The day after I arrived in Hyderbad I drove with my parents to the university campus. It was a Sunday evening, and my father remarked that the traffic was moderate. “You should see it on a weekday,” he said, “The city is beginning to resemble the nightmare that Bangalore has become.” To me, the streets seemed to bustle with activity in a pleasing sort of way. Perhaps it was the effect of light: the last rays of sunlight that penetrated the maze of closely-spaced buildings conveyed a golden tint to everything in their path. I took pictures whenever we stopped at a traffic signal.
We had been invited by Professor Ujar, a friend of our family, to watch a play being staged by the university students. It was a play by Harold Pinter titled, coincidentally, ‘The Homecoming’. When I had learned of this opportunity last week while still in Germany, I had asked father to block our seats immediately.
Entering the campus was a bit like leaving behind a dusty desert for an oasis, green and quiet. Professor Ujar, who in his greying baldness and wide-rimmed glasses looks every bit the distinguished academician he is, welcomed me with a warm hug and introduced us to other friends he had invited. We soon found ourselves walking through the campus towards the auditorium. Along the way a few passers by stopped to greet the professor. One girl came up to him with a plea: the show was sold out and she wanted very much to watch the play – could he help?
The auditorium was small – which is always good for a play – and the props – a sofa set, some chairs and a table, a coat stand and a stack of drawers – were set not on but below the stage, right in front of the audience. (We were to learn later that the stage was in a state of disrepair, hence this shift in platform).We sat in the front row – a privilege offered to friends of faculty – but in the narrow space between us and the beginning of the actor’s area were a few rows of mattresses where students soon settled down, chatting and giggling merrily.
The play began fifteen minutes past scheduled time, and ran for two hours across two acts. Although the amateurism was evident in places, it was a spirited, enthusiastic performance. The larger problem, I thought, was with the theme, which didn’t seem to fit with the background of the actors; I’m not sure if a play like this – with characters from the working-class in London, speaking a tongue that was hardly respectable and having strangely disrespectful and inconsistent attitudes towards women – can be performed effectively by Indian-looking-and-speaking actors. It was a bold theme, and I was surprised at the ease with which these young students handled some intimate scenes. Consider this extract from the play (at this point LENNY and RUTH are in each other’s arms, kissing):
JOEY goes to them. He takes RUTH’s arm. He smiles at LENNY. He sits with RUTH on the sofa, embraces and kisses her. He looks up at LENNY.
He leans her back until she lies beneath him. He kisses her. He looks up at TEDDY and MAX.
LENNY sits on the arm of the sofa. He carresses RUTH’s hair as JOEY embraces her. MAX comes forward, looks at the cases.
JOEY lies heavily on RUTH. They are almost still. LENNY carresses her hair.
JOEY and RUTH roll off the sofa on to the floor. JOEY clasps her. LENNY moves to stand above them. He looks down on them. He touches RUTH gently with his foot.
Sitting next to my parents, a part of my mind was dwelling on their reaction to all this on-stage intimacy from youngsters. In the end, father liked “the eloquence of speech” from the actors, while mother found the whole thing “strange”.
On the walk back from the auditorium Professor Ujar explained the reason for the delayed start: some students, mostly from the backward-caste category who had been admitted through the reservation quota, had insisted on watching the play even though it was sold out, while the students in the organizing comittee were wary of the trouble these students could create while the play was on. The Vice Chancellor of the university had to step in to resolve the matter, and after a caution the protesting students were let in. “The students who staged the play,” explained the Professor, “are from the more elite sections of the student population, and they are not too comfortable with the other sections.”
The local Times covered the event, and the article that appeared two days later had only nice things to say about the play (which is probably what the young students need, to motivate them further). It was a short piece, and one sentence instantly caught my eye:
“An existentialist play by Pinter would never be the easiest thing to stage. So, they decided to get it off the stage, and performed in the gallery!”
The coming weekend another group of students from the university is performing Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana. That sounds more promising, somehow.