Mahotsava magic moments

Chaman Ahuja looks back at Bharat Rang Mahotsava and recounts some productions, scenes and performances that stayed with him

Romancing near treetops
Romancing near treetops — a scene from The Field 

In a night-long mushaira, they say, one’s real gain (hasil) lies in the lines one hums after the event. Likewise, in a big theatre festival like Bharat Rang Mahotsava that was held some time back in Delhi, one’s hasil lies in what flashes before one’s mind’s eye when one thinks of it later — those magic moments that etch their signatures on one’s memory for one thing or the other. It could be a hilarious, titillating or intense moment, an episode, a character, a twist in the story, an unexpected ending, a piece of acting, a telling speech, a visual, an unusual set, a special effect, a thought or event triggered by the show, overall excellence, and so on.

Perhaps it is too early to determine my hasil of Bharangam-2007. Perhaps one could be more certain about the magic of the moments during the shows. Take, for example, the thrill of watching The Field from Australia in which four pairs of men and women, perched precariously on flexible poles, swayed up and down, back and forth, along impossible angles — all that to enact the joy of life, the scenes of courtship, the breaking of hearts, the loneliness, and what not. True, it was more like a circus show but it was a play, too. As a wag put it, circus being a kind of play, here was a play-into-play, a play-square! Be that what it may, here was an attempt at extending the boundaries of theatre.

Medea — a dishonoured Asian with mystic powers — in a Japanese tea-house
Medea — a dishonoured Asian with mystic powers — in a Japanese tea-house Photos by the writer

Probir Guha sought to extend those boundaries in another memorable way. In his Victimized, the audience in the auditorium were told to move out where they found ‘dead’ bodies oozing ‘fresh blood’ littered all around. From there, led by a chorus, the audience moved along a pre-charted route to watch what awaited them at ‘stations’ — horrendous scenes of rape, hanging, stabbing, butchering, suicide; no words were used as dialogues but the silences were stunning. By the end of the ‘journey’, one had experienced what inhuman violence is being perpetrated against innocent people after branding them as terrorists. Calling this brand of Jatra "Beyond Performance", Probir gives the credit for inspiration to Augusto Boal.

Another memorable extension of theatre arts inspired by Boal came from Sri Lanka. Called Forum Theatre, it involved the audiences as participants — not in action but in creativity. Stopping short in the middle of an episode, performers invited the spectators to decide what direction the action might take; as the people differed, there was analytical discussion before a decision materialised; now the cast got busy again to continue the story along the suggested lines. They stopped again to involve the audience again about the action to follow; this went on and on. In the process, the social, political, psychological, philosophical aspects of the problem involved got debated threadbare. Of course, it is a very demanding kind of theatre because it calls for impromptu creativity in respect of the plot, characterisation, dialogues, setting, acting, direction, everything. The possibilities being endless — and it being a play of ‘our’ own devising — there was a thrill of magic in it.

Cycles, stalls and skyscrapers... this is Mumbai in Cotton 56, Polyester 84
Cycles, stalls and skyscrapers... this is Mumbai in Cotton 56, Polyester 84

Cotton 56, Polyester 84 from Mumbai did not have that magic of experimental creativity about it, but most memorable was the art of Ramu Ramanathan as a playwright and Sunil Shanbag as a director, in lending to a typical IPTA theme — the insidious ways in which political power and mafia work hand in glove to barter away the livelihood of millions — a measure of such depth that it tended to look the story of all mill workers. In a way, it also became the story of Bollywood — full of sex, violence and music. Magically, indeed, the play was at once simple and profound, minimalistic and sophisticated.

And then there was that play which bristled with a series of magic moments all along — Medea from Japan, directed by Satoshi Miyogi. For a Japanese club, there was a kind of painted curtain which turned out to be a set of solid panels that not only opened and closed to facilitate entries and exits but also afforded a view of unfathomable depth. When the play started, the statues standing still came to life (they were the lead performers); only one of them kept sitting crouched and gazing like a cat — as if we were seeing the entire action through her eyes. Lawyer-guests settled down and, for self-entertainment, started play-reading the text of Euripides’ Medea to the accompaniment of acting by ‘characters’ who did not speak. This practice of two actors playing one role (one telling the story, the other enacting it like a doll) created a dynamism that cracked the reality.

In one scene, when some geishas wrapped in paper-bags unpacked themselves, the stage looked like a flesh-market. The elements of Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku were mixed — as also the playing of music from Asia, Africa and Europe — endorsing, in a way, Satoshi’s interpretation of the myth, viz., the interaction of the cultures of East and West. The oriental Medea is a victim of occidental racism; when betrayed, she returns to the mystic power of her Asian origin. The killing of son signifies not primitive passion for revenge but a way of redeeming mankind: in the patriarchal system, Man’s suppression of Woman is a form of matricide; to end this, she must kill her son so that Creon’s family is left with no male to continue the mother-killing dynasty.

Witnessing 50-odd plays in 15 days — three to four plays every day, one after the other, from 2.30 p.m. to midnight — may be an excruciating exercise and one may feel frustrated by the mediocrity of most of the plays; but, at the end of the day, all that stands redeemed, thanks to a production like Medea and a few magic moments now and then.