Let’s dive straight in. Let’s look at two dictionary definitions —
Woke: aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues, especially issues of racial and social justice.
The title to this article places the word woke in double quotes as “woke” to indicate a kind of hollow, hyper-alertness.
Cultural Appropriation: the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.
BUT there is much more to appropriation than this. Historically, appropriation in art has been an accepted, purposeful creative practice. Referencing, critiquing, reframing, distancing, mirroring, reclaiming — these are often achieved through appropriation. It is a tool to contemplate and converse. History is also witness to the fact that appropriation has led to new ways of thinking. Picasso’s Cubism paved the way for modernism in art. BUT if it is appropriated from African masks then there are ethical concerns at play here. They involve addressing ideas of originality, ownership, representation, and most of all, power.
Art, like everything else in our society, operates in a system of power. And artists are capable of perpetuating injustice within their communities. Addressing the idea of imbalance of power, curator-writer Candice Hopkins writes in her thought-provoking essay, The Appropriation Debates — “The debates this summer about who can speak for whom were also a reckoning of who has the privilege to speak for whom, and within this, whose voices are heard.” But we live in a porous modern world today where airports all over the world look the same, sampling and remixing are acceptable terms for valuable processes in music, and where versions and versions of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain exist, excite and illuminate! (Duchamp displayed a readymade urinal as an exhibit at an art exhibition. It is widely considered ‘the most intellectually captivating and challenging art piece of the 20th century’)
Given this complex context, how do we make sense of appropriation today? How do we create?
A young theatre practitioner recently shared her apprehensions with me saying that she was ‘sometimes scared to even begin writing’: “What if I want to write about something that is not stemming from my reality? I could be appropriating, right?”
Are we becoming a generation of artists who are scared to create for we might do it ‘wrong’? Nothing could be scarier than that.
I address this article to that artist.
Let’s re-look at this whole thing. Have we been spending all our time thinking about what we should NOT be doing?
Instead, let’s address the one quality that we take for granted in an artist: Authenticity. Let’s for a change make up our own definition of it without referring to the dictionary. It is the creative force that drives you as an artist. That voice from within that wakes you up in the middle of the night. The creative impulse that won’t stop till you act on it. An understanding of life, a worldview which, however flawed, is unique, and is yours.
We needn’t mistake this voice for lived reality.
As a storyteller, I will often tell stories that are not a part of my lived reality. What then is ‘mine’ in such a story? It is the creative force that tells the story. The force that guides the search of the story. That pushes me to research, listen, empathise, step back, step aside, and keep at it till I find my story. A force so potent that it attacks straight in the gut and consumes you completely. On encountering it, the artist knows that there is no other way to breathe life into your art but to surrender to this ball of fire. You can only hope to come out alive. It is capable of overturning everything in your life. In some cases, even your conscience.
What do you do then? The artist by nature will surrender. However, your conscience is not such a weakling either. It can be nurtured to fight. You have got to allow for a tussle between the two. Let them disagree and argue. That’s perhaps what makes a conscientious artist. Let’s aim to be one.
I present to you two examples I can think of at the moment from my life. Two scenes of tussle that led to specific creative choices in my work.
F – creative Force | C – voice of Conscience
Reference play: Same Same But Different – A live sharing of two personal histories, and musical journeys by performers Jahnvi Shrimankar & Kailash Waghmare (Left to Right)
Conscience: Whose music is that?
Force: The working class.
Conscience: … not yours.
Force: It’s complicated. My grandparents and my father shared this history. In this case it’s Kailash’s history, and he tells his own story.
Conscience: But whose composition is that?
Force: It’s folk. Does not belong to anyone.
C: Definitely not yours then.
F: It’s shared music, duh! Belongs to all of us.
C: Still means you did not make it.
F: Don’t you get it? The piece has value beyond ownership. In fact, its value lies in collective ownership.
C: That’s convenient.
F: We are trying to evoke its socio-cultural value.
C: That sounds big.
F: It is.
C: Point out the sections in the script that do that?
F: … maybe it’s not clear … but it’s there … I … I intend to …
Probably some such tussle must have led to the knitting of the stories of the music in the play with the stories of the performers. This idea shaped the entire script. The script makes a conscious effort to direct the audience towards the original idea – in this case the historical, political and cultural relevance of the folk renditions that are a part of the play. The audience no longer receives just a song delivered by two people. It receives a complex socio-economic and cultural understanding of the Indian society through the songs from the lives of these two people. So, when a young Kailash sings a song thinking of his mother,it’s not just a song that he “invented”, even though he wrote it. The song is inspired by a long tradition of kitchen/labour songs that he heard as a child from his mother while she worked at home grinding the chakki, and as an agricultural worker. His song evokes the shram-geet tradition and in the process celebrates the workers and the working class. The script had to allow for and be respectful of this history.
Reference play: BE-LOVED – a kaleidoscopic exploration of queer love.
Conscience: How can you? You are not queer.
Conscience: You are not.
Force: A queer organisation asked me to create this!
Conscience: That doesn’t change the fact that you are not queer.
Force: I have an opportunity to speak. Why should I be silent?
C: What could you have to say? You are not queer.
F: But I get it.
C: How … you …
F: Through my experience of being a woman. Through research. Through my own caste-class experiences. Through having experienced a different kind of marginalisation. Through imaginative empathy.
C: Still, you’re not …
F: The 17 writers whose text is in the script – they are some of the finest queer writers in the country. It’s their lived experience and creative expression that is centre stage. We never lose sight of that. My job and excitement is in facilitating that idea in a unique way.
C: You’re privileged if you are not …
F: I am also an ally. I listen. I read. I try to understand. I imagine. I acknowledge. I form a team of queer members. I make this not about me. They speak. I stay in the background.
C: Everything said and done, you are still not …
F: You are right. I am not.
C: So then?
F: So I got to work harder. And in all the creative madness of making this play, I must NEVER lose sight of the fact that …
C: You are not queer.
There is a question that we often ask ourselves as artists:
Who am I to write about — the queer experience in India, a potters’ village in Bihar destroyed by a development project, a Dalit intersex athlete from rural Tamil Nadu, a second-generation migrant living in Wales with roots in rural Punjab, poverty struck theatre workers from Maharashtra in extreme distress during covid …
I have stopped asking this question.
Instead, I ask myself – ‘How do I write?’ This question will also tell you, if at all you are NOT the one to write. This seemingly simple question impacts not just your creation but also your process – your research and your rehearsal room. It will call for collaborative processes, for a breakdown of hierarchies. It will be demanding. It will mean more and more from you, and less and less about you. It will be damaging for your ego. It will be expensive, time consuming and exhausting. But at the core of it, it will be exciting, concrete and life affirming.
In this regard, I find my conscience to be working much more internally than my woke-ness meter. Conscience can push and provoke creative expression at its inception. It should also guide you through appropriation and urge you to avoid it or to make it innovative and non-exploitative.
Of course, if despite all of this, say you make a mistake. Then?
Learn from your mistake. Depend on good faith (though there is little of that in today’s time, but enough for you to hold on to), try again, and again. There is always another play. Another painting. Another composition. We all work bloody hard on a play. But underneath that is an artist who is essentially building on a body of work, for which mistakes are not just inevitable, but also necessary.
My dear young friend-who-is-scared-to-write, let us take inspiration from the fact that all critique and conversations on a piece of art have one big prerequisite: The existence of the piece of art. So, go write that play, find your fountain, and let what has to follow, follow.