Sticks and stones may break your bones but the S-word will shake you

Business Day - - LIFE - CHRIS THUR­MAN

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.

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