One of the earliest playwrights to have written an absurdist drama outside of pre/post-war Europe happens to be mostly unknown to non-academic readers. Bhuwaneshwar, a protégé of Premchand’s, published his first play in 1933. In 1946, he wrote Tambe ke Keede (Copper Maggots) – his absurdist magnum opus. In 1957, at the age of 47, Bhuwaneshwar passed away, purportedly in an ashram by the Ganges in Banaras. Years after his death, the internet somehow got hold of Bhuwaneshwar, retrieved him, and hid him within its folds of obscure news articles and literary collections.
During an obsessive episode of foraging for absurdist fiction in Hindi, Bhuwaneshwar revealed himself to me – putting it this way almost suggests vanity, as if Bhuwaneshwar had disappeared temporarily only so that I could find him again. But that is what the internet feels like. Here, there are no book borrower’s cards suggesting prior participants in what one consumes. Everything is fresh and untouched, everything is individuated.
We create personal worlds on the web, at the centre of which are our own selves. Then, there is the permanence of it all, the ever-presence of our opinions on Reddit and our re-blogs of GIFs on Tumblr. This permanence is conditional of course, no one can wholly deny the possibility of an extra-terrestrial attack on the World Wide Web, or a viral pandemic that extends itself to our gadgets. And still, most of us readily believe that our comments on a certain cat video from YouTube will manage to surpass our own existence. The need for permanence and denial of oblivion, both of which are so deeply ingrained in our DNA, reach satiation.
The internet supplies another kind of power besides permanence, that is, the power of anonymity. When getting lost among strangers is made into a deliberate act, we are empowered by it, we get drunk on it. Unfortunately, everything is a potential addiction, and we inevitably lose control of our anonymity. The constant onslaught of humans on the earth, of which we ourselves are a part, achieves monstrous dimensions on the internet. Everything repeats itself and is lost. In most cases, this amnesia of the self is too much for us. We grab at chances of recognition and notoriety (and in this very moment, ‘internet trolls’ are conceived). Eventually, we accept our fate and are forced to sit back and watch ourselves be carried away by a flood of Instagram poetry, Throwback Thursdays and #FoodpornPhotography. No matter how hard we try not to, we end up experiencing and creating the same mise-en-scene of modern life online as others.
Rilke in Paris, 1906
The human race has endured this fear of getting lost before, albeit specifically as a post-industrial metropolitan anxiety. It came to India later than it did to the rest of the world. During the 30s and 40s, Bhuwaneshwar still might not have experienced this anxiety in the university towns of northern India where he spent most of his life, his dissolution seems to have been entirely internal. The threats of a loss of self though, had already been felt by artists and writers of early 20th century Europe. For instance, in a desperate attempt at self-preservation in the face of Parisian urbanity, German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in 1903 – “Often I had to say to myself out loud that I was not one of them, that I would once again leave that dreadful city where they (Parisians) would die.”
But nobody dies on the internet.
Turning away from the horror of our collective existence among the dead, we find other ways to utilize the immortality of all things electronic. Anything that was once fleeting becomes permanent, from meals and sunsets, to music performances and museum installations. Our butterfly net of live-streams and incessant documentation, captures everything. This is not to say that documentation holds no value in itself. Once a documented experience enters the public domain, it is multiplied in other minds. In experiencing art, especially visual art, the process of sharing becomes even more powerful. The internet favors consumers in a struggle between them and the artist, and what results is a proliferation of influences and dream material, the curation of which becomes entirely personal to the consumer. The artist, meanwhile, eternally inhabits the ‘Lost and Found’ section of a consumer’s imagination.
If the abstraction of an artist is characteristic to the Internet age, what was common before, was a loss of the piece of art itself. The dangers of this loss opened up wider for artists who failed to embrace celebrity in their time. Bhuwaneshwar’s plays, which were written entirely in Hindi have mostly all survived, but his English poetry exists, at least on the internet, only in its Hindi translations as done by Shamsher Bahadur Singh after his death. Keeping in mind the explosive political atmosphere that engulfed the subcontinent in the 40s, in addition to Bhuwaneshwar’s own erratic lifestyle, this apparent loss of his English poetry doesn’t come as a surprise. The void of them, or the void of discourse surrounding them, however, can certainly be felt in the abrupt journey of Indian poetry in English from Victorian ornateness in the 1910s to modernist imagism in the 1960s.
At other times, certain artworks threatened by loss, have been saved merely through their vicinity to our electronic age. Armenian director Maria Sakyaan created a brilliant representation of the post-Soviet South Caucasus in her 2006 movie, The Lighthouse. The original negatives of the film however were lost, only for it to be restored from a theatrical print in digital format. Saakyan, who was also Armenia’s first female director, died young. She was 37 when she died of cancer, exactly a decade younger than Bhuwaneshwar on his passing.
Lena walks to her village, The Lighthouse (2006)
It is fair to say that our world is prone to patterns and more than often, we find tragedies forming progressions of themselves – in the death of young artists, in hurricanes, and in war. The war which suggestively rages on in the background of Saakyan’s The Lighthouse repeats itself after almost three decades, in 2020.
The Lighthouse in its focal narrative strand, shows Lena, a young woman, returning from Moscow to her war ridden village in the Caucasus with its mountains and tumbling houses. An extended shot of her walking down the misty train tracks towards her aunt’s house is interspersed with a voice-over whispering, “Strange birds in the new found grey sky, strange faces on the city’s strange body”.
One wonders of the alien strangeness that must engulf those mountains again, this time in the age of the internet, with more ways to immortalize memories than before, but hardly any device with which to avert pain and fear and human loss. Is there any consolation in our existence as immortal trees within the wild jungle of the Internet?
In the movie, as Lena’s aunt Kasiana wrestles with her fear of the war, she describes a dream to her niece that she once had as a little girl –
“It was scary because I couldn’t move. Then I realized I shouldn’t move because inside of me there’s the whole world – land, water, sun, bubbles of air…”
In war, and outside of it, we are overwhelmed by the infinities within which we exist. In fact, our wars themselves result from a need to self-define our boundaries of nation, language or culture. The absence of a world that revolves within our boundaries is what alienates us from it. The need for it, although, is almost natal in nature. Perhaps, it is this same need which first pulls us into our online existence and then makes us recoil from it once we spot its replicas outside of ourselves.
We spin webs out of worlds only to get stuck in them repeatedly, perhaps the only way out of these webs if there is one, is to become a world in ourselves, as Kasiana says.
Priyanshi Singh is a student of literature, amateur classical vocalist and an avid watcher of cat videos. She blogs at thethirdfig.blogspot.com