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Reality through haunting grimness

"The Antigone Project" by Anuradha Kapur/ Ein Lall and "Kashinama" by Usha Ganguly were two remarkable theatre productions of 2003. The plays react fearlessly to the violence and corruption that continue to scorch the nation, says GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.

Kashinama ... splendidly crafted

THE YEAR 2003 saw two remarkable theatre productions — both by women directors and in Hindi. "The Antigone Project" (Anuradha Kapur/ Ein Lall) and "Kashinama" (Usha Ganguly), have reacted fearlessly to the mounting tides of violence and corruption that continue to scorch the nation.

Splendidly crafted, both plays make old themes resonate with new meanings. Finely edited and honed, their strings remain sharp and taut. But the productions differ dramatically in technique and canvas. One uses a Greek myth to depict the Gujarat holocaust, the other shows the evils of globalisation in Varanasi-on-the-Ganga.

While the "Antigone Project" adopts the spare minimalism of Greek tragedy, "Kashinama" revels in the panoramic plenitude of Indian epics. It has 45 actors to dance, sing, romp and frolic, creating shifting pageants of light and movement.

In the "Antigone Project", Lall and Kapur reclaim a text that has been used over thousands of years ``to talk about ethics, law, and citizenship in these troubled times.''

Though Anouilh's French version of the Sophocles masterpiece has compelling poignancy, the Indian directors have preferred Bertolt Brecht's text, a reaction to the rise of fascism in Europe.

The backdrop of two huge video screens throb with images monstrously single, or filed in rows. They are from the Gujarat carnage. Lall focusses — not on blood and gore — but on a cheek, a hand, or a foot of the unclaimed corpse. Against this image, Antigone (Seema Biswas) vows to bury her brother Polyneices, condemned by the tyrant Creon to be fed to dogs and vultures for his treachery. We are then no longer viewers, but become witnesses to the violence before us.

A mosque is destroyed on the screen just as Creon announces that his supporters shall be honoured and his opponents dishonoured. Learning that his niece has disobeyed him in burying the `traitor', Creon unleashes the dogs of his wrath against her. The play ends with Creon's suicide and the choric warning against the consequences of hatred.

Kapur has kept the play short. This maximises the `fear and trembling', as finally, the spectators-turned-witnesses see themselves as imminent victims. The stage is bare save for a mound of earth, a multiple symbol, and a grim reminder that humankind is dust and shall return to dust. But how do we acquit ourselves while we are alive? Antigone plants a sapling upon the mound, but will it live and grow?

As in Kapur's earlier stage collaborations, music becomes an organic component. The full-blooded tarana in Bhoopali actualises the angst of Antigone. The final melody too is evocative, but predictable.

Lall's visuals overwhelm the live action at times, but are mostly balanced, a difficult feat with the explosive material on hand. Sheikh's `Return Home after a Long Absence' is two edged: it glimpses serenity while underlining exile. Can the broken heart become whole again?

Corruption and hypocrisy

"Kashinama" has every aspect of entertainment theatre — dance, music, spectacle and humour. But the same tools cleverly underscore the theme of values sacrificed for commercial gain. The location is in itself a sardonic comment on the moral decay that riddles the nation.

Ganguly offers brilliantly choreographed scenes at the Kasi ghats — dynamic and ever changing like the great river itself. Stark simplicity (multi-levelled platforms, hanging bells, reed umbrellas, mats, kites, buckets) parallels professional characterisation, and perfectly rehearsed group movements.

Ganguly's imagination captures a live world with a force alien to cinematography.

Like the landmark play, "Ghashiram Kotwal", Ganguly's play uses a choric group to dance and sing, and as a human curtain between scenes of action. But there is no cloning her. "Kashinama" has its own method and purpose.

Based on the story by Kashinath Singh, Ganguly's script introduces a Brahmin scholar who jettisons traditional beliefs to accept a French student as a boarder in his home; to teach her not only Sanskrit, but the sacred texts.

His wife (played by Usha Ganguly) is even more aghast at the prospect of such a sacrilege. But the gift of a single sari — not silk, but synthetic, an adroit directorial touch — and the woman is ready to welcome the foreign girl into her home.

The husband's qualms are about the household god — how can he worship the Lord of his ancestors with ritual purity with an `alien' presence beside him? The God conveniently appears in a dream and tells the pundit to throw His image into the river. A resplendent procession heralded by conch, bell, pipe and drum, hailed by chant and song, hallowed by flowers and camphor blaze, `restore' the God to the river.

In this awesome symbol Ganguly pulls all her strings together. The Brahmin is no longer just a poor householder who must find new ways of survival in the globalised era — the victim turns exploiter. A rapacious consumer and hoarder now, he is ready to make any compromise for material gain. The most chilling feature in the play is that the transformation occurs not out of any liberal wisdom or sense of universal brotherhood. Corruption and hypocrisy have won the deal.

In his fall we see the fall of the entire nation. He is the ground on which present day custodians of faith and culture play their power games. The spectacular celebrations at the end announce the triumph of decadence.

"The Antigone Project" and "Kashinama" are deeply felt responses to current reality. The absence of slogans adds to their sophistication, and haunting grimness.

Episodes interwoven

SANGEET NATAK Akademi is to be congratulated on its attempt to get the most interesting theatre productions from many parts of India for its golden jubilee festival ``Rang Swarn'', New Delhi late last year. (Playwright Satish Alekar and director Rajindernath toured the towns and interacted with local theatre persons who helped them in the selection process.

That is how "Thiraikadalodi... (Aham?)'', Prasanna Ramaswamy's Tamil production by Paatini, Chennai, made it to the event. Watching it at Delhi's Shriram Centre was to feel sad that a work with such sweep and conviction, should have been staged just once in the home city, and two years ago.

The play brings a community in exile to the stage, sharing their daily life, dreams, and nostalgia for the lost home, reliving the nightmares of holocausts, wars, rapes, infanticides. Narrators and commentators flit and glide, reciting poetry, singing songs -- wailing, lamenting and retrieving the past through sounds and melodies. The theme is complex, so are the scenes that fade in and fade out, or should they be called vignettes? The play demanded constant vigilance in the viewer, to make their own connections between Hecuba and Perundevi, "The Trojan Women'' and "Antigone'', as also poems from sources) Paatini is a wandering poetess and the play's title has brackets and a question mark. Ramblings and questionings build the structure. Moreover, the form is that of an observer who is also a participant in the experience.

What is really exciting is that the play does not allow the heresy of paraphrase. You cannot say "Thiraikadalodi'' is this, these are its tales, happenings, characters. The content inheres in the form. To know it, you have to see it and experience it.

More than 20 people contribute to this ambitious interweaving of episodes within episodes. Bhagirathi Narayanan and Anita Ratnam stood out for their commanding presence. The younger actors were fresh and sincere in what they did.

Not that there were no problems. The complexity itself was one. Connections which were clear to the director and actor were not always so for the viewer. The dialogue delivery was patchy, occasionally indistinct. Sets and costumes did not make an organic, comprehensive whole. The language blends (Tamil, English and Hindi for the Delhi audience) were sometimes uneasy, the lingusitic styles could not match. And finally, the video sequence towards the end was redundant. But "Thiraikadalodi'' proved that much could be achieved by amateur theatre, even when it embarks on non-realistic narratives, opting to examine the interior landscape in exile. — G. R.

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