spotlight Theatre

The idea of India

‘For The Record’ recently finished a two-week inaugural run at Delhi’s Black Box Okhla. Photo: Nayantara Parikh  

In 1971, the United Nations requested each of its member states to pick three artefacts that best represented their country. These could be anything — a form of clothing, a piece of art, a building, or even a type of food — but there could only be three, models of which would be installed in a permanent gallery at the UN headquarters in New York.

In India, this arduous task of selection was put in the hands of a tribunal of five members, representing the worlds of academia, art and the bureaucracy. The seven-day-long deliberations of this eclectic group remained unknown until 2018 when a 435-page transcript of the heated tribunal meetings was released, revealing the fractious workings of the process.

We’re told all of this within the first five minutes of For The Record, a striking experimental play that recently finished a two-week inaugural run at Delhi’s Black Box Okhla.

The play sets itself apart right from the start when the cast members come bounding out and introduce themselves to the audience before explaining that they will be re-enacting the deliberations of the tribunal. It’s not so much a breaking of the fourth wall as a refusal to build it in the first place.

Over a relentlessly immersive and taut one-hour run, the often hilarious and deeply insightful show probes questions of vital importance: What does culture mean? Who owns it? And who gets to be its arbiter? It is buoyed by sharp writing, incredibly strong performances, and a cleverly executed inculpation of its audience.

Being national

Nikhil Mehta, the play’s director and founder of Black Box Okhla, explained that he became obsessed with questions around representations of Indian culture while in graduate school, nine years ago. “I conducted several interviews investigating the responsibility of representation across mediums — books, films, TV, tourism campaigns, etc. This further prompted examining ideas around a ‘national’ identity and culture.”

When he started his arts initiative in South Delhi’s industrial suburb, these questions returned in a new form: “What is modern Indian theatre? Who is the audience? Whose stories do we tell?” Mehta then invited some of his favourite actors in Delhi to collaborate on a show that answered these questions, beginning the brainstorming in May this year. Four months later, For The Record opened to audiences.

Played to perfection

Actor Kriti Pant, who plays Vijaya Radhakrishnan, a Carnatic musician and academic scholar who is a part of the tribunal, said that the show really began with the development of the characters, originating from the actors themselves and who they imagined their audiences to be.

Ranging from an officiously verbose bureaucratic officer who is happy to wax eloquent about food for hours (34 pages of the transcript are dedicated to deliberations about which food item to recommend, with the ubiquitous samosa leading the pack) to a leftist Bengali art gallery owner from Kolkata, played to delightful perfection by Krittika Bhattacharjee, the members of the tribunal toy with archetypes and tropes but with a sharp sense of the biases and allegiances that animate them. “You can identify their ideology and belief system,” Pant elaborated. “But also see the person in it. And for that to happen, they had to lay it all out.”

These citizens of a pre-Emergency India hold on to their respective convictions with the sureness of a politically evangelical Twitter user in 2019. They clash repeatedly over the task assigned to them.

How can the dancing girl of Mohenjo-daro represent the country when the site now lies in Pakistan? Can an independent India even consider an artefact associated with British rule? How can the lavish Mughal-e-Azam represent a time of fervent nation-building, when the country must present its best face to the world?

Delicious monologue

And when Mrinalini Gooptu, the Bengali gallerist, points out the Brahminism of Carnatic music after it is proposed as a potential candidate, most of the other tribunal members pounce on her with that poisonous combination of simultaneous caste pride and denialism that remains a template today as well.

Underpinning it all is the contentious question of who gets to make these decisions in the first place, as the government clerk faithfully transcribing the proceedings demonstrates in a delicious expletive-fuelled monologue.

The often-farcical tone of the show hits its peak in the perfectly choreographed frenzy of its penultimate act, when, fed up of the deadlock, the tribunal decides to settle the matter in a rapid game show format. Two members get to make a quick and emphatic pitch for their favourite choices while the rest shout out their pick, after which the audience gets to do the same. As Kanjeevaram sarees are pitted against Darjeeling tea, Gandhi against the Bodhi tree, samosa against Harappa, and Iyengar yoga against M.S. Subbulakshmi, the ridiculousness of the entire endeavour is laid starkly bare. It is hilarious, infectious in its energy and, ultimately, a masterful indictment of everyone involved, including the enthused spectators.

There is no actual record of such a tribunal having been formed, let alone a transcript of over 400 pages recording its proceedings.

The United Nations headquarters does have a gallery featuring artefacts from member states, but the process of selection from India remains unknown. Yet, given the country’s rich history of such tribunals, it’s not implausible. “Isn’t it thrilling that these conversations could have been real? Are real? These problems could have occurred? Are occurring?” Mehta asks.

As rabid nationalism, fostered by those in power, sweeps across India, desiring to flatten us into uniformity — of language, religion, thought — harking back to an imagined glorious past, the idea of representation, now as in 1971, is not just ridiculous, it’s actively dangerous. It’s an act that privileges “ideas over people,” and in any imagining of justice, it is a fundamentally impossible one.

At the end of the show, gallerist Gooptu struggles to articulate this complexity. “India is a... is a nothing!” she says, her voice breaking, “India is too much.”

The Delhi-based writer is an editor.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2021 3:21:19 AM |

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