The Storming: Insurrections Ensemble by Dilip Menon, Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, University of Witwatersrand, June 2017

The idea of a storm condenses the anxieties of past sorrow, present distress, and future devastation. To call a production The Storming locates a predicament in the present continuous; as ongoing; as not yet resolved. It also suggests agency and a utopian instant from within a maelstrom: the storming of a bastion which needs to fall. In our present conjuncture, the world seems to be in the midst of resolving all senses of the word. We are faced with the storm of intolerance, authoritarianism and reaction everywhere, rendered in single words: Brexit, Trump, Erdogan, Modi. At the same time, we imagine a storming, an insurrection of the multitudes that will stave off the prejudices of the present. The memory of insurrection is as deep as the histories of power. This operetta by the Insurrections Ensemble, in many languages and musical styles, weaves its way through Shakespeare’s Tempest and Aime Cesaire’s riff Une Tempete to revive a story of untrammeled power and subjugation that ends with the departure of a despot and a disingenuous demand for pardon.

Storms are central to many of Shakespeare’s plays and act as turning points for the narrative. In The Merchant of Venice, Antonio, one of the protagonist loses his goods in a storm, precipitating the conflict with the Jewish merchant, Shylock, who has lent him money conditionally. The confrontation between mercantile wealth and usury (Shylock can only be moneylender, not merchant in this Christian paradigm) comes to be played out against the backdrop of an event at sea. Macbeth opens in a storm with three witches, whose prognostications will become self-fulfilling prophecies, as they propel the central character, in his ambition, to murder and his own death. In King Lear, a misguided monarch having partitioned his kingdom among his daughters, is cast out of the palace as a result of the ingratitude of his offspring. Caught in a storm and huddling in a shelter with his subjects, he realizes the fragility of life and the transience of power, before being driven to madness and death. Similarly, it is a storm at sea that brings Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, to the island that he colonizes with his magic, subjecting the inhabitants to servitude and humiliation. While the play ends with his departure and the releasing of the island to the inhabitants, it is clear that another storm is brewing. In fact, the storm is what follows colonization, as now power argues in the name of its own legitimacy. Whether as premonition, pedagogy or parable, the storm is a potent image for an aesthetics of power.

Isiphepho, kodunkaattu, aandhi, toofaan - storm. Tempest ends with renunciation, restitution and absolution wrested from an audience made complicit. However, the disequilibrium introduced in the island, means that the storm is the condition that is left behind. As the last lines of the operetta state: “Bring on the storm/bring on the storm/We ride waves like these”. In the end is the beginning. These lines make of the storm an existential condition voiced in many ways by the different characters in it. The shades of the Ancestors are shadowed by presentiment: “All those drowned are always returning”: the dead are reminders of a past without closure. Ariela has been relieved of her subjection, but she asks, “Do I die unfree?”, for the relations of coloniality are in the mind. And the slaves who have been offered no redemption but a change of masters, chant, “We are looking for bricks not to build but to hurl”: for them the struggle is but beginning. But amidst this swelling dystopia there is a reaching out across the ocean to other spaces of subjugation and humiliation: a cosmopolitanism of the colonized. “What’s it like to touch another’s skin where you are/does it carry the charge of shame, guilt and fear?”. Histories of caste- untouchability, unseeability – that are the result of an internal iniquity and of internal hierarchies and subjection. The echoes of distant storms wash up on all shores.

Histories of subjugation are miscegenated, circulating and mongrelized drawing upon the cartographies of colonialism as much as human migration. The ocean bears the marks and carries the traces of trade, labor and conquest. It is a polyglot space where once Chinese, then Arabic, then Portuguese and finally English created a thin crust over a polyglot universe that drew upon the languages, dialects, patois and argot of the hinterland and of life on the sea itself. However, our histories are premised on territorial entities: nations, states and their institutions. And territories come to be united through the presumptive power of official languages which attempt to ride roughshod over an unruly terrain of multiple tongues. Life at sea thrived on diversity-people thrown together in work and voyaging created their own ways of communicating, reflecting a human desire to transcend Babel. Eugen Weber writing of the consolidation of France in the late 19th century spoke of how peasants were made into Frenchmen through a disciplining of their tongue through administration and more important, pedagogy. Schools and universities are about one language, a master language whether connected to history and territory or to the aspiration to universal communication. It is not without significance in the colonized countries that the master language is that of the colonizer. The mother tongue is sentimentalized as the language of childhood, love and community. English, in the case of South Africa and India, is the language of cogitation, reflection and theory. Students come from a polyglot universe into a monolingual one where they are told that the possession of a multiplicity of ‘native’ languages is a sign of lack, of primitiveness.

The monolingual University in South Africa is the space for the genocide of native languages. Caliban says in the Tempest, “You taught me language; and my profit on’t/ Is, I know how to curse”, and indeed that’s what demands for education in the native languages have been perceived as. Demands for the decolonization of education are seen as the ungrateful curses of those admitted into the hallowed space of aspiration that is the University. What would it mean to have a multilingual University that recognizes the diverse linguistic and intellectual traditions that students bring into it? What would it mean for the University to learn from its students instead of the present arrogance where knowledge is what the University teaches; and what the institution does not recognize is not knowledge? What would it mean to recognize that our institutions are but pale shadows of universities in the Euro American space where we merely teach knowledge produced elsewhere? What would it mean to realize that Universities in the global South are mere factories that produce a working force for a system of knowledge, and we do not aspire to think with our own intellectual traditions? The overlay, profusion, circulation, and simultaneity of four languages in this operetta raises this issue and presents a solution. Universities must reflect the polyglot nature of their spaces, the societies that they are located in and the histories that they are part of.

The libretto brings out the nature and feel of very language. When Prosperus is addressed, it is in the ringing tones of praise in Zulu reserved for a king and warrior. The Malayalam lyrics bring in both the classical register of affect and philosophy from the Sanskritic tradition as well as the demotic register of the folk. If the Zulu words recall power, the Malayalam resonates with spirituality and the possibilities of religious reflection and a retreat from the world. Ariela invokes the realms of asceticism, the Vedas, renunciation, and the sylvan asramas of the sages. The marvelous poetry of the bones as sung by the shades of those indentured and enslaved is in Urdu/Hindi and recalls the spaces of eastern India from where the indentured labourers made their way to South Africa, Fiji, Mauritius and the wider Caribbean. Through the operetta, various strains and styles of music circulate: Indian classical ragas, blues, isicathamiya or Zulu a capella traditions. So do several instruments: the plaintive sarangi, the sonorous sarod and veena; the electric guitar; the Zulu bow. And, above all the voices, particularly that of Sumangala Damodaran and Tina Schouw calling upon music hall, folk, political songs, opera and Indian classical and folk traditions. The operetta reminds us of the illusion of purity and its discontents. Governing the three acts are three moods deriving from the raga tradition of Indian classical music. The first act is in Yaman, usually sung at the time of gathering dusk; reflective, pensive, and with a gentle sense of foreboding of the night yet to come. It is also among the first ragas that a beginner learns, entering through its simplicity into a more complex universe of notes. Bhairav, which governs the second act, is a morning raag, signifying an end to the terrors of the night as much as an awakening to possibilities. It is a grave, somber and introspective arrangement as befits the libretto that reflects on history and its consequences. The third movement is in Mohanam, set to one of the most common pentatonic scales and invoking a universalism away from the deep introspective moods set earlier. It is a deceptively pleasant and calm raga suggesting romance and lightheartedness and it is easy to think that it would reflect the conventional catharsis at the end of a play. However, in Kundalini yoga, the raag Mohanam, opens one up to an awareness of the other and towards forgiveness.

The Tempest ends with the idea of forgiveness, but the operetta plays with the double import of Mohanam. For the end is in the song of the mall-rats, the rampant consumerism that marks the victory over unbridled power. It is not redemption and a waking from history but merely a sale that sets the pulse of a populace racing. Shakespeare’s play ends with Prospero’s self-serving and manipulative demand for pardon: ‘Now my charms are o’erthrown /and what strength I have’s ruin now/which is most faint’. The demand doesn’t end there. He asks further for applause from the audience (now made complicit in this story of power, deception and colonialism): ‘let your indulgence set me free’.  Janice Honeyman’s post-apartheid production of The Tempest in Cape Town, involving two of the greatest South African actors-Anthony Sher and John Kani-played upon these demands but in the interests of an easy catharsis. The white actor Sher (Prospero), turns to the black one Kani (Caliban), instead of to the audience and asks indulgence. Kani, invoking a Mandela-like forgiveness, grants the pardon. What remains unthought is the artifice of reconciliation and pardon in the play that is too easily asked for and too easily granted. For colonialism creates its wounds-of the spirit, body and of the land- which persist. The asking too much is then buried in the consuming too much. As street-cynicism has it: when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. And plays repeat themselves, not as tragedy but as farce. It is the mall-rats that have the last laugh in this production, faces aglow in the artificial light of the freedom to consume. The only freedom (created and governed by debt) that South Africans have.

The French psychoanalyst, Dominique- Octave Mannoni, in his classic study Prospero and Caliban, wrote of those liberated from colonialism

When confronted with reality he has no feeling of liberation; his tools and his technical knowledge give him no sense of mastery-tools are simply an extension of the masters orders; techniques, just a set of rules to be obeyed; his hands are still the hands of a slave

Hence, the present continuous: The Storming