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High voltage performance

Salim Ghouse in his "Sufiana... " took off on a wide range of contemporary issues. KAUSALYA SANTHANAM writes...

Salim Ghouse with his son... interacting with the audience after performance. — Pic. By S. Anvar.

THE STORIES told of Mulla Nasruddin, portrayed as Sufi dervish or royal advisor, have entertained generations. Known as Mullah Nasruddin in Persian, he is Hoca in Turkish and Juha in Arabic.

The Phoenix Players from Mumbai presented "Sufiana (Wit and Wisdom of Mulla Nasruddin)" for the Other Festival at Chinmaya Heritage Centre last Saturday. The work was written, designed and directed by Salim Ghouse.

The image of the clown or courtier, who seems to spew nonsense but in truth is commenting shrewdly on human foibles and the slips of the powerful and the wealthy, is common to the East and West. If Tenali Raman's exploits in the Court of Emperor Krishna Deva Raya have regaled Indians for 400 years, so have those of Birbal, Akbar's minister who could charm a bird off a tree and his royal master of his ire.

Mullah Nasruddin is a beloved figure, "a wise fool", whose profound and witty comments on social and metaphysical issues are garbed in the simplest analogies to teach and astound. The essence of Sufism, as Ghouse pointed out, is surrender to God. And "the Sufi Divines use the persona of the wise fool "as a means to effect a breakthrough to a higher learning and understanding". The stories of the mullah deal with injustice, selfishness and ignorance, among other themes, and his wife and donkey feature prominently in them. She is a shrew who constantly berates him and laments her lot in life with a good-for-nothing as a partner.

Using the archetypal Mullah as the commentator, actor-producer-writer-martial arts expert Salim Ghouse in his "Sufiana" takes off on a wide range of contemporary issues. Supported by a brilliant begum (his real life one too) in Anita Salim, Ghouse strode the stage in total control with one scene seamlessly running into another in a work that was written for the Prithvi festival. Ghouse is a performer of dauntless energy and the high voltage performance made the proscenium crackle - from the moment the dark stage, built up to a charged silence, was split open to reveal the mullah on his back, to the precisely executed martial arts finale.

Ghouse's resounding voice and the strong delivery of his lines even when prone on his back showed that he is an actor used to playing Shakespearean roles. The huge elegant platform with its shallow steps served as home and market place and the sophisticated lighting created a visual symphony of shadows and radiance. Quoting liberally from Shakespeare, Ghouse led the audience on a non-stop ride of words and witticisms, taking well aimed shots at a bewildering number of issues. From politics to spirituality, instant bestsellers to beauty contests, marketing strategies to celebrity obsession - the barbs spared nothing. Incidents from the mullah's life were woven in with the satirical and the philosophical. The contemporary and the anecdotal fused and parted but it is perhaps not possible to sustain a non stop performance without some clichéd lines between the clever. There was a great deal of punning and play on words: "Life makes an ass of you and takes you for a ride". "Wives are right even when they are wrong". "There is more to life than merely living". "Life and death are one and the same. If you know one, you know the other". It was not perhaps everyone's idea of enjoyment for as the words rang out and the Sufiana continued, a few in the audience quietly made their way out. For the others, as connections were made and the satire went home, it was the time to applaud and laugh.

Anita Salim sparkled as the mullah's long suffering wife, every gesture and intonation marking her as a fine artiste. Rakesh Iyer in a supporting role displayed a fine feel for the absurd. The young prompter was the Ghouse's son. At the end of the performance, the multi-lingual Ghouse who impressed the audience with his fluency in Tamil spoke with passion about the Sufi saints and their contribution to various fields.

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