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The sutradhar as puppeteer

Holder of strings:Gopal Datt (left) and Sandeep Shikhar in the Sanskrit drama, Kaumudi  

The ubiquitous narrator or sutradhar , so indispensable to Indian theatre over the ages, is a gift that continues to keep giving even in latter-day plays. As we eschew clichéd tropes and overdone devices, here is a stock character who has been hard to shirk off, still popping up at every turn, revelling in an omniscience that is almost a birthright. Some have been glorified masters of ceremony, merely introducing the play’s setting and disappearing as they came. A few punctuate the episodes on stage with fleeting asides and dry exposition, especially when the goings-on become a tad too dense for the hoi polloi.

Some, like Amitosh Nagpal’s Sebastian in Piya Behroopiya , disarmingly weave themselves into the texture of a running play, while cocking a snook at Shakespeare himself. Yet others have been subversive creatures with a penchant for social commentary: the joker who provokes introspection, the vidushaka who disrupts and challenges social norms, the clown who provides comic relief while simultaneously prodding us to actually think.

This is the free spirit gainfully employed by playwright Makrand Sathe as the all-pervasive narrator of his three-volume treatise on Marathi theatre, A Socio-Political History Of Marathi Theatre: Thirty Nights .

Director Sunil Shanbag’s recent plays have created a virtue out of the sutradhar ’s sidelight. From the dynamic between Nagesh Bhosle’s lokshahir (poet) and Ketki Thatte’s tamasha artiste in S*x, M*rality and Cens*rship , to Asif Ali Beg and Danish Hussain’s charged political asides in Loretta , to the actors who prop up multiple narrative strands in the musical anthology, Stories in a Song . In the latter, Gopal Datt, the de facto narrator of many of his plays, makes several appearances, sometimes entrenched within the narrative, and sometimes being called upon to provide diverting interludes, as others scurry backstage for costume changes. In one piece, he recalls a Hindustani classical maestro’s sonorous tribute to the wife of a departing British bureaucrat, Lord Linlithgow, whose last name makes for a hilariously prescient refrain.

Perhaps, the one contemporary actor in whose even-tempered persona one can witness the coalescing of all these multiple strands of story-telling, is the self-effacing Datt. A National School of Drama alumnus, from the 1999 batch, Datt’s flavoursome appearances have enlivened the most pallid of enterprises. Yet, he can sometimes escape almost unnoticed from many ventures, as he avoids the flashier turn for work laden with brevity and gravitas, laced with the effortless humour that is second nature to him. This is a quality that lends itself quite wonderfully to the leitmotif of the invisible sutradhar and his predilections.

In frequent collaborator Purva Naresh’ Ladies Sangeet , Datt is the ever-present wedding planner, eavesdropping on conversations, always ready to chime in with his two pennies’ worth of unsolicited advice for the soul. Even in an underwritten part, in which his obtuseness is more of a quality than any kind of wisdom, his stage presence and comic timing remain above reproach.

It is in the much more cerebral Kaumudi , that Datt’s métier is put to excellent use, by writer-director Abhishek Majumdar. In Sanskrit drama, the sutradhar is literally the ‘holder of strings’, analogous to a puppeteer, and Datt is cast as the stage manager of a theatre-house in Ahmedabad.

The play’s meta-theatre ethos allows for knowing observational asides about the running of a theatre company. In the hands of Datt, they are never non-sequiturs and acquire philosophical moorings of their own. A midnight scene in the wings features him alongside the equally formidable Shubhrajyoti Barat, as two drunken actors clad in sack-cloth and garlands of skulls, equipped with their own regional traits in terms of tongue, and gait, and derring-do.

The scene acquires the dint of a very beautiful kind of pathos, as the duo evoke the gravediggers in Hamlet . The intrepid Datt keeps to his mien, and chips in a bravura performance without a hint of facetiousness, and this is wholly satisfactory because in many ways, he strings together the narrative rather than causing breaks in it. The comic relief then becomes a seamless extension of the play’s themes.

That all three plays have been performed last month at Prithvi Theatre in quick succession, allowing us to look at Datt’s work in a continuum all of its own.

The writer is a playwright and stage critic

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Printable version | Apr 29, 2021 12:40:35 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/entertainment/The-sutradhar-as-puppeteer/article14484022.ece

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