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Updated: August 16, 2010 18:26 IST

A journey into numbers

Sangeetha devi dundoo
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Simon McBurney
Simon McBurney

As part of the International Congress of Mathematicians, UK-based theatre company Complicite will stage A Disappearing Number that looks at the collaboration between Srinivas Ramanujan and G. H. Hardy during their days at Cambridge. A play on mathematicians could have been puzzling. While working on the production, Simon McBurney remembers how the team was “enormously aided by the work of several mathematicians, among them, Marcus Du Sautoy (author of ‘Music of the Primes') and musicians, notably Nitin Sawhney (composer and an expert in Vedic Maths), Martin Rees (The Astronomer Royal) and many others.”

A part of the story travels in time to the then downtown Madras, and for this, Simon visited Chennai and travelled to Ramanujan's birth place Kumbakonam. He engages us with vivid details, “I arrived in the middle of the night at Chennai, and then drove down to Kumbakonam. I shall never forget that ride. Life and death accompanied us on that trip. We passed several funerals on the road down. And once we were there, we travelled to the banks of the Cauvery where Ramanujan passed much of his childhood and as night fell we arrived in Namakal, where we were the only visitors to the great temple, where reputedly Ramanujan received a vision from the goddess Namagiri that helped to bypass the Brahmin injunction against travel. I sat by the well in Ramanujan's house, and gazed at the gopuram of the temple. Some of the photographs and video footage I took are now present in the show.” 

Expect the unexpected

Going by international reviews, there's never a dull moment in the play. McBurney cautions that the Hyderabad audience “should not expect to see a conventional Merchant Ivory reconstruction of the past with masses of period detail; should not expect a linear narrative and should not expect to understand absolutely everything.”

He adds that the stories, both contemporary and historical, are clear. “There are two stories of love and loss that intertwine.”

Before Hyderabad, the team performed in Mumbai where the audience reception ranged from stunned silences to prolonged applauses. He is touched by people who stayed back to discuss and offer feedback to the actors.

“There was a sensitivity, not only to the intellectual and mathematical themes and ideas in the play, but to the to the multiple stories detailing the experiences of the Indian Diaspora. These stories of exile, not only that of Ramunajan but also those detailing the modern day experience of migration, to the USA, Africa and the UK, seemed to unlock a profound emotional response.  But most of all was an extraordinary appreciation of the interlocking of all these ideas. That the mathematical was inseparable from the emotional, the cerebral from the physical, the past from the present and the future,” he sums up. 

(Watch the play on August 21 and 22; 7 p.m.; at the Global Peace Auditorium, Shanti Sarovar Campus, Gachibowli. Tickets are available at Odyssey, Jubilee Hills, bookmyshow.com and at the venue on the days of the play.)

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