Multilingual, multicultural theatre opening new dialogues on stage (Feature)

New Delhi, Jan 13: The spirit of multiculturalism and direct exchange of soft power is playing out in contemporary theatre, a hybrid form culling from different linguistic, traditional and literary sources.

Manipur-born director Jayanta Meetei, an alumnus of New Delhi’s National School of Drama (NSD), has been experimenting with multilingual theatre in five languages – Manipuri, Japanese, Malay, Mandarin and an ethnic Taiwanese – at his repertory company, Ex-Theatre Asia, at the picturesque Miaoli mountain resort, the hub of Hakka cuisine in western Taiwan for the last 10 years. Meetei is the only Indian theatre exponent in Taiwan and manages his company of 11 actors with a government grant.

His repertoire is a neo-Asian genre – a mix of traditional Indian, Manipuri folk, western post-modernism and Chinese traditional and contemporary styles lending a distinctive feel to 17 productions, including a Mandarin version of Girish Karnad’s “Haya Vadana”. “I combine all the Asian art forms to give new expression to contemporary theatre. Our Asian theatre is characterised is music, dancing, physical acting, exaggerated acting and elaborate costumes. I draw from all these commonalities to add value,” Meetei told IANS.

Meetei is in India at NSD’s Bharat Rangmahotsav, annual festival of theatre, with a production, “A True Calling” in Manipuri and Mandarin based on a Indian folktale by Vijaydan Detha. The play is built around two actors, an ancient Manipuri performer a Chinese multi-discipline modern actor. One of the actors narrate the story of fellow actor, who earns his living by playing a variety of roles. The king hears of his talent and calls the actor to put up the “biggest performance of his life”. But at the end of the performance, the king refuses to pay the actor the money he had promised him.

Meetei says his play is a comment on the modern political leadership.

“When I first heard the story from a friend in New Delhi in 2009, I felt it could be developed into a play with a message. The king is like a political leader, who is expected to take care of his people. But he fails to pay the actor which shows how selfish today’s leaders are. Call them pretenders ,” Meetei explained.

Over the last three decades since the mid-1970s, foreign theatre has been spurring a slow cultural fusion on the Indian stage with indigenous adaptations of western plays and modern theatre practises of Europe and US. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the winds of

globalisation drove Indian theatre to experiment with diverse cultures and languages from across continents for direct osmosis on stage, the director said.

One of the earliest experiments of the east-meets-west on stage is American director and scholar Peter Brook’s “Mahabharata” starring danseuse Mallika Sarabhai as “Draupadi” in a crossover cast in 1989.

In the recent years, the Indo-western collaborations around Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s plays involving foreign actors, directors and Indian repertories at the annual Ibsen Festival in the capital can be described as an example.

Director Paddy Hayter of the Footsbarn Theatre has prompted a new dialogue across cultures with an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, believed to have been conceived around 1610-1611 in English, French, Sanskrit and Malayalam at the ongoing Bharat Rangmahotsav.

“I have used five performers from Kerala – three actors, one actress and one musician for my production ‘Indian Tempest’. I decided to use four languages because I believe in creating natural situations in theatre where it is impossible to speak the same language. But it is communication through words- the words are our guides, our guides and our mentors,” Hayter told IANS.

The Footsbarn Theatre uses a melange of styles that is inspired by traditional outdoor performance, opera, conventional proscenium theatre, mobile tent theatres and old world drama. “What is important that there have been a lot of inter-cultural experiments when you put two cultures together and you expect a third meaning. It is a dialogue

between languages, different bodies and stories,” Anuradha Kapur, director of the National School of Drama, said.

According to Kapur, the National School of Drama has been trying to open similar inter-cultural dialogues by inviting directors from around the world to interface with students in on its campus in India and direct them on stage. “They introduce aspects of their own styles, traditions and practise to Indian students,” Kapur told IANS, citing

an example of a version of “King Lear” staged by Uzbek director at NSD with Ottoman costumes.

Inter-cultural theatre as a medium to develop to common idiom of global cultural understanding and promote was first set in motion by the United Nations in 1948 when it set up the International Theatre Institute.

The forum hosts the “Theatre of Nations”- a inter-cultural performance umbrella – and celebrates the World Theatre Day every year.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at madhu.c@ians.in)

IANS