New York: Ariane Mnounchkine, the famed avant-garde director working from the Cartoucherie, an abandoned munitions factory that is her théatre on the outskirts of Paris – like Peter Brook, her cherished elder, whose theatre was also outside Paris, and with whom she shares an undying love of India and its arts – came to New York this month with A Room in India.
It is the latest production of her company, the Théâtre du Soleil. Speaking of the provenance of this piece, she told a rapt Manhattan audience that while in Pondicherry in 2015 to scout out the possibility of staging the Mahabharata, she stumbled upon the most ancient theatrical form – similar to, but older than Kathakali, less classical, decidedly “low caste”– the Terukkuttu, performed by peasants in colourful costumes and elaborate headdresses in rural Tamil Nadu. Spending several nights watching Terukuttu artists perform stories from the Tamil Mahabharata, she was captivated by the form.
As she was contemplating how to incorporate this form into her multilingual play (her company of 100 encompasses 26 nationalities and as many languages), terrorist attacks in Paris claimed 130 lives and left everyone devastated. Surprisingly, Mnouchkine decided against dropping the project and, as planned, took her company to Pondicherry’s French Town for a month-long workshop. There, true to their unique method which works not from a written play but a “devised” cooperative effort in which actors come up with hundreds of improvisations in response to a prompt from their director, they sought distance from the trauma of terrorism: she asked them to imagine a theatrical company like theirs, whose director (a paternal figure, like her, called “Lear”), comes to India to do the Mahabharata, but then disappears, leaving his clueless assistant (heir “Cornelia”) to take over. Overwhelmed by the enormous responsibility, Cornelia literally dreams up A Room in India one night. The play we see is her dream and, like all dreams, it is chaotic, disconnected episodes form a nightmarish reverie – in this case, on the state of the world. Among other vignettes, this satire includes unconnected allusions to Mahatma Gandhi and Narendra Modi, Donald Trump and the Taliban, Hindu-Muslim violence and the Bharatiya Janata Party, Syria and Pakistan, climate change, water wars, ISIS and the subjugation of women in India and Saudi Arabia.
Interspersed with these is Mnouchkine’s original inspiration, the Mahabharata, seen in four Terukkuttu sequences that deal with (two) women’s stories: the dramatic disrobing of Draupadi by Dushasana, with an authentic Terukkuttu imagining of Krishna’s miracle in providing endless saris to preserve his devotee’s honor; and, the tragic tale of Karna, the warrior, on the eve of battle, taking leave of his distraught wife Ponnuruvi, who does not wish him to go. This moving story, found only in the epic’s Tamil version, embodies conjugal love along with a universal anti-war message. Both episodes are women-centered: proud Draupadi, in deepest shame and humiliation – so topical in today’s exposes of rape and sexual harassment – and loving Ponnuruvi, in her heartbreaking pleas, relevant in the context of present-day global wars.
Beautifully enacted, not by Indian Terukkuttu performers but by the international players of théâtre du Soleil who assimilated the music, dance and acting from Carnatic vocalists, Terukkuttu master Palani Murugan and Tamil teacher Nirupama Nityanananda (Soleil’s only fulltime French-Indian actress) respectively; and with costumes and headdresses not imported from India but authentically recreated in the Soleil’s workshop, it was a rare privilege and pleasure to see India’s ancient heritage brought to life, onstage, in the Park Avenue Armory’s cavernous space which seated 578 people every night. The entrance, mimicking a village festival with little lights and flags, was an open tent-like area where visitors observed actors dressing and putting on make-up. In Paris, its actors cook, serve and eat together and, in socialist style, they share all tasks and draw the same salary.
Onstage, colonial India was recreated with beautiful old ceiling lamps and fast-whirring fans, and with the faint light that streams in on tropical afternoons through numerous shuttered doors and windows, or monsoon winds that blow the curtains. The vast “room” with its high ceiling and low double-bed evoked an India long gone. Through those windows, monkeys jumped in, creating atmosphere; a cow kept making appearances – with Krishna, and without. Master playwrights Shakespeare and Chekhov entered through the windows, speaking to Cornelia in English and Russian (supertitles translated the play’s seven languages) about their craft, its modern innovations, their pet peeves. A dramaturge’s dream! Film and TV crews appeared in fast paced sequences – Keystone Kops and Charlie Chaplin popped up as did YouTube and hilarious spoofs of filming in a desert. What Mnouchkine laid bare was a theatre artist’s stream of consciousness.
The super-fast scene and costume changes amazed, but most surprisingly the play, following Paris’s horrific terrorist attacks, was not a tragedy. Mnouchkine decided to deal with the most frightening event in French life with laughter. She had never created a comedy before but this was “comédie dramatique”: cathartically, it jolted her Parisian troupe out of the confusion, doubt and fear that they had experienced. The only way to deal with meaningless terror, Mnouchkine seemed to say, is with laughter, by mocking events in contemporary civic and political life, without specific reference to the Bataclan tragedy.
Vibhuti Patel is a freelance writer and critic based in New York.