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Unveiling hidden realities

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    Unveiling hidden realities

    Unveiling hidden realities

    Shobha Yatra" deals with problems of the present day - violence, corruption and loss of ideals. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN speaks to the playwright.

    NO recent play in Marathi has provoked the excitement that "Shobha Yatra" has done. It has originality and that dynamism essential to living theatre. It has found an ingenious form to deal with the problems of present day India - the increasing violence, cynicism, corruption, terrorism, consumerism and loss of ideals.

    A godown provides rehearsal space for scenes from the freedom struggle featuring nationalist heroes, as part of the Independence Day parade. Only the schoolteacher playing Jhansi ki Rani is unaware that the pageant is sponsored by an underworld don. In this bleak comedy, performed so far in Marathi, Bengali, Hindi and English, the conflicts are generated by the contrasts between the actors and the characters (Gandhi, Nehru, Subhash Bose) they portray. Barbie (NRI lenswoman) triggers jealousies and heartburn as Gandhi and Bose fight for her attention.

    "I don't want to comment on contemporary existence through history, myth or folk tale. I don't care for realism or naturalism either. I want to find my own way to confront reality directly," says playwright Shafaat Khan (as "Shobha Yatra" does with its blend of history-myth, past-present, dream-illusion). "It seems to me that what we see before us is not real, reality lies hidden behind it." A playwright must break that convincing illusion and reassemble its components to reach reality.

    A slow writer (six plays, two adaptations), Shafaat Khan began with black humour and socio-political satire in "The Crows of Bombay" (1976), in which two Mumbai social workers with opposing political affiliations find themselves in cyclone-ravaged Gujarat. Government and World Bank get enmeshed in the villagers' demand for the vanished crows indispensable in funeral rites. The play had over 800 shows in which the guffawing audience got visibly perturbed with hometruths.

    Similarly, black humour darkened "Kisse" One and Two, where Khan shuffled the norms of the Indian narrative tradition to show how the story on hand could neither be told nor understood. The bizarre, grotesque "Farce of Geometry" satirised problems of identity. (A circular man thinks he is a perfect square and pretends to be a triangle). It deployed magic to good effect.

    The Mumbai riots fired by the demolition of the Babri Masjid brought change of direction. "Until then I believed that violence was in the hands of a few goondas and politicians. For the first time I saw that physically and mentally, the common man was with the destructive forces all the way. A whole society was given over to violence, believing that it provided all the answers."

    Shafaat Khan was trapped for ten days in his Ghatkoper home. "I tried to write a play about what was happening around me. But somehow I couldn't." That was when theatre director Waman Kendre asked Khan to adapt Azgar Wajahat's famous "Jis Lahore Na Dekhya..." in Marathi.

    "I couldn't translate. The problem was not linguistic but the mental block of belonging to the Marathi tradition where whatever happens in the whole world has to happen within the family. But I thought the play I wanted to write could use this form." So he wrote about a Konkani Muslim family's migration to Pakistan. You saw what it felt to be a Muslim in India, but also that all human beings were the same at heart.

    "Rahile Door Ghar Majhe" (Far From Home) managed 95 shows. For the first time a Muslim family was centrestaged in Marathi commercial theatre. "My friends were stunned that I wrote something so different from the arty-sharty stuff I had been doing," he laughs. "Here I was saying boldly, openly, that you have to stand up against violence. If not, you won't survive."

    "Shobha Yatra" was triggered when, with a group of friends, the playwright visited the maidan where a huge historical pageant was being rehearsed for the Independence day procession. "As I stepped into the ground Pandit Nehru came up to ask me to light his cigarette. I found Tilak, Jhansi ki Rani and Subhash Bose having a little party, glass in hand."

    It was at a playwrights' workshop conducted by the West Zone Cultural Centre that Shafaat Khan realised the value of those visuals. "The best form for depicting our downfall in every aspect of life." Six months later "Shobha Yatra" emerged, an ironic comment on the 50 years of the "radiant, auspicious journey" of Independent India. The bizarre shifts in identity and perception, between the real, unreal, surreal and metareal, extend the theme of the "Farce of Geometry".

    "We boast of 150 years of Marathi drama but our audiences are mostly unaware that theatre has powers beyond entertainment," he says wryly."Our commercial productions reduce problems to the four-speakers-for-and-four-against school debate model." Despite its subtle form and dense content "Shobha Yatra" became a crowd puller with 176 shows in Marathi alone. It could have gone on but for the problem of retaining the actors busy with TV shoots.

    Shafaat Khan says that the Babri Masjid demolition was an awakening for non Muslims as well. That was when he himself became fully conscious of his Muslim identity. As a writer he woke to a sense of responsibility. "No one had the guts to stop the riots, and since then no one has written a poem or a novel about it, behaving as though nothing happened," he shakes his head in disbelief. "As a creative person it was my duty to watch and record what's happening here and now."

    The tyranny of the word is a major problem in Marathi theatre with its old tradition of rhetoric. "There's more verbal economy now but do you know we still have viewers up in front who take down the dialogues to quote and discuss later?" The producer panics at the mention of suggestive sets. Why risk alienating the audience with "artiness"?

    But on the whole present-day viewers are able to digest graver matters than before. Hadn't Jayant Pawar's "Adhyantar" on the problems of mill workers drawn crowds, as had Suresh Chikle's "Golpeeth" about the red light area? The Berlin wall had cracked down, allowing crossovers between the experimental stage and the professional. "Actually, there is little parallel theatre left - no smashing of old formulas or crafting new idioms." He too suffers from the same malaise of "what you understood is not what I meant."

    Having moved from the parallel to the mainstream, Shafaat Khan believes that parallel theatre should maintain its separate identity as did the Chhabildas and Rangayan movements of the past, because experiments are essential to nourish, sustain and rejuvenate commercial theatre. But he also knows that "You can break norms and forms with abandon in experimental attempts, but you will have only 50 viewers. To communicate to a larger audience you have to join the mainstream. People cannot analyse the climate they live in. I try to make them see that reality. I don't compromise to entertain."