WhatsApp on stage
A young Marathi theatre group's take on the mad social whirl we live in
At a recent event in Mumbai to felicitate an Indo-Palestinian theatrical joint venture, Hamesha Samida (Forever Steadfast), excerpts of a number of plays were performed. One of these was a 10-minute piece from the Natak Company’s Bin Kamache Samwad (Useless Conversations), a Marathi play written by Dharmakirti Sumant and directed by Alok Rajwade. The complete version will be performed on 8 February (5.30pm, LTG Auditorium) at the 18th Bharat Rang Mahotsav, New Delhi’s National School of Drama’s (NSD’s) annual theatre festival.
The inspiration for the play was a jam session between friends that resulted in a stream of irreverent gags. “Much of it was meaningless, but it seemed to zone in on the kind of communication that exists these days," says Sumant. In the play, stylized rapid-fire shifts in spoken text highlight the low attention span of Internet denizens. Everything and anything is referenced in quick succession—philosopher and cognitive-scientist Noam Chomsky is a particular favourite.
“We are most concerned with language and meaning, and the gap between what we speak and what we mean. We wanted to create an experience that mirrors that," says Rajwade.
Sumant places himself right in the midst of this mad social whirl, in which speech has either degenerated or evolved, depending on how you view it. “This is not a critique by an outsider. Alok and I are both profoundly impacted by these changes." An inference can be drawn of how a virtual space, still colonized by English, can come across to a young Marathi-speaking populace that picks and chooses expressions to create new dialects, peppered with emoji, which could appear to be second-hand and derivative.
The 1-hour, 30-minute play would perhaps demonstrate how our senses can be equally seduced and benumbed by this unending spiel of non sequiturs. The makers say this is analogous to the online world, which offers mirth and boredom in equal measure.
It is interesting that the inevitable rewiring of the human brain due to digital technology is being meditated upon by young theatre practitioners, who find themselves most affected by the alienation it spawns, and for whom pre-Internet reference points still exist, almost like an idyll.
Rajwade is 26 years old and Sumant, just a year older. Just last month, the 29-year-old Japanese playwright and director, Suguru Yamamoto, showcased a play, Colours Of Our Blood, at Thrissur and New Delhi. It furthers the idea of a digital consciousness as an entity distinct from the body. It mirrors how pronounced the reliance of Japan’s youth is on all-consuming and all-pervasive gadgets. The deeply affecting denouement is a remarkable piece of physical theatre that simulates the disquieting ennui of an after-world of humanoids (or, as easily, Internet avatars) and shows how empathy and love can live on forever (or more aptly, in an endless loop) in small disfigured ways, even if merely programmed in.
Known colloquially as “The WhatsApp Play", Bin Kamache Samwad doesn’t seek to literally represent this world. Instead, with an absurdist bent, it situates itself in a wrestling pit where rationalists and porn stars rub shoulders. The cast-list reads like a who’s who of Natak Company regulars, with Abhay Mahajan roped in as a hapless 50-year-old protagonist. “Our plays are essentially collaborations with actors who represent various sensibilities. Grappling for common ground while exploring the play’s themes is always an interesting shared exercise," says Rajwade.
Pune’s theatre ecosystem is fertile ground for experimentation, and this has benefited young groups like the Natak Company. The NSD, in turn, has been programming plays from relatively new groups, like Dhyaas’ Transparent Trap, in which cellophane provides the tarmac for a physical exploration, and Rangdrishti’s Kafkaesque Upashya.
The Aasakta Kalamanch group is right at the cusp of this generational shift, and their F1-105, a play on intolerance conceptualized much before the tenor of public debates on this matter turned particularly shrill, is part of the line-up. The delightful lavani showcase, Sangeet Bari, and a performance based on the folk ritual gondhal, titled Radha Vilas, serve up traditional forms.
With Awishkar Theatre’s MH02 DL5262, this makes for a sizable contingent of Marathi plays at the NSD festival, the largest in any language after Hindi, English and Bengali.
For the complete festival schedule and tickets, ₹ 50, ₹ 100, ₹ 200 and ₹ 300, visit Eticket.nsd.gov.in.