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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Sum of its Parts

The Mrichhakatika Project at Khoj was a jostle of concerns, from cows to classics to crime.

Written by Dipanita Nath |
Updated: December 8, 2015 4:56:13 am
Mrichhakatika,  Mrichhakatika project, Brahmin Charudatta, Vasantasena, indian literature,  Khoj International Artist Association, Mithu Sen, talk Mithu Sen

Four artistes came together for one month to work on an ancient Sanskrit text called Mrichhakatika. Sudraka’s 10-act play, about the forbidden love between the Brahmin Charudatta and the courtesan Vasantasena, is one of the rare works of comedy in classical Indian literature — but its latest adaptation, The Mrichhakatika Project, was a rattling thing. It was presented at Khoj International Artists’ Association, an organisation in south Delhi that facilitates cutting-edge art, on November 22.

Visual artist and performer Mithu Sen greeted visitors by giving each a sealed envelope and some money. The envelope contained an “offer letter” in which each person was assigned the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play the role of yourself”. “Every thought, gesture, sensation, action and conversation will be closely monitored and stored for later retrieval… in our collective memory,” said the post-script.

The money in the pouch was remuneration for the audience-actor. Six years ago at the same venue, Sen had given away artwork – highly priced in the market – as gifts to those who wrote her a letter. Giving money to the audience hinted at a similar subversion since it is the latter that usually pays to watch a show.
The other artistes — theatre director Zuleikha Chaudhari, dramaturge Kris Merken and documentary filmmaker Shilpi Gulati — were seated at a table on an undulating patch of grass in a studio reading scripts. “The garden features prominently in Sudraka’s text as the place where Charudatta and Vasantasena meet as well as where Vasanatasena is presumably murdered. It is the site of passion and crime. I was thinking about what does a public garden mean and how to build a landscape in the middle of a room,” says Chaudhari.

Audiences stood around the “garden” or sat on the grass listening to the performers read — either live or in a video projected on the wall behind them. Dialogues from Mrichhakatika were followed by lines on revolution from Heiner Muller’s Hamletmachine. Occasionally, lines from Mrichhakatika were paraphrased to include a political reference: “This cow belongs to my mistress. She had left it in the house of that worthy gentleman.”

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Gulati, who was maintaining a diary of the process of making the performance, interjected with her memories in the script. “Getting the grass can cost up to Rs 15,000,” she said. Later, she added, “We may not produce anything at all. In Khoj, it is possible to say that. I wonder what the team upstairs feels about this? Do they really find it interesting or does it cause some kind of panic somewhere?”

Even for an attentive audience, the script resembled a broken mirror in whose fragments one might recognise bits of one’s own concerns or catchphrases of the moment. The swirl of ideas — from play-making to play-watching — had to fight with the parallel promise of piping hot momos and socialising, for audience attention. The conversation buzzed around the performances. Even the room where Sen had written letters to “Dear Charudutta” and kept envelopes with more money for audiences, who wanted to play a role in the play, was not inducement enough to participate.

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