As is usual, I spent my second week of December immersed fully in the springs of Thespo 18, the annual theatre festival at Prithvi for performers under 25. No, it’s by no means the biggest theatre event in Bombay, but wait: Thespo itself turned 18 this year, and as anyone in his or her late teens will tell you, you have a neat-sized ego to defend by this age and are fairly convinced of your own reputation for badassery! Well, the ideas on display—from young talent all over India—speak for themselves with some elan, mostly because they are unencumbered by the drudgery of advancing years and silly things like practicality. To me the festival is my annual dip in the Fountain of Youth; maybe I stand in flagrant breach of the age-bar by being there, but then there’s got to be some recompense.
Many participants are teenagers, and you’d expect them to have sex on their minds. No surprise, therefore, that in four of the five plays at the festival, sex had an almost starring role. But just run your mind over the themes, the variety of perspectives and the maturity with which they were portrayed:
What better test-case could there be than Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf, about a Begum who has an affair with her masseuse? Wait, that’s not all. The usual retellings gloss over the fact that the Begum also molests her young niece. The imaginative production we saw, which used three performers to essay the multiple parts, didn’t hide any of the ‘uncomfortable bits’. Thereby adding a layer of complexity to the perceived ‘happy’ ending of the play.
Something more delicate? How about sex education in a rural classroom? How do you handle that? Te Kay Aste started off putting it through a comedic filter. The 35-member ensemble hooked us with all the silliness, before punching us in the gut with a beautiful illustration of why it’s imperative to have ‘sex-ed’, as a widowed teacher has to explain menstruation and rape to his 12-year-old daughter.
In Syaahi, the narrative follows a writer who pens down all the despicable acts he has done for a readership that craves sensationalism—connecting the deepest and darkest parts of three Vijay Tendulkar texts in the process. Then there was Bangalore’s one-actor play The Show, about a young woman unable to fall asleep, which conjured up sex as a release. It, well, climaxes with one of the most beautiful depictions of masturbation I’ve seen on stage: simple, effective, incredibly sensual, without ever being pornographic or even sexy. There’s obviously more going on here than just raging hormones: perhaps true evolution in attitudes can happen only after candour sets in.
Across town, in a little book store, Gieve Patel was launching Collected Poems by the late K.D. Katrak. My memories of Kersey Katrak were always of the style with which he carried himself. He was a maverick adman of the sixties and seventies who recruited some of the most brilliant wordsmiths to work with him at his advertising agency MCM, including Arun Kolatkar and Kiran Nagarkar. I never actually knew him as a poet, and was pleasantly surprised to hear the gathering speak of his contribution to Indian poetry. An analysis of his work by Prof William Mazerella drew links between Kersey’s poems and his life. Usually one is only privy to the words on the page and not the circumstances in which they were written; I found it fascinating, especially being about a man who gave me the courage to leave advertising and dive into theatre.
My 2016 had begun outdoors in Pune working on a unique concert for someone’s 50th birthday party. Now, at the year-end, I was once again outdoors in Pune, this time as a guest at someone’s 25th wedding anniversary. What struck me about both events was the pride of place the live performances enjoyed. Yes, people were there to celebrate an occasion, but the centrepiece was the artists who performed. The December event featured a young girl, and a guitarist, performing excerpts from her Tales From The Land of India; a collection of musical short stories told through song and speech. As she sang about durbars and courts of an era gone by, I couldn’t help but look up at the star-filled sky, and wonder how similar that world must have been to this one. Where would we be if it wasn’t for the performing arts!
While giving away the awards, theatre legend M.S. Sathyu spoke of that perpetual art stalker—censorship. It appears that through the years, little has changed on that front.
A Bombay-based theatre-holic, Quasar works for an arts management company, primarily as a director.