Deepa Gahlot

Direction : Kiran Yadnyopavit
Writer : Dr. Harshvardhan Shrotri
Cast : Girish Kulkarni, Shrikant Yadav and others


Any society - and caste-ridden Indian society in particular--tends to ignore the class of workers who do what is considered 'dirty' work. Most people either pretend the streets and gutters get cleaned by themselves, or treat the people doing this work as subhuman. When it comes to working with corpses, this attitude gets worse, tinged as it is, with a kind of horror.

WHOLE BODY MASSAGE, written by Harshawardhan Shrotri and directed by Kiran Yadnyopavit (last staged at the Natya Dhara Festival at Royal Opera House), is about Vijay Shinde (Girish Kulkarni), who works in the morgue of a government hospital, and understandably, the only way he can stay sane in that dank basement is by getting drunk, and sometimes chatting with the cadavers he will go on to clean and cut for the coroner. Shinde is also an expert masseur, but that has not helped to improve his life. It seems both tragic and pervy, that Shinde falls in love with the corpse of a woman named Lily, who he preserves with care for three years. She is the kind of pretty young woman who would not normally notice a man like Shinde, leave aside letting him touch her (there is a conversation about this later in the play). Then, a scientist who is conducting some experiment, and excited about seeing such a perfectly preserved cadaver, demands that Lily be handed over to him.

A medical doctor himself, the playwright views Shinde with sympathy, and takes him on a partly real, partly imagined journey of interactions with other people - his beleaguered wife, his drinking buddy (Shrikant Yadav) who is a butcher (their scene has a slaughtered animal hanging in the background, Saint Tukaram (Abhijeet Dhere), a resentful corpse, and, of course, Lily.

After the work condition and mental state of his protagonist has been established, the play goes from realistic, to imaginary into fanciful sci-fi mode, because the premise is such, it paints itself into a corner. Still, at least in the first half of the play, there is some dark, bitter humour, later it gets forced and a strange pall of pathos falls over the stage. The minimal sets and well-designed lighting enhance the performances.

And what a performance by Girish Kulkarni-it's as if the spirit of the character he plays enters his body. The drunken slurring of his speech, the slight stagger in his walk is just the physical manifestation; the actor flays the skin of Shinde and lets the audience peer into his soul. What they see depends entirely on what they know and understand of those invisible people, who lead-to quote Thoreau-lives of quiet desperation.

(Deepa Gahlot is a journalist, columnist, author and curator. Some of her writings are on

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