A little after 4pm on 14 April 1944, two explosions ripped through the Bombay dock. A 7,142-tonne ship, SS Fort Stikine, carrying a mixed cargo of cotton bales, timber, sulphur, scrap iron, oil, gold and dynamite, had caught fire. It seems improbable now that the following explosion—which split the freight ship in two, sunk several other ships as debris rained on them, shattered windows, showered bullion, hot metal scraps and burning cotton bales miles away and claimed somewhere between 800 and 1,300 lives—could go unreported for any length of time. But it was wartime, and the British government in pre-independence India was able to suppress the news for weeks.

Playwright Ramu Ramanathan’s 3, Sakina Manzil is set in just this period. The story of two sweethearts, whose lives and relationship change irreversibly after the explosions, is being revived on stage by Delhi-based theatre group Desires Unlimited as part of its first vintage festival, Epoch.

“No one knows for sure how the vessel caught fire. What they can say with any certainty is that it started in one of the holds," says Pankaj Nanda, one of the festival directors of Epoch. He adds that the group, comprising Indian Institute of Technology alumni, pored over every detail of the play, researching 1940s dress, the mood of the time, style of speech, and the incident itself. They even talked to Ramanathan, to be able to give a sense of the period in all its nuances.

The second play in the festival, spread over two weekends, is Rope. Another period drama, this play by Patrick Hamilton is inspired by a real event. In 1905, two law students in the US kidnapped a 14-year-old and murdered him in an attempt to commit the “perfect crime". Fans of Fyodor Dostoevsky will perhaps see the resonances with Raskolnikov in Crime And Punishment. Director Tarun Singhal’s adaptation of the play is set in 1970s India. Influenced by the theories of the superior being forwarded by Friedrich Nietzsche and by the teachings of their professor, Kohli, they go too far in exploring the idea of murder as art, as something to be glorified.

The festival promises to take audiences back in time. Nanda explains there’s a reason the group chose the month of March to launch the festival revisiting period plays. “There are historical events like the Ides of March already associated with the month," he says. That’s when Julius Caesar was assassinated, and the fate of the Roman empire turned on that one event.

Epoch—A Vintage Theater Festival will be held on 8-9 March, and 15-16 March, at the LTG Auditorium, Copernicus Marg, New Delhi. Timings vary. Tickets, 200, 300 and 400. For booking, call 9871838830.

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