The era of newsy theatre

Some plays responded to incidents of rape and murder that dominated the headlines
Last Updated 27 December 2019, 13:18 IST

The decade gone by was reflected in the theatre we saw unfolding in front of our eyes, thanks to exceptional playwrights and theatre groups.

Early into the decade, one the of most powerful monologue acts stemmed from the tragic 2012 gang rape and death of Nirbhaya in Delhi. Maya Krishna Rao, a multi-faceted artiste, performed ‘Walk’ in a semi-rap style, with a mix of English and Hindi words. With music playing in the background, her voice became the a call from women: “I want to walk; I want to sit in the bus; I want to lie in the park; and I want to try not to be afraid of the dark…” Much after she chanted ‘Never ever… never ever…’ the audience felt the impact of theatre coming out of anguish.

The decade saw some powerful pieces by women on women. Theatre veteran and recipient of the Toto Funds the Arts award in 2010, Deepika Arwind’s ‘No Rest in the Kingdom’ is an hour-long commentary on misogyny across caste, class and race. Another solo act, Deepika played 14 characters including a rapping cat. When it comes to women theatre, The Big Fat Theatre Company merits a mention for its premise of body acceptance. It cast plus-sized actors in roles that were previously perceived for ‘near perfect’ body types.

Founded by former Anuradha HR, the company’s play ‘Head 2 Head’ saw a positive response from the audience as it retold Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana. The use of spectacularly large masks and scenes like the one in which the characters ate a half-kilo black forest cake with no dialogues at all made this group unique.
On the side, the decade also saw the start of an all-women improv group, incidentally the first in India, called the Adamant Eves.

Karna asks questions
The theme of mythology, a favourite in theatre for storytelling and grandeur, was a constant through the years. Dr K Y Narayanaswamy’s Kannada play ‘Pampabharatha’ is an example. In Pampa’s 10th century epic, Vikramarjuna Vijaya, the Mahabharatha is centred on Arjuna, as the court poet deified his king Arikesari II from the Chalukya dynasty. In KYN’s story, Karna questions Pampa for side-lining him. A powerful examination of caste and politics, the play brought home a discomforting reality echoed through the centuries.
The notion of right and wrong, through the perspective of the Ramayana, was Adishakti’s ‘Bali’. This ‘Laboratory for Theatre Art Research’ rolled out Nimmy Raphel’s play, in which multiple stories are essayed through the perspectives of Bali, Tara, Sugreeva, Angadha, Rama and Ravana. The use of the body for storytelling was explored in this epic which saw exceptional choreography.

Young boy’s story
‘The Boy with a Suitcase’ was a collaboration between the iconic Ranga Shankara and Schnawwl National Theatre in Mannheim. An elaborate production featured the story of Naz, a young boy packed off to London by his parents. Through innovative storytelling by Mike Kenny and under the direction of Andrea Gronemeyer, the true-to-life story was dramatically portrayed by a talented cast which included the Kannada singer M D Pallavi.
Story of maladies
One of the unlikeliest adaptations played out recently was the play ‘Monsters in the Dark’, a production by Bangalore Little Theatre (BLT). Kavya Srinivasan and Ravi Chari devised the adaptation of the book Emperor of Maladies (Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee) on the occasion of the 14th World Congress of Bioethics. They had then declared the book had enough stories for many more plays, restricting the storyline to the stories of some of Mukherjee’s patients. Hailed as a “worthy effort” by critics, it brought home the possibility of expanding the arc of storytelling through theatre.
‘Main Hoon Yusuf’ was a poignant story in Hindi set against the backdrop of the Palestinian conflict, while ‘C Sharp C Blunt’ was an award-winning interactive play by the exceptional group Sandbox Collective.
Other notable plays were ‘Romeo and Juliet – No Strings Attached’ by Prashanth Nair, ‘The Father’ by Motley’s made memorable by Naseeruddin Shah in the lead role and ‘Taramandal’, a story by Neel Chaudhuri.

Goodbye Karnad
Coming to playwrights, the decade saw the loss of the stalwart Girish Karnad. From ‘Yayati’, ‘Une Pure Shehar Ek’ (in Marathi) to ‘Tughlak’, ‘Anju Mallige’ and ‘Odakalu Bimba’, most of Karnad’s plays have been translated and interpreted widely. ‘Bikhre Bimb’ is still enacted by Arundhati Nag of Ranga Shankara. Another promising playwright from the state is Abhishek Majumdar, whose plays Gasha, Kaumudi and Djinns of Eidgah have been performed across the country.

New, diverse voices
The test of time has revealed talented playwrights and theatre personalities like Abhishek Iyengar and P D Satish Chandra of Pradarshana Kala Samsthe. Several theatre groups have been catering to a diverse audience, notable mentions being WeMove and Our Theatre (Vivek Vijayakumaran) and of course, Sandbox Collective (Nimi Ravindran and Shiva Pathak).
The decade saw choreography emerging as a way to tell stories. Musician Tara Kini’s Swar Katha Upnishad used a mix of Hindustani music and theatre to do that. A common thread through the decade was that theatre was not just about performing for an audience but about changing them for the better.

(The writer is a freelance features writer)

(Published 27 December 2019, 13:18 IST)

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