DAY 14: 18th Jan 2013
The Colonial, the Convict & the Cockatoo
Script & Direction: Arjun Raina
A very intensely researched production always holds its own when it comes to what it wants to say, and where it is headed. This play was as much a crash course on Aboriginal histories with regards to colonialism as it was an art piece mocking the ‘blind’ bourgeois India. The three characters charted their own odyssey through power, agony and ‘who gives a fuck’ respectively. So much so that in the end it was hard to believe that a law such as the Native Title Act was in place!
The use of film (interacting with actor on stage), music and songs was interesting.
Arjun Raina did a brilliant and unique thing by breaking the fourth wall and explaining the audience what he was really going on about. This not only informed the uninitiated but also made sure that the ultimate goal of the performance, to add to the discourse of native inhabitant’s life, had a better chance of realization.
Based on: Life and works of Saadat Hasan Manto
Adaptation & Direction: Anoop Trivedi (NSD Repertory Company, Delhi)
We all know Manto by now. At least we all should given the explosion of Manto-based performances throughout the whole of last year. This play was a dramatized representation of many of his short stories, letters and snippets of his documented life. The inherent problem with doing a biopic kind of a play is that audience has expectations. They cannot be surprised or awed easily. And Dafa 292 failed to inspire at all. Some of the stories chosen were not popular (which might have been a good thing if they were better stories). Some nuances got lost in the over complicated light schemes. And the overzealous ending with a ‘candle march’ to pay a tribute to Manto would have made the man laugh.
The idea of showing Manto on stage (or film) is a very inviting one but it has to be remembered that such satire is not suited to live action for the simple reason that the inherent irony is in the words that he weaved and not in the actions of his characters. So, it is better to read out his prose rather than enact it on stage, verbatim. No point in being redundant. Or better still, create a better way to show the empathy, the irreverence and the politics of the world’s greatest short story writer.
DAY 15: 19th Jan 2013
Anecdotes and Allegories by Gulbadan Begum
Script: Choiti Ghosh
Director: Anurupa Roy (Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust, Delhi)
Forgotten histories are so interesting that they compel one to ask questions and derive alternate scenarios, changing history as it were. This performance piece tried to accomplish this by adapting the forgotten writings of Gulbadan Begum, daughter of Babar, half-sister of Humayun and aunt of the greatest Mughal king Akbar. The voice of Gulbadan Begum was an overpowering narrative of her text that simply failed to capture the oddities and sounded more or less like a history lesson which we are all familiar with. But what was lacking in text was more than made up for in the visuals and sounds. This group is an object theatre practitioner and it was made evident as they used different techniques to show Babar, Humayun and Akbar. Babar was represented with toilet paper puppets through a web cam that was floated around and inside miniature sets (ala Hitchcock!). The reason was obvious as there is a lack of visual reference available for that period. Next came the opium intoxicated Humayun who was represented through shadows (cast by the now extinct OHPs) of psychedelic lights and images. And lastly the well documented Akbar-era was captured through a technique called paper theatre where cut-outs of images were projected on screen.
All in all, a formative exercise but one well worth watching.
DAY 12: 16th Jan 2013
Inspired by Blindness
Adaptation & Direction: Sathya Bhama (Individual production)
The novel has an apocalyptic plot where an epidemic of blindness has spread throughout and is a perfect metaphor for the degradation of society while seemingly evolving. This production was a solo performance piece that incorporated movements, some vague dialogues and a harsh sense of devilish anarchy. The play tries to explore ‘blindness’ in all its forms but if it succeeds in doing so is a seriously personal matter of cognizance.
DAY 13: 17th Jan 2013
A sad day for Indian arts today; Pakistani productions were called off due to the on-going stir with regards to the LoC. NSD must feel that it is responsible for the safety of its audience as well as the performers – fair enough. But what about the Indian state? Is this the right political face to put forth? Isn’t India really foolish in bending over backwards, to hatred, of all things? If you aspire to shine and be a superpower akin to the United States then at least show the hate-mongers the middle finger, build a serious propaganda and allow sharp talk to be staged, sung, written, drawn or filmed (ZD30 is an example; promoting anti-Islamic thought while ostensibly ridiculing the state).
We went and wrote LoC (repeatedly, in bold) on one of the omnipresent print-outs that stated that the plays were cancelled due to ‘unavoidable circumstances’ and within an hour, it was removed. And a guard stood to guard the notices. Hilarious! Sad!
The Knocking Within
Script: based on excerpts from Shakespeare’s works
Directors: Wendy Jehlen & Pradhuman Nayak (ANIKAI Dance, USA)
A dance piece more than anything, this performance was an experiment. For me, the play turned up against itself because at the very beginning, during the introduction it was revealed that it is based on excerpts from Shakespearean text. But at the same time the performance was meant to be seen in a context-less setting. Sure there was no Othello to blame his woman, or the ominous presence of a Lady Macbeth but it is Shakespeare after all and many know the context by heart. The dance was monotonous and charms of body movements dissipated after a few minutes. And the disjointed nature of this seemingly fluid act was another put-off. Too many lights out in a short piece designed to challenge the audience are jarring to the senses.
DAY 11: 15th Jan 2013
Subtitles are a must for non-English productions. Even Hindi plays must come with subtitles to aid people who do not know the language. There are many foreign participants at the festival to merit this. And if at all subtitles are not present for whatever reason, it should be clearly mentioned in the schedule pamphlet so that people avoid wasting money on tickets. Come on NSD, these are the basics of festival curation!
Yaar Banaa Buddy Bang on… Dhamaal Tigdi
What was this play about? Was it about relationships and friendship? Was it a personal tale of three friends who try hard to recreate their old days of fun and freedom? Was it a tale of skewed perspectives when it comes to relations and understanding fellow humans? Or was it a desire to shun unnaturalness and be ‘yourself’ (read Indian)? I am utterly confused.
Such writing is akin to ill-informed or mis-analysed notions of human behaviour. The idea that the so-called Indian-ness is lost when one becomes an art appreciator is ridiculous. And the ability to break into whole-hearted laughter is the sign of being ‘Indian’ is even more misplaced. This is the kind of moral bias that we must shun in order to accept humanity as one. We are all individuals and there is no black and white. Passing judgement on human emotions is the worst variety of violence.
Yashpal Sharma has immaculate timing on stage.
DAY 10: 14th Jan 2013
The Pakistanis are coming! And they have Manto on their mind. The last leg of Bharangam is looking bright with anticipation and plays like Mantorama, Dafa 292 and Kaun Hai Ye Gustakh will be staged. Hopefully we can learn a few new details about the greatest short story writer ever, and his politics.
Drops of Poetic Vibrations
Based on: poems of Tamizhachi Thanga Pandian
Adaptation & Direction: Prof. S. Ramanujam (Arangasree, Thanjavur)
Poems are difficult. They are too devoid of images. This production was, in my opinion, an exercise to capture the process of poetry and give it meaning through images and visuals. Each poem (8 in all) had a germ that needed play acting – humour, violence, love, sex, cries and idleness. Some segments showed skill and novelty like the one where shadow puppetry was involved, or the dance of the elephant. But on the other hand there were a few segments which were treated rather stereotypically, failing the poems they were referring to.
Script: August Strindberg
Director: Sohaila Kapur (Katyayani, Delhi)
What a waste of a play! The subject deals with class, gender and the power thereof. A flirtatiously maddening Miss Julie walks up to her manservant and orders him to kiss his shoes. He does. They flirt and reach a climax with the carnal act being committed conveniently off-stage (why? Isn’t the whole point to highlight the shift of power through this one act of ‘negligence’). And then Miss Julie asks the manservant to give her the right ‘orders’. Even class takes a quick nap in the face of gender dominance.
Performances were bad. The shrieks of the protagonist were more suited to the throats of Macbeth’s witches. And needless to say, the play was almost director-less.
The play note reads that ‘Miss Julie throws up issues of class and gender that are debated even today – a century after Strindberg’s death – giving it a contemporary ring.’ Well Miss Kapur, the issues of class and gender will be under debate till the sun explodes but that does not mean that the play strikes a contemporary chord. It has to be manipulated, strangled and given a thorough work-over to make sure that the audience understands what these ‘issues’ are.
DAY 9: 13th Jan 2013
A very promising day was on offer with Badal Sircar and Shakespeare at the helm. And to top that, the extra tickets we had because of a certain someone who chooses only the best-play-days to remain absent, were sold even before we reached the auditorium. People love watching Hindi plays here at NSD, and you really cannot blame them because the non-Hindi ones have such shoddy subtitles.
Script: Badal Sircar
Director: Avneesh Mishra (Rangshila Cultural & Development Society, Mumbai)
This play is more or less an interesting history lesson about the atomic bombings in Japan. The plot pans out as an investigative ‘court room’ drama where the dead American army men, their family members, Japanese doctors of the time, and even Einstein are called from their graves to explain, interpret and retrospect their actions. The 20th century tries to tell the 30th century that they were not devilish, at least not completely so, and were acting out of duty/beliefs of the time.
Use of multimedia was impactful but sound needed an equal fervour. The stageplay was repetitive and the actors did not really do justice to the intensely written roles. Even veterans like Tom Alter looked jaded, but then maybe it’s just the age.
Call it a personal opinion but no Sircar play should be typically proscenium (even his earlier work, like this, which was intended for the proscenium stage). He was not a poet. His plays are the most suited to interpretation and must be ‘played’ around with.
Adaptation: Amitosh Nagpal
Director: Atul Kumar (The Company Theatre, Mumbai)
Shakespeare has become redundant. Theatre can very easily live without him, and better for it. There are millions of theses on him and his work, there are films and plays in every language and form imaginable (even Godard has made a King Lear), there are courses and theatre schools designed around him and like celebrities of today he has even been accused of plagiarism.
The man is as popular today as he was in the 17th century.
No. He isn’t.
The biggest achievement of Shakespeare’s was that his productions were so popular with the masses. The people loved his creations. With all the genius of word-play and political allusions, he still made a connect with his audience. Piya Behroopiya did exactly that. It created an atmosphere of triumph inside the vast Kamani auditorium and the people were hooting, whistling, clapping and even singing with the actors. And the meaning of the play was not lost on anyone. The absurdity of the twins, the buffoonery of the ‘fool’ and the tug-of-war between ignorance and sophistication were all present. It was a spectacle that at times derided Shakespeare and at other times borrowed from some of his other works (the ‘what’s in a name’ routine followed by Olivia’s loving laments of Cejario was particularly clever and hilarious). It was casual and free-spirited, agreed, but then this was Twelfth Night not Macbeth.
This is at least a 10-15 stagings old production but the actors, each one of them, were refreshingly spontaneous. Music was exceptionally detailed, and live. The singing was according to the requirement, at times funny and in jest but at other times steady and fine.
Adapting a Shakespeare into another language is always difficult because of the simple fact that the original prose and poetry is far too good. Amitosh Nagpal was helped a great deal by the inane nature of the original text but that does not take anything away from his marvellous effort (Looking forward to his future adaptations/creations).
Badal Sircar proposed the concept of ‘third theatre’ wherein the action is more realistic and the audiences are more involved. Atul Kumar managed to present a play that struck really close to this thought of Sircar’s. If such a form of popular, acceptable and Bharatiya/Indian theatre can be taken beyond the slapstick, into the realm of the contemporarily political, it might just herald a movement. And with such an excellent team, The Company Theatre can surely work in this direction, but only if they are not restless, like the rest of the world, for rapid evolution.
DAY 7: 11th Jan 2013
9 Days Newspaper
Concept & Direction: Joy Maisnam (Treasure Art Association, Imphal)
A very well-conceived script from the actual news items published in 9 consecutive days in a newspaper. This play was a mix of strong content and improvised stageplay. The performances were not up to the mark but all is forgiven when the text and the environment can move the audience to tears. The repetition of the civil society and the political class regarding the absurd AFSPA, Sharmila’s eternal hunger strike and omnipresent guns is an argument that needs to change now. There has been enough talk, but the time has come for some action. Almost anarchist in its meaning, this production urged the audience to wake up and acknowledge humanity.
A special mention is essential of the woman who wailed her child’s death for 5 minutes straight. It was heart clutching and painful beyond measure.
This is Joy Maisnam’s first play as a director and we hope that he has more things to say in the future.
Director: Dharmasiri Bandarnayake (TrikonE Cultural Foundation, Srilanka)
It was sad that there were no subtitles because the play was sounding very interesting and deep in meaning. The existential philosophy of Sartre was well captured in the plot where every character questioned his or her own reason for doing what they were doing, and acting in a certain way. Though the performances were typically theatrical, and the set grandiose; it in no way means that the production was any less because of it.
Having being introduced to Sartre’s play, this might be a masterpiece if adapted to an Indian political context.
DAY 8: 12th Jan 2013
The food hub is a very good place to discuss future projects, especially in the morning. It is quiet. No one bothers anyone. And there is no compulsion to buy food. So us perennially broke masses of the world have a comfortable place to sit and chat about the next film, play or anything else that is productive.
Prem Ki Bhoot Katha
Script & Direction: Dinesh Khanna (Pehchan, Delhi)
Assistant Director: Kritika Pande
An eerie, foggy atmosphere welcomed us as we entered the auditorium, seconds before the play commenced. The environment was set to scare, intrigue and charm us with the tale of ghosts, their love and a whodunit thrown in for good measure. But the plot failed to capture attention.
It is a dangerous move to adapt a Hindi novel into a play script and keep the language as is. The problem is that the chaste dialogues create a sense of humour which is unwarranted (this is sad, but true). Even the performers deliver lines in a way that is stereotypical of such language, which adds further woes. Prem ki Bhoot Katha needed to be thought of from the perspective of the audience for it to be truly successful. To take the viewers beyond the obvious, and into the underworld of ghosts and shadows, it was essential that they connect with the characters and the plot. A few must have, but many didn’t, as was evident by the laughter and chuckles at inappropriate times during the play.
The set design, light design and character movements reminded one of German expressionism with everything heightened and unnaturally ‘perpectived’. The angular rooftops, lights illuminating romance, sex, grief and imprisonment, and the movement of actors on stage all are examples of this line of thought. But in all this effort, one might argue that the set designer went overboard as the stage looked cramped (or the design might have been imagined keeping in mind a bigger stage).
DAY 6: 10th Jan 2013
Watching back to back performances, few good, many poor, is an arduous task. The brain freezes with overwhelmed sensations. I hate getting up in the middle of a play/film, no matter how bad it is. But in a festival like this, you just cannot help the urge.
Director: Kusum Haider (Yatrik, Delhi)
It is decent of Yatrik group to mention in their play hand-out that this production has been primarily directed by Mary Zimmerman herself. Not to say that she flew to Delhi to direct the bunch of convent accented English speaking actors, but that this play is similar to other productions that have been staged before in other parts of the world.
Obscene, using a word overheard after the play, is the best description. The fact that the myths of Ovid are relevant in today’s popular context is the only thing that a production of this play must explore. There is no point enacting scenes for the text. This is no Shakespeare or Tendulkar that such offense might be pardoned. Why does the NSD pantheon select such plays?
Having grown up in Hyderabad, I ought to have known Surabhi Theatre Group but I didn’t even know they existed until I saw them at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav. In fact, I bought the tickets solely because I had never seen a single Telugu play before. That says something about the waning popularity of regional/folk theater in urban India. While this may not true for all segments of the urban population, it is certainly an indication of how “un-cool” it has become. I had only heard of the Harikatha and Burrakatha traditions, but never experienced them. Their religious overtones didn’t help either, for as a kid I was very averse to mythology and any religious doctrine, while this aversion is partly to blame for my ignorance, the lack of a thriving college and popular theater culture in Hyderabad, while I was growing up exacerbated the situation.
Being blissfully unaware of what was going to unfold, I walked in half expecting a melodramatic, over-the-top rendition of mythological tales, much like the early Telugu epic drama cinema (again I have only seen clips of these, never the entire film).
How wrong I was.
This is one of the most technically sound and advanced Indian productions I had seen. Yes it was garish but it was spectacular and brilliant. They created spectacle after spectacle in every scene, elephants, birds & deers frolicking in an enchanted forests, hills that turned into palaces, arrows pitted against maces, fire and rain…Oh you should’ve seen it to believe it.
While introducing the play, they had mentioned that they are constantly looking out for ways to innovate through the set design and techniques and effects. They wanted to stay relevant and compete with modern VFX as best as they could. They have certainly succeeded on the effects front. But to stay relevant they will have to do a lot more.What can they do get the urban youth and ignoramuses of my ilk interested in them? How do they compete with the megastars on the 70mm and Imax screens?
One way I foresee is to revisit the text and simplify the dialogue, some of the heavy prose was too much to handle. Let’s face it not many of us understand archaic and highly poetic forms of our mother tongues.
You could argue that, doing away with the last vestiges of the klisht or pure forms of the language, is not the solution but the final nail in the coffin.
One has to walk the tight rope of fighting to stay relevant and holding on to tradition at the same time.
They now perform regular shows at the Lalita Kala Thoranam, Public Gardens in Hyderabad, try and take time out to catch one of their shows.
I, on my part intend to visit and talk to them, the next time I go home to Hyderabad.
Just as Surabhi and other traditional art practitioners need to find ways to stay relevant, we the audience need to evolve too. It was disturbing to notice that the very same crowd, that would watch a serious, ‘intellectual’ play with rapt attention, needlessly jeer and hoot. It reeked of condescension.
DAY 4: 8th Jan 2013
Conversations at the food hub never seem to take a constructive turn. There is talk about politics but like a performance piece, abridged and censored. There is talk about the art but that entails a lot of ego. So, essentially, what you do is eat and drink, and wait for the next show to begin.
Script: Sri Malladi Venkata Krishna Sarma
Director: R. Nageshwara Rao (Sri Venkateshwara Natya Mandali, Hyderabad)
It is with deep regret and shame that I admit being ignorant of Surabhi Theatre till now. This is surely one of the most technically advanced and culturally apt theatrical practices in India, if not the world. Imagine these few moments of the play; Ghatotkach sets the stage ablaze with a firewall and Abhimanyu retaliates by shooting an arrow in the sky and summoning rain. A monster’s lair with dragon spewing fire and dingy lighting is transformed into a bright palace in a matter of seconds. A righteous arrow fights a rogue ‘gada’ mid-air and needless to say, the ‘gada’ is defeated, catching fire and exploding to dust as it does so.
Many more such extravagant pieces highlighted this Surabhi Theatre performance but if you stop and think about it, aren’t these mere gimmicks serviced to titillate? Yes and no. this is popular theatre which is meant to entertain but with its text of mythological magic and disbelief, these small little wonders on stage create an atmosphere that is fantastic. The narrative is structured in a manner that allows these magic moments to be played out effectively. The depth of stage is controlled with an experience that only such a historic tradition can bring. The props are designed to be used for a purpose rather than for mere visual effect. And in all this bling and crassness, there is poetry too when a bird casually flying centre stage drops only to pick up a fish from the river below and carry on its merry way.
Theatre practitioners must utilize some of these techniques and sensibilities to better their directorial interventions. It does not need to be magical all the time, but it certainly can be inventive in the face of the text they are working with.
Learn more about the group here. And support them in whichever way possible, like B.V Karanth, NSD and the governments have for so long.
After the Birds
It is difficult to write about a play that was more felt than watched. It’s like critiquing a piece of fine art. There was dance, song and metaphoric actions, all revolving around the fate of the birds after Aristophanes is done and dusted.
Birds should rule the earth. Gods are barbaric but not as barbaric as the man. Build an enormous nest and guard it. This is the new world, a utopian world, with guards, alarms and watch towers. Is this a utopian world?
A note on the form: such song, dance and physical theatre must be adapted to an Indian text. This form is perfectly suited to many mythologies and fantasies of India.
Text of the The Birds, in case someone wants to read this masterpiece of Old Comedy.
DAY 5: 9th Jan 2013
Its ticket booking day!
In a festival so overwhelmingly crowded with theatre of varied genres, text, languages and regions, it becomes really difficult to choose what to see and what to let go. While the NSD productions are sound in content and technique, they many a times go overboard with experimentation, losing the plot along the way. Plays from foreign countries have a default lure but that is only because of inaccessibility, one can always find a torrent for a film produced out of Azerbaijan but a stage play from there is almost impossible to watch. Then there are personal preferences as well where a ‘natya sangeet’ might be overshadowed by an improvisational piece, or a new-concept theatre might lose at the original charm of the proscenium. But on the day of buying the tickets, all these questions and biases have to be dealt with and we must choose. So the line-up of the next few days looks like a unappealing mess of theatrical cacophony. So, while a Kashmiri play had to be watched, our beloved Mr. Manto lost out. A 3 hour long Bengali play was never an option but a 2 hour Bengali play got the nod because of its director. Decisions, oh, the pain of making these cruel decisions! Here’s hoping that we do not miss out on something brilliant just because of our choices.
Monsieur Jor Dan and Dervish Mastali Sheikh
Script: M.F. Akhundzadeh
Director: Firudin Maharramov (Sumgait State Musical Drama Theatre, Azerbaijan)
First things first, the show started with a song and dance celebration of the new year and we were given Azeri sweets to eat!
A typical drama interspersed with ‘Omar Sharif-ian’ comedy, this play was not really captivating. Apart from some good performances and a culturally rooted plot which must have meant something, there was nothing that delighted. The poetic vibrations of the Azeri language (which is close to Persian) was a boon to the ears.
Note: The scriptwriter is known as the founder of modern literary criticism in Iran
Script: K.P. Khadilkar
Director: Nipun Dharmadhikari (Raahen, Pune)
A typical sangeetnatak is full of songs that highlight emotions but fail to take the narrative forward. This becomes tedious when the number of songs is so many that they reduce the play to an Indian long distance train, stopping and starting as it pleases. This play was no different. Such theatre lost its appeal and many practitioners are trying to revive the tradition by making use of modern theatre techniques and sensibilities. With this play, the easy way out was taken. A 3-D animated background was used to set the environment of each scene. These projections, though well crafted in their own right, seemed to take away from the character of the play. With so much that Indian cinema and theatre owe to sangeetnataks, hopefully there are other productions that do justice to this now unpopular form and bring it back to life.