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Posted at: Jul 8, 2017, 12:28 AM; last updated: Jul 8, 2017, 12:28 AM (IST)

Charades the elite play

Ratna Raman
Charades the elite play
THE noun ‘charade’ refers to any pretence at projecting a pleasant front. Charades usually conceal unpleasant situations. Charades were literary riddles popular in the 18 century France among the elite.  Each syllable was described by a separate phrase, and the piecing together of the whole word involved a display of wit and context. The British upper classes adopted talking charades as parlour games. From these evolved the acting charades of the 19th century that emphasised enactment and costumes. 

 Charades found their way into fiction. In Jane Eyre (1847), Rochester organises an acting charade at   Thornfield Manor to woo Jane, a young governess in his employ. Vanity Fair, written around the same time, has Rebecca Sharp out acting charades before the Prince Regent.

Charades have continued to feature in the 20th century as informal games, masquerades, fancy dress balls and pantomimes. Speech has been replaced by gestures, costumes and pageantry. ‘Dumb charades’  interpolate gesture, enactment and costume and continue to be a part of contemporary public life. Additional technology, colour and pageantry ensure that dumb charades are a major influence on young and adults alike. Most forms of costuming and couture work in the manner of dress charades for persons of privilege. Charades are synonymous with play-acting, false fronts and fake projections. It is now used to describe ‘pretence’ or ‘put on’ behaviour in public.

For instance, Aishwarya Rai, who was body shamed and attacked for her dress sense, wowed critics in her serial appearance as a Disney princess on the red carpet at Cannes. Her costumes shifted our attention away from the bitter reality of Indian cinema’s poor standing at Cannes. 

Ed Sheeran’s music video showcases premiers from all over the world, dancing to the ‘Shape of You. Popular on You-Tube, this musical charade allows viewers to interpret lip-synching leaders as they deem fit.

Charades continue to be a platform for the privileged and aid in the creation of all manner of facades. When our PM appeared on stage with the American premier, in a suit monogrammed with his name, he effectively effaced his humble past and established parity with political heavyweights, recalling erstwhile Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the trendsetter in monogrammed suits.

Prince Henry’s Nazi uniform at a fancy dress party made for an unsavoury visual charade. Nationally and internationally ,leaders now don costumes specific to ethnic groups.  However, the positive effects of this for the community that is thus celebrated, has yet to be tabulated.

 Charades work most effectively as political statements because they trigger memory and seamlessly shuffle older images within new contexts.   The recent colour photo of PM Modi seated at the charkha, superimposed itself over Gandhi’s black and white pictures at the charkha. The midnight GST festival evoked associations of India’s ‘midnight tryst with destiny’ in 1947.

Sometimes, beyond the symbolism and the enactment, the charade has a life of its own. Chroniclers of words would reiterate that ‘trysts’, both at midnight or with the spinning wheel, imply ‘secret, romantic liaisons’ and therefore remain suspect. Nehru’s incorrect use of the word ‘tryst’ was easy to forgive in an innocent age. Charades can be spectacular, but the bigger they are, the harder they fall!


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