Shaili Sathyu’s Gillo Theatre Repertory recently performed some of their new plays at various venues across the city. Shaili has been working assiduously with children, but the plays produced or directed by her, appeal as much or more to grown-ups, which is how it should be.
Hanuman Ki Ramayan was one of them, done in swaang-nautanki form; before the show, the director, Dr Devendra Sharma said that today’s kids know a lot about Western culture, but very little about our own. And it’s true — many an urban parent would frown at the thought of taking their kids to see an Indian folk play, but would proudly take them to an English musical.
So Shaili has started on a series of short performances for young audiences, using various theatrical forms. Her productions are simple, so the plays do not need auditorium — they can be staged anywhere, which automatically widens their reach. (Her father, M S Sathyu designs most of her sets, and he has years of experience with IPTA and other groups, doing imaginative yet spare sets.)
She gets actors who are also willing to learn a traditional form and work long months to get it right. Hanuman Ki Ramayan, based on a Devdutt Pattanaik story is a delightful piece about Valmiki, who has written the Ramayan and is gathering praise all over, when a mischievous Narad tells him that Hanuman has written a much better version. Valmiki is shocked and decides to travel to the Himalayas to see for himself. The meeting with Hanuman turns out to be a lesson in humility and devotion.
The most beautiful and moving play of this children’s season was Atul Tiwari’s Taoos Chaman Ki Myna, adapted from a story by Naiyer Masud, and directed with flair, using melodious music (Amod Bhatt) and fabulous choreography (Pooja Pant).
Children (and adults) are introduced to the reign of the flamboyant Wajid Ali Shah, a connoisseur and patron of the arts. He turned out to be the last ruler of Awadh, before the British annexed his kingdom. (Film buffs would remember Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi set in the same period with Amjad Khan playing the Nawab.)
Away from the turbulence of history in the making, the play tells the simple and moving story of a poor man, who cannot afford to buy a rare myna for his motherless daughter, who has set her heart on one.
In the Nawab’s magnificent garden is a huge cage with dozens of mynas (played by the actors who give each bird distinct mannerisms); the Nawab not only knows each bird by name, he also hires a tutor to teach the birds to sing.
The desperate father steals one of the mynas for his daughter Falak, who is enchanted by the bird, also called Falak. In a magical moment that can only happen on stage, the myna (played by a little girl) and the child dance in happiness and fly around the city admiring the sights of Lucknow.
The bird is quietly returned to the cage, then, in a hilarious sequence the birds sing to flatter the British resident and his wife, who is so charmed by Falak that she demands that very myna. But Falak’s singing also reveals to the Nawab that the bird had been taken out of the cage.
According to Masud’s story for want of a myna the kingdom was lost, but in the telling of the tale, children must have learnt a bit of history, an imaginative style of staging, love for birds (or animals) the power of simplicity that can enhance narration by the distilling the essence of emotions. Not many children (or even adults) must have understood the Urdu language entirely, but there would be hardly anyone who was not moved or thrilled by it.
Shaili Sathyu’s passion for her work, enthuses others, and she has managed to get a team of like-minded people together. As a result, the plays done under the Gillo banner are unique, memorable, meaningful and not in the least, pedantic.
It is an achievement for Shaili and others working on children’s theatre, to hold the attention of today’s urban child exposed to sophisticated an expensive forms of entertainment through cinema, television and the net, but children respond instinctively to a good story and honest communication, and for a while, somehow regain that innocence which modern city living has started erasing. Better still, a child who is bewitched by a play (or music concert, or dance recital, or art show) never forgets the experience.
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator
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