Sunday, December 6, 2015

'Kumbi Kathawa': Play Without Words, Parable in Light Doses

Review of "Kumbi Kathawa", staged by the Chitrasena Dance Company from October 21 to 24 at the Bishops College Auditorium

“Kumbi Kathawa”, the latest production by the Chitrasena Dance Company, is both dance and parable. It offers a message, one which (we're promised) remains pertinent for our time. In the end, what is given to us transcends any spatio-temporal limitations while being "aware" that serious parables cannot be taken by children in heavy doses.

To distinguish between cast and plot on the one hand and setup and props on the other, however, would be doing a grave injustice to the play. The one blends well with the other, bringing them together notwithstanding the fact that there are no dialogues or words in the story. “Kumbi Kathawa” works not because of the story but because of how well it comes together with every other element in the production. A clichéd and vague way of putting it, admittedly. Still.

“Kumbi Kathawa” is aimed at children, but it goes beyond anything that children's theatre can conjure up. And not only because of its ending. The story (in a nutshell that is) is a meditation on the timelessness of goodness, sustained even when cast aside. The ants symbolise this aptly: chased away by a mosquito, they unite together, mingle freely with other insects, get ready for a tea-party, and end up surviving a flood and saving the mosquito from it.

For something that's aimed primarily at kids, the Company's latest production offers subtlety and that in a way which endears to them. The violent rainstorm and the saving of the mosquito represent faith in goodness, pitted against evil and greed. But Anjalika Melvani, who conceived the play and adapted it from Tatiana Makarova's “The Brave Ant”, has frequently noted that she edited the ending and opted for one where the ants save the mosquito.

Melvani does bring out the “parable” in “Kumbi Kathawa” here, but the subtlety she evokes is what infuses energy and verve into what she has done. The ants save the mosquito, yes. But Melvani ends the play at the moment of rescue, like a freeze-frame. There's no "afterward" there. With this, Melvani (whether or not she intended it is for another debate altogether) points out that inasmuch as forgiveness and compassion are virtues to be inculcated, they are virtues in themselves. How so?

By leaving the mosquito and ants on a tin, the producers portray compassion for what it should be, free of celebration-frill and sober to the last. To reinforce this, Melvani has kept away (mercifully, one might add) from inserting a sequence affirming amity between mosquito and ant in a celebratory feast (or a tea-party, for that matter), which would have injected feel-good joy and cheer into the audience but which would also have lost out on the sobriety the ending gained and showed us.

The story ends where it should be, hence: at the point of rescue. Everything else is frill, and compassion "wins", whether or not it wins in a way which erases differentials between insects for good and whether or not it warrants frill and celebration. To show all these would have been too easy. Fatally easy.

So much for the story. What of its cast and props? First and foremost, being a play without words, it relies on movement. But “Kumbi Kathawa” doesn't only contain movement: it also contains elaborate costumes which could have constricted movement.

To keep to a preconceived tempo as the story progresses was probably tough, but the cast does ample justice to what's demanded of them. The ants in particular would have demanded tremendous reserves of energy and exercise, but in the final cut the child-actors playing them ensure that whatever they sweated out doesn't get noticed by the audience. There's perfection here, but not of the laboured kind.

Forget this for one moment, though. Forget the fact that the children had to wear what they did and move according to a preconceived script. Forget that they would have undergone rehearsal after rehearsal while keeping a brutal schedule, oscillating between school and after-school and between after-school and theatre (something which Heshma Wignaraja, who was artistic director of the production, highlighted when she briefed sections of the media on it).

Even without considering all these, the play was a success. But factor in what was pointed out above, and you'll see how “Kumbi Kathawa”, even with decor and lighting and those naturalistic sets (I liked the first sequence in particular, with an elaborate set resembling life along grassland), nothing would have worked without the cast. When the curtain came down, not surprisingly, the cheers and claps were for real. They were also for the kids.

I've mentioned that one can't write about “Kumbi Kathawa” while distinguishing plot and performance from props and setup. Everything comes together in the end, leaving behind nothing in isolation. Viewed this way, the Chitrasena Dance Company's latest production (which has been staged twice before) won with subtlety: by making the audience (and especially the children) aware that while there may be a great many ants around us, it takes one mosquito to ruin their harmony.

But when disaster strikes and everyone gets together to avert it, it is the same mosquito who will get saved. Whether or not it redeems itself and moves on, of course, is not dwelt on in the play. Why? Because it shouldn't be dwelt on in the first place. Compassion and forgiveness are inculcated, as they should be, but at the end of the day we may never know how those whom we save will behave later on. For the sake of humanity though, save them we must. Why? Because that is what compassion should entail.

This was the message that “Kumbi Kathawa” left me with. Powerful enough? Certainly.

Photos by: Luxmanan Nadarajah

Written for: Sunday Island, December 6 2015