Reliving the glittering decades of Delhi

Staged

Last year, a History student at the University of Sydney turned her PhD thesis on ‘the upper middle class of New Delhi from 1931-52’ into a book.

It got rave reviews for providing a fresh perspective on our Independence years, seen, not through the eyes of political leaders or the masses, but for the first time, through the viewpoint of the privileged, educated and affluent classes of the city.

Now, acclaimed theatre director Sohaila Kapur has adapted the book Glittering Decades: New Delhi in Love and War into a play with none other than the author Nayantara Pothen writing the script. She staged it for the first time at India Habitat Centre recently much to the appreciation of Delhiites who got an interesting dose of history on the city and its original powerful and chic inhabitants.

The Capital of India moved from Calcutta to a ‘desert’ called Delhi only in 1930. With this move, the whole rank and file of the ICS (Indian Civil Service later renamed Indian Administrative Service) arrived in Delhi.

The play portrays this era through four stereotypes: A snobbish British ICS officer Aubrey Hobston who thinks it’s not time yet for India’s independence, his young and exuberant sister Anne who is completely convinced of India’s bright future post freedom, an Indian ICS officer JP Singha - ardent advocate of communal and racial harmony, and his sister Lekha – an ‘ICS wife’ who is forever planning cocktail parties.

None of them communicate with each other but are seated at a distance writing letters, and thereby expressing their thoughts, to one Rita in England. So the better part of the play is monologues and heavily dependent on the actors’ abilities to deliver their dialogues convincingly and create the right aura just using body language.

Director Sohaila informs Metrolife, “Letter reading-writing is not an often-explored or easy format in theatre. We have had very few such plays like Love letters and its variant Tumhari Amrita. This format also does not entertain in the conventional sense of the term with any song and dance sequence; therefore, it was quite a challenge taking it up.”

Nevertheless, the actors did full justice to the period drama. So Aubrey, played by Alexander James Holmes, is visibly unhappy with the‘intermingling of races’ in ballroom parties, not to mention, mortified at his sister having an affair with an Indian. Anne, beautifully rendered by first-time actor Anuja Thirani, is living ‘historic times’ in Delhi. Singha is excited about Independence and Lekha enjoys gossip about political developments and the social scenario.

Delhi of the early 20th century is also ably portrayed in words with Anne admiring the wide Vijay Path, North Block, South Block and its precincts; Lekha expressing concern over the wide barren unguarded areas and Singha hoping to spot some remaining Jackals in the city.

Original speeches of Arthur Chamberlain, Pandit Nehru and MA Jinnah are used to convey landmarks like the Partition and India’s independence. Sound and lights are also intelligently used to reflect situations like the Muslim citizenry leaving for Pakistan and riots towards the climax – glass breaking and noisy mobs.

Surprisingly, the play was prepared in just a matter of weeks. Alexander, a journalist who’s just arrived in Delhi, says, “I was so unprepared for this role, in addition to the outrageous dialogues which would be deemed politically incorrect even in my country. It was a distinct experience, true to the book – different.”

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