Éric Vigner’s "Gates to India Song" will be remembered, if at all, for its skilled cast and the stately residence of the French ambassador.
Scene 1: The actors read from the script and introduce themselves, at the entrance of the French ambassador’s residence. They declare: “This winter, I’m going to do some theatre, and I hope to do something completely new — create theatre that is read, not acted. Acting detracts from the text without adding anything; instead, it compromises the text’s presence, its profundity, its muscle and blood.”
Little golden cards, folded to create an illusion of pyramids, decorate the entrance on both sides. The audience walks in, feels uplifted to be seated in a room with a painting of Syed Haider Raza.
Scene 2: More reading. We admire their impeccable white costumes. Suhaas Ahuja, who plays a troubled vice consul, puts up a splendid performance. Nandita Das — partly reading, partly emoting, and singing — tells the story of a girl who walks from South East Asia to Kolkata, giving birth to a child somewhere along the way.
Scene 3: We’re at the rear fireplace facing a lawn. Ducks quack at a distance. The sound effect of whispers in French continues. All very cool, very intriguing. It’s His Excellency François Richier’s home after all.
Kolkata, in the play, is the imperial capital full of leprosy patients and the profound ‘Ganges’. We only have author Marguerite Duras’ description of the city. The play "Gates to India Song" was based on her works “India Song” and “Vice Consul”. The French can’t stand the place and its humidity. The director apparently couldn’t stand the colourful metropolis either, as he does absolutely nothing to bring out the place Duras imagines in her work.
The vice consul screams that he wants to be with the ambassador’s wife. She (Nandita) mouths some dreamy lines. A while later the lights go out and everyone walks towards the hors d’oeuvre in silence, not knowing what to make of the play.
The deal with adapting a book, or two in this case, to stage is to give life to the images it throws at you; to live the emotions the book stirs in you, even if only on stage. You don’t need to have read the book to enjoy a play. If at all, you should be enthusiastic about reading the book after watching a play. And not thinking Duras must be tedious.
He could have done so with just about any cast. Instead he chose some of the best and made them play roles they could do off hand, in the break between dinner and dessert.
In director Éric Vigner’s defence it was postmodern theatre, an experiment, and he was discovering his time and space. The audience wasn’t just free to but also encouraged to derive their own meanings from his work.
Besides, the gendarme let them in the ambassador’s house, they had wine and later were treated to an impeccable French dinner hosted by the delightful Naina De Bois-Juzan at the Institut Français. It was all for free. There’s no stopping Quai d’Orsay, when it wants to splurge. We should simply be grateful.
If there were any children around (I found a cat, but no kids) they might have said something to the effect of what Hans Andersen’s little boy says in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. In this case however, the emperor wore white — simple yet elegant costumes by Maximiliano Modesti and Rajesh Pratap Singh.