Saturday, March 15, 2008

Everything Falls Into Place

It's not often that I get the opportunity to work on a project which flows gracefully and easily like a piece of good music. Literally.

And its never happened that I was part of a project that had music, specifically jazz, as the hinge, perhaps the pivot the entire project was created on.

Christopher Dell, a jazz and contemporary music vibraphone player from Berlin, visited Calcutta in December at the invitation of the Goethe-Institut Max Mueller Bhavan. A visiting faculty of architecture theory at the University of Fine Arts in Berlin, Christopher was fascinated by how public spaces were being utilised in this much-loved, much-abused city of mine, with particular reference to the hawkers and street vendors. The so-called informal sector.

For a first-time visitor, Calcutta/Kolkata's crowds, traffic, noise, dust, and the apparent chaos can be frighteningly overwhelming. A lot of this can be resisted sufficiently if you're just passing through, or are here on work which necessarily insulates you from 'real-time' Calcutta/Kolkata. What you get is a temporal sensation which slips one's mind the moment you're out of the city, and if it does register for longer, it soon seems like television blur, white noise.

But from within this first layer of sensory cityscape, Christopher expresses a desire to perform music in some of the public spaces of C/K he has visited during his short stay in December. He will be back in February for a month as an artist-in-residence. We both concur to take this project forward as what is already beginning to emerge as a pretty wacky exercise in documentation, also having a basis in some research and interviews.

Christopher arrives in the last days of January and we walk around the city with Ranu Ghosh, who will handle the cinematography. We mutually agree upon ten different locations where Christopher will perform with a borrowed vibraphone on a rickety, home-made stand. The instrument has been graciously loaned by Anto Menezes, one of Calcutta's (and here it's definitely Calcutta, not Kolkata) early generation of wonderful jazz musicians, people who made the city swing then. Today age and infirmity no longer permit him to perform, and the vibraphone, gifted to him even more years ago by Victor Feldman, is a tacit reminder of those “good old days”.

Which then brings me to the next layer, the tacit one, of this strange project. The presence of hawkers occupying valuable space on the city's pavements is a tacit one. Officially, they are illegal by C/K's municipal laws. Yet, a National Policy from 2004 states that such street commerce must be included in state and city governance and urban planning. A tacit acceptance of the 'informal' sector. At the same time, a deeper understanding of political approbation and unmentioned corruption becomes a tacit issue. The often surprising opinions, facts and figures we gain from the interviews we conduct with hawkers and office bearers of their joint action forum, the police, the municipal authorities, an architect and a city-centric NGO, as well as what we glean from the press and other learned published writings is an enlightening process for me, even though I am born and raised here in Calcutta/Kolkata.

Even when Christopher performs in the public street locations; even when we intervene with two cameras, two boom microphones, a crew of ten occupying public space temporarily with our ideas and physical presence; even then people tacitly accept us – with numerous questions no doubt – but certainly no hostility and definite enjoyment.

What is the purpose of this? A question that repeats itself constantly during our 3-day shoot like a refrain in a song which has forgotten to go back to the 'one'. A favourite reply of mine asked a question in response: Did you like it? Every answer I got was a 'yes'. In which case, I would then say, our purpose has been served. Perhaps I sounded a tad smug, but as Christopher pointed out, the very fact that questions were being asked is enough to say that the interventions worked.

Yes, questions did come hard and fast from the temporary audiences, as did the questions that confronted us. And the answers were not always forthcoming; and if they were, not always easy or comfortable. The hawkers of the streets are not a problem that has some cut and dried solution. They need enablement. Urban public space is not something to be paved and barricaded for the exclusive use of some. It is as much organic as it is made of cement and mortar.

Shopping malls of international and ultimate design, housing expensive global brands sold to a minority, occupy a monstrous amount of square feet which is woefully underutilised. Secondly, the potential of such icons of globalisation as employers and income generators is pitifully low compared to their capacity to generate waste and dispose plastic, and also as compared to the same happening in a larger area dominated by street hawkers and vendors. These hawkers are an essential link in a chain that provides licit opportunity and income to a wide hinterland of semi-urban and rural workers and cottage industries.

This same chain then extends the other way to serve a huge clientèle who not only cannot afford the goods on display at the malls, but do not even want to consider the wares on offer at such places.

Christopher's interventions are not meant to identify black and white zones. There are none. Nor is his music announced with a label that defines it, puts it in a box. He intervenes temporarily (we all do) like the hawkers he performs amongst. His free jazz improvisations on that resonating instrument use the environment and ambience as a catalyst. He responds and reacts to the physical attributes of each place, to the noise, the smells, the colours, the flavours which assault every sensory nerve. These then superimpose a layer on to the music, as if underlining the primary layer of the city itself, as it shifts and changes every second like the living organism it really is.

The audience crowding about him on all sides, reluctantly making way for our cameras and microphones, have never seen such an instrument nor heard this sort of music before. A sahib, a white-skinned foreigner dances with his four mallets to a rhythm all his own derived from the energy he feels around him. And the people respond and react and stare and wonder with easy acceptance. Which then moves it from the tacit to the fully acknowledged, and appreciated. This shift brings the layers closer, perhaps moving one above the other, blurring differences, changing priorities, raising questions.

I keep wondering how such a project would have worked in any other Indian city, and whether it would have worked at all as it has in Calcutta/Kolkata. Christopher is certain it would not make the slightest dent in transitory life in Germany and most of Europe's streets.

And here's another realisation for me. Jazz is of instant appeal to every one. Actually music is.

The persons on the streets, not weighed down by definitions of genre and style, listen with pleasure. They instantly allow these musical interventions into the collective realm of their immediate sensory perceptions. The 3 to 5 minute performances touch a chord in them, peeling back some layers they normally blanket themselves with to deal with day to day life. For a brief moment musician, audience and environment become a seamless whole. I can sense, we all can, that the project has acquired dimensions in its making which we had not contemplated during our pre-shoot scouting and discussions.

Christopher must have also heard horror tales of India and more especially Kolkata's reputed inefficiency and lethargy, before arriving. In the beginning, he was never completely confident that his and our shared ideas were ever going to get off the ground. His precise German psyche was affronted daily by situations and conditions that caused tremendous uncertainty and heartburn, the epitome of which was the year's first bandh or general shut-down suddenly announced the evening before our last shooting day. Nevertheless, things didn't turn out as expected, and surprised us all with everything falling into place, even if a day late.

Christopher Dell's vibraphone interventions were accompanied by simultaneous interventions of two cameras and microphones. He reasoned that I too, in my capacity as the project coordinator, intervened by 'appropriating' public space temporarily. The audiences who surrounded him as he played free jazz improvisations were acutely aware of us and our recording equipment, probably following our doings with as much interest as they did Christopher.

Their acceptance of our intrusions into 'their' space, and conversely, their temporary interventions into the documentation of our ideas, created a channel of constantly flowing energy that worked for us all. I had become, we had all become, an integral part of that transitory public space as we simultaneously became onlooker and performer.

Even in a private-public space like the pavement outside the City Centre shopping mall where the lack of energy was perceptibly evident and people kept a wide margin between themselves and us, we felt ourselves turn into observers as the audience, consciously unaware, performed for our cameras. Like the young man who came in front of the camera and slicked back his coiffure with a few rapid runs of his fingers through his hair before peering over a shoulder to watch the show. Or the three young women who showed only passing interest in our goings-on but keenly looked at another young man standing there. And some who looked up to the skies to watch a passing jet plane and follow its flight path with all the enthusiasm of small children.

Finally the question that crept up on us was not why we were doing this, but what were we achieving? Does art have to achieve? Must a process of documentation, no matter how irregular, have to achieve anything? Should everything have a purpose? A means to an end? Isn't just creating awareness, or the mere dissemination of knowledge, achievement enough? Must an understanding also be conveyed?

While we achieved our basic purpose of documenting the interventions in public spaces, we perhaps also managed to transform the space we were temporarily occupying into a microcosm of the total public space we all occupied. This resulted in people questioning our intentions, and often our sanity in a jocular way. These questions must have led them to in turn question their own presence in those spaces.

All of a sudden each intervened space, for a brief moment, became a motile carving in bas-relief on the rock of humanity that surged through and temporarily occupied that public space. The music, the jazz on vibraphone, sucked up the energy built up, responding to the shifting environment and becoming the sculptor of that carving. In fact, the entire making of this film was approached like a piece of jazz music: we improvised constantly, yet always remembering that there was a definite structure we had to adhere to.

From what was initially conceived as a mere documentation on film which would accompany more substantial text, we ended up with a documentary film that complements the book, Tacit Urbanism (yet to be published). The 36-minute film, Kolkata Monodosis: Temporary Interventions in Public Spaces is a collaborative effort that tries to look at the issue of urban public space in a light-hearted manner, without ignoring the serious nature of the issue. The book, broadly speaking, examines the use of urban public space, the culture it spawns, and the underlying questions of economics, politics, globalisation, capitalism, society and law. The two together hope to raise questions in the reader/viewer's mind by offering an alternative perspective to what has already been tacitly acknowledged and openly portrayed, and yet may still not be entirely acceptable, or palatable.


For video clips of the film, visit the Goethe-Institut webpage.


For more pictures on the filming of Kolkata Monodosis, go here.

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