Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities

Originally Published July 23, 2012

Last fortnight saw us in two cities that could not have been more different had we consciously endeavored to make it so. The first city that I speak of is Kandy, a picturesque town on the foot hills of the grand tea plantation region in Sri Lanka. The second, a very affluent 'planned city' on the foothills of Shimla - Chandigarh.

Soul Cages was not scheduled to be performed at Kandy. The earnest requests that came in from the President of GOPIO convinced us to extend our tour of Colombo to Kandy. Kandy is a small town (by Indian standards), tucked away in the heart of Sri Lanka. The town draws quite a few tourists that visit the Temple of the Tooth Relic, and then proceed to Nuwara Eliya - arguably the Switzerland of Sri Lanka. The residents of Kandy however, invoked in us a sense of being in a small town in Tamil Nadu, much like Madurai or Coimbatore. Earnest and hard working, the city wakes up very early and carries with it an air of purpose embedded in a laid back atmosphere. These are people of the soil who believe in a hard day's work and in the values of educating their children to give them a better future. The scars of the years of civil conflict still show in unlikeliest ways and yet, people are trying to put the past behind them and move on. They radiate a beauty that outshines Nuwara Eliya.

The President of GOPIO, Mr. Devarajan, saw me perform Soul Cages at Colombo, and when he met me after the show, he was perturbed. He was unsure whether the audience of Kandy would be able to understand or appreciate anything that Soul Cages portrayed. He felt that the Colombo crowd was more intellectual and therefore related to the presentation completely. "The audience of Kandy had no pretentious of any sophistication and may not be able to comprehend it", he said.

His views did not disturb us as we were confident that the show would be understood. Over dinner in Colombo, we however wrote a synopsis of Soul Cages for Mr. Devarajan so that he could translate it toTamil. At midnight Mr.Devarajan personally wrote out a wonderfully floral translation which was read out to the Kandy audience before the show.

The effect on the Kandy audience was electric. Every scene was applauded and the audience became a part of the performance. In the question and answer session following the show, the audience talked to us. Simple and naive they might have been, but they understood every nuance, explained or otherwise.

A few days later I was in Chandigarh performing Soul Cages. Chandigarh is one tenth the size of Kandy in area, and has ten times the population of Kandy! A city that has the distinction of being India’s richest city on a per capita basis, and arguably India’s cleanest city as well, it was the kind of city which one would imagine would resonate well with the philosophical imports of Soul Cages. The Tagore Theater, venue of the show, is a beautiful structure in Sector 18, and holds a proud heritage of having been inaugurated by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, and having had the thespian Prithaviraj Kapoor amongst its Board.

The audience at Chandigarh comprised mostly of families of retired armed forces officers, business men, and professionals from the corporate world. An audience that was very well read, that completely related to shows with a philosophical edge, and was a connoisseur of art in general. The applause through the show was muted, which we realized later was only because the audience was following the drama unfold with complete attention. The effect was no different from Kandy. Yes the audience used more erudite adjectives to describe their emotions, but the emotions were the same.

Mr.Devarajan's fears that this sort of an artistic expression was more appreciated by the gentry than the common man were unfounded. True art does not discriminate on the basis of education or bank balances. I was much struck by what I heard from two mothers. A woman in Kandy said to us that she had experienced loss of a child and was able to gain some perspective on her loss after viewing Soul Cages. A mother in Chandigarh told us that the experience had left her better placed to explain 'life and death' to her daughter. A Muslim member from the audience at Colombo was so awestruck that he convinced his family to view the show in Kandy. A Christian woman in the audience could not stop her tears, just as a Hindu business magnate in Chandigarh couldn't.

We realized that art is the great leveler. Much before death is.