Sunday, 22 March 2015
Review : Borders and Lines:
Bizarrely blurring many a notion
Blurring lines of space demarcated for performance, and breaking boundaries as what counts as ‘performance’ was the first impression I got as I stood among the bystanders become onlookers observing artiste Bandu Manamperi, dressed in black slacks, shoes, shirt and black coat walk along the pavement running along the Borella market complex on March 16, dragging by a rope, a large fish.
What was it? A tuna, a seer fish? I have no idea to be honest, but it was a startling sight to many watching open space performance which was part of ‘Borders and Lines’, an event organised by Theertha International Artists’ Collective, which ran from March 13-16.
I observed Bandu’s performance from around 10.30 am to 11 am being a Monday morning observer for the Sunday Observer’s Montage. And before I offer my thoughts about the performance which is unlike anything that I have yet seen ‘intentionally performed’ outdoors, in the streets of Colombo by an artiste, I must say that it appeared to me the kind of performance that must be discussed consciously in correlation to the reactions, responses of the onlookers who formed a ‘shifting audience’.
The worth of this kind of performance lies greatly on the onlooker responses. And from the very moment I made my steps to the space where the performance was unfolding I kept in mind that I must be as much possible an attentive observer of not only the acts of the artiste but the audience as well.
Tugging along a big fish, dragging it on the pavement, then also crossing the road once and returning to the spot on the pavement where a small bowl of fruit and drinking water were placed (to mark something of a pit stop station one might suppose) to quench his thirst, Bandu was without a doubt a spectacle that fired the intense intrigue of every person whose spectrum of vision he happened to appear in.
‘There goes a madman’ I’m sure many would have thought. But then where did he get that fish from? Because the many instances I have actually seen persons of unsound mind wander around the city streets never have I yet seen anyone of them being so well ‘geared’ in their getup of abstractness.
At a glance a ‘madman’ perhaps, but a bit closer observed proves there is obviously more than what meets the eye at first. On the streets of Colombo nothing can be taken at face value is what I have learnt since childhood. Among the deceptively friendly faces and overtly helpful yet actually inimical persons that carve the character of a place like Borella, there can also be a man silently dragging a big fish locked away in a world of his own. If you take a seat back and think about it, the scene is almost ‘magically realistic’ warranting a place in a Gabriel Gracia Marquez novel!
I noticed that the space which Bandu was ‘accorded’ got demarcated by the way people perceived and reacted to him. Nobody wanted to be too close to this radical anomaly. That seemed one of the observables about some in the crowd. Then there were also the posse of photo clicking, neck tag wearing ‘organisers’ whose presence was rather noticeable on a scale that may have done a disservice to the act/performance from achieving better concealment as something not meant to be overtly given away as a designated ‘performance’.
And also the notable presence of a number of white foreign nationals did indicate, to eyes familiar with Colombo’s everyday landscape, that something ‘organised’ was afoot.
Among the faces who were onlookers during the half an hour or so I watched, I recognised the faces of, artist Dr. Jagath Weerasinghe, and artiste Venuri Perera. There was, therefore, a cross-section of viewers of different avenues forming the audience Bandu had that morning.
It was interesting to note how people responded to this act. There were three to four bus inspectors/ ‘checkers’ who completely put aside their duty and were immersed in watching the bizarre spectacle. When Bandu finished his act, one of them who was on a phone call said he saw a man dragging a fish and then ripping it open with his bare hands. He then said something that caught my attention strikingly.
He told the person at the other end of the line that he filmed it from his phone’s camera and will show it in the evening. Yes, I unobtrusively milled around and attuned not only my eyes but my ears to catch on to reactions. And it was to me part of gauging the objective of the performance. How did it affect onlookers and to what extent? Nearly everyone there with a phone that had a camera facility was either snapping pictures or filming it.
One person who was dressed in slacks, a short sleeve shirt and shoes, carrying a big bag who happened to notice to his great surprise that he was walking alongside a man who was dragging a fish appeared startled at first and hurried his pace towards a bus.
But then shortly afterwards I noticed that people standing in the crowd encircling Bandu. He was eager to see what was going on. He had backtracked evidently to see the man tugging the fish now seated on the pavement ripping asunder the dead legless marine creature.
I asked one of the bus inspectors/checkers – who was going to clean up the fish carcass and its pieces left on the pavement? He gave a light laugh and said he has no idea, and supposed maybe it’s the organisers. Moments like these can be very telling of how people engage with or remain indifferent to what ought to be ‘concerns’ about things that happen in public spaces.
Another old man, from whom I asked what was going on, said he had no idea but believed firmly it had to be some street drama of sorts. He said he was a nearby resident. He chuckled that his friend next to him had jibed as they watched Bandu dragging his fish that the fish will spring back to life in half an hour! That, he nuanced was the climax, or the ‘magic’ that everyone is waiting for, in what seemed to them a meaningless exercise.
No one who became consciously aware of a group watching a performance walked into the sphere Bandu was accorded as he disembowelled the fish. But then one old woman slowly walked across the cleared space stepping in through the wall of people. I wondered by the look of slight dazedness in her face whether she was also a performer of this act. I thought so since there was a man dressed in lounge suit walking up and down the pavement with a sack of wheat flour perched on his shoulder which was spilling on him when his gait proved jolty!
That performer walked passed Bandu from time to time, so maybe this urbane looking woman of a mature vintage too was part of the event I thought. But it turned out that she was in fact a pedestrian passing by. She caught on to the sight of a man disembowelling a fish seated on the pavement and seemed perturbed.
Her steps brought her right to the direction of the young woman standing to the left of me, and she asked her in English what is that man doing there? There was some noticeable anxiety in her voice. The young woman from whom the question was asked simply replied courteously that ‘it’s a performance’. She repeated it to the disturbed inquirer who simply continued her walk appearing slightly shocked and confused.