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Where The City Is

Liminal Spaces are the physical spaces between one destination and the next – elevators, trains, corridors. In Anthropology, liminality is the disorientation that one experiences in the middle of a rite of passage – when you’re no longer the person you were before you took on this journey, and you’re nowhere near to being the person you would be at the conclusion of it.

For the past few years, since I started college, I’ve been feeling this liminality – in school, at work, with family. This disorientation has only become so much stronger in the last one year, while I waited, with everyone else, to start my life again. I’ve come to accept that being in your 20s, is being in the longest liminal space (time) of your life. Add to it actual travel, changing cities for study, work or hobbies – and you are always leaving.

“Self love happens in liminal spaces,” I said when my friend pointed out that I only click selfies in elevators. These liminal spaces, although not destinations on their own, offer us opportunities that destinations don’t – opportunities to indulge in self-love, in hobbies, opportunities of warranted escapism. They come with an allowance for us to be disoriented, to be carefree, to be everything we don’t really imagine being when we’re at our destination but would enjoy right here, right now.

Another liminal space I have recognised recently, especially reinforced by learnings from the pandemic, is cities. For most of us who were not born in big cities, cities are not retirement destinations. More and more people are realising this as they are forced to work from home, rendering the hustle and palpitation of the big city unnecessary. Thus, not only is my very time (age) liminal, my space (city) is too.

This explains not only the disorientation I and my peers feel at all points of time, it also explains our indulgence in escapist behaviours. For me, that would be a constant chase of art and aesthetic respite. I am not an artist. With the way I have struggled in the last one year with writing, I don’t know if I can call myself a writer either. I am just a liminal being, always leaving, indulging in theatre and literature because my time and space allows it and I enjoy it.

I have lived in three cities in my 22 years, and I’m looking forward to making my next big move soon. As I look back at my hazy days and bokeh nights in all these cities, I don’t remember the places I felt at home at. I only remember the places that told me, “You are leaving, and it is okay. Would you like to indulge a little while you’re still here?” Theatres, art galleries, cinema halls, house parties with people I will never meet again, bookstores – every place that I resolved to return to, but always knew I would not really. Not yet. I am just passing through.

“You wanna find love, then you know where the city is,” goes a lyric by the 1975, an indie/pop/rock band we absolutely adore. Although very antithetical to the theory I am sharing here today, it’s been sort of my mantra all these years, as I fell in love with Mumbai, Pune, Panjim, New York City, Delhi. Did I really expect to find love in these places? I did not. I did expect art, a lot of it, because what else do I escape into while I wait?

Art is an integral part of the urban fabric, especially in a post-industrial, media powered era. While exploring this train of thought, it is important to realise that we are not just thinking about art and cities as given objects but as dynamic processes of representation. They shape our experiences, memories and learnings. My time at the IAPAR International Theatre Festival in Pune in 2018 and the Serendipity Arts Festival in Panjim in 2019 did not just further my artistic sensibilities but shaped my very memories of the years, my learnings from them, and shaped my relationships with these cities.

It is not only the experience of consuming art that produces sentiments, it is also the very existence of these festivals and physical venues, in these particular cities, that creates sentiments in the life of aesthetes like me.

The complete scope of geographic engagement with art, more particularly performing art because of its inevitable relationship with physical space, is very wide because it spans the construction of identity, memory and expectations. It also strengthens the vision of the very home we are headed towards. In a way then, we are not just waiting to get where we have to, we are waiting to know where we want to go and to learn how to get there. Chances are, I will not find love and home in the next big city I move to. These liminal spaces and times, these cities and ages, theatre venues, art galleries, cafes and even people we keep going back to because we know we can’t forever, are both an escape from the unavoidable wait and constructions of the very destinations we are waiting to reach.

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All the Whole World – Our Stage?

Indian theatre and other performing arts have always been rooted in tradition. Performed in various Indian languages and in English, theatre in India today has immense diversity and potential. Younger artists are now addressing issues such as identity crises and the thematic handling of postmodernist angst. We take pride in our cultural roots, but funnily enough, we don’t do much to take these far on an international level, aside from the practices of tokenism. Contemporary modern Indian theatre longs to break away from these practices and create a space for itself, yet it often finds itself in a half-hearted effort to rebel against that which it does not truly understand. Our identity on the global stage is a confused, scattered truth, and while it understandably stems from the lack of a structured “Indian identity,” it also requires immediate attention to ensure continued growth in a fast-changing reality.

In the process of representing cultures and communicating this representation across cultures, some features are identified as ‘hallmarks’ of a particular culture. One needs to approach this representation with an open but wary mind and take note of the various nuances of cultures. Global understanding stems from an open-minded approach to the local truths. This approach is a part of the wider curiosity that we as artists must perpetually hold onto, not just to be able to create together but also to be able to learn from one another. Despite our differences in ethnicity, religion, race and access, we are artists who are devoted to a single goal – to create art. World Theatre Day was initiated in 1962 by the International Theatre Institute (ITI), an initiative of UNESCO. It started with 12 centres and now it has more than 90 centres around the world. Today World Theatre Day is celebrated to encourage the globally shared spirit of theatre.

When we create a performance, we want to present it in our town, we want to present it in Pune, in Mumbai, eventually in different parts of the country. On the same lines, what stops us from taking our ambition international? We share our work with people because we believe maximum people deserve to witness our art, as do we deserve to share it with them. Yet our imagination, ambition and faith is often limited by these physical and political borders. Similarly, a great need is also felt for initiatives to bring in international perspectives into the Indian theatre scene. The number of international theatre festivals that take place consistently in India today is a mere handful.

To be a global citizen is a responsibility, and it is also the need of the hour. The modern Indian theatre community is facing a crisis that it is refusing to address. One of the main reasons for this crisis, I believe, is a lack of enthusiasm for international collaboration and a global outlook. We are unable to reinvent ourselves, and we will never be able to truly do so if we refuse to expand our horizons. The advent of social media and other technologies is, without a doubt, a boon for all industries as well as the performing arts, but it is also far from enough. As artists, we still face questions of access, opportunity and networking that will not be solved without initiative. I do not claim international collaboration will rid the theatre community of all its problems, but I do believe that inviting performers from other countries, cultures, ethnicities and offering local students of theatre – formal and informal – an opportunity to view and learn from these artists will sometime, somewhere down the road create inspiration that is otherwise fairly unimaginable.

Over a  century ago, we struggled to formulate an Indian identity. Today, alongside this challenge, we must also forge a greater global identity for ourselves that is not based on mere tokenism but on an adventurous, curious and ambitious outlook.

Photo Courtesy: Carolin Sanders (Switzerland) IAPAR International Theatre Festival 2019