“Glittering Decades” portrays the position of Delhi’s economic elite that thrived during the Raj but panicked as independence neared.
“Glittering Decades”, an adaptation of Australian writer Nayantara Pothen’s work, presented by Katyani at India Habitat Centre recently aims to project the world of Delhi’s high society from 1931 to 1952. The high society had a great time during the heyday of the British Raj. As a result of the mass upsurge against British imperialism, the glitter around the Raj started fading and with it the secure world of this circle of society began to crumble.
Adapted by the author herself, the play reveals the most tumultuous, unnerving, tragic times that were also the dawn of a new era for free India. The play examines this complex social and political order through the prism of four characters who belong to the highly privileged class of the Indian Civil Service, a most powerful instrument of the Raj to exploit Indian people and perpetuate the power of British imperialism. These characters are caught in the whirlpool of social metamorphosis. With such characters, “Glittering Decades” offers a grim theatrical experience.
The play is directed by Sohaila Kapur, a seasoned stage director. The characters deliver their lines in the form of a monologue while writing letters. They do not interact because the format of the script does not offer an opportunity for interactions. So the main source of communication is the word; there is no space either for flashback scenes to capture the past. In fact, the period in which the play is set has tremendous significance both in world history and the history of India. Fascism had met with ignominious defeat in the Second World War; British imperialism had started weakening economically. It was too enfeebled to confront the liberation movements in colonised countries. India attained freedom but it witnessed terrible bloodshed and massacre in the wake of Partition. To understand all these forces as agents of change on the stage, a more complex structure of script is required. The adaptation by Nayantara Pothen is sketchy.
Sohaila’s production is austere. Upstage, four chairs are placed in a bare space at some distance. Occasionally the characters move a little from their chairs and stand up. They address persons living in a distant land who never appear on the stage nor react to their letters. They reveal in their letters their concerns and predicament caused by the unprecedented change in the social and political life of Delhi in particular, and the country in general. They write about the splendour of the garden party attended by the privileged class and strict adherence to etiquette. It is also revealed that the ruling elite lived in palatial buildings in great pomp and show. The letters reveal that glittering period is giving way to intense anxiety and insecurity in the aftermath of the Partition. One of the letter writers writes that most of the Muslims have left Delhi and the Muslims in the ICS feel their position threatened in free India and plan to migrate to Pakistan. A British ICS official is disdainful of the changes that have taken place and decides to leave India. There is talk of refugee camps and communal riots and loot of the property of Muslims. One character writes that Delhi is rife with rumours.
What gives life to the production is the director’s intelligent use of slide projection on the screen to depict the historical and social background of the contents of the letters. We watch Muhammed Ali Jinnah’s forceful demand for the formation of Pakistan. We watch Nehru delivering his historical speech in the Constituent Assembly, “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny….” Gandhi’s assassination by a Hindu fanatic is suggestively conveyed. These images provide context for the monologues which are handled in an immaculate style. The production would have been more effective visually and aurally if the director had set the action on the central stage instead of upstage.
The most aptly cast performer in the production is Sunit Tandon. His delivery of lines is remarkable for clarity and dramatic effect. He is arguably the most notable actor of Delhi’s English stage. Alexander James Holmes, Vani Vyas and Anuja Thirani are endowed with impressive stage presence, revealing the snobbery, anxiety and predicament of the ruling elite threatened by social and political transformation.