A Timeless Hindi Play
‘Lok Katha’ has been revived after 36 years
‘Lok Katha’ means folk tale. The play was originally written in the Marathi language as ‘Lok Katha 78’. Its writer Ratnakar Matkari, was one of the most successful author and playwright in Marathi literature. In this play, he extends the term ‘Lok Katha’ beyond its literal meaning. He addresses other socio-political issues like casteist schisms within the village environment, where upper-caste landlords and other elders not only exploit poor tenant farmers and migrant workers in every way, but also voice the feelings and acts of revolt among the oppressed men, women and children. It included other areas of oppression, exploitation and torture that violate human rights blatantly.
Ratnakar Matkari had immense variety in theme, form, and use of language which cannot pinpoint a ‘Matkarian’ style. One can identify a Matkarian play by its taut structure and fine dramatic technique. Matkari directed for both the mainstream and parallel theaters, acted occasionally, wrote for television and cinema, illustrated his book covers, and sketched his characters for the printed texts.
Some of his plays, like ‘Lokkatha 78’, have been performed in several Indian languages. Matkari also won the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1986.
‘Lok Katha’ was first presented in Kolkata translated into Hindi by the late Usha Ganguly, founder and director of Rangakarmee which celebrates 47 years of its existence this year. It was translated into Hindi by Usha Ganguly herself who also directed the play. Even 36 years after that first performance, the timelessness of the play is striking. Rangakarmee, recently presented ‘Lok Katha’ to houseful audiences in Kolkata in repeat performances.
Casteist oppression as shown in the play is still rampant as is the exploitation of the Dalit worker, never mind if he works as a tenant farmer or a stone-crusher or something else. He, like others in his tribe, remain slaves. And even when they rise in protest, together and through collective action, the brutal and ruthless treatment by the people in power including the landlord, money lender, astrologer, policeman, priest, of the poor migrant labour remains as it was when the play was written in 1978.
The labourers in the play are compelled to move on from one village to another in search of a roof, some food for the impoverished family, and to find a little greener grass in a different place which, however, is a hopeless situation for them.
The stage is almost without any set or props, because the large cast of people including women and a kid are sad, angry, rebellious and hungry props unto themselves. The large number of ‘low-caste’, poverty-stricken workers are united in their anger and their costumes, a dhoti with a gamcha and bare bodies above perform as if they are performing a ballet in complete harmony and balance, not losing a single step here or a beat there.
They sing, they dance, they vent out their anger promising to rebel. However, they cannot because their leader, who has one arm missing and is the only one wearing a shirt, is killed soon after he protests against his wife’s abuse by the powerful, ‘upper-caste ‘and affluent people of the village they have just walked into. The armless person is replaced by another leader whose voice is heard in chorus joined in by the others, but is soon silenced through muscle, money and political power.
The “body” of the chorus actors often takes the shape of a pyramid, or a wall, with a gate for others to enter and exit, or, hold hands symbolising their solidarity sometimes or to stop others from entering their circle. What a wonderfully synchronised performance.
They sing, drum the dafli and try to put up as brave a face as they can. Their spirit of resistance is spelt out through their beautifully choreographed and performed body language right till in the end. We then find the whole lot moving out of the village to find shelter, work and food in some other village.
But is there an Utopian village that will ever welcome them with hot food to feed their empty bellies? The play, more like a perfectly synchronised ballet, or perhaps, an ideal blend of both, drives home the message to the houseful audience that what was true 36 years ago is true today too. The discrimination is rampant, the abuse of women is ever present, wrongful killing is always there and there is no punishment doled out to the wrong-doers because no law can hold them guilty of murder.
The play successfully captures the sordid reality of today's rural Indian society and the importance of our active protest. Rangakarmee's ‘Lok Katha’ is in fact a portrayal of the rustic-realism of our beloved India as it is today. Ratnakar Matkari makes us question ourselves and jolt us into realising the significance of our silence.
Anirudh Sarkar, Deepesh Rajak and Amal Saha have worked hard as “guides” to the present performers who did not appear in the play 36 years ago. The final product proves how efficiently they have done their job. Badal Das’ light design plays around with the darkness which characterises the mood of the play, symbolically and physically as well. The music is provided mainly by the actors themselves who are both “chorus” and individual characters as and when demanded of them.
Rohit Vemula’s suicide reveals that more than 70 years after India declared itself to be “a Sovereign, Democratic Republic” the ugly underbelly of what the leaders take pride in by labelling it “India Shining”. Though Vemula has categorically stated in his suicide note that he did not hold anyone responsible for his death, the echoes of reality are deafening on the one hand and shameful to confront on the other.
‘Lok Katha’ underlines the tragedy that the “lok” may be the same, but the “katha” we talk about is filled with inhuman and unjust inhumanities inflicted by the powerful over the weak with no justice at the end of the dark tunnel.