In one’s four decades of following theatre scene at Mandi House, it was shocking to see Kamani virtually empty even on weekends. (Photo: NSD/Official Site)
Wonder whether timing of two events at 7 pm on May 30 was providential! Two coinciding events couldn't have conveyed more contrasts; primarily real world political drama of presidential proportions, spread over three months, was ending with live swearing in ceremony at the Presidential palace after plenty of swearing at each other; at same time at Kamani Auditorium, National School of Drama's Repertory was inaugurating summer season plays whose plot lines were derived from both real or fictional world.
While during elections, people witnessed three months of real life drama displaying every shade in the emotional spectrum, NSD plays played upon only one or two aspects of reality usually; and while former panned out 24x 7 on every screen everywhere, NSD plays lasted only 90-120 minutes and that too mostly without final ending.
The electoral drama of epic proportions was staged on real world stage and though real it had equal smattering of the unreal.
In one's four decades of following theatre scene at Mandi House, it was shocking to see Kamani virtually empty even on weekends. One always had to struggle to get tickets for most NSD Repertory plays staged during twin summer and winters. Maybe, peoples' interests got saturated with three months long real drama, down to village/individual, played out on small screen (TV, WhatsApp) on daily basis. Perhaps, people simply didn't have any appetite left for another round of drama derived from real life after watching real life drama itself.
NSD's Repertory staged six plays over ten days. Typically, all plays had the stamp of professionalism displayed in ample measure be it stage adaptation, set design, music, lighting and topped with phenomenal performances by all actors. On stage at least, plays showed how each actors' performance rubs on to each other, bringing out the best in all. This was demonstrated in no reliance on single actor to carry the play as lead actors were different in most plays.
Let's come to plays now:
KHAMOSHI SILI SILI
Must credit Asif Ali for rather imaginative adaption of Joseph Stein's famous Broadway musical (also a movie), titled 'Fiddler on the Roof', lamenting lost world of East European Jewry and finding parallel with similar plight of Pandits from Kashmir Valley. Must say that anti-Semitism is centuries old whereas Kashmiri Pandits problem is only decades old.
The title Khamoshi Sili Sili aptly alludes to slow, ever enveloping acceptance of rapid changes in cultural heritage overtaking a traditional pre-literate society. At family level, there is vicarious joy in acceptance of children having freedom of choices of loving and living. At societal level, there is silent lament in losing the idyll rural world of communities' peaceful coexistence to communalization and resultant migration.
Despite the contextual background of impending communal collision, play's plot lines weave universal themes of human existence and are applicable beyond time and space. These include strong family bonds, happy discharging of parental roles/ responsibilities, love (filial, sibling, conjugal, youth), rebellious love streak of going against parents' choices, colliding of tradition and modernity, persecution, fear of displacement from one's roots, longing for lost world charm, outside politics upsetting centuries old lifestyles, communalization that contaminates individual, village, state and country and disruption of social-moral fabric that doesn't go away for generations.
The rollercoaster daily rural existence is exemplified in usual lament about changing cultural and traditional lifestyle, interspersed with joyous song and dance celebration.
Play interestingly juxtaposes three daughters' love free choices vis-à-vis father's traditional marriage. The query is best answered by surprised wife who counts life instances to show their love is a byproduct of living together in domesticity. Play also plays on the ubiquitous humanity of individuals in difficult times by showing a considerable cop who warns of impending violence and suggests migration to safer places.
Play's set design is appreciable as it creates the Kashmir Valley feel by keeping mountainous terrain screen shot as backdrop and images of huts made of wooden planks in foreground. Other props like hut's facade, tailoring shop and wooden machaan with hanging hay straws are done well. The tavern for drinking and celebratory dance was created well. The hand drawn cart also adds to the real village scene. The brass utensils, specially traditional utensils like glasses and the Samovar create Kashmiri ambience admirably. The touch of a true Kashmiri (Set Designer Bansi Kaul) is all pervasive in set design.
The costume designer has also done an excellent job in creating Kashmiri cultural feel by use of Phiran and Suthan. The old and tattered feel of clothes create humble background of rural countryside.
Director Suresh Sharma has wonderfully kept the essential soul of the original Broadway musical (Hollywood film was a musical too) by keeping core content's rendition through music and monologue. After mouthing solo or interactive dialogues, the characters easily break into song and dance routines (done well in tavern and marriage sequences). The dance choreography is also good despite limited space due to machan and house façade.
Kajal Ghosh's music is typically Kashmiri and those dance moves of shoulder twists and squats with intertwined arms evoke typical Kashmiri cultural feel.
The whole play is carried on strong role enactment by Shanawaz Khan. He is simply outstanding in bringing out the whole range of emotional hues specially pathos of a loving parent, husband happy in his daily humdrum existence with occasional usual yearning to rich just for a change. His monologues, interactive dialogues and singing (aided by background singing at times) and dancing is simply outstanding. Enactment of dance sequences at tavern and marriage is done well. The migration scenes, with all props as well as dresses, are well enacted and create the magic recollection of such scenes during partition of India.
The universal appeal of the play is its core content of ubiquitous minority feel felt by most individuals at some stage in life as well as longing for good old world of charmed living (Joseph Stein's inspiration may have come from Kibbutz system of the Jews).
The play Bayen (adaptation of Mahashewata Devi's story) is gut-wrenching multi-layered and nuanced critique of society and social customs condemning a helpless individual (woman) to live a subhuman/subaltern existence. It depicts harrowing social existence of Dom community that is so marginalized that despite useful social function, it lives on margins of society. The play is too intense and definitely not for the weak hearted. It deals with an individual living with a daily death wish yet dealing with dead and living daily with them in a graveyard. Hope the thought itself troubled the reader enough.
Play depicts heart rending tale of not only social oppression and injustice meted to a hapless helpless woman but its degree multiplied million times over. She is condemned and cursed by the same society which asked her to undertake paternal profession of burying the dead (children below 5 years). She is forced to live in forests and live on food crumbs.
In Greek mythology, one finds Bayen equivalent in legend of Medusa (converting person into stone if sights match) but that is about mythology. In India, like Medusa's sight, forget the human contact, stories of an untouchable’s shadow falling on svarna caste brings untold punishment even today. Some untouchables reportedly tie a broom as a tail to wipe the path treaded upon.
Traditionally, conduct of all rituals in Hinduism is the privileged preserve of the Brahmins. Doms alone provide the holy fire to light the funeral pyre and hence are indispensable on death at least. Though claiming to be Brahmins, Doms due to their dealing with the dead, were downgraded to Dalit status with corresponding social ostracism and segregation. Like them, Bayen has to announce their arrival by producing a sharp sound for people to avoid contact.
What separates Doms from other Dalits is their affluence and irony is that wealth can't break social shackles of segregation. For example, Bayan's husband despite working in government’s morgue, still remains socially ostracized.
Jnanpith awardee Mahashewata Devi has intricately interwoven several strands such as mother's innate instinct of caring and protecting the progeny (in story depiction of caressing and reburying children whose graves are dug open by jackals), acceptance (role requested/imposed by social group), gender injustice (husband's abandonment and banishment), unjust social oppression (despite performing essential social function of disposing the dead and similar to cleaning traditional toilets or leather workers), impossible to win back social acceptance/recognition (only through altruistic act involving self-sacrifice). Possibly the only escape from this condemned life is die for a cause of saving lives when saving the dead in graveyard has created enough living hell.
The story unfolds in non-linear format due to its multi layered content. Intensity of content (equal serious performance of actors) is softened by throwing in a bit of romantic interlude between Malinder and Chandidaasi and marriage scenes.
Such plays were passionately followed in post independent India when power to change was new and a fee nation took series of steps for social transformation. That generation had read or directly/indirectly experienced such abominable practices. Millennial generation’s world is digital (metaphysical questions are instinctually avoided) and in their palms and desktops to give a feel of control; intractable problems, individual or social, are instantly solved by swipe, wipe and delete mode so as to move to another information inflow. Millennials are only interested if deathly existence is depicted through zombies or for horror effect for entertainment. They find some connect in news of Dayen or witch as those cases often end in stoning, lynchings or death.
Some argue that Hinduism integrated fringe groups specially the forest dwellers to do impure jobs and left interaction and integration to the extent of only essential functionality. The origins of untouchability, segregation stems from such history.
The sounds created through mimicking digging by oversized kharchis leave a lasting impact. Play has a particular heart-rending scene of a communication between a banished mother and son searching for his mother. The acting by main characters Malinder ( Deep Kumar) , Bayen ( Bomali Borah) and son Bhagirath ( Sikandra Kumar) is simply outstanding.
Those who think that Bayen sub altern sub human existence is too much, think what play depicting the practice of Sati looked would have looked like on stage is staged in the nineteenth century.
The depiction of Doms instantly brings memory of Sadgati, Ghattashraddha and Aakrosh films. Hindi film Masan also depicted about a young Dom’s love but conveniently resolved the intermarriage issue by resorting to accidental death of the girl in the end.
JAAT HI POOCHO SADHU KI
Must credit genius of Vijay Tendulkar for writing this play with which even in the current context, crowd continues to find easy identification and that too for over four decades. Play’s title is an easy giveaway; it portrays all pervasive presence of caste connecting consciousness, so much so that an Indian can’t resist probing, beyond pretentious behavioural façade, the caste of even a sadhu (saint)!
Famous sociologist Louis Dumont (Homo Hierarchichus) had stated Sadhus to be sole exception in caste system categorization.
It is not difficult to find parallel of play's plotlines to India's day to day social-cultural reality. Some examples: post-independence, still every rural youth yearns for a college degree and a dream job, migration and changed city lifestyle; return to harsh real life struggles in finding a job on merit and if found, find Caste Associations running educational institutions with caste affiliations of teachers and taught; teacher's life spent more on managing interpersonal interaction, intractable ego issues than academics; managing and surviving daily with rural bumpkin's smartness rather than with educated man's demeanour and manners; grappling with usual management and teachers’ provincial town machinations and outdoing/outsmarting each other; dumping merit/qualifications in favour of kin/caste links in teachers employment; non regulated expansion of educational institutions through not-for-profit family Trusts route; Management and local politician running colleges as family fiefdoms; rural matrix of power and gender domination functioning in microcosm form in educational institution; in non-co-educational rural colleges, students' lives spent more in politicking, drugs, drinking, debauchery, celebration and huddhangbaazi; protagonist (Mahipat) resorting to bravado to outsmart, outdrink and outdo all colleagues and students ;and whole system caught into an endless self-fulfilling spiral of self-perpetuation, specially in cow belt, with education goal subordinated to something else.
The tale of Indian educational system is becoming timeless and sans spatial context. Barring a handful, one finds these elements not only in rural educational institutions but in urban and metropolitan ones too. Even Shri Lal Shukla's magnum opus 'Raag Darbari' (1968) in similar satirical style, described functioning of rural intermediate college in similar tones and terms (favouritism/nepotism/caste continuation, solidification of social stratification).
The whole play is carried on exceptional acting prowess of main protagonist Mahipat (Shubam Pareek) who brilliantly switches in seconds between his dual role as a narrator(sutradahaar) and the main actor; and too with flawless near perfect modulations in speech and manners. And imagine there is no luxury of retake on stage. He spends nearly two full hours on stage figuring in virtually every scene. (He would have done that twice in two shows on weekend- Bravo man bravo). Suresh Sharma as village feudal lord, lording over the college and countryside, with a slinging rifle, is impressive too. Actress enacting the role of a countryside demure girl Nalini is great as well; so is the actress enacting role of Putna Mausi with protruding eyes and weighty mannerisms. Actor playing as Babna as a country urchin is amazing too.
Set design is rather simple with two facades with doors and windows and few wooden boxes to sit. Verbose dialogues are in keeping with the countryside communication styles and flavour and have all familiar famous expletives thrown in for real rural effect.
The play is a stinging social critique of the State's avowed aim of only allowing higher education being run on not for profit, yet indirectly promoting all pervasive profiteering, power broking and power perpetuation of socially powerful caste groups and associations. The play is a comment on the system for reflection. It doesn't argue for systems' overhaul or overthrowing.
Sushil Kumar is a senior IAS officer.
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