A Kafkaesque condition of hunger

The Hunger Artist, directed by Gurleen Judge and choreographed by Surjit Nongmeikapam, performed as part of the Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival 2019, explores the notion of hunger and starvation within the Indian context. The questions the play raises range from the consequence of hunger leading to catastrophic incidents of farmer suicides to it being used as a tool of political protest. The play is inspired by Franz Kafka’s short story, The Hunger Artist, late farmer poet Krishna Kalamb’s and renowned Marathi writer, poet, and Dalit activist Namdeo Dhasal’s poetry.

Brilliantly performed by Mandar Gokhale, The Hunger Artist held a mirror to society on the plight of farmers, due to government neglect, mounting loans and abject poverty. The play pans out over three narratives: the crisis of three generations of one farming household, against the backdrop of the stories of the cotton farmers of Vidarbha and Marathwada. The second is a fictionalised story of a tragic news story on the mid-day meals. And the third was about the history of hunger protests, held by Mahatma Gandhi and Irom Sharmila.

Kalamb’s and Dhasal’s searing poems Hungry Bony Boy and Hunger, respectively, depicted the stark reality of hunger and that is a reality of thousands of farmers. The spectator ‘looked on’, as the protagonists played by Gokhale -- including farmers and a little girl who loves going to school only on days when egg is served in the mid-day meal -- struggled fiercely through existential crisis of deprivation. The audience was in fact filmed while they settled down to watch the play, therefore making the spectator both the observer and the observed, and drawing them into the performance.

The sets comprised of a ‘cage’, a steel frame open on all sides. At the backdrop, were two projectors, one displayed footage of farmers talking about the reality of their circumstances. On the other, English subtitles for Marathi dialogue and poetry were displayed.

Depicting a concept like hunger is no easy task. Yet The Hunger Artist commendably rose to the challenge by making the production powerful, including films, multimedia presentations, puppetry, and well-executed lights, thus skilfully marrying theatre and technology. Also, Mandar carried the play on his shoulders. Mandar’s performance didn’t flag even for a moment while he seamlessly moved in and out of multiple characters. There was an honesty in his performance as it was a true representation of farmers, shorn of any urban affectation. His incredibly realistic performance of the school girl in particular touched a chord. There were parts where the narrative dragged on more than required, such as the concluding scene, which though intended to send out a powerful message, could have been rounded off better.

Mention must be made of how The Hunger Artist maintained a fine balance between activism and artistic performance. These lines from the poem Untitled captured the soul of the performance: “Fond of poetry. I exist like the cotton crop. Its root sweet. Alike the hard stem of sugarcane. Of my death, they will say how it hangs. Like decorations on door frames.”

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Printable version | Mar 3, 2021 11:16:44 PM |

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