Dance in Music: the Gavotte

Spurred on by the positive feedback I have received from local readers, and thanks to the reach of the internet, to music educators further afield, I have decided to continue the ‘Dance in Music’ series that I began some columns ago with the Minuet.

Rather than follow a historical, chronological order in looking at dance terms in music, I felt it better to address them according to the frequency with which we might encounter them, as music students and teachers, or in a concert programme. So let us look this week at the gavotte (also gavot or gavote).

The gavotte is an old French dance form. It originated in the southeast of France, in the Pays du Gap region; its inhabitants were called Gavots, and their folk dance, the gavotte.

gavotte

It became popular in the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV, where Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) composed many examples, and its vogue in Paris lasted until the French Revolution. In its early days as a courtly dance, the gavotte involved couples kissing, but (reminiscent of Bollywood censorship and prudishness here!) this was replaced by the presentation of flowers.

Passing to other countries, it became one of the optional movements of the classical dance suite. The gavotte, the third in six movements of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita no. 3 in E major, BWV 1006, is a notable example.

It featured on the Voyager Records sent with the spacecraft launched into outer space in 1977.

An internet search reveals that many people looked up ‘gavotte’ in order to learn more about the lyrics of Carly Simon’s 1972 song ‘You’re so vain’; in the first verse she sings “You had one eye on the mirror/ And watched yourself gavotte.” In this context, she is referring to the protagonist’s self-absorbed, narcissistic dancing. Interesting use of ‘gavotte’ as a verb, and it also implies a solo dance. There is poetic license, of course, i song-writing, and a rhyme word was needed to follow ‘yacht’ and ‘apricot’. But the gavotte is danced by a couple or a group.

It is notated in 4/4 or 2/2 and in a moderate tempo. It is usually in simple binary form (which means it has two contrasting sections, A & B); the sections are often repeated.

The distinctive feature of the 18th-century French court gavotte is that the phrases begin in the middle of the bar; so the phrases begin on the third crotchet of the bar, creating a half-measure upbeat.

For this reason, the ‘gavotte’ by François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829), which is widely taught to music students, is not a gavotte in the purest sense, as the phrases begin on the downbeat, at the beginning of the bar.

But later composers like Gossec wrote gavottes with phrases beginning on the downbeat rather than on the half-bar upbeat. The gavotte in Jules Massenet’s opera Manon also begins on the downbeat.

Another ‘upbeat’ example worth visiting, because it also features in teaching material of many music students, is the Gavotte I/II in Bach’s Orchestral Suite no. 3 in D major, BWV 1068. It is the central third movement of this five-movement suite. Incidentally the second movement of this suite is an Air (better known to many of us as the Air on the G string, after it was arranged for solo violin).

Bach fused the Italian and French styles with his own German musical tradition. This very engaging fusion of three national styles can be observed in this suite.

It is thought that the original composition of the suite was for strings and continuo alone; his son C.P.E. Bach wrote out the trumpet oboe and timpani parts, and Bach senior’s student Johann Ludwig Krebs wrote out the second violin and viola parts.

Bach called this suite an ‘ouverture’; its very name indicates its French influence. The French ouverture was meant to be a festive composition written for an occasion. It was meant to precede a stage-work, such as an opera or a ballet. Its form had become standardised under the strong influence of Lully. A grandiose Adagio opening indicating the entrance of the courtiers, would be followed by a gay, brilliant allegro section, to suggest the entertainment to come.

Bach largely adhered to this French tradition, but also greatly enriched it, melodically (often with the bass line itself taking the melody), and with great dynamism in harmonic progression and variety. He thus raised the stature of the French dance suite to musical heights, which were to pave the way for great serenades and symphonies of the following generation.

The rhythm of the gavotte is two light steps and one heavy step twice as long. Musically, this rhythm is a light upbeat and a heavy downbeat. But Bach didn’t intend for this gavotte to be danced; the rhythm of the dance was for him only a springboard for musical invention.

Gavotte I has two subsections, of 10 and 16 bars length respectively. Each subsection is usually repeated.

In Gavotte I, the lower instruments mimic the rhythm of the upbeat when the melody is playing the longer heavy step or downbeat.

The first gavotte is linked to a second (Gavotte II). In this second gavotte, Bach extends the upbeat to three times its normal length. Melodically, this becomes a broken chord or arpeggio. Its many appearances throughout the movement are punctuated by the trumpets.

Gavotte II also has two subsections, also usually repeated, and each 16 bars in length.

Bach makes use of an ingenious device at the end of each part of this second gavotte: when the upper instruments finish off the phrase, Bach cleverly uses the arpeggio, which is the rhythmical and melodic motive of this movement, as a bass; thus it acts as a musical punctuation mark.

If one were to look at Gavotte I as A, and Gavotte II as B, it is performed as A-B-A, with gavotte I ending the movement, usually without repeating each subsection.

In popular culture, a song ‘Ascot Gavotte’ features in the 1956 My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. It is an ‘upbeat’ gavotte, with a suitably canter-trot tempo for the Ascot races.

(An edited version of this article was published on 18 June 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Battler of Men: A Parable for our Times

Had you visited our house until the mid-1990s, you might have noticed, while walking up the winding stone stairway, a black-and-white print of a painting on the wall above you.

This was just one of the artworks that were on display in the entrance stairwell, until the thefts began. First the beautiful Japanese porcelain face masks over each doorway disappeared; then the shiny brass railing. We even had to place protective padlocked cages around lightbulbs, as they vanished too.

The painting survived, deemed by thieves too inaccessible, heavy, and uninteresting. I knew it depicted a scene from ancient Greece, but it didn’t arouse further curiosity.

I don’t know how long the print has been in the family, but the fact that it is titled in German “Die Gefangene Andromache” (“Captive Andromache”) suggests it was purchased by my grandfather during his years in Germany.

Today, of course, everything is accessible online. So here is a picture of the painting in colour; the original oil painting hangs in the Manchester City Art Gallery,s the work (1888) of English sculptor and painter Sir Frederic Leighton (1830-1896).

frederic_leighton_40_captive_andromache

Leighton, like so many other artists, was partial to themes from ancient Greek history and mythology. This is a scene depicting the sequel, if you will, to Homer’s Iliad: the aftermath of the Trojan War.

It’s still not a historical certainty that the Trojan War actually took place, although there are so many different accounts of it down the ages that it must contain at least a basic kernel of truth.

According to Greek mythology, the Trojan War was waged between the 13th and 12th centuries BC. The trigger was the abduction (or perhaps the elopement) of Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta, to Troy by Paris, prince of Troy.

If the Trojan War was indeed a historical event, historians now feel that Helen’s abduction was a convenient pretext (just was the fabricated ‘weapons of mass destruction’ were for the invasion of Iraq) for a concerted Greek attack on the rich city of Troy. Its location in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) near the narrow Dardanelles strait (known in antiquity as Hellespont) joining the Black Sea to the Aegean, made it of strategic importance on the vital trade routes connecting East and West. In addition to spices, gold and other riches, it also handled copper and tin necessary for making bronze, the crucial alloy for fashioning armaments in the Bronze Age. Just as wars today are fought over oil, whatever the ostensible reasons given to us are, so it is also plausible to assume that the Trojan War, a supposedly ‘just war’ based on lofty principles and honour, like so many ‘just wars’ after it, was actually a grab for power and control.

The principal characters in the Trojan War are, on the Greek side: Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and brother of Menelaus; another king Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin), king of Ithaca and part of the Greek coalition; and the Greek hero-warrior Achilles.

On the Trojan side: Priam, king of Troy; his sons Hector and Paris, princes of Troy and his daughter Cassandra, princess of Troy; and Andromache, wife of Hector, by whom she has an infant son Astyanax. There are many more on both sides, but these will suffice for us. Hector is the Trojan hero-warrior counterpart to the Greek Achilles.

According to Homer’s Iliad, the war raged for ten years, with neither side the victor; the formidable battlements of the fortress-city of Troy were immune to attack, and there were obviously sufficient food and water supplies within despite the long siege.

Matters come to a head when Achilles, maddened with rage after the death of his cousin Patroclus, challenges Hector to a duel. This is given much melodrama in the 2004 Hollywood film Troy.

Ironically, the soldier idealised by Homer is the Trojan warrior-hero Hector. He has the character of the model soldier and citizen.

Andromache in classical Greek means “battler of men” (Andros= male; mache=battle). In many accounts of the story and in the 2004 film, when Hector bids goodbye to his family, Andromache beseeches him not to rise to Achilles’ bait. In Hector’s response, Homer foreshadows the end of the Trojan War and its outcome for not just Hector and for Troy, but for his nuclear family as well, tilting the reader’s sympathy in favour of Troy rather than Greece.

Like any husband, Hector tells Andromache he cares more for her and their son than for his country. He is fighting for something much more personal: his wife, his child and his home. We identify very much with Hector and with Troy.

Hector envisages that Andromache will soon be a widow and Astyanax an orphan. What even he is unable to foresee (and Homer’s Iliad ends before the outcome of the Trojan War is revealed) is that the outcome will actually be far more gruesome. Achilles murders Hector in full view of Andromache, and then defiles the corpse by dragging it behind his chariot around the city walls. King Priam has to beg for the return of his son’s body, so it can be given a proper hero’s farewell.

And when Troy eventually falls (whether the Trojan horse is a literal device of Greek deceit, or a metaphor for an ancient ‘weapon of mass destruction’ is unclear), Andromache has her son Astyanax wrenched from her bosom and hurled from the battlement walls, killing him instantly; the Greeks consider it too dangerous to allow Astyanax to live lest he grow up to avenge his father and his countrymen. The Greeks’ ‘just war’ ends unjustly, dishonourably and deceitfully.

And what of Andromache? She becomes a ‘spoil of war’. No time to even grieve her husband and son, she is forcibly made concubine to Achilles’ son Neoptolemus.

It is at this juncture that Leighton portrays Andromache. She is literally at the centre of the painting, clad in drab black clothes (signifying mourning to 19th century England, even if not ancient Greece) in stark contrast to the bright colours worn by everyone else. Head bowed, isolated from those who bustle around her, she contemplates her fate.

A once-proud princess, she is now reduced to the menial task of drawing water from the common well, and patiently waits her turn in the queue.

And although Leighton couldn’t have foreseen it in 1888, the cloud directly above Andromache resembles eerily the mushroom cloud we associate with another horror of warfare, the atom bomb.

Andromache is true to her name, not in the literal sense of ‘battling’ men. Not every battle need be fought in the physical sense, all blood and gore. But her character and her life, although influenced, prodded, traumatised and brutalised by testosterone-fuelled notions of war, honour, glory, rise above it all. She seems to be questioning both the victor and the loser in the war whether the human toll and blood price was really worth it.

(An edited version of this article was published on 11 June 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Ode to a Martaban Jar

Like many Goan homes, ours too had earthenware heirlooms scattered about the house. They were ovoid jars of varying size, and years of dust and grime and use had obscured their features. With the water shortages (remember the Opa crisis and the molasses scandal?), they assumed the role of reservoirs, and therefore found their place in our kitchen and bathrooms.

martaban jar

But like so much else that innocuously hides in plain sight in Goa, they had a story to tell, so here it is. Let’s start with their name. They are called Martaban jars, named after a port Mottama in Burma (modern-day Myanmar) where they were produced in bulk, but soon became a generic term for similar jars used along the spice trade route between East and West.

The demand of traders initially from the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian Gulf, and later the Europeans as well, for large jars in which to store water, oil, wine, spices and other commodities was met by the supply at Mottama/Martaban of Chinese, Sawankhalok (from the Sukhothai province, Thailand) and local jars so that the term ‘Martaban’ was used for a wide range of jars from many sources. The Burmese connection persists with similar jars still being manufactured, using the same processes, at Kyaukmyaung in upper Myanmar.

Following the Portuguese conquest of Malacca in 1511, a feitoria (‘factory’) was opened by them in Martaban in 1521. Joost Schouten (c. 1600-1644), diplomat, administrator and negotiator for the VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) or the Dutch East India Company, reported that “apart from foodstuffs, the Peguans [natives of Pegu, modern-day Bago in Myanmar] imported gold, rubies, musk, tin and Martaban jars into Malacca, which they exchanged for cloth, sandalwood, pepper, cloves, silks, porcelain and iron pans.” Garcia de Orta (1501-1568), pioneer of tropical medicine and ethnobotany, refers to “jarras martabaas” in his epic ‘Colóquio dos simples e drogas e cousas medicinais da Índia”.

Jan Huyghen van Linschoten (1563-1611), Dutch merchant, trader, historian and likely espionage agent who copied and later sold Portuguese maritime secrets to the Dutch and helped end the Portuguese rule of the Indian Ocean, also records the presence of these jars: “In this town, many of the great earthen pots are made, which in India are called Martavans, and many of them are carried throughout all of India, of all sorts both great and small; some [are so great that they] hold to full pipes [1 pipe= 2 hogshead= approximately 105 gallons] of water. The cause why so many are brought into India, is for that they use them in every house, and in their ships instead of cask. There are none in India but such as come out of Portingall [Portugal], therefore they use these pots to keep oil, wine and water and it is a good thing for a traveller.” He describes their use for the storage and transport of ‘Nype’ (Nipa arrack, a liquor distilled from the palm Nipa fruticans)

They find mention in the chronicles of French gem merchant and traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689) and navigator François Pyrard de Laval (1578-1623) as well. British merchant sailor Thomas Bowrey (d. 1719) in his diary wryly documents a bhang-intoxicated man running his head “into a great Mortavan jarre.”

Even before them, Duarte Barbosa (c. 1480- 1521) escrivão (scribe) at the Estado da Índia feitoria at Cannanore and brother-in-law of Ferdinand Magellan and like him quite the intrepid explorer, wrote: “In this town [Martaban] are made very large and beautiful porcelain vases, and some of glazed earthenwares of a black colour, which are highly valued among the Moors, and they export them as merchandise.”

And before them, medieval Moroccan traveller and scholar Ibn Batuta (1304-1369) described the use of ‘Martabans’ probably as far away as Tonkin, for holding preserved ginger, pepper, lemons and mangoes.

Going further back, a Sanskrit inscription (Kathāsaritsagara) from around the 11th century AD makes a reference to Kalasapura (“city of jars”), a coastal town of Suvarnadvipa, whose geographic location would roughly match that of Mottama. Archaeological findings from the Dvaravati period in Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal corroborate this.

In the literature, one also finds description of pots of different sizes. Among them one finds the ‘tumbay’, “a small rounded pot with a comparatively narrow neck.” It fits the description of our ‘tambyo’ perfectly. Could the Konkani word have come from here as well?

A range of kilns have been excavated around the Bay of Martaban. The potters seemed to have been Mon (ethnic group within Myanmar), and the jars were produced mainly in the dry season, using clay and sand (clay:sand ratio of 2:1) from the riverbanks and the coast and thrown on a potter’s wheel. They were left to dry in the shade for a couple of days, and then beaten into the desired shape using a mallet against a mold inside the vessel, and ornamented using figured and carved mallets before being set aside to be thoroughly dried. They were then fired in kilns and glazed. Glazing materials included a mixture of galena (the natural mineral form of lead sulphide) and rice water.

The colours can range from black or almost black, to brown, golden brown and olive-green. Often placed around the shoulder of the jars are loop handles or pierced masks through which a rope could be passed, to keep a lid or cover in place and seal it tight. They could also have been used to secure an outer protective covering of vegetable fibre such as coconut coir, which might have made them easier to lift and carry. The Linschoten engraving depicting a market scene in the city of Goa would seem to suggest this. Many heritage enthusiasts will be familiar with it; a print was exhibited at the recent Serendipity Arts festival at the Secretariat as well. At the extreme left of the illustration, two porters seem to be carrying just such a jar, in a protective coir casing, suspended from a pole balanced on their shoulders.

jan-huyghen-van-linschoten-goa-16th-c-architecture

Were the magnificent dragons and chimera monsters on the sides of the Martaban jars merely ornamental, or did they represent a ‘trade mark’ of a particular kiln? Or could users get them custom-made with designs of their choice?

The next time you come across one of these gorgeous vessels, take the time to really admire them. Use your imagination to speculate what it once carried, and how many ports it visited, and the sights, smells, sounds, and languages it has been mute witness to. And if one is languishing in your kitchen, to borrow the lines of an Alfred Rose and Rita Rose song (he was referring to the Concanim language, but it applies here as well), “tika saalan hadunk maan diunk zai.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 04 June 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Dance in Music: the Minuet

If you are a student of a musical instrument, a music teacher, a concert-goer, or a music listener, you will have come across the word Minuet (Menuet in French; Minuetto in Italian. It might be useful to learn more about it, so we can give more context to the term the next time we find it in a concert programme, or attempt to play it. Hopefully this will be the first of many more columns that will look at other terms in music that have their origins in dance.

The minuet began as a social dance in 17th century France; the name probably originates from the small steps (or ‘pas menus’; yes, the menu we come across in a restaurant essentially also means ‘small’, a ‘small’ list) which are part of the dance. It may also have derived from popular group dances of the time, called branle à mener (to move) or amener (to lead).

It is typically in triple (or 3/4; sometimes 6/8) time, to be danced by two people, at a moderate tempo or speed, with a light quality to it. It is this lightness and elegance that gives it its character.

Minuet

In its dance avatar, it was usually in binary form. All this means is that it had two repeated sections, A and B. Each of these sections are usually eight bars each in length.

The minuet gradually began to be used out of the context of dancing, which allowed composers to use the idiom but quicken the tempo if they so wished. The Italian-born French composer (incidentally also a fine dancer) Jean-Baptiste Lully (born Giovanni Battista Lulli 1632-1687) used it extensively (at least 92 times, by one estimate) in his theatrical works, such as opera and ballet.

It later got incorporated into the musical form called the suite, or the dance suite, about which more in another column. Orchestral suites of the late 17th century often contained one or even two minuets. And this could be true of suites for solo instruments as well. For instance, the Partita no. 3 in E major, BWV 1006 (basically a suite) for solo violin by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) has two minuets as the fourth and fifth of its seven movements.

And the minuet began to evolve as well. The B section got expanded, often resulting in a ternary A-B-A form. And could get more complex than that as well.

Around the time of Lully, it became customary to give the now ‘middle’ B section over to a trio of usually wind instruments (Lully seemed partial to two oboes and a bassoon), although other combinations were also scored. Over time, this contrasting section began to be called a trio, even when scored for groups larger than three, or even the whole ensemble.

It is thought that Austrian composer Georg Christoph Wagenseil (1715-1777) was the first to incorporate the minuet and trio into the symphony, and it remained an integral part, usually the third movement of the four-movement Classical symphony, until Beethoven tossed convention to the winds and replaced it with the scherzo. Again, more about this some other time.

A good example of a ‘true’ minuet, in binary form, with equal eight-bar sections, is the famous minuet from the finale of act 1 of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni.

A minuet often used for didactic purposes for students of the piano and violin is the Minuet in G major, (BWV Anh. 114), essentially a keyboard work thought to be by Johann Sebastian Bach included in the 1725 Notebook (Notebüchlein) for Anna Magdalena Bach, his second wife, whom he loved very much. I must confess I thought it to be the work of Bach too, and was surprised to learn that several musicologists now credit it to Bach’s contemporary, the German composer Christian Petzold 91677-1733). But music books for students, including the Suzuki book 1 for violin, still ascribe it to Bach.

Nevertheless, it still is a good example to look at. Its tempo marking is, as discussed before, Moderato, at medium speed, neither too slow nor too fast, and as its title suggests, it is in the key of G major.

The ‘A’ section is sixteen bars long, divided into two equal eight-bar subsections. The first six bars in each subsection are exactly the same. Without getting into technicalities about cadences (chord sequence at the close of a musical phrase), but suffice it to say that the remaining two bars act like a semi-colon after the first subsection, and a decisive full stop after the second, to use a literary simile.

The ‘B’ section begins in E minor, which is like a cousin to G major, being its relative minor. It too is sixteen bars long, and also has two eight-bar subsections. But there the structural similarity ends. The composer takes the contour of the first bar of the work and tweaks and plays with this idea; he also travels (this is called modulation) to new keys thus far unexplored. The first subsection ends with a lovely chord (D7) familiar to jazz and popular musicians as a dominant seventh.

The last subsection has a new idea for a melodic shape, but its last four bars recall the shape of the last four bars of the first B subsection in returning ‘home’ to G major.

I would encourage those interested to go to YouTube and have a listen. If you feel a sense of déjà vu (or perhaps that should be déjà entendu), it may be because, like me, you also grew up listening to the Stars on 45 compilations, and this melody, albeit modified, makes a brief appearance in one of them.

The 1965 pop song is ‘A Lover’s Concerto’, turned into a smash hit by the girl group the Toys. It takes ‘inspiration’ (plagiarism is too strong a word, and in any case copyright laws don’t apply for composers sop long dead) from just the A section of the minuet. It is modified by adding an extra beat in each bar, effectively making it in 4/4 time instead of 3/4. This is achieved by doubling the length of the first beat in every bar. The same A section is repeated over and over, but rising a notch with a key change each time.

And if you’ve seen the 1995 film Mr. Holland’s Opus, the title character (played wonderfully by Richard Dreyfuss), in trying to enthuse his school students about music in general and classical music in particular, cites this very song and makes the connection to Bach, although we now know the credit should go to Mr. Petzold. And what about Mr. Petzold’s opus? Was he a one-hit wonder, or did he write music just as memorable as this minuet? Definitely worth exploring.

(An edited version of this article was published on 28 May 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Would someone get the door, please?

I was told that the location of the picturesque Kala Academy complex in Panjim was chosen by the government of the time deliberately to deprive political rival Dr. Jack Sequeira of the commanding “vista do rio” that he possessed from his home. If true, it was an extremely spiteful thing to do.

Be that as it may, the Kala Academy performance spaces have been the hub for culture and entertainment in the city and the state ever since its inception. Some of the most exhilarating and formative concerts of our generation took place at the outdoor auditorium, the Dinanath Mangueshkar indoor auditorium, and perhaps to a lesser degree, the Black Box.

One could spend a lot of time reminiscing on the great moments lived here, but precisely because one loves the space so much, I’d like to point out one little thing.

The decision to install fire doors at the Dinanath Mangueshkar indoor auditorium may have been motivated by extremely good intentions, but it was an ill-advised one, at least in their current state.

You encounter two sets of these fire doors in the main entrance, and in the access to the backstage area; you also encounter a single fire door leading from the auditorium to the stage on either side, and two of them between the green room and the backstage area.

Photo0410-1

Nothing wrong with that, you might well think. But the problem is that they slam and click shut, and the noise is loud enough to mar a performance. This is especially true at an unamplified concert, and specifically for a western classical music concert.

This is itself would not be such a problem if the doors were manned, and if and when they are manned, that casual entry and exit in mid-performance is discouraged. The benchmark and yardstick in my view has to be the excellently run NCPA (National Centre for the Performing Arts) at Mumbai’s Nariman Point. Its auditoria have fire-proof doors too, but the door attendants are at the door throughout the performance, and do not let in latecomers until a work is finished and the applause has begun and there is enough time for the latecomers to find their seats before the next piece of music or act of a play begins.

The discipline is so ingrained that even in the fast-paced city that Mumbai is, most patrons will factor in traffic snarls to ensure that they are in their seats on time; those who arrive late reconcile themselves to waiting in the lobby until they are let in at an opportune moment by the doormen. Once in, patrons leave only at a convenient break in performance.

Contrast this with the slamming of the doors at the Dinanath Mangueshkar indoor auditorium, particularly the one at the back, each time an audience member enters or exits, something that can happen pretty much throughout a performance.

This is an issue that has bedevilled the indoor auditorium and the Black Box from its inception. I remember attempts made to address this back in 1989. Someone came up with the idea of locking the doors after the concert began, effectively sealing the audience in and latecomers out. That however led to several tardy patrons being locked out after the interval, and there was a merry hunt for the key, and quite a few missed out on a large chunk of the second half of that concert! As can be imagined, the idea was quickly discarded. I am not sure if other remedies were tried, but the problem persists.

The problem, on the face of it, can be addressed quite simply and cheaply, by lining the door edges with something soft, like rubber or felt cloth, to muffle the slamming sound when one door shuts upon the other. I have suggested this to various member-secretaries and vice-chairpersons of the Kala Academy, but it hasn’t been tried yet. Or perhaps it is time to replace the rather antiquated doors with better ones that do not slam or click, and are padded, to seal in the sound and keep out extraneous noise.

The other issue, which can still be solved, but will take more effort, is having the doors at all times manned by personnel who will only allow entry at appropriate times. This will take some training, but as has been achieved so admirably with Mumbai’s NCPA, it can be done. We as members of the public have gotten accustomed to sauntering in and out as we please, and this has to stop.

And the staff should be educated to themselves maintain decorum and silence when a performance is on. All too often, the chatter among the staff at the door wafts into the auditorium. It is easy to assume, once one is in the space between the double doors before the exit, that one is now “out of earshot” and many exiting patrons feel encouraged to get on their phones, unwittingly letting everyone in the auditorium in on their conversation.

In fact, the whole rear portion of the auditorium, from the last few rows to the exit lull some into the false notion that surreptitious sotto voce conversations will not be heard at the front. But, for all its acoustical imperfections, the sound carries right across. I remember being at a piano recital by Karl Lutchmayer quite a few years ago, where he had to remind the audience in his polite, tactful way, that just as the sound of his playing could be heard all the way to the last row, so too he could hear everything from the back rows on the stage while he played. The errant chatty duo took a while to realise that he was referring to them. I was glad Lutchmayer spoke up. Too many performers suffer the disturbance silently, perhaps out of politeness, not to embarrass their hosts or the public.

I was reminded of this more recently, at another piano recital, when another pair of chatterers had to be admonished by a member of the public as they could be heard in the front rows.

This may sound like a rant, and perhaps it is, but it is made with the best of intentions. These are issues that have been around for too long, and with some simple measures and education, can easily be remedied to enhance the already wonderful experience so many of us have at the Kala Academy. Conversely, a truly sublime recital by a performer of the highest order can be ruined by an ill-timed door slam.

(An edited version of this article was published on 21 May 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Goenkarponn of Dolphins

Until recently, I had never been on a dolphin-spotting trip. I had seen them while out on the high seas, but I had not gone on a dedicated boat trip just to see them. And, hearing accounts of the haphazard manner in which the majority of the dolphin-spotting excursions were conducted, and how the creatures were ruthlessly chased by scores of music-blaring boats bearing beer-swilling, litter-chucking tourists, I wanted no part of it.

Then, last month, I accompanied my wife Chryselle on a writing assignment. She was covering the work of Terra Conscious, an initiative of Puja Mitra. She organises dolphin trips with a difference: the emphasis is not on a mindless ‘guaranteed sighting’, but it creates awareness of the wonderful creatures that these dolphins are, how we humans all too often unwittingly harm them, and how a win-win path can nevertheless still be found.

We drove up to Chapora jetty, where we first listened to a short powerpoint presentation on these issues, by Mitra herself. It was extremely enlightening, and set the tone for the actual boat trip thereafter.

For instance, one could regard the humpback dolphin in our waters as just as Goan as the rest of us. They are found all along our coast, with a near-shore distribution, inhabiting coastal waters, bays and estuaries usually within 0.5 km of our coastline. Even the taxonomical name of the Indian humpback dolphin, species that populate our waters, sounds Goan: Sousa plumbea.

Like humans, they also form community and societal groups, called pods and superpods. It is reasonable to assume that such societal groups have lived in our waters for generations perhaps going back centuries. So much for their domicile status.

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And dolphins in general display culture, something long believed to be unique to humans (and possibly to other primate species). Mitra revealed that studies of the two dolphin pods off Chapora and Candolim displayed different behavioural, bonding and hunting patterns, each unique to their pod.

But the harassment these noble graceful cetaceans endure on a daily basis, from dawn to dusk, has to be seen to be believed. Literally dozens of motor-powered boats, sometimes more, chase after a dolphin pod, cutting their travel paths in many cases, circling around them and coming perilously close, quite often inflicting injury to the dolphins. All to satisfy the lust for a “guaranteed sighting”. Some operators apparently have a “guaranteed sighting or your money back” policy.

A technical report “Promoting sustainable marine tourism in Goa” submitted in July 2016 (and available in the public domain online) written by an academic team that included Puja Mitra details the results of studies that assess the impact of that activities of the boats and other tourism activities on Goa’s wonderfully bountiful yet precariously fragile marine ecosystem.

The other factors studied were the disregard by tourists for safety instructions, noise levels of the boat engines, loud music played on the boats and high decibel levels among the patrons themselves, attempts to feed the dolphins, littering and other unruly behaviour.

Dolphins communicate among themselves through frequency-modulated whistle-like sounds, burst-pulsed sounds and clicks. The clicks are also used for echolocation. In the presence of extraneous noise from motor engines, loud music or human chatter, these signals get garbled and become difficult to decipher, contributing to stress, particularly between mother-calf.

As can be imagined, the dolphins displayed evidence of stress, manifested by changes in behaviour or direction of travel. They were resorting to avoidance behaviour, changing their travel path when a boat approached. An interruption or disruption of the hunting of fish by a dolphin pod means they go hungry. A change in direction of a pod of dolphins in reaction to human behaviour just described often means a hunting expedition has had to be aborted. The constant intrusive human presence prevents their rest cycles, socialising, play and other aspects of their lives.

Dolphins being mammals, the mother feed milk to their young, and the nursing process involves the injection of the milk into the surrounding seawater, to be drunk by the calf in the immediate vicinity. It is a fragile process, and noisy disturbances and fuel pollutants from motorised boats can jeopardise this as well.

In 2015, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests declared dolphins (on account of their high intelligence and sensitivity) as ‘non-human persons’ (in no small part due to the activism of Mitra and colleagues) and forbade their captivity for entertainment. The same logic should apply to forbidding the harassment of dolphins in the open waters as well.

Reading through the report and having watched and listen to Mitra’s presentation, one can’t help but wonder why a bigger deal is not made of the fact that Goa is host to such rich, unique biodiversity hotspots, from the Western Ghats to our oceans. Yet the average tourist, and I daresay the average local, is not made aware of this. All any first-time visitor landing in Goa sees is advertisements for casinos and ‘Sukhothai’ massages, but nary a mention of our biodiversity, and certainly not yet a studied, eco-sensitive way to explore this, apart from the efforts of a few, but sadly not the governmental bodies.

The report also describes the damage from island trips to the coral reefs (due to reckless anchor-dropping and littering) off the Grande Island archipelago, one of the few sites on the west coast of peninsular India where coral reefs are found.

In general, underwater noise, whether from engines or other human activity, takes its toll on a variety of marine animals, from whales and dolphins to sea turtles, and from fish to squid (Convention on Biological Diversity, 2012).

The alarming increase in carcasses of sea turtles, dolphins and whales washed upon our shores in the last few years and the depleting fish stock should warn us of the damage to the marine ecosystem already occurring.

The report nevertheless concludes on a somewhat positive note, making recommendations towards developing a sustainable marine tourism strategy for Goa; a win-win for all stakeholders, from marine life to the tourism industry to the tourists themselves as well as locals.

But all this will be redundant if the disastrous, colossally stupid Mormugao Port Trust expansion for coal import is pushed through by the government against the people’s wishes and sheer common sense. The fallout of the pollution to air and water from coal dust from such a step will be felt not just in the city and its vicinity, but will have a domino effect on our beaches and the coastal ecosystem vital not just for tourism but for sustenance of life itself to us Goans. Our collective Goenkarponn is at stake, affecting life on land, air and water.

(An edited version of this article was published on 14 May 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

On the Goethalis trail

Apart from the first four years of my life in Germany, a few months in Bombay and a decade in the UK, I’ve lived most of my life in the house I call home today.

But although growing up hearing stories about the family history, and being vaguely aware of the fact it once was the Mint (Casa da Moeda), my curiosity about the actual building did not extend much further. I do not recall wondering when it was built, and by whom, and to what purpose, how it would have looked then, and how well or badly the ravages of Time have treated it.

My first conscious thoughts about the history of the house must have begun in 2009, after my wife Chryselle thought up the idea of celebrating the 175th anniversary of the Casa da Moeda; little did I then know it would turn out to be an annual ritual for some years, and something that with renewed support we would gladly want to revive.

We had just returned from England the year before, so I was new to the whole area of research on Goan history. I turned first to Padre M. J. Gabriel de Saldanha’s História de Goa, Política e Arqueológica (second edition, 1925). He mentions (but doesn’t date or give further details) the original owner of the building as João Batista Goethalis. He then cites its successive owners: the Fazenda Pública; one António Inácio da Silva of Santa Cruz; the Royal Mint (Casa da Moeda) from 1834 to 1841; and without offering any explanation for the hiatus, he says it was leased (by da Silva’s family?) to the telegraph offices of the English, from 1865 to 1902. And in 1904, Dr. Miguel Caetano Dias (my great-grandfather) bought the house for his private residence.

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But I was still no wiser about the actual age of the house, although it must have been around for some decades before 1834.

Also, the surname Goethalis caught my attention for two reasons: One, it is an unusual surname for Goa at least today; a little research into its genealogy suggested it to be of Flemish origin. Second, the road passing by the house and curving around today’s Corina Bar and Restaurant before leaving the city was once called Rua or Travessa de Goethalis in the old maps. So whoever he was, he was a man of some prominence to have left such a mark. But what was his claim to fame? Where could I find more information on him? I looked up the literature and spoke to a few people, but nothing definitive turned up.

The trail grew cold, as I got caught up in the research of Casa da Moeda de Goa in general and numismatics, so Goethalis and the building became secondary issues not relevant to the main narrative.

Then I happened upon two references to the man in Celsa Pinto’s 2012 book ‘Economics of the Tobacco Monopolies in Goa, 1674-1856’. He is mentioned among others as having “played an unduly prominent part in the [tobacco] trade”. This made his choice of location for his residence an excellent one; the building was right in the heart of the Largo do Estanco, almost forming the third corner of an equilateral triangle between the buildings of the Estanco Real dos Tabacos (today’s General Post Office and the Office of the Postmaster General). It was then pretty much a riverside building, close to several quays and docks vital to the tobacco trade that flourished between Goa and Brazil well into the early decades of the 1800s, slumping into decline after Brazil declared independence in 1822. And it is a short walk away from the residence of the Mhamai Kamats who handled a large part of the trade.

In its heyday, before neighbouring buildings mushroomed around it, it had its land entrance on its south side (rather than the present-day entrance on its west side), and presumably a riverine entrance as well on its north side. The stone plaque “CASA DA MOEDA 1834” was situated above its former southward land entrance, before my father had it transferred to its present location in the verandah in 1970 as it had become obscured from view. And the structure of the house, with metal pillars on its river-facing side rather than the masonry arches on its west side, probably attest to its having access by river as well as by land. The river Mandovi was much broader, and its south bank extended a lot closer to the house than it does at present, after several reclamations.

Then Ernestine Carreira’s 2014 book ‘Globalising Goa (1660-1820): Change and exchange in a former capital of empire’ shed even further light on this elusive historical figure. He makes several cameo appearances in the book.

We first learn that João Batista Goethalis (also spelt variously as Jean-Baptiste Goethals and other forms) was Flemish (confirming my hunch), from a family settled in Calcutta (nephew of its bishop, in fact), and married a “noblewoman of Portuguese descent”. He fitted ships for Mozambique, Gujarat and Macau. He founded his own trading company in Goa “in or around 1790”, during which time he lived in the building described as “one of the opulent houses in Panjim.” At last, a date! The house had to be at least as old as 1790, if not some years older.

He surfaces in Surat, being appointed director of the Portuguese feitoria in that Mughal territory in 1806 (on account of his “perfect English”, a prerequisite from then on in Surat) by the Governador da Estada da Índia, Francisco António da Veiga Cabral, but a position Goethalis held for a mere few months before being replaced by a new consul from Portugal. But in those months he obtained permission to build a chapel there so that residents could observe mass said by priests from the Padroade rather than the Propaganda Fide.

But Carreira delivers the kicker about him in her last reference to Goethalis, under the subheading ‘Mozambique and Goa in the rise of a globalised slave trade (1770-1820): The dynamics of a favourable trade.’

You guessed it: Goethalis was also heavily invested in the slave and ivory trade. He (and one Joaquim Mourão Garcez Palha) made efforts to revive the slave trade after the British put an end to it (at least in their territories) in 1815. The last documented shipment of 119 slaves to Goa, along with a large cargo of ivory, was made on the grotesquely ill-named ‘Nossa Senhora do Socorro’, in 1819. It is a sombre aspect to the history of the house I had really not expected to find.

What became of Goethalis? Did he die in Goa? Is he buried here? Who knows?

(An edited version of this article was published on 7 May 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Banalisation of Evil and the Normalisation of Violence

Some years ago, I attended the memorial mass of a dear friend who had died overseas. It was a touching service, with heartfelt tributes paid to him. But one cringeworthy moment occurred when the priest delivering the eulogy, somehow (I can’t remember how any more) connected the solemn moment with, of all people, Dick Cheney.

I listened, stunned at first. Perhaps I had heard wrong. But no, this was Dick Cheney, former Chairman and CEO of Halliburton company, and the reason he was being mentioned and lauded was that he “truly cared about the happiness of his employees.”

Whether this is true or not I can’t say. But what is amply clear that this same Dick Cheney, who went on to become 46th Vice-President of the United States from 2001 to 2009 under President George W. Bush, has blood on his hands several times over. The list of war crimes, of crimes against humanity, is exhaustive. In fact, for the unlawful invasion of Iraq in 2003 alone, leaving in its horrific wake the deaths of, even by conservative estimates, anything from 500,000 to over 1 million (possibly even higher) innocent men, women and children, Cheney, Bush and seven other key members of that administration were convicted in absentia of war crimes by the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission in 2012.

Add to this the official seal of approval for the use of waterboarding and “other enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture in simpler language) and unwarranted surveillance of US citizens and suspected ‘enemies of the state’ in the US and abroad. The overseas torture chambers, managed by the CIA, were termed, chillingly, ‘black holes’. As the name suggests, many who were taken there have not been heard of again.

Despite his influence even today which pervades all echelons of power, including the mainstream media, the clamour for his prosecution is growing. Just last year, Thomas Buergenthal, ‘the world’s most distinguished living specialist in international human rights law’ predicted that Cheney would be tried as a war criminal at the International Criminal Court of Justice at the Hague.

The point I’m trying to make is that terrible crimes can be airbrushed from histories and public memory, while other facets of the perpetrator, real or imagined, are held up instead as a smooth sleight-of-hand. In India, politicians with criminal records, serial rapists, some even perpetrators of communal riots and mass murder, can be carried on the shoulders of an adoring public and lauded as darlings of the masses. Their criminal past can either be denied, or dismissed or even defended as ‘a small mistake; everyone makes them’, as a medical colleague said to me when one particular example came up for discussion.

And this is not just in the political arena. I’ve just finished reading Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The River of Smoke’, in which the spotlight a lot of the time is on one of the protagonists, Seth Bahramji Naurozji Modi, Parsi opium trader from Bombay. As the plot unravels, one even begins to like the character; certainly his staff adore him and are fiercely loyal to him. He is a pious man, believing firmly in Ahura Mazda and in countering the influence of Ahriman. Yet through the commodity in which he trades and makes his fortune, he is complicit in the destruction of untold millions of lives, in India (from its production), China (its consumption) and beyond.

He’s a fictional character, of course. But he embodies so many real-life people in India and England just like him who did get rich off the opium trade, and in the process ruined the lives of so many. Modern-day parallels would be businessmen and MLAs who thrive from mining, drugs, sex and gambling, oblivious to the rack and ruin caused as a result of it.

Another phenomenon becoming all-pervasive is the celebration of violence and killing. We have become inured to horrific images o our television screens or in the media, of devastation and human suffering, whether in Syria, Afghanistan or elsewhere. A “mother-of-all-bombs” gets dropped, but it’s business as usual for those outside the area of impact.

We grew up watching ‘war’ movies (‘Where Eagles Dare’, ‘The Dirty Dozen’, ‘Tora Tora Tora!’) glorifying blood, guts, and gore. It has been estimated that if all Hollywood movies on WWII alone were watched end-to-end in their duration, it would exceed the duration of the actual war and then some.

I bought into the adrenaline and the rush those films gave me, but I grew out of it, and today I watch such films (if at all) with a sense of detachment, nausea even. But they’re everywhere, and not just confined to war. Look at the success of the Kill Bill and Quentin Tarantino brand of films.

There’s a whole new genre of ‘war’ films as well, with (to me, at any rate) a subtle hint of propaganda about the self-righteousness of the recent (well, over the past few decades) military forays and adventurism of the West in the Middle East and Africa. There has been a whole slew of films over the past few decades, particularly after 9/11, from Black Hawk Down (2001), Behind Enemy Lines (2006, 2009), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), American Sniper (2014), Sniper: Legacy (2014) to 13 Hours (2016).

While many reviews have been predictably fawning in their approval, some did remark on the “slightly pornographic” depiction of war, often designed to “enhance the desire of Americans for a thumping war to avenge 9/11”. American Sniper was called out for turning “the complicated moral questions and mass bloodshed of the Iraq war into a black-and-white fairytale, without presenting the historical context.”

The latter film reminded me of a weekend I had spent with a friend in England, where his teenage nephew was contemplating a career in the Territorial Army, after developing a taste for guns and target practice at a shooting range. “I’d love to be a sniper!” he gushed, whereupon my friend reminded him that it would be real people he would be getting into his crosshairs and shooting at to kill, not a bulls-eye. I still remember the look in his eyes when this realisation sank in.

It can be easy to miss this amid the bombardment of images in the media celebrating violence. An ad on a TV channel for a movie marathon over Holi depicted a Bollywood actor wielding a pichkari spewing colour, which suddenly morphed into Schwarzenegger brandishing a firearm spraying bullets and a gruesome pastiche of fireball orange and blood.

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“Bang! You’re dead!” We played it as kids, and adults play it today with Paintball. Defexpo has become a forum for schoolchildren to ‘learn’ about killing machines, but a plea from a Gurmehar to find peaceful alternatives to conflict gets shouted down and threatened, ironically, with violence. Violence only begets revenge and more violence.

(An edited version of this article was published on 30 April 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Piracy, Buried Treasure and the Fiery Cross of Goa

 

Most of us have grown up with the story of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island (1883), with its swashbuckling tale of “buccaneers and buried gold”. So many clichés about pirates begin here, with Long John Silver emerging as the stereotypical pirate in our imagination.

But I only recently learnt of its Goa connection.

Read more here; my article got published in Scroll.in.

Olivier Levasseur Olivier Levasseur

Olivier Levasseur cryptogram Levasseur’s cryptogram

_D._Luís_Carlos_Inácio_Xavier_de_Menezes_Count of Ericeira The Count of Ericeira.

The Baggage of Culture III: Whose Culture is it anyway?

In an earlier column, I had written about the controversy in South Africa regarding ballet being now viewed as “Eurocentric” and “colonial”.

More recently, it is the turn of Shakespeare as well. I watched a news item on BBC World about Shakespeare being seen as “not relevant” to South African children today. This is echoed by Wits University Professor Chris Thurman, who admits he might be “talking himself out of a job” as he teaches Shakespeare at university level and enjoys it. He doesn’t seem too worried if Shakespeare is dropped entirely from South Africa’s school curriculum, although he argues for a place for it at extracurricular levels and in higher education.

He makes the case for Shakespeare being encountered in performance, in translation, and in context to contemporary politics, and even agrees to the use of the term ‘decolonising’ Shakespeare.

The controversy has been brewing for a while. Thurman himself reviewed a book “Shakespeare and the Coconuts: On post-apartheid South African culture” by Natasha Distiller, in 2012. The term ‘coconut’ is familiar to us as well, its derogatory sense, as describing “someone, who due to their behaviour, identifications, or upbringing, is ‘black’ on the ‘outside’ and ‘white’ on the inside’”.

In his review, Thurman puts forth the argument of the book, that in essence “we are all coconuts”, and therefore should celebrate our “coconutiness” (that “messy in-betweenness, the mixed-up inside-outsideness”) and “take a political stand, one which refuses to see colonial history and its aftermath as containable by binaries: coloniser/colonised, oppressor/oppressed, European/African”.

I would heartily agree with this view. We have seen through the brilliant films of Vishal Bhardwaj, how Shakespeare can both be translated and put into context and made extremely relevant for an Indian audience.

Shakespeare means different things to different people in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was moved by him: one of the exhibits in the British Museum’s 2012 “Shakespeare: staging the world” exhibition was a unique edition of the Collected Works of Shakespeare, dubbed ‘the Robben Island Bible’ as it was circulated among Mandela’s fellow prisoners there. Interestingly, it was disguised as the Hindu scriptures by fellow political prisoner Sonny Venkathraman, as mainstream literature would be confiscated by prison authorities. In the book, Mandela highlighted Julius Caesar’s soliloquy “Cowards die many times before their deaths;/ The valiant never taste of death but once./ Of all the wonders that I yet have heard/ It seems to me most strange that men should fear;/ Seeing that death, a necessary end,/ Will come when it will come.”

 

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One can see how Mandela drew solace from these lines. The book was passed around among political prisoners and used as starting points for many a debate on moral, ethical and political issues. Other prominent political prisoners also marked their chosen passages from the plays: Mandela’s close confidante Walter Sisulu chose Shylock’s “Still I have borne it with a patient shrug,/ For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe” from ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Another close friend Ahmed Kathrada earmarked “Once more unto the breach” from Henry V.

“Somehow Shakespeare always had something to say to us”, Kathrada reminisced to Anthony Sampson in his authorised biography of Nelson Mandela. Sampson observed “Shakespeare became politically more relevant than the Bible or Marx…Successive generations saw his plays as an inspiration for their struggle and for humanity.”

I would have thought that, for this reason alone, Shakespeare ought very much to remain in South Africa’s academic curriculum, even if just as a reminder of the role played by his plays in the freedom struggle.

In all, 32 political prisoners dipped into the Robben Island bible, and their most popular choices among the plays are quite revealing: Hamlet, King Lear, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and The Tempest.

The chosen passages of each inmate almost came to define them, not only on Robben Island, but even in their lives as free men. Mandela would often quote Shakespeare in his speeches, as did another South African politician Thado Mbeki.

The author, journalist and iconic politician Sol Plaatje translated ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ and ‘A Comedy of Errors’ into the Setswana language.

But Shakespeare is also seen as the poster boy of ‘high western culture’ and ‘white English liberals’. Parallels are also drawn between Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the legendary Roman leader banished from Rome for refusing to bow to the will of the people; and Thado Mbeki, (who considered Coriolanus one of his favourite Shakespeare plays) who was banished from the African National Congress (ANC) and his general fall from grace on account of his high-handedness.

Thurman argues that such parallels with contemporary politics are what can keep a sixteenth-century English bard relevant far from those shores, and in our time. God knows we have several parallels of our own in contemporary Indian politics and popular culture, with so many Shakespearean comic, heroic and tragic characters from his plays. Sometimes it is easier to resort to allegory as a means of teaching and commenting upon contemporary politics and unrest.

Part of the ‘problem’ with Shakespeare is also the fact that his oeuvre is in the English language, with all the baggage that comes with it, as we know all too well with our own MoI (Medium of Instruction) storm-in-a-teacup. And with Shakespeare, it’s not just English, but English from another era, needing to be deciphered and understood almost line by line.

It is in how we approach or are exposed to culture, especially that which did not originate on our land that we react with love or loathing. Thurman cites his own experience with first-year students: “Students who love Shakespeare invariably had teachers who made the texts alive, accessible and relevant; students who hate Shakespeare invariably had teachers who made the texts dull, incomprehensible, irretrievably distant from their own lives and time.”

And although purists (and perhaps rightly so) may complain that much gets lost in translation, there are new dimensions to a literary work that open up new vistas and challenge you in unforeseen ways. What would Shakespeare himself have made of Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Hamlet, ‘Haidar’? I’m inclined to think that he’d have been favourably impressed.

John Kani, who played the first Black Othello in South Africa in 1997, is equally passionate about human rights, and served time in jail for resisting apartheid. He was attracted to Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, but translated into his own Xhosa language. “To me, Shakespeare is like an African storyteller…His words paint pictures in glorious colour in my language. They were written by a man whose use of words fit exactly into Xhosa.”

In this 125th anniversary of our own Konkani tiatr, it is worthwhile remembering that some of the earliest tiatr plays were also adaptations of Shakespeare plays (The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet). If only one could find the scripts to those early tiatrs! This would be the perfect occasion to re-stage them.

(An edited version of this article was published on 23 April 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)