Scaling language wall with Tagore and Thiyam`s theatre
New Delhi: Language has ceased to be a wall in Indian visual literature. In 1910, when Rabindranath Tagore wrote the `King of the Dark Chamber` and it appeared on stage a year later in Santiniketan on his 50th birthday, little did he know that one day it would jump the regional language divide to render itself in Manipuri - sans subtitles.
Acclaimed director Ratan Thiyam`s new production that premiered on the opening day of the 14th Bharat Rang Mahotsav this week is a strange reinterpretation of Tagore`s classic play about his search for the divine within his inner cell of darkness.
It pushes the ongoing experiment of mainstream Indian theatre with the vernacular idiom and the viewer`s natural instinct for drama to the farthest frontier - where the divides blur on stage.
"Language is important in theatre... it differs according to space because the space itself has no language. Subtitles have become a ticklish problem we are facing around the world. If we put subtitles and if you read the text, it takes away from the drama because the audience concentrates on the text. Sub-titles should be done carefully scene-wise," Thiyam told reporters.
"One can put a few lines to convey the mood but should never reveal the idea of a drama in a subtitle," Thiyam said.
Thiyam`s production, adapted and pruned to fit the 1 hour and 30 minute slot, comes as the story of a woman`s battle with darkness and her redemption into inner light when she gives in to the joy of surrendering to the "ugly" - and finds solace in its inherent horror.
At the centre of Thiyam`s play are four major characters - queen Sudarshana, her maid Surangama, the king and his chief courtier. A motley cast of smaller characters adds to the layers which is played out in three primary tiers - that of the queen and her maid, the king and his men and a posse of Manipuri folk dancers and musicians who alternate the scenes in a set sequence.
The king in Thiyam`s adaptation can be accessed in the dark chamber because he spurns light. The performance begins with Queen Sudarshana`s anguished search for light in the chamber of darkness that the king has created for her in the subterranean depths.
The king - a personification of darkness - promises that the queen should be able to identify him on the spring full moon when he will knock on her dark chamber. And only then will they meet as one.
The narrative from here on twists and turns through paths of blood, treachery and conflicts till the queen and her dark lord unite. In the final act, the queen cries for the sun as the king embraces her in his inky folds. In that overriding darkness, she shines like a deity bathed in her inner golden light - a diva of the underworld.
What probably lifts the play from the mundane is its use of the Manipuri language that is at once folksy, harsh on the uninitiated ear, anguished and yet appealing in its earthy lyricism. The absence of English or Hindi subtitles keeps the viewer hooked to the action on stage with twice the amount of concentration simply to decipher the narrative.
At the end of 90 minutes, the play inspires in the viewer a desire to learn the unknown - in this case the colourful "bhasa or vernacular" arts of India.
The use of Manipuri classical dance movements, folk traditions, contemporary dance and local attires - in a screaming palette of saffron, red, yellow, golden and black - create a gala on stage.
"This is a complex psychological play and yet very contemporary. When we look at the concept of globalisation and the technological development, there has to be a spiritual balance between what we do technologically and our meaningful endeavours," Thiyam said.
Tagore had tried to address this divide for many years till his death. His plays are very meaningful and relevant to all ages, the director said.
"The King of Dark Chambers" - first published in English in 1914 - was one of the few of Tagore`s plays to corner global space because of its spiritual universality, potential for visual drama and nuanced plot.
In 1961, American music veteran Harold Leventhal co-produced it as a dramatic theatrical work for Broadway. It played for eight months to favourable reviews for its innovative blend of traditional and the modern.