Tuesday, March 19, 2013


The following article is an edited version of a paper presented at the Visual Culture Conference on “See-Saw: Context of Spectatorship”, University of Hyderabad, Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication, 25th – 27th February 2010. Title of the paper: The spectators in ‘exile’
Conceptualizing the “spectator” in shifting spaces. Published in THE BARODA PUMPHLET, Issue 3, january- February 2013, edited by V. Divakar.

actors of the Disposable Theatre at Kathmandu, Nepal


From the strategies of the Disposable Theatre we try define “Six Spectators” that are mentioned below:
1. Naïve Spectator.
2. Celestial Spectator.
3. Super Spectator.
4. Invisible Spectator or the Suspended Spectator.
5. Ephemeral Spectator.
6. Domestic Spectator.

Spect-actors at the performance, “Ravana Katha”, during the simnar on Cultural Practice and the Discourses on the “minor”

1. Naïve Spectator:

This spectator is somebody who believes that he does not understand what is going on in front of him. He tries his best but the ongoing performance does not satisfy his recollected memories. The naïve spectator is mostly seen in a shifted space, either in a multidisciplinary practice or in a multicultural arena. What happens when a regular audience of a “performing art form” (like kathak or Yatra) enters into a modern gallery space and encounters a “performance art” (like Sonia Khurana or Shilpa Gupta)? This naïve spectator also appears as an arrogant spectator by taking a position of “I don’t understand this”. He feels himself an alien to the space, and searches for a clue to enter into the space. Sometimes he finds the clue, sometimes he simply cannot.

This very naïve spectator could be a well trained spectator in some other space – where he has an active involvement in the cultural production system. The preparation of a spectator and the preparation of the actor is a simultaneous process. It requires a continuum of exchanged experience. In a shifted space and time a spectator loses the continuum. The process of becoming an actor and the process of becoming a spectator remains no more simultaneous.

I was a naïve spectator in the Baroda city when I came for my MVA in 2005. For one year I was not engaged to any theatrical activities for many ambiguous queries: would these public accept my kind of theater, would I be able to convey my message to these urban public with my Assamese-Hindi accent? But after one year in the city I initiated two major art works, Ophelia and Ravana-Katha. My ambiguity still continued. The process of conceptualizing and locating a spectator was still in the process. For a satisfactory experience with theatre I had to wait for the students’ protest after the 9-11 may, 2007, after the right wing political intrusion into the academic premise and the suspension of Prof Shivaji K Panikkar. For long, I was suffering from the laborious job of collecting people for theatre, organizing rehearsal schedules, monetary crisis and all the issues that an amateurish group mostly undergoes. Some phenomenological problems of treating the theatre as a ‘product’ to deliver from a creator’s side to a receiver’s side were always there. It was only in the time of the protest, when theatre came down to everyday life. A real changeover of a spectator to an actor and an actor to a spectator became possible, when songs were being sung on the street, dramatic experiences were taking place on the street not to experiment with a mere dramatic form known as street-theatre, but, for some direct political orientations and with a larger context. The people that were taking part in the actions and the people witnessing them were sharing the common space. We even witnessed the policemen, the agent of the state machine nodding their heads in the protester’s songs. That was a point of environmental circumstance of theatre where no spectator was naïve. The preparation process of both the actor and performer merged together.
Performative circumstances during the students’ protest in Baroda

Performative circumstances during the students’ protest in Baroda

‘Fufundi’, an open air protest play

2. Celestial Spectator:

This spectator has all seeing power. Spectator is essential a social agent, but this spectator belong to no community, no language, and no culture-specificity so far. This spectator is constructed by the modern and national agencies and also it is a globalization phenomenon. Residing in Delhi, one can easily enjoy a cultural festival from any region of the country in the 26th January parade, as well as in the plays of the Bharat Ranga Mahotsava organized by National School of Drama. I adopted the term ‘celestial’ from Cearteau what he implied for the representation of the renaissance architecture (‘Walking in the City’). It is a view that no human eye ever could posses. The all seeing gaze is problematic in the modern urban spectatorship. This celestial spectator is mostly found in a multicultural metropolis and also in the academic premises.

Honore Daumier’s Spectators
3. Super Spectator:

This super spectator is the ideal one, he is good in all terms, or, he is the best. Just like the super man or the super hero does all the best things, all the good and ideals, and by doing so he displays a wish-fulfilling gesture to the audience, the super spectator also does the same things to a creator/actor/artist/producer. This spectator in reality exists or not we are doubtful about that. It is actually the actor’s alter ego, the actor himself, the ways of seeing that he himself wants to construct.

A performer contains a spectator within him, since the actual performance takes place in the eyes of a spectator (beholder). The actor is the first viewer of his own art, the first observer, witness, bystander, receiver, consumer and hence “outsider”. What happens when the consciousness of spectatorship within an actor’s self becomes larger than the actorly self? Does not it create some sort of problem out of the process of the ‘self’ becoming the ‘other’? On the other hand, when a spectatorial position constructs the performer’s self, rejecting the progressive or linear biographical mode (of investigating the artist’s personal account), what are the troubles that we have to confront? * In the junctures of a performer recognizing him looking at himself, and similarly a spectator discovering himself performing, one may find out a complicated network of the infinitive mirror images. 

Image from a Photo performance series by Manmeet Devgun

Just like mirror images, the two entities – performer and spectator cannot touch each other. They, in fact, cannot speak to each other. We can only visually grasp the imaginary space of a mirror; we cannot go behind a mirror. Again remembering David Carrier: “mirror images seem simple but they have surprisingly complex properties. Consider two different accounts of a spectator before a mirror. Because my point of view determines my location, it follows that when I see my reflection I am in front of the mirror. The mirror allows me to see myself as others do, from the outside, enabling me to discover that I have an outsider in a way logically inseparable from my discovery that others have an outside. The description of me looking at myself in the mirror contains a possible infinite regress: I see myself (seeing myself (seeing myself….)))).” And next in Carrier’s articulation comes the impossibility of accessibility: “Perhaps however, there is no such infinite regress before that mirror image. The image reflects what is before the mirror. That image exists only in an imaginary space, a place behind the mirror surface accessible to sight alone. I can see my image, so can you, but we cannot reach into that space to touch the image, though we can of course touch the mirror surface.”

Samudra Kajal Saikia at “Ravana Katha”

4. Invisible Spectator or the Suspended Spectator:

This spectator is totally unaware of the fact that he is an essential part of whatever going on in his surroundings. You can find him anywhere on the street, in the kitchen, in an auditorium, in the stadium or in the bathroom. He is not aware of the hording at the crossroad smiling at him, the written words on a masala pack in the kitchen, the happenings in the stadium throughout numerous visuals, the smiling girl on a shampoo pack. He does not know that he is constantly under surveillance. Neither does he know that all the visuals looking at him are also guided by his activities in his everyday life.

Samudra in a still from the video-film, “ALLAH: Ru-ba-ru”
5. Ephemeral Spectator:

This spectator plays an active role in a theatrical event to that extent that without his presence there is no performance. He is very helpful for a dramatic situation. This spectator is amateurish in nature. He might not be trained to see a performance. He just takes part in it on spot, almost instinctively, but doing so he adds meaning to it, and as soon as the performance is over, he disappears. His physical presence, his smile, sneeze, hiccup, yawn or a turnaround becomes a part of the circumstance. His bodily presence makes an account.

Spectators during a performance by Dharitri Boro, ‘Hair free- Care Free’, R. A. P. E 2012, Guwahati

6. Domestic Spectator:

He is a person among the cast and crew, the relatives of them, by-passing passengers of the rehearsal space, fans and enthusiasts, scholars and admirers who knows at least partially something of the performance. He is not a total outsider for having some knowledge of what is going on, and by the fact, he has one or many ‘clues’ to enter into the performance. The domestic spectator is the best spectator for perceiving the performance at the best possible manner. The promotional strategy of bollywood cinema, by the reality shows, the process of popularizing songs, the promotional event managements, the posters, the use of youtube and other social networkings attempt to create a class of domestic spectator only. All these marketing strategies try to provide some “clue” that a spectator might require to penetrate into the art.

To describe this Domestic Spectator I mentioned about the Spect-actors of Barechahariya Bhaona, where more than forty villages participate in a grand cultural event and make it possible by a very very interesting interplay of the shift over of spectator into performer. (Will discuss this in some other places later) 

Honore Daumier’s Spectators

In the modern play productions, in the nationalist dramas, in the contemporary mainstream cultural practices the infinitive reciprocal process of gazing is lost. There only two sides we can see, the actor and the audience. The spectator there is no more a part of the process, hence an alien of the environment. Theatre is captured through an ‘Albertan window’.

However, we have seen that there are multiple levels of agencies operating roles in the formation of a spectator. The naïve spectator is arrogant because he is outside the domestic area. He doesn’t have a clue on what is going on. You cannot blame him since he is simply pushed out of the social, cultural, linguistic, and more intensely ‘local’ knowledge production system.

You cannot blame the celestial spectator for his incapability to concentrate into one specific practice. The urban living conditions, the modernist knowledge system and the nationalist tools do not allow him to concentrate into a singular “local”.

In Christopher Mann’s famous play (Istavan Tzabo’s film) Mephisto, an enthusiastic struggling actor Henrich Hoffgan eventually becomes the most powerful super-actor in Nazi ruling Germany. At the saturation point of his popularity, fame and professional success, he realizes that he has lost his subjective self and fully seized by the state. He feels, he is no more a free agent. He utters, “I am an actor, why blame me, what can I do? What do they want from me?”

From the above mentioned categorizations of a spectator, we have seen, like the performer, the spectator too is not a free agent anymore. Inside the structured power operations a spectator says, “I am just a spectator, what can I do?”

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