The Last Tale

Pull out the thematic strands that form the dark tapestry called "Othello", and we get wonder, love, villainy, suspicion, murder and suicide. Drop villainy, and the rest are all present in Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry's "The Last Tale". The play was staged at the NCPA under its Select programme, designed by the indefatigable Deepa Gahlot to give us a glimpse of theatre beyond Mumbai.

Long years ago when Chowdhry chose Punjabi as the language for her theatre, she was making a political statement against its gradual marginalisation after the linguistic reorganisation of States. However, politics apart, the choice proved right theatrically too, because it opened up to her a rich heritage of folklore, music, and performance traditions, including the naqqal form of story-telling, which she uses to such lively effect in her plays.

It might seem paradoxical that a director who is so local in the language and form of her theatre, should consistently draw on foreign texts for her narrative material. But look at the texts and geographical borders disappear. Her connection with them is through issues of gender, caste and race. One of her early plays, Jean Giraudoux's Mad Woman of Chaillot, translated by Surjit Patar, revolved around an eccentric woman who stands up to big business and corrupt developers who arrogantly ask, "What would you rather have in your backyard: an almond tree or an oil well?"

A more recent play, "The Suit", was based on a story by South African journalist-writer Can Themba, about a woman, caught by her husband with her lover, and so humiliated and persecuted by him that she finally ends her life. Significantly Chowdhry gave the story her own, positive end.

Something similar happens in "The Last Tale", inspired by Toni Morrison's play "Desdemona". Morrison too is making a political statement by forefronting the character of the African nursemaid, whom Desdemona recalls just once when she says, "My mother had a maid called Barbary… She had a song of willow … And she died singing it. That song tonight … Will not go from my mind." Morrison also invents the tales Othello is said to have told Desdemona, adding substance to a man whose early life remains otherwise hidden.

Here then is the narrative germ that Chowdhry picks up, localises, and nurtures into her dense, tantalising, tender, violent but ultimately redemptive play. The seed of the willow song is transplanted into the rich soil of Punjabi folk music. The maid is an important presence. Desdemona becomes the upper-class Bihag, Othello becomes Uddhav, the son of a blacksmith whom she chooses to marry in preference to all the suitors from her class who line up for her swayamvar-- a hilarious piece of burlesque.

Suspicion poisons passion and within three days of marriage, Uddhav has smothered Bihag and killed himself. But Chowdhry does not wish to dwell on this tragic event. Instead, she resurrects the lovers in a blue-lit graveyard, with ice slabs for grave stones, candles and glass bottles to underline the other-worldliness of the space. It is here that Bihag and Uddhav recall their lives in an easy exchange that was not possible in life, divided as they were by caste and custom. The old maid, also resurrected, shares in their memories. All the characters conjured up in the story are played by two actors, Vansh Bharadwaj and Gick Grewal. Bharadwaj plays both lovers, allowing words, rather than exaggerated movements suggesting the male and the female, to tell us who he is playing.

For those in the audience like me, who don't understand Punjabi, the details of the stories were lost, though not the gist. What wasn't lost, however, were the rhythms, cadences and lyricism of the story-telling, the delicate nuances of speech, and the eloquent body language that accompanied them. Bharadwaj's husky voice, ardent face and lithe body costumed in loose pajamas and short shirt, captivated the eye and the mind as he swayed, squatted, tumbled, danced and occasionally held a pose without a muscle moving. Although he spoke continuously, he transported us beyond language into the very heart of pure feeling. Live musicians sitting in a shadowy corner of the stage produced music with improvised instruments to create a subdued score of tinkles, trills, rhythmic clicks and thumps, in sympathy with every mood of the play.

At the end came silence. Language was now irrelevant. The two mothers, Bihag's and Uddhav's, met in the other world, quietly conversing over cups of ceremoniously served tea. Thus was the pain of life erased.

Published On : 12-03-2014