Protest, lament, celebration

Print edition : February 24, 2006

The Heavenly Maid brings a rain of flowers in the Beijing Opera. -

This year's Bharatrang Mahotsav, the eighth edition of the theatre festival organised by the National School of Drama in Delhi, proves irresistible.

THE wintry dusk did not deter the crowds milling before the resolutely shut gates of Kamani Auditorium, an hour before the show was to start. The ticket holders had to cleave through the human wall of the hysterical optimists who thought they could somehow slide in, though tickets had been sold out weeks earlier. Finally, the hall witnessed that phenomenon known as gate-crashing. Only this time it was not metaphorical but literal.

A Star Nite? A rock show? Not at all. Stage actors from Bengal and Chhattisgarh were to perform Rabindranath Tagore's play Visarjan in Hindi, directed by Habib Tanvir, at Bharatrang Mahotsav (January 2-14), the annual international theatre festival organised by the National School of Drama (NSD), New Delhi.

Inside, the hall was packed to bursting point. People stood on every inch of available space. This was no silent viewership. The clamorous applause was for Tanvir, who, at 82, remains a crusader for human rights, liberalism and secularism. What if his Visarjan was downright pedestrian? The audience was celebrating his doughty spirit.

Othello relives his tragedy in Satoshi Miyagi's interpretation.-

If that sounds amazing, so does the fact that tickets were sold out for every one of the 60 plays at the Bharatrang Mahotsav, in five auditoria, intimate and large. The festival's earlier years had seen empty halls, especially for plays in regional languages. But this eighth edition proved irresistible. Was it because this time the NSD had event managers? Or productions of better quality? Or because the international segment featured works from West Asia and East Asia? Difficult to say. Even the organisers were overwhelmed by the response.

In the smaller theatres, you were wedged in so tightly that exiting part way through the show was impossible. But then even in the bigger venues people generally stayed put through most shows. This audience included those who asked at the counter: "Is Othello a serious play?" or "Does Pakistan produce plays?"

What brought these innocents to the NSD? Are people indeed fed up with shadows on the screen and returning to the theatre halls? Are they finding some satisfaction in live shows where you can see the performer's sweat glistening under kleiglights? The guessing went on through the two gala weeks.

Stations: imaging the traumas of subjugation.-

This year's fest had its disappointments, including the unexpectedly shallow Katha Collage II, directed by Naseeruddin Shah. Seven stories of Harishankar Parsai were dramatised, and more than competently, but the satire was heavy-handed, the humour clunky.

However, you were assured of at least one good production each day. The range was wide - from solos (Siddhartha directed by Zuleikha Allana) to multi-cast panoramas such as Ratan Thiyam's Nine Hills and One Valley. Some went in for cutting-edge inventiveness (Stations directed by Jola Cyncutis and Khalid Tyabji), while others used the traditional arts to create new dimensions. Dhrupad and Yakshagana came together in Neeraj Kabi's Hamlet. Shakespeare found himself hobnobbing with Kathakali and Noh in two versions of Othello, as dreamed up by Sadanam P.V. Balakrishnan in Kerala and Satoshi Miyagi in Japan.

As always, the theatre continued to express protest and anger against oppression and injustice. Directed by Mamanur Rashid from Bangladesh, Raarang (Santal for drum beat and call for rebellion) relived the violent history and martyrdom of the tribe on the stage. Stations (Poland/India) tried to image the traumas of subjugation, imprisonment and urban claustrophobia. The Japanese Othello linked itself to the plight of enslaved Venetian women. Overt and direct treatment of violence came from India and Pakistan in Sarhad Paar Manto (directed by Usha Ganguli) and Shehr-e-Afsos/Toba Tek Singh (directed by Madeeha Gauhar and Malik Aslam). Interestingly, both were based on the Partition stories of Saadat Hassan Manto. Their group choreography was excellent, but where was the subtlety?

It was a coup to have secured the Beijing Opera for the launch. After the long speeches considered essential on such occasions, the ancient classical opera unfolded scene after scene of mesmerising spectacle. The professionalism astonished, the unfamiliar music intrigued, the stories entertained. You did not have to be an initiate to enjoy the romance of highborn Fu Peng dropping a jade bracelet for the village girl shooing her chicks into the pen; or the Heavenly Maid's sweeping train swirling and twirling to make a miraculous rain of flowers. Ingenious choreography had the hall chuckling as two swordsmen, fighting in the dark, kept missing each other by a hair's breadth.

Ratan Thiyam paints the sorrows of Nine Hills One Valley, a new masterpiece.-

Girish Karnad's Nagamandala, directed by Neelam Mansingh, was no new production. It had many rough edges. But the sensuousness was gripping. I am not talking about the actual making of chapatis on the stage; the spilling of powders white and red; the woman stroking herself with lotuses; or the couple going drench-splash in love play. Those were mere devices, some of them self-conscious. Other vignettes lingered - like the `snake' emerging from its hole with its eyes breathing non-humanness, and the eerie collective superstition, which transforms the girl into a goddess. Here Mansingh went beyond the literal into the realms of folktale, both vivid and nebulous, earthy and mysterious, where the easy froth had a way of vanishing suddenly and plunging you into dark waters. Vajinder Kumar's reptilian metamorphoses were remarkable.

Bharatrang Mahotsav featured a work that may be called a masterpiece. Previous editions had premiered Ratan Thiyam's creations - panoramic, colourful, always glocal, shining with ideals. But this year's Nine Hills One Valley was something else. It invoked myth and legend with a primal cry of despair. Ravaged by political turmoils, Manipur finds itself stripped of culture and tradition. The Seven Wise Men who had gone to sleep after mapping the land's glorious future are troubled by nightmares. They awake into the horrors of the present. They rewrite the future of the land and depart for their final destination on the mythical Hiyang Hiren, or Dragon Barge. Mothers appear with children, singing lullabies which turn into dirges. But the act of creation itself signals hope, as do the images of flowers growing out of the ruins. Suddenly, the nine hills twinkle with lights and the valley is filled with lamps. Blue despair melts into golden dreams of a better tomorrow.

Thiyam's visual spectacles have always been unrivalled. He uses dialogues as rhythms and chants, while the singing voices spell moods. The new production has all these attributes. It has something more. That `something' arises from the fact that Nine Hills relies less on pageantry and more on poetry. It has epic sweep but also becomes as personal as a sonnet. It billows into a universal lament, and warning.

"What you have done today is far more than what I have achieved in my entire life," legendary director Ebrahim Alkazi said to Thiyam in a memorable real-life scene after the play. Both teacher and student were in tears.

Raarang recreates the violent history of the Santal tribe.-

Lebanon provided arabesque of a new sort. Looking for a Missing Employee was a "surreal saga" which acquired an almost tactile reality. "Between the truth and the lie there is but a hair," announced director-actor Rabih Mroue. "I want to cut it." Mroue proceeded to do this with three screens on the stage. Two screens framed the papers and documents he scrutinised as he traced the history of a vanished-into-thin-air employee in a government office. The casual hobby of collecting information about missing persons became an ironic quest. The media came in for merciless drubbing. Mroue's own background in making films for television made the critique hilarious and unsparing.

Rabih Mroue: unsparing critiques.-

The middle screen caught Mroue in midshot, talking for 105 minutes, taking us through a maze of disappearance, rumours, accusations, enquiries, protests, denials, murder, all of which concealed rather than revealed facts.

The design was as minimalist as the `prattle', which slid from fuzzy aimlessness into sharp focus. The questions were about identity, freedom, political conflict, venality, religion, and the omnipresent corruption that kills the nation and the individual soul. The more tongue-in-cheek it got, the more searing the impact. No doubt about it. This was exciting theatre, springing from an introspective, unsentimental mind, which also knew compassion and humour. The standing ovations paid it just tribute.

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