Bertolt Brecht's “The Good Woman of Schezwan” effectively blooms as Ramkali on Indian stage. The adaptation by Amitabh Srivastava is convincing and is further rooted by allusions to the upcoming Commonwealth Games and the way it has turned many lives topsy-turvy, the victimisation of the homeless, corruption and urban poverty.
Arvind Gaur believes in the theatre of causes/issues. And Bertolt Brecht's “The Good Woman of Schezwan” is a potent text. The director has experimented with the text several times in his theatre journey and does so again. However this appears his most pronounced approach to the play with dancer, activist and theatre person Mallika Sarabhai essaying the central role.
“Ramkali” stays true to Brecht's play, but layers it with very local concerns. Staged at the Shri Ram Centre the past week, “Ramkali” from Darpana Academy of Performing Art and Asmita perches itself steeply in a Delhi milieu. “The Good Woman of Schezwan”, the story of Shen Teh, a prostitute who creates an alter ego Shui Ta when her inherent goodness makes it difficult to live, is efficiently transplanted to Delhi-6 by Gaur, Mallika and their team.
The adaptation by Amitabh Srivastava is convincing and is further rooted by allusions to the upcoming Commonwealth Games and the way it has turned many lives topsy-turvy, the victimisation of the homeless, corruption and urban poverty. Barring a few instances — like an actor waving a well known magazine with its cover clearly visible — where the allusion becomes too in-your-face and lacks dramatic finesse, most of them work without chewing into the primary text.
“I chose ‘The Good Woman of Schezwan' as it is contemporary and relevant. The questions and issues around it are timeless. In India, with the changing socio-political scene, it becomes all the more important,” says Gaur. Brecht's Shen Teh is Ramkali, a woman pushed to prostitution by life, but whose latent virtues are never concealed from the world. Three gods on a visit to the city finally reach Ramkali's doors as she is the only one who gives them shelter to stay the night.
From their generosity stems a complex route ahead for Ramkali. From a prostitute she graduates to a tobacco shop owner, but the tests ahead unsettle her, until she finds respite in the façade of Ramlal, her brother and her creation, who is diametrically different from her — shrewd, competent and well-versed in the ways of the world. In the distance from Ramkali to Ramlal lies the conflict in the lives of simple, honest men and women who are forced to wear a protective garb, so that they are not trampled over by those around them.
Mallika traverses the distance from the free-spirited Ramkali to the assertive Ramlal and slips back-and-forth between these two characters efficiently. According to Gaur, Mallika dug deep into her identities and brought a fresh perspective to the portrayal of Ramkali. “Being a social activist, dancer and theatre person, she banked on different resources and also brought her socio-political understanding to the role,” says Gaur.
The director, who considers “The Good Woman of Schezwan” one of his favourite plays, says “Ramkali” is a “tribute to the Brechtian pattern.” The narrative is interspersed by song and poetry and is left open-ended with Mallika addressing the audience on the intention behind the play's indefinite conclusion. Sets are minimalistic here — a shaky doorway often carves the space. The length of “Ramkali” at a little over two hours may not go in its favour, but the spark of the show is its performers. All of them get into the skin of their parts — big and small — which makes it entertaining, while the points to ponder are never allowed to wander away.