Clowning around with the classics

Goofing about: Shakuntalam has been performed in arts venues and NGOs, living rooms and outhouses.

Goofing about: Shakuntalam has been performed in arts venues and NGOs, living rooms and outhouses.   | Photo Credit: Picasa

A whopping century of shows and counting, could well be theatre’s version of the 100-crore milestone, and likely costing just a nano-fraction of that. At 110 shows over a little more than a year, Rupesh Tillu’s adaptation of a fourth century opus by Kalidasa, performed by a trio of clown-actors and titled Shakuntalam (Agar Pura Kar Paye Toh…), is now in the process of out-lapping itself. Beginning with the Laughter Per Kilometre initiative in 2018 that spawned the piece, as part of a set of plays by a selection of international directors, Shakuntalam has been performed across the nation — in several arts venues and NGOs, in plush living rooms and even rundown outhouses.

Fresh treatment

The production features Sagar Bhoir, Shreeram Chaudhuri and Ankita Nikrad — clowns in a travelling troupe who are called upon to perform ‘the play within the play’ from a script as large as a treatise they’re likely never to finish reading, let alone performing. Their frequent send-ups and departures, and foolhardy excursions into dramatic territory, coupled with a linguistic mangling of Sanskrit to the point of gibberish lends the piece its distinctive character, that is as familiar and derivative as it is fresh and original.

This is a low-fat production that relies on the raw amorphousness of performance. The absence of production values cannot obscure the grit and salt that allows the play to leapfrog over enterprises of supposedly greater sophistication. The actors build in a suspension of disbelief, knowingly acknowledging and disregarding entirely simulated spaces like the omniscient green room, or the wings. It is a minimalism that gives Shakuntalam its portability, and has perhaps contributed to its longevity at the turnstiles. The cast could do better on timing, pace and rhythm, because the material demands the taking of no prisoners with a certain gumption and sharpness. Yet, they do frequently spring disarming surprises with their otherwise great sense of space and the seasoned connectedness they have developed. Bhoir, specially, makes much of his dithering and disbelieving clown, finding those special nooks and crannies in his performance that give it flesh, heart and relatability.

Tried and tested

Tillu and his team are now planning to move on to clown versions of other classic plays, fulfilling the promise of the publicity art on display in Shakuntalam — presumably that of forthcoming attractions from the company the clowns belong to. The rainbow array of posters features telling (and often iconic) motifs from the plays in question. The meta-tastic possibilities include eternal favourites that might prove relatively easy to spoof, like William Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq, although their humongous casts of characters might spectacularly throw down the gauntlet for a troupe of ‘reduced’ proportions. There are also serious dramas like Mohan Rakesh’s Aadhe Adhure and Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder in the mix, of which one might be hard-pressed to recall any spoof, let alone one with clowns.

The overwrought melodrama in Shakuntalam and its Sanskrit-era ethos seem made-to-order for the contemporary parody — these other plays would likely provoke other approaches. A prototype already exists for Shakespeare in plays by Rajat Kapoor, like Nothing Like Lear or Hamlet The Clown Prince, where clowning is of the essence most certainly, but darker territory is never shied away from, and ostensibly comic actors deliver nuanced dramatic turns.

Room for improvement

In Shakuntalam, the inherent regressiveness of the Kalidasa play is subverted by creating a gender-neutral turf of sorts, with Nikrad, Bhoir and Chaudhari positioned as equal players in the game, even if they don’t completely discard the trappings of stereotypical gender. There are running gags dealing with Shakuntala’s baby bump, for instance, or Dushyant’s woeful attempts at seduction. The humour comes through, but it all seems a little pat at times, and perhaps these perfunctorily ‘woke’ sequences could benefit from more bite. Often, small measures count only for a little.

It is not as if Shakuntalam should yield a feminist hero for the ages, but we could leave with a stronger sense of the woman in our midst. Nikrad’s stage presence and comic felicity signals a different outcome than the one the production delivers. Shakuntala isn’t merely a cipher, or a vessel for humour, but a character in search of a deliverance that she is highly capable of staking out for herself, if only theatremakers ‘allowed’ her the agency. Women clowns are sometimes trapped by a similar propriety, and the answer doesn’t lie in the sexually risqué, or in playing a spectrum of extremes – from coquette to ice-maiden.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 10:59:42 AM |

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