Sultan of stories

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Intricate symphony The easy merging of fantasy, imagination, mystique and literary creation was fabulous in Sthalathe Pradhana Divyan
Intricate symphony The easy merging of fantasy, imagination, mystique and literary creation was fabulous in Sthalathe Pradhana Divyan

REVIEW The theatrical adaptation of the short stories of Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, Sangathi Arinhya, was a flawless tribute to the legend

On the Ranga Shankara stage with steel book racks against the backdrop of the curtain, a carpet, tyres piled up on top of each other, rope-twined skeleton umbrellas perched to resemble the mangosteen tree, a man, resplendently dressed in a red flimsy kurta and printed lungi lights a cigarette. The lighting is subtle and he begins to survey the audience – counts the numbers present for the first-day, first-show of “Sangathi Arinhya!” (Have you heard!) and gestures that the numbers are satisfactory, salaams and dozes off.

In a bout of distinctive beats, Vaikom Muhammed Basheer in his trademark starch-white kurta, munde, thick black rimmed glasses places his hand-fan on the floor. Then, in a riot of colours, sounds, gestures and costumes, all his colourful characters from his short stories flock to stage and greet him.

“Sthalathe Pradhana Divyan” (The Chief Mystic of the Place”) takes centre-stage first.In this story, the easy merging of fantasy, imagination, mystique and literary creation was fabulous in every theatrical aspect and narrative structure.

The positing of Basheer, the iconic progressive Malayalee writer in the Malayalam (1908-1994) was noteworthy. He becomes one of the characters, he struggles or gets lost in his writing as his characters grow larger than life and, sometimes, he is on the sidetracks as a catalytic spectator.

The trademark Malayalee gesticulations, accents, traits enacted were impressive — from the slapping of the munde and the black umbrellas, to the rubber slippers, Moplah women’s headdress and letter ‘s’ which is reduced to a snake’s hiss…

“Poovan Pazham” (Poovan Banana), the most enjoyable story for its hilarious depiction and character caricature had everyone delirious with laughter. The bucktoothed, scrawny Abdul Khader Sahib, secretary of the local Beedi Workers’ Union has won the heart of the gorgeous Jameela Bibi, daughter of the owner of the beedi factory. The acting out of the exaggerated roles was spectacular, and delightfully humorous.

Each of the stories do not complete itself in one go – but slip in and out and merge into the others. They employed varied emotions from anger, sadness to happiness, love and hate. “Bhargavi Nilayam” saw Basheer (Paul Mathew who also adapted the script) play out the literary life, difficulties of translating a language into English, living in solitude in a haunted house and negotiating and conversing with his imaginary characters. Here, the element of the comic works its way well into the mood of mystery and looming sadness.

Basheer on his easy chair, sitting back and listening to his favourite records on the gramophone that were put together by vessels, a heavy weight and plates under the erstwhile mangosteen tree recreated the lifestyle of the literary legend.

“Mathilukal” or “The Walls” forged the three literary selves with brilliance. The writer’s life, his stories and nostalgia in the way of an old lover’s angst, the suicide of Bhargavi and Basheer as the young, revolutionary jailbird in Central Jail. The short story which would have been named “The Smell of the Woman”, sets the pace for a romantic atmosphere, with dim lighting. “Shabdangal” (Voices) was a satiric portrayal of a soldier’s dilemma and questions.

“Oru Manushyan” (The Man) invoked the experience of the wandering traveller in the exotic, mysterious East, fabricating traveller’s uncanny tales of the strange and unexplained with a rich setting of costumes.

“Viswavikhyatamaya Mookku” (The World-Renowned Nose) was again a brilliant political farce that employed the comic element. The blaring of trumpets to herald the arrival of the Prime Minister and President, the use of the rubber water-pipe as nose of the millionNAIR to then be used as the smoking pipe and rope was again fantastic. The fight between the two women over “Mookku” played out into a fun dance, and was exaggerated and silly in the debate between whether the nose was real or plastic.

The play closed with Basheer telling the audience that his life is an open book and that “I am going just as I came” and that “You (readers) will remain” – settling down to his easy chair, with rose in hand and a record playing his favourite melodies, with his characters fanning him to a fade out.

The lighting was a wee behind time, sometimes the actors forgot to put on Malayalee accents but despite these small glitches, that can be easily overlooked, “Sangathi Arihnya”, directed by Rajiv Krishnan and presented by Perch from Chennai was a brilliant recreation of a tale among tales from the Beypore Sultan called Vaikom Muhammed Basheer.

The play is on till April 27 with shows at 3.30 and 7.30 p.m. on April 26 and 27 at Ranga Shankara. AYESHA MATTHAN




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