5 March 2012

A Report on the 14th Bharat Rang Mahotsav

A still from Insha ka Intezaar, a Pakistani adaptation of Waiting for Godot
This year’s festival of theatre at the National School of Drama (NSD), the 14th Bharat Rang Mahotsav, staged 88 plays in total, including 14 productions that commemorated Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary. Within India, while English, Hindi, Bengali and Marathi were as usual better represented than other languages, there were productions to be seen in Tamil, Malayalam, Manipuri, Kannada, Kashmiri, Mizo and Tulu, as well as several non-verbal performances. The international round-up included plays from South Africa (Inkosazana, a lively collaboration between the University of Cape Town and fellowship students from the NSD), Nepal (a solo performance of Sara Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis), Afghanistan (an adaptation of The Little Prince in Dari) China (Peking Opera), the United Kingdom (Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon) and three productions from Poland (among them Pawel Demirski’s In the Name of Jakub S., Marta Gornicka’s Chorus of Women).

Given the enormous number of plays staged (often clashing with each other), it is impossible to watch more than a small fraction of what is on offer. Of necessity, therefore, what follows is a fairly committed theatregoer’s idiosyncratic report on the plays she did manage to watch (and found interesting).

Among the highlights of this year’s plays was the marvellously energetic Nain Nachaiya, an adaptation of Tirumalnath Aiyulnath’s Sanskrit play Prahasan Kuhuna Bhaikshav directed by Farid Bazmi and performed by Rang Vidushak, Bhopal. Founded in 1984 by the legendary Bansi Kaul, Rang Vidushak describes itself as a “laboratory for clown-theatre”, a space from which to explore the power of laughter. Nain Nachaiya is a classic comedy of mistaken identities and temporary amnesia: the central narrative involves one Bedhang Prasad, who has lost his memory and wanders the kingdom as a faux-yogi called Baba Ghotalu, is eventually restored to his wife, the redoubtable Sawaniya. But as befits a theatre troupe whose work is based on “principles taken from the performing and non-performing art-forms, on indigenous sports, childhood games, rhymes and riddles, the lilt of dialects, the ballads of minstrels, the toughness of akhadebaazi and the flexibility of natgiri”, Nain Nachaiya manages to take an ancient Sanskrit text and make of it something brilliantly entertaining, embedded in the here-and-now by the sharpness of its wit. 

From the self-obsessed king who is himself no less than a vidushak (played brilliantly by Harsh Daand in a style that reminded me of Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne) to the aphorism-coining Baba Ghotalu (a superb Uday Shahane, who delivers such wondrous lines as “Khone aur paane mein kitna sookshm antar hai” or “Nrityam Sharanam Gacchaami” with the enjoyment they deserve), the actors anchor the play’s easy laughter in something deeper. Bansi Kaul’s vibrant set and costumes make the production glorious to look at, and the spectacular set pieces are all performed with aplomb: the jester on stilts, king’s men who do acrobatic stunts with lathis, and my favourite scene: a giant humanoid parrot hovering behind pillars to announce at key moments in a conversation, “Jhooth hai!”.

Like Nain Nachaiya in terms of drawing on folk traditions of performance and storytelling was Molagaapodi (Chilli Powder), a Tamil production based on a novel called Karukku (1992) by the magisterial Dalit writer Bama and directed by debutante director Srijith Sundaram. The women, men and transgender actors who make up the group, Kattiyyakkari (Storyteller) see theatre as an artistic tool to speak up against oppressive structures. The tale of the war between the poor labourer Pachiamma and the rich and stingy Gangamma is enacted with a raw, often bawdy physicality that thrives on exaggerated thrusts and fake beatings. 

It is a young group, and the production is nowhere near as well-appointed or perfectly-tuned as Rang Vidushak’s, but they do a brilliant job with minimal sets, like a sheet with a square cut out of it to create an image of Gangamma at her mansion window. There is true tragedy here, poverty and prejudice and violence as it is lived every minute of every day by so many desperate people in this country. But the play, thankfully, steers clear of the maudlin. Instead, it uses mime and chanting and dance to create a vivid portrait of anger leavened with laughter. The actors’ delivery of dialogues needs work, but there is an irrepressible energy, an innate sense of rhythm that makes up for the moments it goes off-key.

A still from the Tamil play Molagaapodi
The reason I could understand as much I did of Molagaapodi, despite knowing no Tamil, is that the festival now provides an English translation of the dialogue of all plays not in Hindi or English. The translated dialogue runs as supertitles on a screen placed either above the stage (as in Kamani Auditorium), or to the side (as in LTG or Shriram Centre). While the supertitles may not catch matters of dialect or accent or register, it is a wonderful thing to be able to have plays in Polish or Kannada or Mizo attract a substantial audience of non-native speakers.

Emboldened by the supertitles, I watched two Marathi plays this year. They couldn’t have been more different. The first was Gajab Kahani, based on Jose Saramago’s posthumously published novel The Elephant’s Journey. The story is set in 1553. Solomon the elephant, a gift to King Dom Joao III from one of his colonies in India, has been languishing in Lisbon for two years, along with his mahout Subhro, when the Portuguese king decides to dispatch Solomon to Vienna as a gift for the Habsburg ruler. Solomon and Subhro proceed through unfamiliar landscapes, with people everywhere projecting their own agendas and desires onto this previously unseen creature. Beautifully designed and directed by Mohit Takalkar, Gajab Kahani unfolds at the thoughtful, deliberate pace required of Saramago’s wise and tender tale. Aasakta Kalamanch’s actors are very good, especially Geetanjali Kulkarni, who manages the remarkable feat of transforming herself into Solomon, body and soul.

Oddly, the other Marathi production I saw also had actors playing animals. Originally written in Hindi several years ago, Sai Paranjpye’s recently revived Jaswandi is a “cat’s eye of humans”. A hugely popular play with 100 runs to its credit, it tells the rather cliched tale of a neglected housewife who finds herself getting involved with a man ten years her junior. There are some good performances: Swati Bowalekar as the maid Rangabai and Rajesh Kamble as the scheming driver Tanpure.But what saves the play from dreary predictability are the ‘cats’: two mangy strays adopted by Sonia. As in Gajab Kahani, the play uses the imagined perspective of animals as a way to comment on the foibles of humans.

Among the other interesting Indian plays was Lal Baksho (The Red Box), a production created through a workshop by Sohag Sen. The play unfolds as a series of episodes, each revolving around the presence of a red box – in a park, by the roadside, in a train, on a TV serial set. Each playlet is beautifully conceived and the actors are uniformly excellent, perfectly evoking the different characters and their variously splintered relationships within the necessarily brief time they have on stage. But the play doesn’t quite come together, because the notion of terror – ostensibly the theme that unites the various episodes – does not emerge clearly enough. It is only in the episode on the train (where the passengers reveal their deep-seated prejudices when confronted with a need for someone to blame) that the play engages with the dangers of the popular discourse on terror. The rest of the time, the presence of the red box merely draws out the tensions already inherent within a group or in a relationship (and in the last two episodes, it doesn’t even really do that). I think the play would have been better served by not being forced under the ‘terror’ rubric, setting it free to explore the breakdown of relationships and even civility, not as the byproduct of terror but as a subject in itself.

A very different – absurdist – take on contemporary politics came from the Tehreek-i-Niswan production Insha ka Intezar, which managed to adapt Beckett’s Waiting for Godot into a play sharply located in the Pakistani milieu, making two of its integral characters women and turning Pozzo of the original play into a mock-military figure called Mansha, a self-important man in a khaki vardi who is thrilled with the sound of his own voice. He speaks constantly, yet never answers a question that is put to him. Like a Pakistani dictator, Mansha refuses to sit down without being invited to. The world of Insha ka Intezar, in which people see a dried-up tree and think, “Chalo, ise toh nijad mil gayi”, in which people have been waiting for so long that no-one can remember what they were waiting for, is a scathing comment on contemporary Pakistan.

Among other productions from abroad, Ramin Gray’s production of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s play The Golden Dragon was an extremely unusual one, where a group of six actors switched mannerisms, gaits, and very occasionally, costumes, to create a theatrical fable about migration, set in and around a Chinese takeaway somewhere in Britain. The production is memorable because it forces us to confront its own fictitiousness at every moment. The actors provide spoken introductions to their own characters, interrupting the smooth flow of the narrative and highlighting the construction of the theatrical in true Brechtian fashion.
A still from Chorus of Women
The Chorus of Women, a modern-day tragic chorus of women from Poland, was another innovative and arresting experience. Formed through an open casting call in 2009, the chorus contains 28 women of all ages and experiences and all variety of acting backgrounds. They speak in unison and yet in a multitude of voices, alternately happy, hungry, sad, angry, sexy, tired, argumentative. They give voice to forgotten songs, they work with advertising slogans to produce witty routines (“Grate, chop, squeeze” rising to a crescendo), they retell fairy stories. Sung, shouted, whispered or chanted, the gift of the women’s chorus is to bring a million fragments together in a reimagining of the collective voice. The least conventionally theatrical performance of all – no costumes, no sets, no characters, certainly no plot – was in many ways a necessary reminder that theatre is not constituted by any of these things. All it needs is for us to see and hear. And be moved to think.

(Written for the Feb 2012 issue of Avantika, a Kolkata-based magazine of the performing arts.)

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