Asilhouetted figure leans against one corner of the stage. In the background, an azaan (call to prayer) blends into the gentle ringing of temple bells. Suddenly, there’s a blood-curdling scream; two men, one in a fez cap, race on to the stage; one kills the other.
It’s all a blur. The silhouetted figure cries out in horror: “It seems amazing that a question that could be settled with mutual consideration for others’ feelings and little adjustment should give rise to great bitterness and rioting and death. But religious passions have little to do with reason or consideration or adjustments.”
Sixty years on, nothing seems to have changed. These words, spoken by Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1940s, still hold true. Nehru: His Inner Story, a play written and directed by London-based Pramila le Hunte on the occasion of Nehru’s 47th death anniversary, weaves together Nehru’s writings over several years, and resurrects him in his various shades: scholar, lover, father and political hero.
Throwback: Nehru and Gandhi in a still from Nehru: His Inner Story. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
In a shift from trends in urban theatre over the last year, a significant number of plays, such as this one, have stepped out of the urban-angst mould (think suicidal bankers and dysfunctional relationships) in an attempt to resurrect great political leaders, and through them, the genre of political theatre.
In Kolkata, much before Mamata Banerjee’s green sweep happened, Khowab (Dream) predicted the failing popularity of Marxism by positing Gandhian ideals of ahimsa against Marxist violence. In Bangalore, Rabindranath Tagore’s take on terrorism was contemporarized in Crisis of Civilisation: A Journey with Tagore. And Dara, a Pakistani play eulogizing the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh (Aurangzeb’s brother) and the relevance of his peace-loving values played to packed audiences in Delhi in January.
Nehru: His Inner Story, while personalizing the political figure, also politicizes the personal, capturing his reflections on the Indo-China war, communalism and Kashmir. Because the entire play is made up of words actually written by Nehru, it uses an interesting device of imaginary characters while Nehru delivers his monologues. The idea is to have Nehru talk to the audience with minimal disturbance.
Using a similar device, Crisis of Civilisation, written by Ranjan Ghoshal and directed by Jagdish Raja, captures Tagore’s views on nationhood, terrorism and poverty. While reflecting on the Bengal famine, in a particularly chilling scene he asks his audience, “Citizens of the 21st century, surely nobody goes to bed hungry in your time, please tell me they don’t go hungry.”
Meanwhile, Gandhi is brought to life in a tribal village in a Maoist pocket of Bengal in Khowab. Written and directed by Kolkata-based Ashish Chattopadhyay, it resurrects the ideals of ahimsa and posits them against Marxism (and its violent manifestations).
Much as theatre needs to address political debate, going back to old political heroes is a reflection of the “total bankruptcy of new icons”, says Arundhati Nag, creative director of the Ranga Shankara theatre in Bangalore. She plans to focus this year’s Ranga Shankara festival on politics. “In times of political rot and corruption, there is a need to relive these heroes as we want to pass on to our children the capacity to discern right from wrong,” she says.
Similar trends can be seen in Pakistan. Lahore-based playwright-director Shahid Nadeem believes the return to heroes of the past is because “the problems we’re facing today have their roots in the past”.
Nadeem brings his plays Dara and Bulleh Shah to Delhi again on 30 and 31 May. “After Partition, the trend had been to abandon many of the pre-Partition heroes, ones that were now Indian and non-Muslim. But now we’re making a conscious effort to reclaim and re-own our heritage,” he says.
Nehru: His Inner Story will run at the India Habitat Centre on 28-29 May, Dara and Bulleh Shah at Kamani Auditorium on 30-31 May.