Song of Surrender

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Of Memory, Mortality and Morality

By Shrinkhla Sahai

The last week of the 18th Bharat Rang Mahotsav in Delhi opened amid controversy. The Polish play Sońka was staged in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha, last Friday as part of the travelling BRM festival. It received flak from the culture ministry, and led to questioning of the NSD for permitting a semi-nude scene in the play. In fact, the play also faced the threat of being banned altogether from being performed at its next scheduled venue in New Delhi. 

Written by Ignacy Karpowicz and directed by Agnieszka Korytkowska-Mazur, the play delves into a mode of documentary theatre, termed as ‘theatre of memory’, and chronicles the life of a Belarusian woman who falls in love with a Nazi soldier during the Second World War. Many years later, Igor, a theatre director, coincidentally meets her on the Polish-Belarusian border and as their conversation weaves through anecdotal accounts and historic undercurrents, Igor creates a play out of the old woman’s memoirs. 

Despite the language barrier, the dramaturgy and nuanced performances were deeply moving and the play received a standing ovation. Stage movement, costumes, light design worked in cohesion to re-create war time from different vantage points, punctuated by the contemporary reality and play-making exercise. Using video projections and other visual motifs at strategic points was interesting. The live music was simple and profound, consisting of the accordion, percussion through vessels and other props, and vocals (by Dorota Bialkowska who also plays the dog Borbus). 

The play effectively combines the pointedly political and the deeply emotional. On one hand it examines the history of Eastern Poland, on the other hand it enchants with poetic exploration of relationships. Issues of memory, history and representation are juxtaposed to a narrative of young love and blind passion. Sońka asks Igor, “What makes us fall in love with someone, do you know? Neither do I.” Self-reflexivity runs through the play as a unifying trope. While Sońka, in her old age, reflects fleetingly on whether she really loved the soldier Joachim, or was in love with an illusion of him that she created in her head, and whether she should have loved her husband Misza more; Igor grapples with the exasperation of not having the power to control the characters and their destiny in his play since the story has already played out in reality, and he was not there to direct the flow of ‘real’ events. 

Returning to the flow of events that played out in the staging of the play in India, the NSD responded to the inquiry initiated by the state culture ministerand other officials by ascribing the nudity to wardrobe malfunction. In the performance in Delhi, the play was crudely interrupted during this particular scene. ‘Nudity’ was carefully avoided alongwith a footnote by the actor who plays Igor, announcing in English, “It is important at this point to explain this scene.” Much like a theatre studies class, he went on to say that the scene depicted the violent punishment meted out to the character Sonia (young Sońka played by Svietlana Anikiej) for flouting social norms and for falling in love with the wrong man (the Nazi soldier). He explained that her social ostracism involved stripping her naked, rape and the inscription of the Nazi symbol on her forehead as a mark of dishonour. Ironically, recently there have been many instances in India where rape as punishment, and stripping and parading naked have continued to be used as forms of social humiliation and punitive-corrective violence. The incidents in Jagatsinghpur (2015), Mayurbhanj (2014) and Rourkela (2013)are a few examples from Odisha, of a Pan-India socio-cultural problem. One wonders why these real incidents have not offended cultural values, generated cultural activism, inquiry and agitation from the same quarters whose cultural sentiments get hurt by theatrical representation through ‘nudity’.

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