Sunday, Aug 14, 2022

The Living Stage

The audience astonished me no less than the play [ The Blue Mug]. I have been used to seeing bespectacled white heads fill the Music Academy's theatre in Chennai... But this evening was different...

The audience astonished me no less than the play. I have been used to seeing bespectacled white heads fill the Music Academy's theatre in Chennai. And seated there in the middle of the audience, I have always felt part of that phosphorescent seafoam.

But this evening was different.

The hall was packed with young jeans-wearing students or students-till-yesterday. My wife and I looked around from our corner in the balcony to find someone, anyone, in our age group. There was none.

The incessant chatter of youth, like the chorus of mixed heronry at the Vedanthangal bird sanctuary, kept growing as the seats filled up with: 'Is that seat vacant?', 'Sorry, someone is coming', 'Malati! Don't tell me!' 'It has been age!'.

When wearied whistling greeted the fifteen minute delayed start of the play, I settled down in my seat for an evening of post-teen disorder.

Konkona Sensharma had only to step onto the stage for the collective entity to applaud loud and long. Trained and restrained, she took the greeting to be meant for all the players and stood with poise at the end of the actors' line in the opening call.

The applause and the integrated responses of appreciation rose as the quicksilver dialogue commenced.


I had another moment of tension when the dialogue came up with chunks of colloquial Hindi. How will this Chennai-based crowd of mainly English-speaking young take to Hindi ?

When participative laughter returned wave after wave of brilliant Hindi I knew how old I had become, how distanced from the changes that have come over this city of shotsilk combinations.

If an essay with as remote a title as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat can be converted into a play of immediate meanings in India's unmistakable idioms, there cannot be a better example than The Blue Mug. Atul Kumar's is no mean directorial achievement.

Six actors remembered what they could have tucked away in the 'safes' of memory, one forgot what he would have been expected to recall.

Recollections were in the 'boli' of life, not in the ink of script. Amnesia was in the same.

None weighed the matter down with 'issues', though national events like the Emergency and Babri Masjid ran through the play which has been described as being about remembering and forgetting. Each cameo was cut out from the banalities of existence which for the person living through them is unforgettable.

Except once when one of the actors, with effort, actually spat onto the gleaming teak of the stage, no departure from good taste was allowed though every possible pulse of growing up throbbed in the unleashing of memory.

It was clear from the audience's response that what the young are looking for is honesty, brutal honesty. No eloquence, not to mention sanctimony can take the place of saying it as it is.


The Blue Mug may or may not have raised in the overwhelmingly youthful audience the questions it did in me. But I could not help asking, as our call taxi inched its way out of the parking lot, some questions of myself.

What do we as individuals share and what do we store in an 'ours only' vault ? Obviously, that which cannot embarrass either us or the listener, is shared. But if what is embarrassing is stored, does it accumulate an 'interest' of understanding or does it just sit and decay where it lies ?

What do we as a society dare to remember, dare further to recall ? Would the unlocking of collective memories harm more than heal ?

Three quick examples of unembarrassed recollecting came to my mind in those unending moments of inching forward, stopping, engine purring, in the jammed parking lot.

The first was an entry from the 1943 jail diary of H.Y. Sharada Prasad, recently edited by Sugata Srinivasaraju that I had read just the previous week. Nineteen years old Sharada Prasad wrote from his cell in Mysore jail: 

'Prison life has caused man to fall in my estimate of him...self-sacrificing patriots and freedom battlers mix in the vices of criminals, the supposed scum of the society; the vices to which they are so inseparably addicted disgust me by their nauseating grotesqueness...'

Can we take such honesty about our icons?

The second was from Nirad C.Chaudhuri's magnificent Autobiography of an Unknown Indian which I have been re-reading, rapt:

'When I see the gigantic catastrophe of Hindu-Muslim discord of these days, I am not surprised, because we as children held the tiny mustard seed in our hands and sowed it diligently...Heaven preserve me from the dishonesty, so general among Indians, of attributing this conflict to British rule...'

Can we take such candour about ourselves?

And last, as a passing flash, came a paragraph I had finished reading just before leaving for the Music Academy. Dilip Simeon, in an article in the latest issue of Seminar writes: 

'... who is deceiving whom? It is difficult to accept that we might appear as heartless and stubborn to our enemies, as they do to us'.

Can we face a universal truth when applied to us as Indians ?

There was an opening, suddenly, and our taximan surged forward. Just as the vehicle turned victoriously onto the road, I pointed out to my wife a young twosome that had quietly slipped past the crowd, unnoticed. Konkana Sensharma and a fellow actor were melting into pedestrian Chennai. As easily as they had thawed what was frozen and frozen what was molten on the living stage of recollection's fruits and its futilities.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi, until recently, was the governor of West Bengal.