An Evening with Latif

Seeking The Beloved

I attended an evening of Sufi Sindhi music organized by The Kabir Project – the evening was a wonderful experience to say the least.

My interest in Latif had been piqued due to the detailed mention he got in The Empires of the Indus, with his risalos being quite popular and a big celebration in Bhitai on the day of his urs. He is quite obviously one of the most famous icons of Sindhi culture. More about the Shah:

Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai (1689-1752) is one of the greatest Sufi poets along with Rumi (1207-1273) and Mir Dard (1721-1785), but relatively speaking lesser known. His poetry draws on the power and beauty of Vedanta and Islam melding the two philosophies into one poetic and spiritual vision. His major work is the “Shah Jo Risalo” and his poems thrive today as a vibrant oral tradition being widely sung, quoted and loved by both Hindu and Muslim communities in the Sindh region on both sides of the Indo-Pak border. He takes the popular love legends of the region and speaks through the voices of different woman protagonists. Sometimes he is Sasui, sometimes Moomal, sometimes Sohini and sometimes Marui… and through their journeys of seeking the Truth he expresses his own. His poetry creates a tantalizing dance of expressions between the sensual yearnings for the earthly Beloved and the deeply meditative yearnings for the transcendent Beloved.

What made the event outstanding was the organization – the music was completed by a sampling of Sindhi cuisine, including their samosas, tosha, daal and halwa. There had souvenirs available in the form of t-shirts and books. The artwork and the presentation playing in the background was absolutely fascinating. Shabnam Virmani, as the emcee weaved a number of stories and kep the audience enthralled. even the sign boards to the venue said, “Seeking the Beloved? … This way”.

Just putting down a few couplets that I really liked

all bear
some burden of sorrow
I carry a full load

I seek
sellers of sorrow
most have left
the marketplace

and

seeker
ordinary ears
do not decipher whispers

throw away
sell these
donkey ears

tune into the inner ear

The only comment would be that the second part (Waee music) was probably not very mellifluous and for popular consumption. While the authenticity of the experience is very important, the organizers should have kept public taste in mind.

Vijay Tendulkar’s ‘Kanyadaan’ – An Unparalleled Performance

I saw a performance of Vijay Tendulkar’s Kanyadaan, directed by Lilette Dubey. One of the best professional plays I have been. The story was strong, a family drama with a strong social undercurrent, and backed with extremely powerful performances. It was performed at Chowdiah Hall, Bangalore, tonight and I am so glad I went!

The play is about a girl born into a political family with progressive views who marries a Dalit man because she sees angst in his poetry, and promise in delivering him from his devilish tendencies. Her fathers lofty ideals have inculcated in her a spirit which tries to find the good in people, and strive to change them. However, after getting married to him, she soon realizes that the devil and the poet-lover are one and the same person, they can not be separated, neither can he be cleansed of the vices (drinking, wife-beating) that are a part of him. In fact, there is a strange malice in him, a sadistic desire to punish her for the suffering his ancestors have gone through the ages. Finally, the father, who has taught her the lofty ideals of humanity and socialism is defeated — he finds himself powerless before the predicament of his daughter, and has to praise his son-in-law’s autobiography, applause spewing from his mouth and poison dripping from his eyes. His daughter tells him how his great ideals, his hope in human innocence is faulty, and how she is a victim of his faith in pursuing this promise.

If the story was already strong, and relevant even now — 25 years of its setting (Pune in 1981), the acting lived up to the script. It is difficult to pick out any of the actors, but if I could, I would pick Joy Sengupta for his portrayal of Arun in the first Act. The unpredictable savage beast-like portrayal of Arun sent shivers down many a spine. Rajendra Gupta as Nath was brilliant as well — cracking jokes with suavity, as well as handling emotional scenes brilliantly. Lillete Dubey as the Mother should have got more lines, and should have been more cathartic in some parts perhaps, but considering she directed the play as well, it is too much to expect. Radhika Apte as Jyoti was also good, but perhaps not in the same league. She was just a little monotonic. The set (a living room) was very good, and the lighting and the sounds were just perfect!

What stood out in the performance was Joy Sengupta’s portrayal of Arun in this first part and Rajendra Gupta’s humour — very well intentional and very witty. The monologues were very well done with excellent usage of lighting and music since not once did the audience feel that a dialog was not required. The great thing was the acting was very real — nobody seemed to actually be acting, rather they just fir into the scene (except for the son in a few places). They cueing was just perfect, not once could somebody feel that it was really not happening. The first half was just fabulous!

If I would have liked to change some things, they would have been in the second half. The brilliance of Joy Sengupta in the first half, some how became a very predictable malice in the second half. It would have been good to keep some shades of good in him till the end. In the scene where Arun comes to meet Nath, Joy’s acting seemed overdone. Another thing I would have liked to see would have been more shades of Arun in Jyoti when she comes to talk to her father in the last scene. While the strength in the girl came out very well, and her determination to stick with the destiny she had chosen for herself as well, the impact on the audience would have been so much higher if she had inculcated some of Arun’s unpredictable savageness instead of just a steely determination. Lastly, Rajendra Gupta’s final whimper should really have been a wail – a heart-rending purgatory wail which could make a person cry. (A woman crying doesn’t have so much impact because the audience expects it, but a man crying can just destroy mental peace)

An amazing play, amazing script, amazing performances! I am out of words… I just wish I can now see it in Hindi, or better still, the original Marathi.

[Some more details here]

Five Point Someone by Madras Players

Chowdiah Hall was brimming with youngsters yesterday (Sat, July 21) when Evam presented the Madras Players’ production of Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone. The theatre group is based out of Chennai and the book was adapted and directed by Nikhila Kesavan.

At the outset, I must confess that it can never be easy to adapt a book like Five Point Someone to stage, and I was pleasantly surprised. Five Point Someone is the story of Alok Gupta, Ryan Oberoi and Hari Kumar, three freshers who make it to the hallowed Indian Institute of Technology at Delhi, from completely different backgrounds and vastly different takes on life. Alok has a family to look after — he is the only hope for his paralyzed father, school-teacher mother and a simpering sister. Ryan is ubercool, with parents earning a dollar salary, but indifferent to the needs of their child, and as a result, the son has turned into a cynic, a brilliant cynic. Hari is a rolling stone, and most of the moss he gathers is what Ryan feeds him. The three who become friends right in the first few days of their stay during a ragging incident, decide to take life light, enjoy the ‘best’ years, and end up as five-pointers, and barely make through the semesters, who are supposed to be scorned at, humiliated in class, and as a result spend most of their time outside of it rather than in it. They however, find time to fight with each other, make up, fall in love, lay inebriated on the institute terrace, get caught stealing question papers, and finally make it out of IIT. The story is well known – the book having sold hundreds of thousands of copies, but capturing the magic on stage was not an easy task.

It is at this point that one needs to commend the director and the actors. If I said that the audience was in splits, I would be undermining the amount of noise the auditorium generated. The book is in first-person narrative style, and the director stuck to it, introducing the author who was recounting his story as a fellow actor while we saw the actors on stage. The play was full of punch lines — about how students lived their life at ‘Sassies’ (the all night eating joint), the inability to understand the female species, the altercations with the professors – and the audience raised the hall with their claps at each of them. The directory was also able to portray the emotional parts well especially the dichotomy in Alok’s mind. The sets were minimalist and most of the action was limited to a single room. The lights were well-handled except for a lapse or two in the entire play, which really commendable since they were used very heavily since the two likenesses of Hari were together on stage a lot of times. I am afraid I didn’t much notice the music except for Floyd’s ‘Brick in the Wall’ before the beginning and after the end.

Sarvesh Sridhar as Alok was the pick of the actors. This monologue about being a ‘loser’ was really well done since at no point the audience felt that it was dragged. Also, little things like always running when he got on stage (and near perfect cueing) made it a treat to watch him perform. Abhijeet Mohanty as Hari was faltering, as the character demanded. However, his movements felt a little too unnatural and forced at times. Praveen Bharatwaj as Ryan was blase, but one hoped to see something more exciting — and the maverick didn’t come out that well. S Vidyuth as the author was detached and the high-point was when after Hari and Neha have sex, and the author comes on stage and blushes! Uttara Krishnadas as Neha handled the romantic scenes quite well (which were well applauded), but the emotional scenes became a little drab. The other professors did their small roles quite well, esp. Shankar Sundaram as Prof. Dubey.

While he play was very well adapted and very well presented, I personally felt that two of the scenes they had left out should have been there — the initial ragging scene, and the scene where Hari goes to give his Viva having had a few rather large shots of Vodka. Those two scenes would have been superb, and I was silently wishing that they would be there. The little things which as a hostelite I have lived and experienced, and the (perhaps not so much) pressure at another such institute that I have seen, really made it a personal journey.

 What I also really appreciated was that the organizers were kind enough to give me (and my friends) tickets to see the show (divine intervention) and one was able to establish a personal rapport with a few members of Evam. And I came back with a bag full of chocolates as a prize for being super-insistent for the tickets! Thanks guys! I wanted to give a tempo shout (a celebration of victory) of my college after the play but sadly my friends were not willing.

A great show — and I am sure everybody who saw it absolutely loved it — and went back feeling much lighter and happier. And the intense stomach pain after the play due to all the laughing — as they say hanste hanste mera pet phat gaya. A must watch!

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Butter and Mashed Bananas

Watched Butter and Mashed Bananas at Ranga Shankara today.

Butter and Mashed Bananas is a play written and directed by Ajay Krishnan, peroformed by Haraami Theatre Group (Googling for them sadly brings up pages full of expletives). It is the story of a boy born to unusual circumstances and unusual parents. The boy grows up to become a world famous author, attends pseudo coctail parties and becomes a politician who tries to speak "the truth". The play came highly recommended with many awards and performance at the Prithvi Theatre festival in Bombay.

The incisive humour was refreshing. The play takes a dig at the pseudo-ism that has permeated our lives, from feminists to fundamentalists. The boy is born to a passionate and illicit relationship between a communist-feminist and a fundamentalist-right wing, and speculation about his political inclinations is rife even before his birth. His impending birth seems to be full of so many choices that he obstinately refuses to come out of his mother’s womb. The story then weaves along to the adult, an internationally acclaimed writer, celebrated by the media, lapped up by pseudo-intellectuals. There is a long tirade against the censor board, and then the boy finds a political voice, which gets drowned in the (again illicit) romance between the Prime Minister and the Leader of Opposition. Free speech is curbed, and so are the words and the lexicon, voice is killed.

What was really good about the play was the satire, a comedy poking like a pin at our society and tickling the audience. Politics, moral policing, pseudo-intellectualism was debunked, splitting them open, audience splitting in laughter. The acting of the guy who played the father (I could not find this info anywhere on the net — they should really have a website — it sounded like Gunjan to me) was amazing, excellent comic timing, great stage presence, and an outstanding performance overall. The other characters were also well played, but it would have been better if the mother had been a little more effiminate :)

The use of music was also great, it gets absorbed in the flow and was non-intrusive. In fact, it makes the performance all the more entertaining. The actors were wearing ghunghroos on one of the feet, and a lot of abstract art made it very absorbing. The props were few but well used. In fact, in most cases were abstract objects made out of a sheet of white cloth.

Most of the play was very well choreographed, the actors moving in perfect sync, in both body and voice. It was evident that it had been practiced well. In fact, a lot of places, the actors got away with their acting because the choreography was well done. At the same time, a few places, one got the feeling that the choreography was forced, the dance movements intruding the context, confusing the audience. It also seemed puerile at times — excess of anything is bad, if it is good choreograhy.

A very good watch overall, an excellent way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon, and with a little bit of editing would have been perfect!

Crossings at Benaras Junction

Another one from the LittleMag stable. This one’s a play called Crossings at Benaras Junction by Kaushik Basu. The play is about a professor of philosophy, Siddhartha Chatterjee, who wins an international honour, but instead of being elated, is instrospective and lonely. He seeks the love of his life, and his life seems incomplete. There is another thread about a travel tour operator, who somehow unwittingly tries to use acronyms of international agencies (wuch as WTO and GATT) for his agencies, whose sole aim in life is to make money, and not ethically. The two stories come together in the end.

What I loved about the play was the subtle humour, the word-play (WTO and GATT), allusions to well known literary works (Lady Chatterjee’s Brother). There is sophistication in the humour, for instance there is slight paradox brought out when Siddhartha counters June’s statement about being god-fearing with a quip from Vivekananda — "There is no sin bigger than fear", and whether Siddharth speaks for both sides — whether bluffing is good or not.

Gupta ji is an interesting character, I guess it would be fun to play him!

However, I felt that a lot of places the play sagged in energy. The sophisticated humour notwithstanding, one needs to have some energy to sustain audience’s interest in the play. Also, the climax was a big disappointment. As we went towards the denoument, one got the feeling that the whole play that had been built up so beautifully, came crashing down like a pack of cards. I really don’t understand what the need of a Bollywood style ending was!

On another note, I find myself reading a lot of articles from Little Mag and enjoying them. I guess I should just buy a subscription.

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