5 December 2008

Stamboul train: Mohan Maharishi's play 'Main Istanbul Hoon'

Published in the theatre pages of Time Out Delhi, Oct 2008: 

Trisha Gupta finds Mohan Maharishi travelling in time. Again.

Mohan Maharishi has never been to Istanbul. But he visits it all the time, in his mind. This fortnight, when his new production, Main Istanbul Hoon, opens its doors to the public, you can travel some of the way with him. It’s likely to be a complicated journey, moving not just from Delhi to Istanbul, but looping and whorling backwards in time, first to the mid-twentieth century and then the sixteenth. Maharishi hopes to conjure up something of the splendour and melancholy of another grand old city for Delhi’s audiences. “I’m interested in the resonances between Delhi and Istanbul. When I read histories of Ottoman Istanbul, I am reminded of Ghalib trudging knee-deep in blood, from Delhi to some place of sanctuary, in 1857,” he told us. “Both places have the same kind of division between Old City and New. In Delhi, there is also the third, which I sometimes call the ‘Ugly Delhi’, ever-spreading…”

Drawing on works by the celebrated Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, Main Istanbul Hoon has as its central character a crotchety, cynical old man called Resat Ekrem Kocu, a popular historian of Istanbul who spent much of his life writing historical columns for newspapers. Kocu appears in Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories of a City, a somewhat eccentric figure, forever torn between his fascination with “the oddities, the weirdness of life in the margins” and his admiration for grand Western classificatory systems. The product of this conflict was his greatest labour of love: an anarchic encyclopaedia devoted to Istanbul, on which he spent 20 years, only to finally abandon it 11 volumes later, having reached the letter G.

Maharishi takes this fascinating – and all-too-real – character, and builds around him a theatrical web of fantasy. Gathering material for the 12th volume of his encyclopaedia, Maharishi’s Kocu travels to the sixteenth century, where a complicated love story is playing itself out (with more than a nod towards My Name is Red). A talented painter falls in love with his first cousin. Unable to deal with the wrath of her father, his uncle Usman, the painter leaves the city. Returning from his travels after 12 years, he is shocked by how much Istanbul has changed. “There is so much more traffic, noise, people…” Maharishi smiles at how this sixteenth-century reference is an indicator of our own times.

The creator of Einstein and Vidyottama discovered a long time ago that the stage offers unlimited creative possibilities if you want to play with time. “The old unities of time, place and character are not necessary. If you move convincingly between centuries, the audience will move with you,” he said. He reminisced about Einstein, possibly his best-remembered play, in which three Einsteins meet – the school-going child, the youthful one and the old professor in Princeton, very famous but marginalised. “No one questioned it,” Maharishi said. “The audience enjoyed the sensation. The young Einstein is excited. He’s going to propose to Mileva today; he’s full of her. The old one turns and says, ‘Mileva died today’. There is drama in this, drama created by time.”

Created for the National School of Drama’s golden jubilee celebrations and performed by the NSD’s highly competent repertory, Main Istanbul Hoon is simultaneously a love story set in sixteenth-century Istanbul and a paean to the city that lives on. It is also a tribute to Orhan Pamuk. “Pamuk writes about how, when he abandoned an architectural career, his mother was very angry. There’s a scene in my play, when his mother says, ‘You probably think you’re somewhere in Europe, where you say the word Picasso and the water freezes. But this is not Europe. This is Turkey, and who cares about art here?’” There are resonances here too. Maharishi can only hope that Delhi audiences will recognise them.

Time Out Delhi
, Vol 2 Issue 15 (Oct 17 - Oct 30, 2008)

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