possible poet and impossible poetry: navigating the contours of mental illness in performance art and a performance essay that is a performance text – by parnab mukherjee

Possible Poet And Impossible Poetry: Navigating The Contours Of Mental Illness In Performance Art And A Performance Essay That Is A Performance Text

Possible Poet – Impossible Poetry, an attempted write-up on a remarkably alive life, a cycle of seven-transcreated poems by Leopoldo Maria Panero and a piece on a Ritwik Ghatak play.

This piece is divided into three chapters. Chapter 1: An introduction to Panero. Chapter 2: Creating a poem-collage called “I don’t know. Nobody. Them.” and a Conclusion. Chapter III is on Ritwik Ghatak. Are these chapters thematically related: Yes. Because I think there is a larger framework that binds the two: the issue of mental issues and it’s social fallout, the pedagogical validity of using writing like this as workshop material and the spirit of both the pieces which takes it towards a visible outcome.

This was developed for the use as workshop material and scenework for IP College’s Annual Theatre Workshop – 2005.

CHAPTER I

This article begins with a piece I have written called Confessions of Benoy Mazumdar II.

Musty smells
fill the room
coiled serpentine pathways
fragile spiralling route to enter the bathroom
holding on to a history that’s topple, twist and terminate
amongst impossible skyscapes

Benoy Mazumdar pours himself a drink
as the geometrically round sun dissolves in water to
welcome another evening

The starting point of this article was my memories of Benoy Mazumdar. I don’t know Panero. But I do know Benoy Mazumdar and his living memory leads me to Panero.

His poetry written in an unrelenting stream-of-consciouness Bengali fascinated them till one fine day a friend Gopika Jadeja introduced me to the writings of Leopoldo Maria Panero. Actually, Gopika did much more than introduce me to the poet. She shared her own translations, recommended books and basically made me Panero-literate. Gopika has co-translated some of Panero’s writings – they are far more remarkable than my project. I owe the following lines more to her than even to my co-translator. However, it won’t be out-of-place to thank Susanna. A remarkable yoga teacher, Susanna finished her doctorate from the University of Cincinatti on oil-slick. From a hardcore study of oil-slick to Panero, is virtually a cakewalk for Susanna because her knowledge ranges from Kali to Calypso. Also, a heartfelt thank you to Khaled. A few sleepless nights at his Marthahalli flat in Bangalore with Susanna. Endless discussion. Khaled’s own memories of Egypt and our shared love for Naguib Mahfouz kept the nights warm.

But why Benoy Mazumdar in Panero?
Somewhere both their styles matched.
At least for me.

Benoybabu’s mental alienation from civil society, his drifting apart, his own world of mathematics, his private etchings, his unrequited love for Gayatri Chakraborty (now Chakraborty-Spivak) and crazy imagery can have only one parallel – Panero.

What is it like to read Panero?

Well,
reading Panero was like somebody threw a glass of cold water across my face on a winter evening
the lines bruised me
battered my being
and I thought I need to do something
so I chose a few poems
ones that would fit into a
zone between remembering and forgetting

Looking at Panero’s life
one can’t figure out what to remember
what to forget

So what would I remember? What do I want to forget?

That he’s yet to win any award of substance
That he would probably not win one
That he is a chain-smoking, asylum hopping perfectly normal man
That he leaves the asylum in the morning and returns in the evening as if he owns the bloody place
That for him alcoholism is as normal as his image of a bleeding moon
That attempting suicide (he tried to do it twice before the age of 51) is as normal as writing about two graves in conversation with one another
That he uses a pre-historic Olivetti with which 20 books have been churned out
That his drafts are usually laced with smouldering cigarette holes, indelible coffee stains and doodles
That Poems from Mondragon Mental Hospital (1987) is an anti-establishment classic
That his current address is a psychiatric hospital outside Las Palmas in Spain’s Canary Islands, off the coast of West Africa (and this is only the latest in the   asylum-hopping habit which dates back to 1986)
That one of his current psychiatrists Segundo Manchado says that Panero can move out the hospital when ever he wants
But Panero stays put

As an outsider without a family
As the resident rebel at loggerheads with the system
As a schizophrenic, a hallucination-driven individual
As a non-stop six-pack-a-day smoker
As a writer of an image where the dark night sky rained birds
As a flawed genius

Born in 1948 to a literary family, Panero’s father Leopoldo and elder brother Juan Luis were both notable poets. A child prodigy, Panero gave impromptu poetry performances at his family apartment on Calle Ibiza in Madrid.  He emerged as a polyglot who knew and read Spanish, French, English and Italian. Between Prufrock and penury, between Verlaine and cinema verité, Panero straddles a dark brooding genre of life and poetry…both entwined, both mixed up in a sense of hyper-activity dipped in a cocaine haze. Difficult to follow, but dazzling.

The following poems were co-transcreated with Susanna Garcia Blanco. The challenge of the transcreation was not only in de-ciphering a very private usage of language but also in retaining the flavour of garbled syntax, of impossible imagery and most importantly an intensely staccato meter. Panero is alive.

Long live Panero!

CHAPTER II: “I don’t know. Nobody. Them.” – A cycle of seven transcreations

1: What Stephan Marllarme Craved to say in his Poems
A translation of Lo Que Stephan Marllarme Quiso Desir En Sus Poemas

The old man wanted to say when the last lamp of the room already goes off
and the sun
doesn’t see us,
the snake
throws the remains of the day to its memory bank
And to that dream everything erases
And addressing his monologue to that dream
the old man desperately wanted to scream that the laws of
love are not exactly the laws of nothingness
and that dream is only about embracing a skeleton in this empty world
and that nothingness is like what just it is
all definition…all empty
filled with typecasts, cliches and last dregs of the vomit
Across the eyes of a scorpion one can locate a poet
the chronicler of nothingness

The poet then utters a thought
dripping of nothingness
And it says:
Not even God is superior to this poem
No, not even God

The poet’s internal monologue to himself reads:
In my hand I welcome entrails that get stuck in these poems
I am already where the wind blows
And my casket is full with wine
My anus in all it’s intended depth
sculpts the vision of another world
A boy dances in the image of that world
like a rose in all it’s serene impurity

2. On Persecuting Humankind
A transcreation of Persiguiendo Lo Humano

There is the smell of rape in the air
Acrid stench
and a naked back offered itself up to caress the trees
Like phantoms of falos
after a hunt
And dead men on earth with eyes on the sky
heavenwards
This afternoon also lives for the truth of the hunting

3. New dawn on the Tomb
A transcreation of Amaecer Sobre La Tumba

In the depths of the night
I showed my eyes to the mermaids
With a phallic thrust on a bad smelly bed…I found my dreams undone
Now the stone fell

from somewhere to nowhere
from nowhere to somewhere
and with it

all other thoughts hovering in my mind
collapsed
to the ground

4. The Discotheque Reggaee
A transcreation of Cancion Para Una Discoteca

We have lost faith
in the other side of life
We just keep tugging along

waiting for rock ‘n roll to overpower us
The skull that is perched between my hands
gets a message from the back-of-the-beyond
that it should also dance to rock ’n roll
In the realm of rock: life, misery, alcohol, hashish
co-inhabit
They do not say anything about life
Instead there are new frontiers
Frontiers of sex, drugs and rock ’n roll
The sun does not shine here
on any particular individual
like sex and drugs

until death happens to you

It is ephemeral
I mean the sun

Death becomes the crux of rock ’n roll
its reason
its existence
The deathly dance goes on until the end beckons you
And then the finality of it all – all the scream, all the shout, all the rant, all the gasp, all the whisper, all the breath, all the grunts, all this and all that
everything smoothly
enters
the kingdom of rock ’n roll

5. Ars Magna
A transcreation of Ars Magna

What is Magic
You ask a dark room
What is nothingness
You ask the same while leaving that room
And who is a man leaving nothingness
Returning to that same
dark room
Alone

6. Snow White bids goodbye to the Seven Dwarfs
A transcreation of Blancanieves se despide de los siete enanos

I promise to etch  handkerchiefs that get lost in the horizon as furtive laughs turn pale faces that get grounded  weightlessness  over wet grass  where spiders weave their blue nets  in the house of forest  into the night  the old wood creaks  as the wind shakes  curtains  and the moon peeps inside through the crevice  the silent mirrors  now  the grotesque  poison   combs  apples  curses  lost  musty smell  I will miss you  will never forget you

never  handkerchiefs that disappear in the horizon  into the furlong of unseen

some dry repetition of melodious hits staccato trees fall keep falling down

the orchard of cherries can be bought now immediately

7. Cancion Pirata
The Pirate’s Song transcreated

I smoke a lot. Too much.
I smoke a lot to kill time and sometimes I listen to the radio
and I hear the life passing by
I smoke a lot
I do smoke a lot
In the ashtray – there are ideas, poems and voices of friends-I-do-not-have
I have my mouth full of blood
The blood that seeps out from the cracks of the cranium
Even my soul tastes of blood
Fresh blood – I don’t know if it is pig’s or human meat
In the deepest recesses of my soul I have already been stabbed by
women
children
others
In my life where clumsiness and inaction become the only two buzzwords
I heave my chest
nervous
sighing
and there are times I do not feel the presence of a heart
There was probably no heart in this body of mine
It was just an appendage in a topography documented by
bloody alcoholscapes
It is that blood I drink and that is the blood of Christ
What is blood?
Basically the liquid of the programmed devil or an essential liquid from the factory of life
or even the lost stitches of a tailor who is unmindful
Hours pass
I am now nervous
shifting
shuttling
feeling edgy
my eyes, my feet
are dirty

And I dreamt that I have lived
And that all my tale is true
My absurd eyes show delirium in Velacruz
And this country called Spain…this place is similar to Hell…
I have listened to the dead ones from Hell and they are more authentic than the living
I say to myself that I am Pessod
To be drunk is not to be drunk
In spite and despite the highs of the low
I am drunk on life and not on death
Blood now strains through the vein, breaks free from the roof, soaks the walls, pours itself over
into holes of life
Blood brings a different association with it
an unique one
No communion
No spasm
No memories of wine
No images of women
Just the abiding truth of the glass of alcohol kissing my lips
Just the holy reality that there is a glass of alcohol which I always carry inside my brain
And there is alcohol in my feet
as I walk the holy tainted alcoholscape

CHAPTER III

Impossible Poetry: A duologue and Ritwik Ghatak’s lost play

This piece probably starts where the previous piece left off though it was written before. An acknowledgement – Thank you Sandip Dutta of Little Magazine Library and Research Centre, Kolkata and Ms. Nair of Leadership Training Service Unit of Don Bosco School, Park Circus, Kolkata for producing the play.

“I can teach a young actor the movement of how to point to the moon, but from his finger tip to the moon, that’s the actor’s responsibility… ”

Yoishi Oida, a Japanese Kabuki maestro who became the first member of Peter Brook’s international repertory in Paris

“ The knowledge that Komal Gandhar’s box-office potential was sabotaged by people who were once his friends, deeply hurt Ghatak. It is to this day widely believed in Calcutta that the Communists and Congress joined hands to finish him off. A large number of tickets were bought by goons of both the parties who then disturbed the viewing of the legitimate viewer by sobbing loudly during funny scenes and breaking into uproarious laughter at the serious ones. The audience was alienated and the viewer-ship fell dramatically after a promising run

in the first week. The film had to be withdrawn. He, being the co-producer, had to share the burden of the financial loss. It broke him. His descent into alcohol began soon after.”

Partha Chatterjee, In Memory of Ritwik Ghatak, Biblio

In 1969, Ritwik Ghatak published Shei Meye (That Girl) in a journal called Abhinay Darpan. The play appeared in the July-August edition of the journal. This was the second issue of the magazine that year. Written between July 10 and 14, 1969, this play deals with the state of a mental hospital. The play premiered at Gobra Mental hospital a few days after it was written. The participants in this play were patients from the hospital. A song composed by Pandit Ravi Shankar gave a special flavour to the play and many critics believe that this piece of music along with a song in another Ritwik play Jwalanto (Burning) are landmarks in the history of theatre music in West Bengal. The song in Jwalanto was written and composed by Ritwik himself who set the tune in Mian-ki-Malhar. Coming back to Shei Meye, production credits show that Ritwik had also acted in the play and music was performed live by members of Hemango Biswas’ singing squad.

The most interesting part of the play is an introductory footnote where Ritwik writes: “This playlet has been written for special reasons, in fact, a specific purpose. Here I have tried to deal with a specific system that is used for the treatment of patients suffering from mental disorders. It is true that I am not well acquainted with the different theories concerning the psychology of an individual. Nor am I completely in tune with its science-related details, and I have little or no knowledge of how to write or speak anything on the subject. Nevertheless, this play focuses on the universality of the message. That it is not enough to cure a mental disorder but the person must be allowed a considerable amount of time to get back to the normality of daily life.”

Ritwik further writes: “ …this is more a humane play…the experts might pinpoint a number of mistakes in this play…including my inclination towards a particular mode of therapy. But the larger truth is that it is not the scientific know-how of the therapy but the scientific temper to arrive at a certain stage called ‘cure’ that matters to me most. I may not have been able to address the medical intricacies of the play but I maintain that if it this play is of any help to anybody at any stage of medication then I will consider my work useful.”

“…for he minds more about the inner curves of his characters than about the outer curve of the plot.”

Leon Feuchtwanger on Bertolt Brecht in 1928

“The heroes and heroines of Ritwik’s films, while their energies are sapped by a society which can sustain no growth, have inner resources that seem to assert themselves. […] He was extremely disenchanted with those of his colleagues who wanted to maintain a false unity and were not, implicitly, pained enough by the splintering of every form of social and cultural values and movement. It is these factors that make Ritwik’s films a vitally generative force for the young. He does not hide behind a medieval or a dead past or a decorative Indianness…Very few of his contemporaries have avoided these pitfalls whether they work in the cinema and the other arts, or in the theoretical and cultural sphere. It is as if they were ashamed of being themselves, today, with their true history. ”

Kumar Shahani quoted in Paul Willemen (ed.), Indian Cinema, London, British Film Institute Dossier No. 5, 1982, p. 41.

Ritwik Ghatak believed in Jan Natya or mass theatre and his oeuvre includes plays like Jwala (Searing Pain,1950) an adaptation of Brecht’s a Caucasian Chalk Circle and Gallileo, Shanko (The Bridge, 1952), Dalil (The document,1953). Two of his performance texts on Kumarsambhava, Black Shroud (1965) and Eight Chapter (1969) are tragically missing.  As a director/actor, he also worked on texts by Dinabondhu Mitra, Rabindranath Tagore, William Shakespeare, Maxim Gorky and Utpal Dutt. His production of Bisarjan is considered one of the path-breaking productions of Bangla theatre.

Shei Meye in some sense is a creative detour. It is probably one of the earliest Bengali texts or texts of world drama that attempts to de-construct “theatre-as-a-therapy.” Let me quote Paul Willman: “In Ghatak’s cinema, characters are conceived as spaces where a multiplicity of social forces and discourses intersect and condense into temporarily unstable unlikes determined by the forces that constitute and move them. As the social forces move, so do the characters; as the mix of social forces get re-arranged into different patterns as it inevitably does – so the characters evolve along with their dynamic: learning, resisting, submitting, trying to live.”

Let’s replace the the word “cinema” with “theatre” and we can de-construct Ritwik’s Shei Meye.  It is a simple story about a girl called Shanti – who enters the narrative almost silently. She is a cured patient (formerly suffering mental illness) who wants the doctor to help her to re-count her story almost as if both would like hand-in-hand to say what went right or rather what went wrong. The doctor, despite the initial reluctance, takes the audience on a conducted trip into Shanti’s life. The play deals with her psychological state, her aggressive mindset towards her husband, her holding him responsible for the death of their child (who actually succumbed to a disease) and her general restlessness. Doctor decides to use Electric Convulsion Therapy to cure Shanti.  She is in a way cured. As she moves to another zone, the playwright brings in another patient for treatment. Slightly moralistic in its tone, the device opens up a lot of interesting possibilities including the most-obvious one of an open-ended end.

The play creates a meta-text of the definition of disease. What is a cure? Can we be cured of anything in our lives? Almost like vintage Heiner Muller or the raw vital force of Fassbinder there is a philosophical quest in the play through a sense of carefully constructed crudity.

Ritwik’s set design included a small raised platform on the left hand corner of the space with a few steps. The entire acting area covered in white cloth. A table with two chairs on either of its sides. An easel with mental disease related diagrams. A tall fence of a park on one side of the space.  And a black backdrop on one corner of the platform with two doors (one used for entrance and the other for exit) and a few potted plants strewn about one corner.

The play questioned, probed and concluded that normalcy is a concept fraught with its own misconceptions. Almost like achieving a sense if verticality.  I think there is a chilling similarity between Ritwik’s play and Jerry Grotowski’s signed statement released in Pontedera, Italy on July 4, 1998. Grotowski writes: “…when I speak of art as a vehicle, I refer to verticality. Verticality – we can see these phenomena in categories of energy; heavy but organic energies (linked to the forces of life, to instinct, to sensuality) and other energies more subtle.”

Would Ritwik have continued doing this form of theatre…maybe yes and maybe no. As he says: “I’m not in love with the films, my friends! I am ready to kick out the form as a medium of my artistic expression if, I find another better or more suitable medium.”

Here is an independent text inspired by the exchange between Shanti and Doctor in Shei Meye. This is an absolutely independent text created and directed by me for the Leadership Training Unit of Don Bosco School of Park Circus in 2001. This is a word-for-word reproduction of that tribute.

Doctor:

Tell me that
you want to step out
tell me you
really want to discover the horizon

Shanti:

Doctor,
what do you seek
in moth-eaten ends
of medical journals
peeling pages
of yellowed paper
faded oblivion of
sepia photographs
is it necessary nostalgia?

Doctor:

Wiping away
cleaning the debris
of the past
cleaning it real fast

Shanti:

But I keep seeking the equilibrium that was never there

Doctor:

Shanti,you are looking for
3D solution
to a
2D problem

Shanti:

After those shocks in my body

I felt
like
a
white flower
white petals
black charcoal

I saw
a vision
of
a bottle of
black poster paint
pouring itself on white paper
what do I draw?

Doctor:

Then it all ended

No bang
No whimper

Just an implosion

Shanti:

I detest my husband

Seriously speaking every rapist
should be looked into the eye
and then persecuted
for saying butt seriously

Doctor:

The child was a mutual decision
don’t play the blame game again
turn your words…make new words
words that blaze a trail
tilt
towards
a new dawn

Shanti:

fleas hovering around an open wound
as if to say
blood-sucking should be democratic too

Doctor:

From one end point to another
one moves
ceaselessly
charting newer horizons
amidst newer despairs

Shanti:

I keep telling my dead child
Your hands are still warm

I tell that dead unborn
I am not confused enough to say I love you
but love as I know
may have changed its definition

Doctor:

Seeing is believing
but what is belief
Is it just what you see?

Shanti:

Home
Home?
Homeland?
Any square?
Any cirlcle?
Or any designated square

Called home?

Doctor:

I keep blotting the tomorrows
Yesterdays disappear
Being scared was never an option
But being uncertain
is a reality
that eats me up

These tentative
verbal calisthenics bore me
but in troubled times what do I do

Tell me
why is a
clean up operation
after a massacre
called a clean up

What did they clean
pancreas
or the panacea

Doctor:

Both
at least for you
for you
both

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