After a short hibernation, Sangit Kala Mandir’s return to bringing quality theatre, in association with Aditya Birla Group, raises audience hopes of seeing more such fare from outside. Aadyam Theatre’s Loretta took us by surprise with its facile mix of light romantic musical and deeply topical, even political, issues. Perhaps one could have expected this from director Sunil Shanbag, who loves to explore traditional forms as well as practise social commitment, but among his productions that have come to town, none has succeeded so unequivocally as Loretta.

First, he chooses to grant complex attention to a corner of India, Goa, that usually receives stereotypical treatment, if at all (like so many deserving parts of our country denied the public gaze). He invites the foremost Goan author, Pundalik Naik, to write the play, which he then gets translated from Konkani into a fluent locally-flavoured English by Milind Dhaimade, giving the story a pan-Indian reach. Next, he superimposes on it the structure of Tiatr, the charming Goan entertainment containing satirical entra’ctes laced with cheerful songs, composed by Varun Grover and Ronnie Monsorate respectively. This collaboration of diverse talents produces a heady brew.

Naik effortlessly makes the simple comedy carry heavy weight: Moraes, owner of an island, is a chauvinist proud of the Konkani language but resistant to progress, refusing to allow a bridge to the mainland. His son comes home from Bombay with his Anglo-Indian girlfriend, Loretta, only to procure Portuguese citizenship (Naik sets the plot in the 1970s, when Goans could still avail of this right) so as to leave accursed India. Unfortunately for him, Loretta falls in love with the idyllic place. But Moraes churlishly says she can stay only if she talks Konkani. His kind-hearted major-domo (a classic Molierean clever servant) teaches her a crash course – where else? – in the kitchen. She learns a Konkani nothing like the chaste tongue Moraes speaks.

Shanbag resurrects the beautiful painted backdrops of Tiatr and gets perfect portrayals from his cast, who also sing live to band accompaniment. Rozzlin Pereira as heroine and Danish Hussain as major-domo merit special mention. Loretta must return as compulsory viewing for school and college students, who stand to gain the most from an exposure to its meaningful content. Parochialism or egalitarianism, linguistic purity or hybridity, development or harmonious living with nature, serving oneself or the nation – I cannot recall any recent drama that handles so many crucial subjects without preaching, yet with such infectious joie de vivre.

Cooking occupied a significant part in a visiting international production, also about identity in an alien culture. Max Mueller Bhavan hosted the Young Vic’s Oh My Sweet Land, by Palestine dramatist-director Amir Nizar Zuabi, starring Corinne Jaber, famous as Amba and Sikhandin in Peter Brook’s Mahābhārata. As a Syrian-German, Jaber feels viscerally the tragedy of the two million Syrian refugees displaced in the ongoing conflict, which takes centrestage through her one-hour monologue on tracing a migrant, with whom her character had a relationship in Paris, back to his Syrian home and family. As she relates her search, she cooks Syrian meat dumplings, virtually as a subconscious affirmation of her ethnic roots, now cut off.

Her descriptions reek of the horrors of war and its absurdities; in one line, she reflects that it has gone on so long that nobody knows who is fighting whom or for what anymore. The word pictures of death jostle ironically with the stage visuals of that most fundamental of life activities: preparing a daily meal. Jaber contrasts civilization, which began when humanity started cooking, against war, which dismembers civilization. She imparts to culinary skills in her performance an existential angst opposed to their celebratory nature expressed so memorably in Neelam Man Singh Chowdhry’s Kitchen Kathā.

From contemporary Syria to Iraq of the previous decade. Sangit Kala Mandir presented Mahesh Bhatt’s The Last Salute, about the Iraqi journalist Muntadhar Al Zaidi, who threw his shoes at President Bush during the Baghdad press conference in 2008. Rajesh Kumar dramatized Zaidi’s own book of the same title into Hindi. Because media had covered the events so thoroughly, one had thoughts of deja vu: the play does not say anything new. One wondered whether anyone who had even fleetingly followed the reportage at that time got any further education. Besides, the Iraq War having occurred in our living rooms – on prime-time TV – with so many channels beaming footage, it puzzled me why director Arvind Gaur had to resort to repeating projections. Imran Zahid, as Zaidi, faced embarrassing difficulties in raising his voice to audible levels.

(From The Telegraph, 10 September 2016)