An ancient Japanese theatre form can pique a modern audience’s curiosity, finds Neha Mujumdar

To use ‘serenity’ with respect to anything Japanese is a bit of a cliché, but the musical drama form Noh does evoke a somnolent quietness. At a recent performance at the Raj Bhavan’s Glass House, the city was treated to a slice of ancient Japan: Noh is a form that dates back 650 years. Performers from the Kanze School — one of the major schools of Noh — came down to Bangalore to commemorate 60 years of India-Japan diplomatic relations.

The format of a Noh play follows two main actors: a ‘shite’ (pronounced she-tay) and a ‘waki’. According to Columbia University’s Contemporary Japan website, each play displays one major emotion, but in an abstract, subtle manner. The highly symbolic form of Noh means there isn’t meant to be any individual interpretation.

A large audience had gathered, perhaps out of curiosity about the not-oft-seen form. Each piece was preceded by a short, contextualising introduction. The first piece was an encounter between two apparent warlords. Next was the piece that took up much of the evening: a fisherman encounters a woman who is actually a celestial maiden. After an argument, the woman proceeds to display her celestial form to prove her nature. Finally, there was another aggressive, flamboyant encounter between two men, each vying to outdo the other.

For each piece, a chorus took position on stage first; they were followed by the two central actors. The music that accompanies the performance is all produced by this chorus, and, in the performance, typically consisted of deep, rousing chants — unintelligible to non-Japanese speakers. As if to contrast, the main performers did not express much, or even move dramatically: everything was slow, measured. At climactic moments, the chanting became more powerful, successfully conveying anger and a sense of menace.

Noh is typically performed in a stage made largely from wood, and built specifically for the form: for instance, floors are built to enable actors to ‘glide’ out of stage. Performed in its intended setting, the effect of the performance might have been better grasped: the vocals would have resonated, perhaps building a powerful wall of sound.

There’s no getting around the fact that for an Indian audience — much separated from Noh in terms of both time and space — Noh can be distant, even strange. Indeed, soon after the performance began, several audience members began to snicker at the strangeness of the sounds, and promptly left.

It takes considerable suspension of disbelief to engage with Noh. At its best, the deep bass chanting and uber-slow movement offers room for contemplation and silence — and not immediate entertainment or upliftment. Its relevance today, except as a self-consciously ancient form, is not clear.