Theatre Goes Site Seeing

A dead body can be dumped in any lonely corner. When Anuradha Kapur,director,National School of Drama,came across a hillock next to an auditorium in Palakkadu,Kerala,she decided to give the hall a miss and stage Jeevit Ya Mrit outdoors.

Written by Dipanita Nath | Published: May 11, 2012 12:57:52 am

A dead body can be dumped in any lonely corner. When Anuradha Kapur,director,National School of Drama (NSD),came across a hillock next to an auditorium in Palakkadu,Kerala,she decided to give the hall a miss and stage Jeevit Ya Mrit (Dead or Alive) outdoors. In the play,a dead woman is tied to a plank and left on a cremation ground. Except that she is not dead. As she stirs back to life,her hazy vision takes in the surroundings — the hillock,coarse grass below,a funeral pyre at a distance,a bundle of sticks and the shroud in which she is wrapped.

It wasn’t the winter breeze that chilled the audience that evening. With fascination and horror,they watched the protagonist grapple with a basic question — was she dead or alive? “That atmosphere was the real atmosphere,” says Kapur. Could she have recreated this in the synthetic settings of an auditorium? “Across the world,there is a thinking that the proscenium stage is tiring us and non-traditional spaces could offer a different,powerful experience,” says Kapur.

Jeevit Ya Mrit,with Seema Biswas in a solo act,will be staged in an empty room in Max Mueller Bhavan — with the waste of cremation ground for props — from May 14-16. Another theatre director,Abhilash Pillai,also of NSD,is planning to set his new play in a “closed,forgotten,old cinema in Delhi” though he hasn’t stopped dreaming of enacting a play at the Agrasen ki Baoli,a heritage step well near Connaught Place. “For seven years,I have been trying to get permissions for this,” he says.

Theatre directors,especially the seniors,are eagerly exploring new spaces such as ruins and monuments. Ebrahim Alkazi,one of the doyens of modern Indian theatre,had raised the bar in the ’60s and ’70s by presenting Tughlaq at Purana Qila,matching the grandeur of the royal ruins with the king’s destiny. Alkazi’s recreation of Andha Yug,a story about the Mahabharata,turned Ferozeshah Kotla into the battleground Kurukshetra. Almost 50 years later,Bhanu Bharti staged Andha Yug once again at the same site last year. Purana Qila,too,has been the site of another historical rendition — Nadira Babbar’s 2008 play,1857 Ek Safarnama,about the mutiny.

Site-specific plays present many creative challenges such as choosing powerful actors who will not be lost in the vast or grand surroundings. The other considerations are logistical — multiple permissions from authorities,and financial — a site-specific play can sometimes cost three times as much as a proscenium production. “It is best to have the support of an organisation because they take care of funding and permissions,” says Babbar.

Directors seek a perfect match between the setting and script,so it’s no surprise that mostly mythology and historical dramas are presented outdoors in Delhi. “The moment you enter Ferozeshah Kotla,you are alienated from the hustle and bustle of Delhi. The monument represents another space and time,” says Bharti.

For the audience,a site-specific play offers a memory of a lifetime. Older critics,for instance,still recall Tughlaq walking down the steps of Purana Qila — royalty juxtaposed with ruins.

With inputs from Pallavi Pundir

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