A group of young Kashmiri performing artists enact a performance in the heart of Srinagar, while some onlookers look on and some feebly participate. The essay is a recollection of the act by an Imphal based playwright BemBem on her experience with Noon Tueth, and some more experiences related to it.
BemBen is an artist, translator, and writer. She works with different media and performance disciplines, hoping to find completely unexpected encounters that can shift and deepen her practice.
She is 2019 artist-in-residence at Zentralwerk Dresden (Germany), with support from Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, where she begins work on her new multimedia project titled Yang-Huk-Uun: Confabulations. It uses the Meetei Mayek alphabet-to-body writing system to investigate body languages and movements lost in cultural and political assimilation.
Her English translation of the Meeteilon memoir and poetry of Manipur’s nupi maanbi (indigenous trans woman) activist & artist Santa Khurai’s Sendraang Hangaampaan (Yellow Sparrow) is forthcoming.
This writing is an improvisation. Of questions. With varying degrees of turmoil. It is a scam that improvisation is spontaneous. Improvisation is labour – it is working minutely, keenly, rigorously on impulses. To make it possible for intuition to pulsate under the skin. Feeble intuition is bad form.
I started writing this in autumn last year. I finished a first ‘draft’, but I didn’t like the tone. I missed the deadline. Irfan, the editor with whom I’d enthusiastically shared the idea of this writing in a 6-walled 2-doored small room overlooking Amira Kadal and the Jhelum, sent me a gentle reminder in winter this year. I didn’t reply because it would have made no sense to say Sorry not sorry, but I am still writing it everywhere. It is spring now and kumpilei – popularly known as kombirei – has begun to flower in my valley. Kumpilei is an ancient iris that grows in the disappearing paat – wetlands – of Manipur valley. It heralds spring and our new year sajibu nongma paanba – the first day of our lunar month Sajibu. The flower is also deeply planted in the tragic, star-crossed love stories my people tell each other.
Iris is also the flower Berger kept drawing:
Each spring when the irises begin to flower, I find myself drawing them – as if obeying an order. There’s no other flower so commanding. And this may have something to do with the way they open their petals, already printed. Irises open like books. At the same time, they are the smallest, tectonic quintessence of architecture. I think of the Mosque Suleiman in Istanbul. Irises are like prophesies: simultaneously astounding and calm.
- John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook – How does the impulse to draw something begin?
My name is BemBem. I am a playwright – I make dramatic texts for theatre and others, performances, translations, moving images, installations, and more.
I was in Srinagar in September and October 2018. During my stay, I worked with some of the students at the Institute of Music and Fine Arts (IMFA), Kashmir University. A small group of them led by an alumnus performed Noon Tueth on 16 September – a Sunday afternoon – on Zero Bridge; one of the performing students invited me.
They are students between the age group of 21 to 25, a good decade younger than me. We began to know each other over work and outside of work. I decided to write about their performance as part of my practice to look long and hard at some of the questions I have been asking myself about making art in and from our lands where every day is a last chance clock.
I will not be using any of their full names here:
- Noon Tueth brings up many critical questions and I am hesitant to tie them exclusively with the young students’ names. It won’t be proportional criticism of their brief, brave, inadequate exploration of an idea.
- Nothing really disappears from the internet. 10 years down the line, I would rather these students look at the questions and see if they are still relevant. Not get haunted by search engines pulling out their names from one misplaced art writing where they have been used as easy hooks by a senior peer who should know better.
- The only thing I am doing is using their poster in which their first names appear. For rightfully crediting the work they created.
In this line from the poster – Performing simultaneity of intent, randomness and multiple tangents of the site where bodies test their local ways to be in action – the phrase that I understand clearly is where bodies test their local ways to be in action.
Let me start with Imphal. Last year, while writing this somewhere in the outskirt of Imphal, I watched a live discussion on a local TV channel where a keithen phambi – woman vendor – was invited to speak about the challenges they face in the market. She spoke about many things but what stood out the most was the way she spoke about bombs in a startling form. She works in Ema Keithen – Mothers’ Market – in the heart of Imphal; a high security zone under extreme micro surveillance. However, IED blasts are not infrequent here and we are always left wondering about the ‘unknown miscreants’ who can slip in and out of such a fortress easily. She spoke about how the police descend on the market after every IED blast and right at that moment when we expected her to talk about the troubles she faced in such difficult situations, she made a proclamation on live TV: I can do much more than that. I can become a bomb myself. Who said only IED blasts are bombs? In this land I lose so much money in the market every day. One day if I, along with a few other women, decide that we have had enough and sell our stuff right in the middle of the road and not in the designated market area, don’t we also become bombs upon whom the police will descend?
That is a body testing their local way to be in action.
At a busy crossing on Residency Road in Lal Chowk, Srinagar, a man in a helmet is single-mindedly hammering nails into the tarmac. He is like a tight ball of energy deflecting traffic; vehicles swerve around him at different angles. He is talking – to himself, to whoever comes near him, to probably all the vehicles swerving away – and he is angry, but he never stops hammering. He talks and hammers, defying civil traffic and military guards thronging the periphery of Pratap Park. Perhaps he comes here regularly to hammer so that his land doesn’t fall out from beneath his feet, and everybody in the market probably knows him.
That is a body testing their local way to be in action.
Both the keithen phambi in Imphal and the man in a helmet and hammer in Srinagar are bodies testing their local ways to be in action. Their actions don’t begin from the artworld. They begin from the everyday physical encounters and preoccupations with a heavily militarised urban terrain. They have a finger on the pulse of the last chance clock that marks our everyday life. Their wit, their spunk, and their high-stakes actions are not art practice. They, along with all the big small visible invisible actions that spur our daily dissent against the systematic annihilation of our lands and our peoples, are our history, our ancestry which we hope – as artists – we can inherit when we make something we want to identify and make visible as art.
Zero Bridge – a half-a-century old wooden arch bridge over the river Jhelum – is now an over-renovated bridge with gazebos, repurposed for tourists and light pedestrian traffic. It is quite instagrammable. Noon Tueth had its first performance on Zero Bridge.
I had only seen Zero Bridge from my LD-to-Dargah bus and was clueless about it. That Sunday in September it was bright with a blue-lit sky and I found Zero Bridge dotted with very young men whose public behaviour was like a series of crass TikTok videos playing on loop. They spoke in loutish Bollywood Hindi, tried offering me ice creams & cigarettes, and followed me around a couple of gazebos on the bridge. I looked at their faces: they were all so young, some teens and many barely out of their teens. They badly wanted to be bad but all I felt for them was melancholy.
From a distance I watched the IMFA students milling around in one of the gazebos. I was mildly surprised they were taking that much time ‘getting ready’ at the site of their performance. The tourists and pedestrians – their intended audience – though scarcely noticed them. A good fifteen or twenty minutes past 3 PM, a small procession trouped out of the gazebo. In its middle was a figure in a colourful costume of red, white and green carrying a samovar. A green Bluetooth speaker held in the palm of one of the performers played an old Kashmiri song. Quite a few of them were taking pictures with their DSLR cameras and mobile phones. It looked like a spoof wedding procession. Their audience looked on with scant interest. The colourful figure posed for photos by the railings on either side of the bridge. His aloofness was intriguing; he was like a moving statue with a samovar. After some time, as I saw other performers holding clay bowls and asking the audience to get some tea, I realised he was supposed to be offering tea from his samovar to audience members. No one was forthcoming until one small girl said she wanted to taste it. Slowly adults started volunteering to sip some of the tea. I was also offered a bowl. The tea looked like cha-ngaang – red tea that we drink in our valley – but tasted salty and spiced. The colourful figure – who took my shades and was now wearing them – said it was noon tueth and his mother made it; another performer – the one who invited me to the performance – said it is good for headache and cold. I had never heard of noon tueth. It tasted like my favourite cha-ngaang but wickedly spiced. I took a second serving because it was fantastic to get tea in Kashmir with no milk which is not kahwa. By this time, the audience was warming up to the tea and the colourful figure. As I kept watching the performance from the fringe, the colourful figure never really thawed his act. His costume was clownishly casual but his act was highly formal and aloof. He had a few paper strips pasted over his face which I came to know later had numbers of the Kashmiri pellet victims typed on them. Across the bridge, he was being fed pieces of paper by one of the performers. It wasn’t clear what exactly was happening there because the sizeable IMFA crowd and some press photographers had surrounded them to take photos.
The second act was a woman in pheran carrying a small tin trunk wrapped in red cloth and held by a white rope. She sat down to open the trunk and took out many black cut-outs of the chinar and a map of India. She marked various spots over the map and took a scissor to cut the portion of Jammu & Kashmir off the map. She then put everything back into the trunk and walked off. Her act had no ambiguity; the audience immediately got her point.
While the second act was going on, the other performers had started prepping for their next act. Large white sheets of paper were taped onto the wooden floor of the bridge to form a circle. The circle was cut into four quarters by two lengths of ropes running vertically and horizontally. The four clay bowls used in the first act to serve noon tueth now held charcoal pieces and were placed between the paper sheets.
Four performers in white sheaths – I later came to know the fabric symbolised funeral shrouds – and taped mouths stepped inside the circle and harnessed themselves into the end loops of the ropes. They then moved like hands of a clock, using the charcoal to write, draw, mix, improvise on the white sheets of paper.
The clock act went on for quite a while. Pedestrians with cycles navigated in between to cross the bridge. Pedestrians with shopping bags moved gingerly by the railings. Many gathered around to watch; the theatricality of this act had made them pause.
The four performers then bunched up all the sheets of paper that were now covered in charcoal, moved into the centre to form a tight cluster, held up the charcoaled paper bunch, and moved toward the railing to throw the bunch down the river flowing under the bridge.
The performance ended with this act.
I was watching them again from a distance and I heard somebody telling the performers that they should take a group photo. They all gathered together, facing the sun setting in the west. Their audience moved away in different directions to become tourists and pedestrians.
To understand Noon Tueth as a metaphor used in the title of the performance, I, of course, must figure what is noon tueth. To whatever extent I am capable of as a person who comes from a non-milk tea drinking culture.
- I am told that noon tueth is the tea decoction that is brewed before one put milk and transforms it into the famous noon chai
- I am told it is a poor person’s tea. Meaning it is of the periphery, unlike doodhe chai that sits robustly in the elite centre
- I am told it is good for cold and headache
- I am told it is a phrase used as a slang in Kashmiri and can be loosely translated as ‘made a fool of’
- I am told nobody really serves noon tueth to guests because it would be considered disrespectful, thoughtless, boorish …
After going through what I have been told, I thought:
To hold a samovar of hot noon tueth on Zero Bridge and kindling a performance in public that starts by offering bowls of this tea is an enormous idea.
The idea beats quite near the heart of the crucial phrase found in the description of this performance – where bodies test their local ways to be in action.
What unfurled out of this idea that Sunday afternoon in September last year under a blue-lit sky are a bundle of pitfall-ridden approaches to a public terrain as difficult as Srinagar.
International performance art in public spaces is structured around the body of the performer. Quite often a hyper-self-conscious body (that of the artist) is inserted into a public space as an oddball novelty or a superior visitation. Quite often that is possible because such international public spaces are sanitised ones. Quite often those spaces are bereft of actions and consequences. Quite often it makes sense in such spaces to ‘disrupt’ their public with the body of the performer. Quite often such performances are created not just for the audience found in the public space but also for the art discourses that run the art economy.
Far away from such sanitised international spaces stand public terrains like Srinagar. Where each body is a chargesheet of actions and violations. Such bodies make up the public in Srinagar. So, what is the body of the performer in such a public? Which kind of art discourse gaze will the performer end up performing to? What is the foundation of any contemporary performer who steps into such a public terrain? What makes up the material of such performances? What performance discipline drives the ethos of such performances? What history of local actions underlines decisions that eventually become performances after all the improvisations? What intuitions need to be nurtured if one must create encounters in public as a performer? Because feeble intuition is bad form. For a performer in a public terrain like Srinagar. Or Imphal.
What I saw in Noon Tueth that Sunday afternoon was an enormous idea inhibited by a typical feeble intuition that comes from conventional performance thinking. Where we get our cues from our co-performers in a controlled space called the rehearsal space. Where we mistakenly theorise that all we must do is teleport our rehearsal space to a public terrain and that is the sum of our action. Where we haven’t even reached the simple point to say to ourselves: this public terrain and the actions imploding in it far exceed our nerve –
ema keithen and the keithen phambi in Imphal exceed our nerve
residency road and the man in a helmet and hammer in Srinagar exceed our nerve
and our action as a performer in public terrain – big small visible invisible – needs to find its measure on the terms of this terrain and actions that exceed our nerve. ♦