Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
How to introduce our interview with Jivesh Parasram (we can call him Jiv)…. Rather, what to say that will be succinct? Because there is quite a lot to say about this maverick theatre creator who, in addition to writing and performing, is the Associate Artistic Producer of Theatre Passe Muraille and also the Artistic Producer of Pandemic Theatre, the company he co-founded with Tom Arthur Davis. His new solo show “Take d Milk, Nah?” is an ingenious blend of personal storytelling and ritual that explores race, religion and nationalism. It began as a back-and-forth banter between two brothers stuck in a car during a blizzard and has since become a sought-after offering at CAMINOS 2017 and a part of Theatre Passe Muraille‘s 50th anniversary season as a Pandemic Theatre and b current performing arts co-production.
During our interview, several things become clear: Jiv has an innate knack for expressing his ideas in a way that is at once wildly entertaining and a catalyst for deep thought. What could become scathing or savage in someone else’s hands becomes analytic, wry, and shrewd in Jiv’s. As a result, he can treat subjects such as otherness, exclusion, belonging and cultural divides with an erudite compassion that lingers in the psyche. Bold in the most productive sense, he doesn’t consider any topic off limits — cows (including but not limited to birthing cows, milking cows, Trini cows, and varieties of cow speak), religion, philosophy, mysticism, and even spices– elaborating on all with a puckish yet respectful wit. As it turns out, we both have a lot to say, and our conversation is best presented as it happened. Afterall, Jiv is the source. Also, he is hilarious. And his effect can be felt long after he’s left the space. Bovine impressions notwithstanding.
SesayArts: “Take d Milk, nah?”…Very evocative title! In my mind, I can hear the tonal lilt and see the head tilt. What came first, the title or the play? Why this title?
JP: It’s hard to say. Practically, the play came first. But it wasn’t a play exactly. I first performed it as a story that didn’t need a title at Pressgang Theatre’s “Milestones” storytelling event. It was a night focussed on the general theme of major milestones in life, and for me that was the story of Birthing a Cow – or kind of Birthing a Cow, and an expansion of why that was so important for me. When I presented the piece at b current performing arts’ RPS festival in a slightly more theatrical version, I needed a title, and it seemed to be appropriate.
Further back though, the actual genesis of the title comes from an intense two-day road trip I took with my brother and sister-in-law. It was my niece’s first Christmas, and we decided that we would all drive down to Nova Scotia from Ontario to surprise my brother who lived there. On the drive down, we were hit with an immense blizzard somewhere between Quebec and New Brunswick. As we barrelled down a very slippery and icy highway -and having been walled up in a car together for a very long time – our conversation devolved to just making animal sounds. I do a pretty solid Cow impression from spending time with cows in Trinidad. I don’t buy the whole cows say “moo” thing and am pretty adamant that at least cows with a Trini accent make a sound more like “Neeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaah!” So, then it turned into a “Trini Cow” which we translated to basically be saying “Take d milk Naaaaaaaaah? Eh All’yuh, Come and Take d milk Naaaaaaaaaaah?” We did that for a very long time.
SesayArts: Considering Pandemic Theatre’s aim to create work that is “simultaneously dangerous… and… that responds to issues that effect and affect the larger common public,” what was the genesis of this work? How do its themes fulfill Pandemic’s aim?
JP: This isn’t what I’d call the most dangerous of Pandemic’s work per se. Our last piece, at Summerworks, The Only Good Indian, was more in that vein. And what I would describe as our most dangerous piece Daughter, a co-production with QuipTake and The Theatre Centre, is premiering this November and certainly is more that route.
“Take d Milk” is softer. At least so far. We’re still in development and the version of the piece that’ll be at CAMINOS is probably a bit softer than the full production will be. But in some ways that softness is where the risk comes from. Specifically, as a male performer/creator I think there’s a tendency or an expectation to “go hard” – but this is more a story about family and identity and the borders are, well, more liminal.
It’s weird to say, but at its core, I’ve probably been more challenged in this piece than anything else I’ve ever worked on because it’s so deeply personal. And for a myriad of reasons, I don’t have the answers for the questions I have to ask myself. That’s a pretty painful thing to realize – that you don’t know why you are the way you are. And in that, there’s a link towards the affect of the common public. “Take d Milk” is engaging in diasporic themes of placelessness, you know? The pang of not belonging anywhere.
SesayArts: What do you hope the audience will talk about on the way home from seeing “Take d Milk, Nah?”?
JP: At this phase, I’d be pretty happy if they came away reinvestigating their relationship with cows. Cause I think cows are awesome.
SesayArts: Can you fill us in on some ‘Hin-do’s and Hin-don’ts’ that have irked you growing up and their place in “Take d Milk, Nah?” (without spoilers, of course)?
JP: No spoilers – the hard part about Hinduism – maybe the best part – is that there is a lot of grey area. It’s a vast religion that’s not really a religion, more a composite of philosophies and customs and in my experience, there aren’t many rules besides the standard “BE GOOD!” But I guess the difference with Hinduism is that it’s more “BE GOOD!…Or you know, like, whatever… probably….I mean – do your best – it’ll all work out. Hey, you want some food? We got food. You should eat something. You do you, dude. You do you.”
I’m a Bramhin, which is often viewed as the highest caste. (Especially by Bramhins). That’s a privilege on a level that people unaffected by the caste system may not be able to understand. And I know that there are some people who, for very valid reasons, write me off for being a Bramhin, and others who listen more to what I have to say.
Personally, I think the caste system is archaic – quite a Hin-don’t so to speak. It’s a rigid system that to me, makes no sense in a philosophy that is so fluid. Some people blame occupiers like the British Raj for how its developed, but you can’t blame external forces for your own idiocy.
But – here’s the thing. My Hinduism – it’s not the same as all Hinduism. There is a kind of Hinduism that has become deeply interwoven with Nationalism. I want no part of that. That to me is the biggest Hin-don’t. Nationalism is a plague on the world. It creates borders. And to quote one of my biggest artistic influences Serj Tankian, “Borders are, the gallows of our collective national egos / Subjective, lines in sand / In the water separating everything / Fear is the cause of separation / Backed with illicit conversations / Procured by constant condemnations / National blood-painted persuasions.”
You wanna see the biggest Hin-don’t of them all? – look up Hindu Nationalism. Look up Hinduatva – and you’ll find what for me – is the biggest perversion of what Hindu philosophy teaches.
Practically – in a religion/philosophy that’s all about grey area, the biggest Hin-don’ts that irk me are when people try to state something to be a fact. Because truth is subjective.
But the one thing I share with some Hinduatva – Cows are awesome. And you should never harm a cow.
SesayArts: CAMINOS is a festival of new works-in-progress…Where is “Take d Milk, Nah?” in its development, and where is it headed?
JP: We’ll be premiering the full production on April 12th, 2018 as a co-production with b current performing arts with the support of Theatre Passe Muraille in their backspace theatre. The version we’ll be showing at CAMINOS is going to be a preview that might change a considerable amount. The core of the story should remain the same, but I have a tendency to completely revamp projects in different incarnations. We’re going to be working through an intensive process of content generation based on my autoethnographic research over the past few months and a lot of collective research between myself and my co-creators Tom Arthur Davis and Graham Isador. At the end of the day, I can’t say what the piece will become, but the themes of family, home, religion, and separation will be the underpinning current.
SesayArts: The ‘About’ page of the Pandemic Theatre website has “Another world is possible.” in stand-alone prominence…Ideally, what kind of world do you hope that “Take d Milk, Nah?” will help to inspire?
JP: That quote comes from a Zapatista philosophy. It’s what drives all of what we do at Pandemic. We believe that the role of art is to stimulate alternative ways of thinking. When it comes to “Take d Milk, nah?” I’m hoping that we can inspire a more holistic thinking of religion and resistance that can transcend nationalistic tendencies. It’s a pretty lofty goal. But hey, if we don’t get it this time, maybe in the next incarnation.
SesayArts: What would you like to add that I haven’t asked?
JP: Nah, I just talked a ton. Play’s funny though! I make cow sounds!
1.What makes you a ‘fine maker of dhal’?
Well… probably Hing. Or Asafoetida. It’s a basic spice you can pick up from Carlos’s House of Spice in Kensington, or any Indian grocer. It’s like MSG except natural. I think. Well, I choose to think. Honestly, I don’t care. That stuff is brilliant.
2. What has been your family’s reaction to Take d Milk, nah??
They’re quite excited about it. Too excited considering they don’t know that much about it. But such is the South Asian way.
3. What work are you most interested to see at CAMINOS?
Everything. Basically, any time Aluna comes out to play and brings a gang, it’s going to be brilliant.
4. What’s one thing about Bea Pizano everyone should know?
Bea is by far one of the strongest actors in the country – but what people should really know – is that for all her talent and success, she transfers that into building up others. Particularly forging space for young artists is what folks can see coming up at CAMINOS.
5. What is one thing you would like us to know about you, beyond your theatre work? Anything that might surprise?
I can fly a helicopter. Nah, that’s not true. But I saw one once.
I once drank only milk for two weeks…. In my Adult Life.
News You Can Use
What: “Take d Milk, Nah?” created and performed by Jiv Parasram; Directed by Tom Arthur Davis; Dramaturgy by Graham Isador
When: October 5, 2017, a part of CAMINOS 2017, Presented by Aluna Theatre in partnership with Native Earth Performing Arts
Where: Aki Studio & Ada Slaight Hall, in the Daniels Spectrum building, 585 Dundas Street East, Toronto, ON
For info and tickets: caminos.ca and 416.531.1402
When: April 10–22, 2018, a Pandemic Theatre and b current performing arts co-production with the support of Theatre Passe Muraille
Where: Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, ON
For info and tickets: passemuraille.ca and 416.504.8989
More about the Artist: PandemicTheatre.ca
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya