The world on an Indian stage

Natasha Azad as Cuban singer Celia Cruz in Sur Vs Asur written by Sautabh Nayyar (right).

Natasha Azad as Cuban singer Celia Cruz in Sur Vs Asur written by Sautabh Nayyar (right).   | Photo Credit: Picasa

The nebulous ‘West’ has always been a mainstay of theatre in the country, and arguably foreign texts are as frequently performed in India as Indian renditions. This is perhaps true of theatre not only in English, but in many other languages, with Shakespeare persisting on every podium and Ibsen purportedly being one of the gods of Malayalam theatre.

In that sense, Indians play foreign parts in almost every second play. Yet, in a production almost entirely set in an international locale, it is hard to pick up references of culture that could be the result of an Indian worldview. The way the plays are performed, the idea of ‘foreignness’ is almost eschewed. This is not to speak of so-called Indianised works, like Rage Productions’ The Siddhus of Upper Juhu which takes place in a Mumbai suburb rather than Manhattan as the original does. Whereas, in their staging of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, no such redirection takes place, yet the accents and demeanour of that play’s principal cast give off a vibe of multiculturalism, rather than the smoky dereliction of St. Louis. Simply put, beyond a cursory attempt at authenticity, the actors (which include Jim Sarbh and Shernaz Patel, arguably two of our more ‘international’ faces) are not playing ‘white’ or ‘foreign’, but rather characters that are universal rather than culturally specific. The other side of the spectrum could be Vikash Khurana’s production of Hitchcock’s Rope, which is very faithful to the original. But the mien of its Nagpur-based actors is so rooted in the Indian ethos to which they belong, that it is almost as if the play was always Indian from the start.

There is a difference, though, when foreign depictions crop up in entirely homegrown Indian productions, and these offer up a sense of how we view the world. Indians have been stereotypical figures in the West, with nodding heads, sing-song accents and brown make-up, although the world (read, Hollywood) appears to have now opened itself up to fleshed-out parts for actors of South Asian stock. White actors, who had once monopolised the entire repertoire of ‘foreign-skinned’ parts, now find themselves excluded from the slim pickings of racially diverse parts. On the Indian stage, Britishers of a certain vintage have long been objects of easy lampoon, for obvious reasons. The scars of the Empire continue to live on in plays like Atul Tiwari’s Taoos Chaman ki Myna, where Hetal Varia and Amit Bhargava give a comic account of stilted imperiousness and cruelty as English peerage. Then there’s Sunil Shanbag’s Stories in a Song, where Namit Das regales his audience as an unrepentant English officer who gets his just desserts. In the latter, there is also another set-piece, called Hindostannie Airs (written by this writer), featuring Meher Mistry as a gently supercilious but ultimately empathetic British mem. She hilariously attempts to write out in Western notation the classical melodies of Mansi Multani’s rustic Indian chanteuse.

Moving beyond cliché and caricature is Avantika Akerkar’s deeply affecting performance as a Norwegian in Shubhrajyoti Barat’s Song of the Swan, based on the real-life account of Hans Christian Ostrø, an actor from Oslo who was kidnapped by militants in Kashmir and later beheaded, in what became an international imbroglio in 1995. Akerkar plays his mother in a wonderfully modulated turn of great gravitas, completely believable as a woman of European stock, albeit with a British accent. While on the one hand she seems to be voicing only platitudes, on the other, she emotionally lives through her son’s struggles. In one scene, she graphically describes her son’s beheading — a cynical manipulation by Barat — yet her underplaying keeps the moment moist and poignant.

Elsewhere, the Iranian women in Faezeh Jalali’s 7/7/07, are not entirely local to any particular ethos, but could be women of any culture. So there is not really an expectation of cultural exactness. The story of its subject, Reyhaneh Jabbari, is anyone’s fodder, it would seem. On New Year’s Eve, as part of Prithvi Theatre’s wintertime programme, the Rangshila group presented Saurabh Nayyar’s Sur Vs Asur, directed by Avneesh Mishra. A musical that takes place almost entirely in a dream, it follows two youngsters’ encounters with musical greats from across the world: Baul exponent Lalon Fakir; South African activist-singer Miriam Makeba; the American soprano, Rosa Ponselle; and the Cuban diva, Celia Cruz. One of the highlights was undoubtedly Natasha Azad’s bravura performance as the electrifying Cruz. It is a role that carries the faintest charge of parody, but Azad makes her feisty and real, and appears to get the Hispanic inflections just about right. It’s a walk-on part, with two songs and a few lines, but it is interesting to see such global icons on the Indian stage, unapologetically performed, and with the cultural markers seemingly in place.

The writer is a playwright and stage critic

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Printable version | Jul 2, 2020 5:29:08 PM |

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