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4 contemporary plays about cultural memory and identity

Four award-winning plays from the 15th Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) will be staged in Delhi from 7 July onwards

‘The Old Man’ directed by Sahidul Haque
‘The Old Man’ directed by Sahidul Haque

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The Old Man—a play in Assamese and gibberish—is almost lyrical in form. Based on Ernest Hemingway’s classic The Old Man and The Sea, the production beautifully presents the intertwining of the lives of man and river. The physical movements of the actors evoke the flow of the Brahmaputra and also the ups and downs of life. The director, Sahidul Haque, looks at fishermen, boatmen and daily wage-earners who are directly and indirectly dependent on the river, and how nature has started retaliating to human greed in the form of ferocious floods.

The Old Man also touches upon the loneliness of the elderly by focusing on the life of an old fisherman, Vodai, and his quest to catch a big fish. There are heartwarming moments in the play, like Vodai’s interaction with his young apprentice, Rongmon. The Old Man is one of the four award-winning plays from the 15th edition of the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) 2020, which will be staged in Delhi 7 July onwards. Due to the covid-19 pandemic, only a virtual ceremony could be held in 2020 and it is only now that the productions will be staged physically.

The four plays—For the Record, The Old Man, Ghoom Nei and Bhaskara Pattelarum Thommiyude Jeevithavum—present diverse production styles. But what unites them is their relevance in the present sociopolitical climate. For instance, For the Record questions what constitutes cultural identity. The story looks back at the events of 1971, when a tribunal was asked to select three artefacts that represented India to the world. In 2018, the transcripts of the meetings were released and in 2019, For the Record recreated those deliberations.

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“How do we represent our culture? What does it sound like? What does it look like? Whose stories do we tell? The absurdity of the question lies both in the obvious futility of finding a definitive answer but in the infinite possibilities present within the question. For the Record follows seven individuals facing this conundrum and their earnest attempt at finding an answer,” mentions the director’s note.

‘For the Record’ directed by Nikhil Mehta
‘For the Record’ directed by Nikhil Mehta

Another impactful play, Ghoom Nei, performed in Bengali, looks at the lives of workers, who have to cope with abysmal living conditions. Bhaskara Pattelarum Thommiyude Jeevithavum, a Malayalam play, follows the trials and tribulations of a Christian migrant labourer from Kerala, Thommi. It examines the master-slave relationship, which exists even in the 21st century.

The subjects that each of the plays touch upon seem to repeat themselves incessantly year on year, with their impact increasing each time. Take, for instance, the human-river conflict in Assam. “I am in my hometown of Nagaon right now, and I can see the havoc that floods have wreaked in the state,” says 36-year-old Haque, who has directed over 35 plays in Hindi, English and Assamese and been part of festivals such as the Bharat Rang Mahotsav and the Poorvottar Natya Samaroh. He feels that everyone will be able to relate to the story of The Old Man. Haque, for one, sees his father in Vodai and himself in Rongmon. “But without the river, such stories will not exist,” he adds.

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Haque’s productions, be it Nawor in which he worked with Tiwa, a language spoken by only a handful of people, Black Rain, about children in war zones, and now The Old Man, are big on physical theatre. There are only a few dialogues, with the actors letting their bodies speak.

Haque takes inspiration from the everyday movements of boatmen, fishermen and farmers, stylising them for stage. “These are not abstract but actions that members of the audience can connect with,” he adds. “Movements are interspersed with silences. We create imagery of the boat, the sky, the water, eventually leaving the rest to the audience’s imagination.”

If The Old Man is based on a classic book, Ghoom Nei draws on Utpal Dutt’s text written in the 1970s about the workers. “The text continues to hold true—about organised versus unorganised workforce, and the role of workers’ unions. Today, one is seeing so many food delivery boys and cab drivers on the road. If one such delivery person gets into an accident, who will raise a voice! If a cab driver is fired from a job, who will they reach out to?” asks Saurav Palodhi, who has directed the play.

Produced by Thakurpukur Ichheymoto, the play follows several parallel stories: of truck drivers, dhaba owners, an unemployed individual’s struggle to get into the mainstream workforce, a senior citizen, and two reporters and their quest for a new story. “A manifesto of the lowest working segment of society, the plot travels through a dark broken highway, attempting to reach the bridge of light, illuminated by hope and camaraderie,” states the director’s note.

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Ghoom Nei also ponders on questions of religious identity. “When you are struggling to make ends meet, how does your religious identity matter? Work becomes the only religion,” says 33-year-old Palodhi.

Then there is Bhaskara Pattelarum Thommiyude Jeevithavum, based on the novelette by Malayalam Paul Zacharia. The story focuses on Thommi, who is enslaved by a tyrannical landlord, Bhaskara Pattelar. And when the landlord is killed by his enemies, the labourer is released from total servility into total freedom.

“The play has been in existence since 1996, when I first conceptualised it. However, when UAE-based Theatre Dubai asked me to recreate it for a festival in 2018-19, I went back to the text and created a new version of the play. The text is timeless and offers a lot of scope for contemporary interpretation,” says Suveeran, who has directed the play. Also an actor and a painter, he has to his credit 30 plays such as Agniyum Varshavum, and four short films.

The play is not just important for its theme but for also raising the question of censorship in theatre. According to a February 2020 news report, controversy erupted after the National School of Drama issued notice seeking clarification from the director for including an act of nudity in the play, which was staged at Bharat Rang Mahotsav—International Theatre Festival of India in Puducherry.

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“The organic nature of plays gives the director freedom to intervene and improve the performance in each ensuing stage,” Suveeran had said at that time. “The protagonist of the play I directed is a slave...he is clad in a torn dhoti which he uses to cover his nudity. At times the torn cloth slips from his hands and exposes his nudity for a while. This culminates in the final scene in which he runs away totally naked.”

The writer of the novelette, Zacharia, had come out in support, saying that through this act of nudity, Suveeran was able to do justice to the character. “You can’t keep a play under lock and key. It is not a tool of entertainment but an intellectual expression and a political statement. Theatre nudges people to question and to resist. Censorship never works,” says Suveeran

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