By Shrinkhla Sahai
When Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, opened in 1879 in Denmark, it created a furore among the public and a compelling case for the critics. It posed a serious threat to patriarchy by imagining a climax where the woman walks out of her marriage and her husband’s home, leaving her children behind, in search of her own identity. The London premiere was watered down by offering a more benign adaptation and in Germany the climax had to be rewritten to be acceptable for a public performance. A century later, playwright Kamla Kapur’s Kaamiya revisited the questions that A Doll’s House left unanswered, and that still resounded deep and clear in the urban landscape of 1970s India. Why did the woman (Nora/Kaamiya) leave her husband? Where will she go? Will she be accepted by society and be able to create her own identity independent of being the wife/mother? Can an individual challenge gender roles and live life on her own terms?Above all, is being alone better than being lonely within relationships?
The recent performance of the play at the 18th Bharat Rang Mahotsavin Delhi was directed by Ram Gopal Bajaj and presented by the Ank Repertory from Mumbai. The acclaimed director conceived, organised and initiated the first Bharat Rang Mahotsav in 1999.
The play starts off at a promising point with Kaamiya dragging her luggage into her parental home. Not unexpectedly, she is received by an anxious and unsupportive mother. The mother’s conventional outlook and orthodox views are balanced by the eccentric aunt who also left her husband years ago and dithers between triumphant independence and heart-breaking isolation. The play operates on a consistent sense of melancholy, heightened at points by the reference to the younger sister who has been sent off to a mental asylum, the aunt’s fantasy refuge in an old romance, the mother’s attempts at self-importance through her zealous house-cleaning and the father’s silent surrender to ennui.
While the play raises significant questions, it remains in the realm of the rhetoric. The plot lacks movement and makes the pace of the play dreary and repetitive. While Preeta Mathur Thakur (Kaamiya), Aman Gupta (father) and Gunjan Kumar (husband-Murli) seem convincing in their realistic mode of acting, Meena Vaibhav (mother) and Laxmi Rawat (Sarla aunty) present melodramatic caricatures. Despite the deeply emotional and socially relevant theme, the play does not move, entertain or inspire with its text or dramaturgy. The vexed question of motherhood, social acceptance, gender roles, remain superficially patched on to the lives and narratives of the characters.
In Seeing like a Feminist, Nivedita Menon discusses the ‘implosion of marriage’ in Indian society and says, “There is no explanation available for the woman’s unhappiness at her changed state. Can a woman just go back home saying simply – I don’t want to be a wife, I don’t like this job? Forcibly trained from girlhood for marriage and marriage alone, not permitted to dream of any other future, expecting that marriage will be the beginning of their lives, and finding that it is in fact the end of their lives; the frustration and resentment that this situation generates has lead increasingly to what I see as the implosion of marriage – young girls simply refusing to perform the role of the docile wife and daughter-in-law, to the bewilderment and rage of the families into which they marry.”
The play actively investigates this implosion of marriage, but a more nuanced reading of relationships and a layered presentation would perhaps resonate more deeply with our contemporary realities.