After seven years without rain, the people of a village are crying out for water, food and God’s grace. Playwright Girish Karnad conjures up a vivid landscape in Agni aur Varsha, in which villagers are as parched as the earth around them. The play is a reworking of a myth from the Mahabharata. Mumbai-based director-actor Jyoti Dogra, working on Karnad’s text, reduces the entire opening descriptions into one poignant image. Actors move in slow motion — as if time itself were weary — and gradually raise their faces and arms to the sky. From the silence, comes the sound of quiet humming that fills the stage with a sense of desolation. The ability of the actors to convey a narrative with minimal action or dialogues is the mainstay of Dogra’s theatre. She has adapted Agni aur Varsha into a play called Toye (Sanskrit for water), which will have its first tour of Delhi this month. Dogra will also present her acclaimed solo, Notes on Chai, at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav, the annual theatre festival of the National School of Drama, in Delhi on February 10. Excerpts of an interview:
What drew you to Agni aur Varsha?
The play, for me, is about different kinds of hungers, from the hunger for power to a hunger for love to a hunger for redemption. I was interested in looking at this hunger in the bodies of the actors, how such an obsession travels in the blood. As an organism, if I am taken up with it, what happens to me? Agni aur Varsha is set in the backdrop of the drought and a seven-year fire sacrifice that is aimed at pleasing the gods to end the drought. The play begins with a family feud, where Yavakri, consumed with love for Vishakha, his childhood sweetheart and wife of his arch rival, sets out to destroy her entire family. His ambition and thirst for power is met with equal force and violence by Pravasu, Vishakha’s husband and his uncle. As these opposing worlds collide, they bring forth a diabolic energy that engulfs everything in its path. At the end, it is the sacrifice of two innocent lovers, Arvasu and Nittlai, that restores order, convincing the gods to send rain.
How did you convey this complex story as a piece of physical theatre?
The piece attempts to find physical and aural images that do justice to the complexities of the text. When the Brahma Rakshash and Paravasu, for instance, confront each other, both actors decided to perform the sequence on a swing. The scene happens mid-air, where they hit out at each other, are upside down or on top of each other on the swing. The sense is that they are clamouring for mukti, for redemption, for peace. We worked with tiny movements, each magnified and made very large so that every detail, every intake of breath, becomes a physical force and magnifies the performance.
Did your rehearsal space have a bearing on how the play shaped up?
We needed a space where we could cut out the rest of the world and come together. Indri, a village near Karnal, was such a place. The team worked 14 hours a day. Living together closely, sharing day-to-day production difficulties, fuelled our faith in the work. Each actor was intimately and intensely involved in every aspect of the production, which, in turn, sharpened his sense of the play, and his playing.
Why did you choose to have multiple actors playing a single character as well as some actors having single parts?
This was an ensemble production and, from the beginning, it grew organically. Each actor brings in a complexity that is his own. There are different actors playing the same character at different times — which compels the audience to not engage with a character as much as with the ideas and possibilities those characters represent. These ideas as well as the actors constantly change in the play and, at times, the narrative line may be a little hard to understand. But, our attempt is not so much to convey the meaning or the story but to share an experience of this world and allow each audience member to engage in the meaning-making process. In my others works also, be it The Doorway or Notes on Chai, if two people in the audience find two different meanings of a sequence, I feel my play is progressing.
Toye will be presented at Studio Safdar on February 20 and 21, Ambedkar University on February 22, Kirori Mal College on February 24th, Shiv Nadar University on February 25, Akshara Theatre on February 27 and Gati Dance Collective on February 28