Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Books: Arun Kolatkar ~ The Policeman, a wordless play

THE POLICEMAN: A Paper Tiger Book.

A wordless play in 13 scenes.

by Arun Kolatkar

Pras Prakashan. 2005, p 70. Rs. 495. 2006

LIKE a photograph, a brilliant drawing or a graphic impression can prove more eloquent, more potent and memorable than a thousand words. Poet-graphic artist Arun Kolatkar's offering — in visuals sans words this time — makes one do a double take at first acquaintance. For myriad valid reasons. 

 The late Kolatkar, to the public mind, is better known as a brilliant bilingual poet in both Marathi and English. A writer known to be wary of formulaic responses, well-trodden paths, and packaged images, whether verbal or visual.

What's less known about Kolatkar is that he was a product of the J.J. School of Art, and worked as a graphic artist all his life. No wonder his poetic images have the vividness of a memory flash, the quicksilver of Cannes-level advertising aphorisms, as he yoked the everyday with the extraordinary, often scenes from the footpath with controversial recent pogroms.

The Policeman forefronts Kolatkar's graphic genius. A genius of the same unforgettable calibre as Shel Silverstein (The Giving Tree) or James Thurber with his 1939 classic The Last Flower. Or even Spike Milligan's unique lines. For, Kolatkar's inner eye is sharp (his poems testify to this), his pen is keen-edged, and his graphic wit both individual and impeccable.

What are these 13 scenes about? The life of a policeman (recognisably a Mumbaikar), with an irresistible edge to the delineation that makes this a collector's volume — as we quickly delve inwards, following the opening image of a forehead with a cigarette between its lips, from which smoke drifts skywards. A thinker's book, we wonder.

The visuals prove a challenge to conventional thinking. Imbued with passionate observation, translated into quirky drawings, Kolatkar melds the mundane with the mystifying, the whimsical with the wacky. In doing so, he liberates the viewer/ reader to look at the everyday with layered vision. Until his paper tiger policeman, tired of being buffeted by life, bites right back.

In one unforgettable episode, the policeman stands atop his pedestal, directing traffic, with a tiny plant by his side. A snail enters the picture, followed by a procession of its brethren. They continue to stride forward as foliage grows to cover the cop, who is all but invisible, except for his feet. The snail, like life, marches on.

In another, frazzled by lightning, he's left atop his stand with nothing but a notebook in his hand. Devotion beyond the call of duty? A third scene in evolution renders him in the thick of a Mumbai monsoon, until floods sweep him away as he continues to balance himself on a crested wave, a fish in hand. Where does he end? In a shark's belly, with a mermaid on his lap!

And so his life grows, through close encounters with bees, dinosaurs, and even a rainbow that leads to an unusual honour — until the policeman decides to come into his own.

A rendition of Kolatkar graphics in mere words cannot do him justice. Not any more than a mere review can summon up the power and rawness of his celebrated Jejuri cycle of 31 poems, wrapped around a temple town in western Maharashtra. Or the image-rich Kala Ghoda Poems, his take on the Fort area of Mumbai, with its tin-pan band, idli vendor and vendor of rat poison.

When we think of Kolatkar, we summon up images that defy a second person rendition. And a life guided by a creed untouched by conventional mores. A dark, brooding, almost mystic creativity that would not be cubbyholed, labelled or rendered poster-bright.

Kolatkar's graphic graffiti comes alive through lines that sing and surge, twist and torment. And echo life in its unpredictable brilliance.

As we turn the last page, we are impelled to echo the dedication: "Thanks to Vrindavan for preserving the copy of `The Policeman' all these years from 1969 through 2005. Till now, this was the only copy on the planet. But for him, the book couldn't have seen the light of day."

(The Hindu Literary Review, 2006)

Books: Krishna Sobti ~ The Heart has its Reasons/ Dil-o-Danish

The Heart Has Its Reasons,(Dil-o-Danish)

By Krishna Sobti.

Translated from Hindi by Reema Anand and Meenakshi Swami.
Katha, Rs. 250. Paperback. 2005.

KRISHNA SOBTI is tough to translate. The celebrated grande dame of Hindi letters is very individual, very stylised, very hard to replicate in another language.

Within her eclectic oeuvre, she has innovated with literary forms and dramatic characters, framed within a broadly humanistic vision.

However Katha, true to its reputation as a pioneering Indian translation house of quality, has risen to the challenge. Sobti's literary craftsmanship surges to the fore in this rendition.

Even in English, the narrative captures the fluid intricacies, the well-wrought turns of phrase that distinguish Hindi, whether within the courtly idiom of the haveli families or the more colloquial bazaar exchanges of 1920s Dilli.

Building on the quintessential love triangle, Sobti demonstrates how uniquely a skilled practitioner can interpret it. Recreating the waves of love between Mehak Bano and Kripanarayan, and its impact on the home shores through his wife Kutumb, the writer summons up the troubled waters beneath a seething calm.

Is Mehak a roaring sea under her quiet, beautiful exterior? Is Kripa a restless wave that will answer the call of duty? How will Kutumb avenge the anguish of years caused by a straying husband? Sobti avoids the pitfalls of the conventional by etching three distinctive characters, whose lives course through the novel as surely as the ebbing tides.

The twists and turns in their fates. The social impact of their desires. The creation of outcasts by duty-bound familial hierarchy. The role of the radical individual within the societal framework. The impact of passion within the confines of an arranged marriage, defined by social benefit. These are among the myriad themes lyrically explored on Sobti's pages. Through three distinct narrators, who evoke an unforgettable time, a distinct milieu, a cultured space.

Through a lean, taut structure that serves her plot brilliantly, Sobti transports the reader into the Delhi of generations ago. A city of commingled religions. Of a bustling bazaar where distinctive sweets and namkeens, fine quilts and wedding garments, celebrate everyday creativity. Of a male chauvinistic preserve, encouraging open forays into forbidden turf. Of cloistered women who occasionally bypass shackles, often amidst intense turbulence.

Sobti's canvas is the human heart. Its shimmering shades and unfathomable depths are captured through social interfaces, layered dialogue and dynamic characters who evolve into new beings as time wields its unyielding whip.

The dialogue is especially distinctive, each oddly couched English phrase optimally capturing a characteristic Hindi expression without appearing unwieldy or misplaced.

And so, wooed by Sobti's authorial authority, we watch each individual voice intersect on the fabric of the whole. We marvel at the engaging web she weaves, shimmering with poetry through discord, illuminating us historically and culturally through crosscurrents.

We remain stunned at the sensitivity with which Sobti handles her male protagonist, allowing Kripa adequate dignity even as he falls from grace — thanks to her humanistic overview.

But then, Sobti fans, who recognise her as an honoured custodian of the best of contemporary Indian literature, are little surprised by the virtues of The Heart Has Its Reasons, even in translation.

For didn't she cast Daar Se Bichchudi with a Punjabi flavour, while engaging with Rajasthani culture through Mitro Marjani? Wasn't she the first Hindi woman litterateur to receive the Sahitya Akademi award? Besides being the recipient of the Katha Chudamani award for a lifetime's literary achievement?

This translation, for which Anand and Swami deserve due credit, ensures Sobti's pre-eminence by reaching out to non-Hindi readers. How else would they recognise the sterling qualities that mark her as a unique writer?

We hope Katha will, over time, translate all her works for our benefit. Besides this one, and Ei Lakdi, which they rendered earlier. Because a taste of Sobti, either in Hindi or in translation, leaves us yearning for more, much more.

(The Hindu Literary Review, 2005)

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Books: Musings on 'Curfewed Night' by Basharat Peer


By Basharat Peer

Random House India. 2008. 243 pages. Paperback. Rs. 295.

I’ve been a journalist since June 1976. Yes, that’s midway through the hated Emergency in India, when I joined Indian Express, Madras/ Chennai, as a rookie. I’ve read reams of reportage and editorials and other media output on Kashmir. But I have to confess that I really did not understand what had happened in Kashmir since 1989 until I read this book by Basharat Peer.

I won’t even try to summarize ‘Curfewed Night.’  It’s an act of love, a splendid interweave of history, reportage and memoir that moved me intensely the first time I read it in 2010. I can understand with clarity and empathy why a whole generation of protesters has come into being in Kashmir.
Confessions first. I had never been to Kashmir until 2008, on our way back from a trek in the Markha Valley in Ladakh. Six of us drove towards Jammu in a SUV through the dark night past Kargil, Drass and other places that created a mind buzz from past reportage. I couldn’t sleep. So, I kept my eyes on the luminous moon overhead.

The jammed mountain roads teemed with army trucks, filled with men in camouflage fatigues. En route, we were repeatedly stopped to ask if we had seen an escapee from the army, a Sikh soldier. At one point, we had to disembark, while army personnel frisked us and emptied out our luggage.

On the way to Srinagar, we didn’t go to Dal Lake. We stopped at a roadside dhaba for aloo parathas and chai for breakfast. Our eyes took in soldiers in uniform, their guns pointed at some invisible enemy, in idyllic wheat, mustard and rice fields. 

In Srinagar, armoured personnel carriers rambled through the streets in daylight. Young men, supposedly on daily errands, were stopped and searched on the streets. It was definitely a city in siege, mentally, physically and emotionally.

 I’ve been a journalist, but never a reporter. So, I’ve never been in a minefield or a war zone. The closest to that experience was probably during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, while I was at school in Jaipur. Sirens went off from time to time. Our windows were blacked out with paper and paint. During air raid drills, we had to run out of class or our hostels, and jump into the closest trench. If we had time, we were told to grab hold of a small bag each with our bare necessities. It was both exciting and scary at 10 or 11.

Act 2. Then came the war to liberate Bangladesh when I was a teenager at college in Kolkata in 1971. I recall that Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Arora and his wife, friends of my parents, had come to dinner at our home, along with others, in November 1971.  In December, Indian troops marched into East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh. Over 2 million civilians died. Over 400,000 women were raped by the Pakistan armed forces. I was horrified, more distressed by the day over man’s inhumanity to humankind. I was a pacifist even then.

Act 3. In the mid-1980s, while at Indian Express, I was talked into interviewing Gavin Young, who reported for the Sunday Times in London, by our editor Saeed Naqvi. He insisted that I would find Young intelligent and engaging because he had covered 14 wars across the globe, including the Vietnam war for over a decade. I’ll never forget what Young he told me: that wars are not about soldiers and generals, politicians or power; they are about little people in unknown places who are impacted by it all. (Young was, after all, a witness to the surrender of Pakistani Lt. Gen. Niazi to Gen. Arora in a bunker in former East Pakistan).
His home-truth rang sharply through my being as I read Peer’s human documentary in words. He made me think of the mythical ‘objectivity’ that is supposed to be the mean in journalism. After all Peer did report for Tehelka, which I respect. But how can you possibly be objective about your family, your closest friends, a land that means the world to you? Basharat Peer brings Kashmir today alive with confidence, emotion ~ and a quiet, yet poetic, touch. That’s an amazing feat, to my eyes.

Basharat Peer
 At just 32 when the book was published in 2008, Peer couched his reportage with flair and great emotional intelligence. Such as the impact of the interrogation camp at Papa-2, or the shattering impact of ‘disappeared persons,’ or how the redressal mechanism is totally corrupted, or the disappearance of Kashmiri Pandits and where they are now.

Take this excerpt about the book’s raison d’etre:

“I shared some stories with a few friends in New Delhi, but I could never say everything. I would find myself stopping in the middle of a sentence, choked, rendered inarticulate by memory. The telling, even in the shade of intimacy, was painful. There was also a sense of shame that overcame me very time I walked into a bookstore. People from almost every conflict zone had told their stories: Palestinians, Israelis, Bosnians, Kurds, Tibetans, Lebanese, East Germans, Africans, East Timorese, and many more. I felt the absence of our own telling, the unwritten books about the Kashmiri experience, from the bookshelves, as vividly as the absence of a beloved ~ the empty chair staring at you across the table in a coffee shop, the vacant seat in a theatre playing a movie she would have laughed through, the email with an idiosyncratic title that did not arrive in the inbox. The memories and stories of Kashmir that I carried with me like my VIP suitcase could fade away. I had to find the words to save memory from the callous varnish of time. I knew I had to write. And to write, I had to return and revisit the people and places that had haunted me for years…”

This is the story of Peer’s life. But it is equally about the lives of the 70,000 young men who have lost their lives in the ongoing battle in Kashmir. For bereft  of hope, without access to quality education or good jobs, a youthful generation has chosen to model its resistance on the stone-throwing youths of the second Palestinian intifada, not on the Pakistani militias who trained them to use guns.

Curfewed Night was on the New Yorker list of the year’s 100 best books. Granta editor John Freeman picked it among the five best debut books of the year. It won the Vodaphone Crossword non-fiction award 2008.

Why? For multiple reasons. Peer has access to the men who move about only at night. He tunes in to those who fight against the might of the Indian state. But most deeply, he is the voice of real Kashmiri people, like the old man who, mourning his murdered family, said to Peer:  “Go back and tell them what has happened here.”

Peer has done just that. He reveals the insider truths of Kashmir of the recent past with an incandescent brilliance that is tragic, poignant, and impossible to forget. If you’ve been as puzzled as I was about the true story of this tragic state, this is the one book I would reach for. It lights the way to understanding. 

Monday, 23 April 2012

Travel: Lepakshi ~ Of vanishing murals

At Lepakshi in 2000
 (I wrote this piece in 2000)

It's a long and winding journey to Lepakshi in Andhra Pradesh, about 15 km from the railway station at Hindupur. But it's a revitalising trip for those who believe in heritage sites, for those who marvel at the art of our ancestors, and those willing to get away from the routine multiple-destination tourist routes. 

At the height of its fame during the 16th century, Lepakshi was a centre of pilgrimage and trade. Its main claim to fame was its striking temple on the small hillock of Kurmasaila, which grew to its present dimensions when the brothers Viranna and Virupanna, both Nayak chieftains under Achyutaraja of the Vijayanagar kingdom, enlarged the shrine of Papanasesvara.

Virupanna, as the king's treasurer, had vast sums at his disposal, which he spent on making Lepakshi a magnificent temple. It consists of three shrines -- dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Virabhadra -- around a central pavilion with an intermed iary hall and a hall for ritual dance. Virabhadra, a wrathful manifestation of Shiva, was the patron deity of the Nayak rulers.

The temple core is surrounded by a large open court entered from the east with large gopuras to the north and west. A monolithic Nagalinga -- the largest of its kind in India -- and Ganesha in the second interior court entice the eye by their sheer scale and perfection.

The temple interior boasts of imposing sculptures in half-relief on each of its granite pillars. These depict dancers, drummers and divine musicians -- such as Brahma playing the drum and Tumburu playing the veena. The celestial nymph Rambha is depicted in dance, while Shiva is captured for posterity in the throes of the ananda tandava. In the intermediary hall, one frieze is especially striking -- a long line of geese with lotus stalks in their beaks. No detail has been spared even i n the central hall between the three shrines, adorned with flawless carvings of Gajantaka, Ganapati dancing, Durga and a hermaphrodite. 

A mural on the wall

Artistically, the Lepakshi temple is most celebrated for its paintings, though some have vanished while others are palpably weathered with time. A colossal painting of Virabhadra is almost hidden in the central hall. On the ceiling of the hall of dance, eight panels depict Puranic legends. One greatly humane panel captures the story of the Chola king Manunitikanda, who loved to dispense justice even to animals like the cow!

The use of natural pigments and ancient mural arts makes Lepakshi a remarkable storehouse of skills on the verge of extinction. The birds, beasts and foliage depicted in its paintings and carving have spawned a style often found today in block-printed Indian textiles and rugs, popularly referred to as the Lepakshi motifs. 

The giant Nandi bull

Today, the temple remains the town's main draw, though maintenance is poor and its priceless works of art have been ravaged and weathered by the years. Its inhabitants are used to visitors from afar who descend on them out of the blue and then are seen no more.

Lepakshi's restaurants are small and offer only standard thali meals or parathas with sabji. All around the dusty bus stand -- from where vehicles ply with indeterminate frequency -- we find an abundance of scattered baskets. On closer inspection, we find that they contain silkworms gorging on mulberry leaves!

Our visit was during the Dasara festival in October, when the sanctum sanctorum was ablaze with oil lamps, the air acrid with their smoke, the floor slippery from the hundreds of bare feet that had preceded us.

Further reading, on our return to Bangalore, revealed that Lepakshi is typical of the Vijayanagar style, as seen in the architecture of the famed Vitthala temple at Hampi or the portraiture in stone at Chidambaram. History books tell us that the Vijayanagar style was notable for its huge gopuras, multiple vimanas, large mandapas and generous courtyard space. In retrospect, we find that Lepakshi is true to this tradition, though perhaps as a scaled-down model.

A wonderful granite bull of gigantic dimensions a short distance from the temple enclosure is closely associated with Lepakshi in the minds of visitors. It is said to be the largest sculpted Nandi bull in south India, even larger than the famous one on the Chamundi hill in Mysore. 

The pillars in the temple courtyard

Lepakshi is a treasure trove for historians, art connoisseurs those interested in the preservation and restoration of traditional Indian art. Even as a single-site town, it rewards the determined visitor.

But it left us with many questions that haunted us for months afterwards. Can't concrete steps be taken to preserve what remains of its priceless murals? Why aren't the surroundings of the Lepakshi temple in better shape? Isn't it time that tourist literature on the Lepakshi heritage was made easily available to visitors, to keep them from falling prey to unlicenced guides who lurk at every turn in the premises?

Perhaps the answers are shrouded over in the mists of time. 

(The Hindu Business Line, 2000)

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Society: Puritanism v/s the Puranas

(This piece was written in 2003, when a disturbing incident took place during a brilliant show of photography in Bangalore)

She stands tall and proud, 10 arms raised in battle-readiness. Despite her benign expression, each hand holds a weapon as she towers over the demon Mahishasura whom she has vanquished. Her graceful form is made of pliant clay - the goddess-in-evolution grows, then acquires drapes of silk or innovative materials.

Such scenes are common in the crowded bylanes of Kumartulli in Kolkata, where local artisans create thousands of 'protimas' (images) of the mother goddess for the annual Durga Puja, an intense, weeklong, socio-cultural celebration that transcends religion or community.

The scene is replicated at dozens of venues in Chennai, Bangalore or Hyderabad, where the Bengali community congregates to celebrate the festival to the resounding beat of the dhaak (drum), the fragrance of incense at the evening arati (puja), and the crisp rustle of handloom saris.

Images of the goddess and the rituals surrounding Durga Puja are etched on the nation's collective psyche. And over time, hundreds of photographers have documented the making of the Kumartulli images. And yet, when "The Greenroom of the Goddess" - a black-and-white photo-essay on the theme by Kolkata-based photographer, publisher, and theatre person Naveen Kishore - opened at an upmarket lifestyle store in Bangalore recently, it was forced to close within a week.

What happened? Reliable sources reveal that a dozen well-dressed men who visited the show objected to the "inadequately draped" depiction of the goddess as "offensive" to their religious sensibilities. They demanded that 15 of Kishore's 29 frames be withdrawn, effectively bringing the show to a close.

The store, which had earlier exhibited Kishore's photographs on another theme, had also displayed outstanding photographic essays by Ketaki Sheth, Dayanita Singh and Pallon Daruwala.

What does this radical reaction portend? Does it spell a throwback to the 1996 storming of the Husain-Doshi Gufa in Ahmedabad, sparked by a 20-year old rendition of Saraswati in the nude, during which 16 of the 26 M F Husain originals were burnt? Or the continuing saga of rightist morality being superimposed on contemporary Indian culture - a morality glimpsed more often in Mumbai and New Delhi than in the Indian south?

"What I feel is numbness, in the way you can hear silence in a vacuum. I feel resignation and sadness. Extreme exhaustion," says Kishore, a self-confessed amateur photographer, the spirit behind Seagull Books, known for its quality publishing.

As a photographer, Kishore sees possibilities through a camera lens: "Of fragments, of moments, of whimsies, of memories that images trigger in me on a daily basis. That's all." Of the artisan's clothing casually draped over the image. Of idols stockpiled by the riverside, recycled by urban urchins, or the debris from the immersion. Just visuals triggered when novelist Amit Chaudhuri was exploring the idea of an essay on the transformation of Kolkata during the Pujas, a few years ago.

How do creative people respond to these private intrusions into public spaces? Noted writer-activist Mahasweta Devi reacts spontaneously: "It's all part of what the establishment is trying to do. I think we should resist fundamentalism in every form."

Referring to her recent candidature for the position of President of the Sahitya Akademi, the feisty Mahasweta Devi adds, "Do you know what canards were being spread in this context? That the Akademi is being taken over by the Marxists, the communists, the leftists! I think there should be all-India protests about every infringement of our basic freedom."

Husain, amidst his 'Theorama' series that depicts nine religions and humanity at large, veers vehemently in another direction: "This has nothing to do with religious sentiments. It's all petty politics. These elements want attention. We should ignore them, just as history will."

What of others who use photography as an artistic tool? Says Bangalore-based Pushpamala N, "It's the first time this has happened in Bangalore. I think the intention behind this completely irrational act is to create an atmosphere of fear in which fundamentalism can grow. After all, it's just a year to the elections."

Seagull Theatre Quarterly's editor Anjum Katyal, who has lived in Kolkata for many years, has another view. "Immorality is an imported, perhaps Victorian, notion. Culturally, we've been traditionally very comfortable with nudity/nakedness. These images have been created in the same way for over a century, with an armature fleshed out, covered with paint and cloth. Don't these elements, who are basically ignorant of our religious practices, realize that the image is not a goddess until a puja (prayer) invests it with divine powers?"

How does Bangalore-based Balan Nambiar, a National Award winning artist and researcher into ritual performing arts of the Indian west coast, enter the ongoing debate? "Throughout history," he says, "Chola and Pallava bronzes of goddesses used for worship were depicted bare-breasted, never with a covered torso. And 'abhishekams' (worship) were conducted on these figures."

Balan adds, "In Indian mythology, even the goddess Saraswati was always depicted with her breasts bare." Saraswati symbolises learning, literature and music.

Is Puritanism, then, replacing the wisdom of our Puranas? Has Indian society lost sight of the creative latitude it once embraced, including self-portraiture through nudes that generated wide-scale public debate? Have we daubed messy fingerprints on the lens of our times?

Even as the debate over such censorship "not by the law" rages, we have a few choices. To stand up and protest. To turn away and ignore those who espouse the right of might, whether political or pecuniary. Or to form coalitions of conscience to safeguard the freedom of expression invested in each Indian individual by the Constitution.

Aren't these the fundamental norms on which Indian art thrived for centuries? Will our self-appointed moral brigade take time off to study our rich cultural ancestry? How will history gauge us in retrospect? Whether as artists, photographers, viewers or those engaged in the commerce of art, our time starts now. 

Theatre: Tim Supple's "A Midsummer Night's Dream'

Shakespeare's Indian summer

(Originally written in 2006)

What could possibly be new about yet another production of  A Midsummer Night's Dream, possibly one of Shakespeare's most tightly constructed plays? British director Tim Supple's interpretation at the height of the Indian summer in April 2006 provides an answer. He engages with almost every aspect he could possibly experiment with.

Touring New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata en route to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) Complete Works Festival at Stratford-on-Avon in June, Supple's rendition "creating tomorrow" through collaboration between the British Council and Hutch comes through as a spirited radical encounter that leaves no one cold. It proves to be more performance than potent poetry, enmeshed in the crossed strands between stardust magic and magnetic love play. 

Breaking away from the purist English tradition, the former Young Vic artistic director and RSC associate presents this first British Council commissioned theatre production through breakaway ideation, daring his audience to lose themselves in a theatrical thicket of questions. With a plot familiar to most urban Indians, Supple is on firm ground.

By the last scene of this dramatised dream at the open-air Buck's Theatre in Chennai, we want to scream aloud about basic issues. Will this production with an Indo-Sri Lankan cast work with an audience in Iceland or Indonesia? Why do we soon feel at home with Shakespearean poetry interwoven through seven languages? Do elements from bharatanatyam, kalaripayittu, malkhamb, therukoothu, bhangra and kathakali fuse into seamless body language that carries the narrative through?

As an audience, what we carry home to revisit are dramatic visual stimuli, enhanced by set and costume designer Sumant Jayakrishnan's inputs and brilliant lighting conceptualised by Zuleikha Chaudhari. Of a satin-clad stage space for a fairytale, swept away with a flourish to reveal bare red earth, seething with erotic encounters and bestiality between poetic interstices. Of a paper-clad wooden grid that has its surface ripped to shreds as characters leap through it in sexual pursuit, in playful chase, in fluent entrances and exits. Of silken swathes that entrance us as they fuse fluidly to form a hammock for the fairy queen's dream turned nightmare. Of agile characters suspended between heaven and earth on ropes, challenging life on intermediate planes. Of rich costumes donned and doffed as characters flit between identities. Of a crisscrossed mesh onstage that reflects the tangled lives at play.

Two years in the dreaming, rehearsed over seven weeks at the Adishakti theatre at Pondicherry, with a 22-member Indo-Sri Lankan cast from a shortlist of 60 auditioned in Mumbai last July, what pivots does this production rest on? Two obvious influences surge to mind. Peter Brook's 1970 Stratford staging with its trapezes and circus-like physicality, its players in primary colours, pared down to the essential Shakespeare. And Czech critic Jan Kott, who defined it as a "very powerful sexual play."

 As we watch the youthful rough and tumble onstage, each move imbued with forest grace, a tropical heat surges through the performance under the boughs, as night birds screech and call overhead. Real life adds a special soundtrack to Australia-born Devissaro's nuanced score, rendered live by N. Tiken Singh, Kaushik Dutta and D. Prakash. But one element remains a puzzle a lingam-like `singing stone' by a simulated water body in the foreground, perhaps a tool for Puck's spells, which chose to remain silent during the closing performance in Chennai.

For a play often interpreted, even by intelligences like Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman, Utpal Dutt and Habib Tanvir, what makes Supple's rendition special? Perhaps he sums up its basic premise best in the production brochure: "I worked with an extraordinary range of artists. We had sessions where realistic actors worked with dancers and folk artists worked with experimental physical performers. We had musicians, singers and children. And most interesting of all, people acted in whatever language was most natural to them. Dialogues sprung up between English and Bengali, Hindi and Marathi, Malayalam, Tamil and Sinhalese."

Supple adds, "It was clear that our production had to be multilingual: to restrict ourselves to performers who worked in English would be to miss out on a wealth of different ways of making theatre and telling stories of seeing life and our trials of love, terror and social conflict that make up the canvas of the play. It would also be a lie. India is multilingual, Indian theatre is multilingual and whatever else a Shakespearean play might do, it should seek to reflect the time and place in which it is made with vivid honesty."

That's essentially what sets this production apart. Its honest South Asian multiculturalism. Has that led to an exotic, export-oriented experience? Are there neo-colonial notes underpinning the venture?

Not if we tune in to the cast and crew, who resonate with total theatre. Joy Fernandes, who plays an irresistible Bottom, recalls the physical rigour of rehearsals. The result? Impeccable body interfaces and pacing. Perfect tableaux. Surcharged emotional exchanges. Chandan Roy Sanyal, who dons Lysander's role, says, "I couldn't quite understand this character, until Tim explained one day: `He's a poet, who's in love with the idea of being in love.' After that, it was much easier. I enjoyed doing some of Shakespeare with the lyrical sweetness of Bengali."

Looking back, Supple remembers weekly sessions where the cast grappled with a key issue: `What is the play all about?'

With mixed feedback from Indian audiences, even those stunned by the production's integrity and aesthetics now wonder: how will it be received at the Swan Theatre at Stratford? Will purists be up in arms? Sprightly Yuki Ellias, who plays Hermia, is unequivocal in her opinion: "They will love us."

That's the quintessential challenge as Supple and his well-honed ensemble do a reality check on whether all the world's their stage.

(The Hindu Business Line, 2006)