It is often said that theatre is discovery. Collaborate with a team and it becomes reality. Suddenly in patched jeans and sweaty T-shirt your actor has turned into an epic hero, a mafia villain, a surreal clown… Another cliché becomes blindingly new: theatre makes you understand the human and the non-human world, with nuances undreamt.
In India we are fond of talking about the past, the more prehistoric, the better. True, the ancients here saw all art — as prophecy, wisdom, vision, intuitive knowledge.
I often ask myself: does modern theatre bring insight? Solace for pain? Revulsion for bloodshed? Understanding? Tolerance? Empathy? Compassion for the deprived? Does theatre stress individual responsibility for everything that happens in the world?
Because it is inherently community-oriented, I think theatre does become a living force to resist negative forces, protest against injustice, bond with fellow humans, restore lost values, reclaim our humaneness… You almost believe what the Indian Prime Minister announced at the US Congress; “in the freedom of faith, speech and franchise, equality, fundamental rights, and freedom from fear” for all the people of the world.
When we write and direct and perform theatre, watch theatre, participate in theatre, we know we are not alone, we are not lonely. We are ‘just us’, a group of connected people, trying to move from darkness into light, to make better sense of the world.
Not many people get a chance to reinvent their lives midway through the journey. Ten years have gone by since I wrote my first play and five people launched a small theatre group — JustUs Repertory.
It began the day the poet Arun Kolatkar died. No I didn’t know him, had just met him once. I was writing about him to overcome my grief. Not for the newspaper. For myself. I thought that the death of a great poet is a loss to the nation, even if the nation remains quite unaware of that loss.
“When are we going to start rehearsals?” asked Dhritiman Chatterji (who happened to stop by while I was writing what I thought was an obituary) casting himself in the role of the eccentric poet. That is how Dark Horse, my first play, happened. Young vocalist friend Savita Narasimhan sang a live backscore, in an unlikely marriage of classical Carnatic music in English theatre. When that accidental play won a national award, JustUs Repertory was launched, I became an old Alice in a new wonderland.
Art can, theatre can, move us from darkness to light, tamaso ma jyotir gamaya. This ancient wisdom is what a young Tamil-born teacher shares with a Nobel laureate from war-ravaged Serbia, to help him fight his demons, in the play “Water Lilies”.
So far JustUs Repertory has produced 18 works. Original plays include Mathemagician”, profiling a eunuch from Babylon, 5000 BCE, whose genius feeds brutal state power; and Night’s End, where a Malayali forest ranger and a Mogiya tribal woman strive to save the tiger, and themselves, from forces beyond them.
Soon, casting dancer and musician friends to enact roles in JustUs plays led to multi-genre theatre, where music, dance, poetry and the visual arts intersect. Yashodhara retold the tale of the single mother and abandoned wife of a royal prince who left home to seek enlightenment. In I Am Sita other women in the Ramayana turn their female gaze on the cult figure.
Every word I write in my play, every scene I direct, becomes a question mark. So it is for the performers. Who knows? One day, together, we may get somewhere beyond questions…
By Gowri Ramnarayan
Publication: 20th June 2016, Mumbai, DNA