Theatre. What is it? Is it a place where all the actors assemble just for the mere entertainment of the audience? Or is it a neverending ground of new discoveries, where they have to undergo both major and minor changes in order to act out their respective roles, given the circumstances of the character’s situation in every scene of the story?

To celebrate the amazing works of some of the brilliantly-talented playwrights, Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts (SRCPA) held its annual Summer Theatre Festival this year at Shri Ram Centre, Mandi House. The nine-day festival commenced on 8 June with the grand staging of late Girish Karnad’s Tughlaqand culminated with Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesserling.

Here’s a look at some of the plays performed by the theatre groups during the festival that showcased all the moods, from dark comedy and romance to contemporary issues.

Loyal or maniac?

A king is responsible for maintaining the laws and regulations made by him for the welfare of his loyal citizens and kingdom. But what happens when that same king loses his sanity and makes that one decision that abruptly twists not only the people’s fate but also the ruler’s as well?

Written by the legendary Indian actor, film director, Kannada writer, and playwright Girish Karnad and directed by K Madavane in Hindustani language, Tughlaq is a classic contemporary Indian theatrical work, which is based on the factual incident and aftermath of Sultan Muhammad Bin Tughlaq’s maniacal decision to shift the Capital of his empire from Delhi to Daulatabad and back.

If one sees Girish Karnad as a writer and playwright, it would then not be wrong to say how he magically engaged his curious audience by meshing elements of history with the ever-developing “modernity” of India. Tughlaq is one such work of his, in which lies not only the “personality” degradation of the then ruler of Delhi, but also the socio-political angle of the story, and not to forget, the crafty and “desperate” alliances of the characters within the world of the ruler. “Desperate” in the sense of how the commoners living in the prosperous Capital of Delhi panicked here and there, sweating over their new-found worries after hearing the announcement of the ruler’s sudden confusing decision to move the entire empire from Delhi to Daulatabad.

That was the time when people conspired behind his back to “kill” him, that is, to actually commit the crime of regicide. And that was the time when, once the shady plot of his murder surfaced, the king revealed his true maniacal rage to unleash wrath upon the plotters and the innocent people of Delhi. Sure enough, the ruler should not have ignored the depth of his stepmother’s advice when he huffed out silly fears of hers with his dialogue, “Kal ki fikr mein aaj ko kyu dubla kare!”

A plethora of comical elements

We all have heard the common taunt given to the lovesick lovers, especially by the singles, “Pyar aadmi ko kutta bana deta hai”. Ever thought of saying, “Pyar aadmi ko kabootar bana deta hai!”? The audience was lucky enough to witness the funny meaning of the dialogue delivered by the protagonist in Prem Kabootar, a story written by Indian theatre director, playwright and actor Manav Kaul.

With the touch of “Yeh unn dinon ki baat hai” era of school days, love affairs of the geeky and smarty-pant teenagers, whose stomachs fluttered with butterflies giving mixed signals of restless feelings in the world of college romance, and the same old theory of sacrificing one’s love for the sake of friendship, the play undoubtedly left people in splits due to the dilemmatic situation of the protagonist till the end of the play.

The play follows the hilarious story of the three bestfriends ~ Saleem, the tailor and a passionate Casanova; Raju the Chai wala, who desperately wishes to fall in love; and Suneel, the Hindi film hero, who not only turned out as the protagonist but the antagonist of his very own love story in a tickling comical way. While the play centred upon these three characters, there was that one fine beauty queen, Meenakshi, who was the “Queen of the Heart” of Saleem and secretly of Suneel too!

The story further twisted into a hilarious blunder of confusion and comical errors when Suneel started writing a love letter to his dream girl Meenakshi, only to remind himself repeatedly that she was already in love with the Casanova, and that he had to write one love letter for Raju as well. So the ultimate writer in the protagonist woke up and recreated a love story by putting the name Sonakshi instead of Meenakshi, and Pappu as himself (who actually existed in real life!).

Thus began the hilarious banter of confusion among the rest of the characters once the protagonist gave his love letter to Raju (in the absent-mindedness that Pappu was Suneel and not Raju!). And such was the hilarious atmosphere that the audience had almost forgotten that there lay a happy ending to Suneel’s comically sad fate!

The unheard story

Epic sagas of the age-old heroes and their bravery against the enemies of the state have always been and are still narrated in sing-song recitals among different communities. But only the rarest of rare did some justice to the unsung villains of the same sagas and were left to decay within the ravages of time and history. Among such forgotten characters was the eldest Kaurava from the Mahabharata, Duryodhana, who is, till date, misunderstood and hated greatly by all. And perhaps this gave Bhasa a reason to mete out justice to this character by depicting his feelings in his work Urubhangam.

Literally meaning “The broken thigh”, Urubhangamis a one-act unique play written by Bhasa, who is well-known as one of the earliest dramatists of India. The play begins with a scared group of commoners panicking here and there upon the bloodied field of dead, wounded and decaying bodies, crying with the fear for the dead ones whose souls had started to loom upon the fateful end of Duryodhana, whose thighs were broken brutally by Pandu-putra Bheema in gada-yuddha (mace fight) so as to fulfill his pratigya (oath, taken after the deceiving game of dice) to crush the former’s legs and in turn taking revenge on behalf of Draupadi.

Then came that moment of truth when Death began taunting the desolate warrior and began the game of dice with Duryodhana as the sole player to sacrifice every memory of his lived life so as to relive them again, but this time with a different angle. Amid the darkness, a semi-circle yellowish halo was set in the background, symbolising that the only light in the fallen soldier’s remaining life was left to be shown to the world, something that was hidden from his very own eyes, and yet he couldn’t even recognise it.

Sometimes we forget to cherish and respect the little things that bring a big change in our lives, and that’s what happened with him too as he was going through his lonely journey of repentance, reconciliation, guilt, remorse, pain, fear and love. Even Death couldn’t stop himself from mourning the loss of the emotionally hurt man as the latter breathed his last in Gandhari’s lap. Yet Death had to do the needful to lay Duryodhana to rest by taking him to a completely new world, leaving behind the dreaded past.

To call Duryodhana the unsung hero won’t be a derogatory act, for the villain of the epic history not only underwent the journey of timeless and universal human experience but at the same time was forgiven by the people, thus making him more humanly heroic.

Eternal love

We know love affairs take place a lot in schools and colleges mostly, but to experience love in a closed room with two equally opposite strangers trying to handle each other was something different witnessed by the Delhiites on the evening of 14 June, for they had no idea what they were about to see in Kaushik Bose’s play Dilapidated.

With the scene set in Reshmi’s closed” world decorated with a mini-planetarium, toys and posters of yesteryears’ iconic Bollywood actors and actresses, songs from the Golden Age played in the background. The “closed” world, as one would see from her perspective, was similar to that of a cage, where she had to rest most of the time due to her heart condition, a cage where many dreams of hers kept flowing out of her heart but sadly not of the caged room. Not until Zafar, a reserved and sincere teenager from her college, entered her limited world and began chanting lines from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, “I celebrate myself,/ And what I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…”

As a special bond stemmed between the young teens when they slow danced to the song Kuchh Dil Ne Kaha, Kuchh Bhi Nahi from movie Anupama, that moment to the audience felt as if time had stopped to celebrate their love during the lines “Dil ki tassali ke liye,jhoothi chamak jhootha nikhar/ Jeevan to soona hi raha,sab samjhe aayi hai bahar”.

The story slowly reached the climax, where people came to the bitter-sad truth of Zafar being just a soul who (after his unexpected demise unbeknown to Reshmi) had come not only to finish his job of making her realise that life can still become beautiful, but that his heart was hers, thus linking them eternally with a transcendent bond of love.

As a wickedly funny, heart-warming and poignant love story of two perfectly opposite teenagers, Kaushik Bose did a clever job by naming the play not “Dilapidated”, but “Dil(heart)-apidated”.

Of vengeance and sacrifice

Observing a two-minute silence, SRCPA group relived the late Girish Karnad’s Agni Aur Barkhaas their tribute to the playwright through their strong expressive emotions and acting of the multifaceted characters. The play began with a mahayagnya (fire sacrifice) being led by Paravsau and performed by a group of saints deeply devoted to Devraj Indra in order to bring rain to the drought-stricken land.

As the story moved on, viewers found themselves entangled within the complex web of lies and vengeance in Paravasu’s world, whose exalted position as Chief Priest of the sacrifice created discord among his father Raibhya, his forsaken wife Vishakha, his brother Aravasu and his cousin and arch-rival Yavakri. Among their battle of gaining ultimate supremacy, it was Aravasu in the middle, who got stuck while trying to choose between his love for the tribal girl Nittilai or to do his duty being an upper caste Brahmin. Lord Indra’s appearance at the end of the play turns out to be a testament to Aravasu’s sacrifice of his love for the happiness of others.

With the overall performance by each and every actor, not only did they manage to relive the magic of every play over these nine days, but they also achieved new heights of success to make the festival a memorable one.