Friday Review

When stalwarts take stage

STRIKING A CHORD Himani Shivpuri in “Akeli”  

Not long ago, Himani Shivpuri in the role of the stepmother in the play “Tughlaq” directed by Bhanu Bharti delivered her lines with inner motivation in an accent clear and forceful in chaste Urdu interacting with her stepson. Her facial expression, movements and voice painted the picture of a royal woman, scheming, cruel and ruthless. An intriguer, falls victim to the mad wrath of Tughlaq who ordered that she be stoned to death in full public view. The image Himani created was watched with a sense of awe and horror by a large audience sitting in the open air lawns of Ferozeshah Kotla, near Delhi Gate. This is one of her dozens of images that she created on stage. Though delayed, Sangeet Natak Akademi gave her Award for 2015 for her contribution to Indian theatre as an actor.

While watching her performance in “Akeli” presented at Abhimanch recently at the National festival of Performing Arts featuring the art of the awardees, one recalls Himani's portraits of multi-faceted women in conflict with complex situations in different times and spaces. Who can forget her Hajjo (Amrudwali) in Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion as “Azar Ka Khwaab” directed by Bhanu Bharti for Repertory Company of National School of Drama in 1988. In “Mitro Marjani” as Mitro under the direction of BM Shah who did it for NSD Repertory Company staged in 1988, she projected the life of a young woman liberating herself from “the shackles of samskaras…what she says is not vulgar but contains the life’s truth, its vitality.”

Himani as Desdemona in “Othello” directed by Fritz Bennewitz in 1983 reflects the brilliance of her consummate artistry. Her memorable portrait was an embodiment of innocence, spiritual purity of heart and refinement who meets the violent death at the hands of the man she loved from the bottom of her heart.

In these and many more roles her gift, talent and sensitivity enabled her to enlarge the dimensions of the plot, elevating her to a higher level of outstanding performers in the landscape of contemporary Indian theatre. Her performance in “Akeli” is marked by effortless artistry, subtlety and intricacy, bringing to the fore the irony, loneliness and muted pathos in the lives of two protagonists.

An M.Sc in organic chemistry, she did her graduation in theatrical art from the National School of Drama, joined its Repertory Company, worked nearly for a decade as a leading actress. She is also a popular face in soap operas and essays roles in Bollywood films.

Jointly directed by Himani and Ramchandra Shelke, the production under review dissects two facets of women dramatised from two stories by Mannu Bhandari “Stree Subodhini” and “Akeli”.

“Akeli” depicts the lives of two women in a light-hearted manner that amuses us, makes us empathise with them, leaving the feeling of gentle touch in our hearts. The directors have ensured that there is action on the stage which flows in a seamless manner. The way themes unfold, holds our attention. The enactment of the narrative is mainly through action which is punctuated at places by comments to tell about the coming events in the lives of characters. The comments are pleasing, interesting.

The opening is all about a woman who has arrived in a big city and gets a job. She falls in love with her boss. The affair goes on smoothly with the partners having good time till the fact that the boss is married and the news that his family has arrived in the city to join him becomes known to the woman. There are complications, misunderstandings and a sense of betrayal possesses the woman. But the boss, cunning as he is, convinces the beloved, assuring her that everything will be all right. The beloved even meets the wife of her boss but to her surprise she discovers nothing unusual and the boss is having a happy conjugal life. As a result of manipulation, the boss manages to have a loving wife at home and a beautiful mistress in the office, befooling both the women. Himani as the woman in love with the boss and Ramchandra Shelke as the boss act in a style which is at once comic and realistic thoroughly entertaining the audience, creating a theatrical piece that gives immense pleasure.

The second part of the production depicts the life of a Soma Bua (aunt). To forget her personal miserable world, she participates in the festivities organised by other people. She makes a point to attend such events without having been invited. Justifying her action, she would say, “what is the need to invite near and dear ones.”

Suddenly she hears the news that the marriage of the daughter of a distant relative is being solemnised. She becomes active, excitedly making arrangements to give suitable gift and attend the event in decent dress. But this time round she is waiting for the formal invitation.

The directors have treated the climax with remarkable sensitivity. The lights gradually fade out, the woman has not received any invitation, though the event is over. Petrified, the woman creates a pitiable image wounded by humiliation. Himani's portrayal is characterised by muted pathos with a tinge of irony. The play is an ironic comment on the situation of poor relatives.

The problem of popularity

Ramchandra Singh, the recipient of Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for 2015 for his contribution to the folk theatre of Bihar, has the privilege to work as an actor under the direction of eminent theatre directors like Raj Bisaria, Fritz Bennewitz from erstwhile German Democratic Republic, Badal Sircar and Habib Tanvir .

Trained in modern theatrical art at Bhartendu Natya Academy, Lucknow, he has performed a number of folk theatre forms of Bihar and Chhattisgarh. A variety of these forms were in display in his production “Utsarg” which featured at Festival of Performing Arts at Shri Ram Centre recently. The national festival organised by Sangeet Natak Akademi aims at showcasing the creative works of its awardees from different regions of the country characterised by diversity of culture and multiplicity of genres, forms that mesmerise modern practitioners of art. In the production under review these forms are juxtaposed with slices of modern style of acting. But there are rough edges which need to be fine tuned.

Jointly designed and directed by Ramchandra Singh and Sunil Phekania, “Utsarg” captures the vigour and earthy humour of folk forms. The directorial treatment of the narrative dealing with folk art tends to be too externalized which becomes at times incongruous with the content enacted in modern style. The script based on Anton Chekhov’s one act play “Swansong” needs pauses and silences to deepen the mood of pathos and insights into the heart of a immensely popular actor which was once flooded with accolades is now being ignored by his audience as he is getting old, losing his charisma and magic on the stage. The script in Hindi is adapted by the directors. Everything about the narrative is Indian but the Hindi adaptation continues to carry the Russian name Vasili Svietlovidoff. To make the script convincing, the name of the character should have been Indianised.

“Utsarg” could be called a memory play with action shuttling back and forth between past and present. There is nostalgic feeling about a past which was elevating and highly exciting; the present is bitter, lonely and hopeless. His depression has become intensely acute to bear, he is confronting dilemma whether to commit suicide or not to get rid of his hopelessly incurable pang. This device offers moments of searing pathos.

The play opens with the actor performing the role of Chanakya, a portrayal of historical character was considered as an acme of his histrionic art which has left an indelible impact on the audience. The re-enactment of the past roles is over, the audience leaves the auditorium and so do the co-actors. The rejected, lonely actor troubled with the feeling that he is no longer needed and nobody admires him any more after entertaining the audience for several decades has no place to go. Aged as he is, he hides himself upstage in the dark, drinking heavily to forget his miserable life.

We watch the re-enactment of more performances of the old and haggard actor which he played during his heyday when he was young and prosperous. There is a long Nautanki scene depicting the interaction between King Dashrath, Queen Kaikeyi and Ram. As we know Queen Kaikeyi forces her husband Dashrath to exile Ram for 14 years and enthrone Bharat as the King of Ayodhya. In this scene Ramchandra plays the role of Ram. The actors render their lines in a loud voice. Harmonium, dholak, nagada and banjo support the singers. The directors should have toned down the exaggerated theatricality of the original Nautanki. Then we watch the vigour and youthful charm of the actor when he used to act in the Lounda theatre form of Bihar. In fact, Chekhov's play demands that the dominant mood in “Swansong” should be that of gloom, melancholic and elegiac.

Despite the fact that he was adored and loved by a large number of young women but sadly he is not able to marry. Now that he is bitter, he recalls his sweetheart, a woman, of high society. He took her love seriously and one day he proposed to her. She replies, “No, I cannot marry you. This is below the status of my family to marry an actor. Actors are not considered suitable enough to be part of high society.” This scene between Ramchandra and Sangeeta is enacted in a delicate manner, exuding warm feminine touch, culminating in utter disappointment.

The directors have given special attention to songs and music. Apart from chorus, there are solo singers. The orchestra is aptly placed downstage right. Using stands to hang costumes, a kind of dressing room is suggestively formed. This arrangement helps the performer playing a variety of characters to come out of one character and enter into other promptly in different costumes.

Ramchandra Singh as the ageing, sad, bitter and depressed actor impresses the audience. To reveal his inner conflict, he has used solo song rendered in a melodious voice by Sangeeta and images of his co-actors. The songs and co-actors representing his inner voice persuade him not to commit suicide and take a rational view of the problems caused by the ageing process. But his wounded soul is not convinced with the arguments of his co-actors and his inner voice. In the play his performance in the role of Chanakya is superb. In his personal career as an actor he considers his acting as Chanakya under the direction of Habib Tanvir as a landmark performance and his very best till date.

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 4:16:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/When-stalwarts-take-stage/article16076794.ece

Next Story