He's true to his heart
Hartman de Souza, theatre veteran, has a unique approach to life, to put it mildly. The man of colourful metaphors and strong opinions sells sculpted poles to fund his theatre activities
His fierce opinions are founded on the bedrock of experience: decades of it, in theatre, education and also journalism
photo: sampath kumar g.p.
JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS Hartman de Souza worked 28 full days to finish the totem pole, two days to communicate with the wood, 26 to carve it
"What's Hartman doing these days?" a friend asked me recently. "He's carving totem poles," I said. She nodded understandingly. I could have said "He's growing tulips in Jaisalmer" and she would have received the information just as equably. Hartman de Souza, theatre veteran, has a unique approach to life, to put it mildly. He wants to sell sculpted poles to fund his theatre activities. Surely, there are less arduous ways to raise money, but Hartman is keenly aware that when easy money comes in window, idealism goes out door.
So here he is on a Tuesday afternoon, taking a vanload of children from the alternative school Poorna to see his latest creation. He has been chipping and blowtorching away at a fallen log of badam on Yohan Chandy's farm in Sathanur. As we purr along the highway, cries of "Bing" sound repeatedly in the van. "Everybody calls me Bing," says Hartman with a laugh. "Some people ask me, after Bing Crosby? I say no, it's Bingo I stylishly shortened it to Bing. I was named after a dog." As the van turns into a narrow road, he warns the children about one of Chandy's many dogs, Doobie, who is "temperamental". Chubby-cheeked little Dan asks in a fearful voice: "What does the dog do?" To which Hartman replies: "He just wants to know if you're a boy or a girl."
The children try their best to ignore crotch-sniffing Doobie and gather around the supine log. Small fingers stroke the spider and the lizard, the natural striations, the knots converted into bulbous eyes. They hear the story of the faces on the pole a baby who is protected by the spirits of the tree who teach it how to speak, think, fight and fly. The farm owner strolls past in shorts and T-shirt and Hartman introduces him to the children: "This is Yohan Chandy, farmer, potter... (under his breath)... crazy coot." The coot says hello and disappears into the rice fields.
Hartman worked 28 full days to finish the totem pole (two days to communicate with the wood, 26 to carve it). His first one, which also took 28 days, was his gift to Visthaar in Doddagubbi. Visthaar is where he first sculpted wood to make masks for the play Custodians of the Orchard staged on Earth Day last April. Hartman and his friend N.K. Sajeev were inspired by Bill Mollison's poem "Three Voices" to create and enact a story of an orchard under threat from builders. Working between the existing chikkoo trees in Visthaar, the performers grew plants and dug the earth to fashion a 160-seater arena out of mud and stone.
"Realism is dead," says Hartman, whose current experiments are far removed from what mainstream Indian repertory companies are doing. Once at a seminar he had memorably described English-language theatre groups as elephants linked in a closed circle with the trunk of one pushed up the fundament of the other, ensuring that what goes in doesn't come out, and what needs to come out stays in. His colourful metaphor didn't endear him to the other participants, but Hartman has never wanted to win a popularity contest. His style is "opening the mouth and putting both feet in it", as his wife Ujjwala apparently never tires of telling him.
His fierce opinions are founded on the bedrock of experience decades of it, in theatre, education and also journalism (Assistant Editor with Debonair, Features Editor with Patriot). From 1973 on he has conducted theatre workshops in colleges, and a Ford Foundation grant helped him direct plays in Goa, Pune, Mumbai, Chennai, Chandigarh, Kolkata and Bangalore. Among the plays he directed after relocating to Bangalore in '94 are Loy Saldanha's The Undertaker, Athol Fugard's The Island, Jayawant Dalvi's A Sip of Water and Barney Simon's Woza Albert.
What drew him to theatre? "Sumatindra Nadig," he cries. In college (in Goa, where he did B.A. Philosophy and M.A. Sociology) he played the lead in Tennessee Williams's Glass Menagerie, which Nadig directed. Nadig pointed him in a direction that he was to take for the rest of his life. It has brought him acclaim (and notoriety!) but very little moolah. At 55, he lives in a rented first-floor house, miles away from the city centre. But who's complaining?
As we push aside the wooden partition leading to the terrace we get a rousing welcome from Monsieur Bernard Coco. (A mottled mutt, Coco was really fat as a puppy, prompting a neighbour to ask, "Is he a St Bernard?") Over a rice-rasam-palya lunch (Bing cooks for the family), and later, a large mug of tea, we continue to talk. At least, I listen while Bing talks. About his African roots that inspired the idea of totem poles: he was born and raised in Nairobi, as was his Goan mother, and his children have African names: Zuri and Zaeen. About how he loved Chomana Dudi, tracked down its director B.V. Karanth in Bangalore, and was so impressed by Karanth's group Benaka's Jokumaraswamy and Hayavadana that he "didn't do theatre for a year after that". How in December he's staging Custodians... and two other plays with a small grant from a well-wisher, with visual artist Jayant Joshi (Bhimsen's son) filming the creative process.
"I do harmless plays now," he says with an evil chuckle, "just fairy stories for children. Like this one about a pig and a cow who fall in love... "
And Hartman goes on being Hartman hippie, boat-rocker, scruffy renegade.
Hartman de Souza can be contacted on email@example.com.
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