Set in the pete (the primary trade area) of Bangalore in 1898, Pestilences begins in a busy marketplace. The actors imitate the sounds of a marketplace. Languages mingle, as they do in cosmopolitan Bangalore, and the costumes reflect the era. Based on the Bangalore plague of 1898, this play, directed by Vivek V. Narayan, co-founder of the group Theatre Counteract, is also inspired by Albert Camus’ The Plague. When Narayan read Camus in 2004, he was struck by the ingenuity of its plot and imagined a play, the scenography of which had bamboo sticks, bamboo ladders and coir rope as props. “Nothing could’ve been more incongruous to a production that set out to be a faithful adaptation of The Plague,” Narayan writes in his director’s note. The thought remained until 2011. “We almost started casting for the play when Syed (Ali Kazmi) sent me a story about the temple of Plague-amma,” says Narayan. Around that time, the original idea was beginning to derail. In consultation with Prathamesh Turaga, co-founder of Theatre Counteract and research adviser for the group’s last production, An Arrangement of Shoes, Narayan looked for a way to set the play to the plague in Bangalore. The answer lay with Kishor G. Bhat, who had co-edited the book Bengaluru, Bangalore, Bengaluru: Imaginations And Their Times. Bhat’s research provided the backdrop.
In fact, Bhat’s research is the most interesting part of the play. In 1898, a plague broke out in Bangalore and Mysore. Thousands died, mostly in the congested parts of the city. The state looked at it as an opportunity to create a new city with decongested public spaces. It brought with it new extensions like Malleswaram and Basavanagudi and also a new goddess, Plague-amma. “Much like what happens today, the depressed classes were made to move and there were riots. But the administration won,” says Narayan.
The central character of the play is a British doctor who notices the onset of the epidemic in the city but is conflicted about whether he must toe the line of the administration and not alarm people or get into action and save more lives. Conflicts often throw up unlikely heroes and Narayan’s Pestilences has its share of heroes in a government clerk, a nurse and the British doctor. While largely fictional, the structure of the play is supported by documented history. It’s largely in English, but there is a sprinkling of Tamil and Kannada in the dialogues. “The Tamil presence in Bangalore has always been significant. Shivajinagar was originally called Bilakkipalli, a very Tamil name that was changed to Blackpalli by the British,” says Bhat, adding that the pete had people coming in from all over the country. “In fact one could get by if they knew Tamil or Urdu,” he says. The roles of the actors, their costumes and dialects, point to a caste system that existed at the time. Bhat, in fact, dug up old caste demographic records for the play.
Although a bit confusing at the start, the 2-hour play is powerful. The use of props adds to the narrative. Bamboo and rope ladders and bamboo boxes make up everything from a staircase to a riverbank. The actors change these props around at the end of every scene. The costumes have been designed by Shubhra Nayar.
Supported by Alliance Française de Bangalore, the premiere of Pestilences coincides with the birth centenary year of Camus.
Pestilences will be performed at 8pm on 16 November and at 6pm on 17-18 November at Alliance Française de Bangalore, Vasanthnagar (080-41231340). Entry is free. For details, visit www.facebook.com/groups/theatrecounteract/