Ibsen and Transculturation: Ratan Thiyam’s Ashibaghee Eshei | 2016-04-03 | daily-sun.com

Ibsen and Transculturation: Ratan Thiyam’s Ashibaghee Eshei

Kamaluddin Nilu

3 April, 2016 12:00 AM printer

Ibsen and Transculturation: Ratan Thiyam’s Ashibaghee Eshei

Rubek and Irene in the metaphysical space Courtesy: Chorus Repertory Theatre

(Continued from yesterday’s issue)
Clearly, the images are inspired by the traditional Manipuri dance raas but Thiyam decomposes the dance and makes use only of elements which are suitable to signify individual freedom and its connection to death and rebirth. Furthermore, he keeps the circular movement characterizing the raas dance but drops the other major characteristic notably that it is a group dance. In his own words:  

“… everyone is dancing in his or her own way. Traditional raas is a group dance. All the dancers have the same gestures, the same postures, denoting the same thing. But here we are concerned with the individual freedom of every single soul and each and every one is dancing to different tunes and has different gestures. - - - We know that death is the last thing, and we all have this concept of resurrection and rebirth”.

The production is made within the proscenium frame but the nature of the production is nevertheless basically traditional. Thiyam says:
“There is a method I follow in my productions, a ‘paint and erase’ method. In each and every unit of a play, I try to paint something with props, with costumes and colours and then erase it. And then I bring up another unit and do the same again. --- Each unit adds some elements to the play and to the theme of the play. Then the impressions, overlaid as they are, one upon the other, ultimately thicken“.  
In my view, this method is basically drawn from the structure of traditional theatre in the Indian sub-continent.  A traditional play consists of episodes, each telling a complete story within the total frame of the performance. However, Thiyam’s method differs from traditional forms in two ways:
Firstly, the self-confined episode is replaced by what Thiyam calls a “unit” which may not necessarily tell a complete story. The story might thus be covered in more than one unit. An illustrative example is that he shifts from one unit (one “painting”) to the next in the middle of what in this production emerges as one continuous dialogue between Rubek and Irene.  In one unit, taking place in the boat, the following dialogue takes place:
Rubek: Our life! Oh! We have wasted it.
Irene:    We only find what we have lost when –
Rubek: When?
Irene:    When we dead awaken. We find that we never lived.
In the next unit, taking place in the spiritual space, the dialogue continues with Irene saying:  “I suddenly realized you were dead. You’d been dead for years”.
Secondly, Thiyam’s paint stroke is thicker and stronger than typical for traditional theatre in the sense that the visuals are more prominent and shift frequently.
Whereas visuals in traditional theatre are fixed and created only with the help of multi-purpose props which for most traditional theatrical forms typically remain on the stage throughout the entire performance, Thiyam also uses fabrics and other extra props which are brought into the performance space during a particular unit as required by the play. Moreover, he makes use of modern lights. Thereby, he breaks the traditional concept and makes use of techniques from modern theatre. This has to be seen as adjustments suitable for and required by proscenium theatre.  
The use of these modern techniques is strongly reflected through four visuals which replace – or sometimes serve to strengthen - dialogues in the original text and which clearly stand out from visuals of traditional theatre:
• Rubek’s memory of Irene is visualized through several bubbles crossing the stage at the same time as the Irene makes her first appearance on the stage, emerging from red fabrics which give the impression of waves.  
2) The scene in the original text when Rubek and Irene are talking about how he had recreated her sculpture is represented in Thiyam’s production through a strong composition in which the image-like Irene is placed among deformed sculptures.
3) The scene in the second act where Rubek and Irene are sitting beside the stream talking about their time at Lake Taunitz is in Thiyam’s production portrayed as a trip in a small boat. Parts of the original dialogue are presented through strong visuals. Most important, the reference to Lohengrin’s boat is replaced by a swan at the stem of the boat.  It is important to note that the Lohengrin myth - with a hero acquiring superhuman qualities and becoming a measuring stick for behaviour and morals - has Indian parallels in the myth of Karna and the related conversation between Krishna and Arjuna described in the scripture Bhagavad Gita. Moreover, swans are central in Hindu myths. The “swan boat” in Thiyam’s production, inspired by Ibsen’s text, is thus a symbol which the local audience can connect with their own myth. In this way, Thiyam connects human existence and spiritual conceptions of cosmos.
In the boat scene, strong visuals are also used to express freedom through flying fishes, as I understand it, inspired by Chagall’s painting “The Flying Fish” (1948) as well as by flying birds. The technique used to present these symbols is traditional, each object being fixed to a stick which is carried by stage hands crossing at the back of the performance space. Especially the flying fishes also  serve to give a surrealistic impression and might also be seen as a way of preparing the audience for the spiritual space at the end of the production.
4)   Irene’s lines “You took both my hands and pressed them warmly. I stood there, breathless, waiting. Then you said ‘I am deeply grateful to you, Shaktam.’ ‘This’ you said, ‘this has been an inspiring episode in my life’” are in Thiyam’s production expressed within a visual frame inspired by Salvador Dali’s painting “Persistence of Memory” (1931).
The visual consists of a melting clock hanging from a barren and deformed tree and Irene lying motionless and leaning back, in a position that resembles one of Dali’s melted clocks. This is clearly illustrating how Irene’s experience of “the episode” is frozen and persists in her memory in a way that causes her emotional death.

In the latter cases, Thiyam thus borrows images from the West and combines them with local material and symbols.  The images and devices suit with the main theme of the play and my experience is that both the local and the foreign audiences considered this unit as an organic whole. This also means that the local audience did not consider the imported elements as “foreign”.  Clearly,
Thiyam’s mise en scéne can easily be understood by people who have no idea about the works of Dali or Chagall.
Thiyam’s work does thus correspond to a relationship between source and target cultures which Marvin Carlson describes as follows:   
“Foreign elements are assimilated into the tradition and absorbed by it. The audience can be interested, entertained or stimulated by these elements, but they are not challenged by them. Often they do not even recognize them as foreign.”  
Ratan Thiyam’s production Ashibaghee Eshei shows how powerful and authentic intercultural theatre performances can be made by highly experienced and creative local theatre directors. As we all know, such cultural encountering has mainly been the domain of Western theatre directors, with famous directors as Peter Brook, Ariane Mnouchkine and Eugenio Barba in the forefront. Such intercultural performances have in general been well received in the West. They have, however, often created tension for example in India where the theatre directors have been accused of cultural imperialism and criticized for making “cultural salads”   by using traditional forms and elements without understanding their meaning.  The most critical point for making a successful intercultural theatre production is the ability to create a new artistic expression which emerges as an organic whole. Profound knowledge about modern theatre as well as deep understanding of the meaning of traditional artistic forms and their elements and how these relate to social and cultural conceptions are preconditions for success. n