The metaphors in Henrik Ibsen’s 1889 play, The Lady from the Sea, manifest themselves in much-altered ways in a Malayalam adaptation by the Abinaya theatre group from Kerala. Ibsen’s idea of the sea as a potent sexual symbol becomes a large-scale video projection of turbulent waters. And the Nordic protagonists, the Wangel couple, lose their cultural context, wearing nondescript gowns that offer no insights into their nationality or ethnicity.
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This play and eight others like it will be staged as part of the Delhi Ibsen Festival, starting 3 December. And more than a century after they were first performed, Ibsen’s living room dramas will take on contemporary shades. Most of the productions have been specially commissioned for the festival that is backed by a grant from the Royal Norwegian embassy.
While Abinaya’s production veers towards the surreal, another play, Metropolis, directed by Amal Allana, pulls the female leads from three of Ibsen’s plays—A Doll’s House, Rosmersholm and Hedda Gabler—to produce a modern mosaic set against the backdrop of present-day Mumbai and the 26/11 attacks. Allana, an award-winning playwright and chairperson of the National School of Drama, says she wanted to emphasize Ibsen’s greatest strength—his strong women.
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In its second edition this year, the theatre festival was conceived by Nissar Allana, director of the Delhi-based Dramatic Art and Design Academy (DADA). The theme for this year is Ibsen’s intercultural contexts and the programming includes four international productions—from China, Iran, Egypt and the Netherlands.
Nissar, a stage-set and lighting specialist who was a set decorator on Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, was approached by the Norwegian embassy last year to organize a festival to foster a deeper understanding of Ibsen. This is part of a worldwide initiative that started in 2006, the year that marked Ibsen’s death centenary.
Ibsen’s influence on Indian theatre dates back to the early 20th century when it was still largely dominated by classical and folk traditions. The realism of playwrights such as Ibsen and Anton Chekov found its way into the works of avant-garde directors such as Motiram Gajanan Rangnekar, a stalwart of modern professional Marathi theatre. In Rangnekar’s 1942 play Kulvadhu, his female protagonist walks out on her husband, much like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. However, in keeping with the framework of Indian society, she moves into his parents’ house, thus giving the play its title.
All praise for what a play such as Kulvadhu meant in its time, Nissar advocates more realism in Indian theatre today. “A lot of modern Indian theatre is still too stylized,” he says, adding, “Vijay Tendulkar was one of the few who broke the mould early.” A dose of Ibsen, according to him, can help.
But sustaining the resurgent interest in the playwright’s works calls for placing them in a contemporary context, says Nissar. “Ibsen’s point of focus was personal freedom and women’s rights and those aren’t relevant in the same way today,” he says. The Ibsen festival will take this debate forward by hosting a two-day seminar with several Indian as well international theatre scholars in attendance. In order to bring together theory and practice, the festival paired research scholars with directors at the production stage itself. At the seminar, the scholars and directors will talk about how they collaborated on adapting Ibsen to a more contemporary context.
Professor Frode Helland, who heads the Centre for Ibsen Studies in Oslo, Norway, specializes in the significance of Ibsen’s works in a cross-cultural framework. Helland will be speaking at the seminar and hopes that the exchange will contribute to a better understanding of intercultural encounters and the manner in which cultural goods, such as plays, travel across borders. But he is also cautious about drawing hasty conclusions. “It might be premature to say that Ibsen is universal. Some things translate and work well, but there are always tensions and differences,” he says.
Helland, however, adds that since Ibsen wrote about a society undergoing a radical process of modernization—and since we are now in the middle of another such period of transition in the form of globalization—it may not be all that surprising that there is new interest in the dramatist.
The Delhi Ibsen Festival will be held from 3-14 December at various venues across Delhi. For invitations and information, contact the Dramatic Art and Design Academy at 9958111319 or log on to www.delhibsenfestival.com