Enjoyable and sensitively directed, Shri Ram Centre’s “Aadmi ka Aa” raises the bar

Naresh Saxena’s “Aadmi ka Aa” has all the elements of a school skit — a despotic regent, a crafty minister, the wallflower villagers and a good dose of slapstick. The play though, is a serious and sensitive work, talks about critical issues concerning children like literacy, access, responsibility and fraternity.

The weekend workshop for children at the Shri Ram Centre presented the play this Monday, directed by Nisha Trivedi. The director, who focuses on children in theatre, did a remarkable job in interpreting Saxena for her audience and actors — aged five to 14.

The plot unfolds around an agrarian community being introduced to education by a young urbane ‘jhola’-slinging girl (Deetya). The villagers initially mock, but gradually take to the written word. The performance is raw and childlike, yet very natural and the actors seemed as if they had grown up on stage.

Meanwhile, the local ruler (Vimanyu Tyagi) declares himself a farmer and stakes claim on all land in the kingdom. Using dubious logic he hikes the land revenue fourfold. He later makes it fivefold after agreeing to vaccinate all infants against polio, for “free.”

The durbar of poets and sycophants, called by the Raja, left the audience in splits. The “shayaris” were the usual poor jokes, but the kids expressively reciting them in sincerity captured the hearts of the crowd. The play showed influences of street theatre.

The actor who won the most applause, for his natural humour and innate sense of expression, was Aarav who played the minister. With his bright pink turban, the actor — less than four feet tall — held court and played the crafty sidekick to the king.

The costumes were tastefully done by Trivedi and Varun Chopra. They were grand without being garish. The sets were minimal — the only prop was a throne — but the actors, aided by Ravindra Mishra’s lighting, utilised the stage’s area optimally, neither crowding nor leaving it too sparse.

As the plot progresses, the young teacher is arrested by the king who can’t bear to hear the sound of people learning. He sentences her to be thrown into the river, only to find the river has run dry. He can’t feed her to the lions either, as they are extinct. The minister has instant excuses for both the anomalies. The river is dry due to de-silting, and who needs lions when the king himself is the “lion of lions”?

The timeless excuses are followed by a timeless climax — the rice on a chessboard trick. The king agrees to pardon the girl if she praises him. She agrees to do so, only in public, if he would grant her a wish. Much to the chagrin of the villagers and surprise of the king, she only wishes for rice — one in the first square of a chessboard, and double the amount of grains in every successive square.

The king soon loses his smile when he realises that the exponential increase of grains is far higher than the stock in all his granaries. The value of education finally dawns on the villagers, as the king swoons. Deetya’s dialogue in pure Hindi — for the measures and square tables — was superb. She knew her tables as well as the cast knows theatre.