It was sometime during the Covid-19 lockdown that I was introduced to the game, ‘Jenga’. Despite having very little to do, one didn’t quite take to it. The rest of the family would treat this as a form of prayer and that stack of 54 small wooden tiles was like some sort of temperamental deity that had to be supplicated by moving around it and darting one’s fingers towards that pile and then, hurriedly withdrawing them. I watched, a bystander, as one often is in so many things. In Swahili, the word ‘jenga’ means to build and in this game, turn by turn, a block is removed by the players. The displaced block is then placed atop an increasingly teetering tower. As far as I can tell, the game does require a level of skill and a steady hand. The inevitable does happen, and the tower, where bits have been taken out and put back in a different place, does fall. The catch is that the fall should not take place on your watch, or when your hand is removing or adding a block. That’s when you lose.
The game somehow reminds of how one treats history. Without having decolonised it, along a greasy slope, we have set out to recolonise this. We play ‘jenga’ with the past. We remove bits and put them back on top and hope that the precarious tower does not fall. There are also numerous examples of how we have handled ‘un-colonised’ experiences. Things we have pulled out of another culture and happily made a part of ours. Look at the signs of ‘English Wine Shops’ strewn all over our country. To the best of my knowledge, the English have never been known for their skills in that particular form of beverage. And in our land, the stocks of wine lose out to stacks of more successful forms of inebriation.
Given that we learnt, supposedly, English from our now-gone colonial masters, it’s interesting how we have borrowed certain words and pronunciations from areas that had nothing to do with us. Almost every ‘with-it’ person that I know, no longer pronounces the well-worn word ‘schedule’ the way the Queen’s (sorry, now the King’s) English would have it. Instead, hefted over from the other side of the Atlantic, many of us in India now pronounce this as ‘skedule’, the way the Americans do.
So, let us skid on to something else, and look at the arts. Music, dance and everything creative that knows no boundaries. Scheduled, ‘skeduled’ or otherwise. Barbed wire, that invention by Robert Baden-Powell who also started the Boy Scout movement, does not keep the sound of music out. Locked in our rooms, we can dance like there is no tomorrow and protected by a bathroom’s privacy, one can sing till the mirror cracks.
It was worth noting how we Punjabis would also walk bow-legged, emulating cowboys, after stepping out from a western movie. Or how up in Tashkent, our very own Raj Kapoor became a cult figure. My generation was headed to college when two films from Hollywood changed the way we walked, danced and courted. The first was ‘Saturday Night Fever’ that was released in 1977 and the second was ‘Grease’, that came out a year later. In time, both wound their way to theatres across India and we loved them — especially the latter. We hummed their tunes, twirled our hair the way Mr Travolta would have us do and, in a phrase, if we could, happily skip and sing and ‘Travolt’ our way through life.
‘Grease’ is considered to be the most successful musical of all time. The story is fairly simple, and expectedly, quite universal. There is teenage romance and adventure and lots of catchy music and singing. The dances are as if you were made of rubber — and could bend and fold and swing your body in the most extraordinary ways.
An absolutely delightful production of ‘Grease’ was performed some days back by the students of Shimla’s Bishop Cotton School and Auckland House School. It was also for the first time that these two venerable institutions collaborated to come up with this show — and for a change, in these gender-divided schools, the boys did not have to dress up as girls, and the other way round. The first performance took place in the open on Bishop Cotton School’s ‘first flat’ where, to change a line from the musical, ‘despite the chill, the audience was quite electrified’. There was another performance at Shimla’s Gaiety Theatre where despite the relative tightness of space, the dances came complete with a replica of the car, ‘Greased Lightning’. It is all too easy to nit-pick when your feet have stopped tapping in time to the music. These youngsters gave us a delightful evening, and, for themselves, created a memory that will last a lifetime.
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