The Stage

Rajya Loko Natya Utsav
State Folk Theatre Festival
Karnajora, May 5th–8th 1994


Before the inaugural events
define and sanctify the square,
it is already charged, immense
with dance and mask and shouting, where
each shred of wood, cloth, flesh is tense . . .
a ready-made stage in open air.


Waiting through the Minister’s speech
the stage holds Tribals, locks them fast . . .
as this vote-friendly man must preach
values of Folk-Art. Now at last –


Women in a line, madal-drummer whirling-hurling
pieces of himself through leaping palms and fingers
and feet drumming the ground. The line swaying, retreating
in movement of women and the sea. The man
capers and thrusts and bullies with the wind. No stage –
men and women only – now men. Poles
brandished high, and flailing the ground,
weapons of war, of farming, ever-extensions
of the male arm. Then the blank stage.


A few speeches by academics
praising Folk-Art. Hidden polemics
distort disinterested positions.
(Maybe these were the politicians.)

A few speeches by politicians
praising Folk-Art. Noble positions
of selfless interest disclaim polemics.
(Maybe these were the academics.)


Re-born, the square is devoured by a faith,
a quintet of beautiful ecstatics. Men of Lalon
express through every article of presence
that Man is One. No God beyond. The stage sings
with violence and tenderness of their joy.


That was a creed of one-stringed ektara music.
Dotara, the double-string, travels outside the statement
into the stuff and fantasy of the heart,
into the festival. In the centre are seated
music-makers, and outside dancing, singing
and scenes of theatre, myth and modern-day, toppling
into a circus-tide of love and need.
A circle of women is challenged by a jester
desperately searching – yellow-cap-bobbing – who flings
his body in vain against a lovely wave.
A musician is now a marriage-broker. A union
of farce and fineness – how can it be? – through stages
of beauty and grotesque folly is achieved.
The clown is more than a clown. The loveliness –
again and again a haunting refrain breaks over –
is swept along in gaiety and sheer nonsense,
upon a sea of all the performing arts.


That was a troupe from the State’s north. Far south
in the Sunderbans Islands is a story
of the tiger and the forest and a boy.
Muslim and Hindu tell a hard-won tale
of battle by gods and goddesses for dominion –
and Dukhé, the boy, must leave his widowed mother,
cross the water and enter the terrible forest
to gather honey. Treachery by his uncle
would pay him to the tiger; but he is saved.
The forest-god is strong in battle. The boy
returns by friendly crocodile to his mother.
But what a womanly grief there was, what pathos
in Dukhé with faltering knees and perfect pitch,
what power-mad smiles of the uncle! And the music
marks all with the tenderness of lamentation.
Past the reunion at the end, a singing
silence is left, that there should be a journey
that was so perilous-brave. The first day ends.


Before the second night begins
the platform looks used, empty, tired.
Irrelevant popular music dins
before the second night begins.
Stalls with jugs and jars and tins
are out – but somehow uninspired.
Before the second night begins
the platform looks used, empty, tired.


It is not a square: it is a circle.
It is not raised: it is a patch of ground.
It is not closed off: but all-around available.
It does not have chairs for visiting dignitaries.
There are no newspaper articles.


Tonight, however, the fanfare presentation
does not prevent the power of true narration
from practising its spell upon the field.
Five thousand become fifty. And revealed
through three quite simple stories, there appears
the village sense that lasts ten thousand years.


The Farmer and his Wife – the story’s a farce,
a dolt who yokes his bullocks back to front,
who wants to beat his wife for her cooking – but can’t –
then can – and cries more loudly than his wife;
who sows with her, and lives the day with her,
and so it is. And through the ordinariness
the grace of life is captured in a dance-step,
three back, three forward, that the couple do,
as simple as breathing and refreshing too.
Another comic opera starts up,
The Thief and his Wife – no-one can understand it,
it’s from the north – but a plot is pieced together:
a good young couple battered into being thieves
(no choice at all – and no chance of forgiveness)
is sent from the village. Here in miniature
the farce of fate. And here is fatuousness,
knockabout foolery; here is a fitting sign
of the heart’s tenderness, in eloquent mime;
here in singing, suggestive stance and step,
the gradual certainty love does not end.
Finally The Performer, half-wit Fatik –
here we have Harpo, here we have Chaplin –
I shake the names away, here we have none of these.
The Indian innocent pulverises the crowd,
his elastic body breaking physical laws,
his idiot shyness flouting family rules;
through him a singular zany seeks the norm –
to manage marriage. The character is all.
And the musicians’ background commentary
stars in the night. A hint of downtown jazz,
maracas, trumpet and flute stealing the air,
lightly crowns The Performer. Both these nights
in every act has shone a steady role,
a composite personal voice taking the stage,
made up of music, instruments old and new.


On the third day, quickly alight
with local singers, in early night
the flame-stage flickers with flute and the sound
of plural strings. As the hearth-ground
fills in the warmth of sound and of sight . . .
a singer in a striped shirt turns slowly around.


Simply at home: like a great family seeing
scenes from the past. Indrajit, Ravana’s son
is slain by Lakshman. Ravana takes revenge
and with Shoktichel the arrow he must kill Lakshman.
Now none in heaven can halt the hurtling Ravana
and heaven and earth will fall: till Ram is born.
The story cuts and switches: finally Sita
singing on Lanka that her lord will come
to set her free, ends an old tale of home.
The audience settles again: the fire is new.


Dialogue bursts and crackles all over the stage.
Song, dance, music take a back seat: yet always
attending the expostulatory flame.
The stage is indivisible in its servants,
and voices of the theatre speak as one.
So as we leave the song-dance Ramayana
for sketches at the fingertips of the present
of scathing breath, the clarinet adds its comment,
a shuffle-dance is its own facetious gesture,
the whole breathes in the certainty of song.
But this is a time for anger of the moment.
The night-air burns in the white heat of speech.


Men with shirts cluttered with medals, prancing
sillily sideways, a pot-bellied god with a trident,
a silent Muslim lady in dark glasses –
the theatre is a dance-hall for the medal-shirts,
a ranting-house, an orgy of grins and gyrations . . .
what is this sudden cheapness of the stage?
After the story of Ram – the story of rump?
Now at the nadir of incomprehension
I thought the touch of truest theatre lost,
the dialogue-fire a ghost, clammy and cold,
at the first utterance. Soon I saw Gambhira
blazing with meaning, scorching salvoes of words,
an anger-feast – yet crackling all without hate,
fuelled only by humour – with a straw of dry fact.
In these six sketches modern India wakes:
the medal-shirts speak for the worst-off (who know most),
and summon Shiva to complain to him.
‘Why have you let the Dunkel proposals go through?
Can’t you stop the price-hiking? All this corruption
at home – and you swan off to the U.S.A.!
Shiva, grandad, you’re growing fat with inaction!’
Shiva has little to say. Then a discussion
between a medal-shirt and the dark-spectacled lady:
she asks her husband to quit his low profession –
that of Gambhira-actor! He refuses:
in the exchange a sober self-appraisal
tells her the trade is worth the sacrifice.
Later she speaks for Muslim women, branding
religious masters with sinful backwardness:
the triple-curse of divorce, the propaganda,
the holy-book pages used as leverage
in heavy division: so also the Hindu charges.
The leader of BJP comes under attack.
Suddenly a turbaned stiff-necked caricature
of India’s Finance Minister is browbeaten;
yet he waves wearily these insects aside,
precise perfection of a politician.
A thousand topics firework in the bonfire;
the new South African government is greeted;
and at the end a medal-shirt and modern youth
speak and sing a catalogue of horrors –
to me – to them, and to the listening field,
a list of facts. Hooligans raping women,
beatings in jail, police corruption, the knowing
and telling is its own point. The night-dance dies.


That cutting edge of speech that danced on stage
fire-tongued with humour, knowledge – but not rage –
that incandescent laughter, that rich flame
of patience, spilling words in satire’s name –
that theatre-unity (that first quite wrong
I understood) – as if some dominant song
of Now spoke out, in voice at once absurd
and real – is not eclipsed. The performing word.


Before the last events I see
a great mouth speaking. None can hear
its words, as dark as history
or quick as the most voluble bird.
Ant yet, tonight, when they go home,
the audience will have read its lips . . .
they will have heard, each single one,
the red-and-white pavilion’s song.


A shorter evening to end. Initial songs –
one on the loss of trees – and dancing women
who are not women: and words of invocation.
And a butterfly spreads its wings upon the stage,
a play unfolds itself of trouble, anger,
argument, common-sense and love and light.
Domni, a poor man’s wife, has her own hardship:
but hearing that the orange flag and the green
are warring at a local festival –
abandons patience. Single-handed she
fires the village – even the grave old stick
of an administrator – to have no more of it.
They take to task the Hindu and Muslim leaders,
who finally turn their heads in shame and go.
At the end is a dance of gladness, scattering powder
of holi birth of springtime in the heart.
A lovely pace, this evening, on the stage
that seasonal now, can with its own voice sing –
here offering a brief splendour to the night,
as if with the surprise of a light embrace.


Finally the old stage rocks and laughs with us.
A story of money-lenders and a corpse,
which started as a simple family tale,
but somehow dissolves to a means of avoiding payment –
has children catapulting up all over the field.
For the “corpse” is such a live-wire, even in death
his antics ricochet out over the ground:
stage, story are gone, and an electrification
thrills: simply as if it is all one person
here in the night. The tale returns, concluding
with the money-lenders giving, out of fright;
the “corpse” almost convinces wife and son
of his own ghost-hood . . . so the hoodwinking stops.
The stage is done, to be dismantled tomorrow.
The crowd go variously away. And Time
which these four days and nights has carried a charge
of act and actuality, to have been
transformed to a red-and-white stage of speech and song
and dance and instruments . . . is Time again.

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