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Theatre fest a tribute to ‘Indianness’

(From left) A scene from the Israeli play, The Woman Who Didn’t Want to Come Down to Earth, the Bastar Band and Chhaya Shakuntalam

The audience gathered on the lawns of the National School of Drama (NSD) shivered under their woollens but when the Bastar Band took the open-air stage, bare-bodied and in short dhotis, the chill seemed to make little difference.

The troupe — mostly made up of daily labourers who toil on the fields or at bell metal and wrought iron workshops — mesmerised the audience with their performance at the 16th edition of Bharat Rang Mahotsav.

The theatre festival was inaugurated by Manoj Mitra, who referred to this year’s theme — Identity of Indian Theatre — and said it was time Indianness was sought not only in the myriad traditions and forms from all over the country but also the way ideas and experiments from other civilisations have been adapted and assimilated into our heritage.

The Bastar Band founded by a Habib Tanvir disciple, Anoop Ranjan Pandey, represented this well. Playing on the dhruva dhol, charhe, chitkul, goti baja and 20 other indigenous instruments (handcrafted from bamboo stems, gourd shells, wood and myriad things, some etched with patterns, some embellished with beads and feathers or whittled into bird and animal shapes), they sang of the earth and the forests. Much like Shankuntala and her friends in Chhaya Shakuntalam the previous evening.

Chhaya Shakuntalam, a Hindi play directed by well-known Malayalam dramatist, director and poet K.N. Panicker, was the inaugural play. A take on Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam, it was presented by the NSD Repertory Company, now in its 50th year. It was an opportunity for students and the audience to share and understand the highly stylised form of classical theatre.

“Theatre cannot create a hill, that only God can do but the patra can... project the height, the strain of climbing up the hill, be the view enjoyed from the summit. But the poor character called God can do none of these things,” Panicker said at one of the sessions.

Classical Sanskrit plays are not new to NSD. NSD had, under Ebrahim Alkazi, pushed for a “comprehensive education” with plays from Sanskrit and Greek classics, contemporary Indian and Western sources.

What was new was the announcement that the NSD would now reach out to the regions, deprived yet talented individuals and endangered native traditions.

NSD director Waman Kendre said it was time to consider what students gained from the annual festival, so quality came foremost. Plays for the next edition will not be chosen from video recordings but by a festival selection committee that would watch every play before giving their approval.

Ratan Thiyam, the chairman of NSD, called for an upgrade of the festival so that Indian plays get much-deserved international exposure and are recommended for other festivals across the globe. “Bengal already has a repertory, NSD may try to do something for rural theatre and adivasi performers,” Thiyam told Metro.

The line-up this year included over 70 plays from across India as well as countries like Israel, Sri Lanka, Japan, China, Poland and Germany. There were plays in at least 17 languages, multilingual plays and plays that used only physical acting to communicate. There were also seminars, directors’ meets, exhibitions and book releases.

Several groups from Bengal — Ranan, Little Thespian, Kalindi Bratyajon, Swapnasandhani, The Creative Arts, Nandikar, Rangakarmee, Kasba Arghya and Rangalok as well as the little-known Paikpara Indraranga — staged their plays at the festival in Delhi.

Baul Partha Gupta performed on three days, Pranay Singh Sardar presented Purulia Chhau and Sudip Gupta’s Dolls Theatre put up a puppet show.

Folk puppeteers from Sadipur, Rajasthan, too, won loud applause for their act.

Among the international plays, one that was the topic of many a discussion over steaming cups of chai and jalebi was Gabrielle Neuhaus’s physical theatre from Israel, The Woman Who Didn’t Want to Come Down to Earth.

“It is about a woman’s aversion to dust. She refuses to set foot on the ground. The first part is quite literal, a portrayal of what the woman does as loud rumbles are heard and dust and debris float down. The second part is more psychological and in the third we peek into her dream of being asleep like Snow White in a casket (made of mineral water bottles) and then breaking free, walking over water like Christ to get over her limitations,” Gabrielle told Metro.