In Retrospect: Select plays of the 9th National Theatre Festival at
Nehru Centre, Mumbai.

The 9th national theatre festival organized by the Nehru Centre in Mumbai ended on September 1, 2005 with a Sanskrit play titled KARNABHARAM, written by Mahakavi Bhasa. According to the organizers, the play could be seen as a fitting end to a festival marked by a variety of forms, traditions and languages. Directed by Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, one of the well-known figures in the world of Indian theatre, the performance was a stylized representation in Sanskrit of an episode from the Mahabharata.

The play drew on the dance form of Kathakali and the martial art form of Kerela-Kalaripayttu to present its dramatic content. As is evident from the title of the play, the dramatic narrative revolved around Karna, Kunti's ill-fated son begot by the Sun God, Surya. Bhasa's play delineates Karna's hour of trial in the face of the raging war at Kurukshetra. On the one hand, his mother Kunti has pleaded with him not to kill his brother Arjuna, on the other Indra in the guise of a Brahamin takes advantage of Karna's large heart and deceives him into giving up his protective armour and earrings. Nevertheless, Indra repents his fraudulent action and sends a weapon to Karna with which he could kill one of the Pandavas.

Despite minor glitches with regards to the inability of a couple of actors to position themselves gracefully on the ground after one or the other aerial bodily movements, most of the other actors were practiced in their footwork and body movements. But stylization has its own problems and one such problem that seemed evident in a play of this kind was that character played second fiddle to form. While movement was competent as was the case especially with the actor who played Surya, the emotion that emanates from the being of the character and which is the pulse of drama remained largely muted.

What simply shone through was the dexterity with which the actors with the help of their bodies could create objects and images. The live music with the help of instruments and vocals nevertheless infused the play with an ambience that the character felt short of creating.

On a more contemporary note, Mahesh Dattani's FINAL SOLUTIONS directed by Arvind Gaur easily stood out as one of the few truly satisfying experiences of this eleven day treat for the senses. Presented by the Asmita theatre group (which is based in Delhi) and translated from English into Hindi by Shahid Anwar, Dattani's play seeks to de-sensationalize communalism and its extremities.

The subject that has often been prey to heightened drama (or melodrama?) finds itself reduced or rather alleviated to an objective inquiry in the manner of a behavioral psychologist or an anthropologist seeking to research its genealogy and later stages of development. And yet, despite the script's logical and questioning stance, it is pure drama with its narrative and characters weaving an engrossing story and a string of events for its audience to ponder upon.

This story concerns a Gujarati lady Hardika and her family. When the play opens, Hardika is both young and old. Her youth talks of the past while her aged self lives in a present, bitter and withdrawn. This stylistic device of using two actors consecutively to represent one character works very well in a play seeking to probe beyond the obvious. As the old Hardika is haunted by her trenchant memories, the youthful one although zestful is finally shown to break down in the face of a communal acrimony that results between her husband's family and his Muslim neighbours.

As the unpleasant memories of the past continue to hound Hardika, her son, Ramnik Gandhi too is shown suffering in the face of his own conscience. Redemption of the hatred and the guilt that is wrecking each comes in the form of two Muslim boys Javed and Babban who are sheltered by Ramnik Gandhi during a communal riot. Much against his mother and wife, Aruna's whishes, Ramnik Gandhi is drawn towards helping the two young boys. His teenage daughter Smita also uses the opportunity to confront her mother who is a staunch Hindu and to understand her own subtle prejudices owing to a religious and devout upbringing.

As the dramatic tension (neatly orchestrated by a chorus) rises in the play, the subterranean psyche of each character is laid bare. Abuses are hurled, raw passions are evoked, attempts at reconciliation are made and prejudices and fears are acknowledged. It is almost as if the characters have spent an afternoon in the psychologist's couch that has emotionally drained them.

The beauty of the script indeed lies in its ability to relentlessly and sensitively question. Its urgent need to use 'dialogue' as a remedy for a socially pressing issue such as communalism, is the play's underlying theme. Arvind Gaur's direction is commendable. While the front of the stage is peopled by the principal characters who are psychologically exorcizing themselves, the back part of the stage has a chorus whose role is as symbolic as it is instrumental in furthering the action in the play when required.

In the process, some evocative compositions are created on the stage and which by themselves serve to create symbolic connections between what the character is experiencing in the present and what s/he has been through in the past. Music designed by Dr. Sangeet Gaur complements the performance well and although the actors could do better, the play succeeds in creating a charged and a thought-provoking atmosphere.

Yet another play in Hindi that was fairly engaging was ARTH DOSH presented by Third Bell Theatre of Bhopal and directed by Anoop Joshi 'Bunty'. ARTH DOSH is a Hindi translation of Albert Camu's THE MISUNDERSTANDING (Le Malentendu). While the director was at pains to make the audience reflect on the symbolism inherent in the set and the props used for the play after it was over, it was evident that most members of the packed auditorium on that evening had found the play boring and inaccessible to say the least.

Camus' vision of the world as absurd, the panoply of his characters trying to make sense of their existence seemed too foreign in a world engaged with incessant mobile phone rings that were particularly irksome that evening. But the audience could not be blamed completely. Although the actors gave controlled performances as befitting their characters, they were unable to project their voices well and that made people all the more restless.

Parts of a painted panel representing Christ's last supper were used as a figurative backdrop along with other metaphorical props to add a physical dimension to the plight of the characters in the play. In bits and parts, appropriate lighting also created an enigmatic mood, which was reflective of the characters' state of mind itself. Martha, the principal character who relentlessly murders her unsuspecting guests using her mother as a weary accomplice, offers a critique of a society in which a woman is made to compromise her dreams endlessly. Unfortunately again, that is the only aspect of the play that comes through in this Hindi translation of the original.

The play loses out on the socio-political and the cultural references of the French original. For instance, Camus it seems had written this play during World War II when France was occupied by Nazi forces. While Martha could be seen as a victim despite her seemingly superior status as an aggressor, there is no doubt that her motives also need to be examined with reference to the times she was living in. Murder is a cardinal sin as far as Christian morality is concerned. Could Camus be also using Martha as an extreme example with reference to the war in which there was no place for ethics or anything of the sort. Perhaps this could be another reason why a culturally different audience in time and space found it difficult to relate to the play.

After ZEN KATHA, playwright Pratap Sharma's latest offering to Lilette Dubey's Prime Time Theatre Company is SAMMY! - 'A word that broke an empire.' Unlike the former, which was cramped with anecdotal trivia, this one has at least attempted to get its fundamental research right. In the process, a history lesson, reminiscent of those cloying hours at school gets its deserved two-hour reprieve on the stage. Most of the actors were proficient (Joy Sengupta as Gandhi manages to give a decent performance despite his cultivated Gujarati accent betraying him at times) and the set is elegant. The music designed is not remarkable but agrees with the largely unquestioning treatment of the subject. Light-design is favourable.

So Mahatma Gandhi's biography gets yet another theatrical ministration and a device such as having two actors play Gandhi (Vijay Crishna plays Gandhi's alter-ego and conscience) helps to an extent to demystify the status of the 'father of the nation'. More often than not however, the play works at the level of pleasing recreation without leaving any space for a critique or a debate, considering the magnanimity and the scope of its subject. And I really wonder if it was necessary to make use of the evidently forced Gujarati accent… It sounded patently false, save for the genuine attempts that Neha Dubey (Kasturba) and Joy Sengupta (Gandhi) were making.

One of the best plays of the festival was Awishkaar's production of JUNGLE MEIN MANGAL. Adapted from Shakespeare's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, the play has indulged in cross casting and as a result one has male actors playing the female characters and vice-versa. The male actors do a superb job as against their female counterparts and set the stage for risqué entertainment a la Dada Kondke of popular Marathi culture.

The fantastical world of fairies hobnobbing with humans is made further entertaining by the introduction of a traditional folk form of Maharashtra- the lavani. Each of these diverse elements calls for a lesson in theatre aesthetics arising out of the imaginative use of knowledge at one's disposal.

An equally good play was the Gujarati AATHMA TARANU AAKASH presented by Fade-In theatre from Ahemdabad. Written and directed by the young Saumya Joshi, the play seeks to dignify the lives of an underprivileged section of our society surviving on the fringes of existence. Saumya Joshi has infused the play with a poetic grandeur that has its Gujarati audience completely bowled over. The refrains of the very vocal 'vah-vah' were endless during the performance.

But credit must be given to this young Gujarati chap who has indeed written a fine play and directed it well too. The simplicity of its plot, its brutal reality and its contemplative and alluring execution in turn are bound to leave one misty-eyed. What is truly commendable about this play is that it touches a chord without being a tearjerker. Sympathy is replaced by a genuine empathy of what it means to be an underdog and of how the human spirit has the gumption to hold out in the direst of circumstances. Alag's grandfather in the play despite being a 'romantic' does not cast a romanticized figure of himself. The lighting is very well executed and the set with minimal efficiency creates a world eking out its existence in the under-belly of poverty, filth and crime.

Bertolt Brecht's pointed social commentary in THE THREEPENNY OPERA finds an imperfect companion in a Konkani adaptation of the play titled TEEN PAISHANCHO TIATR. The play is undoubtedly interesting (quite entertaining too in the way it has been adapted) but it misses out on the Brechtian sensibility. Although it is faithful to the original in terms of its subject and plot, it trivializes the same by succumbing to the excessive use of Hindi film tunes. For Brecht, music and songs did not necessarily have to be aligned to action or were means to continue it; in fact he saw them as creating a disjoining effect.

So while this adaptation of the 'beggars' comedy' as the play is popularly referred to succeeds in making a critique at the beginning of the play, it does not progress in the same vein towards an examination of the action of the characters involved. True to the nature of the film songs it resorts to, it remains trivialized. Brecht would have been disappointed but it would not be wrong to say that perhaps he may have appreciated the attempt.

Despite the Nehru theatre festival claiming to be a national theatre festival, there were quite a few plays from Mumbai itself. One wonders if the number of plays from Mumbai could have been fewer in order to make space for more plays from other parts of India. If the festival had a theme in place, it was ambiguous. A representation of plays on a nation wide scale is not only welcome in theatre festivals but is also much required. The organizers could however do better by chalking out a plan that would consider various aspects.

Some of these include building on networks to find out about groups who are doing good work but have not received a desired platform as yet, an assessment of plays by an eclectic group of theatre practitioners, critics and academics, audience participation in discussions and workshops, etc. Perhaps these suggestions sound utopian but they along with a host of others need to be considered in order to make the hosting of festivals a fruitful and a fulfilling endeavour. The host institution/organization must bypass typical cul-de-sacs such as the dearth of funds and the lack of time required for planning. I am aware that this is all easier said than done but surely an effort in the right direction may yield some benefits after all.

- Deepa Punjani.

(The writer is Editor, Mumbai Theatre Guide, a practicing theatre critic and an academic keenly interested in 'Performance Studies'.).


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