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By THEATRE - Ananda Lal
  • Published 27.03.10

While we must applaud the ideators of Leela, the SAARC festival organized by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, we must question why only New Delhi received all the productions from all nine member nations. The capital is decidedly not the cultural centre of India, and ICCR, our apex agency for international cultural exchange, should be disabused of the notion that nobody will complain if Delhiwalas enjoy a full feast, while others make do with leftovers. The Leela rations doled out to Mumbai and Calcutta distributed the visitors unequally: we hosted our three eastern neighbours (even Nepal went elsewhere), but Mumbai got more, including plays from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, both of which Calcuttans would have loved to see, especially the work of the Afghan woman director, Monireh Hashemi, on the Bamiyan Buddha demolition.

Two of the three in Calcutta, however, assuaged our feelings of discrimination. From Bangladesh, Behular Bhasan was a revelation. The invitation card did not name the group, so till the end I thought of it as a particularly zestful outfit that had put on a laudable show. Only afterwards were they identified as students of the Department of Theatre, University of Dhaka, directed by one of their professors. If Bangladeshi theatre surpasses West Bengali theatre, let us not say that we did not know why. Their government and educational establishment have thought ahead — opening four new theatre departments, where we still have just one, moribund most of the time. Their graduates feed into their living theatre, whereas our groups, looking older by the day, scout around helplessly for trained young talent.

The play exemplified rural theatre research, too, which we lack. Students collectively dramatized episodes from six medieval Manasa-mangal texts and Syed Jamil Ahmed directed them in village performance styles specific to that canon. Consequently, they discovered lesser-known versions of Behula’s story, her exploitation by seven men forming a feminist thrust: some even attempt to molest her, while she learns that her husband Lakshmindar was no better, for he had raped another woman. Ahmed consciously adopts two other approaches, asserting by choosing this narrative that Bangladesh is not “an inhospitable Islamist domain”, and privileging women as actors by casting them in all the roles, including those of men, relegating his male performers to the music.

These students’ non-stop energy and power were incredible, whether acting, singing or dancing. They moved, always in step, on stage, under, up and down a high platform erected diagonally like a bridge. The sound level remained loud deliberately to express Behula’s trauma. As the heroine, Kazi Tamanna Haque Sigma was superb, her voice packing a blues singer’s punch and her stamina enviable. But all twelve other actresses contributed evenly; we cannot single out anyone as a weak link. If anything, the opening improvisatory percussion seemed a bit artificial, hence dispensable.

The Bhutanese and Myanmarese presentations were the first I have seen from those countries. The New Theatre Group (Thimphu) set a Bhutanese folktale of star-crossed lovers in today’s context, of modernization entering their once-insulated society and threatening its pristine beauty and identity. Variously titled as Galem’s Song and On the Road for the Youth, it contained intriguing ancient connections with Manipuri and Southeast Asian clown theatre, on the other hand incorporating a centrepiece sung by their award-winning actress Namkha Lhamo and video projections of virgin mountain tracts giving way to “progress”. However, the direction came from Caroline van Leerdam of the Netherlands, making me wonder if she influenced the interrogation of globalization here.

Conversely, had Myanmar’s junta, infamous for censorship, allowed only a sanitized performance to travel here? If so, a traditional Zat (Jataka) show did indeed fit the bill, but why did it not have any dialogue, which theoretically I know Zat to have? Could the lines have been deemed not safe enough? Shwe Myanmar’s director, Ko Kyaw Swe, might not have answered my queries, since he saluted the Myanmarese consul militarily at the end. Still, Sanda Keinnayi (picture) was breathtaking in its colour and graceful in its mime, recalling Manipuri, Thai and Indonesian dance-drama, all from a common Indian origin. This Jataka describes the Buddha’s incarnation as a Keinnaya (Kinnara) bird in the Himalayas, hunted by the king of Bayanasi (Varanasi), and revived by Sakka the celestial king. The unity of humanity and divinity with natural life (symbolized by deer, peacocks) possessed the purity of innocence. If only Myanmar’s regime gave its forests this respect in practice.