We have met before in other places, at other times. Once, I came as the plague and, again, as swine flu. I have visited you as many other illnesses but you kept forgetting my powers. If you had remembered, I would not be visiting Earth again,” says Coronavirus, a protagonist in a scene from Shehar-e-Naqab. The new play by Pune-based Swatantra Theatre was planned to spread awareness on the city streets but has moved online as cases of COVID-19 in the city grew. Shehar-e-Naqab will be available on the theatre group’s YouTube channel from this weekend.
In February, Swatantra Theatre was invited to the Bharat Rang Mahotsav, the prestigious theatre festival of the National School of Drama in Delhi. They performed Jaag Utha Hai Raigad, Vasant Kanetkar’s classic about the family politics in Shivaji’s household. A little more than a week ago, India had reported its first case of COVID-19 and the group began to think of a street play around the disease. The script, peppered with references to mythology and history, traces the disease to the conflict between nature and mankind.
“Human beings forgot that they were a part of nature and not nature itself. We ignored the signs of climate change, felled trees and killed animals indiscriminately, driving many to extinction. The coronavirus is one of the results of this attitude. Today, the entire world has been driven indoors and who can we blame but ourselves?” says director Abhijeet Choudhary. He trained in theatre in Delhi, with the activist group Asmita, and founded Swatantra Theatre with Dhanashree Heblikar and Yuwaraj Shah in Pune in 2005. The group performs thought-provoking and socially-conscious plays for the stage as well as street productions around issues such as trafficking and road rage.
Social distancing has meant that the performers create a style that marries elements of street and stage theatre with the demands of filmmaking. Shehar-e-Naqab features the exaggerated body movements of nukkad natak but the dialogue delivery is toned down to suit an enclosed space. “We don’t want people to forget that they are watching a filmed version of a street play. We have included theatrical songs with lyrics such as Sooraj bhi dhundhla ho gaya hai / raatein jagney lagi hain (The sun has blurred/ the night has woken up),” says Choudhary.
Several scenes have been inspired by true events, such as exams getting cancelled and weddings postponed. In a humorous episode, a couple gets married via video conferencing. “We felt it was important to show how COVID-19 has also fuelled our discriminatory attitude. Foreigners and people who have returned from abroad are being shunned and anybody coughing or sneezing is being treated like a pariah. There is a need to educate ourselves before it is too late,” says Choudhary.
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