Thursday, July 16, 2020

Individualism - a discussion of my lockdown delights

The Favourite
I finally managed to watch The Favourite as part of my lockdown cultural binge.  It's very entertaining, of course, and contains an appropriate dose of lèse-majesté - but I found myself disturbed by the way it viewed politics, which brought it far closer to more conventional costume dramas than it was perhaps intended to be. The underlying premise of the film was that whoever happened to be Queen Anne's current "favourite" (for which read female lover), held the reins of power and determined policy.  Wars, it appeared, could be started or ended in the Queen's bed.  I don't doubt that this may have been literally true, or that similar individual quirks and choices continue to influence us today. It does make a difference that Trump watches TV all day and Johnson has a very brief concentration span. But to think of politics solely in personal terms is to buy into the myth of the individual "great man" (or woman) at the expense of the more complex social, economic, technological and cultural forces which mould all of us, the "great" included. Perhaps the "great" more than anyone.

Another lockdown delight has been The Mirror and the Light - the last part of Hilary Mantel's trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell. Here again, I found that the concentration on the minutiae of the political process, the workings of faction in the Tudor court, placed an undue and artificial emphasis on the role of the individual in the shaping of history. It would be very easy to read the book, indeed the whole trilogy, with a sense of Cromwell as an entirely pragmatic figure, driven solely by the workings of realpolitik, caught up in the minutiae of family feuds and dynastic faction. But Cromwell surely had his ideological side. He was clearly sympathetic to Lutheranism at a time when that was a dangerous doctrine in England, and his adherence to Protestant thought was not only an opportunity to his enemies: it was also one of the things that made them his enemies in  the first place. Hilary Mantel certainly acknowledges Cromwell's Protestant leanings, though she demonstrates them largely through his concern for the fate of William Tyndale - an individual again, rather than the doctrine he proclaimed. There is a certain irony in this, given that Luther's emphasis on the individual, on personal salvation and a one-to-one relationship with God, is at the root of our culture's obsession with individual personality, status and achievement. Without Luther, I suspect our writers, film-makers and dramatists would be placing far less emphasis on the "great man" theory of history.

What hardly features at all in the Mantel book, but which could be regarded as Cromwell's greatest achievement, is his use of Parliament, and statute, to enact what G.R. Elton called his "Revolution in Government". It was Cromwell who established that statute was the supreme form of law, and so conceived the unique and bizarre notion of a shared form of sovereignty, that of "the King in Parliament". There is a tension at the heart of this idea - a tension between the role of the individual monarch, the "great man", and the wider social and political landscape represented by Parliament. That tension remains unresolved in our constitution, and it accounts for the chaos of the Brexit process, which was above all a prolonged clash between the quasi-monarchical Executive, exercising the Royal prerogative through the Prime Minister, and the elected representatives of the people. Lockdown joy number three was John Bercow's frank autobiography Unspeakable, in which he manages to combine an account of his passionate defence of Parliament as an institution with a totally personality-focussed view of the political process. Bercow's position is paradoxical, but then so is the central tenet of the British constitution.

Milo Rau's Lenin: Ursina Lardi in the title role
There was a brilliant counterpoint to the individualist, "great man" approach to history in Milo Rau's Lenin, which was streamed by the Berlin Schaubühne a few weeks ago. This series of streamed productions has been the greatest lockdown delight for me: a truly great theatre, rooted in ensemble practice, sharing some of its treasures, with Rau's productions a particular revelation. In Lenin, he explores the last days of the revolutionary leader, in a production that slowly creates the image of that leader as we know him. The fact that it is an image is crucial - "Lenin" (which wasn't even the man's name) is a constructed cultural figure, an artificial creation which was required by the political process, just as all "great men", even communists, are not actually themselves, and are not actually individuals but an amalgam of historical influences. By casting a woman (the remarkable Ursina Lardi) as Lenin, Rau places the character as far as possible from the known construction.  In the early scenes, Lardi is overtly herself, blonde-haired and naked. Only slowly, and in full view, is she moved  through costume, make-up and performance towards the expected image of Lenin, which is finally realised in the form of a black and white film, shot live in front of us and projected above the stage, spoken in Russian with subtitles in the audience's own language. So "Lenin" comes to be seen as a cultural construction, as the play enacts the process of his making. This way of understanding history as performance, shaped like and by theatre, made perfect sense to me.
Lenin at the Schaubühne - the film and the stage
These different ways of understanding history, politics and society have been playing out in front of us during the Covid-19 crisis. On one side, we have seen individualist, populist leaders like Johnson, Trump and Bolsonaro putting their faith in the potential of ventilators, vaccine researchers, phone apps and ingested disinfectant to deal with the virus: on the other side, we have seen more community-oriented approaches that prioritise preventative measures like early lockdowns and widespread testing. As James Meek wrote in the London Review of Books:
The divide between communal health advocates and tech fixers represents a deeper choice: between actions that aim to help an individual, so may indirectly help everyone, and actions that aim to help everyone, so may indirectly help the individual. Lockdown requires each individual to accept personal constraints for the sake of the community, even when they are not themselves ill. In theory, the tech fix can be for everyone, too, but because it is a thing to be obtained, rather than a constraint to abide by, it comes trailing issues of priority, price, privilege, exclusivity: what device, what pill, what treatment, what test can I get for myself, my family, my friends, to protect them?
This is not a simple left-right division: community health approaches can be imposed by totalitarian regimes like China as well as more benign states like Aotearoa / New Zealand. But the stark contrast between these approaches, both in terms of the ideology behind them and the numbers of deaths resulting, suggests that this is going to be an ever more important way of viewing political conflicts and decisions.

Culture it seems, far from leading the way, needs to catch up.  It may well be that one reason why countries like the US and the UK have handled Covid so shockingly badly is their ongoing culture of individualism, their "great man" approach to history and politics, their sense of an elective dictatorship somehow being a democracy. The countries that have avoided our horrific death tolls have been less fixated on success, technology and "greatness", more interested in mutuality, participation and community. Aotearoa / New Zealand has even dared to suggest that wellbeing, rather than growth, should be the driving force in its economy. So, as we absorb the shock of the pandemic and move forward, spending the Chancellor's "rescue package" and rebuilding theatre both as an economic sector and as an art form; my hope is for a new approach to cultural work that is not centred on success, stardom and leadership but on the ensemble, on the drama of difference, on equality and on productive exchange. There have been many calls for a more diverse and inclusive theatre recently, and of course that's important, but it will only be genuinely beneficial if it goes beyond replacing white faces with black ones in exactly the same jobs. The culture we must strive for has to be institutionally different, anti-hierarchical, egalitarian and communitarian, not individualistic. We need to recognise that theatre, like society, is something that is communally created.

I know this sounds like an odd thing for an Artistic Director to say. But, as Ariane Mnouchkine has frequently pointed out, in collective work the director's distinction is not one of status but of function. That's a better way to understand Thomas Cromwell, Lenin and the essential changes we have to make for a better future.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Supporting the Arts and Cultural Sectors

Every picture tells a story.  This is a photo opportunity for the Chancellor and the Culture Secretary, the men in suits who have just announced the £1.5bn rescue package for culture, posing at the Globe Theatre.  In the background, on the edge of the stage, is Artistic Director Michelle Terry.  She looks as if she's not quite sure whether she's meant to be in the picture or not.

Prior to the announcement, the DCMS Parliamentary Committee asked for written evidence on the impact Covid-19 was having on the sector.  Some examples of this evidence was published online.  Ours was not - so we're publishing it here.  The evidence, written by our Chair Dr. Alastair Niven with Artistic Director Michael Walling, was prepared well before the rescue package was announced, and before the deadline for the UK to request an extension to the Brexit transition period.

  1. Immediate impact of Covid-19 on the sector
The challenge   
The arts define the wellbeing of a society.  They are not an add on luxury, something to decorate society once other, more basic matters have been dealt with - they are themselves basic.  The current crisis does not make our cultural life something that should be put on hold until things are “back to normal”.  We have to recognise that we are undergoing a fundamental change in the way we live - we have to imagine a different future.  It will be from the cultural sector that the essential new ideas emerge.
This is why we have been disappointed by government responses so far to the Covid-19 crisis as it relates to the arts and culture.  Every part of the sector - theatres, galleries, cinemas, concert halls, opera houses and studios, as well as makers of art, performers, directors and technicians – have been left fearful of the uncertainty they face, in a perilous financial situation, and feeling deeply undervalued.  
Because the arts and culture are not just another economic sector, but are central to future thinking, to health and wellbeing, to education and development, it would be quite wrong to respond to the way Covid-19 has impacted them as if loss of earned income were the only concern.  Cultural revival has to be a priority for a healthy emergence from the crisis.  That is why we urge the DCMS to rise to its historic challenge and re-think the way in which arts and culture are seen by government.  Arts and culture are not business any more than health and education are business.  These sectors of our society require the political support that will make them universally accessible and effective as barometers of wellbeing in the Covid era and beyond.
The sectors immediate response. 
The arts sector, and especially theatres and other places of entertainment, were the first to close under the Covid restrictions.  Most gave their last performance on Saturday 14 March, and since then they have been physically dormant.  
Theatre organisations have, however, been astonishingly and immediately pro-active and inventive in their response to the constraints brought about by Covid-19.  Streamings of past theatre productions have brought colour and humanity into the homes where almost the whole population has been confined.  Some National Theatre productions have been viewed by over a million people.  Even a smaller company such as Border Crossings has attracted audiences running in to the thousands, including international audiences who could not have seen the live original.  At a time of great suffering, it is vital to point to this positive effect, for our standing abroad has been greatly enhanced by widening around the world knowledge of what our arts sector achieves. 
Border Crossings   
Border Crossings is a theatre company founded in 1995.  Its mission, as its name implies, is to cross frontiers – not only political frontiers, though much of its work is collaborative with partners from around the world – but also the borders between cultures and art forms.  We aim to lead in intercultural dialogue between artists, audiences and communities, working principally in theatre, but also through exhibitions, film, dance and music. We regularly curate high level debates and discussions about the contribution of theatre and the arts to global civilisation (including online during the lockdown).
Every second year Border Crossings arranges a unique festival, ORIGINS, which brings to the UK cultural work of all kinds created by Indigenous peoples in other countries: for example, by Indigenous Australians, Native peoples of the Americas, Inuit and Maori.   
Our most recent theatre production is a play called THE GREAT EXPERIMENT, which is about indentured labour migrations after the abolition of slavery.  It toured intimate but adventurous spaces such as the Cutty Sark and Tara Arts.  This production made an extraordinary impact on local audiences, many of whom were originally from communities historically moulded by the circumstances being enacted on stage.  It has now been viewed globally online.  There is no theatre company registered in the UK as committed as Border Crossings to international connections.
The devastating impact of Covid-19 upon our ability to plan.   
Because of Covid-19 we have had to take tough decisions.  Next years ORIGINS festival is in the balance.  It is risky to plan a large scale event that depends on international travel and the gathering of indoor audiences.  The festivals partnerships, carefully constructed over many years with national organisations such as the British Museum and the Southbank Centre, are necessarily suspended.  Similarly, our mission to send our work overseas and to co-produce plays in other countries, as we have always done, is currently paused. Our intention to take THE GREAT EXPERIMENT to Mauritius, where it is partly set, cannot be furthered until quarantine restrictions are lifted both there and in Britain.
Turning to digital dissemination, as we have done so effectively since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, may enhance our international standing, but it does nothing for our income, and it is not supported by our funders.  We are literally earning nothing during this period.
Funding threats.   
Throughout its history Border Crossings has been successful in raising funds from a broad range of external sources.  These, far more than box office income, have sustained our work.  Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund have both assisted a variety of our projects.  We have been through two rounds of Catalyst work.  However, the pressure on ACE and NLHF in the immediate future will now, as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, make applications to either of them considerably more competitive than they have ever been. The main emphasis so far has been on ensuring the survival of flagship organisations, and this is understandable - but it should be coupled with a wider consultation around what kind of arts and cultural work should happen in the future, and how that may best be supported.  Already we have seen how the Arts Council and the National Lottery Heritage Fund have shut down their project grant funds and been obliged to divert their available monies and contingency reserves into emergency Covid-19 funds.   These emergencies have very often been in companies enjoying Nationalstatus, or which were in any case in so parlous a financial situation that they required bailing out, whether or not there had been a Covid-19 crisis. This has left a well-managed, modest sized, project focused company such as Border Crossings awkwardly placed in a funding no mans land, where we are neither big enough nor sufficiently unstable to be given emergency funds.  There is an irony in the fact that we did not appear to qualify for ACE emergency support (and so did not apply) because we had succeeded in building up a sensible and, in normal circumstances, sustainable level of reserves over the past few years.  The same good management that the DCMS has advocated is now making us vulnerable to the crisis, while some organisations that may already be bankrupt continue to be supported. 
Our scope is further constrained by the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union, which has been a significant source of funding for many projects run in partnership with other European countries, but which are now under immediate threat.  The planned withdrawal from Creative Europe and likely withdrawal from Erasmus + will be a major blow for us at a very difficult time.  At the very least, an extension of the transition period would help the sector to get through the Covid crisis before the next challenge posed by Brexit.
  1. Long-term Impact of Covid-19 on the sector.
The long-term effects of this crisis are likely to be financial ruin for some, reduced opportunities to be experimental and creative for all, and constant anxiety about conforming with health requirements for audiences, performers, and all involved in the creative arts.  
Financial viability.  
With smaller audiences resulting from social distancing and the massively increased competition for financial subsidies, many arts organisations face the likelihood of their demise, whatever the quality of their work or the strength of their artistic reputation.  
Health and safety.  
Health and safety issues have been taken very seriously by all arts companies in recent years, but the challenges posed by Covid-19 are unprecedented.  Spaces will need to be adapted physically, with social distancing necessitating the removal of seats, the adaptation of toilet facilities, and the segregation of audiences. 
Artists and all involved in productions will need specialist training in managing audiences, artists and technicians. 
The population as a whole.  
One fears desperately for all sections of the population if access to theatre and other arts is circumscribed or made impossible.  Older people fuel the economy and generate their wellbeing by their engagement with arts events.  Young people need to know their inheritances, to engage with imaginative new ideas and to encounter the best of human creativity if they are to develop as civilised beings.  
The Covid-19 crisis is a health crisis.  The arts sector believes passionately that health is not just predicated on controlling the spread of infectious diseases.  It is also about the mental health and wellbeing of all people in every community.  A society that makes the choice to exist without ready and open access to the arts, and to the means of creating art, is a sick society.  We must avoid moving in that direction.
  1. Lessons to be learned from current responses to Covid-19.
John Donnes famous words in the seventeenth century are perhaps the single most important lesson to be learned from the Covid-19 crisis.
                  ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the 
                   continent, a part of the main.   If a clod be washed away by the sea, 
                   Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a 
                   manor of thy friends or of thine own were.
This is not the place to rehearse political comments on the manner in which the pandemic has been handled in the United Kingdom, nor to express views on the issue of Brexit, except in as much as our withdrawal from the European Union has cut off what has hitherto been a vital part of arts funding.  However, we can confidently assert that a global catastrophe on this scale has called for a global response.  The spread of infection has ignored state borders.  Every country has monitored the approach to the crisis taken by every other country.  Scientists and medical experts have sought to learn from each other, regardless of political differences.  Travel, migration and quarantine regulations have obliged nations to work together.  A global situation has created unprecedented global awareness.  This must be a lesson for how we all work and behave in the future.   Border Crossings has always worked collaboratively and is in a strong position to point the way to other arts companies.
Access to funds outside the UK. 
Given the limited public funds that are likely to be available to organisations like Border Crossings after the Covid-19 crisis, we implore the UK government to reconsider its position on participation in the European Educational and Cultural programmes.  This is not a political statement, but a pragmatic necessity.  It seems madness to cut ourselves off from largesse that the European Union has said can still be made available to the United Kingdom, despite our withdrawal.
Clearly preparation for an event as large scale and global as this pandemic can never be sufficient.  It does, however, underline the value of both forward and contingency planning, at all levels and by all types of organisations.  For a small company like Border Crossings, which punches above its weight in terms of the value of its work, this can be very frustrating because our vision often outstrips our resources.  We shall ensure that a lesson learned from the crisis is that one can never over plan or be too careful with financial management and accountability.  At the same time, we may reluctantly have to be much more constrained in what we can do than we would wish to be.  After building up a such a strong reputation and track record internationally, we regard this as little short of tragic.
Since this is a global crisis, and since it has begun during the Brexit transition period, it would be wise for the DCMS to see how cultural policy in other European nations has enabled arts and culture to be far more resilient than has been the case here.  To offer just one example, the Berliner Ensemble has planned for an autumn re-opening with 500 seats removed from its 700 seat auditorium.  It has been able to do this without an increase in ticket prices, because the German government supports theatre not on the basis of a business selling a product, but as an essential part of a healthy society and polity.  The current moment offers us the opportunity to re-think our social, cultural and political structures, learning from societies that have dealt with the Covid-19 crisis well.
  1. How the sector may evolve, with the support of DCMS.
Digital and online.
The move to digital and online work during the pandemic has both advantages and disadvantages.  The creative experimentation this has involved is good, with much more sophisticated use of monologues and of cross-screen interaction of performers being filmed in their own homes.  The screening of video recordings of past productions has widened audiences. However, a downside is that screened work is in the end no substitute for live performance and the physical coming together of audiences in a shared space.  The best streamed work leads to the response “If only I had been there to see it live”, and therefore reminds audiences of the value of live performance, rather than substituting for it.  Its use during the pandemic is a temporary stop-gap, not a long-term solution, and (as noted above) it brings in no revenue at all.  Even a “star” artist like violinist Tasmin Little has stated that 5 million streams over six months earned her £12.34.  If digital distribution is to be pursued as a preferred business model, then it necessitates a complete shift in funding models.
Social distancing.
Unless a truly effective vaccine against Covid-19 is found, it will be necessary at all public performances to protect audiences by continued social distancing.  This will have a big effect on the economies of all performing arts organisations and on exhibition spaces.  Those dependent on generating box office income rather than on subsidy will suffer acutely, perhaps fatally.  
Performers themselves will find rehearsing and playing in theatres difficult and in many cases impossible.  Any performance that requires physical contact between performers will be hard to achieve under current regulations.  We would therefore urge the DCMS to explore the arts as a priority area for continuous testing of personnel, on the lines being applied in football.  
Educational opportunities.
It may be difficult for the foreseeable future to organise school outings to plays and other arts events.  The DCMS can have a major role in ensuring that if young people cannot go to the events, then the events should come to them.  The number of trained groups specialising in theatre in education techniques should rapidly be increased.  DCMS support will be necessary for this.  
DCMS and the Department for Education should jointly devise an Arts in Schools Programme suitable for all levels in state education.  This should cover the teaching of the history of the arts as well as ensure that all children have access to seeing and performing live drama.
Cultural Renewal Taskforce.
We strongly support the idea of a Cultural Renewal Taskforce being established, under the chairmanship of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.  This would provide evidence that the government cares about the sector and is putting its weight behind ideas to ensure its survival.  However, we would advise the DCMS to look more carefully at the composition of this group, and recognise that the Covid crisis will require major changes across the sector.  It is  surely short-sighted to confine membership of the Taskforce to those who have managed larger organisations in the pre-Covid era.  It may well be that smaller organisations, community-based artists and those working in education will have more to offer here.
  1. Conclusion.
The arts are in danger.  There has not been a comparable threat to the survival of theatre since the Puritans closed playhouses in 1642.  That period of repression lasted eighteen years.  However, on returning to the boards, plays acquired a new vitality; theatre buildings moved indoors and started using new forms of lighting and scenic engineering; female actors took on leading parts in place of boys.  A new creativity came into being, affecting writing, performing, design, and the relationship of the production to the audience.  The same may happen again when the theatres re-open after Covid-19, but it is going to be a struggle.  We believe that the DCMS can rescue the situation, but it must show imagination, foresight and flexibility.  If it does, it will be thanked in perpetuity.  If it fails to do so, then history books will write disparagingly of its inability to rise to the occasion because it was philistine when it should have been cultured, bureaucratic when it should have been civilised.  The ball is in the DCMS court. 

Monday, May 25, 2020

Dev Virahsawmy - Guest blog of Farewell

Dev Virahsawmy
In this characteristically outspoken and moving guest blog, Mauritian writer and political activist Dev Virahsawmy marks his farewell to public life.  He will, however, join us for the last of The Lockdown Dialogues with Peter Sellars on June 3rd.  Dev says that "Since Toufann, I have always felt as being part of the Border Crossing community."  We are honoured to publish his message of retirement.

Whether we like it or not, human beings have always needed myths and will always need them. What is a myth? It may be “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events” or “a widely held but false belief or idea” or “a misrepresentation of the truth” or a combination of all these.

All societies generate their myths in order to come to terms with reality, to make life meaningful and to have a raison d’être and plural societies have several sets of myths which are often antagonistic. In the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, a dominant myth was that Mauritius was ‘Little France’. The alliance between the new English masters and the local oligarchy led middle-class Euro-Creoles to rally around the French language and ‘Frenchness’.

At present, a dominant myth is the belief that Mauritius is ‘Little India’. This politically motivated myth is linked to another more pernicious one carefully nurtured to support a racial objective. It is to show that people from India belong to a superior race for they have succeeded where Afro-Creoles have failed although both groups experienced the same ill treatment. There is nothing further from the truth. Slavery and indentured labour have nothing in common. The story of my great-grandfather clearly illustrates this. He, a ‘coolie’, came to Mauritius as an indentured labourer and during his stay he was attracted by the beauty of a young lady and when he proposed, his proposal was turned down. At the end of his contract, he returned to his homeland, changed his name, bought a passenger ticket, returned to Mauritius, proposed again and was successful. This is how he and his beloved started the Virahsawmy clan. A slave did not have this kind of freedom.

A very strong myth concerns capitalism which is believed to be irreplaceable, has always existed and always will. The history of the human race shows that this is not true but billions believe it is gospel truth. Skilful and systematic brainwashing has produced the required effect.

I do not intend to condemn mythmaking or mythmakers for the poet that I am, is guilty of much of this.

• Creole is our national language and must be known as Morisien. Myth or reality?
• We can achieve universal bilingual functional literacy in Morisien and English, another creole language. Myth or reality?
• Artocarpus altilis (breadfruit) or madegonn or friyapen will one day become our preferred staple. There cannot be genuine food security without it. Myth or reality?
• It is possible to build a supraethnic identity. Myth or reality?
• Mauritius is a Maritime Republic. Myth or reality?
• Mauritius is a creole island whose flora and fauna have been transfomed by different waves of immigrants from Africa, Europe and Asia. Myth or reality?
• Marxism and religion are compatible. Myth or reality?
• Men and women are different but equal. Myth or reality?

For more than half a century, these ‘myths’ have fuelled my existence. Covid-19 and PPS now tell me to take it easy. How much time is left? Only God knows. One thing is certain: some day soon, like Hamlet, I will say, “The rest is silence.” I promise that I’ll try hard not to pester you anymore with my frivolous myths.

This is my farewell message.

God bless you all.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

MORE THAN WORDS - Making the Film

MORE THAN WORDS - Raffaele Messina
“Every film is a foreign film”, write Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour, “foreign to some audience somewhere - and not simply in terms of language”.  Their book Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film addresses the paradoxical nature of this international art form in the age of digital communication and global distribution.  In spite of its apparently global reach, most film remains firmly rooted in, and so constrained by, language.  As B. Ruby Rich argues in the same volume, audiences tend to resist subtitles because reading them makes the experience of film-going into “work”, when they prefer to think of it as “relaxation” and “entertainment”.  “My guess”, argues Rich, “is that foreign films function as a rebuke for some viewers…  evidence that the world is not made in ‘our’ image, and that neither our society or our language is universal.”

The undermining of universalism, with all its postcolonial, neoliberal overtones, is a key element in the MORE THAN WORDS project.  Charged with creating a film that could function as one of the project’s Intellectual Outputs, we gradually realised that, in order to be true to the spirit of this European partnership, we had to find a way of communicating through film that was not solely, or even largely reliant on spoken or written language.  The original application form had stated that the film would be “subtitled in all project languages”.  Since there are at least seven of these (one of which, Arabic, is written in a non-Western script), conventional subtitling would have the effect of turning each shot into a calligraphic page.  Given that all the other Intellectual Outputs are written texts, this seemed to be a bit of a wasted opportunity.  As a result, there are titles in all the project languages, but they happen as an independent element in the film; highlighting the challenge posed by language, rather than using language as an artificial means towards a spurious accessibility.

Anyone who has experienced the immigration systems of European countries can tell you that language is often far from being a means of accessibility.  Language can just as readily be a tool of power.  It can be used to obscure, to obfuscate and to exclude.  Our film includes a number of sequences in which various languages are employed without subtitles, so that only a portion of the audience will have a literal understanding of what is being said.  The emotional power of these sequences should be in the way they reflect the experience of people who enter European spaces without European language skills.  The audience is made foreign by the film.

The great advantage of film to a project like MORE THAN WORDS is that it is primarily a visual medium.  Through the composition and juxtaposition of shots, the rhythmic energy of editing and the nuances of facial and bodily expression in performers, film allows for an emotional narrative that speaks across languages and moves beyond the purely intellectual.  If the film was to complement the other project outputs, and to offer something distinct from them, then it had to become more purely filmic, a visual and musical construct that could convey the project’s work in a mode that moved beyond language, that was “more than words”.  This was how music, rather than the spoken word, became the dominant element in the film’s soundtrack - to the extent that much of the language involved becomes itself a musical and emotional rather than a rational element.

The original brief was for a film that charted the linear narrative of the project’s development: I freely admit that this is not what we have done.  However, our film absolutely does what the more detailed description specifies:
“It will follow the work of the partners, the discussions and debates, it will show the problems, doubts and solutions found.… The film will also focus on how the different forms of expression - theatre, story telling, dance and humour - can be merged.… It will end up with a common performance prepared by the partners together.”
Our common performance is the film itself, which draws off the skills of the partners in Clowning, dance, theatre and the digital to tell a story inspired by our journey together.  It tries to be honest about the challenges we face, both as practitioners engaged in work that attempts to embrace linguistic minorities, and as educators whose methodologies are not always practically or ideologically compatible.  As a result, it seeks neither fusion nor resolution, but rather engages in an emerging and ongoing dialogue between different art forms, educational approaches, cultures and languages - a dialogue which is dynamic, vital and profoundly democratic.

European societies rest on a creation myth that emphasises the primacy of language: “In the Beginning was the Word.”  That is not how creation is understood elsewhere.  Hindu myth portrays the beginnings of the universe through the figure of Shiva, the cosmic dancer, while many African cultures speak of a primal music from which emerged the physical world and the spoken word.  These cultures, which today interact so potently with our changing continent, are closer to scientific truth than our own traditions.  It is now commonly accepted amongst evolutionary psychologists that music preceded language and is actually a more fundamental aspect of human communication.  If we are to generate a contemporary European polity that embraces its global reach, then we need to find ways of relating to one another that are musical just as much as linguistic.  We need to be brave enough to move beyond the merely rational.

I hope you enjoy the film.  Click here to watch it!

MORE THAN WORDS was made with the support of the Erasmus + programme of the European Union.  
The European Commission's support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

[Victory in] Europe Day

As my son and I took our permitted daily walk through Enfield yesterday, I felt as if I were on a film set.  The combination of street parties with social distancing was weird enough - combined with a fierce jingoism and a bizarre nostalgia for the grim 1940s, it seemed totally surreal.  I've been very disturbed in recent weeks by the rhetorical elision of Covid-19 with World War 2: the constant talk of the Blitz spirit (whatever that was); the evocation of Churchill; the way in which the war veteran Captain Tom Moore, wonderful though he undoubtedly is, became the symbol of our pandemic moment as he raised funds for the NHS, which is (incidentally) not a charity but a state service funded by general taxation.  The analogy is doubtless useful to maintaining morale, and I don't honestly begrudge people the chance to enjoy a scone and jam on a sunny Friday in the thick of a global pandemic - but the analogy is also nonsensical and frankly dangerous.  The virus is not a military enemy that might change its tactics if it works out what we're up to.  It is not a general or admiral who will surrender when the "fight" is over.  There will be no glorious moment of victory: like the world of Eliot's Hollow Men, this will end "Not with a bang but a whimper."

What makes the persistent use of the World War 2 analogy even more disturbing is that it has also been constantly employed in the Brexit debates.  This reached a new low this week, when a Daily Mail souvenir offer called VE Day “Britain’s victory over Europe”.  To unpick that a bit...  it was not "Britain's victory", because Britain was merely one member of a group of Allies, which included the USA, Russia, the free French, the exiled Polish forces, many nations from Africa, India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand....   It is a total fabrication to suggest that we ever "stood alone", even in the "darkest hour" after Dunkirk.  Many of those Allies were Europeans, so of course it was not a victory "over Europe" either.  It was a victory over the racist and oppressive regimes who held power in some European countries, but most victims of those regimes were also Europeans, and for them VE Day represented a liberation, not a defeat.  Germany now calls VE Day "Liberation Day", as President Steinmeier reminded the nation yesterday, while warning against "the temptation of a new nationalism. The fascination of the authoritarian. Of distrust, isolation and hostility between nations. Of hatred and agitation, of xenophobia and contempt for democracy - because they are nothing but the old evil spirits in a new guise."

The day after VE Day is Europe Day.  Five years and one day after the end of the war in Europe, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman presented The Schuman Declaration, which marked the beginning of the process that has, over the last 70 years, led to today's European Union.  "World peace", the declaration begins "cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it....   A united Europe was not achieved and we had war."  It is the most extraordinary irony that VE Day, the Union Jack, the war and that great pro-European Churchill have all been hijacked by the Brexiteers, as if history somehow justifies their preposterous narrative of British exceptionalism.  Surely, if VE Day means anything at all, then it means re-asserting the post-war settlement, of which the European Union has been a central part, creating the longest period of peace between European nations ever.  No two members of the European Union have ever been to war with one another.

As well as the European Union, the post-war settlement saw the establishment of the United Nations, which is the EU's equivalent for the American right: Trump's current whipping boy, the WHO, is a UN agency.  In Britain, the post-war settlement meant the establishment of the welfare state and the NHS - both of which have been systematically undermined for years by successive Tory governments intent on bankrolling the profiteers, with consequences we now see all too well as medical staff die for the want of protective equipment and essential testing is entrusted to provenly corrupt accountancy firms.  Brexit has to be understood as part of a larger programme to dismantle the post-war settlement for private gain, to bring about an extreme global deregulation of economic activity for the most wealthy.  It has nothing to do with patriotism, but it's easily dressed up and sold that way.  If we're not careful, the pandemic will also play into this insidious narrative.

Monday, May 04, 2020

GIFT and Manifestos

Song Ru Hui in RE-ORIENTATIONS - 2010
Whenever there is an obstacle, theatre makers find ways to make theatre.  The most obvious shift at the moment is to work happening online - and we're part of that process ourselves with our streaming offer and THE LOCKDOWN DIALOGUES.  A big part of the conversation is going to be about how the form itself can adapt, so that we move beyond streaming recordings of existing performances, and start to make work that is actually intended to happen online.  If, as seems possible, the theatres don't re-open until 2021, then this is going to be essential.

GIFT is a festival that has already started experimenting with online work, and I was a participant in the piece they presented with Rosanna Irvine, MANIFESTOS from times of CRISIS last week.  The piece was an online meeting to work out, at first in "break out groups, and then as a full group of twelve attendees, what we wanted to say and do in the time of coronavirus.  The final manifestos make interesting reading: you can guess which one I worked on....

Before we met to create our manifestos, we were asked to reflect on some questions.  The process turned out not to involve any sharing of our responses, so I thought I would post them here as a few thoughts in the time of the virus.  Responses are very welcome - we need to start working through these things together.
  • What is happening?
We are retreating.  The virus is sending us all into contained, private spaces - but even before the virus we were retreating.  Brexit is a retreat.  The rejection of refugees is a retreat. Nationalism is a retreat.  And - sorry to say this but…  there are ways in which even some forms of identity politics are a retreat.  We are all saying “Keep away from me.  I will keep close only those who are mine.  I reject the other.”
  • What do you want to be happening?
I want us to meet again.  Not in a Zoom room or some weird virtual reality but physically present, in the same room.  I want to be able to hug my friends and to feel our common humanity.  I want to be aware of living (and mortal) bodies passing before me in real, unredeemable time.
  • What do you not want to be happening?
"We’ve done really well and we’re past the peak.  We have to keep it all in place because it’s too early to stop being scared but we want people not to be scared so let’s all wear masks because it really boosts people’s confidence if they can’t see our faces.  You aren’t allowed out unless you have to go to work in which case you can go out.  We all have to keep indoors except on Thursday evenings when we all go out and stand with our neighbours and clap all the immigrants who work in the NHS who we intend to deport after the lockdown is over.  That doctor was an Italian you know.  Amazing thing was, he was quite good."
  • What are you remembering?
The last few weeks before it all really kicked in.  Performing our show across London.  The laughter in the audiences.  The energy on the stage.
  • What are you hoping?
The end of the retreat - the end of fear.  A realisation that things can’t go back to normal because normal was the problem.  The return of ceremony, the recognition of common purpose.  A meaningful rite at the burial of the dead - our lives recognised as having a value beyond the statistical.
  • What kind of a world do you want?
A world that retains its global connections but combines that with a local sensibility.  A new sense of place, a loyalty to the land.  A world in which travel happens because it is necessary, and where the traveller is not regarded as a dangerous interloper but as a welcome guest.

Monday, March 30, 2020

THE GREAT EXPERIMENT at the Cutty Sark - guest blog by Roshni Mooneeram

THE GREAT EXPERIMENT - Nisha Dassyne, Tony Guilfoyle & David Furlong.  Photo by John Cobb
I lived Border Crossings’ THE GREAT EXPERIMENT at the Cutty Sark in London with my hand on my heart for most of the play. I say ‘lived’ as opposed to ‘watched’, ‘attended’, ‘experienced’ because it was a Border Crossings signature piece in aesthetics and discomfort in equal measures that stirred intense emotions throughout. First of all, walking through Cutty Sark was in itself a powerful experience taking us into the very entrails of history. The walk served as an ablution ritual before entering the open space of an idol-less temple, and Border Crossings does this with finesse and rupture. There is no idol. There are conflicting voices, anachronistic self-consciousness, across the stories of the Great Experiment and its ongoing sequels. Affinities and collisions stemming from colonial dynamics emerge crossing time and space, at times speaking their truths passionately, at others allowing their biases and untruths to explode violently in the face of the audience.

The timing for this play to tour the UK and the Global South is perfect. Since the 2010 Equality Act and post-Brexit, we now have a vocabulary and a new freedom to name, address and redress white privilege. In my consultancy work in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) much of the resistance to EDI stems from people who have little sense of the historical context to ongoing institutional systemic racism and its multifaceted impact on Black and Asian Minority Ethnic groups. THE GREAT EXPERIMENT addresses, both brutally and in deeply touching human ways, those holes in the collective memory, and, in turn, the holes that this vacuum has dug into our souls on both sides of the equation. The colonial history of Britain has never been more relevant today as the momentum kick started by David Lammy manifests itself into EDI programmes and frameworks across institutions. The University of Glasgow is leading the way in its public acknowledgment of the slavery related profits that the University has benefited from. It has embarked on a programme of reparative justice which includes an ongoing partnership with the University of the West Indies. THE GREAT EXPERIMENT reminds us why we must imperatively do more.
THE GREAT EXPERIMENT.  Tony Guilfoyle & Tobi King Bakare.  Photo by John Cobb
This play will rustle different feathers in postcolonial contexts such as Mauritius where the original colonial structures in terms of land ownership and economic power remain almost intact. The play begs the all-important question of how and why, in this day and age, those who have built their fortunes on slavery in Mauritius are allowed to remain silent over an acknowledgment of the travesty of the past and reparative measures for the future. Secondly, colonial mimicry is at its best and remains consistent through the two political families which have reigned for more than half a century. Descendants of indentured labourers and slaves quibble over legitimacy, over who poured more blood and sweat over the land, over who is more deserving. I have tried through deliberately provocative press articles, to address the schism between the descendants of slaves and the descendants of indentured labourers in Mauritius. I have failed for a number of reasons including the fact that, as the play makes clear, our historical roots are the biggest taboo. Our survival strategies remain volatile, painful and raw and cannot accommodate any questioning let alone criticism. THE GREAT EXPERIMENT sits precisely in that uncomfortable place between what we ought to remember but have forgotten, and the convenient stories of identities that we have invented to suit our own purposes. Stories concocted in postcolonial times around discourses of supremacy and purity (akin to colonial ones) that we have started to believe as absolute truths and which in turn force others to forget.

The Mauritian state glorifies the Aapravasi Ghat where indentured labourers landed, and leaves a deliberate hole next to it where the Museum of slavery should stand. THE GREAT EXPERIMENT reminds us that it is not the Aapravasi Ghat that is laughing. It is the colonial project that is laughing at its unimagined perennial success to divide and rule. The play is bold, almost brash, in its intention to touch us where it hurts the most, not for the sake of it, but to allow us to confront our self-perceptions and our perceptions of otherness. Dragging us to the hold of the Cutty Sark, through the dark pages of British history and its sequels, in spite of everything that we wish to know and not know about ourselves, THE GREAT EXPERIMENT somehow manages to elevate its audience, in the way that only art can.

Roshni Mooneeram
Equality, Diversity, Inclusion Consultant
University of Nottingham.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

I Saw the End of the World

The Seven Streams of the River Ota
It seems horribly appropriate that the last piece of theatre I saw before the country went into lockdown was Robert Lepage's The Seven Streams of the River Ota. The play is overwhelmingly concerned with 'apocalyptic' catastrophes - the Hiroshima bomb, the Shoah, the AIDS epidemic. In the Lyttleton auditorium, for a sell-out theatrical occasion, there were empty seats all around.  Walking through Central London on a Saturday night, the streets were eerily deserted. Even the Gents loo was a markedly changed space, with orderly queues forming as men meticulously washed their hands.

I had seen the play twice before: once in a very early version, which concentrated largely on Jana Capek and her experiences in the Terezin camp; and then in the first full version of the mid 1990s. It was a significant, formative experience for me: I was fascinated by the global reach and epic scale of a piece that was also, in many ways, like a soap opera, and thrilled by its technical panache and daring theatricality. Lepage's great skill has always been the theatrical magic of transformation - by turning something into something else, he suggests all kinds of links between narrative moments and characters' experiences, frequently leaping across time and space. It was wonderful to revisit the stunning moment when a silhouette of a Japanese doll transforms into the living woman who gave the doll to her American lover as a present for his child - the meaning of the gift for the man becomes movingly present in the performer's body.

Perhaps it was because the production was so theatrically thrilling that I hadn't been quite so aware in the 90s of its deep preoccupation with cataclysmic events, or perhaps it was because the current context made the content so much more intense than the form? Looking over the published text, I realised that Lepage and his collaborators had made a number of alterations to the piece, and these also shifted the balance of the play. In the 90s, the director and company (and this spectator) were significantly younger, and there was a great sense of youthful energy in the play, resisting the potential for the events portrayed to provoke a nihilistic response. I remember hearing Lepage talk about the inspiration for the play being a visit he made to Hiroshima, where he had expected to find a city dominated by tragedy, and instead discovered vitality, creativity, energy. The 1996 text begins with a Prologue by the older Jana, which makes the same point: "If Hiroshima is a city of death and destruction, it is also a city of rebirth and survival." The current version begins instead with the figure of the child Hanako, blinded by the atomic bomb, and her elder self speaking far more portentous lines, which recur later in the show: "I saw the end of the world." So I don't think it was just me or the coronavirus - I think there was a real shift in the emphasis of the play.

I suppose this might be partly to do with the recent criticisms Lepage has received around issues of cultural appropriation. The cases of SLAV and Kanata have been much discussed - and I have written elsewhere about the question of representation in Ota.  Here's an extract from my Module on Post-Colonial Theatre for Rose Bruford College:
The issues around multi-lingualism in this play relate closely to the fact that it was created with international touring in mind, and so reflect the possibility of diverse audiences. Much of the play is about the business of being an audience, the act of looking. There’s one truly extraordinary moment at the end of the section about the older Jana looking at her own memories of Terezin, when “the lights switch so that the audience can see its own reflection in the downstage mirrors”. In an instant, our spectatorship of the event is foregrounded as a crucial part of the event’s meaning.
Yet, the question surely arises, who are ‘we’? With the exception of Jana, who is only the spectator figure in this one section, when she is also the object of the gaze as her younger self; the spectator figures in Ota tend to be Québécois. What’s more, Québécois on their travels. These figures, (e.g. Patricia, Walter, Sophie, Pierre) are observers, through whom we approach the Otherness of other cultures, whether this be Japan (as, for example, when Pierre, and the audience, watch Hanako’s demonstration of butoh) or Terezin (when Patricia interviews Jana).
This Québécois mediation is perhaps to be expected from a Québécois company – even the actress performing Hanako was Québécoise – but it suggests an assumption of audience viewpoint. In Québec, the play would probably have felt like a meditation on bi-lingual Québécois culture in the context of globalisation. Indeed, in his film , Lepage reworks sections of the play alongside a narrative about the referendum on Québec’s proposed secession from the rest of Canada. This audience would, crucially, have understood all the passages in both French and English. There would therefore be no sense of any of the North American or Western European characters as Other: that status is reserved for the Czechs and the Japanese. To other Canadian audiences, however, the French passages would have been more obscure, having the effect of making the play a statement about the Québécois culture as itself Other to them. It’s the Québécois audience that would have related most fully to the way French becomes a langue-identité in the play.
For a European audience (and, as the list of tour dates in the front of the printed script suggests, most of the audiences were European), the play’s effect would be different again. European languages and theatre forms are the main route in to the play, so this audience also feels close to the Québécois tourist characters. For them, however, the specific Canadian resonance of their bi-lingualism is not so important (or, perhaps, even apparent). The use of French simply becomes another part of the play’s post-modern engagement with the global village, another site for the audience’s essential process of translation (of which much is made in the play).
The one audience which would, I feel, have responded very differently to the play is the Japanese one: the only audience for this ‘global’ project which was not from the Western hemisphere (though, like all the rest, it was from the Northern hemisphere). Japanese culture is presented in the play through the mediating gaze of the Québécois tourists (and the American soldier Luke). This is, in many ways, a commendable thing for Lepage to have done: he hasn’t presumed to know Japanese culture from inside. But this makes it all the odder to present the finished work to an audience who do know the culture, because they live it. To see oneself presented as Other must be strange indeed.
The 2020 version of the play has certainly taken on board much of the criticism around casting: the Japanese characters are now played by actors with East Asian heritage, and Hanako's appearance at the start of the play makes for a stark contrast with the European mediation offered by Jana's Prologue. The opening speech being given to this blind Japanese woman had the effect of distancing the audience from the material, rather than drawing them in. This was actually very powerful, as the subsequent sequence around the American soldier Luke and his slowly developing love for Hanako's mother Nozomi is an example of a Western character leading the audience into a relationship with a Japanese Other, and that was constantly offset by our ongoing awareness of Hanako's prologue. So I found it all the stranger that the order of the Parts had been altered, so that the adult Hanako was first encountered as a translator for Québécois visitors to Japan, rather than (as in the 1996 version) as a compassionate presence at the assisted suicide of her half-brother. This made her ancillary to the Québécois characters, rather than a powerful presence with her own agency.

I suspect this change of order reflects another aspect of the artists' shift over a quarter century, which is a more circumspect approach to sexuality. In the original structure, the French farce on tour in Japan and its parallels in the lives of performers and diplomats came quite late on, with the play acquiring a more comic tone as it rushed towards a climactic celebration of life and zest, particularly in the Québécois dancer Pierre's sexual liaisons with both Hanako and her son David. In the 2020 version, which reflects a post-#MeToo mentality, David has disappeared as a character, and the sexual element in Pierre's encounter with Hanako is hugely downplayed in comparison with their artistic relationship. The seedy diplomat Walter no longer seems a figure of fun after Weinstein, and the weirdly erotic Japanese puppet play, which was theatrically extraordinary in 1996, has completely disappeared. I guess it was problematic both in terms of racial and sexual politics - but I still rather missed it.

Without the growing sexual energy of the latter sections, the seven-hour play seemed less resolved than in 1996 - and maybe that also reflects the uncertainty of the current moment. The play still ends with a Québécois artist making work that attempts to bring many cultural strands together: all of Lepage's pieces seem to end in this way, even Kanata, but it no longer seems to carry the conviction that creativity is the answer to everything. The new Ota is rightly aware of our current moment as a time of disturbance and deep uncertainty.

We left the theatre, and locked ourselves into our homes. When we emerge again, there will be huge questions around how we can meet and gather in our theatres, our polities, our globalised space.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Migrants and ‘Traffickers’ - past and present

Guest blog by Prof. Crispin Bates (University of Edinburgh)
David Furlong in rehearsals for THE GREAT EXPERIMENT
Crispin Bates was one of our Consultant Historians for the devising process of our new production: THE GREAT EXPERIMENT.  Here he reflects on the history of migrations informing the play, and its relevance today.

The problems associated with today's mass migrations are nothing new. They have always arisen from the incompetent or misguided policies of governments that have often been responsible for creating the conditions from which migrants are trying to escape. In the current European refugee crisis an attempt is commonly made to distinguish between ‘deserving’ refugees, to whom asylum should be granted, and ‘economic migrants’ who should be excluded. However the distinction is not so clear- cut. So-called ‘economic migrants’ are often the victims of mis-rule by totalitarian regimes. Their poverty is therefore brought about or compounded by the actions of politicians. Persecution can involve political and economic discrimination as well as the loss of civil liberties. The chaos of war produces famine and economic distress that is as much a threat to life as the military’s guns and bombs.

Perhaps the most extreme form of political repression arises when a country is occupied by a foreign power. This describes the condition of many countries in Africa and Asia during the era of European colonialism. Political rights and civil liberties were minimal, and territories were administered primarily in the interests of the occupying power, and not those of the indigenous population. The question arises therefore whether labour migrants of the colonial era were maximising their economic opportunities, or were simply refugees. The answer, as today, is often both. Migrants made choices, but only amongst a very limited range of options. One might question the freedom of choice when it comes to most economies, but in these circumstances the range of options was often peculiarly constrained.

Global migration has a longer history than most people imagine. Apart from the millions of Europeans who migrated to America and other countries in the hope of a better life, some 20 million Chinese migrated overseas between 1840 and 1940. Mostly they went to Malaysia, where they worked in the tin mining industry, to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Siam, French Indo-China, and South Africa, where they were employed in gold mining.  Indians migrated overseas in equally large numbers from the 1830s onwards.  And wherever Asian workers went they were soon followed by merchants, who traded, set up shops and restaurants and small scale industries. Many of these migrants came from regions with traditionally high levels of out-migration, such as Bihar in northern India, as well as from Tamil Nadu in the south, but eventually every part of the Indian subcontinent became involved. They mostly left to work in sugar plantations in British colonies in the Caribbean and southern Indian Ocean, as well as in South Africa, Fiji, and in the French colonies of Reunion, Guadeloupe and Martinique. Their role was to replace African slave labour following the abolition of slavery in the British empire in 1833/4 and the French empire a decade later. Indian labourers signed up in even larger numbers to work in the paddy fields, coffee, tea and rubber plantations of Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Malaysia. They also served as construction workers, much as they do in the Middle East in the present day. They were often employed using notoriously one-sided labour contracts which obliged them to work continuously for three, four or five years for a single employer, who was thereby reimbursed for the cost of their passage. They had no passports to be confiscated, only an emigration certificate and a contract of employment, but if they did not complete their contract, they would lose the right to a free passage home.

Criticisms from the Anti-Slavery Society in London, who dubbed the first wave of indentured migration ‘a new system of slavery’, led to the suspension of indentured migration in 1838, but it was then resumed in 1843 under close supervision. Opponents of Indian overseas migration within India were reassured by the planters that they would only recruit the poorest of the poor and the most unskilled of Indian workers. However, statistical evidence suggests that by the late 1850s migrants were being recruited from amongst the landless and impoverished within all sections of society. The great Indian Uprising of 1857 gave a boost to the trade, as the economy of rural north India was devastated by war with successive famines following in 1861 and 1865. Tens of thousands of high caste Indians from disbanded regiments of the Bengal army, in particular, found themselves out of work at this time and many migrated overseas. It is true that the wages of indentured labourers were often better than those available locally. However, the alternative employment opportunities were severely limited.
Tobi King Bakare in rehearsals for THE GREAT EXPERIMENT
The indenture contract was similar to that in use in most modern armies. It was less onerous in one respect, as if they saved enough the workers could buy themselves out of the contract at any time. However, the work was hard and although hospitals were provided and Protectors and Inspectors were appointed (to whom they could and did complain), the rights of workers were limited, and always constrained by the pervasive racism of their employers and colonial governments. If workers fled from the plantation they could be arrested and imprisoned for vagrancy (a law borrowed from Britain), and workers who were absent from work, without permission, were in some colonies penalised with a two-day deduction of wages for every day they were away (the notorious ‘double cut’). Although banned by law by the end of the century, overseers in some estates often did not hesitate to use violence and abuse to keep their workers in line.

Like most long-distance migrants, the Indian recruits (referred to as ‘coolies’ – a title that later assumed a derogatory meaning) had only a limited knowledge of where they were going. There were sugar plantations in India, and some were already familiar with the type of work involved. But most had no relevant previous experience. What attracted them was the possibility of saving money and returning home with it. In some cases by migration they also hoped to escape caste, gender, or religious persecution. Better still, many were allowed to acquire land – something they could never have achieved in India - and stayed on in the sugar colonies. In the British colony of Trinidad, the earliest migrants were offered a free grant of land if they agreed to stay rather than claim the free passage home to which they were entitled. In time, many gave up working on the plantations and became farmers or shopkeepers.

Between 1.5 and 2 million Indians were contracted as indentured workers. Eventually large settled communities of Indian workers were established in the sugar colonies, which by the early twentieth century was to make this form of recruitment redundant. Other forms of recruitment also took place contemporaneously for the inter-Asian labour trade. These included the so-called ‘free migration’ of workers and the use of Indian kanganies and maistries who advanced wages and lent money to workers to pay their passage. Workers were assembled in gangs to work especially in the coffee and tea plantations of Assam and Sri Lanka, and later in the all important rubber plantations of Malaysia. Unlike the migration of indentured labourers to work in the sugar trade, this form of migration was not closely supervised by colonial governments. We will therefore never know the true numbers, but many millions were involved. Migration to work in sugar plantations probably accounted in fact for barely 10% of the total.

In all these migrations there was an opportunity for betterment, but at huge risk and often at great cost. Prior to the introduction of steamships, disease might break out on ships during the long sea passage, leading to extraordinary levels of mortality. Some were also lost in drownings at sea and shipwrecks. The treatment meted out to workers by former slave owners in the early years was often harsh. Gradually though, over time, conditions were improved with the introduction of improved rations and increasingly rigorous inspections. The complaints and protests of the workers, who struggled against colonial discrimination, played an important role in ameliorating the trade: so much so that the Internal Labour Organisation in the 1920s looked to indentured labour regulations for examples on how to define the rights of workers.  Much as in the present day, the least fortunate migrants were those who found themselves working in entirely unregulated industries, such as agriculture or domestic work.
Nisha Dassyne in rehearsals for THE GREAT EXPERIMENT
It is often assumed that planters and factory owners were themselves responsible for recruiting the workers. However, intermediaries of various sorts played a crucial role in all Indian overseas labour migration. The most important of these intermediaries was the kangani or sirdar: who was commonly a returnee migrant worker or overseer, who could provide knowledge and information about the passage, guarantee their safe arrival, and their onward employment. Much like modern people smugglers (often referred to as ‘traffickers’), they were pilloried at the time. They provided a service to the planters by securing for them employees, usually from the Indian rural locality where they originated, that the planters could not otherwise secure. They had to be paid for this, and often demanded extortionate fees. At the same time, they organised and supported the workers: navigating their way to the depot, providing them food and clothing during the passage, lending money (at high rates of interest), and securing the best possible wages for them if they chose to re-indenture on the sugar estate (in which they also claimed a share). They were indispensable to all concerned, but their loyalties were always in question.

Attempts were made by numerous colonial governments to do away with the kanganis, sirdars and other intermediaries to develop what they imagined as an entirely ‘free’ market in labour migrants. This proved to be impossible, even after the abandonment of the indentured labour contract in the 1920s under pressure from Indian nationalists. Much like people smugglers in the present-day they provided a service which no-one else could. To survive and improve their life chances, migrants had to undertake long journeys and depended upon the networks and knowledge provided by intermediaries. Even though colonial labour migration was not illegal, contracts could not be secured without the involvement of intermediaries.

In the present-day, the growth of free trade has been accompanied by an ever greater tightening of border controls. This began in the 1880s with immigration restrictions introduced by Canada and Australia to halt the inward rush of impoverished Chinese migrant labourers. Travel restrictions became more widespread in the 1930s with the impact of the depression, with the eruption of strikes and race riots being often blamed on migrant communities. Border controls then became endemic after World War II, as newly independent social democratic states struggled to define and control their citizens, to raise taxes, and to determine the legal rights of their populations. It is these restrictions, that have made intermediaries of various sorts even more important than they were in the past for those seeking and needing to cross the globe in search of sanctuary and employment.

In the parts of the Middle East and north Africa torn apart by warfare and civil strife there are no consulates where refugees can apply for asylum. At the same time, European air, sea and road transport regulations forbid any migrant to board a plane without a visa of some sort. Smuggling is thus driven by EU policy. Many politicians have pointed out how the foreign policies of the European powers, particularly the arming of rebels in the aftermath of the ‘Arab Spring’ and the bombing of Libya, Iraq and Syria, have contributed to the exodus. Nineteenth century colonialism limited the opportunities of Indian subjects so that they had little choice but to become indentured migrants, for which they were recruited by Indian sirdars. So too, have European governments compounded a state of war and then created a legal regime where would- be migrants have no choice but to put themselves in hands of smugglers, who are the only ones capable of organising their escape.

In colonial times, the Royal Commission on Indentured Migration to Mauritius in 1875, received conflicting evidence of the exploitative behaviour of sirdars: sometimes they seemed to serve the interests only of themselves, but at other times they clearly defended their gangs of workers. Neither the workers or planters could survive without them. The Royal Commission concluded there they were an ‘evil’ (hypocritically blamed on ‘the persistence of native practices’) than must be endured.8 Just as there were ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sirdars in colonial times, the same can be said of intermediaries in the present: at the one end there are legitimate and responsible foreign labour recruiters and at the other end are the ‘traffickers’ who use intimidation to coerce migrants into exploitative employment in industries lacking regulation, such as agriculture, domestic and sex work. People smugglers lie somewhere in between. It is the illegality of their actions that often causes people smugglers to be prosecuted as ‘traffickers’, but for the difficult circumstances of migrants and the need for their services, European governments have a case to answer too. Because of their illegality, smugglers are forced to abandon lorries or boats before reaching their destinations, off-loading sea passengers onto dinghies that either sink or are confiscated upon arrival. Intermediaries in colonial times travelled with migrants for the whole journey, acted as overseers on the plantations, and often spent their entire lives with the persons they recruited and accompanied overseas. In fact the life of migrants was probably less hazardous in colonial times than it is now. The culpability of European governments for the poor conditions migrants have to suffer is in many ways similar, but the results are even more devastating today.

Crispin Bates is Professor of Modern and Contemporary South Asian History at the University of Edinburgh and Co-Investigator with Prof. Andrea Major (Leeds University) in the AHRC-funded ‘Becoming Coolies’ research project on the origins of Indian overseas labour migration in the colonial era. See

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