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Produced By Aasakta Kalamanch
Aasakta Kalamanch Pune is one of the leading contemporary theatre organisations in Marathi Theatre. The group is known to fearlessly experiment, creating fresh idioms in theatre – be it in form or in substance. Their absolute insistence on innovative and exclusive production value and precision in technique makes their productions visually appealing too. Aasakta's core strength is its talented and motivated members who are pivotal players in its growth and success.
History attests that in 1551, an elephant made the journey from Lisbon to Vienna. Solomon the elephant and his mahout had already made a long sea voyage from Goa and spent a couple of years standing about in a pen in Lisbon, before setting off for Valladolid as a present from the king to the Archduke, who travelled with him to Italy by ship and across the Alps to Vienna. In the play, loosely based on Nobel laureate Jose Saramago’s ‘The Elephant’s Journey’, Solomon and his mahout Subhro proceed through various landscapes at an unhurried pace, attended by various functionaries and military men, and meeting along the way with villagers and townsfolk who variously interpret the sudden enigma of an elephant entering their lives. The novel – The Elephant’s Journey – by the late José de Sousa Saramago was published in 2008, and now five years after the Marathi play we wish to adapt the play into a Hindi play, Gajab Kahani. The novel had garnered rave reviews, not only for its interesting historic documentation but also for the bluntness and rawness with which it portrayed the paucity of human emotions. And that is the idea that has us to adapt the novel in a manner in which they could stay faithful to the original story that made it a publishing phenomenon in Europe.
Produced By Aasakta KalamanchMore Info+
Directed By Mohit Takalkar
Ajeet Singh Palawat
Mumbai Theatre Guide
7th October 2017
Once upon a time in 16th century Europe, the elephant was a spectacle- a wonder of sorts, a creature never seen before. Yes, that must be difficult to comprehend in our ''post-new'' world, but in the Europe of the time, there was indeed an Indian elephant that announced its arrival in its great cities and little towns as Solomon, later Suleiman, made an unusual journey from Lisbon to Vienna on land and in boat with his faithful mahout Subhro, later Fritz. It all started with a royal wedding gift given by King Joo III of Portugal to Archduke Maximilian of Austria. The pachyderm was the subject of the gift. The late Nobel Prize winning Portuguese writer Jos Saramago fabled this extraordinary journey in his novel 'The Elephant's Journey' (A Viagem do Elefante), which was published in 2008. It must be read.
The past is an immense area of stony ground that many people would like to drive across as if it were a motorway, while others move patiently from stone to stone, lifting each one because they need to know what lies beneath. Sometimes scorpions crawl out or centipedes, fat white caterpillars or ripe chrysalises, but it's not impossible that, at least once, an elephant might appear...
Aasakta Kalamanch's production in collaboration with Aadyam, captures little of Saramago's style. It substitutes theatricality for effect. Amitosh Nagpal's adaptation comes across as a playful yet gross reduction of the original text. The overlay of Hindi and gibberish with Spanish and Italian ( not Portuguese) overtones, and a smattering of English, German and Bengali, might have been a plausible solution to make the text accessible while retaining the tongues of its European locations, but it barely resonates. Saramago's voice is unique, but we are unable to hear or appreciate it. It does not particularly help either to watch the story unfold swivelling in a chair all along, although the use of space is clever.
There are some catching moments but they disappear as fast as they appear - like Gitanjali Kulkarni's introduction of the elephant that she portrays with command and dignity. Moments filled with awe as they should be. Kulkarni's principal co-actors, the mahout (Ajeet Singh Palawat) and the commander (Nakul Bhalla) are striking in their roles as well. The ensemble as a whole squarely conveys the sensibility and design of its director Mohit Takalkar, abled by Pradeep Vaiddya's atmospheric light design. The set is only a bunch of raised platforms but the progression of the journey is evidenced in the finely tuned lights, conveyed by lanterns and a vivid hailstorm towards the end.
Interpretation is everything. It is key to our understanding. Saramago was avowedly a communist with a deep disdain for capitalism, religion and all hierarchical structures. He was a man of the soil and of nature with a deep empathy for animals, especially dogs. The whispers shared between the elephant and his mahout are among such shared confidences that we can only yearn to know. Once again a lovely moment springs upon us in this otherwise superfluous production as Kulkarni and Palawat bring their heads together.
Saramago was a wise, sensitive and unhurried writer with a quiet wit, and was ever so skeptical of words. We get a vague sense of the hopelessness of words in the production and to some extent about the futility of faith; of the whims of the powerful and of the transient nature of life in which all surprises must eventually cease. The adaptation fleetingly picks up these core ideas from the story but misses the nuances. The wonderful fantasy and science fiction writer Ursula K Le Guin has described Saramago as a writer whose work belongs to our future. It cannot be more true.
To borrow from the man again:
News of the miracle had reached the doge's palace, but in a somewhat garbled form. the result of the successive transmissions of facts, true or assumed, real or purely imaginary, based on everything from partial, more or less eyewitness accounts to reports from those who simply liked the sound of their own voice, for, as we know all too well, no one telling a story can resist adding a period, and sometimes even a comma.
And so we have it:
Aasakta Kalamanch in association with Aadyam presents GAJAB KAHANI.
*Deepa Punjani is the Editor of this website.
The Daily Pao
7th October 2017
‘GAJAB KAHANI’ PLAY REVIEW: MOHIT TAKALKAR’S DRAMA IS A STORY ABOUT FRIENDSHIP AND TRAVEL
Director: Mohit Takalkar
Adapted by: Amitosh Nagpal
Cast: Geetanjali Kulkarni, Ajeet Singh Palawat, Nakul Bhalla
Language: Hindi, gibberish
Mohit Takalkar’s Gajab Kahani, the second Aadyam production of this season, is an ambitious project. It’s a stage version of Jose Saramago’s novel The Elephant’s Journey, a picaresque story about the 1551 transcontinental journey of Solomon, an Indian elephant and its mahout Subhro, from the court of King Joao III in Portugal to that of Archduke Maximilian of Austria. Solomon is a gift for the Austrian king.
First performed in Marathi in 2011, this is the Hindi adaptation by writer Amitosh Nagpal. The challenge here is to give the audience a sense of journey and the feeling of wonder that Europeans in the sixteenth century felt upon seeing an animal that must’ve seemed straight out of a fantastical bestiary. There are times when this is achieved, as well as moments of hilarity for The Elephant’s Journey is full of humour. But on the whole, Gajab Kahani is a partial success. There’s too much silly, physical humour that never allows the effect of the few potent scenes in the play to linger.
In the play, Solomon (Geetanjali Kulkarni) sets off from Lisbon with his Bengali mahout Subhro (Ajeet Singh Palawat) and a company of soldiers led by a commander (Nakul Bhalla). They cross the country, Spain, Italy and the snowy Alps before arriving in Vienna. On the way, they cross gawping commoners, priests with strange agendas and are met halfway by the Archduke and his wife, who travel with the company for the rest of the journey. Maximillian changes Subhro’s name to Fritz and Solomon’s to Suleiman, in the manner of monarchs stamping their authority and identity on subjects.
At the G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture, where the drama opened on Saturday, May 20 and will be staged this week, the action takes place on four raised platforms encircling the audience. The peripatetic characters – the three main ones and the soldiers played by a large ensemble cast – move frequently between the four points. The audience is seated on swivel chairs, making it possible – and fun – to turn in the direction of the action.
This is a story of friendship. The most touching moments are those in which people feel a bond with Solomon. Subhro is anxious about whether he will be needed in Vienna. If Maximillian could so casually change his identity, then he could just as easily hire someone else to look after Solomon. Were that to happen, would Solomon miss him? To this, Solomon responds with a plaintive, friendship-affirming song. It’s a stirring moment that seemed deeply heartfelt as Kulkarni herself was moved enough to tear up. Kulkarni is terrific as the elephant, cheeky, mysterious and intelligent enough to know exactly what goes on around him.
The story is also about the transformation brought about by travel. The commander is curious about Subhro’s religion. So Subhro explains the Hindu pantheon and tells him the story of how Ganesh got an elephant head. He passes a cheeky remark about Christ and nearly gets slaughtered by the devout Catholic troops. This is soon forgotten and at the end of the journey, the commander is sad to part ways with Subhro. The Ganesh story might have seemed innocuous in different times. But with the Hindu right more powerful than it has ever been, Subhro’s sing-song narration seems unnecessarily laboured and you can’t help but wonder about the politics of the play. As if anticipating this reaction, Takalkar throws in a mitigating pun. The commander asks Subhro in Hindi: You’re Hindu, right? Subhro replies that the right wing came much later, before them Hindus were just Hindus.
The problem with Gajab Kahani is the comedy, which arises less from situations than from clownish acting. The soldiers, royals and common folk, that is everybody other than the three main characters, speak gibberish and perform in an exaggerated, farce-like way. After Rajat Kapoor’s series of Shakespeare playsin gibberish, regular theatre goers might be fatigued with all the nonsense talk. The idea here is to suggest alien tongues and cultures. But after a point, it grates and has the unfortunate effect of dampening the impact of the more memorable parts of the play.
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