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Sunday, 5 May 2013

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Immortalising the fate of the faceless

All art stems from some form of human experience. Deciphering the experience embedded within the aesthetic creation could lead to revelations that may be either highly individual or collective, but nevertheless rendered as a personal interpretation. What of these lie in the work of theatre titled Cafila that was staged as a performance of the Colombo International Theatre Festival recently at the British School in Colombo auditorium, began brewing as questions in my mind, as I watched the students from the Flame School of Performing Arts in Pune bring to life on the boards a story that spoke of fears and hates and the desire for harmony amongst ordinary people set in a time that is now settled in the annals of history in the Indian subcontinent as -the time of the 'partition'. The play was directed by Prof. Vidyanidhee Vanarase who is the current Dean of the Flame School.

A scene from Cafila

The utilisation of actors showed a pragmatic approach considering this was a student performance brought from overseas to perform at a festival in Colombo. Although characters such as the chief narrator were designated to one actor and were present throughout the scene, certain players who exited the stage re-entered as new characters. And the props too were worked out with logistical concerns as it became shown as the play progressed. But in all fairness to the people behind the Cafila production it must be said that a barrenness did not pervade the stage since the human element was well spread out to locate action that was meant to be both inside and out the train carriage.

Identities and searches

Cafila is about identities and their politicisation. It is about the power of ethno-religious affiliations for collective identities and how it can spiral into madness. It is in reading this work of theatre in the context of a story related to conflicts based on matters of ethnicity and demarcating spaces for nationhood that I find Cafila a drama that has much resonance to Sri Lankan audiences of today in this post war scenario.

The opening is a two player scene where the story is of a Muslim father caught in the chaos of ethnic violence in the time of partition. It's a narrative fused with role play. The search is for Shaheena, the daughter who is found in a hospital half dead but fortunately alive. The opening scene in that sense was a prologue of sorts that was like a stage setter for the story's background in terms of understanding the mental traumas, agonies that people underwent. Sitting at the very frontal edge of the stage the young man and young woman who played their roles brought out a sense of the conversationalist as much as the raconteur when functioning as narrators.

With the shifts in the incidents being described and tonally indicated to the audience of how the situation was changing in its emotive aspects I felt the scene was meant to be something of an exercise to the audience to imagine in their heads the picture of anguish described verbally based on the oral attributes of the narrators' discourse.

The climax of that scene was when the man, whose attire clearly showed his ethnicity to be Muslim, jumped off the stage and ran into the aisles between the seating blocks in the audience space, bringing to life the frantic father who is relentlessly in search of his daughter. In this regard I feel the young actor Nikhil Gadgil must be congratulated for pulling off a compelling shift in his mode as a performer whose presence depicted several facets of narration.

The precursor performed, the theatre gave way to the gentle darkness to allow the stage to dawn what was the bulk of the play. The train journey between border, as Pakistan was being carved out of British India as a separate nation, and mass exodus between the would be national border was taking place. The stage came to light with a group of actors sitting on a wooden box like prop which presumably meant to depict a booth in a train carriage. And though the ones who would talk and be the drivers of the narrative bore faces to the audience there were sets of people wearing a uniformly moulded plain white mask reminiscent of the countenance of the phantom of the opera.

The faceless masses

It was a symbolic depiction of facelessness. The position of the masses. Another element which is not visual but acoustically connects with this message of facelessness is the monotonous way in which at a certain point in the scene, the passengers intone the word 'Waiting', in somewhat of a flow mimicking the chugging of a train. They were people made to feel as though in a perpetual wait. The monotony denoted their haplessness as well as denied them of any individual tones and accents at that moment. In their choral intonation they became a collective of people whose acoustic expression made them (metaphorically) faceless.

Facelessness is possibly one of the surest inheritances of the masses. In India only gods and celebrities have faces. Anyone else is just a speck in the vastness of the landscape. It is this reality of India with its increasing populace that is depicted with the symbolism of 'defacing' the actor with a mask that establishes the erosion of individuality. I make these observations as a Sri Lankan whose commentary can certainly be looked at as a cultural comparison. My sentiments may perhaps be alien to an Indian reader's perceptions, while possibly being fully acceptable to the Sri Lankan mindset. And for the record I make no sweeping statements.

The Hindi limitation

A work of art when discussed analytically can seldom be completely devoid of the commentators own subjective outlook. It is in this sense that this review must be read as written by a Sri Lankan critiquing an Indian play that contained parts of Hindi dialogue which was admittedly outside my scope of lingual comprehension. Therefore I cannot purport to have understood every word in the dialogues. And the reader is hereby forewarned that my observations have limitations due to the language barrier that existed between the work and me.

On the aspect of acting it must be noted that the manner in which the players who symbolised the train commuting masses at the windows, holding up to their masked faces wooden window frames, and becoming part of the motionless stage set, showed their training and discipline as practitioners of theatre. Their training that made them become perfect props dissolved of human motion. Perhaps that was how some people back then during the actual crises that erupted at the time of the Partition survived those horrendously turbulent times in British India -by becoming part of the landscape and shedding their human voices to escape the wrath of any who sought to wreak carnage upon whoever was undesirable to their vision of shaping human habitations. Human habitations called nations based on a demographic vision of territory.

The assumption of roles by the players sitting together as the central narrator -the grandmotherly looking Muslim lady with her sari covering her head like a shawl, addressed as Amma by her fellow travellers - describes the personae on board the train may be read as how this play is about setting the story back in time, which is quite different to the India of today and the present generation who didn't actually live through the partition. In this sense this work of theatre can be thought of as reliving the times, re-entering the skins of those who faced the turmoil of the partition, from a place in present time. Thereby the players may have depicted in their performance a narrative mode of journeying between generations in telling the tale called Cafila.

Demographics and power

Cafila is about demographic specifics and politics of demography in the strictness of ethno-religious issues within the framework of territories designated as politically demarcated. One of the main indications of how demography works in this context of conflict where the actors are located in a space that is said to be motional is how the character of the 'Patan' is played out in the story. Being a Sri Lankan when I heard the word Patan my mental references related to the ethnography in Afghanistan.

I recalled what I remembered of watching the movie The Kite Runner. I took the Patan to be of an ethnicity akin to some of the warlike Afghan communities. The role of the Patan was intriguing to read in the context of the politics of demography in the play. He is not opposed by anyone and pretty much gets his way throwing his weight about wielding a staff that he uses as a tool of aggression. The way the Patan assaults a person trying to clamber on board the train with their belongings shows that civic mindedness and empathy for others had been eroded, and how none dared to intervene against the Patan showed how 'survival of the fittest' was gaining ground as the valid principle.

The babu's indignation

The only opposition that comes in the way of the Patan is by the lowly 'babu' who is initially taunted and demeaned by the aggressive pole wielding turban wearer. The character of the babu is what works with the character of the Patan to drive home the message about the conflict being one that has its fluxes based on demography. The babu when designated by the chief narrator at the outset of the scene shows that it was a role which was clearly the least popular. The unhidden dislike in the face of the player when fated to play the babu indicated that his is a status that is not privileged. The demeanour of the babu suggested that he was possibly of an oppressed community. Until the train arrives in Amritsar the Patan's reign of bullying is unchallenged. It is when the train's stop at Amritsar the babu gains an instant boost of courage on the knowledge that perhaps his identity holds sway over there. The fellow travellers intervene to make the babu desist from avenging the indignities he was subjected to by the Patan. And finally the aggressive man leaves the carriage to board another where all passengers are of his own Patan ethnicity and thereby more to his liking. Demographic realties at work, in certain ways, one may say.

It is interesting how it is the one whose demeanour suggested he was the lowliest who rose up with resistance against the oppressor, which in a way reinforced that Shakespearean wisdom from Henry VI Part 3-"The smallest worm will turn being trodden on".

One of the striking questions spoken to the audience, reflective of what may have been the more communally concerned matter for the Muslims on board is said by the old Muslim lady. Will Mohammed Ali Jinnah move to Pakistan or remain in Delhi? A very potent and pertinent question one may observe given the fact that it was the late Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah who founded Pakistan although initially the struggle for Indian independence was fought together by leaders of all Indian communities. It is possible thereby to read from this aspect of the story that it was their respective community's leader that each Indian in the struggle for independence followed and placed faith in. And so in that context perhaps the average Indian caught in the chaos of the Partition was wondering where their respective leader was leading them to? And where would that leader in fact place himself territorially, since it is after all a matter to do with territory and who lives where?

'Grandma Swati'

On the matter of the portrayal of the central narrator, Swati Simha who brought to life the Amma was superb in delivering her role; commanding the spotlight through her tone and facial expressions. She was a compelling and convincing grandmotherly storyteller. She sounded very much Hindustani and was (South Eastern) Asiatic in a manner relatable to Sri Lankan sensibilities being very much an old talkative granny whose endearing demeanour had dramatic expressiveness that keeps listeners focused on every word and gesture. The India seen today is not what the British acquired to their empire and celebrated as the 'Jewel in the Crown'. It was a much larger landmass. A landmass which was carved into separate states, to address issues that were bequeathed to the people of the subcontinent once the white man left. The Partition was possibly a political phenomenon that the people of India are yet to fully get over. It created Pakistan which possibly made the ultimate statement on an impossibility to realise a lasting post independence harmony between Hindus and Muslims who shared the subcontinent prior to the arrival of the British. Pakistan was possibly the inevitable statement about territorialisation of lands in terms of ethno political classifications.

What can the people of India or Pakistan learn from Cafila for their respective futures? As convenient as partition was as a political manoeuvre for the power holders, reunion between Pakistan and India in a common nationhood is now next to impossible. It shows that once separated on lines of ethnic or religious difference, it is a finality; and the restoration to a state of olden times is but a dream.

Perhaps there are still those who are now the fading sunset in India and Pakistan who have memories of being one nation called Bharatha deshaya, and who would rejoice beyond description at its restoration. But what can Cafila teach the people of today in the subcontinent that lays separated from Sri Lanka by the Palk Strait, which to some is just a mere swimmable strip of seawater?

There are clamours in India for greater devolution of power. The creation of Uttarakhand from Uttar Pradesh in November 2000, and the agitations in Andhra Pradesh by the 'Telangana movement' for the creation of a new separate state of Telangana show how administration wise the need for divisional attention is required. Yet does that take a dimension of ethnicity or religion as the basis? And thereby sow seeds for separatism for a complete breakaway for autonomy from India's central government? I don't think so. These divisions don't show a disintegration of territorial cohesion in terms of the Indian Nation-State. But it was quite a different case in the phenomenon called 'partition'.

Nationhood and separatism

The present day sense of nationhood and its intra divisional growth of administrative territories in India is a process by which the people's needs are addressed within the context of being Indian and being part of India. Their larger sense of national identity is never compromised and that is India's strength in showing its unshakable sense of nationhood. That is India's awesomeness. A vibrant multiethnic diversity, which rallies together under the common banner of Indian nationality.

There is much that Cafila can speak to present day Sri Lanka which is now looking at reconciliation and rebuilding cohesion between communities in the context of the post separatist war against the LTTE. What resulted in British India that is called Partition was not retractable. That is one of the principal messages Cafila can deliver to an audience. And that once the wheels of political demarcations of territory spurred by prejudices based on religion and ethnicity are set in place, the masses follow the discourse with hardly any critical introspection.

The unrecorded sufferers

It was not Jinnah or Pundit Nehru who suffered in that train carriage, but Indians whose fate was to merely move with the chugging train. 'Waiting, waiting, waiting...' until their journey's end is told to them. Told as a declaration of statesmanship like what is heard when Pundit Nehru says those immortal words "when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom" thereby fulfilling their 'tryst with destiny'. Words immortal, played over the sound system, in the very voice of India's first premier that has been recorded for posterity mark the end of the play, as the gentle darkness descends to enclose all.Perhaps with no irreverence intended to their past, of their struggle for freedom from British oppression, for which cause sacrifices were made by Brahmin and coolie alike, Cafila raises questions as to how much of the voice of the people caught in the horrors during the Partition, that created mass exoduses across the line that would birth new nations, was heard or recorded for posterity?

While the whole world probably heard the impassioned words of Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru to declare India's new birth, how many cared to listen to the wails and crying of the subaltern whose grief was tragically consequential to India's and Pakistan's search for nationhood? Indeed one may wonder, whether they who suffered unheard, even heard the words of their own leaders at those hallowed hours when they declared their respective nations to have been born (?).

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