A down-on-his luck farmer is left with barren land, two children and their hostile stepmother. When a drought hits, the stepmother decides that they will kill the children and leave for Mumbai in search of a better life. The father locks up the kids with a meagre supply of food so that they will die believing that their parents would return home by evening. The wife hopes the next year will be fruitful. The husband hopes someone will save the kids. And the kids believe that evening will fall only when their parents return. Whose hope will prevail is the question that this dark, tight and gripping narrative asks in Vijaydan Detha’s short story ‘Asha Amar Dhan’.
As contemporary India’s biggest exodus unfolded during the lockdown, city folk were holed up inside the comfort of their homes while migrants set off on foot. Pune-based theatre director Mohit Takalkar and his group of actors came across this story and decided to turn it into a play. At the recent Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META), the play, ‘Hunkaro’, won seven out of 13 awards: best production, best director, best original script, best stage design, best light design, best costume design and best ensemble. Mohit is obviously elated but hadn’t seen it coming.
‘Asha Amar Dhan’ had moved Mohit. It talked about something everyone was going through during the pandemic. And he wondered if a contemporary voice — “on the hope that we are seeking in today’s times” — could be attached to it. As he and his team began looking for modern stories, one of them volunteered to write one. A week later, they had four new stories in hand. “The next six months were spent interacting on Zoom. We were doctoring the stories — the way they are said, the grammar of it, the syntax of it,” says the director. They finally had a play woven around three stories: Detha’s story lay the foundation for the entire performance and two others on migration forced by the pandemic by young contemporary Rajasthani writers, Arvind Charan and Chirag Khandelwal, reiterating how life without hope is impossible to sustain.
Mohit says that during the pandemic, like everybody else, he too was busy consuming visuals every day. “There was a point when I wondered if I was even enjoying those visuals — one streaming after another. And I realised that I wasn’t really listening. Now that we were going back to theatre, I just wanted the audience to sit back and listen. I wanted to discard all the tricks that I had gathered over the years to impress my audience. I wanted to throw everything out of the window and decided to just have six actors sit on the stage and talk.”
The play marked a departure from Mohit’s “very visual” and “very visceral” theatre. ‘Hunkaro’ became an experiment in so many ways.
Grief moves and it traverses languages, but Mohit didn’t want a wailing father on stage, or, for that matter, crying kids. He decided to have a bare stage, with no paraphernalia. There are no musical instruments, just songs, for, tunes mar the words being sung, feels Mohit, who got Manganiyar musician Hakim Khan to compose songs.
His actors come from varied regional backgrounds: one is from Benaras, one Bengali, a Punjabi, a Sindhi woman and two from Rajasthan. Interestingly, while ‘Hunkaro’ starts in chaste Marwari, it takes off in other languages, including Haryanvi and Awadhi. “There comes a point in the play when people in the audience feel they cannot understand anything the actors are saying. This is when we bring in the audience, talk to them, tell them that there’s a similar word, an exact phrase in your language. Fifteen to 20 minutes more, and people just come around the whole thing and get into the performance. And that is what ‘Hunkaro’ is,” says Mohit of the verbal ‘hmmm’ or the visual ‘nod’ we give each other to affirm ‘Yes, I am there and I am listening to you’.
The play’s first staging was the biggest test. They were playing at Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru where the audience was mainly Kannada-speaking. “We had butterflies in our stomach; we know people there have a hard time following even Hindi. Initially, people were stunned. They didn’t understand a word. Here was a language that even our Rajasthani actors couldn’t speak. But after a point, it didn’t really matter if they were understanding each and every word; they were now getting 100 per cent of what we were trying to say.”
Interestingly, the only place it didn’t work was at Jaipur in Detha’s own Rajasthan. “People hated the play. Today, when we think about it, perhaps that was the purpose. The play is beyond language. In Jaipur, the audience got the language part in the first five minutes itself and thereafter, it ceased to affect them. They thought it was just storytelling. And that is where I think that the piece is successful,” says the director.
When you don’t understand the language, says Mohit, you make that extra effort. “At META, I was watching a Kannada play, and realised that I was on the edge of my seat because I was trying to understand. It interested me and I wanted to know more. The moment you realise I know what this is, you cease to try.”
At the award function in Delhi, the judges told Mohit how much they liked the play. “They said it looks deceptively simple, but is so well-crafted. It is a theatrical piece, a theatrical experience...” The jury included British theatre director Bruce Guthrie, who didn’t understand any Indian language, and Shernaz Patel, who has a tough time understanding Hindi, says Mohit.
Since death is the leitmotif of ‘Hunkaro’, it always leaves his audience quiet and high on emotions. Mohit says people come and meet him after the play and some just stay back in the auditorium. But they are not very vocal, they don’t come and talk. Just meet, hold hands. They have moist eyes.
“Honestly, it is a play, but for every 100 people that like it, 200 must be thinking that it was just storytelling. In spite of that, ‘Hunkaro’ touches you. You can’t categorise it into whether you like it or don’t like it, you agree or disagree. It stays with you and that is its power,” he says.
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