Sanctuaries; part 1 – the creative process

The creative process feels strangely like dealing with my kid. Sometimes, when things are in flow – it feels magical and you want to jump for joy and show someone all the exciting discoveries. Other times, it is so frustrating you just want to scream loudly “I QUIT” and then binge watch TV undisturbed with a large bag of potato chips.

During periodic laptop cleaning, I always find scraps of jottings, clips of musical ideas, or lists of creative brainstorming, and think to myself, next time I work on something new, I should document the process from start to finish. I never follow through, so this time I am going to try. It’s not from the beginning beginning, but it is early on enough.

For me, an idea usually stems out of a personal experience, either an occurrence/encounter in my life, or something that I read or see that sparks a thought and translates into a creative urge.

Other times, the work is commissioned. The challenge in this case is that the concept is not as organic- naturally, as it has not come from myself. However, what I like about commissioned work is that it pushes me toward concepts that I may not necessarily have approached myself, and thereby broadens my body of work. I also love the challenge of finding that personal connection and universality in each topic, whether my own or commissioned.

In this case, Ragamala (Chicago) and the Festival of World Music has commissioned Aditya and me to create a production on the theme of “Sanctuaries” in honor of the fact that Chicago is a sanctuary city. (A sanctuary city is one that limits its cooperation with the national government to enforce immigration law, in the hopes of reducing fear of deportation and possible family break-up among people who are in the country illegally.)

Even aside from celebrating Chicago as a sanctuary city, the theme of “sanctuary” is so relevant in a world that is fragmented and cruel.

Our starting point:
Our idea was to find a narrative that reflects situations that have occurred time and again throughout history of oppression, cruelty, and also compassion and acceptance. Having been reading a lot of children’s books recently (thanks to Rumi), I love the way stories about animals, or even sometimes inanimate objects like vehicles (the little blue truck or the little engine that could) exemplify messages that reflect human conflict. Aditya and I thought this sort of exploration could be both creatively exciting and also universally communicative.

After a loooo-ooot of searching (a lot of the fables I came across had really strange and almost twisted messages!) We came across the story of the elephant and the mouse. In the traditional telling, mice have occupied an abandoned city and beg a herd of elephants not to trample them as they stampede through. The Elephant chief reluctantly agrees to take another route. When soon after, the elephants are endangered by hunters, the mice come to their rescue by gnawing them out of their nets. The message is essentially to treat everyone with empathy as everyone’s role is important. The mice seemed to reflect the marginalized, and the elephants were those in power.

A discussion with Mridu Shekar, our point person at Ragamala, was actually quite insightful as her probing and questions pushed us to give more shape and depth to our story. She pointed out that the message of the above story leaned more towards quid pro quo rather than compassion. That conversation was really a turning point for us in which the piece gained resonance, and transformed from a commissioned work to something that was more meaningful.

Re-Shaping our narrative:
Through research, Aditya and I learned of a small town in France called Le-Chambon Sur-Lignon that provided sanctuary to Jewish refugees escaping the holocaust.

“Nobody asked who was Jewish and who was not. Nobody asked where you were from. Nobody asked who your father was or if you could pay. They just accepted each of us, taking us in with warmth, sheltering children, often without their parents—children who cried in the night from nightmares.”
Elizabeth Koenig-Kaufman, a former child refugee in Le Chambon

The residents of these villages offered shelter in private homes, in hotels, on farms, and in schools. They forged identification and ration cards for the refugees, and in some cases guided them across the border to neutral Switzerland. These actions of rescue were unusual during the period of the Holocaust insofar as they involved the majority of the population of an entire region.

The unconditional compassion of this village and its residents added a depth that was missing in the traditional telling. Inspired by this, we re-wrote the story as follows:

A mouse and his pregnant wife are among the animals captured by a lab of scientists. Seeing the animals tortured and suffering, the mice fear for themselves and their to-be-born children. When some pandemonium strikes the lab, the mouse and his wife have a chance to escape. They encounter a herd of elephants and beg the Chief to take them to refuge in the wild. The chief elephant is arrogant and dismissive and refuses to help the desperate mice. An elderly elephant feels for the plight of the mice and secretly offers to carry them to safety.
The growing family of mice thrive in their natural habitat. But one incident of diminished resources leaves the chief suspicious and angry. The elderly elephant accepts blame and subsequent punishment.
Tragedy befalls the tribe when the chief’s daughter is caught by hunters. The Chief is torn by his instinct to rush to her rescue, and the warnings of the tribe that he too will be captured. Ignoring the warnings, he follows the sound of her desperate wails, only to see the mice gnawing at the net and setting her free. He is overcome with gratitude and repentance. The mice tell him of their story and the compassion of the elderly elephant. The Chief immediately realizes his folly both in dismissing the desperate mice and in punishing the elderly elephant. The new friendship between the mice and the elephants inspires compassion and communion in nature.

After making our storyline, came the writing of the script. This often feels like the most important step for me, as it is when the visualization of the piece begins. Once the script is in place, music composition flows, and once I have the music….its choreography time! I work best in response to music, and working with Aditya is usually a comfortable process as we share associations and I am really familiar with his musical style. Together we decided some of the ragams (melodies) that would represent our characters, namely the “oppressor,” the “oppressed,” “compassion” etc. And he moved forward with composition. So far, we have no lyrics; we are trying to communicate using swarams, sollakattu, and instrumentation.