Friday, March 1, 2024

Arms and the Man and The Bus Shed and the Future of English Theatre in Shillong


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Jyotirmoy Prodhani


There were two back-to-back productions of two English plays in Shillong recently by the young students of St Anthony’s College and Lady Keane College. St Anthony’s adapted the iconic Bernard Shaw play, Arms and Man, into a musical comedy while the students of Lady Keane staged an original English play The Bus Shed written by M.B. Dkhar and Directed by S.R Syngkon. Both the plays drew the attention and appreciation of the audience.

The Arms and the Man is a scintillating production, Bus Shed brings in innovation in storytelling and driving home a strong message on ecology and the environment. More importantly, Bus Shed turns the idea of ‘land’ into an evocative metaphor. Both productions, more than being just two college level plays as part of the annual activity calendar, bring in promise and expectations for Shillong itself to evolve gradually into a major site for English theatre movement in the country. The two recent productions are not mere performances or regular enactments but significantly defined as cultural adaptations in terms of performance planning of the plays.

A scene from Arms and the Man
Photo: Amanda Tongper

Arms and the Man is a well-known play, performed all over the world throughout the twentieth century, which has also been canonised to figure in most of the English syllabus for the UG and PG level courses. It provided very little room for innovation apart from certain cosmetic improvising. Bernard Shaw’s, Arms and the Man performed by the Drama Club of St Anthony’s College was a mesmerising production. They turned this iconic play into an electrifying musical pulling off a show where not a moment was dull. It was meticulously executed with a masterly coordination of light, music, costume, and, of course, acting. It was difficult to believe that it was a college production. Chocolate Cream Soldier is an iconic creation of Bernard Shaw, equally famous are the Petkoff family, who are proud of their acquired sense of aristocracy.

Director of the play Md Rezaul Islam came up with an extravagant performance. What is most important is to transform the play into a production with quintessential Shillong signature. Islam is an unassuming young man and very unlikely to be a theatre director. For a second-year student of Political Science, the finesse and professionalism in its execution were simply incredible. What was most defining was to synchronise the performance with choral and sonorous solo renditions. The music department of the play, in my assessment, scored a ten on ten. The musical dimension of the play gave it a prototypical Shillong identity, for anywhere else, at least in most part of India, to include such elements would be rather forced and applicable with acquired skill than the native ease and elan that the Shillong artists exude. Music, especially the Western classical and choral is integral to the cultural milieu of the city, therefore there is always a natural vibe and resonance when it comes to this form of music. What was most significant about the play was that instead of placing the musicians and the singers in the background or behind the wings, they were seated in the front and made them integral to the main performance, thereby it assumed a dimension of what can be termed as total theatre. As a boy from Assam, Islam was associated with theatre but those were mostly Assamese plays and his major exposure was with the Assamese mobile theatre. However,  his exposure came handy when it came to the use of light, stage placement of characters, use of multimedia inputs and keeping the tensile dimension of the play intact. Actors were no less than some of the finest in the profession.

Juhaib Hussain in the lead as Bluntchli, made a powerful presence throughout. Abiel Kharbani as the hefty Major Petkoff and Swastika Raj Kower as the socialite Mrs Petkoff were fully into the characters  and  Rachel Kaynia as Raina with affected innocence perfectly rendered the character, however her costume colour appeared pale which did not go with the over-enthusiastic persona of the character. Equally competent was Melam Walang as the stiff upper lipped Nicola. Two of my favourites were Julian Thaba and Heira Shamim as Major Sergius and Louka.  Julian as the matter-of-factly Major Sergius Saranoff drew instant attention through his dramatic entry with spot lights and Louka as the true representative of Shaw’s robust socialist ideology received constant applause from the audience. One must appreciate the music team of the play up who came with haunting music and catchy lyrics.

The Bus Shed produced by the ‘La Société Littéraire Anglais’ of Lady Keane, an all women production, was hugely promising in terms of its conceptualising, production design and  performance. Director Syngkon depicted a socially relevant issue with a mix of minimalist prop and an ensemble of characters. What is important about these two plays are the bold and courageous innovations that they made and at the same time the amount of audience appreciation they received. Shillong has the three most vital conditions for the English theatre movement to take off -competent writers, young enthusiasts as performers and more importantly, a receptive audience.

In the Northeast, theatre has a rich tradition and its history especially in Assam and Manipur where the indigenous theatre of the region flourished way back in the 16th and the 18th century respectively, coinciding with the neo-Vaishnavite movement at that time. In Tripura, Bengali theatre has had a strong presence and over the years, several theatre groups have come up with Kokborok theatre as well. In all these states the language of theatre has been invariably vernacular. Though there is a large audience for theatre among the masses, yet English theatre per se from the region was not able to take off. In the larger context of India, Mumbai is the major English theatre destination, followed by cities like Delhi, and to some extent Kolkata, though Kolkata is the hub for Bengali theatre, literature and art. Thus, modern theatre in India began with English theatre in around 1876 when proscenium theatre opened in Bombay and Calcutta.

Shillong with its potential should have more such plays not only within the college precincts, but in the public spaces as well. After music, Shillong makes all the promises to emerge as the next big English theatre destination of the country.

(The author is a Professor and Head of English Department at NEHU, Shillong)


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