Friday, February 06, 2009

An evening with Chugtai

The last time I was moved to a standing ovation was after two hours of Placido Domingo in 2002. It was my first experience of live opera. The tennis stadium in Dubai seemed to fill with applause from the bottom and reach right up to the sky (one of the reviews the next day said “the applause seemed to go on for hours”). I don’t remember clapping but I know I didn’t want to stop. It was a swelling feeling of utter satisfaction, of having been granted a magical view of genius, the opening up of the mind to a world with a different standard.

Last night was the same. It was the first Hindi play I’d ever been to and I wasn’t expecting anything at all because I didn’t know enough to do so. I went because Naseeruddin Shah was in it and him I already respect. It was a tribute to Ismat Chugtai, three of her stories narrated by the three actors. I’d never heard of her before I bought the ticket but found out in the days that followed that everyone else seem to have had. I learned a lot about her writing and her history in many conversations, but nothing prepared me for the sheer joy in her writing. The lightness of her wit and the casual cruelty of her satire were masterly. Happily, the actors were more than equal to the task of doing it justice. The acting was masterly, the direction, tone-perfect. It was a flawless performance of an amazing writer’s work.

The language was Hindustani, rather than Hindi. This, I am informed, means that it has a lot of Urdu in it. What it means in practice is that the language is the lyrical, elegant version, not the abrasive export from Delhi. Of course it also made some of the words hard to follow, but one got enough from the acting and the context to not lose too much.

I have to mention the lighting because it’s in danger of being dimmed a little by the brilliance of the actors. I don’t know enough technically to pinpoint what exactly it must be lauded for, I only know that it is the best lighting I have ever seen.

My introduction to theatre was through a theatre group that imposed very high standards on itself. As a result, I tend to be hypercritical of the plays I go to. Yesterday, I found nothing to cavil at. Nothing. It was worth every penny of the rather expensive ticket. That’s, like, a huge deal!

Sadly, the extravagant violin-shaped glory of Chowdiah Memorial Hall is rather faded. The walk down the length of the neck of the violin to the doors is still a pleasure but the lobby that used to seem lushly expectant is now just a featureless milling point. The auditorium is as imposing as ever but many seats are in need of replacement and the AC needs overhauling. The acoustics, though, are actually much better than I remember. Perhaps Row Z is the magic part where it all comes together. (Yes we were in the absolute last row; Naseeruddin Shah draws a full house.).

It would be a terrible shame to let Chowdiah fade. Perhaps a fund-raising theatre/cultural festival? Corporate donations? A combination? Somebody help!

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