Abstraction was never cool, even when it was cool. Almost always, there would be the omniscient naysayer who’d say that a much-fancied (which means, of course, much-debated) piece of art was, in fact, just a urinal, or a sketch of a watchmaker on acid. And when it came to performing arts, the theatre of the absurd has always had more than its fair share of detractors.
Seen in this light, Pankaj Kumar Gunjan’s Hindi play Journey For Freedom pulled off quite a coup by remaining doggedly abstract and avant-garde throughout its 70-odd minutes, and being thoroughly coherent and engaging while doing so. The basic theme of the play was that of the individual getting lost in an oppressive, influential, relentless mob, and how the Self’s pursuit of betterment can oppress those close to us. A flat, affectless singsong monotone was the staple mode of dialogue delivery and most of the actors formed part of the ‘mob’ at any given moment. Both these techniques seemed a clear nod to the late Badal Sircar’s landmark ‘third theatre’ template, stressing identical-looking costumes, minimal props and street play-like usage of chants and slogans. A small step-ladder at the right-hand side corner of the stage was the designated ‘confessional’ area of the play, where characters would come and bare their souls, often degrading into rapid fire rants. For instance, during a particularly harrowing monologue delivered under dim lights, the following series of non-sequiturs stole the show, “Shakira. Dilli. Dainik Jagran. Mumbai. Rozgaar. Sofa set. Teekhi cheezein. Bijooka!”
At one point, the psyche of a housebound, straight-and-narrow-path girl had to be explored under duress. To achieve this, the ‘mob’ turned out in shiny, bejewelled motorcycle helmets, symbols of both anonymity and patriarchal machismo. Which is not to say that the play lacked your more straightforward poetic moments; quite the contrary, in fact. A woman with a complex relationship with her mother remembers simpler days wistfully, “Sooraj teri kokh se chhan ke mujh tak aata tha, Maa!” (Even sunlight came to me as if filtered through your womb, Mother!) All throughout the proceedings, the enthusiastic percussionists kept the actors on their toes, lest their energy slacked off. And it paid off, too, for Journey For Freedom proved to be a riveting play, easily one of the best things in this edition of the Bharat Rang Mahotsav.