When theatre director Lokesh Jain is angry with the state of the nation, he seeks kindling in the poems of famous poet Baba Nagarjuna. He had first read him at 18 and been co-opted by the unusual conceits and multi-layered wit — which makes his forthcoming play on the poet more than 20 years in the making.
Nagarjuna’s poems are as rustic and eccentric as the man was. A wanderer, who was famously unable to stay in a place long enough, Nagarjuna visited the deep interiors of India and wrote about the people who had slipped through the cracks. He wrote in Hindi and Maithili between the ’30s and ’80s and the play, Pratibadhh Hoon, attempts to recreate the offbeat humour of imageries, such as “alpsankhako ka achar” and “baaki reh gaya anda”. The production will be staged at Delhi’s Studio Safdar from September 25 to 27.
“I have gone through Nagarjuna’s 2,000-2,500 works. I thought, ‘Why not tie up the poems in a performance text?’ The poems become the dialogues the actors speak but the sub-text is expressed through their bodies,” says Lokesh. He has used physical theatre to express Nagarjuna’s proletariats, from a labourer to a goatherd to an Adivasi, as protagonists of the play. The rehearsal space is chaotic as the five actors try to channel the energy of their bodies into controlled vigour. Sweat flies, muscles are pulled and spines and other organs mined in forceful gestures. “The poems are full of metaphors and the actors needed intense movements to bring these out through actions,” says the director.
“One thing I saw clearly was that Nagarjuna spoke against whichever party was in power. During the Emergency, he was jailed for 11 months,” says Lokesh, as the actors erupt into a poem about the favourite pastime of politicians — making announcements and promises. “Om ghoshnaye, Om bhashan, Om pravachan, Om tribute ….Om dharti…,” they chant. They switch roles rapidly, picking up lines from one another in ways that split single poems into multiple spaces and characters.
Dead bodies lie on the floor at the beginning of the play. As the Buddhist chants phase in and out — Nagarjuna, a Brahmin, who converted to Buddhism — the characters awaken and rise slowly while uttering a poem about unsung heroes. “Only a few days have passed, but the world has already forgotten them,” they say in Hindi. Pratibadhh Hoon, in which Nagarjuna tackles his existentialism, follows seamlessly and leads into a paean about an uprising grass-root movement that contains the first stirrings of Naxalism — Hum aap hi apney leader hai, aap hi apney mukhiya, jungle aur pahar hamare….
The actors work with props such as a giant egg that breaks open to reveal shoes — a symbol of Dalit profession and oppression. The only female actor in the group, Lokesh’s wife Chhavi Jain, is covered in bubble wrap and plastered with shipping stickers of “Fragile” and “This Side Up”, as she begins to narrate a poem about a poor woman who writes to her migrant worker husband to come home soon, even if empty handed.
When Nagarjuna travelled to satisfy his wanderlust, he told stories of subalterns such as a bus driver, who chats with him about the colourful glass bangles of his daughter, and the rickshaw puller Kalimuddin, who calls himself Prem Prakash and wears chandan and rudraksh to earn a living. “This is one of the most powerful poems. It shows how communalism seeps in and affects the economically weaker class,” says Lokesh, before adding, “It is amazing how so many of Nagarjuna’s concerns still exist in our country.”
The play will be staged at Delhi’s Studio Safdar from September 25 to 27. Contact: http://www.jananatyamanch.org