Direction : Mohit Takalkar
Writer : Jose Saramago
Cast : Geetanjali Kulkarni, Ajeet Singh Palawat and Nakul Bhalla


Deepa Punjani

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Once upon a time in 16th century Europe, the elephant was a spectacle- a wonder of sorts, a creature never seen before. Yes, that must be difficult to comprehend in our ''post-new'' world, but in the Europe of the time, there was indeed an Indian elephant that announced its arrival in its great cities and little towns as Solomon, later Suleiman, made an unusual journey from Lisbon to Vienna on land and in boat with his faithful mahout Subhro, later Fritz. It all started with a royal wedding gift given by King Joo III of Portugal to Archduke Maximilian of Austria. The pachyderm was the subject of the gift. The late Nobel Prize winning Portuguese writer Jos Saramago fabled this extraordinary journey in his novel 'The Elephant's Journey' (A Viagem do Elefante), which was published in 2008. It must be read.

Saramago writes:

The past is an immense area of stony ground that many people would like to drive across as if it were a motorway, while others move patiently from stone to stone, lifting each one because they need to know what lies beneath. Sometimes scorpions crawl out or centipedes, fat white caterpillars or ripe chrysalises, but it's not impossible that, at least once, an elephant might appear...

Aasakta Kalamanch's production in collaboration with Aadyam, captures little of Saramago's style. It substitutes theatricality for effect. Amitosh Nagpal's adaptation comes across as a playful yet gross reduction of the original text. The overlay of Hindi and gibberish with Spanish and Italian ( not Portuguese) overtones, and a smattering of English, German and Bengali, might have been a plausible solution to make the text accessible while retaining the tongues of its European locations, but it barely resonates. Saramago's voice is unique, but we are unable to hear or appreciate it. It does not particularly help either to watch the story unfold swivelling in a chair all along, although the use of space is clever.

There are some catching moments but they disappear as fast as they appear - like Gitanjali Kulkarni's introduction of the elephant that she portrays with command and dignity. Moments filled with awe as they should be. Kulkarni's principal co-actors, the mahout (Ajeet Singh Palawat) and the commander (Nakul Bhalla) are striking in their roles as well. The ensemble as a whole squarely conveys the sensibility and design of its director Mohit Takalkar, abled by Pradeep Vaiddya's atmospheric light design. The set is only a bunch of raised platforms but the progression of the journey is evidenced in the finely tuned lights, conveyed by lanterns and a vivid hailstorm towards the end.

Interpretation is everything. It is key to our understanding. Saramago was avowedly a communist with a deep disdain for capitalism, religion and all hierarchical structures. He was a man of the soil and of nature with a deep empathy for animals, especially dogs. The whispers shared between the elephant and his mahout are among such shared confidences that we can only yearn to know. Once again a lovely moment springs upon us in this otherwise superfluous production as Kulkarni and Palawat bring their heads together.

Saramago was a wise, sensitive and unhurried writer with a quiet wit, and was ever so skeptical of words. We get a vague sense of the hopelessness of words in the production and to some extent about the futility of faith; of the whims of the powerful and of the transient nature of life in which all surprises must eventually cease. The adaptation fleetingly picks up these core ideas from the story but misses the nuances. The wonderful fantasy and science fiction writer Ursula K Le Guin has described Saramago as a writer whose work belongs to our future. It cannot be more true.

To borrow from the man again:

News of the miracle had reached the doge's palace, but in a somewhat garbled form. the result of the successive transmissions of facts, true or assumed, real or purely imaginary, based on everything from partial, more or less eyewitness accounts to reports from those who simply liked the sound of their own voice, for, as we know all too well, no one telling a story can resist adding a period, and sometimes even a comma.

And so we have it:

Aasakta Kalamanch in association with Aadyam presents GAJAB KAHANI.

*Deepa Punjani is the Editor of this website.

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