Looking back in awe

Looking back, the last year has been a good year for theatre. It started off on a promising note with the Bharat Rang Mahotsava, the international theatre festival, where the best plays were those presented by the National School of Drama’s graduates. These were inspired plays, each different from the other in style and content, for instance Andha Yug, a verse play on the last days of the Mahabharata by Dharamvir Bharti, always done with deep respect for the written word, was torn apart to discover its meaning for today. The young man, who conceived and designed the play, Pravin Kumar Gunjan, had no qualms about using a rock band, an electric wired wall through which Sanjay, the narrator of the events as they occur to the blind Dhritarashtra and the blindfolded Gandhari, comes dressed like a wireless communicator in metallic dress with receptor wires hanging on the clothes. These were but a few conceptions of a contemporary mind in its revolutionary interpretation of Andha Yug considered to be the first modern play in Hindi.
To take a tragedy like Jean-Paul Sartre’s version of The Trojan Women and interpret it with elements from Malayalam performing arts forms, requires both a deep knowledge of their ritualistic details and the imagination to link the classical text with the selected traditional symbols. Kumaradas T.N.’s first staging in the open air was a beautiful amalgam of the two elements. The Greek ship bringing Agamemnon and Menelaus to retrieve Helen, who has run away with Paris of Troy, was seen in the background against the conquered women of Troy (wielding brooms and buckets) depicted as untouchables or dalits. Thus Kumaradas provides the entry of the classical text into contemporary Indian reality by showing woman as severally exploited — by the male sex, by the social conditions of being a Dalit, by society’s attitude to the female sex. His connection with cultural formulations is evinced in the use of “kolams” or floor designs made from coloured powders, the headgear representing the female genitals for Cassandra, the virgin daughter of Queen Hecuba who loses her head when told she is to be married to Agamemnon, the trough of red water at the entrance which turns the enemy’s clothes red as they step into it, and several other theatrical icons that reveal a visual sensibility.
In Rang Abhang, Gaurav Sharma reveals a sensitive and creative approach to a text which is created out of his research on the ubiquitous prompter in theatre that led Gaurav to Maharashtra. As conceived by him, the play is as much about the socio-political reality as the “hidden reality” of theatre. The prompter is part of the grand “illusion” of theatre and he is also the vehicle through which one look at the caste hierarchy and the socio-political system as it operates in the Company Natak system. While the actors are all Brahmin or of upper caste the prompter belongs to the lower castes, so when Ram Nagarkar, a great folk singer is picked up by the manager/director to sing in his company Natak there is a revolt. He is made the prompter. Even that is not acceptable to the cast members who depend on the prompter to get through the play. Nagarkar picks up the opera quickly and the audience notices him as a better singer than the actors he is prompting. The leading lady falls in love with Nagarkar and finally marries him. The device Gaurav uses to pinpoint the issue is a sweeper painted blue who comes in at crucial points to advise Nagarkar on his situation. Asif Ali, another NSD graduate whose plays like Kafka, Shahjahanpur ki Shahzadi and Mast Kalandar, Bawli, Station etc have been successfully performed, penned this entertaining script in collaboration with Gaurav.
Another enchanting play was When I Was A Child. Conceived and directed by Rajendra Panchal, it is a wordless display of vignettes from life. Using ordinary everyday objects like umbrellas, chairs, tables, blackboards, books, etc, Panchal created a poetic piece of theatre that touched the audience across ages. The language of communication, derived from the actors informing the objects as much as the object inspiring the actor, is exhaustively explored. Through this process, the actors imbued energy into the objects that combined with the inherent energy in the objects to create a new dynamism.
The discovery of the year is Malayalam director Deepan Shivaraman and his Oxygen Theatre Company from Thrissur whose play Spinal Cord swept the 2009 Meta with 11 awards, including the best play, best director and best actor. Inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel Chronicle of A Death Foretold is an extraordinary example of visual theatre in appropriated space. Deepan is currently doing a practice-led Ph.D. exploring the topic “Spatial identities and Visual Language in Indian theatre” at Wimbledon College of Art in London and he also teaches scenography at the University of Arts, London. He visits his home town Thrissur once a year to work with the oxygen company of superb actors.
Deepan has created an interpretation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt for the Ibsen Festival held in New Delhi December this year. Staged in the arena format, like Spinal Cord, it had audiences seated on four sides of the performing space. Spinal Cord traces the story of a murder in a village which is revisited 25 years after its occurrence. The whimsical naming of her violator by a bride returned to her family and her brothers enraged hounding and murder of an innocent man forms the central theme of the drama. This tragedy is seen through the eyes of the 80-year-old mother brilliantly played by Gopalan K., who oscillates between the past and the present.
The play, like the novel, does not proceed sequentially. The murder of Santiago, brilliantly crafted as the brother chases his victim through the audience seated in four blocks on all sides of the arena, is enacted after the police enquiry. Deepan cleverly uses space behind the audience for the chase, the Bishop’s procession and other meaningful entries to create suspense and power the environment. On one side of the acting area video screen on which are flashed images that carry the story forward or illustrate the event. Some are relevant like the gradual decline of the house San Roman acquires forcefully from a poor widower for his bride.
Spinal Cord a play about honour killing, when rigid honour codes can bring about a man’s death and drive two peaceful brothers to murder while the whole town watches and decides to do nothing, resounds in India. Peer Gynt is explored for its visual language by Deepan who adapts the Ibsen play to the Indian situation; the US-returned rich Peer’s attempts to befriend the mafia and failing and becoming a sadhu (a holy man) and being lynched for attempting to rape an acolyte. Visually great scenes are the confrontation with oversized baby son Peer bore a troll woman, the manner in which he rapes the woman, he abducts from the church on her wedding day, the sequence of the storm in a ship with Peer and that great actor Gopalan K. makes one feel the stage actually shaking. Peer’s mother’s death in the hospital where the sound track is the moans and groans of the patients, and several more effects bear witness to Deepan’s genius.
There were a few good original plays staged. The group Kshitij, run by the dynamic Bharti Sharma, staged two original plays. Masterpiece, written by Mohit Tripathi and brilliantly enacted by Bharti and Mohit, raises questions on art and life: Is the art work more important than the human being? What is inspiration in the context of human love and desires? What is that special gene that drives artists like Avinash to insanity? Begum Zainabadi, based on a novel by Sharad Pagare and directed by Bharti, revealed an unknown side of Aurangzeb. The religious fundamentalist Mogul emperor’s love affair with Hira of Zainabad, whom he met during his Deccan sojourn and gave up for the emperorship of Hindustan. The play was enacted in flashbacks as the old Aurangzeb recalls Hira while dictating his autobiography.
The contribution of the technical departments is very important in theatre today. For instance, Himanshu B. Joshi’s excellent lighting is integral part of all Kshitij productions. Prashant Parmar, this year’s NSD graduate’s contribution in lighting up two graduate productions was in no small measure responsible for their excellence. Faros Khan chose Pedro Paramo by the Mexican writer of magic realism Juan Rulfo. Deserted villages of rural Mexico, where images and memories of the past linger like unquiet ghosts, haunted the imaginations of the author. In one such village of the mind, Comala, he set his classic novel Pedro Paramo, a dream-like tale that intertwines a man’s quest to find his lost father and reclaim his patrimony with the father’s obsessive love for a woman who will not be possessed, Susana San Juan. The non-linear narrative proceeds in incidents that are complete in themselves and yet bear a relationship with each other as they concern the same characters. Feroz Khan directed the dark and tragic play with skill and understanding.
Hamlet Machine by the iconoclast writer Heiner Muller of erstwhile East Germany, translated into Hindi by Manavendra Kumar Tripathi and directed by Anjali Shinde (Patil), is not so much a play as a performance text rife with images and ideas. Shakespeare’s characters are symbolic of the angst against the communist regime, of a failed revolution, and of the options offered by the consumer consumed capitalism. If Ophelia represents the ravages of the regime, Hamlet, divested of power is victimised and engulfed in the horrors round him (Claudius the murderer of his father, usurper of the throne and father’s bed is ugliness personified. Gertrude his mother is in the pits of degradation, and Horatio a cesspool of filth) tries to find a comforting role — maybe as a girl as Anjali and Manavendra who plays Hamlet interpret him. It was a brilliant performance by the entire cast and intelligent direction by Anjali.
The work being done in the National School of Drama with the students and the work the students put in on their own to succeed and to acquire the best from their alma mater gives them hope for the future in theatre. Unfortunately, in the absence of a thriving theatre movement which can absorb this talent, it is forced to sell out to TV and film. Both problems can be tackled by introducing theatre as a subject in schools. This would give the NSD graduates satisfying work and lead to the creation of a theatre audience of the future.
Besides the annual Theatre Utsav, the Bharat Rang Mahotsav organised by the NSD, which is the largest theatre festival with some 150 or more national and international plays, there are other equally popular theatre festivals held in Delhi. There is the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (Meta) Festival which is held to celebrate the best talent in India. The 10 awarded plays are selected by an eminent jury after the plays are shortlisted from hundreds of entries from all over the country, by another jury.
Then there is the annual Old World Theatre Festival that is accompanied by the young theatre festival where college drama societies present their work. This year, there was a young college students’ participation in the third Ibsen Festival organised by DADA, run by Amal and Nissar Allana. This year, the NSD organised North Eastern Festival, the highlight of which was Rabindranath Tagore’s Dakghar that featured the great Sabitri whose performance as the young child Amal, who is confined in a room from where he communicates with the outer world through a window, was a rare treat of the non-verbal, physicalised theatre made famous by Manipur’s cult figure Heisnam Kanhailal. There were plays from Assam, Mizoram, Meghalaya which displayed the rich culture and the traditional theatre of the region.
All the festivals have an audience, which is saying a lot for Delhi where halls are invariably empty when it comes to buying tickets for shows. Perhaps theatre will change the culture of expecting free passes a typical bureaucratic habit.

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