A classic comes alive

Satish Alekar's 'Begum Barve' is not well known nationally. But its regional rootedness gives the play its aura. It emphasises both action and reflection, coming alive only in performance, writes GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.

A CLASSIC is not a work in which you find new things, but which makes you discover new things in yourself. By this (or any other) definition, Satish Alekar's "Begum Barve" (1979) is a classic of Indian theatre.

This Marathi play is not as well known nationally as is say, a "Sakharam Binder" or a "Tughlaq". But its regional rootedness, quite intractable to translation, gives the play its aura. (I have seen a well-mounted Hindi version which fell flat). More over, "Begum Barve" emphasises both action and reflection, coming alive only in performance, not in reading. It challenges actors - and viewers - by its mercurial shifts of mood.

Trace all the influences in the form, from the Absurdist genre to company natak traditions. Yet the play will defy familiar slots. Alekar has done here what dramatists dream about, shaped a unique form for his knotty content.

While you watch "Begum Barve" on the stage, you have no time for such analysis, tantalised as you are in the transvestite's world, where illusion and reality intersect painfully, explosively, and dream dissolves into nightmare.

Barve is a leftover waif from the era of Marathi musical extravaganzas. He worships Balgandharva, whose feminine roles made him a trendsetting icon, not only in music and histrionics, but in women's fashions. Barve himself could aspire only to peripheral parts, of the less-favoured sakhi. He cherishes the shawl that the star once gave him, the only tangible remnant of the world of opulent sets, silk and satin, heady fragrance and exquisite music. Alekar's greatest success as playwright and director, is in exposing unpredictable layers of irony through the beautiful songs of the old musicals, sung here in contexts unrelated to them. While the music intoxicates, the alien setting shakes you back into the grim present. The imagery, especially the olfactory, is equally striking. It shocks you into perceptions oblique.

Barve lives under the staircase with the foul-mouthed drunkard Shyamrao, selling joss sticks for subsistence. Among regular customers are the government clerks Jawdekar and Bawdekar, of petty lives and pettier fantasies. On a summer night they see Barve with their office colleague Nalawadebai, Jawdekar's heart throb. Bawdekar enters into the game and gets them "married".

Plotting to retrieve his begum, Shyamrao announces the imminent dismissal of one of the clerks. He also informs Bawdekar that Nalawadebai is carrying not Jawdekar's, but the boss' child. The lovely rite of decking the pregnant woman with flower ornaments turns into the horror of discovery, with Bawdekar threatening to kill the unborn, and Shyamrao proclaiming Barve's masculinity. The dream is splintered, the clerks resume their mundane routine, Barve has to return to the black hole. At her urging, the foursome sing a mangalam for the patient audience.

There are too many subtle strands here for verbal explication. But in the revival of the play at the Samanvay Natyotsav, Pune (May 21-24), the thespians of the celebrated Theatre Academy, Pune (whose landmark productions include "Ghashiram Kotwal" and "The Threepenny Opera") made "Begum Barve" come alive with emotional turbulence, black humour, blacker irony, all without any trace of the maudlin.

Chandrakant Kale made an outstanding Barve, his gentleness heightening the nuances. And how beautifully he sang. He was able to bring off all the contours and embellishments like a professional singer. His inspired rendition made the old natak songs reflect the essential pathos of human existence. Alekar and Ramesh Medhekar excelled as the humdrum clerks, as did Mohan Agashe as villain and sutradhar - with a rousing song to launch action.

Pithy script and perfected performance made you forget the prosaic sets, lighting and box stage. The actors could modulate passions through voice an and body language. The flow came from their instinctive, longterm bonding. Even mannerisms were carefully adopted for the required effects.

But it was the homogeneous audience of enthusiastic rasikas, applauding every song and deft touch, which invested this revival of "Begum Barve", original cast intact, with an electrifying charge. For the visitor from Chennai it was a reminder that above all, art requires a climate of ingrained discernment and empathy.

Once in a long while you come across a piece of writing which captures some vital pulse of contemporary existence.

Rajeev Naik's "Sathecha Kay Karaicha? (What's to be Done with Sathe?") may well be a modern classic ricocheting with the frustrations of the 1990s hollow men, yuppies estranged from both god and art. The pity of it is that protagonist Abhay recognises the malaise in his all consuming envy. Sathe wins acclaim and awards as an art film maker while Abhay can only make commercially viable ad films.

Sathe's is not material success, he has no agency with a Rs. 2 crore turnover as Abhay has. But he is creative, artistically inventive. The age old tussle between aristocrat and upstart is given a wry twist here as we watch young couple Abhay and Salma in 10 scenes of crackling exchange, sparking every feeling from amusement to anguish.

The play takes their secularism for granted, no heavy weather over the Hindu-Muslim marriage. You are hardly aware of the couple's caste or creed, they come alive as people who live round the corner. The play's having only two characters not only makes it easy to stage, but strengthens Sathe's unseen presence and heightens Abhay's sense of inadequacy.

And how well Naik contrasts them - college lecturer Salma, plainspeaking, unpretentious, level-headed even in fantasies, or disappointments (as when the promotion she deserves goes to an unworthy colleague), her love for Abhay all the sweeter in its lack of illusions, ready to accept her limitations ... She is strong, with a streak of vulnerability making her credible. Abhay has been described as despicable, but there is more to empathise here (secretly?) than to scorn.

The dialogue has a swing to it, with flashes of brilliance coming through even in translation. The play has a rare fluidity in speech and structure. It encourages varied, nuanced interpretation. You could see that in director Sandesh Kulkarni's version for Samanvay at Natyotsav 2001, Pune (May 21-24), with actors unafraid in tackling their roles. Amruta Subhash may have needed more maturity to inscape Salma. Nikhil Ratnaparkhi was perfectly cast as Abhay, making a basic goodness glimmer through the frailties of the jealous, mediocre man. Together they shaped the intangibles of expression, through glance, gesture, pause and tone. They also made you forget that choreography-sets-lights etc., did not rise above school production level.

The play has clever references from Chaucer, Shakespeare et al, a corollary of Salma's teaching English literature. Not as frills. Chaucer's humanistic approach to petty foibles displayed on the pilgrimage is integral to Naik's theme. As is poor smalltimer Abhay's image of Mephistopheles, who reduced even mighty Faustus to petty clown. At one point in the play, Abhay tells Salma, "Our conversations never have a beginning, middle and an end. They have a beginning, a middle, and then a beginning again." "Sathecha Kay Karaicha" hits you on target precisely because it has the same indefinite circularity of life.

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Poignancy seldom experienced

THOUGH Pune's Theatre Academy is famed for its excellence and professionalism, its performance of "Begum Barve" on May 22 reached a new level of intensity. Actor Mohan Agashe's mother died at 4 p.m. on the day the play was scheduled for the 9.30 p.m. performance at the Samanvay Theatre Festival, Pune. Members of the cast rushed to Agashe's home and suggested cancelling the play. But Agashe said he could not let audience and organiser down at the last minute. His mother believed in honouring commitments. So, after participating in the rites of cremation in real life, the friends found themselves performing the ritual on the stage. Few members of the audience were aware that the shadow of death hung over the actors.