In a single performance at Asian Arts Initiative, Roopbaan Reimagined: A Drag Queen From the Future, Ali Asgar reclaimed the true tradition of performance art—before it became just another ticketed product.
Back in the old days of performance art, the deal was simple. You would show up at a space and something would happen. Who it was and what they were doing mattered less than the knowledge that you were about to see something you’d never seen before and would never see again. The old concept of author as authority was thrown out the window, and you became an equal, empowering the performer to reveal their truth through your act of witnessing. If 25 other people were there, it was not due to a marketing blitz, but because for some inexplicable reason they were meant to be.
But eventually, as the form we called Performance Art became better known, it got swallowed up by capitalism, and became another product to be packaged and sold. As a theater-maker who lived through that transition, I often find myself nostalgic for that bygone, seemingly dead era. But much to my surprise, Asgar is awakening it.
Another feature of performance art’s earlier era is complexity created through repetition of a simple idea. In Asgar’s case, this was a phrase repeated multiple times: “You live in 2019 America.” Functioning as statement, accusation, and denigration, the artist’s words made us understand that we exist in a thought-bubble created by our socio-cultural moment. As Americans, we assume that our cultural understanding is reality.
Asgar’s statement presents a challenge for me, the reviewer. At this point, I’d usually give you some background, offering context in case you, too, see the show. However, in this case, I must first state that as an American in 2019, my understanding of South Asian history is sadly incomplete. Furthermore, since I am unable to enter a context other than my own, while I can parrot back ideas and facts, I am incapable of truly understanding their significance.
Desire and violence
Here’s what I do know. What was once known as the province of Bengal is now divided into two main sections: West Bengal, a state in the Eastern part of the Republic of India; and the entirety of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. This means that while the terms Bengali and Bangladeshi are not synonymous, there is a great deal of socio-cultural overlap. Rupban (known by various spellings in English) is an old and well-known folktale of the region—a kind of Bengali Oedipus. Its titular character is portrayed as a desirous young woman in her late teens or early 20s who is forced to marry a 12-day-old king. After the marriage, the woman and infant are sent off into the forest, hopefully never to be heard from again.
My next thoughts are pure conjecture, as I do not speak Bangla and it is in Bangla (the national language of Bangladesh) that the most thoughtful and incisive commentary regarding Rupban exists. Working from what I know about Oedipus, I can imagine that it is the depth and taboo nature of Rupban’s desire that poses a problem for her family, and therefore she is married to someone who is utterly unable to arouse sexual feelings in her. Her marriage and subsequent banishment also preserve the current family structure.
Queering and celebrating the notion of Rupban as a totem of desire, Roopbaan (a common alternate spelling of the word), the first and only Bangladeshi magazine devoted to the LGBTI community, was originally published in January 2014. In April 2016, the editor of the magazine, Xulhaz Mannan, was hacked to death by machete-wielding assailants. Ali Asgar was stabbed in the same attack.
Performance art principles
In Roopbaan Reimagined, Asgar continued their pursuit of complexity through recorded audio that had been processed and layered until it was as much of a sonic experience as it was the transmission of information. Text was delivered with a Nico-esque dispassion, often in conjunction with YouTube or other publicly available videos, which were projected both on the back wall and on strips of beautifully intricate Bengali fabric hung from the ceiling. The textual overlap made both sources difficult to understand, which I correctly suspected was an artistic choice.
A red piece of plastic covering a small section of an industrial fluorescent served to define the mood of the work. At one point, Asgar performed a ritualistic, Artaudian-style dance, with their feet as the primary focus. As they began the dance standing next to me, I could clearly see their fat rolls. But no body shame here—rather, it’s a telling choice. In any regular theatrical production, this is something a costumer would work to hide. But Asgar focuses effectively on profound self-revelation as opposed to a flawless, shiny surface. Through these artistic choices, Asgar referenced another original performance art principle: a commitment to a paucity of means and the exploration of the vulnerability of the human body are all that is necessary for a public artistic presentation.
An image you can’t shake
And we come to the crucial questions any reviewer must answer. Did I like the show? Was it good? But here, the answers are immaterial. I arrived, I witnessed, I was moved. My reaction is as rare in my life as shows like Roopbaan Reimagined are in this current artistic climate. Since the end of the original performance-art era in 2000, it is extremely rare that a performance will leave me with an image that I cannot shake, one that replays in my mind’s eye for days. Roopbaan Reimagined gave me the gift of that experience.
What, When, Where
Roopbaan Reimagined: A Drag Queen From the Future. By Ali Asgar. November 3, 2019 at Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine Street, Philadelphia. (215) 557-0455 or asianartsinitiative.org.
Asian Arts Initiative is a wheelchair-accessible venue, but it’s not easy to navigate for wheelchair-users. Asian Arts has gender-neutral restrooms.