Theatre Nisha’s presentation of poet Anis Mojgani’s Songs from Under the River, on the last day of Poetry with Prakriti, took the audience to another plane with its ability to blend verse with everyday life situations

How do the words of Anis Mojgani, a Persian-African-American poet brought up in New Orleans, living in Austin, Texas, having the distinction of multiple wins in slam poetry contests, fit on a stage in the heart of Chennai where the waves of the Bay of Bengal lick the Indian shores? How can an outfit of a dozen and more stage performers perform aerobics while the protagonist delivers a poem, continually, without breathing hard? Why would two people play cricket and recite a poem about why brown-skinned people are considered terrorists? What does a sorcerer with a skull have to do with talking to fish in an ocean that will never understand, according to the poet, what is being narrated to them, let alone see the world of flowers that the poet talks of? The intent of Theatre Nisha comes through in such leaps of faith to the audience seated on the steps of the sunken auditorium of Spaces asking them to “Come closer”.

Sparkling personas

On the last day of Poetry with Prakriti, we listen to Mojgani’s Songs from Under the River, watching lights play magic with sparkling personas. For a while, it seems like aliens from another planet, the Nishanians, have landed in extravagant costumes, extracting volumes from words we cannot completely fathom. “I did not want to recite poetry, I wanted a theatrical experience,” says V. Balakrishnan of Theatre Nisha. “The poems originated as slam poetry, which meant Mojgani made it up on the spot. I wanted to be stimulated in turn to make spontaneous imagery.” Mojgani’s poems famously resonate among diverse audiences: “We forgot what we wanted, we became what we have become” and “for the kid who was always late to class because he forgets the combination to his locker” and “What we all wanted and none of us got.” From Mojgani’s power-packed original solo delivery, Balakrishnan set out to deconstruct all the expected norms, using imagery as a secondary layer.

Seeking feedback

Normally, Bala’s plays have three to five actors but this invitation from Ranvir Shah of Prakriti Foundation brought together 25 from various theatre groups. On completing the programme in 15 days, Bala invited a close and trusted group for feedback. “They told me they were inclined to watch till the end and did not feel like leaving. They did not know why but felt drawn to what they were seeing. With this group, there was honesty in the performance and I was convinced of our delivery.” The test verdict amazingly corresponds with audience opinion — while Renuka Narayanan had not heard the poetry before, this did not pose a problem. “These are events of our lives and times. It took me a while to understand their parallel activities. By the end of the performance, I realised what they were doing — blending poetry into everyday life situations and it all started to make sense.” The sincerity and integrity of the group gave credibility, carrying the whole act to the end. All deviations from the norm became acceptable. “They were so brave to do what they did!” says Renuka.

“Why a sorcerer with a skull when a fisherman is reciting poems to fish in the sea?” I ask Bala, who replies, “When I heard the poem I don’t know why I thought of Hamlet and his monologue with Yorick’s skull!” The connection, on a bit of pondering, is evident in “death and the monologue.” The fisherman intends death to the fish, even if he talks to them. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet talks to the skull of his jester, already dead. It is these underlying layers that subtly tag the unconscious to the imagery of the theatre staged by Theatre Nisha. The fisherman, akin to a sorcerer, is bewitching fish into his net, eventually to be reduced to bones, like the skull.

Indianised rendition

By the end, it is a full theatre, a crowd of varying age groups and backgrounds, all gathered together for the sake of poetic repertory. Like English language plays of foreign origin brought to an Indian milieu, in the staging of these poems too one is aware of the cross-cultural challenges of expression. The rendition of the pieces becomes Indianised by virtue of the signs, symbols, accents, pronunciation and scenarios, as if the Wizard of Oz has placed Dorothy with her setting in our midst to do her thing. It is a universe at the end of the rainbow we did not expect to find. In Mojgani’s words, the “soul somehow still squeezes into narrow spaces.” “I never expected anything like this,” says Renuka. That thought is echoed by other theatre-goers as a friend congratulates Balakrishnan — “It was something unimaginable, out of this world! You must do it again.”