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‘Avalanche’: The slow brew of a play performed in whispers

Nominated in six categories at this year’s META, ‘Avalanche’ offers an intimate theatre experience

‘Avalanche’ stands out for its style of storytelling, dealing intelligently with the pressing issues of our times.

By Deepali Singh

LAST PUBLISHED 12.03.2024  |  10:00 AM IST

At the Serendipity Arts Festival, which took place in December in Goa, the audience attending the Hindustani play Avalanche were handed blankets for the cold temperature inside the performance space. The sound design created an atmospheric rumble to resemble the ambience of the mountains. The actors spoke in whispers, but the audience understood what was being said and what was left unsaid.

Directed by National School of Drama alumnus Gandharv Dewan, Avalanche has been nominated in six of the 13 categories at the 19th Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) including direction, production, stage design, actor (male and female) in a supporting role and best play. It is one of the 10 nominated productions at this year’s META (to be held from 14-20 March), which awards innovation in production design, excellence in acting and courageous narratives. Avalanche shares this distinction with plays such as Agnisuta Draupadi, Bhoothangal, Gagan Damama Bajyo, Ghanta Ghanta Ghanta and Siachen. The issues they address include gender, identity, resistance, authoritarianism and personal heroism, and they are performed in Assamese, Bangla, English, Hindi, Hindustani, Malayalam and Marathi.

Avalanche stands out for its style of storytelling. Set in a mountain village, which spends nine months under the threat of an avalanche, people communicate in whispers, afraid to upset the balance of nature. Even childbirths are timed to nature’s cycles, and any deviation is met with severe punishment. The near-hush is symbolic of the silencing of a populace under the guise of the greater good, which ultimately results in destroying the very community it seeks to protect.

Dewan—who has acted in Gulmohar and The Railway Men—co-produced the play under a new arts collective, The Gathered, along with fellow actor Shardul Bhardwaj (Eeb Allay Ooo and Trial By Fire). The latter is also part of the play and has been nominated in the Best Actor in the Lead Role (Male) category. The duo, who have been friends since their days at Kirori Mal College, Delhi, came across a Turkish play written by Tuncer Cucenoglu in the first nationwide lockdown during the covid-19 pandemic. “For the team at The Gathered, it is important that the play or the material of the script speaks to us," says Bhardwaj.

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Dewan terms the process of making this play a “slow brew". Along with Rajesh Nirmal, they took nearly six months to translate it, while also attending a three-month residency at the space, Us Paar, run by Sunil Shanbag. What ensued was a process of brainstorming and rehearsing with the actors, before finally opening the play at the Serendipity festival. Although Dewan has directed many plays before, this is the first time he has attempted something on this scale.

The play is set in a mountain village, which spends nine months under the threat of an avalanche, and where people communicate in whispers, afraid to upset the balance of nature

The universal appeal of the story lies in the playwright’s setting of the play—“country: nowhere; time: now". The writer has not given his characters names, preferring to call them old man, old woman, young man, young woman, midwife and so on. The “anti-theatre" element of the play also excited the first-time producers. “In theatre, we are taught to throw our voice from our bellies, and here is a play which is in whispers. Thematically too, the play deals with the issues of our current times quite intelligently without making them very in your face," Dewan says.

In their first six shows at Serendipity, they did not have more than 80 people in the audience, making it an intimate theatre experience for all. When they perform at Kamani Auditorium in Delhi for META, the audience will be on stage with the actors. “In the mountains, people speak softly and that’s the politics of the play. They speak softly because they believe that if they speak in a tone which is normal or above normal, an avalanche might occur," adds Dewan. It was observed at Serendipity that many audience members found it hard to speak at a normal decibel level after watching the play.

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With The Gathered, Dewan and Bhardwaj hope to work with a diversity of people. For Avalanche, they have worked with seasoned actors such as Swaroopa Ghosh, Ashwath Bhatt, Rajeev Gaursingh, Anamika Tiwari and Shweta Pasricha, among others. Bagging six nominations at the prestigious META with their first production has boosted their confidence levels and shown them that they are on the right track.

‘Avalanche’ will be staged at Kamani Auditorium, Delhi on 17 March at 8pm.

Deepali Singh is a Mumbai-based art and culture writer.