Nati Binodini and Erendira, two plays directed by Amal Allana, daughter of the great Ebrahim Alkazi, are being performed in Delhi by the Little Theatre Group later this week. Showcasing a wide variety of styles and theatrical innovation, the plays, with mainly female characters, tackle different subjects, marrying consummate acting skills to well-orchestrated, fluid choreography. While Nati Binodini depicts the rise and fall of a talented actress in 19th century Kolkata, the carnivalesque atmosphere of Erendira leaps straight out of a magical-realist short story penned by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. We got spoke to Nissar Allana, Amal Allana’s husband, and set and lighting designer, and producer, about the plays. Edited excerpts:
Can you tell us a bit about the play ‘Nati Binodini’?
The play is based on Amar Katha, the autobiography of Nati Binodini, an actress of great repute and fame in late 19th century Bengal. At the time, the role of females in theatrical productions used to be played by men. Later, women associated with flesh trade and those kept by men started acting on stage. Binodini, a prostitute by birth, was one of the first few actresses to set foot under the lights. She began acting in her teenage years and her rise to stardom was meteoric, to say the least. Girish Ghosh, widely considered the greatest actor of his age and also famous as the ”Garrick of Bengal”, took her under his wing and suggested she live with a certain rich man to ensure her success and security. Soon, her acting acumen set theatres across Kolkata ablaze, turning her into a household name within a very short span of time. Now, this rich man had promised to build a theatre in her name, but, the middle-class mentality of the time couldn’t possibly allow a former prostitute’s name adorning that of a theatre. The theatre was christened Star Theatre, a stinging metaphor for her own stardom. This left Binodini crushed and she decided to leave acting forever. Mind you, this was only 10-12 years after she began her journey, leaving theatre in her late 20s. All her experiences found their way into her autobiography, including the time when her portrayal of the great saint, Chaitanya, left audiences spellbound.
What’s the story behind ‘Erendira’?
Erendira has been adapted from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magic-realist tale, Innocent Erendira. The most intriguing facet of the production, common to both plays, is the way it was constructed. Amal (Allana), the director, worked with the actors during rehearsals, incorporating their suggestions into the script, thus turning it all into a very interactive exercise. Everything was done on the floor itself!
Amal created the play keeping the Colombian carnival as a background. To lend the play a unique Indian twinge, she blended Rajasthani colour and sensibilities with the Latin American, creating a product that both the cultures could identify with without much effort.
Were there any challenges that you faced while creating the plays, incorporating the magical realism of Marquez into the Indian context, for instance? What was the reaction of the audiences on both sides?
The incorporation you talk about was a challenge indeed. But when we started working, we realized that the Colombian and Spanish sensibilities were very similar to ours. We took the play to Colombia and the audience’s reaction left us overwhelmed. They took to it instantly, and even though Gabo (Marquez) was in Spain at the time, his whole family came to watch the performance, applauding all the way through. It was then that we knew that even though long distances separated the two cultures, our performance had managed to penetrate their psyche nonetheless. And then the response the play received in India just went on to reaffirm our convictions.
Also, the challenges tend to be more of the monetary kind. These particular shows are being sponsored by the department of art, culture and languages in collaboration with Delhi Celebrates! (an events platform set up by Delhi tourism), but whenever we perform the play on our own, even if it is a full house, we are never able to recover the cost incurred for staging the performance through ticket sales. Yet we go on performing again and again, and we shall continue to do so.
What sets these plays apart in terms of acting and choreography?
Considering the nature of both the plays, the number of female actors outnumbers the men. The intriguing bit is that the role of the main protagonist is essayed by multiple actresses, five in the case of Nati Binodini and six in Erendira, simultaneously. Yet this doesn’t lead to any sort of confusion on the stage, the transitions and choreography being extremely fluid and smooth.
Finally, where do you travel with the plays after this?
We are planning to take the plays to Kerala by the end of this year. Also, our troupe shall be performing the plays in the Kennedy Centre in Washington on the 2-3 March. And judging by the kind of popularity that these plays have acquired over the last few years that they have been staged, I’m sure that the performances are going to be a success.
Nati Binodini, 5-7 October, 7pm, at the Little Theatre Group, Copernicus Marg, Mandi House, New Delhi.
Erendira, 8-10 October, 7pm, at the Little Theatre Group, Copernicus Marg, Mandi House, New Delhi.