ENO: Satyagraha

We were fortunate to have been offered tickets to the dress rehearsal of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at the English National Opera. Named after the movement for non-violent protest and self determination usually associated with Gandhi. The Opera talks about his time in South Africa and his formation of the movement based on Ubuntu philosophy, ending with a foreshadowing of Mandela who would take the helm in providing freedom in his country.

The grand performance was a sight to behold and it was nice to see figures who would have been hated by many in the same city a few decades ago taking center stage. What I enjoyed the most about the performance was the grand puppets that seemed to construct themselves throughout the performance. There were parts of the performance that were in Sanskrit which was interesting to hear, being the north Indian equivalent of what Latin is for many Europeans.

This performance however reminded me little of how Indians view the independence movement. For one, Gandhi’s reputation is far more grey in the country these days than how he is seen by outsiders. The far right in power at the moment accuses him of being a British sympathizer and the progressive left accuses him of upholding upper caste Hindu values and reducing the strength of the Dalit movements that formed early in the creation of the country. The opera seems to be bolstering both ideas, with its relating Gandhi’s search for fortitude to passages from the Bhagavad Gita that talk of Dharma, the basis for the Hindu caste structure, and on the other end showing him being protected and led to safety by the British superintendent’s wife.

The fact of the matter is near mythical figures such as Gandhi or Mandela are hard to touch without at least a few people raising eyebrows and Philip Glass’ composition was more than worth experiencing.

Animals in Animation

I came across a video by one of my favorite YouTube channels run by Animal Wonders, an educational outreach organization. The video talks about myths created by cartoons when bringing its animal characters to life.

The video goes on to talk about the harmful consequences of these actions, such as people assuming rabbits eat mostly carrots resulting in many getting sick due to improper diets. This simple video made me rethink the importance of being careful about the design and story decisions we, as animators, make even seemingly harmless ones.

Growing up as a child with a particular fascination for the weird and wonderful  creatures we share our world with. Birds of Paradise, Hoatzin, Boto and Przewalski horses, I was interested in animals that don’t often show up in common discourse as a child. I would enthusiastically explain what Lemurs were before movies like Madagascar (2005) popularized them. While movements like ‘Save the Tiger’ garnered huge interest in India while countless other species go extinct without so much of a notice. The unhealthy obsession with only a handful of animals leads to problems in perspective. For example the video below talks about how our consumption of primarily four fish is causing devastating effects on marine wildlife.

The discourse around representation of non-human animals in animation is nothing new. Adams argues Disney’s juvenile, anthropomorphized, animated NHAs blur the boundaries between fiction and reality and can easily be adjusted to convey desired meanings. The representation of NHAs is further problematized by racial, gender, and speciesist stereotypes which reflect a hegemonic white, hierarchical, anthropocentric patriarchy and organize the world according to a “sex-species system” (Adams, 2007, p. 203). Sebastian’s ‘Under the Sea’ in The Little Mermaid (1989) and its potent stereotypes of Jamaicans has been talked about in many a discourse.

I would also add to the conversation about the subtler effects the representation of NHAs in films also shapes stereotypes about species themselves, such as The Lion King (1994) propounding that Hyenas are conniving or that Meercats are solitary. Then there are more direct consequences, the Harry Potter franchise for example popularized the notion that Owls are intelligent, resulting in a boom in the owl trade industry. (Alexandra, 2017)

Animation comes with certain liberties like any other art form, but because it is a pervasive form of media and as such influences people’s perspectives of the world more and more. We need to be careful about the choices we as animators and storytellers make.

Leventi-PerezOana. (2011). "Disney's Portrayal of Nonhuman Animals in Animated Films Between 2000 and 2010" Thesis. Georgia State University, [online] Pg.64 Available at: https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1084&context=communication_theses [Accessed 15 Jan. 2018].