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A train leaves Mumbai in Purva Naresh’s new play, Jatinga, that is being staged in Sydney at present. The vast expanse of Kamathipura, Asia’s largest and oldest red light area, recedes into the distance. Ahead lies Jatinga, a village that locals refer to as the “valley of death for birds”. Purva gives five young girls — all runaways — a ticket to ride this train. The route will pass through the tribal belt and the Red Corridor, but the protagonists also make internal journeys into the unknown. Purva scripts their life-changing trip. She is a director and musician, famous for plays in which music is the hero, but Jatinga was commissioned by Australian theatre company bAKEHOUSE and opened at Kings Cross Theatre a few days ago. It stars Faezeh Jalali and Sapna Bhavnani, among others, and will be performed at NCPA’s Centrestage festival in November.
Excerpts from an interview with Purva:
How did the collaboration take place?
Artistic director of bAKEHOUSE Suzanne Millar has been coming to India and she has a lot of interest in languages and cultures. In 2014, she visited Kamathipura with an NGO. The brief she gave me piqued my curiosity. She said the text should have, in the beginning, middle or end, girls preparing for a journey and wanting to understand how to pack. This could be metaphorical or literal. She also mentioned Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird Songs. I had a few images to work with — girls, birds, freedom and a journey. The other thing she wanted was that the play be lyrical.
What happened next?
While I was thinking about the story, I found myself on a flight with a magazine that had a piece on Jatinga in Assam, which is a tourist destination because birds go there to commit suicide. An alternative explanation is that the cross winds, fog and other factors confuse the young birds into crashing to death. From such morbid truth emerges an entire business model. I knew then that the train was headed to Jatinga. Whether it reaches there is something else.
Who are some of the protagonists?
The five girls are borrowed from three of my favourite Hindi poems, by Katyayni, Vinod Kumar Shukla and Naresh Saxena (her father). Three of the girls are from tribal regions, one of them is from a small town and there is a hockey player, also from a small town. They meet an independent-minded woman on the train and we see what she does to them and what they do to one another. There is also a 500-year-old woman, a parrot in a cage and a tourist guide, who represents business. The play is a little surreal, in which birds become girls and girls become birds. Suzanne is a movement-based director, who does not know Hindi, the language she wanted for the play.
How does Kamathipura feature in the storyline?
Kamathipura is in the sub-consciousness or the background. The play is not based in Kamathipura. It is a place where trade pivots on imbalances, perversion and things not acknowledged. Why do girls land up in places such as Kamathipura?