Federico Garcia Lorca, the man who wouldn’t run away - Hindustan Times
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Federico Garcia Lorca, the man who wouldn’t run away

ByShoma A Chatterji
Jul 13, 2023 09:59 PM IST

The Spanish poet and playwright’s work continues to intrigue and inspire vastly different cultures even 125 years after his birth. A tribute

Then I realized I had been murdered.They looked for me in cafes, cemeteries and churches...but they did not find me.They never found me?No. They never found me.

Actors from Tribuene Teatro in Madrid, playing La Casa de Bernarda Alba, written by Federico Garcia Lorca. (Criben/Shutterstock)
Actors from Tribuene Teatro in Madrid, playing La Casa de Bernarda Alba, written by Federico Garcia Lorca. (Criben/Shutterstock)

- From The Fable And Round of the Three Friends, Poet in New York (1929)

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Few contemporary film buffs have watched Govind Nihalani’s Rukmavati Ki Haveli (1991). An unusual tragedy adapted from Spanish poet, artist and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca’s (1898 –1936) The House of Bernarda Alba, the film didn’t do well commercially. But the source material is so powerful that perhaps it’s time to revisit it as a fitting tribute to Lorca himself in this, the year of his 125th birth anniversary. Born on June 5 1898, Lorca, whose work continues to be read, appreciated and performed across the world, was murdered in 1936. His remains have never been located. It was a tragic end to a brilliant life.

A scene from Rukmavati Ki Haveli (1991) (Film still)
A scene from Rukmavati Ki Haveli (1991) (Film still)

Achieving international fame with the Generation of ’27, an influential avant garde group that emerged in Spanish circles in the 1920s, Lorca is believed to have been shot by anti-communist forces during the Spanish Civil War. Some believe he was targeted for being gay; others think it was because he as a socialist and openly criticized the Spanish nationalist right wing; while still others think his death was the result of a personal dispute. The most widely held notion is that he was killed by a Nationalist firing squad at the start of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

The House of Bernarda Alba was finished just two months before Lorca was killed. In it, he criticised the silence around violence against women and the same retrograde conservatism that perhaps led to his own end. He even seemed to foresee the long dictatorship that would have Spain in its grip until General Franscisco Franco’s death in 1975.

Though his early years demonstrated his interest in fine arts, in which he was very good indeed, with time, his inclinations turned to literature, most of it focused on nature and the immediate environs of Andalusia, where he grew up. Literature in this sense, encompassed poetry, fiction, drama and acting too. Andalusia inspired his famous poetry collections Gypsy Ballads (1928) and Lament for a Bullfighter (1935), and the three tragedies Blood Wedding (1933), Yerma (1934) and The House of Bernarda Alba (1936).

A stamp featuring Federico Garcia Lorca (Catwalk/Shutterstock)
A stamp featuring Federico Garcia Lorca (Catwalk/Shutterstock)

The work that struck me most is The Butterfly’s Evil Spell, a play he wrote, directed and staged at Madrid’s Teatro Eslava. The play deals with an injured butterfly, temporarily stranded amongst other insects, who flies away despite a cockroach’s love for her. A verse play dramatising the impossible love between the two creatures, with a supporting cast of other insects, it was laughed off the stage after only four performances. Edward Lambert later turned it into an opera that ably brought out its underlying themes of religious faith and isolation.

Given his devotion to Andalusia and Romani culture, it is unsurprising that Lorca researched and wrote extensively about the Flamenco, a living art form with ancient roots that continues to evolve today. His Poema del cante jondo ( 1921) captured the feeling of seguiriyas, soleares and saetas, all musical and literary genres of Flamenco. Today, Romancero Gitano or Gypsy Ballads are, perhaps, his most famous collection of poems in the Hispanophone world. While The First Gypsy Ballads 1924-1927, a collection of 18 romances, engages with the world of the Romani or Gitano people, the underlying themes of disappointment in love, depression and death run through all his literary works, including his remarkable plays.

Federico Garcia Lorca amid figures of other prominent authors at the wax museum in Madrid, Spain. (Javi Az/Shutterstock)
Federico Garcia Lorca amid figures of other prominent authors at the wax museum in Madrid, Spain. (Javi Az/Shutterstock)

Which brings me back to The House of Bernarda Alba. It tackles the struggle between oppression and the desire for freedom, paying particular attention to the invisible ways in which women are harmed. Lorca set the play in a specific yet indefinite time and place, which allows for the exploration of relationships. In the play, after the death of her second husband, Bernarda subjects her five daughters to eight years of rigorous mourning in which “no breath of air is going to get into this house.” Her philosophy emerges when, after the death of a daughter, she says, “At least she died a virgin”. An attack on conservatism, the play presents a woman upholding patriarchy and perpetuating the tyranny of misogyny.

Like all deeply tragic figures, Federico Garcia Lorca’s life continues to fascinate. His oeuvre continues to inspire new interpretations and fresh works of art across the world, of which Nihalani’s Rukmavati Ki Haveli is just one. Why did Lorca continue to live in Andalusia and Granada even though he knew his life was in danger? Why didn’t he move to France, Cuba or Argentina as his friend and rumoured lover Salvador Dali suggested? These are questions that have no answers.

What is certain, though, is that in death, Lorca and his brilliant work became indestructible.

Shoma A Chatterji is an independent journalist. She lives in Kolkata.

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