Dialogue: Erika Fischer-Lichte and Rustom Bharucha

Likewise, when we turn to the category of “interweaving performance cultures,” we are faced with a new set of questions. First of all, as you have indicated, there’s a slight variant in the nomenclature which is evident in the phrasing of “interweaving cultures in performance,” which is a different thing. Now already there’s a tension in your two versions of Verflechtungen from German into English. I would say that “interweaving performance cultures” for me is primarily a description. It’s not an entity represented by a noun. Now, the norm – I’m not saying this is the right thing – is that when you name institutions they tend to be named through nouns. Unfortunately, we don’t describe institutions through verbs or participles. It’s always collectivized in the form of a noun. Now, of course, in German, with your great predilection for compounds…

Erika Fischer-Lichte: It is a noun in German.

Rustom Bharucha: See, this is very interesting: it is not a noun for us. So I find it somewhat difficult to relate to it as an institutional category. Rather, I relate to it as a description, as a kind of a subtitle. Like, you have a title followed by a colon, and then you do “interweaving performance cultures” – that’s how it reads to me, as a subhead of an entity (“International Research Center”). More precisely, “interweaving performance cultures” comes across to me as an activity, a method, a way of doing things, which is actually quite a beautiful construction. But whether any method can or should be institutionalized, I’m not so sure. This is just one reading of “interweaving.” I should add that the longer I stay in Berlin I am finding myself engaging with the dynamics and challenge of “interweaving” at multiple levels – at discursive, interdisciplinary, and interlingual levels. The word is taking on a life of its own.

Finally, I would differentiate between “interculturalism” and “intercultural theatre”; they are two different things. Even as they are related, they represent different kinds of phenomena. Personally, I am tired of the practice of “intercultural theatre” along the lines that you have historicized (Brook, Mnouchkine, etc). I think, it was important at some point in time – in the late 1970s and 1980s; and, perhaps, there are still residues and variants of those practices, which continue to exist today. All the examples that you mentioned, and the use of “Oriental” stage devices like the hanamichi, have ultimately been incorporated into specific theatrical traditions. You’re right to mention that they were used to make those traditions more “interesting.” Of course, they were also used in exotic, Orientalist, and neo-colonialist ways as well.

Here, I would like to make a distinction between some of the uses of “non-Western” theatre texts in Euro-American intercultural theatre practice, and, for example, Sombhu Mitra’s celebrated production of A Doll’s House which was staged in Kolkata in the late 1950s. The point is that he was not doing an “intercultural” reading of a Norwegian text. It was intrinsically a part of the larger movement of Bengali modernism. It happened to be a foreign text, but it was adapted and staged specifically for a middle-class Bengali audience, in the Bengali language, with all the cultural signs one would associate with this class and milieu. I’m thinking in particular of that emphatic gesture when the Bengali Nora rubs off the vermilion sindur mark on her head – the most powerful sign of marriage for Bengali women -, which carries a specific resonance. That production (Putul Khela) was “Bengali” to the core of its being and there was nothing “intercultural” about it. I think we have to keep in mind that not every theatrical adaptation is necessarily “intercultural.”

Now, why the word got used first in Euro-American academia and performance circuits, well, you indicated one hypothesis, which I find rather sinister. Even as I have critiqued the phenomenon of “intercultural theatre” at political levels, I would never have gone so far as you have in indicating that this theatre more or less forced people into accepting an assumed meeting-ground of equality. Perhaps, I have no illusions of that “equality” to begin with. Today the difficulties relating to “equality” in intercultural theatre practice are intensified by the fact that it’s not just texts that are travelling from one part of the world to another: people across cultures are interacting in actual locations, with all the inevitable challenges relating to receiving funding, getting visas, dealing with the relative absence of translations in monolingual theatre cultures, etc. A different kind of materiality has entered the practice of “intercultural theatre,” which has been complicated through the ubiquity of virtual communications.

But, for the moment, let’s leave “intercultural theatre” aside. Let’s say that it represents for me a genre, a particular way of doing theatre. “Interculturalism,” on the other hand, is a hugely important phenomenon that I care about. It’s a phenomenon that encompasses a spectrum of exchanges that, increasingly, go beyond the cultural domain. However, I would not want to free it entirely from aesthetics. And that is why I think your intervention in The Transformative Power of Performance is important. Even as the category of “aesthetics” is proliferating and mutating, it remains strangely under-theorized in our field.

Returning to “interculturalism” in its larger philosophical registers, I would say that this term has been relatively marginalized in relation to the overdetermined discourse of “multiculturalism.” Ironically, the category is becoming increasingly more complex, even as it is being appropriated by governments of different nation-states for all kinds of official reasons. I had a very real opportunity to test the political uses of the term when I was in Ireland working on a consultancy dealing with cultural diversity in the arts. In Ireland, the agencies of the State resolutely refuse to use the word “multiculturalism.” At one level, it can be ascribed to the need to distance itself from the enormous investment that Britain has made over five decades in the policy of “multiculturalism” in dealing with its vast immigrant population. Now that Ireland itself has a large population of peoples from other cultures and ethnicities, it also needs a policy to engage with their condition. Tellingly, this policy is framed specifically under the name of the “intercultural.”

So, at an official level, you have an “intercultural” policy for education, the police force, sports, health, etc. But, in effect, the so-called “intercultural” is doing the work of the “multicultural.” As the two categories get conflated, what happens to the “intercultural” as it is commonly understood within the framework of arts and culture, interpersonal relations, and civil society? What is being excluded here?

I would argue that we need the term “interculturalism” because it is politically necessary for us as artists, as citizens, to find ways of countering the dominance of official state-determined “multiculturalism.” We know that even as “multiculturalism” is being discredited these days by conservative politicians in favour of “integration,” it has played a huge role in mobilizing the lives and cultural futures of immigrants in countries like Canada, Britain, Australia, and, marginally, the U.S. Germany has never been entirely a part of this struggle to articulate a cultural policy for immigrants. Your governments over the years have endorsed very restrictive immigration policies. And, in fact, until very recently, you were not open to allowing your immigrants to become citizens. In contrast, the process of citizenship for foreign “nationals” in countries like Britain, Canada and Australia has gone through several phases.

Even as the effects of “multiculturalism” have been deeply vexed, I don’t think it can be written off. In this regard, I would not readily subscribe to Žižek’s view that it is essentially an inverted form of racism even though I share his discomfort with the ghettoization of minorities through multicultural policies. I’m also aware of the damage that has been done in the name of non-integrated education policies for the children of minorities and the devious ways in which the State has played the policy of “divide and rule” to create tensions across ethnic communities.

Precisely because the State is the primary agent of multicultural policies, we need to strengthen “interculturalism” in the domain of civil society. I see “interculturalism” being propelled by individuals, groups, clubs, societies, sub-cultures, sometimes at very marginal levels. It is not something that is entirely controlled by the power of the State and by official policies. And yet, I am compelled to add that we cannot afford to be euphoric about these assumptions of autonomy. As I have often argued, the theatre of “interculturalism” invariably begins with the trauma of having to attain a visa. The first performance is with your visa officer, then the immigration officer. So before you can cross the border – if you want the intercultural encounter to be tangible, face-to-face, and not virtual – well, you can’t avoid the State. The State will mediate that encounter one way or the other.

That’s what I was trying to problematize in my early writings. I was not trying to say that we don’t need “interculturalism.” I was just saying that there are difficulties in making its conditions possible and in sustaining collaborations at equitable levels. The moment we bring in the dimension of travel, we have to ask: Who is facilitating the economics of this process? And how do the economics of that process impact on the aesthetics of specific intercultural encounters? All these questions today seem to be only too obvious. But, back in the late 1970s and 1980s when my writings were first published, they were read as polemical. Hopefully, we are at a different point in time today.

Back to “interweaving:” Erika, I think you demonstrate this masterfully in your last book, where I think that what you’re interweaving is not cultures or even performances. For me your “interweaving” skills were most evident in the way you braid philosophy and history into avant-garde performance, in the almost effortless way by which you can incorporate Schiller and Simmel into your understanding of embodiment in contemporary performance. In essence, you’re reading today’s performativity within a very rich spectrum of European philosophical ideas, which is your intellectual tradition. And you are highlighting this “interweaving” of philosophy and performance through aesthetics.

You end your book – and this, I believe, is a complex moment – with the possibilities of “enchantment.” You highlight the “enchantment of the world through the process of transformation” embodied in the aesthetics of receiving and experiencing a particular performance. There are big assumptions at work here, which are qualified by your acknowledgement that this process of enchantment is not counter-Enlightenment. So it’s still working very much within the complexities of what you embody in your own tradition, which is nonetheless open to readings and manifestations from other performance cultures, which you interweave into your own. Whether this process needs to supplant the larger prospects of “interculturalism,” or whether it can be assumed to avoid the problems of “interculturalism,” I’m not so sure. So that’s basically what I have to say, these are some preliminary comments.

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