An aesthetic and moral manifesto

On stage: A performance of Aagaaz Theatre Trust’s Riḥla  

A theatre production that has been gathering buzz over recent weeks is Rila from the Aagaaz Theatre Trust. Directed by Neel Chaudhuri, the play is adapted from Andreas Flourakis’ I Want A Country. The Greek playwright calls his work an ‘open text’, which essentially means that it is left up to those who interact with it to summon and interpret its reserves of meaning, with the material becoming a manifesto for both aesthetic and moral exploration. The term Rila was the title of the great explorer Ibn Battuta’s written accounts of his extensive travels, and means ‘a journey both real and imaginary’.

Moored in reality

In 2016, Chaudhuri was part of a three-week Directors’ Lab at the Lincoln Centre in New York, where he explored Swar Thounaojam’s Turel in tandem with five other international directors working on their own performance texts. Part of that cohort was Menelaos Karantzas, also from Greece, who directed a presentation of Flourakis’ play with local American actors. Chaudhuri was moved by a script that spoke “of people living in extremely difficult environments seeking to migrate to a different country.” However in their confident bearing, its seemingly privileged performers did not appear to appropriately complement the play’s moorings, in his mind. Later that year, Chaudhuri was exploring possibilities of collaborating with the burgeoning Aagaaz ensemble, whose “energy and presence” he had long admired. He described I Want A Country to Aagaaz founder Sanyukta Saha, who immediately grasped the immediacy of the work to the ethos within which her group operated.

As those familiar with their growing profile might be aware, Aagaaz has, since its inception in 2013, worked with young actor-theatremakers drawn from Delhi’s bustling Nizamuddin Basti with its teeming contradictions and possibilities. Their plays like Bhagi Hui Ladkiyan and Raavan Aaya have created compelling contexts for the insular cultural mainstream to interact with the untapped instincts of the marginalised. Aagaaz’s approach has been one of agency and uplift sans victimhood, remaining true to the community roots of its members, while constantly checking the privilege of prime movers like Saha and others who ostensibly come from outside the basti.

Fighting the status quo

For Chaudhuri, the group’s trappings essentially tied in with Flourakis’ vision. Further interactions with the Aagaaz troupe strengthened his resolve, “I felt this was the only group of actors I would like to do the play with. It is about a kind of indignation and disgruntlement with the status quo, and the gift of an imaginary country as it might be expressed through the voice of the youth.” Translated into Hindi by Rahul Rai and rechristened Rila, the play follows an intrepid band of young rebels seeking out fresh stomping grounds to grow into and claim as their own. As the blurb puts it, “Their quest is a voyage [into] a place they can only imagine, covering a distance they cannot fully conceive.” As an offshoot to the production, Aagaaz have launched Project Riḥla, a theatre-based outreach initiative which anchors conversations with young people around identity, belonging and nationhood.

One of the dilemmas faced by Chaudhuri was his growing need to embed within Rila’s framework the personal narratives of his actors’. “I wanted to get them to recognise that the story itself was within them and that they didn’t have to be, you know, immigrants on a boat.” It was a slippery slope earlier negotiated by Bhagi Hui Ladkiyan — the projects share collaborators like Jasmine, Nagina, Zainab and Muzammil. Being called upon to be ‘themselves’ could run the risk of the actors becoming ‘objects’ in their own stories. Chaudhuri underlines Riḥla’s gaze as one of empathy, “They are truly a very rich ensemble, in terms of their interpersonal relationships, the way they relate to each other, their honesty amongst each other, the collective sense of drive.” This is Aagaaz’s third project with an outside director. Before Chaudhuri, there were Neel Sengupta and Dhwani Vij, safe and skilled hands all.

Long run

Riḥla opened last evening at Delhi’s Black Box Okhla, the performance venue (managed by theatre practitioner Nikhil Mehta) where the work was created in residency. It is a long run, characteristic of the venue’s programming, with shows slated for Fridays and weekends through till November 24. A festival outing at next week’s Ranga Shankara Festival in Bengaluru is also part of the chock-a-block month-long itinerary, which includes a spate of pre-show and post-show workshops for the youth. The play’s crowd-funding campaign can be supported on Ketto, where the group’s vision has been comprehensively outlined.

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Printable version | Sep 21, 2021 4:41:21 PM |

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