So, I googled it.
I googled the word ‘original’ (and got distracted by several ads) and emerged with some interesting results and dual meanings. ‘Original’ can mean that which is entirely new, freshly burst into existence. Conversely, it means root – authentic source material from which fakes, copies and imitations can arise. So, between these contradictory meanings of ‘old’ and ‘new’ is where we must place our understanding of this word.
When Eve eats the forbidden fruit in Eden, it is an Original sin. All sins committed thereafter are only in the lineage of this First and Foremost one. This age-old parable gets recast in ‘Killing Eve’ a web series by the devastating Phoebe Waller Bridge, in a queer love story of fatal attraction set in a post-feminist dystopia. Both the parable and the web series are unequivocal in their fascination with the femme fatale and both serve us the same moral, but in highly different ways – lust is a woman’s game.
AK Ramanujan once told a folk story about a snake and a woman to two playwrights. They both heard the story and proceeded to write two plays that would resound within Indian theatre – Girish Karnad’s ‘Nagamandala’ and Chandrashekar Kambar’s ‘Siri Sampige’. The two plays have been extensively performed and known for their unique rendition but hold commonality in one aspect – both the plays center female sexual agency. Much of Kannada progressive literature has its roots in an age-old folk story – challenging the ways in which we view ‘old’ and ‘new’, ‘modern’ and ‘archaic’. In the case of Nagamandala and Siri Sampige, it was not the playwrights who scripted a tale of female sexual agency, but a community of singers and storytellers whose experiences defied mainstream upper caste morality.
An original is often defined as insanity. If Phoebe Waller Bridge found herself writing a 100 years ago, she might have been burned at the stake. It took a 100 years after Vincent Van Gogh’s death for him to become the most recognized painter of all time. A series of philosophers were executed for declaring the earth to be round at an unfashionable moment in history. An original is ignored, actively resisted, vilified and faulted until it becomes inevitable. An original forces history to change. For it to be recognized, a whole social order has to be remade, an environment created where it can resound. Originality is and will always be intrinsically bound to revolution. In whatever scale, an original is a challenge to a preexisting hegemony. In this way, an original will always belong to the marginalized.
Whether it is Missy Elliot, the European Renaissance or the 12th century Vachana Movement in Kannada culture, originality entails an imaginative makeover of the existing order. It heralds the arrival of a new language in which the world will now look at itself. Missy Elliot’s Supa Dupa Fly entry redefined the sexist hip hop counterculture, ushering in an era of Black female artists from Beyoncé to CardiB. The 12th century Vachana movement’s anti-caste reclamation of the Kannada language actively shapes 21st century Karnataka state politics. The arrival of the web series format, much like the European Renaissance affected not just the way we consume art but also the way we live, making a new space for originality.
Every time a bedtime story is retold – when a parent gives the child a convincing reason why the gumma (scary creature) would choose to appear, it is an original story. Gummas have been employed with great flair and originality in getting children, world over, to finish everything from unsavory vegetables to homework. If you have ever asked more than one person to give you an account of the Ramayana, you would have encountered originality. It happens so often that a retelling of an original is often the source for creating another original. Authorship in oral traditions do not belong to a single person but an entire community of story tellers. It’s an old cauldron we stir when it comes to originality. But the potion must be stirred with witchcraft yet again to bring it alive – a dose of imagination, that little extra cheek, a dash of moonshine, eye of newt and toe of frog. Or else the charm won’t work.
Originality has a well-established relationship with imagination, but also with truth. What measure of truth must enter an imaginative process for it to resound with the unmistakable throb of originality? In my experience, I often find an original piece of art has never begun with the self-conscious desire to be an original. It has always begun with the opposite – permission.
In 2014, I found myself in a school of Yakshagana. Yakshagana is a dance drama tradition performed by men for the last 800 years. The form is both folk and classical and refuses to see the two as a divide. The form has coded structure but is also heavily improvisational. Improvisation and developing philosophical arguments to support a character from the epic is an expected part of an actor’s work. For me, being a woman in a practice that has been designed and developed by men for several centuries, I would find myself in constant translation while in practice, but in performance, I always found that ‘original’ arguments would appear in my improvised speech in surprising ways.
“Men can do many things, we can take life, we can wage wars, we can pillage and plunder, we can rape and loot. We spill blood to take life. But the blood that women spill gives life. It is a power that unites God and Woman. Beautiful Draupadi, we are not hypocrites like your husbands. Your menstrual blood is sacred to us. Red like the glowing ember, red like your fiery anger, red like the rose! Oh wear it with pride, Draupadi. And now come, come and show us your blood.”
These, roughly, are my lines when I play the role of Dushyasana, the antagonist of the Mahabharata, in Akshayamabara, a play based on the dance drama form of Yakshagana. Here I play the role of a man (Dushyasana) and my co actor, Prasad Cherkady plays a woman, Draupadi. In the epic, Dushyasana is sent to coerce a menstruating Draupadi to appear in court.
One of my Yakshagana teachers who is an Arthadhaari (performer who uses argument) found the argument I presented as Dushyasana to be an original argument within the Yakshagana canon. “I’ve never heard it before,” he told me. But for me, a performer who menstruates, disregarding the taboos associated with menstruation was a routine part of my life. It would therefore make an unselfconscious entry into the roles I played. This ‘original’ arose simply due to fact that Yakshagana has not been performed by women.
An ‘original’ occurs when the history of a performance tradition collides with the history of the performing body. The capacity to draw from one’s lived experience – very often manifesting as cheeky insubordination – the refusal to colour within the lines, simply because one knows what one knows.
Some years ago, I was at a conference at the School of Drama and Fine Arts, University of Calicut, Thrissur, Kerala. The late Astad Deboo, playwright Satish Alekar and few stalwarts from Malayalam academia and theatre were at the panel. The topic was ‘Theatre practice and changing trends’ – the idea that Theatre is not static but a changing scenario, adapting, rejecting, revolting and suggesting to the existing society. A paper was presented on the genius and merits of the Natyashastra and the speaker ended with the statement, “What is not in the Natyashastra is not in life”. The next speaker responded with Kerala’s celebrated critic, VC Harris’ words, “But madam, there is no circumcision in the Natyashastra. I can assure you it is there in life”.
Narsamma is a pourakarmika worker who sweeps the service road on which my house is located. She has been in employment for 34 years. One of her many skills is that she can unerringly identify which woman swept the road the previous day by the sweep marks on the gravel. Each worker has her own sweeping pattern, she tells me. A daily occurrence of originality.
Who then decides what an original is? The process of recognizing an original as an original is fraught with competing hegemonies. Perhaps the greatest quality of originality is its nonchalance at being perceived as original. An original will always exist, whether the society in which it exists recognizes it or not.