Akshara theatre brings a book to life every month in Delhi

It’s the story of an irresistible attraction. A calling that cannot be ignored. Are we talking of what made Gopal Sharman and Jalabala Vaidya devote their lives to theatre despite the unpredictable nature of the profession? Not exactly — though the words could certainly be applied to them. More specifically, however, the fatal attraction being described here is to be found in “The Strange Case of Billy Biswas”, a novel by Arun Joshi, which they will be presenting in their series of dramatised book readings this coming Saturday at 7 p.m. at their theatre, Akshara in the heart of town.

The book readings began in July with students from the Hindu College Dramatics Society presenting a dramatised reading of the celebrated novel “Shantaram.” The readings are what Sharman and Vaidya call “halfway to being a play.” The written word is brought to life with the help of lights, music, props and some action. Some action?

Monthly affair

In “Shantaram”, which, as Vaidya says, has “a crime thriller type of excitement,” there was an escape scene in which one of the participants had to jump down from the balcony. The DU students were understandably thrilled. Vaidya and Sharman were too — with the audience response — and so decided to make the dramatised book readings a monthly affair. Vaidya, who edits the works for the two-hour readings, says, “Now that’s a big thing. I now know what happens when you transform a novel into a film.” Some strands have to be left out. “Otherwise it would become a serial,” jokes Sharman, who is composing music for this Saturday’s reading.

Not many may be familiar with “Billy Biswas.” Published in the 1970s, it is the story of a highly educated young man who abandons an engineering degree in favour of anthropology, then abandons a privileged city life for the irresistible lure of tribal life in the Chhattisgarhi jungles. Besides an inherent element of sexuality, represented by the tribal woman for whom he is willing to give up everything, this “story of his total seduction by the jungle” also carries, says Vaidya, “a deja vu-like foretaste of the politics we see taking place in those very Chhattisgarhi hills today.”

The inner call

However, what attracted her to the book is the idea of losing oneself irretrievably to an inner call. “Everything else — his wife, his child, his parents — everything pales into insignificance in the face of this utter seduction.” It has its parallels throughout Indian literature, she says. “It’s a recurring thought.” Another recurring thought is the desire to be in a mountain cave, she notes, adding, “I hope I’ll find a book encompassing that some day.”

It seems to be a part of Indian thought, she feels inevitably popping up here and there in life or the arts. The former resident of the house in which Akshara now has its headquarters on Baba Kharag Singh Marg too seems to have succumbed to this urge. “He just left this house and was never found.” The man was known to have spiritual leanings and all searches in likely places failed. It is because this is not an unusual story in India, says Vaidya, that she prefers books by Indians or at least with a strong Indian element, like “Shantaram.” It is similar to people’s desire to become film stars and disappearing in the slums of Mumbai. “That is found in ‘Shantaram’. I don’t know whether I should call the whole series ‘The Great Escape’!”

Whatever the name of the series, a great story is a great place to escape to. Hardly a better place to get lost in. Too weak hearted to plunge into hundreds of pages? Take heart. At Akshara’s book readings, the characters will be kind enough to walk right out to meet you.

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