In November last year, I sat across the table with German director Helena Waldmann at a small café in Berlin. We were discussing her forthcoming project Made in Bangladesh, which would work with 12 Kathak dancers from Bangladesh to create a performance piece inspired by and responding to lives of the garment industry workers in Bangladesh and those of dancers in Europe. Conceptually, the parallels she drew were brave and provocative, the visual references which led her to Kathak were fresh and compelling, and the comment it wished to make was strident and political. So when she asked me to join her on the project as co-choreographer, I needed little or no persuasion. Having worked on the piece for over a month now, I find that I my capacity and creativity as both a choreographer and performer have been constantly pushed, my own sense of aesthetics has grown to include so much more, and my social conscience as an artist has been emphatically awakened. It is this last that I would like to probe a little deeper in this article.
Why is it, I wonder, that though I am happy to engage in political discussions like any argumentative Indian (and Bengali to boot), this vein has never entered my work as an artist? Is it because I come from a background of classical dance which has never been as overtly political as theatre? Perhaps. But what changed? Just this one experience that is still in process? That’s too simple, I feel. I think it has a lot to do with my spending one month in the city of Berlin, which is where I met Helena and several other artists and arts advocates with strong socio-political and ethical perspectives on why they do what they do. The wonder is that there are so many such people in Berlin – the city is not known the world over for just the arts scene, but its alternative arts scene. But what supports this in a city that – in the words of Jochen Sandig (one of the most successful, influential and inspiring arts entrepreneurs in Europe) – has pulled itself up by the bootstraps, in a city that was till 1989 a physically and politically divided one, that bore – for the longest time – the brunt and aftermath of both the Second World War and the Cold War? It’s not easy to say: a spirit of a place is so difficult to articulate. But let me try, through pinpointing a few art interventions in Berlin.
“Presumably, the regime’s Jewish policy was not popular among the population. But neither was it a subject of primary concern; there was after all much that disposed people to excuse Hitler and his crowd their ‘mistakes’ or ‘excesses’ in other areas. Given the constant stream of great political events and the improvement of the social and economic lot of most Germans, the regime’s policy towards the Jews seemed an aspect that was marginal and of little importance in the face of the Nazis’ successes. More than anything else, this indifference and readiness to accept the persecution of the Jews and to ignore it as unimportant, characterized the attitude of the ‘normal Germans’ toward the Jews in those years.” - Ulrich Herbert, Historian, 1998
This quote caught my eye as I moved through the permanent exhibition at the Topography of Terror museum near Potsdamer Platz. It is ironic: the very site of the headquarters of the central institutions of Nazi persecution and terror – the Secret State Police, the SS, and the Reich Security Main Office – is now a documentation centre focusing on these institutions and the crimes they committed throughout Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. As I read through the harrowing accounts – so out of place in this large, warm, well-lit space, I wondered how humanity could have looked the other way…
Berlin – indeed Germany – is dotted with such sites of remembrance. Some – like the Topography of Terror or the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Oranienburg– are former sites of Nazi activity, rendered even more horrible through the often matter of fact tone of the text contrasted against ghastly images or innocent looking artifacts. I stood in the middle of a vast open space at the Sachsenhausen camp – the space for ‘roll call’ (read ‘selection’). It was a cold November afternoon, and the wind was biting through my layers of clothing with nothing to stop it. I wondered what it would have been like to actually, actually stand there…
The permanent exhibition at the Topography of Terror
But it is one thing to convert a site with a history into a memorial or museum, and quite another to create art that reminds us never to forget. Perhaps the most well known of these is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews, also known as the Holocaust Memorial. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman, the memorial – situated just south of the historic Brandenburg Gate – comprises of 2711 concrete slabs of varying height arranged in a grid along a sloping field. From a distance, the resemblance to a graveyard was unmistakable; as I walked along the floor among the towering slabs, a sense of disorientation seeped in. It was a relief to get out into the air, and yet something pulled me back in again. I stood among the silent blocks and wondered about those named and nameless millions…
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp
Across the road in the lovely Tiergarten, are two more memorials – to the Sinti and Roma gypsy people, and to the LGBT community. The former is designed by Israeli artist, Dani Karavan and occupies a section of the garden opposite the Reichstag – a section demarcated by panels that chronologically record the persecution of the gypsies. After reading through this violent and intolerant history, I entered a space of quietness and peace. A serene pool of water, irregular slabs of stone with names of gypsy groups, and haunting strains of music that can be barely heard – it seems as if there are ghosts in the trees. The memorial to the LGBT community is markedly different, and stands alone in another part of the garden. Designed by artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, it is a cuboid concrete structure with a window in it. Through that I watched a film of male and female couples kissing. Walking from one memorial to the other, I wondered how one could come to terms with such a past…
The Holocaust Memorial
Encountering superlative works of art is always a moment of wonder in terms of awe, but to wonder is a different thing altogether. Crossing the busy road from the disturbing silence of the Holocaust Memorial to the peaceful silence of the Tiergarten, I wondered how a nation, a people could bring themselves to face this deeply uncomfortable part of their history, mark it with a mixture of sorrow, horror and repentance, and choose to channel this through public displays of art. And I doffed my (non-existent) hat at Berlin, at Germany.
These three memorials are situated in the political and administrative heart of Berlin – indeed, of Germany as a nation, a stone’s throw from the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate, two of the biggest draws for visitors to the city. The Wall ran right through the thoroughfare that now buzzes with traffic – a double row of bricks in the road marking its path. Historically, politically, socially and culturally these silent but insistent reminders of a history gone horribly wrong could not occupy a more sensitive and charged spot in the city. Why are they placed here? Germany today is an international model for development, financial growth and stability. And it leads the attempt to rethink and revive the languishing economies that have tripped up the idea of Europe. It is in this area that these discussions and decisions happen, and it is also here that Germany – before the country achieved the status of an international model – has chosen to locate a moral compass to direct them, to remind them. A moral compass that comes out of guilt, trauma and apology, but today equally stands as a commitment to humanity and an avowed refusal to forget.
All over Berlin, I encountered this proximity to this recent history. The double row of bricks marking the route of the Wall runs throughout the city. Information displays at specific historic points dot this path – at the underground station of Bernaur Street which fell in no-man’s-land and where trains never stopped, at Checkpoint Charlie, at the East Side Gallery – the longest surviving section of the Wall which is now a canvas of artwork inspired by ideas of peace, reconciliation and equality… the list goes on. And then there is the Jewish Museum designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, with an architecture that forced me to experience flashes of loss, hope, disillusionment, despair, disorientation and exile – all this before I even got to the main museum area. And before the museum brought in the exhibits, those vast empty, architecturally challenging, convoluted spaces were energized by choreographer Sasha Waltz through an astonishing dialogue of dance, architecture and a very specific history.
There is no shying away from history in Berlin, no sweeping it under the rug… it is out there, it is raw – but it is raw so we can heal.
A view of the East Side Gallery
Is it any wonder then, that this moral conscience that the city tries to keep at its heart has inspired a socio-political consciousness in the artists who are attracted there from the world over. Or they gravitate there precisely because of this spirit… or they bring this spirit with them to add to what is already there… There are so many ways of looking at it, they must feed each other to keep that flame burning.
I turn my attention to India. How do we encounter our history here? Do we at all – in any deep, experiential way? Everyday, on the street? We have memorials to leaders, to the unknown soldier… but why, when it comes to acknowledging the most difficult and dark periods of history, is there so little? Why, for example, is there no memorial to the victims of Partition? Should this not occupy a central place in our collective memory? Could this not be an imaginative and sensitive piece of art located in the heart of New Delhi, perhaps in the grounds around India Gate facing Rashtrapati Bhavan? A silently eloquent reminder at every Republic Day parade? I suppose it is just so much easier to live in denial, or to make excuses, or to forget as soon as possible and get on with life.
As nominated member to our first Rajya Sabha in 1952, actor and director Prithviraj Kapoor had this to say to his fellow members of Parliament:
“I believe that these nominated Members, scientists, eminent historians, literary men, poets, dancers and actors like my humble self – they are all here just to play their part when the soul gets parched up in these days of political tangles and passions. We may be flying to the skies but our contact with the earth must never be lost. But if we read too much of economics and politics, our contact with earth begins to disappear – our soul gets parched and dried up. It is from that drying up of the soul that our politician friends have to be guarded and saved – and it is for that purpose that the nominated Members, the educationists, scientists, poets, writers and artists are here.”
As India stands on the threshold of a new era that promises as much as it threatens, I wonder at how easy it is to forget, to live in denial, to make excuses, to drift into an “indifference and readiness to accept” things, like the 'normal' Germans did in 1930s. Have we forgotten what we have been through in living memory, and the identity that we chose for ourselves as a country? And what have we - as artists, as conscience keepers - done to feed that memory, that desire to remember, to keep it alive creatively and constructively into and for tomorrow? Have we too forgotten to remember one of the most crucial roles we can play in crafting a society?
Along the streets of Berlin and other cities in Germany, and now in cities across Europe, pedestrians routinely come across Stolperstein – stumbling blocks. Stolperstein are small cobble-sized memorials for a Nazi victim, most often outside their last chosen (and not forced) place of residence, before their lives were ripped apart. These memorials were initiated as an art project by artist Gunter Denmig in the 1990s. Each stone is covered by a sheet of brass and commemorates the details of the individual – name, date of birth, dates of deportation and death (if known). Imagine: all across Europe in countries moving confidently (some not so confidently) ahead with development, you encounter everyday as a matter of course, ghosts from your past – ghosts that remind you, ghost you hopefully learn from, ghosts that strangely can keep your humanity alive.
A Stolperstein along a Berlin street
That is a power art has – to make us pause, to stop us in our tracks, to reflect, to remember… to be reminded of the bigger picture, which we so often forget.
The time to remember is now.