A Relentless Pursuit for Home – Review of "Rihla" by Aagaaz Theatre
Rihla (In Arabic: رحلة), which refers to both a journey and the written account of that journey, makes for a fitting title for this theatre production that asks the audience to compare their personal identity and values with those of the country they choose to inhabit.
“Mujhe ek aisa desh chahiye jo…” (“I want a country that...”).
Adapted from the Greek play ‘I Want a Country’ and directed by Neel Chaudhuri, the play brings together a cast of 11 young actors from Aagaaz Theatre Trust; a Delhi based theatre organization that works specifically with underprivileged children from the Nizamuddin slums in Delhi. Apart from this play, two previous productions of the group, Raavan Aaya (Raavan Is Coming) and Bhaagi Hui Ladkiyan (Runaway Girls) are also original plays, built with some of Delhi’s most prominent directors from independent companies. The group’s work is highly lauded and performances by the young performers are often revelatory of their personal struggles and conflicts.
The original text of Rihla is written by Andreas Flourakis, a playwright and director based in Greece. The play examines the aftermath of the Greek financial crisis and the ensuing immigration, violence, and loss of social stability in Greece. The text is mouldable and open to interpretation. Its chorus-like structure makes it flexible for performance by any number of actors, making it an attractive pick for companies of all shapes and sizes. The text was first staged by the Royal Court Theatre in June 2013, with Richard Twyman directing a translation by Alexi Kaye Campbell. The specific adaptation by Neel Chaudhuri and Aagaaz Theatre Trust is performed in Hindi. While the word “India” is never mentioned, the story and dialogues reflect several issues around religion, crime, and inequalities, among others, specifically exploring how the youth in India is grappling with disillusionment and discontentment with the present government’s controversial laws and witnessing an increasingly volatile, sometimes violent, discourse on what constitutes the idea of “India”, to whom it belongs and more importantly, to whom it doesn’t. In November 2019, the play was staged at Black Box Okhla, a Delhi-based arts institution’s annual residency program, realizing 10 performances before travelling to the Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival 2019 in Bangalore and the Sarang Theatre Festival 2020 in Pune.
In this particular rendition, we follow the journey of the ensemble, portrayed by the young actors of Aagaaz Theatre Trust who are frustrated by the happenings in their country. With little left to hold them back, the group decides to embark on a journey by sea to find a new land where they can feel safe, whose laws align with their own values, and one they can truly call home, without any conditions or caveats. As Rihla’s director Neel Chaudhuri explains in India Today, "Both the adaptation and the original are about the dissatisfaction of the youth living in the country they have inherited." While the ensemble switches characters, stories and scenes often, many are defined by specific professions or archetypes – a doctor, an educator, a mischievous child, and a thief – the fact that these are played by young actors, most of them in their teens, all hailing from an at-risk neighbourhood in New Delhi serves to undercut how unlikely the actors look while performing, essaying roles and characters that they may not have actual, real-life experiences to draw inspiration from. That is precisely why the actors succeed in challenging our preconceived interpretation of these characters and their motivations, giving way to moments of reflection and sometimes, laughter. Over the next hour and a half, the ensemble tries to define what makes an “ideal country” for them, as individuals and in smaller groups. The conversations themselves are wide and cover an array of topics from the sensible to the fantastical, all starting with the same repeated refrain “Mujhe ek aisa desh chahiye jo…” (“I want a country that...”). The conversations are separated abruptly by transitions where suitcases, presumably belonging to the characters, are relocated into different positions in the playing area. Long conversations by young performers famed for bringing energy and freshness to the stage, feel shackled here by the weight and wordiness of the dialogue. The scenes don’t evolve so much as languor and drag like sediment sifting to the bottom of a vessel. Defining one’s role in this new country becomes the core challenge - either stick to how others see you or re-define how the country can change [What?]. This is the main idea the production succeeds in conveying, which goes some way towards creating dramatic tension through the ideas of repetition, recall, and reinforcement.
The set, by Oroon Das is designed for a black box space, with giant brown slats of wood running along the length and width of the stage, curling up into the walls resembling the hold of a ship. One of the main “settings” where a sizeable part of the action takes place is the ark, inhabited by the ensemble to represent their journey and the fight against nature, such as a torrid rainstorm and angry waves, represented adequately by the shifts in weight and balance of the ensemble’s bodies. The costumes are contemporary and casual. They look very much like the everyday clothes the actors would wear outside of the space, with no special emphasis on color, shape or tone. That the story unfolds over what appears to be a long journey and without a costume change, gives the sensation that these are refugees with few belongings. The director Neel Chaudhuri, as in all his work, likes to work on the sound design himself. Often a composer may be engaged to write original music, however in this play, the sound is mostly short, irate “beeps”, along with other modern digital soundscapes, which have a jarring effect and prevent the audience from being completely immersed in what they are watching, perhaps deliberately to bring them back to the real world. Deepa Dharmadhikari undertakes the complex challenge of lighting a non-traditional space in Black Box Okhla, having an extended length, rather than width. In order to create a sensation of depth, the light designer chooses to emphasize specific spots on the stage, but the lack of balance sometimes leaves performers poorly lit or massive portions of the performance in shadow. That the audience sits in two tiers, both in front and to the side of the performance, makes this even harder to have a collective experience of watching the play. Perhaps, this was deliberate on the director’s part who wanted the audience to realize different, subjective interpretations of what they are seeing from different vantage points. However, this arrangement of seating may lead to parts of the audience disengaged from the action at the center.
Rihla becomes an exercise into the futility of discussion and makes the definition of a country as pointless a discussion as debating religion or politics by laymen. Dimly lit-scenes and visibly restrained performers without a story to move things forward create a sense of boredom and disconnect with the exhausting discussion. Rihla builds on the oeuvre of Neel Chaudhari as an original voice in Indian theatre but emphasizes more on the language of the text rather than the use of dramatic tools. The play will continue to evolve as it is staged in different settings for more heterogeneous audiences, whose observations and personal experiences impact how the work’s “message” is received.