This was the second Theatre Nisha play I attended this year, and as it turned out, both had the same format. Both were around an hour long, both were monologues, both had two artistes accompanying, one a singer, the other an instrumentalist. To continue the similarity, both were conducted in small spaces (the first one in a yoga studio, yes, and this one in the Alliance Francaise auditorium) and both had similarly priced tickets. Just that the first one, ‘Flowers’, about a married Hindu priest from ancient times succumbing to the charms of a newly-arrived courtesan, proved to be better than this one.
This one, ‘Gallantly Fought the Queen’, was about a historical person again, but this time a real one, Rani of Jhansi, Laxmibai. It was based on Hindi poet, Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s eulogy to the queen, ‘Khoob Ladi Mardaani’. The play’s title was a very astute translation of the poem’s title. Unfortunately, the goodness ends there. Ok, credit too to Meera Sitaraman, who played the queen. She put in a lot of zeal and effort, effortlessly switching from the Hindi stanzas of the poem to the English narration. Yes, the monologue was basically a narration of the events in the rani’s life from when the British begin laying siege to Jhansi to her eventual death. Interspersed with that, as just mentioned, was the recitation of parts of the poem, I’m guessing, in the order they are written.
Watching this unfold, I felt either of two things. That this was an experimental play, like a test run before a bigger, more lavish mounting (and by god, would this subject look grand on a grander scale – the rani in her majestic attire, thundering her lines, tearing through the enemy; any wonder then Bollywood has been toying with making a movie on her for the longest time, and I’m already picturing Alia Bhatt or Kareena Kapoor). Alternatively, this was repeating the formula from the earlier ‘Flowers’. When something has worked, why tinker? (Though ‘Flowers’ itself was modest at best. Also, ‘Flowers’ had a more riveting tale.) In both cases, the reason seemed the desire to keep the budget low, or rather, work within the low budget. For ‘Flowers’, the only thing on stage was a big lingam; here, it was six black boxes (the same lingam dismantled?) stacked like a pyramid, perhaps to resemble stones or a fortress.
If budget was really the issue, I have a suggestion (like I always do when I feel something has a decent premise, but seems to lack something in the final execution). This may also solve the problem of finding it boring to watch one person, that too just narrate a timeline of events. (I found many others, along with myself, trying hard to suppress many a yawn, during the 60-odd-minute runtime.) Perhaps the actor could have switched roles from time to time, with a modification of attire during each switch if possible. So, she could have been Tantia Tope when chastising his ineffectuality, about Lord Dalhousie when sneering at his haughtiness, or even her subjects when empathizing with their collective fears and mobilized courage. Like one actor playing multiple roles, as has been seen in some films too (Bollywood’s most famous example being Sanjeev Kumar’s ‘Nayi Din, Nayi Raat’). Would have definitely made for more interesting viewing, would have pushed the eager actor more, and most importantly, if they decided to do away with the accompanying artistes, would have made the most of the budget. In short, Creatively Should Have Thought the Team. Lacking which, the only thing gallant here proved to be the decision to produce a play within a seemingly small budget.