NSD students breathe life into the parable of theatre

The final year students of NSD staged a Hindi translation of Caucasian Chalk Circle by Kamleshwar at the Abhimanch Theatre as Ajab Judge Gazab Insaaf. The director, Robin Das, led the team through it’s paces rather well keeping in mind German modernist playwright Bertolt Brecht’s feelings regarding the text. Brecht referred to the play as a “parable of theatre”. The epic nature of the play is clear in the style of writing. It is not a straightforward narrative. It depicts the same period but tells two different stories about two very different people. In the first part, we meet Grusha, a kitchen maid working in the prince’s palace. There is a mutiny against the prince. While fleeing from the palace, the prince’s wife leaves behind her infant son in confusion.
This opening scene was very well executed in the production, bringing out the selfishness of the wife in desiring her clothes and shoes above the child. In another well-enacted sequence, Grusha, who is played by five actresses — Purnima Yengkokpam, Bandana Rawat, Mangal Sanap, Lapdiang Syiem and Bhasha Samblli — is when the maid decides to keep the child after much hesitation.
The presence of one Grusha and all five in the opening scene is well worked out. The five come together in scenes where there is a crowd or when the narrator is saying something in general.
The action is very swift on a functional set that graphically provides characters the space to express themselves. The story of Grusha as she leaves for her brother’s home after she meets the soldier Shashawa whom she promises to marry on his return from the battle, is fraught with troubles. The child has become a burden on her. When, she does not find milk anywhere she tries to breast feed him. She is also pursued by the soldiers who have been dispatched to look for the child. When she reaches her brother’s place in the hills she is not welcomed by her sister-in-law who soon gets her married to a man who is dying.
The marriage sequence is very like theatrical melodrama with a drunk priest and a feisty mother-in-law who accepts Grusha’s child after being paid extra by the brother. The moment the marriage ceremony is over the sick man gets bed out of bed. Then Grusha has to defend herself from his advances even as she has to bathe him, the war is over and the soldiers are returning.
One day as she is washing clothes by the river Shashawa comes along and she begs him to disregard the child he sees there.
An unbelieving Shashawa leaves her. Just then the two soldiers come and arrest her, despite her pleading that the child is hers. They tell her that she is lying and they have proof that she stole the royal child. Grusha is arrested and taken back to the city.
Now begins Azdak’s story. A simple villager, he is appointed judge by the soldiers since all the functionaries have been killed during the mutiny. Azdak, played very differently by Kacho Ahmad Khan, is an ambiguous character. He is neither totally good nor completely bad; he gives justice in favour of the poor and needy, but he also enjoys a good romp with a female, he takes bribes from the rich and enjoys his drink.
We see him saving the fleeing prince’s life and then giving judgments in favour of the dispossessed through his own law book on which he sits using it as a cushion. We see him playing the judge, bullying the staff and drinking and flirting with the females. Grusha is produced before Azdak who retains his post because he saved the prince’s life.
She has learnt about his kindness to the poor and is looking forward to a good judgment. But when he bluntly asks her for a bribe while accepting large amounts from the princess’ lawyers and calls her the poor riff raff she is besides herself with rage.
Azdak uses the Chalk Circle test present in an old Chinese novel and play as well in the Bible as Solomon’s Sword Test of discovering true motherliness even if motherhood is to be determined socially rather than biologically. Thus he announces the child to belong to Grusha who risked her life for the child rather than his biological mother the princess.
Azdak was played with the least amount of theatricals by Kacho Khan and he was quite effective all the same. The young cast projected a rare energy which was almost contagious. The swiftness of the action did not take anything away from the meaning of the text that is an anti-war tract speaking of a golden age when justice was for the poor.

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