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Turning the stage to a canvas of movement

The richness of its texture achieved through the use of manifold narrative elements that do not rely crucially on the virtues and merits of dialogic discoursing between characters made The Last Colour an impactful opening show to the second Colombo International Theatre Festival (CIFT) at the auditorium of the British School in Colombo. It was a drama that revealed much of the intentions that underlie the creator's vision for his audiences. The objectives were aesthetic as much as they were political.

For all intents and purposes the reader must be forewarned in all fairness that this review is of a Maharashtran play from the perspective of a Sri Lankan who is yet to be acquainted with the cultural and sociological foundations that form the representations brought out in The Last Colour. And, therefore, to a Sri Lankan reader it will be the play that would be the 'foreign' component of the discussion while to a person from Maharashtra it would be my perspective that would surely be the 'outsider' element.

The wordless opening

The drama opens with a scene that has no spoken element to it. There is light, there is colour, and there is simple mundane movement. A young girl paints a picture on stage. Her brush strokes on canvas which bring to vision an image that depict a tiger, symbolically, being an identifiable portion of its face centred around the eye is as 'dramatic' as it gets at the inception.

A scene from The Last Colour

There is black and white and the golden yellow that course lines on the white canvas. And there is a red jab of paint the brush thrusts to the top of the image that drips its course downward. The climax at which, the first scene ends. And not a word spoken.

What I found compelling in the scene that follows is the outburst of sound and vigorous movement that severely contrasted the pace of the previous scene.

It showed what I took to be a ritual at a tribal area in India. Presumably in Maharashtra since the production is from Pune, India. I shall therefore presume that the clearly tribal looking motifs of dress worn by the players posited the characters to be 'Adivasi' or aboriginal people.

The 'Adivasi' dialogue

Here in Sri Lanka a person who is Sinhala conversant does not need an interpreter or a translator to communicate verbally with members of the 'Veddha' community our 'Adivasi' who in their own dialect are called 'Vannila aththo'. What I found rather curious is how the 'visitor' to the tribal scene who was apparently greeted by the Adhivasi in their traditional dance according to what his guide cum interpreter says, is not able to communicate with the tribal people without an interpreter.

If the visitor was meant to be a European or a non national then an interpreter is expected on the scene of course.

But what I initially read of it was that it was an Indian who was visiting the tribal reservation. An Indian who in all his modern cosmopolitan sophistry is very much 'non local' to the area. But then, be it a foreigner or an Indian from out of State the vastnesses and diversities of India make it arguably impossible for every national of India to be by virtue of Indian nationality, 'localised' to every Indian setting. And thus to me there was a lingual and cultural gap readable between the two camps of people shown in that scene.

The significance of that 'threading' in the performance may be contextualised in respect of the practical realities that may be prevalent in lingual communication in India.

An expressionistic change

A striking shift in the narrative modalities takes place when the play from there afterwards becomes a performance coursed on the coalescing of a voiceover played over the sound system and bodily movement based narratives of figurative and depictive communication unfolding on stage to the rhythms of changing sound and colour. Music and light thus become a subtext running with varying altitudes as the master narrator's words of varying emotional tones drive the action on stage.

The movement seemed to be ballet like, with miming. The players weren't actors in the conventional sense of theatre. They were humans becoming elements of nature and images of the divine. 'Figurative expression(s) through expressionistic movement' is how I can best describe the organic essence of the aesthetic in the technique I observed, unfolding on stage.

There didn't seem a single player fixed to a persona except the player who acted the role of the disembodied tiger dressed in white.

And understanding that this white garbed persona is symbolic of the spirit or consciousness of the tiger to me was not immediate. Observing his isolation from the rest of the performers on stage who showed a distinct cohesion of being consciously related to each other, their movements responding and communicating overtly through their physical movements, and the fact that this white clad actor didn't change motifs like the others on stage and also had a noticeable difference in his pace and pulse as a character, made him be the physical manifestation of the words that were being delivered to the audience in the voiceover.

Pragmatic utilisations

It was to me very admittedly an introspect revelation resulting through my conscious reading of the performance. Plays in the nature of The Last Colour are after all rarely seen in the more commercially driven English theatre circuit of Colombo.Understandably a theatre production involves far more pressing concerns of logistics when touring. A heavy ensemble of players may not be a very helpful factor. The manner in which the performers were 'utilised' was therefore very pragmatic. Apart from the actor playing the disembodied tiger none were welded to one particular character or persona. The humans on stage were personae as much as being props. Props that pulsated with a vibe of liveliness, being fluid in their form and movement. Shifting in their dimensionalities, impactful in becoming dancing shadows as much as strutting around as visible people.

The stage wasn't heavily laden with elaborate props but achieving the effectiveness of the symbolic on stage worked on through attractive lighting elements as well. The Last Colour appeared to me a work of theatre that explored the possibility of devising narrative effect through the expressionistic non verbal elements of theatre. The story as a work of theatre can be appreciated as one that brings in many diverse elements of dance and expressionistic movement that coalesce to deliver the message. A story where the narrative elements also embellish the work as an aesthetic thrust that weaves a rich texture.

The deeper politics

Moving from commentary of the aesthetic bases of the play to the politics painted to the viewers by The Last Colour, I would like to begin by focusing on what significances can be read out of the central image tied to the issues portrayed.

The tiger is a symbol of India in no small way. The royal Bengal tiger is perhaps the symbol of the untamed might and ferocity in India's jungles resisting human advancement, while the Indian elephant is perhaps more a symbol of how Nature's might is harnessed to serve India. And when read in a Sri Lankan cultural perspective of the symbolic significance of the tiger may be viewed in juxtaposition to the cultural symbolism of the lion, a symbolism which is integral to Sri Lanka's identity. The significance of the word 'tiger' gets rendered more uniquely in Sri Lankan parlance due to the fact that we are quite certainly the only land in the world that had two legged tigers!

The lion is the undisputed lord of the jungle, king of the beasts. The depictions of the lion as the ruler of the animal kingdom involve attributes of nobleness and regal bearing. The tiger on the other hand has been accorded a position depicting lesser appreciable qualities. While its awesome strength and ferocity are not negated, it has been given, especially through 'white western' eyes, an image of 'evilness' as opposed to the lion.

The tiger, in thus being read, one may propound, is the challenger, the uncrowned king through the right of his own might, against the lion. And somehow, interestingly, the tiger has also been attributed a more notable quality of mysticism and exoticness to its image of cultural connotations. The illegal trade in tiger body parts is partly driven by the superstitions woven around the tiger as a consumable product of nature. The attractive attributes, whatever they may be, accorded to the tiger by eastern cultures, has not served to the benefit of the tiger populations of the world.

The sacred tiger

The tiger in India is revered. The tiger is the mount, or 'vehicle', of Goddess Kali. The performance touches on this aspect with the narrator going into the 'irony' of how the marauder called 'man' appropriates the tiger to be an image of sanctity and enshrines in places of worship. A comment on the duality, the 'hypocrisy' of man, one may say, while it can also be a symbolic show of how the construction and renderings of religious iconography can become political, which of course is common to the narrative of all human civilisation and not merely to the Indian context.

The manner in which the players welded their bodies and formed a living depiction of the image of goddess Kali seated on her mount with the image of one person lying belly up at her feet to depict Shiva who throws himself under her feet, was a moment where a powerful tableau came to life.

The significance of the religious connotations turned complete, as the light of the yellow, sacred to Hindus and indicative of the tiger's own colour, claimed the stage in the form of a backlight, embossing the human element as images between shadows and persons. A duality in symbolism as well, no doubt. A depiction of the 'in between'. The uncertainty, the unclearness within man, on the matter of what the creature called the tiger means to them.

Dissecting the Adivasi

Part of the politics that were notably communicated through the play takes on an ethnographic context as well. This comes out in the second scene were the visitor meets the Adivasi. The Adivasi harmony with nature and the order of nature is what seems to be laudable in the context of the message of the play one may say, at surface level. Or is it? Because the Adivasi within the performance, aren't really depicted as what would be attractive to emulate.

If the line of critical introspection the play intends to stir in the viewer, is to ennoble the Adivasi, the performance, as a text, would or at least should, contain clearly the signs that make the Adhivasi's perception as what is more appealing than the ways of the consumerist cosmopolitan.

Yes, in certain ways communicating your message politically, in theatre, to your live audience is about 'marketing on stage' your 'argument' through the use of whatever means for 'packaging' that is at your disposal. Though I don't speak a word of what they would say before the translator to the visitor would interpret to English, I knew some of what the Adivasi said was amusing to the modern man of today since the Indian viewers sitting in front of me who did certainly understand the vernacular in that scene, responded with laughs that showed they found the Adhivasi explanations or logic to be a joke.

The oral interpretation by the tour guide then gave insight. They say the tiger is their saviour and that they wouldn't grudge the tiger for even killing their parents because it is his territory they are trespassing on by creating habitations. The Adivasi despite their nature friendly-'eco-logic' are portrayed somewhat as simpletons.

The Adivasi were played notably well by the actors. As a whole I feel it is warranted to say the merits of the artists on stage as performers in The Last Colour lie mostly in relation to their physical motion and rhythmic bodily movement more than dialoguers who bring to life characters whose personalities are created with emphasis on the spoken word.

As per the scene which was built on the verbal element -the Adivasi scene, that is the odd one out from the overall motif of the play's principal narrative modality. In this sense I felt all the players in the Adhivasi scene seemed more to be depicters of a 'dialogic scene' than players who were living out their characters. Compared to the broader scheme of the production that scene did lack the strength of conviction.

Whose politics is it?

The Last Colour speaks of a picture of human concern through the tragedy that is being felled on the depleting tiger populations in India. It is 'ecological concerns' that form the basis of the critique of the politics of man in The Last Colour. But does the play deal with the politics that affect the day to day lives of the Indians of today?

Although I have not yet been to Maharashtra, from the little I have seen of India I can state with certainness that the issues brought out through this play do not relate to the issues that pulse in the veins of the 'rickshaw wallas' and 'chai wallas' and their class, who form the greater body of the India's people. But The Last Colour cannot be dismissed by any means as dealing with the superficial and what is 'fashionable' to make issues about. The cause it cries out is real, and it is in the interest of humans nevertheless that these issues are theatrically discoursed to spur self reflection within humans.

Was The Last Colour meant to be a human effort to render an apology to the sacred creature called the tiger? Was it meant to give a voice to the creature that has no voice to speak against the human, although its perceptive silent eyes see all of man's misdeeds? These are questions which any critical viewer will no doubt have in mind. To address this point I feel the principal element of the play that has to be scrutinised is the voiceover which is literally meant to be the voice of the tiger.

Skinning the tiger's pride

In my opinion the voiceover didn't impress on the audience the quality of fearlessness of a creature as powerful and awe inspiring as the tiger. The tone and emotions in the voice that came over the sound system in my opinion skinned the tiger of its regal being. Will the actual tiger though hunted to the last plead against the onslaught like a lamb? That is humanity becoming the voice of the tiger. Assuming the role of being the agent, the spokesman; which, again is characteristic of being human. To paint the world through our own eyes to state as what is '(f)actual'. Would it do justice to the tiger? To be encased in our own voice of varying human states of emotionality? This I leave as an open question to which there may not be one single answer.

Reading the painting

What was the opening scene about? Surely it is one of the symbolic appendages that the rest of the story could survive without. Was it a superfluity? That could be the more convenient way to assign its worth. As I grasped it, the painting, is a symbolic show of how man is the 'creator' of the tiger -the animal that is marketable, that is 'valued' for many reasons. That value is what creates the commoditisation of the tiger, an animal that is a creation of nature trapped into human reinterpretations.

The painting shows how the tiger is depicted as a 'creation' of human initiative. And then the dash of red jabbed on the canvas that flows down shows how the fate of the tiger too is in the hands of the humans. Just like as simply as pulling the trigger of a gun aimed at a tiger the artist too can just jab a dash of drippy red paint on the canvas symbolise the death pronouncement being made on one of nature's most alluring beings.

What do colours bespeak?

What is in fact the 'last colour'? Is it the beautiful yellowish golden colour which gains its significance when contextualised besides streaks of black, or, is it red? Red; the colour of blood which is being drained out from the tiger? Red which signifies death to the hunted?Generally speaking, what is a painting? A human expression that becomes a tangible manifestation of an impression within the mind of the 'expressionist' or the 'artist'. As much as it may seek to imitate or reflect the world, art is not life per se. It is in that sense abstract of what is communicates and impresses on the beholder.

As much as it could be lauded for its sincere attempt to empathise with the endangered lord of the Indian jungles -the tiger, and thereby explore its voice in the face of all the horror that is being done to it-the play is in its sum totality what the painting symbolises-an abstract of the tiger. It is art. A work of art by virtue of it being art, means a distancing from reality. Can The Last Colour speak of the reality of the tiger tomorrow? That again in all fairness to all concerned is a question that must be left open ended.

Applause of appreciation

Shrikant Bhide holds the credits as the playwright, director and choreographer of the play who also had done the set designs, lighting and voiceover. The credits of the performance are as flows - Production manager-Prasad Gudhate, Additional voiceover-Pradyumma Chaware, music tracks arranged by-Gourav Konnur. Cast - Shrinivas Joshi, Monali Lonkar, Sayali Yadav, Nikita Patharkar, Rajas Bapat, Gourav Konnur, Vinod Chavan, Yogesh Netalkar and Prasad Gudhate.I came to learn from a reliable source connected to the CIFT that this troupe who performed The Last Colour being composed of youngsters had been faced with some sizeable challenges to meet the fiscal requirements to bring their production from Pune to Colombo. And seeing as how they prevailed to put on a worthy show here in Sri Lanka, notwithstanding the toll taken on their coffers, and realised a goal of their artistic passions, they must be applauded all the more, extra to the performance they delivered, for their true spirit of devotion to theatre.

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