A dog’s yearning for freedom finds poignant narration in ‘Swatantra Naya’

“Theatre is our life breath” — that was the point of emphasis in a memorandum read out before the play and prepared to present to the Mayor. It requests better theatre spaces in a city that appreciates and enjoys its theatre. Kozhikode lived up to its reputation of a city that loves its theatre during the week-long Regional Amateur Theatre Competition for northern Kerala conducted by the Sangeetha Nataka Akademi. Half an hour before the final play of the contest Swatantra Naya (Free Dog) began, the Town Hall was filled to the brim. Scramble was on for the best standing positions in the alley.

Yearning to be free

The play from the city-based Aniyara Nataka Samithi worked within a small premise — a dog’s yearning to be free. Largely drawn from R.K. Narayan’s short story “Attila”, the play is directed by Gireesh P.C. Palam. It treads comfortably through dichotomies — reputation and reality, freedom and bondage. The set is stark and pointed, so is the lighting. The symbols related to the pet dog — its freedom, its duties and its pedigree — are represented larger than life. The lock that seals the gate, the flowers he is to guard and the book that gives nuggets about his breed are presented through large models, clear symbols of burden.

The play is a dig at the world of dog owners and their inflated egos, masters for whom their dogs are the passport to a standing in society. They painstakingly build the atmosphere for the dog to sharpen its ferocity, in this case by locking it away from the outside world. An ordinary dog is expected to showcase the skills of an exalted breed. Giving a name to the dog itself is a ceremony here; Kaiser is passé, “even the servant’s dog is called Kaiser,” says the owner. The dog’s name should reflect the master’s immense pride in possessing him and the dog is consequently named Attila, a symbol of power and might. Attila though hardly lives up to its name. He moans more than he barks, the more he is cut off from people the more he seeks them out, forced to showcase his ferocity he cows down more than ever. His failures are his masters, a dent to his ego, a bruise on his expectations.

The master cuts off Attila’s tail in an attempt to make him angry and vengeful, but with no avail. When nothing works he banks on a dog’s final test of efficiency – catching a thief. The manner in which Attila nails the thief is a marvelous tale of subversion. The play boasted clean performances, though a taxing one definitely for the actor who played Attila. It also witnessed certain marvelous scene execution, especially the chase in the market involving the owner, the thief and Attila. With minimum fuss, lot of imagination and visual splendour, they evoke the sense of a chase convincingly. Swatantra Naya also kept abreast humour throughout the narrative. The strength of the script is its simplicity. So when Attila is brought back to his master’s house and bondage, it is the terrible cycle of misunderstanding and misfortune that continues. The production, except for minor sound issues, stood well, ably assisted by sound performances and a vivid set.