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A farmer's tale

The agrarian crisis, the falling rupee and the nexus between politicians and businessmen that has led to many a scandal somewhat sum up the dismal state of affairs in India right now. But what if someone tells you that this was exactly the scene in El Salvador, the smallest country of Central America, in 1979. Only over there, this led to a major civil war that lasted for 13 years where the locals and farmers, who comprised a chunk of the population, lost their lives. In 1980, two comedians Peter Gould and Stephen Stearns saw a photograph of this revolt where they spotted a farmer. 

The cast of A Peasant of El Salvador comprising Suhas Ahuja, Meher Acharia and Pramod Pathak with director Quasar Thakore Padamsee
The cast of A Peasant of El Salvador comprising Suhas Ahuja, Meher Acharia and Pramod Pathak with director Quasar Thakore Padamsee (second from left)

Intrigued, they imagined what would his life story be. What materialised was A Peasant of EL Salvador, a funny yet riveting story of a farmer and his family set against the backdrop of the civil unrest of the late 1970s. Since 1981 Gould and Stearns performed this award-winning play in the United States, England, Canada and Central America. Over the years, it has emerged as a teaching tool for students of Spanish, politics, and social studies.

Earlier this year when Mumbai-based theatre director Quasar Thakore Padamsee was researching for another production, Project S.T.R.I.P., he came across this play. The story revolving around a peasant who silently waits for things to change in the face of a military dictatorship, sweeping land reforms, death squads, guerrilla warfare and unprecedented repression and finally finds his own voice at a historical event that shook the world, struck a chord with Padamsee and prompted him to stage it.

He says, “I guess these plays are a double bill of sorts. I found one while researching for the other. What struck me about both stories is how little the ‘little people’ (read the common man) matter. In our calculations of economic development, we are blinded by the statistical success of initiatives but miss out on the actual human cost. Both these stories deal with very severe issues, but with humour and grace. I hope these only remain stories on a stage and we never actually get there.”

While the original features Gould and Stearns, Padamsee has roped in three characters to tell the peasant’s story. “During auditions, I came across three wonderful artistes -- Suhas Ahuja, Meher Acharia and Pramod Pathak -- and decided to cast all of them. All of them have interchangeable roles in the piece, so they are the sutradhars (commentators) as well as the characters.”

Despite the play being set in El Salvador, Padamsee is confident that Mumbai audiences will be able to relate to it. “The agricultural crisis in India, the foreign direct investment and the innumerable scams that led to the civil war in El Salvador are happening here right now. So, the audiences will be able to connect with the play. Also, it’s virtually impossible to create a country on stage. So, we have just used yellow boxes that serve as props. The idea is to keep it simple and basic so that the production can be staged anywhere,” he concludes.

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