Saturday Features

She who tends the garden

Subedi and a talented cast successfully drag Malini, a play written more than a century ago, into the realm of the contemporary post-dramatic in a rare act of daring

Jan 16, 2016-The eponymous character of Malini is simultaneously detached and submissive enough to be able to channel Rabindranath’s abiding preoccupation with what he believed to be the universal human capacity for self-effacing compassion

Theatre Village was the site for yet another exciting production. This time, surprisingly, it was one of Rabindranath Tagore’s lesser known plays, Malini. Lesser known to a bangla or Indian readership perhaps but very much a part of the discourse in Nepal because the English translation of Malini has found a place in the national +2 curriculum here.

The moment of catastrophe in Malini came to him, says Rabindranath, much like a staged performance in a dream. His subconscious apparently threw up a scene (while he was sleeping during a stay in London), in which he found two lifelong friends fighting an ideological battle that ended in one killing the other. He later developed it into Malini in 1896. Though Rabindranath was a self-professed fan of the unruly Shakespearean flamboyance, this particular play moves along a more tightly knit structure that is reminiscent of classical Greek tragedy, mostly because of its adherence to the three Aristotelian unities. One may also remember that the play Bisarjan (Sacrifice), yet another burning critique of intolerance and violence, preceded Malini.

Malini, a young Hindu princess, relinquishes the religion of her forefathers to take refuge in Buddhism—an act that causes immense uproar in the kingdom and sends it reeling to the brink of armed rebellion, from where Malini (whose name somewhat predictably means ‘she who tends the garden’) retrieves it through her fearless empathy and compassion, only to have it jeopardised by an invading army raised by the righteous rebel, Khemankar on whom Malini seems to have kindled a liking. Thankfully Khemankar is tattled upon by Supriya, his childhood friend and now Malini’s faithful follower. The King dutifully has Khemankar imprisoned and the two childhood friends, or brothers almost, meet on stage—in a situational archetype—to thrash out their ideological differences. Expectedly, one loses his life in the hands of the other. Unexpectedly Malini, the princess, who remains on stage for a major portion of the play’s temporal schema but remains curiously aloof from its dramatic movement, beseeches her father to forgive the surviving murderer and it is here, through her Buddhism inspired compassion, that the play deviates from an relentless, classically ‘tragic’ trajectory and problematises the matrix of power within which the text otherwise operates.

In the original text, the eponymous character of Malini is simultaneously detached and submissive enough to be able to channel Rabindranath’s abiding preoccupation with what he believed to be the universal human capacity for self-effacing compassion, nonviolence and tolerance. In contrast, the text’s action pointedly privileges Supriya and Khemankar as its two major players, the protagonist and antagonist respectively. Director Bimal Subedi works with a sharply edited but adequate Nepali translation (by Jeebesh Rayamajhi) made from an edited English translation of the original bangla. But minutes into the play, the audience is left in little doubt that Subedi has relinquished all servitude to the dramatic text as Malini comes alive in a breathtaking scenic discourse involving performative action, advanced light and sound technology, digital projections and a futuristic set.

Subedi and a talented cast has successfully dragged Malini, a play written more than a century ago, into the realm of the contemporary post-dramatic in a rare act of daring. Having wrenched the dramatic narrative from the grasp of mere representation, they have charged it with a performative immediacy that makes the play’s content eerily relevant to the issues that impregnate our reality today. The actors cease to be mimetic, signifying material conveying a distant playwright’s vision and instead open out the text to new perspectives and understandings.

The dialogue, often delivered with a stony deliberation, often transforms itself into sound objects that supplement the visual and aural experience. Malini, much stronger than in the original, is aptly processed by Rojita Buddhacharya’s bodily gestures and speech acts. But it is Sujan Oli, who steals the show as Khemankar. It must be noted that among all the performers, it was Buddhacharya and Oli that succeeded in moving the furthest from simulation of emotions and forced us out of our roles of a passive audience/viewer and into an active engagement with the play.

The actors were apparently allowed a lot of leeway to arrive at and devise their own vision of the characters and Oli embodies Khemankar with a suave touch. Shravan Rana’s Supriya is adequate but somewhat pales in comparison. Interestingly, Oli and Rana seem to have taken on the archetypical duel between good and evil—yet another divergence from the original. Rabindranath’s text allowed ample space for both Khemankar and Supriya to be eminently ‘grievable’ entities, each confident in his ideological consistency. Dilip Rana Bhat’s performance is a little subdued as a head of state but may be intentionally so given the fact that he embodied the collapsed roles of both the King and the Queen. Saroj Aryal was adept as the symbolic Brahman and a reflective surface for Malini—a role that again had collapsed multiple entities of the original text.

The performance makes imaginative use of tropes like the catwalk, in which Buddhacharya self-consciously explores the theme of commodification and the male gaze. Elements of staging were of course central to the production, as is expected of any post-dramatic effort, and a lot of content and context was conveyed through visual projections and aural resonances. Movements and gestures were intentionally non-representative and often flowed seamlessly into the fluidity of dance. Visual quotations from familiar dramatic and cinematic classics were interestingly woven in through gestural resonances.

Theatre Village has been recently tiptoeing around the possible reality of post-dramatic performance by staging poststructuralist texts like Sanjeev Uprety’s Makai Ko Arkai Kheti. I am happy to note that Malini has successfully turned into probably the first and very relevant step towards taking theatre beyond the dramatic in Nepal.

Published: 16-01-2016 11:37

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