Candid contemporary images
- S.D. Desai

October 19, 2015 

In four weeks, three events on Girish Karnad. A rehearsed reading  of Wedding Album by professors of English (Indira Nityanand, Shubha Nigam, Rupalee Burke, Keyur Vohra; directed by Kamal Joshi) followed by a discussion, a seminar (by this writer) on the play, now a performance of Broken Images, directed by Alyque Padamsee starring Shabana Azmi, Coconut Event’s Stage Maza  presented at the Convention Centre on  4 October. This - apart from the fact that nearly all Karnad plays have been performed in Ahmedabad and four of them translated into Gujarati – is a measure of this city’s interest in the celebrated playwright.

Girish Karnad
And for a good reason.  Karnad’s earlier plays are based on myths and history so much so that some writers had started murmuring he only dramatized known stories. They conveniently forgot that master playwrights in other languages, including English, have resorted to familiar sources. Though on a different scale, and with no pretentions to be comparable to them, Karnad shares with them the ability to project in those plays strong human traits and values - pretty suggestively and credibly enough relating them to their contemporary counterparts - through ingenious dramatic structures. Wedding Album and Broken Images now hold interest for their direct contemporary themes, an innovative use of modern technology and their lively dialogue.

With videography, TV serial making and  ‘live chat’, besides conversations looking trivial in the former, the playwright engages attention and exposes the shallowness of existence in ‘modern’ society – near-religious practice of following customs, the unwelcome unseen layer of relationships within a family, sexual ethics, a façade of respectability, a subtly expressed gender inequality even while a matrimonial  ‘choice’ is exercised, the playwright’s empathy for those emotionally co-existing on the margins of society.

The play holds a mirror up to the contemporary middleclass society and captures its disconcerting images such that one might see in them signs of a gross and decaying society. A boy in early teens regularly visiting an ‘aunt’ in the neighbourhood, mother of a son his age, is so infatuated with her that, to her unexpressed delight, he says he would die with his hand inside her blouse. The ‘high-caste’ educated young woman who is to get married to an NRI soon feels no qualms in submitting herself gradually fully undressed in the dark video café for her virtual lover. Her uncle had, significantly, entered his name as father in her birthday certificate.

The playwright, a keen observer, sees what commonly goes unobserved – in our everyday behavior in Wedding Album.  He exposes in Broken Images the sham and hypocrisy in the celebrated literary world the common man is generally unaware of.  On the crest of triumph, in her brief TV appearance - before that she is shown getting ready for it and informally talking with the producer - the author of a best-selling novel Manjula Sharma with a studied flourish brushes aside the question why she wrote in English and projected her family’s support.

A moment later, even as Shabana Azmi as Manjula basking in the glory fame and money have bestowed upon her, struts about on the stage, there appears on the television screen her own image – younger, smarter, more intelligent, her sharp eyes shrewdly probing, her voice rising and falling with innuendoes. She begins with pointed questions and ends up grilling the author, who finds herself pushed to the wall now, now wiping tears fumbling for defense.  A façade comes off here too but in a different milieu, in public eye at a highly elevated level.

Shabana Azmi

The smarter Shabana on the screen is Malini, Manjula’s younger sister, who lay half-paralysed but talented and articulate, who had an emotional and intellectual bond with brother-in-law Pramod.  This image of Malini does not exactly fully steal your empathy surprisingly, perhaps because she is no more and it’s a distant image – because perhaps the playwright, as is his wont, has put other shades into her portrayal.  Is the image Manjula’s conscience? Is it her alter ego constantly in a disconcerting conversation with her? For sure, Manjula is haunted by the spirit, if you would like to call her so. The image has a shape and voice and yet, when you think of it, it loses the outline, grows amorphous and is likely, as our inner voice, to chase us too in the modern world.

It is through her body language and voice that Shabana on stage expresses a range of moods and emotions of Manjula from pretentions and deceit to painful acceptance.  As much as does the playwright, the director carries the subtext of the play beyond the two characters involved. The Shabana on the screen gets subtly expressive with her playfully crafty modulation and eyes. With neither the props nor costumes nor the scene changing and the dramatic structure remaining tight and psychologically complex, Broken Images stimulates, provokes and pleases.
Calling the play a ‘thriller’ takes away from it its value as a literary as well as a theatre piece. The playwright seems to have received the initial spark for the play from T. S. Eliot’s words, ‘a heap of broken images …’ With the undertone he develops, which Padamsee tantalizingly echoes, and the title in plural, the broken images are seen here, there, everywhere in contemporary life. The natural is difficult to identify, the real at times gets indistinguishable from the virtual.  Barely recovering from the experience the play offers, one recalls W. B. Yeats’ lines: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / … The ceremony of innocence is drowned.’

Dr. S.D. Desai, a professor of English, has been a Performing Arts Critic for many years. Among the dance journals he has contributed to are Narthaki, Sruti,  Nartanam and Attendance. He guest-edited Attendance 2013 Special Issue. His books have been published by Gujarat Sahitya Academy, Oxford University Press and Rupa. After 30 years with a national English daily, he is now a freelance art writer.