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A new festival celebrates diversity in theatre

The first Manam Theatre Festival, being held in Hyderabad, hopes to empower the city’s diverse community

'About Ram' by Katkatha
'About Ram' by Katkatha

For nearly a month since Friday, Hyderabad is set to be immersed in theatre—from non-verbal performances and masked puppetry to monologues and docu-plays. The inaugural edition of the Manam Theatre Festival features 18 shows across four venues by visiting and home troupes, besides talks, workshops and demonstrations.

There’s a diversity in formats, aesthetics and themes. For instance, both Rest Of The Story and Bhoomi focus on pertinent social issues, yet the treatment is different. In the latter, Puducherry-based group Adishakti, led by Vinay Kumar, looks at sexual assault and power politics at the workplace through a play within a play. The performance is powered by music and movement. In Rest Of The Story, students of the department of theatre, University of Hyderabad, offer their own interpretation of Badal Sircar’s original script of Baaki Itihaas (1965). Deliberate alterations have been made to the script by toning down existentialist elements and rooting it in the contemporary.

The festival curation is an extension of the ethos of The We_Us Collective, the social and cultural programme of the Hyderabad-based Almond House Foundation, which looks at empowering the city’s diverse community. “Our key core values have always been inclusivity, diversity and engagement, whether it is about mental health, gender, and more,” says Harika Vedula, founder, We_Us Collective, and curator-director of the festival. Vedula has tried to distinguish the four weeks through language and style. Through each production, she wants to bring to the forefront the people that power theatre. “By showing you two plays by a single troupe, we are showing diversity within that group as well. And through the fringe events—talks and workshops—we are trying to build a community around theatre. We have sessions with light and sound designers, set designers, and more—people that you usually never cross paths with,” adds Vedula.

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An interesting performance is Shakkar Ke Paanche Daane by Hyderabad-based Kissago. Performed and directed by Jay Jha, it’s based on a Hindi monologue by actor-playwright Manav Kaul, in which the protagonist Rajkumar embarks on a journey, full of self-doubts. Along the way, he draws inspiration from five individuals—Maa, Uncle Pindaric, Raghu and a “Truckwala dost”. The play is all about coming to terms with one’s own unique voice and perspective.

'Afghanistan is not Funny' by Henry Taylor
'Afghanistan is not Funny' by Henry Taylor

One of the highlights is Afghanistan Is Not Funny, directed, written and performed by the UK-based Henry Taylor, who has the distinction of winning four of the top five awards at the Edinburgh Fringe. “Soon after 9/11, researching a comedy project, Henry Naylor and photographer Sam Maynard landed in the Afghan War Zone. What followed was extraordinary: threatened by a war criminal, captured by the Mujhadeen, and targeted by Al-Qaeda. Now, as the Taliban return, Naylor asks what has been lost in the ruins of Kabul,” states the play note.

The Far Post by Mumbai-based Dur Se Brothers enters the realm of the fantastical. It imagines two enemy soldiers, killed in battle, embarking on a long journey into the afterlife with the help of Postman Aunty and her pet goldfish. “As the soldiers navigate the trials and tests of the afterlife, letters from the war unfold…,” states the play descriptor. Directed and written by Yuki Ellias, it features mask work, contemporary dance and puppetry.

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Ellias is known for making complex topics accessible, and for meaningful collaborations with musicians, designers and others. For The Far Post, she has partnered with the Sikkimese band Sofiyum—a first-of-its kind Lepcha folk fusion band based in Gangtok—for the music, which takes one to the play’s stark mountainous setting. The idea of borders and conflict has never been more relevant, with the Israel-Palestine and Ukraine-Russia conflicts. “We created the premise for the show months before the Russia-Ukraine war. I only wish that such themes could no longer stay relevant, and that there was peace,” says Ellias. “However, The Far Post doesn’t look at the battle or everyday reality but at the journey of two soldiers in the afterlife. So, you will find folk and mythical elements in the story.”

She had been wanting to collaborate with Sofiyum ever since she heard them at a show called Harmony, five years ago, with A.R. Rahman. They jammed together in a Chennai hotel room, with Ellias departing with a promise to reconnect once she had a substantial project in mind.“I approached them this February with a draft of the story, and they agreed to collaborate. The play is extremely physical, with voice over in Lepcha, with subtitles in English,” she adds.

'Bali' by Adishakti
'Bali' by Adishakti

The plays offer diversity in treatment of myths, legends and folklore across South-East Asia. So, the Delhi-based group Katkatha, led by Anurupa Roy, is presenting two plays, About Ram, drawn from versions of the Ramayan, and The Nights, which takes three stories from Arabian Nights. Adikshakti too takes an episode from the Ramayan in Bali. Written by Nimmy Raphel, it’s a retelling of events that led up to the battle between Bali and Ram. “The play explores the notion of right or wrong and how it may change when each character is given an opportunity to voice their thoughts and opinions,” notes the play descriptor.

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The idea is to make the epics and folk tales more human. About Ram, an ode to the many Ramayans, is inspired by the texts of Krittibas Ojha and Bhavabhuti, and excerpts of the stories used by shadow puppeteers in Andhra Pradesh. “There are influences from Ramakien in Thailand, and Kecak, the music used in Balinese performances. The narrative of Ramayan spans the subcontinent but changes as it travels from country to country. No two versions are the same. And About Ram celebrates this diversity, especially in the many performed versions,” says Roy.

The performance is non-verbal and looks at the moment when Ram, in exile, is looking helplessly across the sea to Lanka. That is when Hanuman comes to his rescue. There is a certain “humanness” to Ram as he struggles with emotions. “Usually in South-East Asian versions, Hanuman is the god and Ram is human. There are elements from Krittibas’ Ramayan as well, which begins when Ram, Sita and Lakshman come back to Ayodhya. Lakshman commissions a patachitra artist to commission a scroll about the episodes of the past. When Ram looks at the scroll, his entire life flashes by. We jump a lot between versions and aesthetics,” says Roy. The performance ends with a question about where his loyalty lies. It also hints at the tragic love story Ramayan essentially is. “About Ramalso looks at how war changes people. While theMahabharatahas a huge section on this, various versions of theRamayanaonly hint at it,” says Roy. The production, featuring computer animation, video projection and shadow puppets, is a collaboration between Katkatha, conceptual artist Vishal Dar and musician Abhijit Banerjee.

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The Night, says Roy, is particularly special; it’s the story about one woman fighting a powerful king with stories. Roy picked three stories from Arabian Nights—two familiar and one unfamiliar—which talk about power. The last story is about a beggar and a king. The monarch, who likes to play jokes on his subjects, picks up a beggar and dresses him as a king. The beggar soon starts believing he actually is the ruler. And just when that happens, he is thrown back on to the street. “We look at what extreme power and extreme poverty is. In all our works, the puppet and puppeteer are equal, with the latter being visible on stage. In this one, puppeteer and puppet share space as co-actors. In a way, that also becomes a metaphor for control and power,” says Roy.

The Manam Theatre Festival, Hyderabad, is on till 17 December.

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