Introduction: Modernity and the Tiatr
According to Appadurai (1997: 1-3), the modern world we live in constitutes a break of all sorts with the past. Conventional social scientific theory regarded it as a break with tradition (including traditional gender relations), religion, ethnicity, primordialism of all varieties and a movement towards rationalism, Parsonian ‘affective neutrality’ in most areas of public life and secularism. The modern in this theory usually implies migration, representative politics and nationalism, the growing influence of the media, the dominance of bureaucracy, the market and economic relations and a mass-consumption society based on superior technology. Modernity brings about cultural homogenisation in the conventional theory.
Appadurai does not repudiate aspects of received understandings but suggests that the modern is transnational as much as it is national. Migration and images communicated by the media link the local with the global in unforeseen ways. Moreover, he argues that tradition, religion or ethnic identities do not disappear with modernity; modernity reinvents them. While modernity does involve rupture with the past, it is a process that is experienced unevenly and certainly does not lead to cultural homogenisation on a global scale. Peoples, groups and cultures take over and ‘consume’ the modem in different and selective ways. Consumption often provokes irony, if not open resistance.
Appadurai’s ideas that the local and global are linked in numerous ways through modernity and the media, that tradition does not disappear with the coming of modernity but tends to get reconfigured or reinvented and that the modern is often critiqued and resisted by those living in it, ‘really’ and imaginatively (as in performative traditions, rituals or the cinema, for example), are relevant for our narrative centred around Goan tiatr.
As we shall see, Goan tiatr constitutes an imaginative area in and through which a particular understanding of modernity is shaped. Plays of this genre represent and revolve around questions of modernity. In the plays, modern representative politics, modern culture (associated, for instance, with the English language, with Western serials broadcast by satellite television and with changing sexual mores), modern economic systems linked with technological development, capitalism and the growth of world markets, international migration of labour or the tourist industry are all represented, queried or critiqued. Tourists get satirised and criticised for their lack of understanding of Goan culture. Goans themselves are critiqued for hankering after ‘foreign’ goods (consumer products) and for learning English at the expense of their local language.
The representation of women in popular culture
Traditional gender and family relations become a space that these plays see as needing to be protected from the deleterious effects of modernisation. The so-called effects of modernization – in terms of the transformation of sexual mores, the coming into being of the ‘modern’ working woman and the increase in nuclear families isolated from larger kinship networks – are viewed with a deep ambivalence, in fact even hostility. This seems to be an important theme of the plays and has its reverberations everywhere – particularly in the glorified characterization of the traditional Goan woman and her immurement within the family.
However, as I argue, the highlighting of the family and of loyalty to it and the projection of a certain kind of kinship and gender morality by the tiatrs need to be understood partly against the interpretation and critique of modernity that these plays sustain. The familial domain is perceived as the only anchor in an unstable world; and it, too, is vulnerable in the face of the disturbing forces of the modern.
In taking up the theme of Goan tiatr, this paper locates itself within a now expanding terrain concerned with the politics of popular culture, with the representation of women and the interconnections between modernity and tradition, and with ‘the construction of selfhood and the projection of otherness – whether at the level of caste, class, community, region or nation’ (Uberoi 1996b: xiii; Sangari and Vaid 1989). The field of popular culture in India and its negotiations with themes such as those of community, modernity and femininity have had many interlocutors in the recent past. Film, photography, art, literature and theatre have all come under critical scrutiny (see Kapur 1995; Chakravarty 1993; Prasad 1998; Srivatsan 1993; Sunder Rajan 1993; Uberoi 1996a; Niranjana et al. 1993; Bharucha 1998).
Speaking in the context of Hindi cinema, various scholars (see, for instance, Vasudevan 1991, 1996; Rajadhyaksha 1993; Chakravarty 1993) record the relationship between the realm of popular culture and that of cultural nationalism. Vasudevan (1996: 99) and Zutshi (1993: 138) focus on the cinematic representation of social change and the way in which films employ women in the neutralisation of social disturbances that are viewed as accompanying the construction of the modern nation. This capacity of women to renew the body politic can only occur, as Zutshi points out, when the potential disruptiveness of the woman herself – her uncontrolled and dangerous sexuality – is tamed and she is transformed into woman as (wife and) mother. In other words, woman has to be contained within her traditional functions even as the project of modernizing the body politic gets under way: indeed, the very success of the project hinges around such a control of women.
The woman here is not only symbolic of the nation. In fact, as Uberoi (1996: xiii) notes, it is the politics of communal identity that forms the principal site for the ‘iconicisation of women as emblems of culture and tradition in contemporary India.’ The construction of gender is fundamental to communal discourses in the South Asian context and is often linked to the reinterpretation of tradition. Wherever this occurs, it is perceived to have profoundly restrictive implications for women. Dress, deportment and norms regarding interaction and movement come under scrutiny (Dube n.d.). In the context of communal politics, women are symbols of the community and, hence, they should be immediately identifiable with it: their difference from the ‘other’ community is crucial. They must be distinguishable from the ‘other’ community in dress and must eschew its rituals and practices. For instance, in Punjab, Sikh women were asked to avoid wearing the sari.
The representation of women and modernity in the tiatrs
Goan tiatr is worth looking at for the complex interweaving of cultures that produces the Goan Catholic icon of womanhood. On the antagonistic ground of communal politics, difference from other communities is stressed. Goa’s two main communities are its Hindus and Catholics. The latter form about a third of the population and are the descendants of 16th and 17th century converts to the faith. Goan tiatr addresses itself largely to the Catholic community, but the construction of community in the tiatrs, of its women and its traditions, partakes of a moral and socio-cultural order shared alike by the region’s Hindus and Catholics. In Goan tiatr, the ‘other’, the target, is not the Hindu community, but the modern state and, indeed, modernity itself.
Both critique and reform are central to the construction of community in the tiatrs. Critique revolves around the policies of the modern state, the corruption and political scandals unleashed by representative democracy and a ‘licence raj’, and around the lack of civic amenities and tourism and the problems it has generated. All these have led to a situation where the ordinary person is forced to resort to unfair means to get ahead. The response of the tiatrs is to advocate trust in the family and kinship sphere, combined with a mistrust of the sphere of the public and impersonal.
Women are to be secured from modernity and located firmly within the sphere of traditional roles – as daughters, wives and mothers. This occurs even as in their actual lives women are moving out into the professional and work spheres and taking on a range of other responsibilities. It is a well-established implication of such a representation of women in the context of the construction of community identity that the needs and problems of real women tend to get ignored or concealed (see Uberoi 1996b: xiii).
The reformist strategy is aimed at the emigrants within the community and at those who, seduced by modern lifestyles, forget tradition. As Das (1995) points out, the construction of community identity requires the naming and the reform of those on the margins or fringes, those who threaten the community through non-conformism. While forgetting the mother tongue (Konkani) or other Goan customs is marked among such sins, it is concerns focused around the family and women’s dress, deportment and the control of their sexuality that are centrally articulated. A contrast is drawn between the dress and mode of deportment and interaction appropriate for the Goan woman and the new cultural models of women – uninhibited (read uncontrolled) in dress and bearing – that are available on global television and incarnated in foreign female tourists who come to Goa.
Thus, it seems to be a characteristic of Indian cultural forms of the type discussed by all our writers that they have a troubled association with the notion of female modernity; what Vasudevan calls ‘modernity-as-woman’ (1996: 99). A world-view emerges which can accept as both essential and inevitable economic, politico-administrative and technological transformation, but is unable to contend with and therefore suppresses any suggestion of radical cultural experimentation, particularly in relation to the position of women. While most of the literature articulates the presence of this model as a hegemonic one, for instance in theatre (Rege 1996; Hansen 1998) and film (Chakravarty 1993; Prasad 1998; Thomas 1995; Zutshi 1993), it appears to me worthwhile to query this suggested seamlessness.
The tiatrs contain women within tradition, but there are ruptures in this neat homogeneity: moments when suppressed ideas and visions spurt suddenly. These are worth retaining, I would like to argue, not just as traces of alternative models to the dominant ideology that are available but repressed (see Vasudevan, 1996), but because their presence shows us what the dominant ideology has to counter and argue against in establishing its own hegemony. In other words, these ruptures or moments of resistance are a reminder that the dominant ideology is never monolithic (see Sunder Rajan 1993: 5); there are struggles within. More bleakly, we are reminded that these moments are necessary – for it is in acting against them that the dominant ideologies may perpetuate and reassert themselves, perhaps with greater firmness.
Tiatr: A brief history and organization
From the beginning, tiatrs were characterised by Rabelaisian qualities of gaiety, laughter and ribaldry, travesty, irreverence and mockery. While Catholic values, as shown below, implicitly shaped the moral universe of the tiatr, tiatrs were not slow to poke fun at anything that smelt of the sanctimonious or of dissimulation. This was despite the fact that until 1961, under the Portuguese, particular prohibitions applied to such performances. For instance, it was forbidden for any actor to put on a clerical dress or the dress of a religious order. Mimicry of the ceremonies and rites of the Church in dramatic representations was also not permitted. Priests were not permitted to attend tiatrs or identify themselves with tiatrs in any way. Today, the priest is no longer a stranger to the stage and he may be portrayed seriously or satirically.
In the event, critical assault on church and state was more muted than in the period after 1961. The plots of the tiatrs, though, provided a constant protest against prevailing inequalities by defending the cause of the powerless – the poor, the marginalised, the tenant, the ordinary inhabitant – against those with politico-economic might. Migration and the lives of emigrants, tradition and the Goan ethos, the family and chaste femininity, were some of the thematic elements that recurred in the tiatrs (Kale 1986). The ‘social real’, if one might so put it, was the stuff of the tiatrs from their inception. Goan tiatr, in this, distinguishes itself from the Parsi theatre of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which more often than not dramatised themes from mythology, the Puranas and the like (Hansen 1998; Kapur 1995).
These days, as in the past, tiatrs are not performed by established theatre groups. Tiatrists are usually brought together by a person who launches and directs the production, drawing upon a variety of social networks – of caste, friendship, locality or kinship – to recruit his troupe. This person is generally the one who has written a script or obtained one which he feels has performative and commercial potential. Most tiatrists are not professional actors: they tend to be employed elsewhere, but utilize their theatrical talents, in part, to generate some extra income outside their working hours.
Apart from the director, the organisation of a tiatr performance requires a contractor, who hires the necessary sound equipment and the theatre and is responsible for promoting the production. The contractor handles the funds, rendering the director a particular sum from which the latter disburses payments to the artistes and defrays other expenses. The director would have to pay for lighting equipment, cosmetics, costumes, props and the like. At the time of my fieldwork, actors earned Rs. 100-150 a show, the top performers getting more. Given that a particular production is usually staged thrice or sometimes even four or five times a day – each performance in a different place – an actor could earn a decent sum over the period that the show runs.
Tiatrs have a somewhat impromptu quality about them. There is always some amount of ad-libbing and improvisation to accommodate specific audience demands and keep political invective and social comment up to date. Again, the timetables of the actors, who may be performing simultaneously in more than one tiatr, often preclude their being able to rehearse together properly. It is not unusual for the entire company to meet for the first time at the opening performance of the show. However, its makeshift character does not prevent a successful tiatr from running for a very long period. It may be performed in several dozens of Goan villages, run for a while in Mumbai and, perhaps, even tour some of the Gulf countries where Goan migrant workers reside in large numbers. A popular tiatr could even return for repeat performances the following year.
Margao, in the southern Goan taluka (district) of Salcete, has over the years become established as the organisational nucleus for tiatr activity. A large number of well-known tiatrists live in villages not far from Margao, such as Benaulim, Loutulim, Colva and Raia. October to February and the summer months of April and May, before the first showers of the monsoon, are the main periods for the staging of tiatrs. Tiatrs are shown in the principal Goan towns such as Mapusa, Panjim or Margao. Here, they are performed in established, well-equipped auditoriums.
Town performances tend to be somewhat more staid and controlled and, generally, run through without undue pause (for repeated encores), as any conventional play. Tiatrs do not usually run for very long periods in the towns, though. The more significant and interesting performances of any tiatr are those that are staged in the villages. A mattov or tent is put up in an open space, often the one in front of the village church. Folding chairs are arranged for the audience and a temporary stage and lighting system set up. The tiatr will, no doubt, start much later than scheduled and, during the course of the performance, the actors will take the time to gauge and respond to the shifting moods of the audience. The texture of the performance itself is altered by the actor-audience interaction. A song, for instance, may be repeated several times if the audience asks for it (see also Kapur 1986).
The construction of the feminine in the tiatrs
The tiatrs are explicitly predicated on particular notions of feminine identity. There is a split in the construction of the feminine: the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ woman are portrayed by different female characters, and the former always triumphs over the latter, who has to concede defeat and/or learn the error of her ways. The chaste woman, who remains devoted to her husband (even after his death she preserves his memory and does not re-marry) is contrasted with the wanton woman, characterised by uncontrolled amorous inclinations. She is the woman unbound, selfish and lacking in caring and nurturing qualities, who chases after men and destroys homes.
Ideas regarding the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ woman are common among Hindus. The good woman is pure and unselfish. As a wife and mother, she is dutiful, constant and loving. Qualities of tenderness and compassion abound in her. The bad woman, the whore, belongs nowhere and to no one. She usually repudiates family ties (or is rejected by her family for her immoral ways) and is not secure in the legitimate protection of a male authority figure: father, brother or husband.
These notions – about earthly females’ behaviour and character – are underscored by the rupture in the conceptualisation of the feminine divine in Sanskritic and non-Sanskritic religious traditions. Sanskritic or Brahmanic Hinduism incorporates the goddess as consort of a male god. In this position, the goddess is inferior in power and status to the male divine being, her spouse. Marriage binds her into meekness and obedience and robs her of her anger and destructive powers, which emerge powerfully in the goddess-centred shakti cults (see O’Flaherty 1980; Ram 1991).
Catholic thought also contains within itself the paradigmatic opposition of Mary and Eve. Mary, the Virgin mother of God, is a benign, benevolent presence in Christian discourse. Christian women are exhorted to emulate Marian virtues. Iconographically depicted as crushing the serpent beneath her foot, Immaculate Mary (who is conceived without original sin) triumphs over Satan, who in the form of the serpent had lured Eve into the web of temptation.
Associated with shame and the loss of primal innocence, Eve remains a disturbing, unsettling figure in Catholic thought. It is not that the notion of the feminine divine in popular Christianity is without rupture or ambivalence. Using European materials, Warner (1976) explores the troubled relationship between the ideas of Mary’s independent power (to answer prayers and her power of intercession with her son), her virginity and her fertility. Medieval beliefs not only celebrated the notion of fecundity associated with Mary and attributed to her the capacity to quicken the womb, but viewed her as having absolute powers, not resting on the mediation of her son, to grant all kinds of boons. The theological resolve to these contradictions was the suppression of the motif of sexuality and the concomitant stress on motherhood through ‘immaculate conception’. By locking Mary in motherhood, the discourse allowed the Church to emphasise that she had no independent powers; her power flowed from and originated from her son, Christ. Mary must therefore be beseeched to mediate with Christ.
Indeed, in the South Asian context, as Bayly fascinatingly demonstrates, quite often virgin cults manifest a ‘rich mixture of Hindu and Christian motifs’ (1989: 368). In the case of the Velankanni virgin, for instance, there are oral traditions linking her to the surrounding Hindu sacred landscape and she is portrayed not as benign protectoress, a divine being deficient in independent power, but as warrior and conqueror. In fact, the cults use the term shakti to refer to her supernatural powers (ibid.: 368).
Kalpana Ram’s study among Mukkuvar fisherfolk in Tamil Nadu shows that there is a split in the conception of the feminine divine in Mukkuvar popular Catholicism, which partakes significantly of non-Sanskritic Hinduism. Good and evil are symbolised and incarnated by the figures of Mary and the non-Sanskritic Hindu goddess, Eseki, respectively. While Mary is seen as completely benevolent and confined to her maternal and nurturing role – good femininity – all the unruly aspects of the feminine – desire, power and the capacity for unpredictability and evil – are projected onto the figure of Eseki. The presence of the figure of Eseki within popular religion testifies to the need to contend with and represent the disorderly aspects of the feminine, which are denied by the figure of the eternally placid Mary of official Catholic discourses.
In Goa, the relationship between Mary as benevolent mother of God and as powerful female divine embodying shakti is often articulated through the story told of the seven sisters, who once represented seven temples in Goa. Though no one can identify all seven, the story goes that some of the sisters converted to Catholicism, such as the Church of Our Lady of Cures at Cansaulim and Our Lady of Miracles at Mapusa. Some remained Hindu, including the powerful Shantadurga of Fatorpa in south Goa. Shantadurga, whose cult is popular in Goa among Hindus and Catholics, is viewed as a potent divine figure with the capacity to grant favours, but also to turn her anger on devotees who forget to keep the vows they make to her. The language of kinship binds the benign Mary and her powerful, shakti externalising ‘other’ in sororal conjunction.
However, in Goa as in the Tamil case described by Ram, the hegemony of the church definitions in the realm of popular religion ultimately ensures an asymmetry in the relationship in that the cult of the Hindu goddess among Catholics remains a subterranean, subdominant presence. While there is an appropriation of shakti embodying Hindu goddesses into popular Catholicism, the domination of the chaste image over that of the unruly ultimately mirrors the relationship of these goddesses to the higher female divinities within Brahmanic Hinduism.
Further, this hierarchical representation of the feminine divine is reproduced in discourses aimed at earthly women. Particular strands within Christian and Hindu discourses converge in urging women towards and, indeed, obliging them to accept the values of obedience and submission to the husband. As with other cultural patterns, Goan Catholic kinship morality and gender values share much in common with Hindu concepts. Differences with regional Hindu culture are visible in the greater egalitarianism between husbands and wives. For instance, a Catholic wife calls her husband by his first name. However, she refers to him as bhatkar (landlord), ghorkar or tou (he).
Moreover, other ideas and practices underline her subordination. Women who fight and quarrel with their husbands are considered bad (vaitt). They are expected to submit to his will. It is not unknown for a woman, particularly in the early years of marriage, to be told by her husband to return to her natal home because of disobedience and intransigence or until she has learnt certain household skills. Again, notions of inauspiciousness are associated with widowhood among both Catholics and Hindus. For instance, widows are not permitted to play a prominent role in marriage celebrations.
The message of particular Christian texts corresponds, in certain respects, with Hindu ideas regarding the status of a husband (as patidev, husband-god) or the conduct of a devoted wife (pativrata stri). The following text from Saint Paul to the Ephesians (5: 22-25), for instance, is often used for the wedding mass: ‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore, as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it’.
Thus, the notion of the ‘good’ Goan Catholic woman, deriving from a complex interweaving of cultures, is celebrated as ‘tradition’ in the tiatrs. In the same moment, this particular complex of ideas regarding gender values is rendered static; it is fixed and brought to a standstill. In the play Portuguese Kolvont, when Olinda’s sister-in-law’s gold chain is stolen, the discovery is made because her friend with whom she is going out asks her to put on her chain. She cannot go out without it: after all, she is about to get married. It is then that the loss becomes known. A young girl expecting to be married as well as a married woman should never be seen with neck or ears shorn of jewelry. The absence of jewelry (particularly earrings and glass bangles) is never empty of meaning.
Operating at what Saussure called the ‘zero degree of signification’, lack itself is here powerfully symbolic. In particular, divestiture of jewelry marks the passage to widowhood. Widows should not draw attention to themselves by dressing too attractively. In stricter households, widows are expected to wear no jewelry at all (apart from the wedding ring) and are expected to spend their lives in high-necked black blouses and black saris (or black dresses) which effectively conceal their charms.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the ‘good’ woman in the play Bhonvro (even though she kills her husband) wears sober shades, mostly blue and white, through the rest of the play. She does not wear black (the conventional colour of mourning), but she ceases to wear any jewelry. The ‘bad’ woman, on the other hand, wears severe black for a while after her partner’s death, but later in the play is seen in other colors. She also continues to adorn herself with gold jewelry.
Jewelry binds even as it beautifies. The adorned female body addresses itself to a male possessor. Jewelry marks a woman as tied to, protected and controlled by a man, particularly in terms of her sexuality and powers of fertility: Olinda’s sister-in-law should not go out without her gold chain because she is engaged to be married. In Saulli, further, a contrast is drawn between the ‘improper’ way in which the ankvar (unmarried) female tourist dresses and the dress code of the Goan woman, which ideally emphasises modesty and decency.
Thus, concerns with the control and management of female sexuality are articulated through such images of dress or jewelry. A woman’s sexuality must needs be contained within the confines of marriage and, ideally, be addressed towards the birth of progeny, particularly male progeny to carry on the patriline. Indecent dress, such as the absence of jewelry which marks a young woman as bound for wifehood, raises doubts about a woman’s sexuality. Lack of attention to appropriate behavior or clothing becomes an indicator of an untrammeled, ungoverned sexuality.
Another negative portrait that emerges is that of the amorous widow. In Pidda, the widow, far from concealing her sexual charms and living a life of sober piety, runs away with a driver. This moral defect is dramatized and captured metonymically in physical and visual terms: she walks with a pronounced limp. Again, her widowed daughter-in-law is accused of disloyalty, when she is observed in what is considered a compromising position with her old suitor.
Podvi, like other tiatrs, constructs the woman as the bearer of ‘tradition’, the embodiment of virtue and the preserver of social and moral values. The wife is expected to influence the husband to be good. His actions reflect on her. When Sebastian wants to take revenge on his former friend after he acquires social honor and wealth, his wife accepts the responsibility for being unable to make him see the error of his ways. She regrets her incapacity to persuade him positively.
These kinds of ideas certainly have reverberations in the popular imagination. In the field I came across echoes such as this: ‘A good woman makes the home. She guides the children and keeps the husband (ghov) straight.’ Again: ‘If a man does not think too much, it is alright. But a woman must think deeply about her actions for the future.’ Or more bluntly: ‘A man thinks with his loins, a woman with her mind and heart.’ Such perceptual synchronicity facilitates, to a considerable degree, reciprocal understanding between performers and audience and greater appreciation of the dramas.
There is scarcely any equivocation about the notions regarding a woman’s place in her marital home – her relations with her husband’s kin or the service and sacrifice associated with marriage – that are scripted into the tiatrs. In Pidda, as in Portuguese Kolvont and Bhonvro, women work, but they do so only till they get married and only because of particular compulsions. The death of parents or the father might oblige a woman to work to support her younger sibling/s or mother. In Pidda, despite the fact that it is the woman who is the elder sibling and who works in order to educate and bring up her brother, he decides whom she will marry.
In Pidda, the idea is enunciated that once a brother has given his sister in marriage, her husband’s interests and those of his family come first, not her own happiness or that of her natal kin. When accused of coming in the way of her brother-in-law’s (devar’s) marriage, Vienna tries to persuade her brother to break his engagement. Later, after her husband’s death, Vienna’s brother realises that she is very unhappy because of the constant taunts by her in-laws. He tries to arrange her marriage with a Goan widower, just returned from Germany. She slaps him and asks him to leave the house, saying that a woman once married does not (until death) step out of her husband’s home.
A woman is entitled to maintenance and shelter in her natal home or her brother’s until she marries (or, again, in the event that her marriage sours) and in her husband’s home after marriage. This is an idea clearly articulated in the plays. In Podvi, Xavier’s deed of sending his mother to an old persons’ home only affirms his wickedness. In Bhonvro, the fact that the central character’s brother gives her refuge and protection after her husband rejects her and brings up her son redeems him, despite his having earlier asked her to leave his house when he gets married, and his refusal to return the money she had given him.
Framed in this way, however, entitlement simultaneously implicates disinheritance, transient membership and conditional rights (see Visvanathan 1989; Palriwala 1996; Robinson 1998). Concepts of patriliny and patrilocal residence are embedded in the vocabulary of the plays. In Podvi, it is expected that the widowed mother will relinquish control over her dead husband’s property in favor of her adult son. The critique extends only thus far: that he denies her due right to maintenance and care in her old age. A woman has residual rights – to support, to residential space in the marital/natal home and to gifts – but not to a share in property.
These rights are, moreover, contingent on a brother’s goodwill and/or on a woman keeping her husband and his family happy. A woman’s dependence on her husband and male kin is explicitly underlined thereby. In her husband’s home, good behavior as a sun (daughter-in-law) is expected of her. In the absence of the husband or of support from him and his family, a woman’s position in the marital home can become very vulnerable. This is seen in Portuguese Kolvont. Olinda’s happy re-admittance into her marital home at the end of the play takes place because she was ‘really’ good (and only misunderstood as bad), not because she had a certain and undeniable right to live there.
In Bhonvro, the woman is willing to sacrifice everything for her husband, even sell herself to another man if that is what he wants. However, she also kills him. This is the act of a mother, who slays to protect her son. Parenthetically, while defence of her child gives legitimacy to this act of murder, its enactment on stage was greeted with deathly silence by the audience.
Moral malady and bodily disorder
Physical impairment and bodily ailments are often employed in the plays as devices signifying moral illness. Corruption, a lack of moral integrity or decency and deficiencies in kinship trust, notions of attachment or care may be conveyed through the metonymic mechanism of bodily disease or deformity.
In Saulli, the corrupt, dishonest minister, who lives in with a foreigner contracts AIDS. At one level, Pidda refers to Vienna’s mother-in-law’s physical impairment. One of her legs is shorter than the other and she walks with a conspicuous limp. At another level, it is a charged signifier of the depth of her moral depravity. Her immorality is a blight on the entire household and has a contagious quality to it. Indeed, the step-son of the house, Vienna’s devar, also has a slight limp. He runs after girls in college and he is even suspended from college for taking a girl into a room and trying to kiss her. Vienna is told that by marrying into this house she too will be infected.
Towards the latter half of the play, Vienna does begin to feel unwell, with some unidentified ailment. One day, when she feels giddy, the poor musician – her old suitor, who is now courting the maid – comes in, and she leans on him for support. Her mother-in-law enters and sees them. She summons the household to acquaint them with what she has witnessed. Everyone denounces Vienna as faithless. She has contracted the pidda (disease), they tell her. It is only when the maid reveals the true story that Vienna’s brother-in-law realises his error and asks his stepmother to leave the house. Stabbed by her mother-in-law, Vienna’s last words are: ‘I have the pidda. It is good that I am dying.’ But her devar and his wife assure her in her final moments that she is not afflicted with the pidda.
The pidda, then, is not any and every illness: it is a specific bodily distortion that is revelatory of an inner violation. The external uncovers rather than conceals the internal. Vienna’s illness (and death), on the other hand, is peculiarly cathartic in the consequences that flow from it. It cleanses the air of ambiguity and doubt, enables the confirmation of her own irreproachable character and identifies the mother-in-law (it is not without meaning that she is the stepmother) as the source of the evil. In Nisonn, Fay walks with a limp. In her case too the impairment is not a sign of her own moral inadequacy. She was born with the limp and her parents put her away – out of sight (and mind) – in a convent. They could not be bothered with the extra care that a child with this particular handicap would require. There is a singular deficiency in kinship values, the value that should be accorded relationships of blood (rogot). In the end, Fay laughs – a painful, bitter laugh – because she perceives the pattern of her own life repeating itself. The boy’s father, well-intentioned but so involved in his career, cannot make it in time to save his son’s life.
Interestingly, in Konkani kud means ‘body’, but is also used for ‘room’, and, indeed, the term may be extended to the house as a whole. In fact, Goans who migrated to Mumbai organised themselves into kuds. The primary aim of these kuds was to provide residence to migrants, ‘to live in brotherhood under one roof’ (Baptista 1958: 39). The kuds provided the new migrant with shelter and succour, food and fraternity. Collective religious rituals were celebrated in the kuds. The implications of the term, therefore, reach beyond material space, the physical entity of the house, to encompass notions of the household, the domestic unit, the ‘home’ as well. Body/home; body/kinship/domestic sphere: the connections are linguistically and culturally encoded. The semantic associations already available in the culture, therefore, enable the particular kinds of play with meaning alluded to above.
The political is to family or domestic sphere what modern is to traditional
Khilnani (1997: 9) persuasively argues that politics is ‘at the heart’ of India’s experience of the modern. These tiatrs are obsessed with politics. Day-to-day events in state-level politics, ministerial and administrative scandals and economic scams are the very stuff of the tiatrs’ satire. Posts such as that of a police inspector being sold for money, a statue of Rajiv Gandhi being put up when there is no money in the coffers for a CAT-scan machine at the Goa Government Hospital at Bambolim or elections being held in which money and violence rather than ideology count: all these and other affairs find mention in the tiatrs.
There is a split in the tiatrs between politics and kinship/family/the domestic sphere: the first is the quintessential arena of the modern, the second the distinctive realm of tradition. Though conceptualised as separate, the two domains are also intimately interrelated, and may be viewed as reflecting each other. While politics is largely characterised by corruption and immorality, the possibility of ‘honest’ or ‘good’ politics is not entirely repudiated.
Aberrant family relationships are associated with and become the symbol of profane and base politics. In Saulli, the household of the minister, a practised hand at crooked politics, is a singularly anomalous one. He lives with his sister and an unmarried, ‘foreign’ woman, with whom he has entered into a sexual relationship. Moreover, when his sister marries, her husband comes to stay in his brother-in-law’s house as a ghor-zavoin. Uxorilocal residence violates the norms of patrilineality and patrilocality that undergird Goan kinship.
The ghor-zavoin household pattern is not entirely uncommon among Goan Catholics. It may be resorted to, for instance, in cases where there is no son in the family. The husband of one of the daughters, perhaps the youngest, will take up residence in his wife’s home and assume some of the responsibilities and privileges of a son. He would usually inherit from his father-in-law. However, the ghor-zavoin remains an object of ridicule and fun in the popular consciousness. Viewed as living off his wife and her family, his manliness itself comes under doubt. Somehow, such a man is considered effeminate, more subject to his wife’s control, less able to assert himself, even less virile.
In the play, these deviant family structures are counterpoised against the ‘right’ kind of family, that of the school teacher. He, his wife, son and son’s wife live in a patrilocal, patrilineal-joint familial arrangement. Authority in the family, ultimately, rests with him. His daughter-in-law enters the household at marriage and remains subject to the control of her husband and the older couple, particularly her mother-in-law. The minister’s irregular household, lacking in proper patriarchal governance and direction, is critiqued through dramatic contrast with the school teacher’s.
Politics and the domestic sphere parallel each other here. Each has implications for the other. Most politics is conceptualised as profoundly polluting; only some expressions of political dissent, such as that of the freedom-fighter turned school teacher, retain an element of the incorruptible. The corruption of modern politics is perceived as being able to seep through into family life, destroying trust and loyalty and rendering askew ‘traditional’ kinship and gender relations and morality.
Only occasionally do kinship values remain sheltered from the corruptive influence of political dishonesty. The fact that external influences can (and usually do) permeate and contaminate the ‘moral economy’ of kinship renders it peculiarly vulnerable. I would argue that it is, in part, against the exposed, susceptible face of kinship morality that the critique of modernity underpinning the tiatrs is to be understood.
Critique of the modern
The loss of language, the forgetting of the mother tongue, Konkani, is one of the crucial markers of an unbridled modernisation. It is both a symptom and symbol of the disease. In the scurry for jobs in the modern occupational structure, people are clutching at English, the language of mobility and migration, and showing no concern for sustaining or nurturing their mother tongue. In Portuguese Kolvont, one of the songs tells of a boy who went to Mumbai and spoke only English when he returned. He is chided for forgetting his avoi bhas (mother tongue or language). As his girlfriend tells him: ‘I also know English, but I have not forgotten my own language.’
Similarly, Podvi and Pidda refer to the disregard with which Konkani is treated, as everyone tries furiously to master English in order to get good jobs in or outside Goa. In Pidda, one of the maids is laughed at by her mistress for not being able to converse in English. Suddenly, she bursts into a song: ‘I am literate; matriculate.’ The mistress is taken by surprise. She was unaware that the girl could speak English. The moral remains the same: acquisition of skill in English is not a bad thing, but it should not be at the cost of disrespect for and ignorance of one’s mother tongue. The critique of the emigrant, rendered by the image of the loss of language, has other dimensions as well. Dramatic allusion is made to changing consumption patterns due to the inflow of money sent by migrant workers. Television and cable antennae are now a frequent sight in the villages.
New cultural models are presented on the screen. People view soap operas such as ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ and ‘Santa Barbara’. Women forget their cooking responsibilities and children do not study, so intensely absorbed are they in watching these serials. Interestingly, the foreigner in Saulli is called Santa Barbara and she is the object of considerable contempt in the play. An association is made between the American soaps and the life they depict and the immorality of the foreign tourist in Goa. The frenzied desire of the Goan to go abroad, to the Gulf countries for instance, is made fun of in these plays.
In one of the tiatrs, a joke is related: A Japanese watch company manager, an American businessman, an Arab and a Goan are travelling in a plane. The plane begins to lose altitude due to lack of fuel, and it becomes necessary for each passenger to throw out some of his belongings in order to keep the plane in the air. The Japanese says: ‘We have so many watches in Japan. I can afford to get rid of these.’ He throws out his supply of watches. The American says: ‘We have so much money in America. I can throw these out.’ And he flings out his bundles of dollars. The Arab is the next to speak. He says: ‘We have too many of these in our country. I can get rid of him.’ And he picks up the Goan and throws him out.
Popular culture, outside the tiatrs, also attributes moral deficiency and weakness to migrants. A Konkani song goes as follows:
An eligible bachelor has come from abroad
Daughter, why don’t you speak to him?
That man drinks, mother
I do not want to marry him.
An eligible bachelor has come from Europe
Daughter, why don’t you speak to him?
That man roams about and does no work
Mother, I do not want to marry him.
An eligible bachelor has come from Africa
Daughter, why don’t you speak to him?
That man has a lover somewhere, mother
I do not want to marry him.
Daughter, if you carry on in this way
Like it or not, you will find yourself left on the shelf.
If there is an eligible bachelor living in Goa, mother
I will be ready to marry him.
(Translated from Konkani by the author)
So the downside and danger of migration relate to the loss of values, of propriety and stature. The emigrant risks alienating himself from the community and its moral economy and ethos. He is in peril of becoming an outsider. The disregard of migrant Goans for their own language and/or culture weaves itself into another, different sort of critique: of non-Goans who show contempt for local customs and values. In Saulli, foreign tourists are criticised for sniggering at Konkani and calling it ‘con-con-cani’. They are ticked off for their lack of understanding of Goan culture and linguistic conventions. They mix up mama (mother’s brother) with mama (mother) and find it amusing. ‘It is not funny’, they are told. ‘You say uncle, uncle. We are simple people. We say titiv [for father’s brother] and mama.’
This critique is part of a larger perception regarding the economy of tourism as a whole in modern Goa. Goans see their government as having betrayed their interests and as having failed to ensure that tourism does not affect the local culture and society in a negative way. In their view, the tourist-centred economy has led to the ruin of the beaches, raised prices of daily foodstuffs and let loose immorality in Goa. Popular traditions such as the Intruz, or carnival, celebrated at the start of the season of Lent, which leads to Easter, are seen as being slowly destroyed by the fact that they are now increasingly packaged and jazzed-up for tourist consumption. Tourists are perceived as having brought drugs and new diseases, such as AIDS, to Goa.
Contemporary society does not only form a passive background for the tiatrs. The very existence of the tiatrs is bound up with modernity. The tiatrs manifest a struggle with the modern. The highlighting of the family and the projection of a certain kind of kinship morality by the tiatrs needs to be understood against the critique of modernity they sustain. The familial domain is perceived as the only anchor against the disturbing forces of the modern.
Thus, an invention of ‘tradition’ is taking place in the tiatrs. An entire realm of ‘tradition’, for instance, gets suppressed: that of caste hierarchy among the Goan Catholics. The tiatrs select more acceptable symbols of ‘tradition’ around which to construct the identity and unity of the community: family values and kinship morality. However, even more striking than the ‘traditional-ising’ of the family is the feminization of tradition in the tiatrs. Tradition is seen as being concerned with the deeds, duties and demeanor of women. Further, its preservation is viewed as women’s work. Women are sheltered from modernity in the tiatrs, men mediate it. Men are at risk too, in particular ways. However, they can manipulate the system to their advantage, and, indeed, it is not a bad thing if they are able to do so, while keeping their kinship and familial responsibilities intact.
Even as ‘tradition’ is gendered, audience and performers also question it. Women are viewed as holding employment, after all, even if they stop once they marry. Again, in Pidda, Vienna’s impassioned speech regarding the trials and taunts faced by widows was greeted with applause by the audience. The dominant ideology requires such moments of resistance precisely in order to reaffirm itself by countering them. Alternatively, these glimpses of alternative voices are clues to other available visions of the feminine that we need to understand even as these get suppressed and, indeed, because they are suppressed. Accordingly, one might choose to stress of these odd moments of query that they be viewed as sites of possibility, not mere intimations of the impossible.
An earlier, expanded version of this essay has been published as ‘Interrogating Modernity, Gendering ‘Tradition’: Teatr tales from Goa’ in Contributions to Indian Sociology, 33(3), 1999, pp. 503-539.
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