Centuries ago, it was the royalty that generously supported art and culture. In modern times, this responsibility has been taken over by some sensitive and sensible corporate houses. We have the Tatas running the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai. We know that the Aditya Birla group has been supporting good theatre through its new initiative ‘Aadyam’ under which every year some very good plays are staged in Mumbai and Delhi. This is Aadyam’s third year and it began with the staging of The Guards at the Taj, an English play, followed by Gajab Kahani, a play in Hindi.
The elephant’s journey
Gajab Kahani is based on Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago’s sprawling epic, The Elephant’s Journey. This play was presented by the Aaskata Kalamanch, a Pune-based group and is directed by Mohit Takalkar. This is Aaskata’s second stab at Saramago’s novel, having mounted an identically named Marathi play in 2012. Saramago’s (1922-2010) novel was published in Portuguese in 2008, and an English translation was made available posthumously. The novel is set in the 16th century and it begins in an abandoned nook of a palace court in Lisbon. Here the elephant, Solomon, and its mahout, Subhro, have been miserably consigned ever since their arrival from India as a gift for King Joao III of Portugal. In due course, the elephant is gifted away as the official wedding present to Maximilian II of Austria. The elephant’s onerous journey after being dispatched from Lisbon is the subject of the novel and the play, Gajab Kahani.
An elephant, in those days in Europe, was a rare creature. Europe of that era was passing through the most uncertain times in terms of political tug-of-war. Subhro and Solomon negotiate unforgiving terrain with breathtaking vistas, beautiful mountains, rivers and cities, before arriving in Vienna, the de facto capital of the Holy Roman Empire.
A novel presentation
Aaskata Kalamanch, under the baton of Mohit Takalkar has mounted a very engaging show with eye-catching costumes and excellent lighting. The shows of Gajab Kahani were held at the intimate theatre, ‘G 5 A’ located at Mahalaxmi. This time Takalkar got swivel chairs in the hall so that audiences could move 360 degrees in their chairs as action was taking place in all corners of G 5 A. This was indeed a novel way of presenting the show.
The story is set in 1551 A.D., and is about the transcontinental journey of Solomon with his mahout Subhro. In the play Solomon (Geetanjali Kulkarni) sets off from Lisbon with mahout (Ajeet Singh Palawat) and a company of soldiers led by commander (Nakul Bhalla). These are the three main characters supported by a large ensemble cast.
The Elephant’s Journey is a story of friendship through thick and thin, a story of emotional bonding between Solomon and Subhro. It is also a story of transformation brought about by travel, which always is the case. Remember Life of Pi? There, adversity brings together a tiger and a young man. And also remember Rain Man, starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman? Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) has to drive down Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman), his elder brother, who suffers from savant syndrome. The road journey to Los Angeles brings the brothers together creating a strong emotional bond. So is the case with Solomon and Subhro.
First and foremost is the issue of language. Subhro can talk only in Hindi whereas other members of the cast speak gibberish. This device has been used to lend authenticity to the experience and it works. It certainly creates the atmosphere of an alien language and culture. Despite the language barrier to both, Subhro, Solomon and audiences, the play moves ahead as the body language is very powerfully used. An elephant that has never experienced the killing chill of the Alps has to go through this just because his boss has gifted him away to some other king as a part of ‘elephant diplomacy’.
After landing in Vienna, the new home of Solomon and Subhro, the new boss suddenly feels that name of Solomon should be changed to Suleiman. Subhro protests in his humble way. He feels that a name is not just a name (sorry, Shakespeare). It has various memories associated with it and also the culture. All that would be erased with the change of name. But then who cares for the feelings of a mahout and that too about the name of an elephant! This is how powers all over the world function, and the subjects, whether animals or human beings, have to meekly surrender to it. We Indians know this for sure as we were ruled by foreign powers for many centuries!
The lead actors carry the play on their shoulders with aplomb. A special mention needs to be made of Ajeet Singh Palawat who was excellent as Subhro. Lights (Pradeep Vaidya) and costumes (Isha Ahluwalia) made Gajab Kahani a grand theatrical experience. A must-watch play!