Invisible historical icons

Still from Neha Singh’s Jhalkari.

Still from Neha Singh’s Jhalkari.   | Photo Credit: SUGANDHA SINGH


Last week at a school in Patna, Neha Singh’s Jhalkari unassumingly completed 35 shows since first opening in December 2017 at Andheri Base, a suburban fringe venue in Mumbai. That might seem like a modest figure for a time span of more than a year, but in experimental theatre circles, where lining-up shows is often an art in itself, it counts for a reasonably good innings given the usual constraints productions operate under.

Battling the enemy

Written by Punarvasu, Jhalkari is based on the Dalit chieftain in the army of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi whose name recall has substantially increased in the last couple of weeks thanks to Ankita Lokhande’s featured part in the Kangana Ranaut vehicle, Manikarnika. Although she makes an impression, Lokhande’s screen time is minimal, in keeping with the fleeting mentions her real-life alter ego garners in mainstream historical accounts. Jhalkaribai is known for bravely standing in as a decoy for the Rani, holding fort on the turf of battle as the queen escaped, ultimately earning herself a martyrdom befitting a head of state. Her contributions to the freedom movement, and those of many others long obscured by history, have only begun to be unearthed fairly recently.

The play has done the rounds of schools and venues and festivals. At the Museum of Goa in Pilerne, it was staged as part of the Serendipity Arts Festival’s Theatre at Home initiative, which included shows at private residences in Mapusa and Bardez. An abridged version also performs for children frequently.

On equal footing

The Rani, martyred at 29, was an instant word-of-mouth icon, valourised in British accounts about the Indian Revolt. The first biography of Jhalkaribai herself emerged almost a century later — Bhawani Shankar Visharad’s 1964 tome. She is now hailed as an icon of Dalit pride. While Manikarnika only hints at her caste location, Jhalkari foregrounds it to an extent, especially when it comes to the warrior’s origins in a village sharply divided along caste lines, as is the case in many mofussil hamlets to this day.

As with mainstream icons, there is much apocrypha associated with the resurrection of Dalit icons. For instance, as seen in Rasika Agashe’s Sat Bhashe Raidas, minor miracles attributed to Sant Ravidas attempt to place him on an equal footing with other Bhakti saints like Meerabai. In Singh’s play the young Jhalkaribai acquires the reputation of a feisty firebrand when she hacks a tiger dead with her axe at the age of nine. It’s interesting that in Manikarnika, this piece of folklore is harnessed to create a new mythology for the upper-caste Laxmibai instead, as Ranaut in a captivating Amazonian avatar brings down a CGI tiger the size of a mammoth with a sedated arrow.

The real Laxmibai, married off as a child to Gangadhar Rao of Jhansi, probably did not possess the Wonder Woman trappings that Ranaut equips her indulgently with. Interestingly, in Singh’s play, the tiger in the myth-making sequence is played by the same actor (Dipika Pandey) who later doubles up as Laxmibai. It serves as an ominous cross-reference.

Blurring of labels

There is a powerful moment in the play when Laxmibai comes across Jhalkaribai, a veritable doppelgänger for herself, in a gathering. There is strange, and comforting, quality to the sequence, where barriers of caste and class seem to have broken down, albeit momentarily as Pandey drops her regal guard and recognises in a stranger a kinship that would last for years. Jhalkari herself has been played by several actors. In recent shows, Vaishnavi Ratna Prashant has taken up the mantle of a character initially created by Kritika Pandey.

Singh’s first play as a solo director (she had co-directed Island with Ajitesh Gupta earlier), Jhalkari is presented in the mien of a street performance, which comes with its own limitations considering it’s an idiom that hasn’t evolved much over the years.

The actors, of course, attack the material with fervour and impassioned delivery. Although lacking the finesse and rigour of the so-called ‘well-staged’ play, the live singing and minimalist battle sequences supply the production a raw spontaneous energy that certainly goes a long way. Jhalkari‘s raison d'être as millennial India’s fresh look at history with a corrective lens remains unimpeachable.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 1:59:51 AM |

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