The evil that men do lived after them, as an array of plays gave hate a second life. This was the year theatre took on divisive politics and fictionalised the events that made national headlines. Age-old scripts came alive as artistes probed issues of caste, class, country, community and complexion. Here are a few battles still raging:
Theatre of War
April marked the 100th anniversary of the US joining World War I. In India, Quasar Thakore Padamsee, a director from Mumbai, cast powerhouse performer Arundhati Nag as the central protagonist in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, to which he added a tagline — “Everybody Loves a Good War”. “She is like, ‘Boss, this is the world, this is war. That’s what I am going to do. I am going to make a living from the war,’” says Padamsee. Chandigarh-based Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry’s Dark Borders was a collage of scenes, images of shoes and tents that recall refugees, and fragments of stories by the writer of Partition, Saadat Hasan Manto, and Russian writer Maxim Gorky.
Ahead to the Past
Anurupa Roy brought home the Best Play for the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) for Mahabharata, in which actors and puppets performed from the epic themed around the question “If humans are basically peace loving, then why do wars take place?” One of the criticisms of the Bharat Rang Mahotsav, organised by the National School of Drama in Delhi, was that it focussed on plays based on mythology this year, but a closer look showed that not all of these were in support of nationalistic politics. Ratan Thiyam’s award-winning play Urubhangam, for instance, tells the Great War of Kurukshetra from the point of view of one of its arch villains, Duryodhan, and turns him into a figure of sympathy.
In META, Vivek Vijayakumaran performed Bhima to explores ideas of masculinity and strength, hunger and vulnerability. “Is his version of masculinity still acceptable, or is he just a child-man who seeks a guide? Is he a selfless narcissist?” he says. Yuki Elias won the Best Actor (Female) at META for play, titled Elephant in the Room, that turned mythology on its head. It records the adventures as a boy who has lost his head and been given a new one — of an elephant — by Third Eye, his divine father. The play travelled to the Edinburgh Fringe, the largest and most eclectic festival of the arts, held in Scotland in August.
Maya Krishna Rao, a veteran actor from Delhi, isn’t known for mincing words. While Walk, her solo that was created after the Delhi Gangrape, is still going strong, she created a fresh work of protest theatre. At Jantar Mantar, a site of political protests in Delhi till recently, she told the forces spreading communal hatred, “Don’t you dare, / Not in my name, /But don’t you dare, / In the name of Allah, Krishna, Buddha, Jehovah, / Kalburgi, Pehlu Khan, Dabholkar, Mohammad Akhlaque, Pansare … / Junaaaaaaid.” Another performance, Agla Station Lok Kalyan Marg Hai, by a young group who are alumni from Ambedkar University, Delhi University and Jamia Millia, responded to the series of mob lynching and systemic violence. Tom Alter passed away this year, but, before that, he played Mahatma Gandhi one last time in Pierrot Troupe’s Mohan Se Mahatma. “There is a strong attempt to rewrite history but a history that has never been written but actually happened, how can you rewrite that?” the actor had said.
Divide and Rule/Fall
Caste politics emerged in The Outcaste, based on the autobiography of Dalit writer Sharankumar Limbale, and was staged at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala, META and Bharat Rang Mahotsav (BRM). MK Raina’s new performance, Kafan-Kafan Chor, delved into poverty and gender as well as the importance of a shroud in strife-torn Kashmir. Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya, O Jamyai Na, a play about a Muslim family that fled their home in Lucknow during the Partition and ended up sharing home with an Hindu woman in Lahore, is still a crowd puller and being staged by various groups. 2016’s big play, Khasakkinte Ithihasam by Deepan Sivaraman, is adapted from OV Vijayan’s classic and highlights the syncretic culture of Kerala. A hit this year, too, it was presented in Jaipur, Bangalore and the National Theatre Festival in Thiruvananthapuram, among others, and will continue touring in 2018.
Lokesh Jain’s comment on the nationalism debate was a play, Bharat Mata Ki Jai, in which India is personified in many forms, from a wealthy woman, who supports the freedom movement, to a weaver who wants a shroud of khadi, from a Brahmin who rejects the caste system to a Muslim who refused to migrate to Pakistan. Women are the heart of the theatre of Purva Naresh from Mumbai.
The year, she unveiled Bandish 20-20000 Hz, tracing the history of Indian music through a sudden meeting of a baithak singer and a nautanki performer. At first they take jibes at each other but when they begin to talk, we see the hidden lives of women performers in the world ordered by men, where lovers are plenty but love is rare.
Bandish 20-20000 Hz was performed at Aadyam Theatre Festival in Mumbai and Delhi and Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa, among others. Mumbai actor Suchitra Krishnamoorthi returned to the stage with a solo, titled Drama Queen, about “a woman trying to find herself and her voice, and reclaim a place in the world”.