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The city you never get to see

Parallel Cities, the “portable festival for urban intervention”, organised by Max Mueller Bhavan in association with The Telegraph, is underway at six different locations in the city. From a factory and a hotel to a library and a shopping mall to a high-rise terrace and an underground train station, the theatre project is a medium to explore the unseen Calcutta at functional places. On till December 18 (although free, you have to book your ticket at the Max Mueller office on Ballygunge Circular Road beforehand), Parallel Cities has been curated by award-winning artistes Stefan Kaegi and Lola Arias. Metro visited four of the “acts” and came back wowed. Here’s how they played with the senses…

Taj Bengal

Arguably the most intriguing of the lot, this one has been designed by Lola herself and is based on the concept of how we don’t know anything about the people who know everything about us. That’s the housekeeping staff at a hotel. If you stay for just one night, they would know your favourite soap, the side of the bed you sleep on, whether you are on your honeymoon or on a detox trip but you have no idea about the invisible people who clean the rooms and place the flowers and the fruits.

Here you enter Taj Bengal and are given five room cards and then left on your own. You go up to the rooms and discover stories in each one of them. Stories about the staff who work there and who have as many desires and dreams as you. It is how the stories are told that make this 70-minute trip fascinating. In some room you hear their stories, in some room you see their stories and in some room you actually live in their stories. Anything more and it would give away the surprises in store for you.

The tour ends with one of the staff — from the ones you learnt about — actually greeting you and taking you behind the scenes in what all goes in the running of a hotel. Although short, it’s a rare walkthrough that you otherwise wouldn’t have access to. A special mention then must go out to Taj Bengal for allowing this to happen. Come on, not every hotel would have allowed a forest to be recreated inside one of the rooms!

South City Mall

Twenty people, men and women, young girls and boys, some with theatre backgrounds, some without, walk, run and even dance across South City Mall. Every evening between 6 and 7, sometimes alone, sometimes in a group. Connecting them is the set of instructions they are receiving on their headphones. A “choreography of excluded and forbidden gestures in formerly public, now controlled spaces” is how Hamburg and Berlin-based activists LIGNA refer to this “radio ballet”.

What’s the message? “The message isn’t to condemn the shopping mall but to question. And to look at it through a different perspective — one that doesn’t involve looking at it as a place for just consumerism,” said Torsten Michaelsen from LIGNA. The performance, of course, attracted attention of the other mall visitors who had unconsciously become the audience.

For the participants the different actions made them think of different things. Sonali Soni identified with the part where the radio relayed how “natural” it is to want the products displayed and “feel sad” at being unable to buy. But with the performance came recognition of the very human failing of desire and unfulfilment. Dana Roy was struck by another oddity —it was designed to make one forget about the time that has lapsed. “There is not a single clock in here,” she smiled.

Park Street Metro Station

Two men and two women keep writing on their laptops in the four corners of the Metro station, two on each platform. There are four overhead screens that show what they are typing on their keyboards, two in English and two in Bengali. The Bengali ones evoke more reactions. In the morning, just after the office rush, one of the writers typed on the keyboard.

“The idea is to develop a narrative through what is happening around us. But often since the people are on the platform for a very short while we’ve made the narrative short – almost like one-liners. But if there is a reaction then we tend to take the narrative forward,” says Prodosh Bhattacharya, a part-time lecturer and one of the writers of the project. Reactions are varied. Some are offended, some even cheeky. Cheeky? Prabir Ghosh, another writer sitting on the southbound Metro platform commented on a young man eating an apple on the platform. “The fellow turned around and showed it to us as if to say, you want?” just before getting on the train.

Everest House

This one takes the unseen Calcutta quite literally. Where your viewing of the city is guided by someone who cannot see. Bulbuli is a visually challenged singer who would take you up the 21 floors of the tall Chowringhee Road building and then up above on the roof as the City of Joy unfolds in front of you in all its glory. This terrace show, directed by Stefan himself, is only slotted for evenings and so it is the glittering Calcutta skyline that will greet you.

But it is not just about what you see with your eyes, it’s also about what you don’t see. You will be scared that she might fall but Bulbuli herself is fearless because she can’t see. As she sings Rabindrasangeet and asks you to close your eyes and feel the city around you, something clicks inside you. At almost 300 feet above the street, as the December wind hits your face, you are transported far, far away. Inside yourself... in time and space... in a different realm altogether.