Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.
If I had come across this line a decade ago, I would have been able to put a finger on what exactly happened to me then. Growing up in a joint family with part-rebellion and part-religion in my blood, I could never reconcile the dissonance I felt; probably couldn’t even articulate it.
Unrest bubbled under my skin every time I saw my father with folded hands in our prayer room. He was never a God-fearing man, to this day, he remains God-loving, almost unconditionally so. Even when life shook him like a dry leaf, his faith remained unwavering. My mother, the silent praying kind, would mutter stotras under her breath while cooking, cleaning, sewing, and sometimes even while doing her sudoku. Both feminist, progressive, ‘ok with girls wearing short skirts and smoking cigarettes’ non judgemental people, but would religiously believe that God will hear their prayers if they read and lived by the scriptures. Mannats, vrats, and kirtans were routine. And I couldn’t wrap my head around something that seemed so convoluted to me throughout my childhood.
There were expectations from me to be reasonably religious. “Pray for 10 minutes after you shower, at least the Gayatri and Mrutyunjay mantras”. Dad would sometimes implore, and sometimes chide me, while I would be running around like a headless chicken, between spoonfuls of breakfast, trying to pack my books for school. Attendance during evening family bhajan and aarti sessions was non negotiable, and dozing off was scowled upon.
I did not understand why God would demand attendance to ritual, in exchange for bestowing blessings. What was this barter? And for special requests, the bribery of pilgrimage and prasad?
And how was God’s love unconditional, if failing to fulfil a mannat, or simply losing interest in doing so, could spell disaster?
So, I did what I knew best. I heard them, but didn’t obey, and learned to separate my love for them from my rebellion. For years, this happened almost daily morning, until the day I watched ‘When God said cheers.’
I was in my second or third year of college, when Cyrus Dastur, Tom Alter and their theatre group visited our university for a short film festival. ‘When God said cheers’ was the closing act of the 3-day festival. After thoroughly enjoying the short films that were screened, I was excited to watch the first live theatre performance of my life.
When the play began, I laughed at the hilarity of God, played by Tom Alter, being drunk at a bar. While the play retained its humour throughout, it was God’s drunken rant, that gave me my answers. His misery at seeing people escape accountability under ‘God’s will’ and despair at unreasonable expectations from his omnipotence, was palpable. For that hour and a few odd minutes, Tom Alter was God, as I sat, enamoured, at the edge of my seat, listening to him rant.
I had more of a reason for my rebellion now, more than doubt, I had clarity. For the first time I felt God wasn’t a giant, stingy accountant sitting up there, feeding off praise and meting out punishments to settle scores. God now felt like someone I could talk to, not in shlokas and aartis, but in words that rolled off my tongue naturally. In the pages of my journal, and in thoughts that made sense to my mind.
Of all the things I can thank this beautiful play for, I’m most glad that it let me form a relationship with spirituality; and for it gave me words in which I could explain to my father in a heart-to-heart, why I couldn’t find God in bhajans or puja. He understood that I needed to find my own way to salvation, and to this day he respects my relationship with a profound God.
It was also the first time that a work of art had touched a chord so deep. Dense fog that had made itself comfortable in my mind for years, started to lift. And I took my first steps towards a deeper sense of individuality.
In every sense of the word, it comforted a deep disturbance within.
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