By Charlene Rajendran
In its sixth year of festive celebration, last year’s programme at The Park’s The Other Festival in Chennai, India, included works from Taiwan, the USA, France, and different parts of India. Connecting with the tail end of the week-long schedule of events at this festival last December, I caught two performances from India that were engagingly contrasting in their concoctions of being Other and seeing the Other. Salim Ghouse’s Sufiana – Wit and Wisdom of Mulla Nasrudin and Maya Krishna Rao’s A Deeper Fried Jam took on provocative perspectives of the urban Indian experience. They reflected the issues that arise within the contradictions of being traditional and modern, sacred and secular, personal and political.
The plays were staged at the Chinmaya Heritage Centre and thus framed in a performance space more conducive to traditional dance and conventional theatre. The dynamics of play suffered due to the inflexibility of a proscenium stage in a vast and non-intimate auditorium. It seemed ironic that a festival which sought to platform the expressions of new vocabularies in performance opted for a stage that was stiff in its semiotic. However, the largeness and exuberance of both the performances transcended that barrier and managed to embrace the audience in engaging dialogues on identity and being. Both works used English as the main language and were thus accessible to a member of the audience like myself, who would have otherwise required subtitles or an ongoing translation. This too has become a consideration for festivals that platform inter and intra-national works, where languages and texts can limit or extend the boundaries of who views what, how and when.
Whether it be dance, music or theatre, divergent vocabularies make specific demands on an audience. This can sometimes be distancing. But it can also be most rewarding in its capacity to challenge a semiotic, or revise a symbolic representation of the known through the unknown, the familiar via the unfamiliar. The Self and The Other.
Sufiana was written, directed and performed by Salim Ghouse, a performer, writer, healer and martial artist from Mumbai. The play is described as a ‘bouquet of flowers culled from the Sufi Garden of Wit and Wisdom presented through the eponymous figure of the inimitable Mulla Nasruddin.’ The central character of Mulla, played by Ghouse, seeks to improve the quality of his life by expounding the chronic realities of life through a seeming spirituality. He hopes that this business will bring him good fortune and prosperity. Quite predictably the schemes do not work and his wife (played by Anita Salim, who is also Ghouse’s producer and wife) keeps lamenting the need to buy food to sustain the body, even while the spirit may be feasting on profundities.
Performed in a highly gestured and melodramatic style of comedy, the play addresses a prevalent obsession with instant spirituality. Whilst the Mulla needs to make his mullah, he clearly interrogates then evades the practicalities of living through the telling of stories.
Based on the Sufi figure of Mullah Nasruddin who is well-known as a witty favourite in stories throughout the Middle East, Ghouse contextualises his stories within a contemporary post-colonial globalised setting. He references Shakespeare and Godot, he takes on anglophile accents and localised patois, hence defining the new Mulla in a space that continues to relegate him to the margins of his larger existence.
However in the staging of Sufiana, the Mulla is almost always centre stage. The multiple (and marginal) roles of wife, servant, spiritual leader, neighbour, stranger etc. played by Anita Salim and Rakesh Iyer, coming and going in their interaction and confrontation with the Mulla, reinforce his large and pompous presence despite all the collapsing frames of truth that he sets up for himself. The irony in his wit seems to have evaded the performance I caught. In the stiltedness of language and the indulgence of slapstick that never moved into subtle, wry comment, the performance suffered from too many indulgent embellishments, even if it thrived on sharp socio political quips.
Maya Krishna Rao’s A Deeper Fried Jam, billed as socio-political cabaret, served up a different menu of Otherness. From the very start of the performance to its finish, there was a biting discourse on the politics of being. It located itself in the centre whilst being pulled to the periphery, situated in the local but bleeding into the multi-national. It employed dance and drama in the electric personality of Rao, music and soundscape in the pulsating live performance of collaborator Ashim Ghosh, and image and projection in the haunting multi screened video interventions of Surajit Sarkar.
Drawing on her experience as a Delhi-based performer and theatre educator, Rao has devised a text that takes on a range of stimuli for its inspiration and impulse. In collaborating with Ghosh, whose soundscape works as live prod when they rehearse and perform, the interaction between performers is at times orgiastically organic. The work belts out a blatant disregard for the conventions of category. Rao sings, dances, speaks, chants, scats, interacts, teases, taunts, making mockery of her own story whilst shooting arrows into our own. She creates shadows on screens, splices bangles and beads, traverses the platforms across the stage, spinning with the raging sound as glittering flakes fly off her skin. The performance employs the tricky spaces that emerge when dancers collide with musicians and videographers cut across actors. Ghosh splices into the space with his guitars, his voice, his darbouka, his bells and a surround of sounds from his computer on stage. Sarkar segues intermittently from live to recorded, screen to body, close up to wide angle.
Jam stirs the prejudice and hatred that pervade in a space that offers freedom but instead delivers a tyranny of restriction. The discourse on stage draws on the issues of being human in a contemporary landscape. Violence to women, national factionalism, the call of creativity, racial and religious bigotry, the nostalgia of what was. There is a discomfiting sense that all pulses are fragile and the only recourse is to laugh into the melancholy state of existence, to propel it with energy, to resist the power structures that dominate.
This compels an audience to participate as resonator as well as reflector. We begin to fill in the gaps as we make sense of the rhythms, sounds, gestures, words, images. We let them inhabit us and we in turn enter their discourse with laughter or applause, a sigh or silence that spills.
The work barges irreverently into a theatre space to make messy the semiotics of simple human connection with the trappings of technology and tradition. In the playfulness of a good jam, the dynamics of artists feeding off each other is an engaging and resonant comment on the making of art and the art of making sense.
First Published: 14.01.2004 on Kakiseni