Gandhi's life and wisdom brought to Egypt through India's puppet theatre

Maryam Saleh, Wednesday 3 May 2017

Images of Truth, staged by the Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust in Cairo and Alexandria, provided an informative and adaptive experience on the ideology of India's iconic leader

Images of Truth by Ishara (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

Enter a pitch-black Hanager Theatre, and there on the stage is a cast of seven puppeteers and actors, each flitting between roles, all flitting on and off stage. Their movements are fluid and expansive, deftly utilising the entire space of the stage.

We are at the Images of Truth, a performance by Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust staged at Hanager Theatre in Cairo on 27 April. The show is the closing event of the fifth India by the Nile festival, which lasted for seven weeks.

“We use the whole stage. There isn’t just a puppet stage and we also play with scale by using puppets of different sizes,” comments Dadi D. Pudumjee, artistic director of the Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust, who is currently in his third term as the president of the world union of puppeteers, the Union International de la Marionette (UNIMA), a position he will hold until 2019.

The spotlights emit a soft yellow glow. The puppet clown dolls are larger than life, brightly coloured and flamboyantly hued.

They stand in stark contrast to the actors, each barefoot and dressed in a muted beige kameez (long tunic) and off-white salwars (trousers), and even starker contrast to a Mahatma Gandhi figure dressed in a dhoti (traditional Indian men’s garment).

The effect is a rather welcome gender neutrality and therefore a uniformity across the cast. Coupled with the minimalist mise en scène, the audience is presented with a bare stripped back display across which the 50-minute action was then yet to unfold. 

Pudumjee explains that “the name Ishara (signal) came because it can be a facial expression or a hand movement. The idea was to have a name that catches your attention.” The audience’s attention is now firmly in the hands of the Ishara troupe.

Images of Truth by Ishara (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

Performing to a full house at Hanager, with every seat occupied and unfortunate latecomers standing on either side of the seated majority, the cast was noticeably feeling and exuding the infectious energy.

A double-sided sheet of paper with the narrative synopsis was distributed among the audience. On it were one-line descriptions for each of the 12 scenes delivering concise snippets of information on which the performance had built.

According to Pudumjee, “It’s more contemporary and modern dance rather than classical and traditional work; it is therefore widely understood, especially since there are no spoken words. There are no texts in this performance. The only texts are sayings of Mahatma Gandhi on little slips of paper translated into Arabic, as well as a synopsis that includes one-liners for each scene; both of which are given out. Otherwise, it is a visual performance with music from all over the world.”

The cast proceeded to weave these information threads together, thereby creating a chronology of events portraying the spiritual journey of Mahatma Gandhi and highlighting the significance of the Satyagraha movement of nonviolent resistance.

Pudumjee describes the performance as being “about the life and ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, the past, present and future. We are also talking tongue-in-cheek about the present day."

"It’s about Mahatma Gandhi, who started his movement in South Africa during Apartheid, when he was chucked out of a train because he was coloured and no one knew who he was. From then on, he starts taking the persona of Mahatma Gandhi as we know him, comes back to India and then begins the non-violent Satyagraha movement, as it is called, which secured independence from colonial rule."

According to the synopsis sheet, the audience was “to witness a story about a man small in stature but a colossus of peace, where equality is acquired not by violence and might, but from non-violence and Satyagraha.”

The opening act sets the scene in South Africa, and it dawns on the viewer that the starting point of the performance parallels the starting point of the racial discrimination Mahatma Gandhi faced early in his life.

The synopsis reads “a large guard throws out a faceless figure from one of the bogies. The faceless figure and its manipulator breathe life into the figure, transforming it into the Mahatma Gandhi.”

And so, the inspirational figure Mahatma Gandhi is born out of the inequality he had faced on that train ride in South Africa.

Images of Truth by Ishara (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

The show progresses with the synopsis detailing the “charades of colour and power” played by those involved in politics and the dynamics of power.

These charades proceed to bring into play the question of “who is the winner and who is the loser?”

The director employs a perceptive technique of using a chess game as a motif for the liberty with which those in positions of power move around to their liking the pawns over which they rule.

Aspects of symbolism arise by way of a shola pith hat that is used as a means of subjugation against people of colour in the performance portrayed by “the darker clown.”

Interactive elements come into play when the actors begin to distribute small pieces of paper printed with quotes by Gandhi, like the one from his book Young India 1924-26: “An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody will see it."

The stage almost becomes a model for the world, with the politician characters dividing it up to their liking and continuing to take advantage of the common people, who occupy no more space than insignificant pawns in their power games.

Explicit Marxist themes emerge through the struggles portrayed on stage between the bourgeoisie and proletarian classes.

Mahatma Gandhi’s efforts in the propagation of Satyagraha are met with constant suppression. This progression of events prompts Gandhi to go on a fast as a method of social protest against the injustices and discrimination occurring.

The closing scenes of the performance move through important milestones with regards to the partition and independence of India and the assassination of Gandhi in 1948. The stage is divided into two areas signifying the concept of partition in India.

The assassination scene plays out over the song Vaishnava Jana To sung by Shri Madhup Mudgal, a bhajan (devotional song) included in Gandhi’s daily prayer sessions. Three abrupt blaring gunshots resound over the powerful beat of the song, creating an overwhelming auditory experience for the audience.

Images of Truth by Ishara (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

The symbolism present in the performance continued with yet another interactive facet of the show, when the actors on stage and in character passed along the yards of cotton yarn into the audience, who in turn continued the motion, passing it along to those behind them and so on.

The cotton yarn stands as a symbol for movements of self-reliance and employment propagated by Mahatma Gandhi, who encouraged the “home spun cloth Khadi” in rural India. In that moment for the audience, it stood as a symbol for the need for unity and the coming together, which is necessary for true social change.

Images of Truth is a compelling, socially aware performance that ought to be deemed mandatory viewing.

It is an informative as well as an adaptive experience on the ideologies of Mahatma Gandhi and their reception, or lack thereof.

The non-verbal show employs music from across the world, thereby reaffirming the notions of unity and equality addressed throughout the performance. The cast is energetic and dynamic, their movements fluid and natural.

Despite this being one of Ishara’s top performances, taking place in many countries, the nuances of their performance still manage to come across as reactions to each other on stage. The dynamics on stage are not just between the actors, but oftentimes also between the actors and the puppets themselves.

Pudumjee explains “we’re not hiding behind the puppets, but rather interacting with the puppets.”

The cast’s interactions with the audience create a space of inclusion and shared participation. Dadi D. Pudumjee’s elegant and nuanced handling of the Mahatma Gandhi figure displays great discipline and substantial empathy in his performance.

Images of Truth transcends the confines of traditional puppetry and introduces a world wherein puppetry and visual theatre come together to create a performance that is as informative as it is enjoyable.

Pudumjee discusses the style with which he works as “using puppets not as an end in themselves, but rather along with movement, dance and actors with masks combined with object theatre; more of a visual theatre performance."

"Ishara is not targeted at children, as people think puppet theatre incorporates pretty dolls and is just for children. This performance is for youths and adults. In Alexandria, the age limit was 6 to 7 years and upwards, that seemed to work without any problems.”

Pudumjee reaffirms that the performance “deals with certain events in history, and even if you do not know these events, the visual performance delivers through colour it message about apartheid, violence or non-violence. It is a performance dealing with a historical figure, but also includes very contemporary themes on what is happening today.”

Images of Truth by Ishara (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

Images of Truth by Ishara (Photo: Mona Abdel Karim)

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