Of power and fury
Kusum Haidar’s “Yerma” was a beautiful presentation by a talented cast.
Gripping A scene from the play.
A few months ago to provide a fillip to the cultural exchange between Spain and India the Spanish Embassy asked well-known theatre personality Kusum Haider if she would produce any of Federico García Lorca’s plays. Being a Lorca fan and having once played the title role in “Yerma” she was only too happy to accept the offer. Since Kusum does not have a theatre group of her own, so began a search for the cast. The play not only asked for good actors but also good singers and dancers besides a sensitive designer. Weeks of intensive search paid off and finally she assembled a group of theatre artistes to present Lorca’s “Yerma”.
I have been writing on Delhi theatre for more than 50 years and I don’t remember having seen more than five of Lorca’s plays in English or Indian language translations. I do, however, vaguely remember the 1969 presentation of Lorca’s “Yerma” by E. Alkazi, the then director of NSD, on the open-air stage of Meghdoot in Rabindra Bhawan’s premises as a part of a three-month project that had partly thrown open NSD’s doors to theatre people in Delhi. “Yerma” was one of the plays Alkazi selected. Kusum, who had earlier been a student of Alkazi in the Theatre Unit School of Dramatic Art in Bombay, applied and was selected to do Yerma’s role. This was my first introduction to Lorca.
There was a gap of eight years before we met Lorca in 1977. This time in Shiela Bhatia’s Punjabi adaptation of “Yerma” as “Yasmine” for Delhi Art Theatre with Sushma Ahuja in the lead role. Then again in 1985, Delhi Art Theatre took up Lorca’s “Blood Wedding” as “Tere Mere Lekh” in Punjabi, with Raj Babbar in the lead role and Sindhu Bhagia Misra, a well known dancer, as the bride in the play, with Madan Bala Sindhu as the mother holding the audience spellbound with her singing.
The setting of Kusum’s “Yerma” is beautifully rural with a bare tree representing Yerma’s bareness. Her husband Juan leaves and then enters Yerma’s friend Maria who is expecting a child. Yerma is excited and offers to make diapers for Maria’s baby. Enter Victor, Yerma’s sweetheart before her marriage to Juan. He notices that she is making diapers and urges Yerma to have a baby soon.
As we move to the next scene, Yerma is talking to an old woman and wants to know why she was childless. In a subtle way, the old woman suggests that to have a baby there must be compatibility between husband and wife. The scene ends with Victor meeting Yerma in the field and while they are talking, enters Juan who is irritated at seeing Yerma wandering around.
Next is the launderers’ scene; a most beautiful scene. Eight or 10 women are gossiping, dancing and singing while at work. It is a babble of sounds like a mountain stream with washing, drying and counting of clothes, song and dance. But the stream is also a place for gossip, particularly around Yerma’s childlessness and her relations with Victor. The scene provides an opportunity for the audience to see in action some of the best actors of Delhi’s English theatre like Nandini Sra as Maria, Raiben Israel in Victor’s role, Rukmani Sekhar as a Pagan Woman and of course Padma Damodaran as Yerma who not only sings well but also acts with rare feeling and conviction.
There is tension and an open fight between Juan and Yerma. He does not like her going about and meeting people and insists on her staying at home. Yerma fights back and says, “home without children, and the unpleasant presence of her sisters-in-law, is like a tomb.”
Yerma and Juan are at their best in a verbal dual. Juan talks of family honour and Yerma begs him not to talk about it. “Let the matter rest. Let’s go and eat,” says Juan.
The play moves forward and the scene shifts to Doloris’s house who is a sorcerer. She performs some prayers and rituals for Yerma to have a child when Juan appears to get his wife back to the house. There is a huge outburst between the two and histrionically it is a memorable scene. In the last act at the pilgrimage, Yerma prays for a child and the scene is a mix of the sacred and the profane. Yerma realises she is barren for her husband cannot give her a child.
The last scene of the final act is a hermitage in the hills. Maria, Yerma’s friend, while waiting for her is talking of the environs that is nothing more than a den of vice… A chorus is heard in the distance sung by the pilgrims. Yerma goes towards her cart and from behind appears Juan, her husband. “Spying?” she asks. “Yes… it is time I spoke, too” and so begins a long dialogue that brings the play to its dramatic end.
The curtain comes down on a great play, beautifully presented by a talented cast.
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