The excellence of opposites

Original Indian drama in English offered two excellent visiting exemplars recently, their content and style at completely opposite poles. Nilanjan Choudhury's The Square Root of a Sonnet, by Centre for Film and Drama (Bangalore), brings science to the popular ken in ways that recall Michael Frayn's Copenhagen and Complicité's A Disappearing Number. Like the former, it extracts the drama in the career of a Nobel laureate in physics; like the latter, it sheds light on the achievement of an Indian scientist about whom our general public knows precious little. The second reason is a compelling one to persuade the organizers, the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, to make the edifying text available to school and university students.

By THEATRE - Ananda Lal
  • Published 21.04.18
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Original Indian drama in English offered two excellent visiting exemplars recently, their content and style at completely opposite poles. Nilanjan Choudhury's The Square Root of a Sonnet, by Centre for Film and Drama (Bangalore), brings science to the popular ken in ways that recall Michael Frayn's Copenhagen and Complicité's A Disappearing Number. Like the former, it extracts the drama in the career of a Nobel laureate in physics; like the latter, it sheds light on the achievement of an Indian scientist about whom our general public knows precious little. The second reason is a compelling one to persuade the organizers, the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, to make the edifying text available to school and university students.

Choudhury describes how Chandrasekhar went to Cambridge with his astounding calculations that led to the theory of black holes, drawing the notice of astrophysicist Eddington who, however, humiliated him at a conference by debunking his findings. Crushed, Chandrasekhar left for Chicago, where he worked on mundane military projects. He never returned to India because his uncle, C.V. Raman, refused to "allow astrophysicists... within 100 km of Bangalore."

All this Choudhury presents lucidly, through dialogue that explores not just science but the human experiences in institutions, race relations, betrayal of trust, and women's supportive parts to such men as Chandrasekhar and Eddington. The strength lies in the words - which contemporary theatre downplays, seduced by technical gimmickry - but nothing pleases the mind more than ideas and feelings expressed in intelligent conversation, not showy spectacle. Choudhury joins the few current dramatists good at this: Frayn, David Auburn in Proof, Timberlake Wertenbaker in Winter Hill.

Of course, he relies on the four-member cast and Prakash Belawadi's measured direction of them: Choudhury himself as Chandra (picture), British-origin Sal Yusuf (the haughty but troubled Eddington), Spoorthi Gumaste (Chandra's petulant wife) and Vani Joshi (Eddington's devoted sister). The ideally rare phenomenon of a standing ovation comes cheap nowadays because spectators rise without enough critical discrimination, but this production deserved the one it received.

The only new play in this year's Sabhagar Theatre Festival, Faezeh Jalali's award-winning Shikhandi by FAT The Arts (Mumbai), announces the arrival of the accomplished actor-director Jalali as a writer. She goes back to classical Sanskrit lore, composes in deliberately ragged couplets, and workshops her collective in a physically exhausting regimen of interchanging roles, dance, music, gymnastics and martial arts, all to "question maleness and femaleness and everything in between."

Shikhandi in The Mahabharata provides the perfect material. Rather than futilely relate a reduced epic or even several comparable episodes (for example, Brihannala) like other recent practitioners, she takes the better path of treating one character comprehensively. So, Shikhandi's past birth as Amba, her rebirth as Shikhandini, her upbringing as a warrior son by her father who desired male progeny, and her exchange of genitalia with the Yaksha who wanted to become female, form the text. But Jalali cuts it short unnecessarily. She should develop Shikhandi's father-in-law scolding his daughter for "fake news", and Shikhandi's death at Aswatthama's hands; and delete the introductory expositions of the epic itself, which sound strangely tailored for a foreign audience.

We cannot fault Jalali's adoption of a comic register, because most such retellings soak in sorrow and morbidity. But too much levity backfires from the complexity of the gender-bender narrative, and sometimes the wordplay becomes too crass. On the other hand, the interpretation of Draupadi as a macho lady enchants. Without exception, the performers are superb, particularly Srishti Shrivastava.