Little Thespian’s national festival, Jashn-e-Rang, turned international in its seventh edition, incorporating the welcome surprise of music and dance from the Indian diaspora in Mauritius. It also continued its practice of play readings as curtain-raisers before the main event nearly every evening. Its choice of productions, too, moved out of the ordinary, with groups from Jammu, Allahabad, Begusarai and Delhi, showing us theatre mostly from cities unfairly neglected by the megalopolitan centres. This review covers four of the five – sadly, I missed out on Backstage Lab (Allahabad) because of mega-traffic issues.

The organizers inaugurated things by premiering their latest drama, Ruhein, written and directed by S. M. Azhar Alam who, over the years, has laudably established Calcutta on the rapidly shrinking map of original Urdu theatre (here, we must doff our hats in homage to Tom Alter’s efforts in this domain). In such a scenario, it strikes me as most appropriate that Azhar locates Ruhein in a graveyard, whose caretaker sees the spirits of the dead every night. Amusingly, he chases them away and they are actually afraid of him. Azhar uses this premise to contrast and connect the old and new dispensations, implying that neither is better than the other: both have perpetrated injustice in different ways; some viewers may interpret it as political allegory. As usual, the Little Thespian team performance exhibits disciplined collective training – sometimes crossing over unnecessarily into hyper-physical display – but rooted by the rock-solid Azhar as the living Nawab and Abhishek Mishra as the caretaker, with the amazing Jainul Abedin as the most scared yet energized ghost.

Strangely, Ionesco’s The Chairs (by Amateur Theatre Group, Jammu) made a suitable thematic partner for Ruhein. The nonagenarian couple who reminisce about the past and call in imaginary guests including “the Emperor” to sit on empty chairs, bear an absurdist parallel to the invisible people of Kashmir. An Orator enters to deliver the old man’s anticipated final speech as the hosts themselves jump to their deaths, but the Orator cannot speak. Obviously, director Mushtaq Kak alludes to the terrible standoff in his home state. The seats become symbolic of tombs with their souls invoked as invitees. But Kak should fill the stage with chairs as required by Ionesco, a non-minimalist author. And though he instructs Sumana Kumari to talk in a falsetto, obeying Ionesco’s subtitle of “a farce”, it makes her words almost incomprehensible.

Niloy Roy’s Arth (by People’s Theatre Group, New Delhi) turns to ancient history also for political comment, using Bindusara and Chanakya as its personages, but wrongly backdating their period as 320 BC. The title puns on Chanakya’s classic shastra, referring to both wealth or economy as well as value or meaning itself. Rebellion brews among the people internally, religious conflict between Hindus and Buddhists ensues, while the Maurya empire extends its boundaries by conquering neighbours. Roy’s acrobatic direction gets the better of his somewhat thin script, as the group’s admittedly accomplished exercises and pyramids steal the spotlight from their content.

Steered by Amit Roushan, Ashirwad Rangmandal (Begusarai) shows how a dedicated leader who decides consciously to stay in his home town, not known for theatre, can revitalize the art there. His Do Auraten – more a concept than a play – presents two mothers whose lives change because of the violence committed by their wards. This text, too, is rather simple, and its message that women will love their sons, however culpable, is self-evident. Roushan’s visualization of it as typical theatre of images, its abstract scenography lit creatively by Abhimanyu Vinayakumar, leaves the greater impact.

(From The Telegraph, 25 November 2017)