to relive those days.

Julius Caesar in rehearsal

November 20, 2010

Day 5

After a few days of working outside here by the sea, under the sky, often under the stars, there are things i am beginning to notice more than i might normally. Something seems to be making my senses work more clearly.

The different textures of ground beneath the feet – from brick and cement, through grass and mud – both sludgy and thick – to the many various types of sand.

Sounds, both far and near – the waves, the daily cycle of creatures, voices, passing vehicles, breath.

The sun or wind or shadow upon my skin. Heat and cold.

I am also perhaps more in touch with my body, what it needs, feels, demands, enjoys. What is challenging to it and what it cannot abide.

This is doubtless also an effect of being able to focus purely upon performance – the voice, the body, character, interpretation – without the distractions that have previously always surrounded a rehearsal process. I have possibly never before worked on only one thing for the entire length of its process. When one is in the city there are always other things to be done. Always a balancing of jobs. Here there is not even travel to distract. Or shopping, cooking, socialising (outside the group) so one becomes more fully consumed by the process.

It makes me think of Clifford Barton and creating something there. To be near the water, among trees, surrounded by animals. To have expansive views. Walking, yoging, swimming, lying in grass. The softness of the natural world. Its contrasts, in fact.

So here and now we are daily being treated to droplets of delectable forms and techniques. Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Bangla gaan, Tai-Chi, and of course the Shakespeare. Whatever I go and wherever I go it feels like I’ll never be far from Shakespeare and it’s particularly good to be performing it again after so long teaching and directing.

I still can’t quite tell how it will all come together – whether the forms will compliment or jar with each other and with the play itself. There are flashes of promise that a very energetic tension might be created, perhaps the right kind of atmosphere for the play – powerful, steely, bright.

And there is no doubt that these few weeks will be excellent for my Bangla. I’m already feeling it swell a little as i allow myself to ask after familiar words i’ve never quite known the meaning of, and as i read and hear more and more.

Once again it seems to be the perfect thing at the very best time for me. To surrender somewhat, to be consumed by something not of my making, to be learning so many new things and to allow something new to grow… to allow some of my own ideas to settle down and mature quietly as my creative self is nurtured and allowed to blossom through something that is entirely out of my control.

So no matter what might come of this production in the end, I am grateful and happy to be here. It is a nice gentle reintroduction into the rigours of life in the ‘Desh and I look forward to whatever else is going to happen next.
This wonderful footage is from a mini-documentary on the project made by Nurul Alam Atique.

Julius Caesar in rehearsal

November 10, 2010

Day 5

After a few days of working outside here by the sea, under the sky, often under the stars, there are things i am beginning to notice more than i might normally. Something seems to be making my senses work more clearly.

The different textures of ground beneath the feet – from brick and cement, through grass and mud – both sludgy and thick – to the many various types of sand.

Sounds, both far and near – the waves, the daily cycle of creatures, voices, passing vehicles, breath.

The sun or wind or shadow upon my skin. Heat and cold.

I am also perhaps more in touch with my body, what it needs, feels, demands, enjoys. What is challenging to it and what it cannot abide.

This is doubtless also an effect of being able to focus purely upon performance – the voice, the body, character, interpretation – without the distractions that have previously always surrounded a rehearsal process. I have possibly never before worked on only one thing for the entire length of its process. When one is in the city there are always other things to be done. Always a balancing of jobs. Here there is not even travel to distract. Or shopping, cooking, socialising (outside the group) so one becomes more fully consumed by the process.

It makes me think of Clifford Barton and creating something there. To be near the water, among trees, surrounded by animals. To have expansive views. Walking, yoging, swimming, lying in grass. The softness of the natural world. Its contrasts, in fact.

So here and now we are daily being treated to droplets of delectable forms and techniques. Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Bangla gaan, Tai-Chi, and of course the Shakespeare. Whatever I go and wherever I go it feels like I’ll never be far from Shakespeare and it’s particularly good to be performing it again after so long teaching and directing.

I still can’t quite tell how it will all come together – whether the forms will compliment or jar with each other and with the play itself. There are flashes of promise that a very energetic tension might be created, perhaps the right kind of atmosphere for the play – powerful, steely, bright.

And there is no doubt that these few weeks will be excellent for my Bangla. I’m already feeling it swell a little as i allow myself to ask after familiar words i’ve never quite known the meaning of, and as i read and hear more and more.

Once again it seems to be the perfect thing at the very best time for me. To surrender somewhat, to be consumed by something not of my making, to be learning so many new things and to allow something new to grow… to allow some of my own ideas to settle down and mature quietly as my creative self is nurtured and allowed to blossom through something that is entirely out of my control.

So no matter what might come of this production in the end, I am grateful and happy to be here. It is a nice gentle reintroduction into the rigours of life in the ‘Desh and I look forward to whatever else is going to happen next.
This wonderful footage is from a mini-documentary on the project made by Nurul Alam Atique.

PiNiK – the play

August 2, 2010

PiNiK is a play in Bangla devised by Imogen Butler-Cole (THEWHATWORKS; British Council; BBC) with a group of actors from Prachyanat (Koinnya; Raja; Circus Circus) for Alo (an Organisation for Drug Awareness) in order to combat the problem with drugs – predominantly heroin and yabba – prevalent on the streets of Dhaka and throughout Bangladesh.

This 30-minute piece of highly physical performance concerns the life of a healthy young man (we meet him playing a game of football with his friends) who becomes addicted to heroin and how his life spirals into chaos as a result. A young female friend of his also becomes addicted and seeing this Shopon, our hero, questions himself:

What have we become? Are we human? What are we actually?

His friend answers:

We are nothing. Nothing at all.

Shopon attempts to get clean and is dragged into the painful addicts’ cycle of using, getting clean and being lured back to the drug again. Finally tragedy wakes him up to the extent of his problem and he manages to get clean for the last time.

The play is bitingly honest about how easy it is to become addicted, how hard it is to get clean, and the destructive effects that addiction has on both users and the people around them.

The dramatic chorus (inspired by Greek tragedy) is employed to show additional characters, the architecture of the spaces we visit and most importantly the internal effects that both the high of the drug and the withdrawal therefrom have on the lead character. When he first attempts to get clean we are drawn into his experience by the chorus representing not only his physical pain but also the voices and hallucinations he hears and sees.

The atmosphere is heightened by live music and sound effects provided by two musicians who are on the stage throughout the show.

The play is intended to steer people away from drug use and towards getting help to fight their addiction. To this end we intend to tour the play firstly to outdoor arenas in Dhaka (eg Rabindra Sharabar at Dhanmondi Lake and TSC at Dhaka University) and thereafter to towns around Bangladesh. Subsequently we plan to prepare a film version of the piece to be shown on television and in movie theatres and to be toured to schools and universities around the country.

So far we have had two performances: one at Shilpakola for an invited theatre audience and one at Alo’s awareness raising event for treatment workers and ex-addicts. Taking into account feedback from both these shows we will develop the play before further performances. Improvements will include a deeper look at the effects Shopon’s addiction have on his mother – this relationship having been identified as key in the young male Bangladeshi’s psyche.

In order to take the play further we are seeking support from funding bodies and corporate sponsors. Our budget and list of benefits to sponsors is available on request.

For more information please contact us by commenting here.

For support for drug related issues or for information on drug rehabilitation centres in Bangladesh please contact Alo through Shahana Khan on shaobaid@agni.com or +88 01711 566 802

DIKSHA, Kolkata

August 2, 2010

It’s always the same time of year when I get to go to Calcutta. For some reason I’m only ever free between March and June – the very hottest, most humid time of the year. So my trips are invariably hooded by heat and trickled with sweat, and I don’t necessarily come away with a fair impression of the fractured city.

There is an inevitable pull of love and hate then between the place I come to and the work I come to do.

DIKSHA is an organisation on the verge of celebrating its 10th Birthday. Over the last 10 years it has worked to provide safe spaces for adolescents living within slum districts and red light areas of the city. These young people have taken on the running of the organisation themselves and have gone on to open up groups in five separate areas of the city where they employ creative techniques to discuss, disseminate and inform about the issues touching their lives – child trafficking, gender violence, child sexual abuse and child rights among them.

In my most recent stay I led a two-week workshop introducing new theatrical techniques from the tradition of French physical theatre. A poor theatre, where props, costumes and sets are not necessary, and where the body plays the most important part in telling the story. After five visits over 7 years, finally it seems that we have found our ideal way of working together.

Previously I had “directed” specific pieces they created. This time we simply explored ways of working and the results were overwhelmingly positive. So much so that in their feedback not one of them had a negative thing to say. And believe me, they would have said it if they had wanted to. After being with DIKSHA for several years I have learned that these young people are absolutely empowered to speak their minds and will not go along with anything whose value they are not entirely convinced of.

Some feedback from the current workshop series:

“Now I can say I really know how to make good drama. I feel different inside. My body has become very free” – Pankaj Shaw, 18 yrs

“Before we’d just get up and do drama. Now we’ve learned new techniques. I know how to use what’s inside me – my feelings – in making drama. Now we can do anything we want to do” – Rakesh Lal, 17 yrs

“I feel very proud to be part of this workshop. Before I felt very small. Now I am not small – I am big!” – Priya Sen, 13 yrs

On the last day we finished with a discussion on why theatre is important to them and DIKSHA as a whole. Here are some of their thoughts:

“Drama has always been a part of DIKSHA’s work. There are many topics we discuss and understand among ourselves. Drama helps us to get them to the public. Most importantly though we make our feelings felt” – Prakash Upadhyay, 17 yrs

“To lecture people would be impossible. They wouldn’t listen. Drama is easy therapy. We get peoples’ attention and make them listen” – Tumpa Adhikary, 22 yrs

“There are things we can’t say to our parents but when we do drama we can show them. They then understand and it makes them more open to the fact that sexual abuse happens” – Riya Sen – 15 yrs

“Many children’s parents don’t want them to come to DIKSHA – we really have to fight. But when they see the dramas then they know that we should come” – Roshni Rauth, 17 yrs

Apart from the group I was working with there is an important new group that DIKSHA has created in the years since I was last there. This is RAKHI, a group where women from the same areas as the group – sometimes but not exclusively their mothers – participate in workshops and discussions initiated by the adolescent group leaders, covering similar topics but looking at them from the womens’, as opposed to the young peoples’, perspectives. They have already created one new play soon to be toured to other red light areas, where the women believe they will be able to draw other women into being able to speak out about their work and the issues they face.

Despite the positives DIKSHA struggles to keep going and there is always an urgent need for vital resources – workshop space; marketing materials; materials to make the handicrafts they sell; snacks for the group sessions etc etc. If you would like to contribute please get in touch and I shall provide you with the details necessary to make a donation. In return you will be kept up to date with all DIKSHA’s activities and will have first refusal on a variety of handicrafts that have been brought to the UK after this last visit.

(see an earlier piece of writing with more details about the group on our previous blog page here)

*it looks as though people have been searching the address for DIKSHA. thei email is:


thanks for the interest!