Erasing memories and spaces

Stories of small people  

To watch a play whose melancholia resonates so sharply with oneself is a unique phenomenon. Freedom Begum, presented by Raahi and supported by India Foundation for the Arts, Project 560, was such a play. In a nutshell, it is about the loss of inclusive public spaces in the city, namely Bangalore. While this is often mourned in terms of heritage buildings and colonial spaciousness, very rarely do we hear from people whose lives and culture have been erased by the process of gentrification. Freedom Begum, through the metaphor of a house that was open and inviting, mourns the death of a certain liberalism in the city.

The play begins with a ritual establishment of space. Actors convert the four homogenous boards on stage into a buzzing multi-verse of vendors, customers, colours, genders and languages. Tamil, Dakkhani, Kannada, Telugu and English rub shoulders, replicating the Cantonment patois familiar to me and more specifically, unpacking the mother tongue of Ulsoor, where the legendary Begum Mahal once imposingly stood next to the Gurudwara. Ironically, all that remains is an eponymous bus stop which is used only by the working class and a five star hotel that will never be used by the working class except in the capacity of servants.

The photographer, Ranjit Chettur, said “I spent two years in Begum Mahal's shadow. Eventually, I saw an open top, lurid blue Impala and the lady herself!” This was the Bangalore I grew up in, home to such mavericks and legends. The play, in its attention to multiple histories, reminded me of this. To stage right, at a desk, is the ubiquitous “researcher” who begins the enquiry into the mystery of Begum Mahal. Who was she? How do we comprehend the free space that she created? To stage left is a platform for the influencers of history - Begum Mahal’s husband’s living son, a well to do neighbour. The rest of the stage is occupied by the small people; hijras, tangawallahs, autodrivers. The story from the influencers is as old as power hierarchy itself. Being the ones to profit from gentrification and the real estate boom, they describe Begum Mahal in terms of immorality, notoriety and comeuppance. The son says to the researcher “She thought she was Queen Victoria. Fat and round, she tried to dress up like that statue in Cubbon Park wearing white gowns…” But the trans community describe her poetically, calling her mother, singing paeans to the Friday evening parties where the doors were thrown open to them and their compadres, The ethical question posed to the audience is this: which account is more democratic?

The form of the play echoes the freedom and inclusivity that is yearned for by the “small” characters. “Big people, small stories, small people - BIG stories.” Mariamman or Renuka, the pre-Vedic deity beloved of the trans community is invoked. The semiotics of the Ulsoor Karaga, which has historically been intersectional and inclusive of a large Tamilian population and trans community is juxtaposed with the main narrative about the fascinating Akhtar Begum of Hyderabad, second wife of the owner of Liberty Talkies on MG Road and her rebirth as Freedom Begum, Queen of the Underdog. Actors sing, dance in chorus, chat with each other, mock the influencers, parry about globalisation. The onstage energy evokes the quality of the Begum Mahal Friday night revelries and this is extended to the audience as the actors break fourth wall and share panakam with us. There is no divide, the theatrical form seems to say, let us enjoy our oneness.

The death of Begum Mahal is the tragic epicentre of the play. Begum is gone and her people, the small people, are not allowed to see her body. Actors donning white satin skirts seem to multiply Begum. They pick up their Karaga pots and run over hot coals, keening her death. In that moment - their voices, the visual, text and song coalesce in a heartbreaking plea for the city. “Where is our Begum Mahal? Where is our mother?” the actors weep. “Where are our inclusive public spaces?” I heard.

From the lyrical script to the robust direction, this play must be seen. The dramaturgy veers between contemporaneity and tradition, keeping both audience and the play on its toes. The ode to beef biriyani, food of the poor worker and itinerant, is one such example. As the narrator, Shilpa Mudbi says: Our kitchen, our heartbeat. Thousands have filled their souls in Begum Mahal.

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 7:22:04 PM |

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