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  • Writer's pictureRaji Writes

"Toba Tek Singh", a play by Naatak theater company

I watched a terrific play on Sunday, July 16th . The bay area theater company, Naatak performed "Toba Tek Singh", a well-known short story by one of the most celebrated writers in Urdu, Saadat Hasan Manto, adapted and directed by Naatak founder Sujit Saraf.

The venue, the performing arts Center at Woodside High School, was a familiar one for me. Sunaina had her annual ballet recitals with the Menlo Park Academy of Dance there four years in a row before she decided she was done with ballet, at the same time that she was done with elementary school. (Which was fine by me, by the way.) Prior to watching the play, I picked from my bookshelf “Memories of Madness, Stories of 1947" which includes Bhisham Sahni's novel "Tamas", Khushwant Singh's "Train to Pakistan", and several stories by Manto. "Toba Tek Singh" was among them, and I re-read it. Out of curiosity, I found a version on the web in Devanagari and read that as well. The story goes that after Partition, it was decided that along with prisoners who had been exchanged (Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan to India, and Muslims from India to Pakistan,) the inmates of lunatic asylums should be as well. The insanity of Partition, captured through the eyes of the insane. The program states that this is Naatak’s largest production. There was live music, and dancers who came onstage between some scenes, dressed in colorful costumes, designed by the clearly very talented Soumya Agastya who is also the producer. They danced brightly to lyrics that were on occasion serious and sobering. Rather than trivialize the intense theme, the song and dance made it all the more poignant. Music, after all, can evoke great emotion.

We saw the Mountbattens, Nehru, Jinnah, Nathuram Godse and Sarojini Naidu. One clever and amusing aspect of the play is that the individuals who played these prominent characters also played the roles of the lunatics in the insane asylum, switching roles by donning a cap.

The satire spared no one. Gandhi, Nehru, the Mountbattens were all ridiculed, yet each got to speak some key historical lines. The depiction of Sarojini Naidu, however, puzzled me. She was reduced to a rather silly, poetry-spouting presence on stage. The Nightingale of India flitted about on stage, her role in India's hard-won independence never even hinted at. The most moving scene was the depiction of the transfer of the lunatics. At the beginning of the scene, gates with each nation’s emblem and flag descended from the ceiling towards the back of the stage,. The dancers clad in saffron or green sat on the border on the India side or on the Pakistan side. In between them was no man's land. And there stood Toba Tek Singh, trying to understand where home was, where he belonged, where he should go. And unable to find any resolution, there he died.

Now a little more on the music. The choice to make the musicians sit on an elevated platform to the side of the stage, visible to the audience, was terrific. What a treat to see as well as hear these wonderful musicians. The music director, Nachiketa Yakkundi, was also the lead vocalist. The singing was beautiful and moving.

The Director's Note focuses on the two national anthems, India's Jana Gana Mana, and Pakistan's original anthem "Tarana-e-Pakistan" which its resounding refrain "Ay Sar Zameen-e-Pak" (O Land of the Pure). It was the first time I had heard this, and it is lovely. I had to urge to stand up when Jana Gana Mana was being sung, and was actually uncomfortable remaining in my seat. I remembered how moved I had been once when I was visiting my parents in India, and had gone to bed early. My father had stayed up, watching something on television. When I got up to get a glass of water, I noticed he was standing up. On getting closer, I saw that the national anthem was being sung on screen. I was deeply moved by the respect he showed in standing up. It did not matter that there no one was there to see. The note also mentions the two stanzas of Jana Gana Mana that were included and sung in the original Bengali "in which they sound far more melodious". Which they did, except for the fact that when one is singing or speaking Bengali or any language for that matter, the accent can affect the experience. While the music director Yakkundi sang the melody flawlessly, it was (somewhat painfully) obvious that it was not a native Bengali speaker who was singing the words. This absorbed most of my attention, regrettably. For the next time, I imagine it would be possible to find native speakers / musicians sing the verses if desired. For even a less pronounced accent, a Bengali might say “kamone ekta taan achhey” (there’s a stretch), meaning the vowels are stretched. In Bangla, there is no emphasis on syllables, or elongation of vowels. Manna Dey had only very minor mispronunciations when he sang "Manasa Maine Varu" in Malayalam, for the classic movie "Chemmeen". But Mohammad Rafi's "North Indian" accent (and how delighted am I to lump all of North India together as is all too often done for South Indians!!) was too pronounced when he sang "Gulmohorer phool jhore jai" in Bengali. Too painful, what to say. It does affect the experience, or mine at least.

In any case, Naatak’s production was deeply moving, intellectually stimulating and artistically pleasing. I remember the first production of theirs that I saw in 1997, now 20 years ago, “Ek Tha Gadha Urf Aladad Khan.” I have missed several recent plays as life took over, but hope to catch most of the upcoming productions.

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