Several productions recently seen in Calcutta, whether visiting or originating from here, zeroed in on gender issues through different processes: conventional drama, intercultural exchange, theatre therapy. Nandita Das’s national-tour double debut, in playwriting and stage directing, took place on Between the Lines by Chhoti Production Company, the new venture floated by her and Subodh Maskara, her husband. On all counts it marked a promising start, given the members’ relative inexperience in theatre — Das has done only two mainstage plays before, the last eight years ago, besides some very early amateur theatre; Divya Jagdale, her co-author, has written just two scripts previously; and co-actor Maskara had no prior engagement with the stage.
By now, anyone who reads this newspaper knows all about the story, inspired by Purushottam Agarwal’s dramatization of an unnamed 1960s film, so I need not repeat it. Conforming to the cosmopolitan demotic trends in two-handers, Das and Jagdale present a straightforward, even ordinary, course of events in the lawyer couple’s life after they find themselves as legal adversaries on the same case, which unravels commonplace patriarchal expectations that threaten to separate them. In both the middle-class marital-abuse trial and the apparently liberal equal marriage, sexist attitudes stand stripped bare. Das stays true to her activism by raising social awareness, but without contrivance or melodrama, which often mars Indian treatments of this theme.
The direction and acting follow suit, muted and understated, even when Das fluidly slips into the garb of the accused. Her forte, as in cinema, is that she never shows off or overacts, a technique she passes on to Maskara. We can quarrel only with the sudden feel-good ending and the audio-visual design: Claudio Clavija’s soundscape loops do nothing to support the scenes, while the kitchen and bedroom upstage behind a scrim (by Siddhartha Das) do not seem essential.
American Center deserves thanks for bringing Arena Stage’s Voices of Now programme to India. Arena in Washington DC, a pioneer regional company (winner of the first Tony Award in that category, in 1976), has always had dynamic women managers. Continuing the spirit of its founding in 1950 under a university professor and six associates who experimented with theatre in the round, four Arena facilitators led workshops with 30-odd young Calcuttans from diverse backgrounds over three days, teaching them how to improvise and devise material from their lives into a performance.
Titled Power Play, this coincided with the International Day of the Girl Child, and concentrated on the discrimination Indian girls and young women face. One felt that the end-product did not fully plumb the daily humiliation and street harassment that they have to encounter; perhaps the artists (the empowering word Arena used for all participants) held back on deeper trauma. While the scenarios and choreography after just 20 hours together impressed, the artists probably gained the most from the process they went through and the message Arena inculcated, to disseminate the method as a chain reaction in each of their individual occupations.
Moving up in years, our own Ramanjit Kaur of The Creative Arts used similar methods on Bawre Man ke Sapne with Millennium Mams, a society to train women in financial independence. Forging them into an all-women troupe, she applied principles from the cutting-edge practice of theatre as therapy, without forgetting the art form’s aesthetics, and encouraged them to give voice to their personal troubles. It makes no difference if they come from privilege, for oppression exists regardless of class or education (as Das shows), youth or language (Voices of Now), age or affluence (Bawre). She got the fourteen actresses to mix their own experiences with samplings from short stories by Indian women (and Jhumpa Lahiri) to create a coherent play about a mother planning a visit to her son in the US and, incidentally, his American wife.
The maturity and commitment of these first-time performers (picture) struck us most. They not only expressed their characters like near-veterans, but turned into indefatigable theatricians under Ramanjit’s disciplined supervision, making everything from costumes to props themselves.
Sanchayan Ghosh designed a richly crowded set of domestic bric-a-brac which the cast negotiated adeptly. Ramanjit has carved a niche in children’s theatre over the last ten years, but Bawre catapults her into a much bigger social and artistic role.