A Simple Ten-Page Tale from India

Until this year I’ve got away with watching the final presentation at the Children’s Theatre School in Shiroka Luka without understanding anything at all. Elena Panayotova’s narration in Bulgarian has whizzed through my brain without depositing a single iota of information, and I’ve been able to enjoy the costumes, dancing, puppetry and other forms of theatrical wizardry, undisturbed by knowledge.

Not so this year. On our arrival in Shiroka Luka, we foreigners were handed a ten-page story, in excellent English, and encouraged, indeed commanded, to absorb the plot before Saturday’s performance.

In summary:

Young, rich, eligible bachelor king Nal is unexcited by the local girls.

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But, so famous is he, that a distant princess, Damayanti, falls in love with the idea of him before she’s even seen him.

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In due course Nal hears about Damayanti from his soldiers (apparently whilst dancing), and he falls in love with her, again, sight unseen.

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Pining by the shore of a lake in the palace garden, sometime later,  Nal sees seven beautiful swans and can’t resist grabbing one.

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The swan begs to be freed. In return she will fly to Damayanti and tell her of Nal’s love. Which she does.

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Then, Damayanti’s father, the king, noting her new-found happiness, decides it’s time she got married. He invites all known nobles to present themselves, assuming that the man Damayanti loves will be one of them.

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Indeed, Nal sets off to make his case, but along the way he meets four Gods (Indra, Varuna, Agni and Yama) who are also bent on winning Damayanti’s hand. They demand that Nal should be their messenger and that Damayanti should choose one of them.

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Reluctantly he does as they command, and rapturous as Nal and Dmayanti are at meeting each other, he explains that she must marry one of the Gods. Damayanti refuses and promises that when the Gods present themselves she will choose Nal.

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And that’s all I’ve got time for today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being at your own Pre-Funeral

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My mother is 95, and in good health, both mentally and physically, facing the last years of her life with equanimity, good grace, and a total absence of self-pity. Her powers are failing, but, as I remind her, so are mine. So are everyone’s. She might well have another ten years to go, or even more, and if she can maintain her mental acuity, and her sense of humour, and of the ridiculous and the absurd, they will be good years for her and for those around her. She has no expectation of immortality and is determined to make the most of the time that’s left.

I spoke to her yesterday on the way home from the airport. She’s been cajoling me into playing the oboe at her ‘final’ concert party in Salisbury in September, and I’ve been teasing her by pretending to demur. There have, after all, as I point out, been several ‘final’ concerts – almost as many as the great Spanish soprano, Montserrat Caballe, has given.

Our family concerts involve my brother and me, his children, their spouses and partners playing classical music on the oboe, flute, violin, bassoon and piano, often awkward arrangements of well-known pieces such as the Rite of Spring. These concerts serve as reminders, in some cases, of how much better we used to play when we were children or young adults.

So, I have pretended to be unsure of whether I can take part, citing business travel, lack of practice, broken reeds and hugely more important things to do. My mother has countered with various powerful arguments, most of which boil down to the unreliable suggestion that ‘this really is the last.’ But I am not convinced.

Yesterday, however, on the spur of the moment, she launched a new line of argument.

‘You played at that old lady’s funeral last year,’ she said, referring to my two-minute oboe solo at the funeral of my dear friend Jane last May (my mother has total recall, it seems, and I should never have told her about it).

‘So, I really think you should play at my pre-funeral.’

Pre-funeral!

What a marvellous idea! All the ceremony, glad-handing and fun of the funeral itself, with the added advantage that you can actually BE THERE to enjoy it.

We had a good laugh about it. She can still be funny, inventive and absurd. And it is true that we shall probably play the same music at the real one, assuming we do not pre-decease her, and as long as we are still young enough to play.

But the question is, how many pre-funerals can you have? I am afraid this may be the first of many.

Nevertheless, I suppose I shall play at it.

The Consolation of Cakes

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The Children’s Theatre School in Shiroka Luka ended yesterday with the most harrowing ritual of all – the giving out of diplomas to the children who took part, and the saying of goodbyes to children, artists and sponsors – an occasion for torrents of tears. Many of the children look forward to the Theatre School all year, and all of us remember how long a year lasts when you’re a child. Tears are followed by the consolation of cakes and then we’re gone.

Cakes are, indeed, one of life’s great consolations, and I must admit that food still occupies as important a place in my mind as it ever did when I was a child. I remember that at the end of the very first Children’s Theatre School just before Christmas in 2001, Elena Panayotova, who directs the School, asked the children to tell her their dreams for the future. Some of them mentioned becoming a footballer, or having loads of money, or being a film star, but I remember, with great affection, one small, slightly plump boy saying, ‘As many kebabche as I can eat.’

The kebabche is the local sausage – minced pork flavoured with cumin – and in 2001 orphanage food wasn’t as good or as plentiful as it is now. At the party we held for the children following the show I saw him pile a plate high with kebabche and cakes, and then take himself to a quiet corner to eat them all on his own. As much as he could eat was quite a lot.

I’m afraid I’m the same, and I saw myself in that child. I still haven’t entirely mastered the art of restraint. This morning in Sofia, we found the best patisserie in the city – the Orsetti Pasticceria, owned and managed by an Italian couple. Anything to avoid the appalling breakfast offered at the Arena di Serdica, an otherwise very good hotel. The cakes were delicious, and I ate too many of them.

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India – The Children’s Theatre School

It’s the last day of the Children’s Theatre School in Shiroka Luka in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria, after three weeks of workshops in masks, drama, photography, music, mime, dance, martial arts and yoga, and the children are getting ready for this afternoon’s final performance. This year’s theme is India.

The costumes are the best ever, a colourful, though sometimes fragile confection of silks, linens and acetates gathered from India, Oman and London’s Brick Lane. There will be a story, of course, told in Bulgarian, concerning the doings of a large handful of Indian Gods, Princes, Princesses and Devils (the latter role easy to cast from the 90 children who’ve come from schools and children’s homes around the country). Cultural accuracy isn’t our highest goal, but we do our best, and this year we have two dancers from Aurangebad in India to guide us.

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If you’re not here already, it’s probably too late, but in any case the village is full of colleagues, children, teachers, social workers, politicians, artists, musicians, journalists, spectators, and tourists. Talking to some of them last night, I was reassured, as I am every year, that what Elena Panayotova and her artists do through three weeks of hard and difficult work, and through their final presentation, makes a difference to the lives of the children who participate. Many of them come from the more disadvantaged sectors of Bulgarian society (a large number of them are Roma), and through the Theatre School they acquire confidence, openness and reassurance that they matter. If some go back to their classrooms believing that if they work hard they can achieve something for themselves and their families then it is all worthwhile.

But above all it is enormous fun, and for me, immensely rewarding simply to see how much the children enjoy themselves.

 

A Gulf of Disbelief

When Nikolai Khrushchev visited the United States for twelve days in 1959 he refused to believe what he was seeing. The vast choice of tacky consumer products available in a typical US supermarket, he thought, was entirely a put-up job – smoke and mirrors. There simply couldn’t be so many different things available to ordinary citizens. This reminds me of a soprano I once knew slightly in the 1980s. She’d escaped from Romania to sing in the United Kingdom (and to obtain British Citizenship as a singing asylum seeker). On her first visit to a well-stocked Woolworth’s she cried – not so much, I suppose, with joy at what she’d found there, though she did buy a pair of multi-coloured slippers with bright pink pom-poms, as for the miserable paucity of choice available to the family she’d left behind, and for all the other indignities of living in a ruthlessly misruled nation that she had escaped and in which they still languished.

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That it would have taken implausibly extraordinary efforts to deceive Khrushchev so extravagantly counted for nothing. The almost impossible was easy enough to believe because the Soviet Union would have stopped at nothing to deceive a visiting President, Prime Minister or Monarch.

Blunt denial, lying, and deception, have characterised Russia’s response to the West ever since. Take the allegations in yesterday’s WADA report into doping at the Sochi (and other) Olympics. If they are to be believed, which, probably, they should be, the FSB and the Russian Sports Ministry colluded in massive deception, substituting clean urine samples for contaminated ones. The scale of their operation was vast – agents pretending to be plumbers passing samples through a wall separating the testing laboratory from the FSB building next door. They also employed special methods for opening ‘sealed’ test tubes but these, it turns out, were not quite clever enough because they left tiny scratch marks invisible to the naked eye, but detected by WADA.

Smoke and mirrors

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Some Russian media have dismissed the WADA report as part of an organised conspiracy against Russia. But even  if they know the allegations to be true, those involved will simply believe they were unlucky to get caught, and that the rest of the world must be doing exactly the same kinds of things, only doing them better, and getting away with it. That is their mind-set – all governments deceive their people and each other. If no one can prove it, then they’re just doing it vey well indeed.

From the Russian point of view, truth and moral principle are irrelevant, because the assumption is that every government must share their point of view and their methods, whatever they might say. I am sure the President Putin sincerely believes that, whatever assertions there might be to the contrary, the so-called independent judiciaries and media of Western states MUST be, in reality, tools of the state.

The report into the murder of the ex-FSB agent Litvinenko in London MUST be a fabrication. Well, of course, they also know it to be correct, but they could never believe that the truth was independently arrived at. The allegation that Russian troops have been assisting the rebels in Eastern Ukraine MUST be false, just as there was no advance guard in Crimea before the referendum on its absorption into Russia (well, actually, they later admitted that the ‘little green men’ were theirs, but it was certainly a false allegation for a while). And the suggestion that the rebels in Eastern Ukraine shot down a Malaysian passenger jet using rockets supplied by Russia, MUST be false. Carefully fabricated photographs showed, beyond a shadow of doubt, that a Ukrainian jet shot the ill-fated Malaysian jet down from the air.

Somewhere in the Kremlin, Putin’s henchmen will be smarting at the fact that they’ve been caught out doping their athletes, but you can be sure that they will simply be smarting at the fact they lost at a game that everyone else plays, but which they believe they’re generally best at. Perhaps I am a victim of Western ideology and too credulous in believing that by and large we’re not dupes of our Western governments in the way Russian citizens are of theirs.

The Decline of the Village

I first came to the village of Shiroka Luka, high in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria, by accident, on a walking holiday, in 1988. Bulgaria was then a more or less functioning socialist economy, if not the socialist paradise it had set out to become forty years earlier, and the village thrived as an agricultural community and as host to four substantial state institutions – an orphanage for children and teenagers, an orphanage for babies, a specialist folk music school for instrumentalists, singers and dancers, and a primary school for children from the village and the orphanage. There were jobs to be had in these institutions as well as in the fields and woodland that surround the village.

Even so, the population of the village and the surrounding area was lower than it had been a hundred years earlier. Subsistence farming and the simple rural life were even then less tempting than decades earlier, when villagers rarely left the valley, dressed in the local colourful styles and played the bagpipes and flute.

Since my visit in 1988 the population of the village has halved. Farming in the high meadows above the village has all but ceased, and this year, for the first time, not a single cow can be seen ambling in the early morning from the village to the nearby pastures to graze, and back again in the evening. Even fifteen years ago, cattle were housed in stables beneath the villagers’ houses, and in the evening you would see each cow break away from the herd to find her own way home as the cowherd led them through the village square. Villagers, presumably, milked their own cows and made their own cheese and butter.

The orphanage housed nearly 70 children in 1988, and there were 20 babies in the baby home. The primary school taught 100 children and the music school boarded more than 200. That was then. The baby orphanage closed about ten years ago, the children’s orphanage closed this year, the music school boards only around 100 pupils now and the village school teaches only 17 pupils.

You would think, looking at the village, as I have, over the last few days, that it still thrives, albeit in different ways. The village square is lined with restaurants and craft shops, selling Rhodope rugs, slippers and bells. But this occupies the village only for a few months each year. With these four institutions in decline or closed there is nothing to keep young people here, whilst in Plovdiv and Sofia there are jobs, and modern life and a more comfortable way of getting through the winter. However sentimentally we might regard the old way of life, we would be the last to choose to live it.

There’s an idea now that the orphanage might become a special centre for artistically gifted children, or a centre where the arts might be employed to inspire ordinary children – I’m not sure which.  All of this stems from the work that my friend Elena Panayotova and her colleagues have done through the Children’s Theatre School, but I can’t see how this could be enough to keep the village alive, or where the money might come from to finance it. It is a desperate, but a barely plausible hope.

It is, of course, sad to see village life, indeed a way of life, decline. But Shiroka Luka is too far away to serve as a pretty weekend bolt hole for the middle-classes of Plovdiv and Sofia, and, in any, case these are not yet sufficiently prosperous cities. What’s happening here happened fifty years ago in the United Kingdom and most of Europe and no one can stop it happening here. Things change.

Belonging

I’ve just arrived in Shiroka Luka to take part in, but mainly to enjoy, the annual Children’s Theatre School that LLP Group and systems@work  sponsors. Shiroka Luka is a beautiful village, high in the sparsely populated Rhodope Mountains of southern Bulgaria, a place where, in the days when disadvantage was a political inconvenience, orphanages and other institutions for disadvantaged or disabled children were placed, out of sight and out of mind.

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Through the Theatre School we try, in a small way, to bring attention to, and give confidence to, children who are otherwise marginalised. Many are Roma children (‘gypsy’, to use a word imposed by the majority) and they will face discrimination almost every day of their lives. If we can give them a little more confidence we can chip away at the wall of prejudice that they must overcome, though it will be many years before the opportunities for a Roma child in Bulgaria are the same as for a ‘white’ Bulgarian.

I loathe prejudice and I loathe the marginalisation of any community. Marginalisation breeds despair, frustration, anger, and sometimes even violence. It is the marginalisation of those left behind by globalisation that led to the Brexit vote. It is the anger of the left-behind in the USA that is fuelling Trump’s unexpected, irrational popularity. And dare, I say it. whatever the causes may be, it is the marginalisation of the Arab and the Muslim world that fuels the irrational cruelty of extremism and violence. Religion is not the reason. Religion is simply a convenient justification for feelings that stem from a deeper frustration.

I strongly believe that most people want the same things, whatever their nationality, culture, religion, location, colour, gender, or sexuality. They want freedom of opportunity, access to education, opportunity to travel, impartial justice, free access to information, freedom of expression, health and prosperity for themselves and their families. I do not believe that people are fundamentally different from each other. Those who enjoy these freedoms are usually happy to live and let live, to tolerate colourful difference in any form, as long as it doesn’t diminish their own opportunity.

So, building walls and closing borders, when frustration and rage spill over into appalling violence, as in Nice, will never solve the problem. Isolation isn’t the solution. Inclusion is the only long-term solution.

Here in Shiroka Luka we are bent on inclusion, showing disadvantaged communities that they have opportunities in a society that has hitherto neglected them. It may take us a hundred years to achieve our aims, but we must start somewhere.

Don’t ask me how we can persuade those attracted by the ideology of IS that they belong to the same world as we do, and can be equally successful in it, but surely we must. There is no other solution.