River of Festivals

For most people, the festive season means dressing up, shopping, praying, dancing and so on. For those of us interested in or involved in the field of culture, literature and the performing arts, celebration time is when the ‘season’ starts post-monsoon—though in Mumbai, plays and gigs happen all round the year.

My festive season commenced with a lovely production of Beauty And The Beast—with all the grandeur and stage magic of a Disney musical, but done with an Indian cast and crew and directed by Vikranth Pawar. The huge Dome at the NSCI was converted into an auditorium, showing off huge and and beautiful sets, peppy music and dance set pieces, gorgeous costumes — everything a fairy tale should be. When Meher Mistry plays Belle with such spirit and intelligence (she loves books), for once the quibble about how archaic these stories now seem, can be put aside. Now, what are they going to do for an encore? And once it has been proved that such a spectacle can be pulled off in India, the expectations from live entertainment are bound to shoot up.

The dark tragic-comic play When It Rains by Canadian company 2b is about two urban couples whose troubles are almost banal, but it uses animation and projection in an astonishingly imaginative way
The dark tragic-comic play When It Rains by Canadian company 2b is about two urban couples whose troubles are almost banal, but it uses animation and projection in an astonishingly imaginative way

If Mumbai theatre can zap you with glamour, it can also move you with austerity. During the Literature Live Festival, while panelists discussed words and ideas, there were performances every evening.

The charming and energetic Ila directed by Puja Sarup and Sheena Khalid has already been lauded and invited to many festivals, after opening at the Centrestage Festival last year. The tongue-in-cheek and provocative look at gender roles never fails to amuse and impress.

Then there was Blank Verse, directed by Sunil Shanbag for new theatre group called Tamasha that he set up just to explore alternative performance spaces—which include a gym. All this production needed was a lovely selection from the work of contemporary poets, minimal props and actors with strong voices, lithe bodies and the earnestness needed to convey the raw emotions expressed in some of the poems. For instance, Namdeo Dhasal’s Man You Should Explode is lacerating in its rage.

The production that blew everyone away was When It Rains by Canadian company 2b. It is described as “a play in the form of a live-action existential graphic novel” and “visually arresting theatrical illusion”—which it is. The dark tragic-comic play by Anthony Black, is about two urban couples whose troubles are almost banal, but it uses animation and projection in an astonishingly imaginative way. In a couple of places, the audience burst into spontaneous applause because the scene was so wonderfully done. And the company can tour with really light baggage, because the actual props include a chair and a gurney. (Theatre professionals would do well to attend a workshop on the use of new media by Anthony Black.)

If this was exhilarating, then the disappointment came in the form of Germaine Greer’s closing address at the Lit Fest. She spoke on Women: The Glory and the Anguish of India, a subject she seemed to know very little about, basing her observations on long ago visits to India, and media reports in the UK about the current scenario of violence against women. She was a feminist icon when the women’s movement was at its peak and along with other writers like Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem a major influence on women the world over, which is why her address was so devastating. There is a lot to argue about in her speech, but to pick a couple of points — for some reason, she seemed to concentrate on the problems of old women in the UK, as compared to the relatively cushy life of the same demographic in India.

She gives an example of an old woman on a bus, going to visit a doctor, accompanied by her two daughters-in-law and sons, who was ostensibly treated “like a queen” by the accompanying younger women. But Greer seemed to have no idea about old women being burnt as witches in her idyllic version of rural India, widows being killed or abandoned, old women being left to beg or starved to death in poor families and tragically neglected by the wealthy.

Her view on rape was that, well, it happens all over the world—Indians tend to protest when something like the Delhi incident happens, but in the UK, worse cases of trafficking of young girls and rape go unreported in the papers and the police don’t care. She did take a grim view of abortion and young women being injected with contraceptive to prevent teenage pregnancy, but no strong comment on the sexualization of underage girls by the fashion and film industries.

If the state of women is so pathetic in the UK, then somewhere the leaders of the feminist movement have failed. Just because the conviction rate of rapists in India is, according to her, higher in India than in the UK, the impression she gets is that women in India have it easy!

Then something surprising happened, a couple of women in the audience commented that Greer’s views about women in India were far too rosy. And when she asked for show of hands to find out how many women thought she was wrong, almost every hand went up! At least a small bunch of urban women proved that they will not be patronized by anyone.

Over the next few weeks, there are major theatre festivals and another literature festival coming up... more later.

Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. She tweets at @deepagahlot

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