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Freak mirrors and grotesque images

In ``Dance Like A Man," Mahesh Dattani works on the past, present and the future to weave a family drama, ELIZABETH ROY writes...

MUSIC ACADEMY burst at its seams. Some said they were there to support the Craft Council of India which organised the event to raise funds for their education programme for the children of Ari Embroiderers of Sriperumbudur. Others came to see Lillete Dubey. Then there were those who didn't want to miss Mahesh Dattani's ``Dance Like A Man.'' And a good number gushed, ``How often do we get a `not to be missed' event in Chennai!!''

After Lillete Dubey set up Prime Time Theatre Company 11 years ago, ``Dance Like A Man'' was one of the first plays she did. It had had successful runs since then and in Chennai it was the 160th show. As always, in this play also, Dattani uses the family home as the locale. The story on which the plot turns talks about the life of Ratna and her husband Jairaj, both Bharatnatyam dancers in their sixties, and living in Bangalore. They have just launched their daughter Lata on her own dancing career and have even nodded `yes' to Lata marrying Viswas, whose father owns half the buildings on Commercial Street and makes jalebis.

Jairaj and Ratna lapse into introspection. Each in their own way deals with the ghosts that rise from the past.

Jairaj devastates his intolerant overbearing social reformer of a father, Amritlal, with his passion for dance. Ratna enrages him by going to an old devadasi to learn more about the art form. Amritlal strikes a deal with Ratna. The couple can enjoy his wealth, he will allow her a brilliant career in dance only if she helps him destroy Jairaj.

The plot moves between past and present and future (as past), synchronically showing the different time periods, the drama moving between generations and across time. During these shifts in time young Ratna and Jairaj are played by Lata and Viswas while old Jairaj takes on the role of his father.

The play looks at the ``us-and-them" game which, ecologically and sociologically, is being played out everyday. It reflects on the usefulness of diversity, on how to go beyond tolerance and talk in terms of respect, acceptance and compassion. It gives a glimpse of the property-conscious money-oriented society of the 1990s. In typical Dattani style, the play raises some questions - what constitutes a man in a definitely sexual sense. What constitutes a man as a breadwinner in its kartha concept. What constitutes an artist.

Juxtapositions worry Amritlal - Can a prostitute be a dancer? Can one be a man and still dance? What kind of guru wears his hair long and walks funny?

Commenting on his craft, Dattani once said, ``The function of drama, in my opinion, is not merely to reflect the malfunction of society, but to act like freak mirrors in a carnival and to project grotesque images of all that passes for normal in our world. It is ugly, but funny.''

Lillete Dubey's production did exactly that. The play moved at an easy pace and Dattani's humour came through tongue-in-cheek. Dubey made a powerful Ratna domineering and hateful, the hassled hustler, dance in every one of her gestures and rhythm in the sway of her body. The production bridged the gap between her and the young Ratna (Suchitra Pillai) by giving her all of the older dancer's body movements and characteristic gestures. And again one saw young Jairaj (Joy Sengupta) aging into the embittered, towering person of the sixty something Jairaj (Vijay Crishna).

The stage further enhanced the cast. In the place of Dattani's mandatory split level stage, Prime Time played ``Dance Like A Man'' downstage, single level, and across the expanse of the stage. Suspended picture frames demarcated the ``sitting room'' from the hallway, from the dance room where Jairaj could become Amritlal. The furniture, antique in appearance, backed by drapes weaving in and out created the perspective. It suggested doors, stairways and led out into the lush green garden.

The ambience was one of opulence befitting the richness of the art form and effectively contrasted the meagreness of their mind. The music also stood out for its quality and impact.

``Dance Like a Man'' is a play of images and Dubey took it to its climax in the play's healing ending which has the older Jairaj and Ratna (now no more) in a white spot peaceful and unattached and another spot fading in on young Jairaj and Ratna getting ready for a thillana.

Earlier, at a press conference, CCI talked about its efforts at giving new life to languishing crafts. Dubey said she was happy to be a part of that.

One languishing craft, in this case theatre, supporting other languishing crafts with a play about a dance form that has had a history of oppression and renaissance.

Prime Time Theatre will be back in Chennai in April with Dattani's newest (stage) play ``Thirty Days In September.''

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