Poetry in Action

There are two species of playwrights and directors; one that digs itself a shallow hole in the mud, curls up and snoozes; and the other whose ever-alert eyes, ears, mind and heart constantly prod it to look for new mud, new ways to dig and new ways to curl up. Sunil Shanbag belongs demonstrably to the second category. You only have to cast an eye over his recent work to see that. His Stories in a Song was a delightful, modest-sized evergreen, that regaled you with songs while edifying you with their historical context. Club Desire was a slick, all-out spectacle based on Georges Bizet's opera Carmen. And now, in complete contrast, there's Blank Page, a no-trimmings performance of seventeen poems in four languages staged exclusively in intimate spaces.

On Sunday, Blank Page, produced by the newly formed Tamaasha Theatre which is committed to seeking out non-traditional spaces for performance, was staged at Prithvi House (not to be confused with the formal auditorium across the way). In Prithvi House you sit on colourfully cushioned benches or squat on a dhurrie. There's no stage here, but one had been improvised for Blank Page using a few levels that plainly showed the wear and tear of time. It was a bit like being back in the old Chhabildas School Hall in Dadar except that this was cosier and yes, much more comfortable.

In keeping with the informality of the space, the actors too were dressed in everyday clothes. When they first entered as a group to do a choreographed number that set the mood for the poem to come, I caught myself thinking, thank heavens they are not in black tights, standard wear for anything in theatre that has movement. Maithily Bhupatkar's choreography for this and other preludes and interludes in the show, was marked by a rare economy of gesture that matched exactly the controlled, unfussy, seamless presentation of the poems.      

The big surprise of the evening was having Sunil Shanbag open the show with a highly effective rendering of the Jnanpeeth award-winning poet Kedarnath Singh's Sada Panna. This tender poem about the blank page that awaits a poet's touch, ends with a solemn statement of faith in the significance of poetry. "This is what a poem does / This simple but risk-laden task / Of ensuring that, when all words end / A man is still left with / One blank page."  Most appropriately, this stanza was used again to end the performance.

There were other poems about poetry. Pratibha Nandkumar's Kannada poem, translated into English by the master translator A K Ramanujan and recited with an infectious sense of fun by Trishla Patel, reflected the waywardness of poems, the games they play and the whimsical demands they make, until the poet says in disgust, "To hell with the poem" and falls asleep.

A bitter poem about love "We covered the dust, dead scorpions, / Hid the thorns, the grit, / and called it love" (Adil Jussawala) was balanced by Nissim Ezekiel's gentle poem advising the lover to be patient, like the poet or the birdwatcher, when he pursues his woman.  

The cruel, often ridiculous constraints that women face from girlhood through to marriage when "monstrous men" try to control their bodies, ran like a refrain through the selection of poems in Blank Page. Girls know their place in life through school lessons: "Ram go to school / Radha cook the food / Ram come, eat candy / Radha sweep." (Anamika). Arundhathi Subramanian's deadpan Advice to a Four-year-old on her First Day at School enumerates a staccato litany of rules designed to denude girls of all individuality. Its recitation was prefaced by Bhupatkar's heartwrenching choreography of a girl fighting to be free, but knocked down every time she rose.  Some poems were recited with biting anger; but what really shook us with its rabid rage was Namdeo Dhasal's poem Man Must. As Umesh Jagtap spat out every word of it, Sukant Goel recited Dilip Chitre's wonderful English translation in tandem with him.

At the end of this chiaroscuro of human emotions came a minimally worded, anguished  Kashmiri poem by Radhey Nath 'Masarrat'. Nisha Dhar recited it in a disturbingly calm voice while Sapan Saran shadowed her with a sensitive Hindi translation. Describing all the things that had made life worth living, the poet ends with the lines "I set off with a sigh / Having laid my own corpse on the cart." 

There can be no blank page for Kashmir.

Published On : 05-05-2015