This was clear from his speech and choreographed scenes during the performance at the big show he and the authorities mounted in Varanasi on December 13. It was a piece of theatre. But real theatre is much more than that. Mr Modi exploited emotions, religious sentiments, it was grandstanding. Real theatre reveals the truth, it does not manipulate truth.
Here are a few points about looking at the Modi theatre phenomenon in the context of serious theatre.
Bertolt Brecht, perhaps the most influential theatre personality of the 20th century, created a theory of epic theatre now widely appreciated all over the world. He wanted to make his audience think and famously said that theatre audiences “hang up their brains with their hats in the cloakroom”. He wanted his audiences to remain objective and distant from emotional involvement so that they could make considered and rational judgements about any social comment or issues in theatre.
But much before Brecht, Shakespeare used the device of play within a play in Hamlet to seek and reveal the truth. So he investigates the murder of his father, the king. Hamlet stages the play, the Murder of Gonzago, before Hamlet’s mother and the ususrper king Claudius, his uncle. When the poison is put into the ears of the king in the play within the play, directed by Hamlet, Claudius asks it to be stopped and shouts Lights, Lights, Lights. So in a sense the murderer is exposed.
The ancient Greek theatre used the device of the chorus to offer interpretation of the story that follows. In the acclaimed 16th century play Doctor Faustus Marlowe retells the story of Faust, the doctor-turned-necromancer, who makes a pact with the devil in order to obtain knowledge and power. Both Doctor Faustus and Mephistopheles, who is the devil’s intermediary in the play, are subtly and powerfully portrayed. Marlowe examines Faustus’s grandiose intellectual ambitions, revealing them as futile, self-destructive, and absurd, as analysts have pointed out.The comments of the chorus substantiate these points.
The Modi script of the performance in Varanasi should be perhaps edited by someone by writing a critical commentary in the beginning and end. Overlords like Mr Modi use the medium of the performance for their ends, but they do not like truth telling comedians or serious dramatists. Dario Fo, the Italian dramatist and popular actor, made some significant points in this connection in his Nobel prize speech. He said in the 13th century emperor Frederick declared that anyone could commit violence against jesters without fear of punishment.
Rulers resort to melodrama but do not like honest theatre. In Maharashtra the tamasha was originally a very irreverent, elastic, flexible theatre form in which Songadya, comedian, made very caustic and hilarious comments against State power and ills in the society. That whole tradition has been cleverly subverted by the powers be and the tamasha is now reduced to an erotic song and dance show for the consumption of the new rich in the rural areas. That the women artistes are also exploited off the stage is yet another matter.
In Sanskrit theatre the troupes included various professionals, from minor actors to make-up assistants, stage technicians, musicians and the conductor of the orchestra. Music had a central role in the Sanskrit dramas.
In the case of Modi at Varanasi, it was a one man show mainly for most of the time, even the UP Chief Minister was assigned little role. Modi’s bathing, his dip and all these devices could not have been possible without a formidable security ring around him. This too was clearly kept out of the view. As if it was all devotion and piety and had nothing to do with state power apparatus.
But credit should be given to Mr Modi for the way he effortlessly summoned quotes and stories from several regions and languages including the local Varanasi region dialect. Mr Modi, ironically, quoted the Sanskrit words Idam Namam which means complete surrender to god without expectation of any reward. That was completely at variance with reality since the whole exercise, many would say, was directed towards the UP assembly elections.
Mr Modi also frequently mentioned that a visit to Varanasi is important for washing away all sins. These ideas apparently had a different overtone in the olden days. Most of the important religious sites are in beautiful natural surroundings, there must have been a motive of being one with Nature amidst Nature. Over the years, that sanctity has gone, and corruption took over some of these sites so Sant Kabir lived in Kashi or Varanasi, but chose deliberately to die in the so-called cursed town of maghar because he found it less corrupting.
Coming back to the theme of theatre and acting, and role of tyrants, it is significant that in the play Macbeth the usurper sensing his impending defeat utters the line about life being like a player who struts about on the stage full of sound and fury signifying nothing.
Be as it may. Mr Modi had the appearance of humility and devotion, but it was essentially strutting around against the backdrop of the Ganga. As for his ability to so fluently quote from various aspects of old culture, perhaps the only Congressman in recent times who could do that if he wanted to was P.V. Narasimha Rao. Of course, PVN had a real grounding in culture and language. In any case the opposition certainly needs to improve its communication skills among other things if it has to take on Mr Modi seriously.
*This was a note originally published by the author on Facebook. Views expressed are the author’s own.