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What Mallika Sarabhai’s The Conference of the Birds has to say about the right to love and mental health

Darpana Academy of Performing Arts' latest production for young adults confronts questions on racism, power and academic pressure

A scene from The Conference of the Birds (Photo courtesy: Darpana Academy of Performing Arts)
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As she has done for every election in Gujarat, except the five years that were spent working with the legendary theatre director Peter Brook in France, Mallika Sarabhai went to a polling booth in Ahmedabad to cast her vote in the afternoon. “That’s when the queue is the shortest,” says the dancer-actor-director, who has been performing professionally since 1977. This time, there was a greater urgency. Sarabhai was rehearsing from morning till late after midnight for a new production, The Conference of the Birds, directed by her long-time collaborator Yadavan Chandran and adapted from a 1970s’ text by Brook and Jean-Claude Carriere. The play opened at Natarani auditorium in Ahmedabad on December 8 and today is the last day. Another run is scheduled from January 26 in Ahmedabad.

The Conference of the Birds is the first time the formidable artiste will be on stage after she has been appointed by the Kerala government as Chancellor of Kerala Kalamandalam, deemed to be university for art and culture. “I am overwhelmed and delighted, and hope that I can contribute to this great institution,” says Sarabhai, 69, who heads the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, in Ahmedabad, that was founded by her parents, the pioneering dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai and Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India’s space programme, in 1949.

Mallika Sarabhai (Photo courtesy: Darpana Academy of Performing Arts)

The Conference of the Birds is based on a 12th-century poem, Mantiq-ut-Tair, by the Sufi saint Farid ud-Din Attar, who was the teacher of Rumi. It revolves around birds of different species who are making an epic journey in search of their king, Simurgh. At a deeper level, the quest is for self-realisation. The performers want to reach out to children and young adults, who have been left vulnerable by the pandemic. “Everywhere, from social media and newspapers to doctors, parents and teachers, I keep hearing about children going into depression. The number of young people who are complaining of mental disorders has risen dangerously. We have become a sick society because we are so far away from the true meaning of life,” says Sarabhai.

Made up of several stories, the production features characters who reflect present-day dilemmas — the parrot who prefers the comforts of a gold cage, the falcon who is proud to be a king’s pet and the duck who is wary of foreign waters, among others. The aim is to prompt young audiences to think about issues ranging from racism and power to academic pressures, the right to love and one’s mental well-being.

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Sarabhai, herself, is one of the country’s most powerful voices on the rights of struggling communities. While delivering the ninth Professor Ram Bapat Memorial Lecture online in July, she spoke about her personal transformation between 1984 and 1990, while she worked with Brook on the play, Mahabharata, in which she played Draupadi. “Those five years were pivotal in making me coalesce my strong feelings for justice and human rights, my still-nascent political beliefs and ideology, my ethical framework and my ability as an artiste, to reach out to people and talk about things that matter,” she said.

She created Shakti: The Power of Women, in 1989 and followed it with works that responded to pressing socio-political concerns of the day. Unsuni, based on Harsh Mander’s book Unheard Voices (2001), provoked students in elite schools to discuss manual scavenging and the land rights of tribals, while Dear Judge Sahib (2021) was about Pinjra Tod activist Natasha Narwal and her father.

Artistic Director of Darpana, Yadavan Chandran (Photo courtesy: Darpana Academy of Performing Arts)

In 2009, Sarabhai fought the Lok Sabha elections against LK Advani and lost. Over the decades, she has watched politics and society change. “There are times when one can be confrontational and there are times when one has to find a different language to talk of the same things. I think now is one of those times, when one can’t be confrontational because the all-powerful are so much more powerful today,” she says. “Even with young audiences, if high technology is what is required to keep them attentive, then high technology is what we will use, though we are telling the same stories about human travails,” she adds.

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The challenge with The Conference of the Birds was to take children’s attention away from social media for 85 minutes. According to Yadavan, young people are living at a time “when we have become self-obsessed. We have become insular and do not care about anyone else. Yet, connection and empathy are what humanity is about,” he says, “We have tried to bring in a new element in the play every three minutes— a sound, a visual, a punch line or a gag, so that the production does not drag.” The Conference of the Birds features immersive multi-media effects with theatre, storytelling, dance and music. The artistic director of Darpana, Yadavan, has made a number of pieces, including Kadak Badshaahi his ode to Ahmedabad, as well as films such as Mrinalini Sarabhai: The Artist and Her Art (2013), and Dance Unlocked (2020).

Sarabhai, has been cast as the hoopoe, the bird who initiates the journey in The Conference of the Birds. “Like we talk of the owl as being very wise in Hinduism, the hoopoe represents wisdom in Sufism. This text is supposed to be the first treatise on the path of Sufism from Islam. Though the hoopoe seems to be motivating the action, it is also a bird in conflict, which we find out only at the end. It is a common bird but the hoopoe is wise,” says Sarabhai.

First published on: 09-12-2022 at 16:45 IST
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