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The extent to which aggression has been normalised by most of us can be seen when we evaluate war in terms of economic loss and gain, rather than by the scars it leaves on civilisation. It is also visible in the quiet acceptance of hate mongering and divisiveness that many refuse to discuss, euphemistically dismissing these as belonging to a realm of ‘politics’ that does not interest them. This normalisation of a state of violence has gradually turned the human race into its own greatest enemy. At its root is an inability to imagine what the ‘other’ is experiencing – empathy.
Artists are only a subset of society and unsurprisingly, market forces, imbibed wisdom and an instinct for self-preservation propel them too to choose personal gain over altruism. Yet this view overlooks the potential of the arts to engender empathy and understanding in practitioners and consumers of art.
A recent production directed by Niloy Roy, programme director at New Delhi’s Shri Ram Centre, exemplifies this potential. Roy’s Hindi adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, performed by students of SRC’s one-year acting course, holds out hope of drawing young artists not yet hardened by over exposure to cynicism into conversations that attempt to slip into the skin of the ‘other’.
Designed as the final project for students of the yearlong course, the production premiered in early April but is being staged again on May 3 and 4 on popular demand.
Blending stylisation with realism, Metamorphosis reveals the tangled web society weaves with its assumptions, its hypocrisies, its dreams and grudges, its fears, ambitions and conflicted responses to perceived differences. In a time when theatre is often presented as safe entertainment that steers clear of comment on society, the production juxtaposes art with a rare penetrating look at the human condition.
Kafka’s allegorical work is disturbing in itself, but by staging it, Roy expanded every word, opening up multiple, searingly relevant meanings in the tragic story of Gregor who awakes one morning to find himself transformed into an insect.
In the play, we initially see some sympathy for the protagonist, which eventually turns to indifference and neglect. “We become complacent, start taking things for granted and moving on; we think moving on is good enough,” said Roy in a video conference along with some of the actors after the first four shows.
Change, or, difference, Roy noted, is often associated with sin, and so society turns away from the ‘sinful’ person. Those considered different are isolated.
“People don’t listen to you, watch you, spend time with you. It’s not about the time you spend. It’s about listening to how different you are. Every individual is different. We have to understand that,” Roy emphasised. “But that difference was always there. Now the level of acceptance has gone down. And we go to the extent of labelling that person. And we attach it to either religion, or politics, or caste, or even earning.”
Those so labelled are thus denigrated. “Every aspect of human life is being compared, judged. I think that’s the root cause of this isolation.”
People are accepted as long as they remain “like us,” said Shubham Singhania, who played Henry, the housekeeper.
“But the moment we perceive them as different, be it in terms of appearance, or caste or other parameters, they are ostracised and isolated. I have seen this and experienced it too. Whether because of one’s own caste or due to fighting caste prejudice, our society immediately moves to exclude such people.”
Rahul Sharma, cast as Michael, said, “The play is a reflection of our society. We rush to our destinations and while focusing on our own goal, we ignore our surroundings, not caring what may be happening to others.” In the process we lose contact with each other, he remarked.
The protagonist’s transformation into an insect may trigger the actions in the play, but, “After all this is a metaphor. Slowly we are changing, losing our humanity,” said Rahul.
Stanzin Dolkar, who played the lead alternately with Neelima Sharma, said the play made her ponder the “immense uncertainty of every moment” and the futility of taking one’s existence or accepted structures for granted.
To Neelima, the story could be located in any time and any place and remains relevant as an example of how “after a point, a person’s individuality gets trapped.” It is difficult to step out of the straitjacket of imbibed notions, she felt.
Shubham added that human beings are becoming “selfish, day by day.”
The production contains some striking images combining insect-like postures and movements with an abstract set and props. Pranav Mehta, cast as Mr. Wick, spoke of one such image when the actors held ropes, weaving themselves into a net.
“The idea of the ropes was that wherever we move, we are still bound by the people around us, we cannot freely move,” said Pranav.
On the other hand, said Roy, the ropes also represented a structured community in which insects thrive but which humans might fear.
As the young actors articulated how the process of preparation had made them think deeply about their own reality, the conversation turned to the essence of communication itself.
Kafka’s protagonist speaks an insect language his family cannot understand. Roy, who took the concept further in the Hindi production, in which he combined in himself the roles of director, translator/script writer and teacher, remarked, “A lot of languages are dying (because) we lack sensitivity towards human existence as a whole. Everyone has their own way of communicating. What has happened now is that the entire communication has been taken over by gadgets.”
Using these means, people are forced to use “half-baked words” or emoticons which can never convey nuanced feelings. “We are losing the way to communicate, and as far as they are concerned,” he said, referring to his cast members, “they are all going to be actors, it becomes all the more important for them to understand the value of human languages.”
The human way of communication, he reiterated, is imbued with emotions, “which create a certain kind of sensitivity.” This sensitivity in turn adds value to each actor’s contribution to the art.
Perhaps it is thanks to a breakdown in genuine communication and a concurrent loss of sensitivity that, as Roy puts it, “every section of society is in some kind of pain, in distress, because of the kind of fragile relationships we have.”
Sensitivity and awareness were indeed on the minds of the young cast.
Pranav was sure his perceptions of life and theatre were changed by this experience. “Our society needs such a mirror, we need to learn how to live together and to live with our individual selves.”
For Neelima, the realisation was that “Uncertainty is a big part of life, and acceptance of uncertainty is the most difficult thing.”
Stanzin spoke of conflicts at various levels – between the conscious and subconscious mind, between individual and society or between different societies. “We take everything at such a superficial level and it’s high time we thought deeply about these matters. From the audience response it seemed we touched a deep chord with at least a few, and I think it’s a success for Niloy Sir and our team. I hope more such work is done in theatre,” she said.
Shubham felt he had developed a sense of acceptance that he earlier lacked. “One of the characters says, ‘If you accept someone for who they are, they will also accept you.’ That hit me,” he said, adding that the process also taught him surrender, which is the only way to progress in learning.
Sushant Pandey who played Franz Vinci said the work made him realise that even the thoughts he might be harbouring in his subconscious might be apparent
to people. “I used to judge people subconsciously,” he remarked.
For Rahul these lines of exploration of human thought were not new, but he felt affirmed in his attitude towards life and drama. “And there was a response from the audience, so I think to some extent we can bring about discussion on this matter.” Theatre is entertainment all right, said Rahul, but offering a message to society is an ideal combination.
The production glints with innumerable reflections of society’s current state, and the willingness of the young actors to explore their own attitudes and their environment showed courage. Practising or performing art in a bubble, aloof from the everyday world, offers a comfortable protection of not having to see or to participate in the pain of others.
If most of the problems facing the planet today can be sourced to the prevailing lack of empathy in society, this production, though admittedly just a ripple in the murky waters, holds out hope.
Because the nature of ripples is to spread.
Metamorphosis, a play in Hindi, will be performed again on May 4 at New Delhi’s Shri Ram Centre, 3 and 7 pm.
Anjana Rajan has been writing on the arts, literature and society for nearly 20 years. She is a former deputy editor of The Hindu, a dance exponent and theatre practitioner.