Interview with Ibrahim Quraishi
Ibrahim Quraishi is a conceptual artist, writer, choreographer and the artistic director of Compagnie Faim de Siècle (NY/Paris). Ibrahim Quraishi's most recent work, 5 Streams, combines ancient texts from Hindu and Muslim traditions to provide a sensory journey through the realities and mythologies of South Asia. This multi-media performance installation includes an extraordinary international team of collaborators and performers including music by Norscq and Paul Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky, and choreography and dance by Parul Shah.
5 Streams is at the Asia Society from January 18-22, 2006. 5 Streams is commissioned by the Asia Society in association with MASS MoCA.
What prompted your interest in theatre performance and installation arts? How would you define the particular form your productions have taken and the work of your Compagnie Faim de Siècle?
Well, I am not interested in theatre or the performing arts, per se. I would say that I am primarily interested in space, the context of space in architecture, the human flesh and its relationship to society, and in some cases, its non-relationship to society. So I would say that my ephemeral interest in the performing arts comes from the fact that there is an element of suspension that occurs in what we call the performing arts -- a suspension of reality, I mean. That is quite obvious. In that sense I was always interested in how this suspension of reality can play with architecture and become the contextual environment itself. So that attitude prompted it, I would say.
So how would you define the particular form your productions have taken in the work of the company that you founded?
I am actually quite bored by performances. I don't particularly like them, probably because I find most performances to be very passive. And it's not because a performance may be good or bad; it has nothing to do with the element of excellence. But it has to do with energy and intensity; that to me is far more interesting: energy and intensity presented in a state of suspended reality -- that is what I find really exciting. So, in fact, what I am interested in is the whole issue of research and risk: to what extent can we take risks in our everyday lives versus the risk we take in our fantastical lives? Essentially, I am interested in taking myself or other people on trips, a kind of a trip, like flying out the window.
You have been called "the most avant-garde South Asian director today." How would you respond to that?
I have to think about that. I think that's a pretty dumb thing to say, no?
Avant-garde? I think that the most avant garde people today are the very people that the US government is searching for, for other reasons!
So you would choose not to identify your work as avant-garde?
Not at all, I must be honest with you. I see my work as very much part of the dislocation, the alienation that we are living; this mass globalization, so to speak. My work is a mix, in a way; not my work, our work, I should say, the collective effort of all the people I work with. I also do not identify with the exclusivity of the individual personality. I am not into that. I don't like it.
I also think that the notion of time and resolution, vis-à-vis what happened in Occidental theatre, is not really my reality: Western forms coming out of the Italian commedia dell'arte, for instance. I am not really interested in that. Obviously I play with it and most people I know play with it. But I am not interested in codifying that. I think that there is a lot more that I can work with and learn from. The very alienation of a city like New York or Karachi, like Cairo or Paris: wherever these places are, these alienated urban spaces, they offer far more richness and polarity and tension and violence. And that to me is exciting. The codified space of the theatre just doesn't turn me on.
What about South Asia? Do you identify yourself with that?
Very much so -- with different aspects of it because South Asia is so diverse. I definitely identify with the hustle and bustle of, for example, New Delhi or Karachi. I may not like it at times, but I definitely identify with the kind of tranquility and cultural mixture that is going on, not only in Pakistan, but also in Nepal or India and across East Asia as well. There are a lot of intrinsic connections that are taking place simultaneously.
I should say that in the West we have a problem where we believe that anything outside the larger Occidental hemisphere is just a backwater. We tend to believe that anything outside the Euro-American theatre of reality is backward, and that these external, exotic spaces actually have no contemporary modern urban context. I am certainly not interested in promoting such notions. I am not interested in following that logic and I would not want our spectators or audiences to come into a space and say, "Wow! South Asia is so exotic!" or "Sufism is so profound!" That's a total cliché, no? I think that we have the right -- we, whoever we choose to be, however we choose to identify ourselves -- we have the right to create our own imagined communities, and the right to create our own narrative and think with a narrative. I don't believe that anything is sacred. I respect it but I think everything is up for grabs.
You have said elsewhere that, "Most of the time if I do collaborate with a writer, the relationship ends forever so I prefer to collaborate with dead writers[…]. I would say, get rid of the idea of being married to the text." What kinds of interpretive possibilities has this perspective opened up for you?
This kind of commitment to the text is really disturbing, I must say, because in traditions coming out of Asia or Africa, there is much more to the text. There is a web that is occurring, so to speak: a web of sound, of movement, of space, a web of the way communities were laid out. Then of course we had the imposition of the text, partly because of the Romans and the Greeks, but primarily because of modern colonialism for the last five hundred years. This imposition of the text, as in the Bible or the Torah, exists in the Qur'an as well but luckily, in the Qur'an, there is an abstraction, so you cannot play with the text. You play with abstract images, you play with abstract sound. If you wanted to analyze it, abstraction already exists in the Muslim universe, even though it may not be used very well these days. But there is already the possibility within the text to go to an abstract form. It is very important that anyone -- at least in my case, and I am not speaking for anyone else -- who wishes to play with space or legends or myths should have the possibility of moving away from the written word and going towards an oral myth or visual myth or a myth of a miniature or a painting or ceramics, or just abstract patterns. If we are stuck to the text we essentially kill ourselves because the weight of that text is destructive in itself. It's dead on arrival. If you're merely playing with the text literally, you're really playing with death. So why play with death?
Your forthcoming production, 5 Streams, is a reading of three canonical texts (broadly defined): Anarkali, the Bhagavad Gita and Ibn al-Arabi's Risale-t-ul-wujudiyyah (who knoweth thyself). Why did you choose these particular three, and how, if at all, do they inform one another in this work?
Well, that's kind of a complex question! I was always fascinated with all three of them. In the Bhagavad Gita, I was fascinated with the idea of power relations, how they play out, and how every time you see it, there is a certain reverence to the text -- whether in cinema or in the case, for example, of Peter Brooks' production,. Frankly speaking, as much as I respect the poetics of the text, I don't want to have reverence for it. I see violence, I see torture, I see rape. So I understand why it has always been presented in this canonical, almost majestical way, but I also thought that, with all due respect, it was really possible to take it and just create something with it.
I was also always moved by -- just from the poetics of it -- the violence evoked by the Bhagavad Gita. We should not forget that the Bhagavad Gita had a really deep influence on the Nazi party. (Incidentally a new book has just came out in France and Germany on the Bhagavad Gita's impact on Adolf Hitler). We should not forget that it is an Indo-Aryan text. We should not forget that modern forms of Aryanism are coming out of India. So we are at the root of Indo-Aryan culture; the Indus is the root of it. We should not forget that connection.
I have always been interested in mythologies and in the play with urban as well as rural mythologies, and the Bhagavad Gita is one of those canonical texts of Kabul. So you can begin to understand the manipulation of violence and the manipulation of war and the manipulation of armies and just then the justification of massacre. But you could also understand the reason for it. You may not agree with it. Then you can say that all violence is not justified but there are reasons for it, even though you may disagree with it. And it's okay to disagree with it. Because, in fact, at the end of the day, no one has moral superiority. We really don't, actually. So looking at it from the point of view of the poetics is one thing; looking at it from the point of view of its historical relevance is another.
Pakistan is in many ways an artificial construction, as all nation states are contrary to what they claim (when you start looking at the history of France or the Netherlands or Germany or Italy, you realize they are all more or less as artificial as Pakistan is). So "coming" from Pakistan, the story of Anarkali appealed to me because it did not have the same notion of oppression but rather a particular notion of liberation. And instead of going into the emotive element of the piece, I was interested in what it is like as a male figure, as a male coming out of this part of Asia -- my religious tradition and cultural tradition is by and large quite paternalistic -- to enter a subject that is of the opposite sex and attempt to enter the psyche within it. Obviously, it is not an internal entrance, but an external one. And in the case of Anarkali, we call the segment, "Inside Nature Paradise", because it is the issue of the divine and the non-divine. How is it that we can enter something and try to discover the universe that is enclosed within it and at the same time disclose that within this closure there is something quite profoundly open?
Of course the form to use with Anarkali was clearly Kathak. That was quite easy, as far as I was concerned, because Kathak is an abstraction as well. Kathak was the one form that was used in the Mughal courts. It was not Bharatnatyam, it was not the other forms of Indian traditional dance. In Kathak, there is an element of sexuality, there is the courtesan, the element of oppression, the element of the sonic space of the feet themselves, of the Kathak dancers. So there is violence in it but there is also a sense of freedom that I wanted us to play with.
Ibn al-Arabi is actually a very personal decision. There are not many people I look up to. Ibn al-Arabi is one of those very few writers and, I would say, philosophers, whom I have been interested in. I am always interested in him because he was one of the few who quite directly claimed that there is no such thing as God, except God and the human relationship to God. Of course he was using it in the more literal context of Allah and Mohammed. But if you really start going deeper into his philosophical ideas, you see that he is actually talking about the whole notion that there is no God but God. And God is us and we are God, that whatever God is, in whatever form it is, whatever energy it is, it is really not in the separation that we see it, that the deeper we go into it we become it or it becomes us. I think that's actually quite profound (a lot of people would obviously disagree with this reading and they have every right to; it is my reading).
So the Gita, as well as Anarkali and Ibn al-Arabi's Risale-t-ul-wujudiyyah were all touching on ideas about paternalism and power and religion and authority. I end the piece with the whole notion of the forest -- a synthetic forest, no less, in this day and age, a forest that is made of plastic, which is quite apropos, in a way, I thought, addressing the catastrophe that is the environment and our relationship to it, vis-à-vis who we are, and the realities we are living. So it made sense to me -- not only made sense but it was something inspiring.
So that is one thread that links them. There are others. For instance, they all deal with the issue of nature, its different facets, as well.
Did you have a particular audience in mind for this production?
Younger people. I say that immediately because I want more and more young people to go see it because, like myself, young people tend to get bored quite easily. So I'm interested in younger people really going on the trip. "Older" people, too. I would actually prefer as an audience all people who are open to a challenge and who are interested, essentially, in going on a voyage, a trip.
Do you think that your audiences have to be well versed in the traditions you play with in order to appreciate your work?
No, I don't, but it really is not the point.
So if someone has never even heard of the Bhagavad Gita for example they will still be able to make some sense of the piece?
Hopefully they will make sense of what they want to make sense of. That's more interesting.
What do you expect the audience to come out of the performance thinking?
What was the inspiration for the production and where all would you like it to travel?
One of the inspirations for the production is context, of course. Not only social context but also performative context. I do profoundly believe that when you have a body in a space, no matter where that body is -- be it on the street, be it inside an office corporate meeting, be it inside a conference hall, be it in a building, be it in a performance -- that body has to reason. And when you present a body, why are you presenting that body? In what context are you presenting that body? So we clearly have bodies onstage here. We have sound in this space. We have interactivity in this space. We have movement in this space. We have motion in this space. We have voices in this space. Why is it?
Clearly, at another level, we -- all of us involved in creating this piece -- are trying to raise questions that are attempting to address some of the issues that are being talked about now -- not in a literal way, of course not. But there is something there. I am not sure but there are many things here. Clearly, the issue of war, the issue of the Other, the issue of the role of women in society -- these are issues that are being talked about, especially when South Asia and/or the Middle East are evoked. The issue of the so-called "conflict of civilizations" is also present. Minimally, of course, I am saying that there is no conflict, for one thing. The tensions that exist in this city are no different from the tensions that exist in an Arab or South Asian or East Asian city. The problems in an American village are really no different from the problems in a Pakistani village or a village in Gabon. They are different in the way they are magnified. They are different, in the sense that they are part of a particular context. But otherwise there are really no differences in the struggle between the haves and the have-nots.
The danger is within us. There is no external danger. So in that sense there is something here in 5 Streams that is attempting to deal with that or more accurately, just to raise questions -- not to give any answers, of course.
Are there particular places in the world where you would like to see 5 Streams performed?
In India and Pakistan. Of course Israel, Saudi Arabia. In Iran, North Korea. In Bozeman, Montana, of course. In Oklahoma, Hawaii. In all the places where there is a supposed notion of what the Other is and where there is an enclosed -- I almost want to say 'artificial' but that would be wrong, since it never is quite artificial -- definition of who we are versus who they are. These are the places where I would like this piece to be seen.
So you do see your work as political, in a sense?
Everything is political. The moment you put a body in a space, it's political. The moment you have a conversation with someone, it's political. The moment you interact with the Other, it's political. So, yes, it is political.
In what particular way is your work political?
I have no idea!
Is there anything else that you'd like to say about the piece?
Come and see it! [laughs]
Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society.