Sticks and stones may break your bones but the S-word will shake you
Words have power to make us angry, guilty, inspired, sad, exuberant. Ultimately, the true potency of language is only realised when thoughts and feelings are translated into behavioural change – that is to say, when words make us act.
Some words lose their power through excessive use. When we read or hear words such as “Gupta”, “Eskom”, “Zuma” and “Dubai”; or, in global headlines, “Trump”, “Brexit”, “Alt-right” and “Climate” we feel a familiar stab but find ourselves numb to its effect. We tut-tut, shrug our shoulders, carry on with life – when these are precisely the words to spur us into action.
Then there are words that always seem to incite overreaction, sending people from across the entire ideological spectrum into paroxysms of righteous fury.
“Transformation” is one of these — whether it’s in sport or of the ostensibly radical economic variety, you can be sure that someone, somewhere in SA, is frothing at the mouth either in support of or in opposition to it.
Another good example is “decolonisation”, particularly when applied to higher education. There is a panicmongering cohort ever ready to fret that this means the end of maths and science. Far from impoverishing these and other fields, true decolonising would result in enrichment: an expansion of knowledge rather than a contraction, situating the construction of that knowledge in a proper historical or contemporary context.
In my area of literature and the arts, there is a whole sea of words that have the paradoxical effect of simultaneously boring and scaring people. You can see it in their faces — a weird admixture in the eyes, which glaze over but also have more than a hint of deer-caught-inthe-headlights.
In the shallows of this sea are the more hifalutin theoretical terms; the deeps are occupied by the names of famous but misunderstood writers and artists.
The most recognisable and most boring and scariest of all is the S-word. I am loath even to write it down, because I may lose half my readers if I do. Mind you, it’s a name that crops up often enough in this column, and no one has yet been moved to write a letter to the editor about it. Perhaps that in itself is testament to the debilitating trauma associated with the S-word.
To avoid triggering you, let me rather tell you about a performer who has found a partial solution to the problem of words. His name is Arjun Raina, and for more than two decades, he has been exploring the ways in which classical Indian dance styles such as Kathakali can merge with, deconstruct or complement “western” theatrical forms.
His major performance vehicle is The Magic Hour, a work that he has revised and adapted over the years on the basis of differing national, linguistic and cultural influences. Recently, he has been collaborating with Australian Lillian Warrum, who specialises in the ancient Indian dance genre of Odissi.
Together, they tell an archetypal story of egotism and pride, of passion and jealousy and love gone wrong. They employ orthodox Kathakali and Odissi narrative techniques: gesture, facial expression and intricately choreographed responses to music and drums.
These broadly “nonverbal” elements are matched, however, with spoken text – a feature of traditional Indian dance-dramas, but one that in this instance appears to be at odds with the visual display.
The dialogue that the performers speak yanks unsuspecting audience members out of one rarefied world and delivers them, temporarily, to another entirely – or, at least, to two other worlds: Elizabethan England and medieval Venice. For the story being told here is not merely generic; it is the story of Othello and Desdemona.
Now the dreaded S-word is unavoidable. “Shakespeare”. But The Magic Hour both is and is not “Shakespeare” — certainly, it is not what South African audiences associate with that word. And although I happily admit that I have a vested interest in this experiment (we arts academics look to performers for our teaching and research cues) I can’t help but think that it offers us all an alternative to over worn words.
The Magic Hour is at the Market Theatre on October 20 at 7pm. Raina is performing at the WORDS Festival, Nirox Foundation, October 21-22.
Colourful language: Arjun Raina and Lillian Warrum fuse Kathakali and Odissi nonverbal narrative techniques with contradictory dialogue in The Magic Hour’s experimental take on Shakespeare.