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On the Road

This is Jatra

by on Oct.13, 2018, under On the Road, Shaheb Cafe, Theatre

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Everyone is either a hero or a villain.

For my American friends, and even some Indian friends, who don’t know, jatra means journey. Jatra opera is a form of traveling musical  folk theatre that’s been around for centuries (more on its origins later) in West Bengal and continues on in modern form.  Here are some shots from a Rajdip Opera jatra dress rehearsal yesterday.

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One of many hypertense moments.

Ignore the proscenium stage in these shots, this is just a rented rehearsal space. This show will be presented in a field in a rural setting with 5000-10,000 people sitting on the ground watching, so the mics are very necessary.

 

A typical jatra stage.

A typical jatra stage.

 

The tiny, portable stage is used ingeniously and allows for rapid scene changes. It can be a mountaintop, a front porch, a riverbank, or two locations miles apart with two scenes happening simultaneously.

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In this scene from a tragic romance by playwright Bhramamoy Chatterjee, a rural family forces their teenage daughter to give up her dreams of playing soccer in order to support the family. Such themes ring true with rural, financially desperate Indian audiences. But she’s got a few punches up her sleeve. Think Bend It Like Angelina Jolie.

The music is performed live using a mix of folk instruments like the tabla, dhol, and wooden flute, combined with modern synthesizers and an electronic drum pad.

 

The percussion section. Musicians must have clear sightlines of the stage so they can play on cue in keeping with the performers' actions.

The percussion section. Musicians must have clear sightlines of the stage so they can play on cue in keeping with the performers’ actions.

The musicians are following what Western academics would probably call a “jazz aesthetic,” meaning it’s improvised in rehearsals and the musicians play off of each other with the input of the director (in this case Pallab Mukherjee). The musicians take notes but there is no printed score.

The brash notes, drumbeats and melodies, sometimes sweet and sometimes jarring, are used to heighten a character’s private moods and express them to the audience moment to moment.

All of the mics hanging above the stage are mixed and processed live by the sound designer who makes much use of reverb and other effects on key moments of dialogue.  The speakers are cranked up to 11. It’s intentionally very loud and brassy.

 

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Talk about family pressure. You will comply.

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The acting is extremely overwrought; it reminds me of kabuki in style. Likewise the light changes happen rapidly and constantly as part of the expressionistic emotional cues to the audience. In a flash there may be a strobe effect or the entire stage is bathed in deep red or blue for a few seconds, before flashing back to normal.  No wonder Brecht got so turned on by Asian theatre.

 

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If the Wooster Group in NYC did a straight jatra play at St Ann’s Warehouse, exactly like this, mics hanging on the stage, the whole 9 yards, with the legendary Elizabeth LeCompte and company’s throaty breathing and love of technology,  and they didn’t change a thing except  to perform it in English, it would probably be seen as cutting edge experimental theatre even though it’s been going on here for ages. It is a truly dynamic form of performance art unique to this region.

Enter the love interest.

Enter the love interest.

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I have read extensively about jatra in the past and I’m thrilled to here seeing it come to life before my eyes and getting to know the artists who make it happen.

Jatra posters outside of Girish Mancha, a theatre where this rehearsal was taking place.

Jatra posters outside of Girish Mancha, a theatre where this rehearsal was taking place.

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Mine is not an official US Department of State website. The views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the Department of State.
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Meet Pallab Mukherjee

by on Oct.08, 2018, under On the Road, Shaheb Cafe, Theatre

“You can see the place is very beautiful. It was made by my uncle, Pallab Mukherjee.” – Swakhar Mukherjee

Click above to watch my impromptu, on-the-fly tour of Gitanjali.

Today I went to interview the accomplished film and jatra theatre director Pallab Mukherjee, whose rehearsals for the Rajdip Opera I’ve been observing, at his home in north Kolkata. That, and an interview there with the playwright Brahmamoy Chatterjee, went off without a hitch. The surprise was that the theatre and film director, Pallab Mukherjee, also runs an NGO (non-governmental organization, aka, a nonprofit charity) called Gitanjali across the street from his home.

Gitanjali.

Gitanjali.

It was founded in 2011 as a nonprofit social welfare society which cooks and delivers hot meals to nearly 6000 at-risk children at nearly 35 schools across central and south Kolkata.  The organization employs 65 to 70 workers.

Gitanjali also produces numerous cultural programs including dance, music and theatre throughout the year. During Durga Puja, they do cultural programs daily and lead clothing drives.

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Gitanjali is an urban oasis.

The organization gets some funding from the West Bengal state government but the bulk of the operation runs on private donations.
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Pallab Mukherjee

Film and theatre director, and head of Gitanjali, Pallab Mukherjee

Mine is not an official US Department of State website. The views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the Department of State.

 

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Big Night in North Cal

by on Sep.30, 2018, under Film/TV, On the Road, Shaheb Cafe, Theatre

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Yours Truly with Jadavpur University’s retired film professor Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay who brought me here tonight and has been helping me a lot in my research.

I went to a panel discussion this afternoon held at the Gandhi Seva Sangha (basically “Gandhi Service Club,”) a nonprofit charity in northwest Kolkata, to hear a lecture on one of my research subjects, filmmaker Hiralal Sen, and his cousin, the prolific writer and folklorist Dinesh Chandra Sen. I had been invited by my new friend, retired Jadavpur University film professor Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay who is a walking encyclopedia of Bengali film history and an expert on Hiralal Sen.

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The Gandhi Seva Sangha with posters of Hiralal Sen (left) and Dinesh Chandra Sen promoting the day’s lecture.

My intention was to lurk in the audience, take notes, shoot video of the speakers and get their remarks translated later (my Bengali is vastly improved but I’m not that good), but they had other plans for me.  I was shocked sitting in the audience at the start when the host took the lectern and announced my name. It caught me completely off guard. He then announced me as an honored guest and Hiralal Sen researcher from the United States who would be making a formal statement (excuse me?) and joining the panel onstage (why did no one tell me this?  I would have dressed a little better.)

I was humbled to be in the company of such esteemed Bengali film scholars and felt like a complete dilettante in their presence.  Then just before we started, they asked each panelist to rise one by one and presented each of us with a scarf the color of the Indian flag, a personalized trophy and several books as gifts.

I should point out too that the Gandhi Seva Sangha, as a nonprofit charity, kicked off the event with a very special awards ceremony.  Each of us panelists were given envelopes containing financial aid awards to hand to deserving high school students in the area as their names were called and they came up onto the stage.

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Acharya (means teacher or professor) Dinesh Chandra Sen Research Society India, the group that organized this event.

I have no idea how they got a trophy made with my name on it so quickly when this event was planned on their calendar far in advance of my arrival in India.  It had to have been a last minute job, for which I am in their debt.

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I can’t complain about my misspelled name. I’ve mangled many a Bengali name over the years so I had it coming. Karma, you know.

I’m never at a loss for words so the speaking part was easy for me when my turn came. I greeted the audience and told them a little about myself in Bengali, then explained my research goals and my long interest in Hiralal Sen.

I was humbled and honored by the experience, and I also met a lot of scholars who came to me afterward offering to help me find the things I’m after.

What a terrific night.

Mine is not an official US Department of State website. The views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the Department of State.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Work Begins

by on Sep.24, 2018, under Film/TV, On the Road, Shaheb Cafe, Theatre

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Soumya Sankar Bose and Shyamal Dihidar

 

Yesterday the work began in earnest with my  interview of actor-director Shyamal Dihidar who’s been doing Jatra theatre since age 10. I met him through his nephew (also pictured) Soumya Sankar Bose, a Kolkata-based art photographer.  His uncle was kind enough to take a train 150km into the city for the interview which I held upstairs at a corner table of the cafe at the Oxford Bookstore.

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Shyamal Dihidar and Yours Truly

The Canon EOS Rebel T6 video camera and tripod that I brought with me paid off. And many thanks to Drexel University’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design for lending me a Zoom sound recorder for 3 months.   Also many thanks to Oxford staff for taking it upon themselves to turn off the store music while I was recording.

 

Mine is not an official US Department of State website. The views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the Department of State.

 

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Rabindra Bharati University

by on Sep.20, 2018, under Film/TV, On the Road, Shaheb Cafe, Theatre

Yesterday I got a tour of the Drama Department at my Fulbright host institution, Rabindra Bharati University. I will teach a workshop or two here later. Click the first photo below to see the slideshow of this incredible, well-appointed performing arts program.

Girish Chandra Ghosh
Girish Chandra Ghosh
First, the head of the Drama Dept. took me on a tour of the facilities. Um, no, that's not him. This is a portrait of Girish Chandra Ghosh who was a renowned 19th century Bengali playwright.
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Othello
Othello
As with the Ghosh portrait, the posters lining the main hallway are dedicated to Bengali theatre during the late 19th and early 20th century as artists were struggling to find their own post-British identities. Here is a tribute to an all-Bengali production of Othello, a radical and financially risky act at the time.
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Macbeth
Macbeth
Ditto this production of The Scottish Tragedy.
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Hariraj (adaptation of Hamlet)
Hariraj (adaptation of Hamlet)
An adaptation of Hamlet into the Bengali language.
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Hariraj
Hariraj
Closeup of Hariraj photo.
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Department Head Shubhashis Halder
Department Head Shubhashis Halder
My tour guide, Professor Shubhashis Halder
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Costume & Puppetry room
Costume & Puppetry room
The place is a hive of activity with surprises behind every door.
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Set Design class
Set Design class
These students were kind enough to pose for me.
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Set Design room
Set Design room
Busy students in every room.
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Department of Drama
Department of Drama
Main hallway.
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TV studio
TV studio
The video production classroom.
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Video production classroom.
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More of the main hallway.
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Outdoor amphitheatre
Outdoor amphitheatre
The department has an outdoor amphitheatre that also serves as a student hangout.
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Amphitheatre
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Freshman orientation
Freshman orientation
The proscenium stage was being used this day for freshman orientation.
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Freshman orientation banner.
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Tagore
Tagore
Naturally there was a portrait honoring the school's namesake, Rabindranath Tagore.
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Sculpture department
Sculpture department
Student work outside the Sculpture building.
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RBU campus
RBU campus
Main road through campus
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More of the campus. Lots of green space.
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Signs pointing the way. It's like a little town!
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Campus map
Campus map
A beautifully laid out campus.
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More green space
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I love that one of the theatres is named after 19th century prostitute-turned-stage star Noti Binodini.
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And even more greenery.
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Beauty everywhere you look.
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The Drama Department is housed in this building along with other arts-related majors.
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Makeup class
Makeup class
This is out of sequence but these were students in the Makeup studio who were kind enough to pose for me.
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Graffiti
Graffiti
I loved this graffiti about rage on back of one of the doors.
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"Ahindra Theater Workshop"
"Ahindra Theater Workshop"
The department is named after its founder, Ahindra Choudhury.
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20180919_142310.jpg
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Mine is not an official US Department of State website. The views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the Department of State.
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It’s a Fulbright Family Affair

by on Aug.27, 2018, under Film/TV, On the Road, Shaheb Cafe, Theatre

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One of a kind custom t-shirt made to order by a merchant on etsy.com.

#the_fulbright_program

#india

 

Mine is not an official US Department of State website. The views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the Department of State.

 

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Love this Fulbright Graphic

by on Jul.30, 2018, under Film/TV, On the Road, Shaheb Cafe, Theatre

Many thanks to Ayanda Wright and the NYU Tisch School of the Arts Department of Dramatic Writing alumni association for their great graphic.

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Mine is not an official US Department of State website. The views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the Department of State.

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Fulbright Scholarship Announcement

by on Jul.11, 2018, under Film/TV, On the Road, Politics, Shaheb Cafe, Theatre

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My Experiences in India

shaheb – (India; also saheb, sahib; from the Hindi and Urdu sāhab, master; from Arabic ṣāḥib, companion; participle of ṣaḥiba, to become friends) 
1. formerly, a term of respect for any  male landowner
2. formerly, a term of respect for white European men during the British colonial era
3. (modern) any white man
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fulbright header

Now it can be told. I’m so thrilled to have been named a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar, and will be spending 5 months of the 2018-19 academic year writing and researching in India. If you’d like to learn more about my intended goals, the full scoop is here in this handy dandy pdf of the press release.

As a Fulbright‐Nehru Fellow I will to travel to Kolkata, West Bengal, India to conduct research from my host institution, Rabindra Bharati University, where I will research early 20th century Bengali film and theatre and its impact on India’s nascent independence movement. I will also spend time in Bangalore, Karnataka, India observing the Bangalore Little Theatre’s (affectionately known as BLT) theatre education program and teaching a playwriting workshop to BLT members.

I’m proud to be one of over 800 U.S. citizens who will teach, conduct research, and/or provide expertise abroad for the 2018‐2019 academic year through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program.

Recipients of Fulbright awards are selected on the basis of academic and professional achievement as well as record of service and demonstrated leadership in their respective fields. The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to build lasting connections between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.

The Fulbright Program is funded through an annual appropriation made by the U.S. Congress to the U.S. Department of State. Participating governments and host institutions, corporations, and foundations around the world also provide direct and indirect support to the Program, which operates in over 160 countries.

Mine is not an official US Department of State website. The views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the Department of State.

 

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My Dinner With Morris

by on Oct.06, 2017, under On the Road

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Morris with Adam Markham at the Wall Street Tavern.

I spent Labor Day weekend 2017, which also happened to mark my 50th birthday, in my hometown of Roanoke in southwestern Virginia, from which I’d bolted some 30 years previous at the age of 19 to put myself through college in New York City.

One nostalgic evening during my visit home last month, I Ubered downtown to see my old friend Adam playing classic rock covers on electric guitar at a joint called the Wall Street Tavern. He was outdoors under a covered patio. I sat squarely in front of him, alone at a table for two as the old song goes, sipping a Dewar’s and soda.

A homeless man approached and stood on the sidewalk trying to get my attention. (continue reading…)

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