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These shoes are made for talking
A play uses footwear to explore how families are affected by communal strife.
What does a family go through when its community is attacked? And how does one depict the complicated relationship between larger events and a family in a play that is just over an hour long and has only one actor?
An Arrangement of Shoes answers all these questions. To be performed in Bangalore this week - it has already been staged in the UK - the play tells the story of a 28-year-old Muslim woman, Rukhsar, whose grandfather has died of old age. The bereavement and the return of her twin, Nissar, from Dubai with a bagful of shoes prompts an emotional Rukhsar - played by Anitha Santhanam - to narrate her family's story. Written by Abhishek Majumdar, An Arrangement of Shoes made it to the long list of Hindu MetroPlus Playwrights' Award in 2009. In 2008, Majumdar won the award for an earlier play, Harlesden High Street.
Set in a contemporary time-frame, the play uses a series of flashbacks to go back and forth in time from the 1940s to the present, with the marriage of Anitha's grandparents as a starting point. Although the family isn't directly affected by riots, the play weaves through the decades with clear references to the processes that make acts of communal disharmony possible. The action is set in Delhi in real time but is intercut with trips to Kopargaon in Maharashtra and Barauni in Bihar, places the family has lived in over the years.
"I thought An Arrangement of Shoes would give me an opportunity to create a performance that's like a window into a family that has lived through communally charged times, " says director Vivek V Narayan. "Communal strife, just by being there, will have affected them at some level. How? The answer is explored in our play. "
Narayan studied theatre direction at the University of London. This is the maiden venture of his banner, Theatre Counteract. "It was formed with a stated interest in countering dominant discourses," explains Narayan. "Sometimes, a claim is so powerful that it goes unchallenged. There is no one to say, 'This is not the truth'. I think plays critiquing communal discord are relevant. We mistakenly assume that after the Gujarat riots of 2002, right-wing fundamentalism has faded away. Have things changed at all? I think they've worsened. The fact that every time there's a scam we see growing public support for right-wing parties is worrying. This shift in thinking, where rightwing parties are seen as a natural alternative to the secular, is the greatest victory for the right."
To drive home its point, Narayan's production makes use of visual projections from Bollywood films. So there's the song Mere mehboob from the eponymous 1963 film. "Films on Muslims these days are mostly apologies like My Name Is Khan or those where they are portrayed as terrorists, like Roja, which, though it was set in Kashmir, was an Islam-versus-India narrative, " he says. The inclusion of a clip from Mere Mehboob, which depicts a Muslim love story set against the backdrop of Aligarh Muslim University, is a reminder of happier times when communal prejudices were less prevalent. As Narayan says, "The question we are asking is, why aren't films like that made today?"
For Anitha Santhanam, too, it has been a challenge. This isn't the first solo performance for Santhanam, who has been active in the world of the performing arts, initially as a Bharatnatyam dancer and later as a theatreperson. Her first play, Vanaprastham, which dealt with the life of Kunti in the Mahabharata, was also a solo act. "It depicted Kunti's life first as a young princess with dreams of love and marriage, then as a middleaged woman and a witness to the war, as the mother of Karna and three of the Pandavas, and finally as an old woman when she proceeds to spend the rest of her life in vanaprastha in the forest, from where the play gets its name," she says.
The role of Rukhsar, though, was more difficult. "In Vanaprastham, I played a single character throughout the play although it was through different stages of her life. But playing five different characters takes a lot out of a performer. Also, Rukhsar is an introvert, an observer and not a doer. This brought its own complexity to the role."
With plans to take it to Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Cochin, Chennai and Delhi, An Arrangement of Shoes will begin its India journey this week.
'An Arrangement of Shoes' will be performed at the Ranga Shankara in Bangalore on November 15 and 16, and at the Alliance Francaise in Bangalore on November 26 and 27.
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