Whose stories do we tell? That was the question vexing the six characters of For the Record, a play that seemed to connect with the audience at the just-concluded International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFOK), Thrissur. Directed by Nikhil Mehta, artistic director of the Delhi-based performing arts initiative Black Box Okhla, For the Record is a recreation of the deliberations of a 1971 tribunal tasked with selecting three artefacts that represent India to the world. “Theatre practitioners like Nikhil Mehta are exploring unusual themes and unusual stories,” says theatre director Neelam Mansigh Chowdhry, who was at ITFOK held during February 5-14.

Unusual stories like For the Record are rewriting rules of the traditional stage. In Hunkaro, a Marwadi/ Hindi/ Awadhi/ Haryanvi play by the Ujaagar Dramatic Association in Jaipur, Rajasthan, traditional set and stage property make way for empty space to emphasise on listening to each other. The play, based on three stories—two by contemporary Rajasthani writers, Arvind Charan and Chirag Khandelwal, about the hardships faced by migrant workers during Covid-19, and one by the late Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha—is about hope, which helped people survive the pandemic. “The play is all about how you can use pause and silence to instigate and cause discomfort within the minds of the audience,” says Srinivas Beesetty, founder of the Bangalore-based theatre company, Kahe Vidushak Foundation, which has produced plays inspired by folk traditions.

Also read: Ratan Tata to Dhirubai Ambani: Classic luxury cars owned by top Indian business tycoons

“After the pandemic, I realised that we need to tell new stories, in a unique way with a new exploration of the language of theatre,” says Mohit Takalkar, who directed Hunkaro. The actors in the play wear traditional Rajasthani dress and turban and sing folk songs of the Manganiyars, but the connection with the land ends there. “It’s nothing Rajasthani,” says Takalkar about the style of the drama. “I didn’t want to dramatise the three stories, but wanted to practise theatre towards minimalism. I prefer an empty stage,” he says, and goes on to quote British theatre director Peter Brooks, who described an empty stage as a “magical space”.

Kahe Vidushak Foundation’s Beesetty, who was born in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, uses a fusion of folk and contemporary storytelling in his plays such as Panchhi, adapted from Manoj Mitra’s Bengali play Pakhi, and Namak, based on Bangalore-based playwright Abhishek Majumdar’s original script in English, titled Salt. “Salt was published in August 2020 in the middle of the pandemic. I translated it two weeks later into Hindi, and was influenced by the languages of Bihar and Jharkhand,” explains Beesetty. The set in Namak, which premiered at the Ranga Shankara theatre in Bangalore in 2020, is subtle and surreal. There are three different platforms, indicating a garden, house and city. The story is about a mother and her two daughters coping with the pandemic and its resulting shortcomings by telling each other stories and faking there is food on their plates.

Food, or the lack of it as experienced mainly during the pandemic, has given many theatre practitioners space to explore the paradox of plentiful and scarce. But in Nooramma: Biryani Durbar, a play in Tamil by Kattiyakari, food is about identity and politics. The one-act play, enacted by a single performer, is about communities villainised during the pandemic. Prominent Tamil trans woman writer A Revathi plays the role of Nooramma, who is making biryani onstage (which is distributed to the audience at the end of the play). Using testimonies, Nooramma tells stories from generations of transgender community members, who have excelled in making food for the public. One such transgender entrepreneur was M Sangeetha, who ran the Covai Trans Kitchen, which served biryani, in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. The play is inspired by the story of Sangeetha, who was murdered in 2020.

Also read: Who is Rajesh Gopinathan? Know everything about his lifestyle, education, salary & net worth

Like in Nooramma, testimonies are used to good theatrical effect in another new production, Chaai Garam, by Assamese director Sahidul Haque. “The play is about the painful history of tea,” says the Delhi-based Haque, who uses voiceover by actor Adil Hussain. Chhai Garam tells the story of workers in Assam’s tea gardens, first brought from regions in present-day Jharkhand and Odisha by the British in the beginning of 18th century. “These migrants worked in inhumane conditions then. The situation is not any different today,” adds Haque. Using the Baganiya language of the tea garden workers, the play brings out the dark history of tea cultivation set in motion by the British colonialists. “Personal testimony is a powerful tool that has entered theatre many years ago,” says Chowdhry. “Theatre in our country today is made of so much singularity that makes up the plurality of India. There is also the alternative voice, which is equally powerful, and the audience is gravitating towards it,” she adds.

Chhai Garam, Hunkaro, Nooramma: Biryani Durbar and Namak are part of the ten plays from across the country shortlisted from over 400 entries for this year’s Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META). The shortlisted plays will be staged during the META festival (March 23-28) in Delhi.

2023-03-18T19:29:39Z dg43tfdfdgfd