Peter Brook and Coldplay’s Orientalist Weekend

Peter Brook and Coldplay’s Orientalist Weekend February 10, 2016


a version of india
A Version of India

First, let me say that even while I concede that I know next to nothing about today’s popular music, I nevertheless genuinely, honestly, sincerely think “Coldplay” is a perfectly lousy name for a band.

Second, let me affirm with vigor that I have nothing against Her Fantabulance, Beyoncé.

Third, let me admit that, because I do not live in London, I have not seen Peter Brook’s new Mahabharata play Battlefield; however, I did see Brook’s former Mahabharata play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1987.  All ten hours.  In one day.

Fourth, let me concede that, given how I have appropriated India for my own gain, what follows is most certainly self-incriminating.

There is a very long and unbroken tradition of individuals of European and North American extraction exploiting people and material of South and East Asia (not to mention of Africa, of Oceania, and of the rest of the planet).  Europe’s great humanist awakening gave way to global colonialism, and the next thing we knew, Goethe was fashioning a dramatic prologue to Faust under the influence of classical Sanskrit drama.  Criminally, and also with all the best of multi-cultural intentions, the Orientalist project that drove European culture for three centuries or more shaped an intellectual and artistic world in which Asia would dance and Europe would speak.

The arguments over cultural appropriation have been charring the hallways of academia for some time.  I’m rather happy to see the consciousness of Orientalism infecting popular discourse, as well.  The webosphere’s twogs and bleets rather glowed with indignation at the release of Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend” video.  Meanwhile, I have been scratching my head about the artistes who are swooning on Facebook over Peter Brook’s Battlefield.

It feels to me like pop culture is flexing critical faculties, calling its own to account, while elite culture is giving Brook a pass.

Coldplay’s video wrings from India all the cliches that Orientalism has tuned the West to expect: levitating sadhus, shikharas, so much orange, a bit of kathakali, and, of course, every day is Holi in India. The problem is not that such things are not really to be found in India.  Stand on the steps of Dasasvamedh Ghat in Varanasi at 6am and Coldplay’s representation of exotic India will seem positively sterile.  The problem is that the video so selects its images of India that India looks lovely, but looks silent.

Orientalism’s principal sin is that Western endeavors—artistic, intellectual, cultural, economic—mute the rest of the world, so that it seems that educated people of Europe, of the United States, are naturally authorized to speak, since no one else seems able to speak so clearly or competently.  Pop culture’s reiteration of the sin—from the Beatles’ invention of the sitar to Paul Simon’s discovery of mbube to Madonna’s truck with Kabbala to Dr. Dre’s sampling of Lata Mangeshkar—affirm that some privileged few are most capable of speaking to the world for the others.

The challenge that the internet raised to Coldplay’s amble through India suggests that pop culture has grown skeptical of the old Orientalist mode.  A hopeful note for the future.

Meanwhile, Peter Brook has gone back to The Mahabharata, and nary a word but giddy praise has, so far, emerged from the academy.

In the nineteen-eighties, Peter Brook fashioned a giant theatre event, derived from The Mahabharata, a giant epic poem composed in the pre-CE millennium.  The play was much praised and much criticized by different parties.  Simplified, Brook’s principal sin was titling his production The Mahabharata, as though the production was, indeed, staging the ginormous epic, entirely and objectively; whereas, even in ten hours, the show could hardly offer a smidgeon.  That smidgeon, said some critics, showed more Brook than Bharat, to the end that India was, again, brought out to look pretty, but not to speak.

Brook’s Battlefield attacks the epic, again, although, this time, the production appears much less ambitious than its predecessor.  Rather than the “history of mankind”, this production stages only the aftermath of the epic’s cataclysmic war, in what looks like Brook’s signature style of lush, saturated simplicity.

Perhaps this production lets India make some articulate noise, but I’m doubtful.  As did Coldplay, I suspect that Brook again stands on India so as to be more clearly heard by the crowd.  The curious new development, however, is that—with respect to Coldplay—the rising, inter-globed generation seems naturally keyed to respond critically and skeptically to the reiteration of Orientalist tropes.

No doubt, the Interweb’s capacity to amplify voices from the least-regarded corners of the planet can be cited for the young West’s growing inclination to hear others over the din of its enlightenment.


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