Morphing a metaphor 
- Utpal K Banerjee, Delhi

October 24, 2006  

When Sapphire Creations put up their Positive Lives in the makeshift theatre of the America Center, Kolkata, in the context of their Interface-2006 festival in March 2006, it was a tantalisingly encrypted glimpse of much larger things to come. Positive Lives, even in brief, narrated the story of people living with HIV. As part of the worldwide 'Make Arts Stop AIDS' movement under Gere Foundation, Sapphire put up their visual montage: through vivid choreography, inspired by real-life stories and case-studies. "We've taken the help of NGOs like 'Sparsha' and 'Saathi' to develop our imagery," explained the director Sudarshan Chakravorty. "In separate scenes, we would show how fragile our existential behaviour can be to face the disease. Earthen pots are fragments of nature where we preserve memories and water represent flow of life. Breaking of the pitchers is the shattering of dreams and, at the end, one re-builds life!"

The Capital saw their finished production on 3rd September at the India Habitat Centre as part of the prestigious HCL series. Performed on the very next day after Dusshera, the show had an added poignancy: in terms of evil being vanquished - by the sheer will-force of mass burning of devil's embodiment in Ravana and his siblings for, the starkly ugly face of HIV and AIDS would not simply disappear by a collective willpower of the mankind yet. Quite to the contrary, the subcontinent that we live in is well on its way to be the tinderbox of the dreaded disease and assumes alarming proportions with every passing year that may soon dwarf its mother country Africa. Whether the ailment came from the chimpanzees of that Dark Continent or not, can be argued endlessly as a conjecture by the medicos; but there is no gainsaying the fact that the lonesome truck-drivers, hailing from the hills and plying their transport on the rugged miles on the plains, pick up the virus from their nightly companionships and take it back to their loved ones in the unsuspecting villages, spiralling a growth that has already gone quite beyond control.

It was just as well that Sapphire's performance of Positive Lives did not make the monstrosity too obvious, but used it as a veiled metaphor.  In the opening sequence, the director is the protagonist, picking up the contagion and hiding his ugly face from the civilised world. The strangers Paramita and Divyendu, both ace dancers dread their contacts. The earthy pitchers that carry the life-giving sap are emptied into the large container, but nature hits back and the vessel goes dry. The despondence grows. In the middle scene, there is desperation to 'connect' and the symbolic pillars provide yet another metaphor for the extended barriers of isolation that must be crossed and the hurdles that need to be overcome. In a striking sequence, Paramita gets coiled and re-coiled on a long red cloth-strip and is nearly strangled from a malady that can strangulate in its serpent-like, deadly embrace. The breaking of the barrier is like crossing the Rubicon and hope returns. The last sequence is essentially a re-play of hope. The stamping of the mother earth emanates confidence and the pitchers, re-filled again with water, provide a glow of new desire that everything is perhaps not lost and there may be a faint glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel of despair.

It was a thoughtful idea to have a Q & A interregnum after the show when the artistes could elaborate how they had morphed their metaphor. So it came out that the red cloth was as much an image of fertility that specifically attacks womenfolk (a Kumaon-hill reality!) and the simile was a close interplay with nature, especially earth and water. It was also just as well that the viewers could get their curiosity satiated on a germane issue, which the urban (and urbane) society has taught them to hide under the unseeing carpet!

Utpal K Banerjee is an Arts critic and scholar associated with the Pioneer.